Monday, April 10, 2023

Read an #Excerpt from The Cuban Heiress by Chanel Cleeton

This spring, New York Times bestselling author Chanel Cleeton returns with her latest historical novel exploring a little-remembered event set against the backdrop of Cuban history, THE CUBAN HEIRESS.


About the Book

The Cuban Heiress
by Chanel Cleeton

Format 336 pages, Paperback
Published April 11, 2023 by Berkley
ISBN 9780593440483
In 1934, a luxury cruise becomes a fight for survival as two women’s pasts collide on a round-trip voyage from New York to Havana in New York Times bestselling author Chanel Cleeton's page-turning new novel inspired by the true story of the SS Morro Castle.

New York heiress Catherine Dohan seemingly has it all. There’s only one problem. It’s a lie. As soon as the Morro Castle leaves port, Catherine’s past returns with a vengeance and threatens her life. Joining forces with a charismatic jewel thief, Catherine must discover who wants her dead—and why.

Elena Palacio is a dead woman. Or so everyone thinks. After a devastating betrayal left her penniless and on the run, Elena’s journey on the Morro Castle is her last hope. Steeped in secrecy and a burning desire for revenge, her return to Havana is a chance to right the wrong that has been done to her—and her prey is on the ship.

As danger swirls aboard the Morro Castle and their fates intertwine, Elena and Catherine must risk everything to see justice served once and for all.


Chapter One

The dead woman stands in the line for the tourist-class passengers, her shoes pinching her toes, the cheap fabric of her dress itching her skin. The Morro Castle's diligent clerk examines her papers-the fake passport, the assumed name-Elena Reyes-hopefully flawless enough to pass muster. She certainly paid enough for them, money she could ill afford.
The clerk glances down at Elena's photograph on the documents and back at her face again, comparing the two for any obvious differences.
The photo itself is genuine, the image contained there of a young Cuban woman looking surprisingly vibrant considering she is essentially-for practical purposes, at least-a ghost. It was taken two weeks ago in an apartment building in Greenwich Village by a man to whom Elena gave nearly her entire life savings to be able to get on this ship.
It was worth every penny and then some.
The clerk waves her on.
A group of women pass by, their laughter spilling out on the gangway.
Her fellow passengers are in high spirits despite the tourist-class accommodations, their excitement over their weeklong party on this round-trip voyage from New York to Havana obvious.
This ship is billed as a fantasy for those wealthy enough to afford it in these difficult times.
Before the repeal of Prohibition, the Morro Castle-named after the fortress guarding the Havana Harbor-offered an alcohol-filled cruise, where passengers could escape the dry streets and raging economic depression. Now that liquor is again legally available in the United States, the cruise's appeal hasn't lessened much. Thanks to the Labor Day holiday weekend, the pier is packed with guests in a celebratory mood.
There's a breeze in the air as Elena walks on deck, her dark brown hair whipping around her. Guests hang over the railing waving to friends and family on the dock below as though they will be separated for far longer than a week. But that's part of the adventure-the sensation that they are all embarking on uncharted territory, the voyage brimming with unlimited possibilities.
Elena leans over the railing herself, scanning the crowd. She's antsy for the ship to leave port, for the first part of her plan to tumble into motion. When they're at sea, far from land, they'll be in a cocoon that insulates them from real life and shrinks the world into a very small, manageable size.
It's the perfect hunting ground.
Elena abandons her perch at the rail and strolls around the deck, noting alcoves, spaces that are good for slipping away in case a hasty exit is needed. A few weeks ago, she went to the public library and found deck plans for the Morro Castle, poring over them as best she could. Still, there's nothing like walking the ship herself to get a feel for it and formulate these last, all-important parts of her plan.
Her prey is nowhere to be found, but no matter. On a ship this size, it will be impossible to escape.
Once she's examined the Morro Castle's upper decks, Elena heads to her stateroom and closes the door behind her quickly.
The cabin is small and serviceable, the bed and mattress seemingly comfortable enough. It's not the nicest place she's ever slept, but it's also far from the worst. Her life has been a pendulum of comfort and insecurity, and for now she's just grateful to have a safe place to sleep.
She opens her suitcase, which one of the porters has already delivered to her room, and unpacks the worn clothes she brought for the cruise and the two dresses she bought for two very special occasions.
One is an emerald green color, elegant and fine. The other is a full-skirted blue number, daring and seductive, straps crisscrossed across the fitted bodice. It's a copy of a dress she once owned, each detail painstakingly re-created from memory.
She cannot wait to wear it.
Once Elena has finished unpacking, she exits her stateroom, locking the door behind her, and moves toward the belly of the ship, where the cargo is stored.
In her simple dress, her hair pulled back in a demure bun, no one looks twice at her. The clothes she wears have served her well as a disguise, each outfit presenting a different version of herself to the world, concealing her past and allowing her to navigate her present seamlessly.
The cargo hold is a cavernous space, filled with crates, trunks, and boxes, a faint smell of damp, metal, and sea life in the air. She moves through the room quickly, searching for one particular trunk, the hairpin she pulled to pick the lock resting in the pocket of her dress against her damp palm-
The sound of footsteps pierces the air.
She crouches behind a set of boxes piled as high as she is tall, peering around the corner.
A man strides toward the crates and trunks close to where Elena hides. He isn't dressed in the crew's distinctive uniforms, but rather clothes as nondescript and casual as hers. He's dark-haired and lean, young, too.
Elena pulls back. Better to return when the cargo hold is empty. Her foot catches on one of the boxes, and she lurches forward, crashing into the crate in front of her as she attempts to break her fall.
"Is someone there?" he calls out.
The entrance to the cargo hold is too far away for her to make it in time.
Heart pounding, Elena rises from her crouching position to her full height. "I'm sorry, I got lost. I didn't mean to interrupt your work-"
"-Just checking the cargo," he interjects easily. "Wanted to make sure everything that's supposed to be on the ship made it here safely. How did you get lost down here?"
He asks the question casually enough, but there's a hint there that suggests he's not as easygoing as he pretends to be. He speaks English with a familiar accent. He's Cuban, like her, and despite his claims that he was checking the cargo, the lack of official uniform and his intensity give the impression that he's as much a part of the crew as she is.
There are rumors of weapons being smuggled to Havana on the Morro Castle. Is he a smuggler?
"It's a big ship. I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way," Elena answers.
"That's quite the wrong turn."
Her eyes widen with mock alarm, her heart pounding insistently in her breast. "You mean this isn't the ballroom?"
His lips curve slightly. "Perhaps I'm in the wrong place, then. Or at the very least, underdressed," he adds with a full smile.
She was told the hold would be unlocked at the beginning of the voyage, but whether it will remain that way once they leave port and the ship has set sail is another matter entirely. She could leave now and hope that when she returns later, he'll be gone and the trunk will still be here and accessible, or she can be honest-well, somewhat, at least. Years ago, the decision would have been simple, the urge to retreat practically second nature. But after everything she's been through, she's determined to be brave, and if now isn't the perfect opportunity to test out her newfound resolve, then when is?
"I need something from one of the trunks," she says, changing tack entirely.
"Do you now?"
"A friend sent me here," she adds, taking a chance. After all, Miguel is involved in various businesses in Cuba and the United States, the smuggling going on in this cargo hold likely bringing all manner of people together.
"A friend?" he counters.
"Yes." She hesitates. "Perhaps we have a mutual one."
His gaze turns speculative, and she can practically feel him mulling over the possibilities in his mind. "Perhaps we do. This friend of yours have a name?"
"Miguel." It's not much to go on, but if he knows Miguel then he likely understands the importance of discretion-and loyalty.
He nods after a moment. "It seems we do have a friend in common. What do you need?"
"Something from that trunk," she replies, pointing to the container behind him.
"You're Cuban," he says.
"I am."
"And Miguel sent you to retrieve an item from that trunk?"
"No, I paid Miguel for an item in that trunk. He packed it for me."
"He mentioned that he was transporting something for a friend," the man answers. "I'll admit, I didn't anticipate someone like you being the 'friend' in question. I'll honor your deal with Miguel, but the rest of the contents in that trunk are mine."
"Of course. I have no interest in your business. This is a personal matter between me and Miguel."
He gestures at her with a sweep of his hand, indicating for her to walk ahead. "Be my guest. Any friend of Miguel's . . ."
His manner is friendly enough, but there's no question that he's in charge, and it feels as though he's luring her into a false sense of safety. After all, they're going to be trapped on this ship together for the next week and were she foolish enough to expose the smuggling going on beneath the Morro Castle's upper decks, then she'd have a target on her back for the remainder of the cruise.
He pulls a key out of his pants pocket and opens the trunk.
Elena takes a step forward, grateful she didn't have to try her hand with the hairpin.
A pistol rests on top of what looks to be an extensive cache of weapons inside the trunk. It's small enough to be easily concealed, but hopefully enough to satisfy her needs.
She grabs the gun, sliding it into the pocket of her skirt.
Chapter Two
When I was a little girl, my mother used to take me around New York City and show me the big, fancy buildings soaring high into the sky. We'd stand in front of them, and she'd arrange her fingers into the shape of a camera and pretend to take my picture. Remember this moment, Katie!
We called them our adventures, and on her rare days off when she wasn't cleaning up after the wealthy family she worked for, New York City was ours. We would roam the parts of the city we could, ogling the finery around us, staring into glass windows at beautiful gowns and out at sea, imagining all the places we could travel in a different life.
One day you'll go on a grand vacation. Just promise you'll take me with you, she would tease.
We couldn't afford the real thing, of course, but the pretense was nearly as good, and what I loved most about those memories was the way her lips would curve into a wide smile as though life was an adventure and one day our ship would come in and all our wildest dreams would come true.
In this moment in the New York Harbor, standing at Pier 13 on the gangway of the Morro Castle, the breeze blowing tendrils of hair from beneath my hat, it's as if she's standing before me, beaming down upon me, the ship grander than anything we could have ever imagined when I was a little girl.
Remember this moment, Katie!
Tears fill my eyes, and I bat them away, the enormous diamond ring on my left hand sparkling in the sunlight.
Overhead, towering above me like one of those great skyscrapers looming over the city skyline, the ship's horn blares, the sound echoing down the East River.
"Catherine, are you alright?" my fiancΓ© Raymond asks beside me, his hand on my elbow holding me steady.
"Yes, I-" For a moment, my shoe slips, and I start once more, bumping into the gentleman in front of me.
"Pardon me-"
He turns swiftly, catching me off guard.
I'm used to the wealthy moving languidly, as though the world is to meet them on their timetable, but despite the fine cut of the man's coat, he's surprisingly quick, his dark eyes glancing from me to Raymond and back again before offering up a pretty apology, even though I'm the one who is responsible for our current contretemps.
My cheeks heat, the curse of my fair skin, and I take a deep breath, steadying myself until it all falls away-the luxurious black and white ocean liner, my handsome, elegant fiancΓ©, the stranger I have jostled, the cheery crowds.
I am once again Catherine Dohan, a wealthy young heiress, unsettled by nothing, cowed by nothing, and I as much as the man in the fine suit in front of me belong here on the gangway of the Morro Castle, a lifetime of wedded happiness and comfort waiting for me.
It's a pretty lie, but a necessary one.
If my mother could only see me now.
Up ahead, a bellhop pushes the mountain of luggage for our little entourage-me, Raymond, Raymond's two-year-old daughter Ava, and her nanny-on the gangway leading to the ship.
I've never seen such a vessel in all my life. The rest of the first-class passengers appear nonplussed by the opulence, my fiancΓ© included, so I adopt the bored expression so many of them favor, as though I was raised traveling all over the world, the Morro Castle just another ship in a long line of them.
It's a delicate balancing act to keep all the lies I've told straight, to keep everything from going up in flames.

Raymond escorts me to my cabin, leaving me to freshen up while he attends to some business on the ship. Ava’s nanny has already taken her to the accommodations they’ll share for the trip, the little girl fighting to keep her eyes open in the face of her regular nap time.
Once I feel refreshed, I meet Raymond for tea in the first-class lounge before we part ways and I find a comfortable spot on the sundeck to read. It's impossible to ignore the enthusiasm around me, to not feel a bit as though I am on the precipice of something new, to let some of that energy seep into my pores.
The child who dreamed of adventures would have given anything for a chance to sail on a ship such as this one, and the urge to commit every single detail to memory is overwhelming. The ship is spotless, and I can't help but wonder how difficult it must be to keep a vessel of this size clean and running smoothly. It certainly must be a gargantuan task.
It's a lively crowd on the Morro Castle today, particularly on A deck, everyone excited for our burgeoning adventure. I spy a few groups of women my age, laughing and talking together, and part of me yearns to go over and join them, to be myself rather than this fiction I have created.
Excerpted from The Cuban Heiress by Chanel Cleeton Copyright © 2023 by Chanel Cleeton. Excerpted by permission of Berkley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

About the Author

Chanel Cleeton is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick Next Year in Havana, When We Left Cuba, The Last Train to Key West, and The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba.

Originally from Florida, Chanel grew up on stories of her family's exodus from Cuba following the events of the Cuban Revolution. Her passion for politics and history continued during her years spent studying in England where she earned a bachelor's degree in International Relations from Richmond, The American International University in London and a master's degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics & Political Science. Chanel also received her Juris Doctor from the University of South Carolina School of Law. 

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