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Authors: Susan Edwards

White Nights

BOOK: White Nights
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White Nights

By Susan Edwards

Oregon Trail, 1856

After her husband is swept away by the furious waters of the Platte River, Eirica Macauley faces the journey along the Oregon Trail alone with three children and another on the way. But Eirica cannot mourn the loss of such a brute, and vows never to give a man power over her again.

A fellow settler on the trail, James Jones never meant to fall in love with another man’s wife, but it was impossible to steel his heart against the beautiful Eirica. If only he can convince Eirica to trust in him, and in her own feelings.

James is everything her husband wasn’t: handsome, caring, honorable. His touch ignites passion. Struggling to survive in the untamed West, Eirica can’t help but be tempted by James’s offer to care for her and the children. But as they near their destination, and a promising future together, they learn the past may not be so far behind after all…

Book 6 of 12.

Previously published.

93,000 words

Dear Readers,

I am so excited to see my White Series available in digital format and once again available to you, my readers. This series is so close to my heart—each character became my brother, sister, best friend, etc., and to see them republished makes it seem like a long-awaited family reunion. I can’t wait to become reacquainted with each character! Even the villains, for there is nothing like seeing justice served.

I started the first book,
White Wind,
way back in the ’80s. These two characters just popped into my head one day. I met them at a stream in the wilderness where my honorable (and very virile) hero, Golden Eagle, was determined to rescue a very stubborn heroine named Sarah. It just seemed as though the action stopped as they turned to me and said, “Well? What now?”

Huh? Did they think I was a writer? Not me. Never did any writing at all and had never had any desire to do so. Well, Sarah and Golden Eagle just shook their heads and let me know that despite never having written before, it didn’t matter because I was a storyteller! A vivid imagination, a love of romance and the Native American historical genre were all that were required. Okay, not quite but I got the message.

So I thought, why not? I could write a nice scene or two. Or three. Hey, how about even just a love scene in this wonderful setting that I could see so clearly in my mind? But then I ran into the first problem. What had brought my two willful characters to this stream at the same time? What connected them? Why would this mighty warrior want to claim this white girl? What made him fall in love with her and risk everything for her?

I found that I couldn’t go on until I had answers and that meant, yep, I had to start at the beginning. I learned who they were, what their problems were, and when we once again met at that stream in the wilderness, I just sat back and gave directions, and this time, my characters knew their lines and away we went!

And that, dear readers, was how my writing career began. Once I started, I could not stop. I loved writing about this family. Sarah and Golden Eagle had four children and it just seemed natural to continue the series. I had so many letters begging and, yes, even demanding Jeremy and White Dove’s story in
White Dove.
And honestly, I was right there with each and every reader, for that was one story that just called to me. So from two people, who met by chance, eleven books were born.

Over the years, I valued each and every reader comment: from the mother who read the books to her dying daughter, to the lonely women who found companionship, and to women who appreciated the bravery and willingness of the heroines and heroes to do whatever it took to overcome adversity.

Each of the White books has a story that means something to me. Jessie in
White Wolf
is a lot like I was in my youth. I couldn’t accept “no” back then without a good reason, always looking for a chance to rebel
. I could go on and on but then I’d be writing a book instead of a letter!

Just writing this letter makes me all teary and homesick, but just as these books will be available once more to my readers, I will become reacquainted with each book and each character. Thinking of reunions, I might just have to plan a White reunion! But for now, I am just so grateful to Carina Press and my editor, Angela James, for once again making this series available.

Sincerely yours,

Susan Edwards

To a special man in my life, Gary Swenson, who aside from being a great father, is one of today’s heroes. He put his own life on the line each day he donned his uniform and went to work, serving and protecting the community.

And from the bottom of my heart, a special thanks goes to my editor, Chris Keeslar, who believed in me and gave me the chance to prove that dreams do come true. Thank you.

Prologue

Lower California Crossing of the Platte River, June 1856

Icy-cold water crashed over Birk Macauley, sucking him down into the dark, murky Platte. The raging, snow-fed current shoved him downstream with gleeful abandon, seizing his clothing and boots, using the weight to hold him under. He kicked and thrashed uselessly. Terror filled him. Seconds ticked past; his lungs felt close to bursting. The waning light above his head taunted him. The surface. Air. So close. So far.

With a desperate kick he broke through the surface of his watery grave. Struggling to keep his head above water, he gulped great lungfuls of air and glanced around wildly for his wagon, but the swift-moving torrent swamped him, and pulled him ever farther downstream. He slapped his palms against the water’s surface, grasping for something—anything—to hold on to. His fingers slid through the frothy-white water as he tumbled in the arms of the capricious river. He suppressed the overwhelming need to breathe. A hazy gray film engulfed him. This was it. He was going to die.

Without warning, a hard object slammed into him. He gasped, drawing water into his lungs. Clutching the large log that had collided with him, Birk held on for dear life and rose to the surface, coughing, choking and spewing water. His chest and ribs ached, the rest of his body was numb with cold. He felt himself sliding off the log. Desperate, he clung to it, his cheek resting against its rough bark.

Tired, so tired. His vision blurred and his body shook uncontrollably, but inside raged a fury every bit as savage as the river carrying him farther from his wife. He cursed Eirica, shouted his fury into the growing darkness that surrounded him and left the banks shrouded in a cloak of gray mist.

Damn her. This was all her fault. Renewed disbelief swept through him. The bitch had defied him, left him while he slept off the effects of drinking too much rotgut the night before. How dare she? She and them brats belonged to him. His nails dug into the log, impervious to the pain. Curses and promises of retribution tore from his lips. It was her fault he’d been banished from the wagon train, her fault he’d been forced to cross the Platte unaided to fetch her and his children back.

In its frenzy, the river spun him dizzyingly around and around, using icy fingers to try and wrest his lifeline from him, but Birk hung on, cursing and fighting against the grip of death. The swells of dark water continued to slap at him as the last of the light faded, leaving him in the midst of a freezing watery hell. One thought echoed through his mind during the deepening night, giving him the strength to live: revenge. The bitch would pay.

Chapter One

July 1856

Independence Rock. It rose from the sage-covered desert like some massive turtle or giant whaleback. Covered with names and inscriptions of all sizes, the oval landmark served as lookout, campsite, trail register and bulletin board to the thousands of westward-bound emigrants.

Some climbed the one-hundred-twenty-eight-foot-high granite rock to add their names to the very top, while others were content to view the next major landmark in their journey west: Devil’s Gate. The high ridge of hills made of trap rock, sandstone and granite rose to a height of four hundred feet and pointed the way to the halfway mark from Westport to Oregon: South Pass.

Camped a short distance from Independence Rock and the swarm of humanity, Eirica Macauley coaxed a small flame to life by slowly adding dried grass. When the flames caught and eagerly licked at the precious sage wood laid over several fist-size rocks, she sat back on her heels, swiping damp strands of hair from her forehead. To one side of her, a canvas sack filled with dried droppings from all manner of beasts roaming the trail and surrounding land lay open, ready for use once the wood burned out. Though the droppings burned hot and ferocious, they left a great deal of ash that required removal before adding more of the dried fuel.

Taking a deep breath, she struggled to her feet—no small task when one was heavy with child. The sultry afternoon wind whipped the worn, homespun material of her faded, indigo-dyed wrapper dress around her legs and into the smoking fire. Eirica jumped back with a muffled exclamation.

Shaking out her skirts, she noted a couple of new burn holes in the fabric and grimaced. The hem was already tattered and ragged from being snagged on rocks, brush and all other matter of thorny plants, not to mention dragged through mud during the rains. After walking more than eight hundred miles during the last three months, it was no surprise that her clothing and shoes were wearing out.

Grabbing hold of a fistful of skirt to keep the breeze from billowing it up over her head, Eirica stepped well away from the fire and turned her face into the capricious wind. Her bonnet blew off and hung down her back, held by the knotted ribbons around her throat. The strong breeze played with loosened strands of long golden-red hair as she massaged her lower back. A slight tightening of her abdomen followed. Unconsciously, she smoothed her palms down over the swell of her unborn child and ignored the spasms. At twenty-two, she was eight months pregnant with her fourth child and knew these contractions were nothing more than her body’s preparations for the labor that would follow in a few short weeks.

Shielding her eyes from the glare off the white canvas-topped wagons of nearby campers, Eirica turned her attention to the landmark so many emigrants held in awe. She stared at the monstrosity in the distance with pensive eyes. What lay ahead? What did the future hold for her and her children? They’d made it this far, would they survive to see their new home?

Survival.
The word sent chills through her. Gooseflesh popped out on her arms. How would she manage once she reached Oregon? Fear, worry and uncertainty rolled through her like tumbleweeds racing across wide-open plains. She felt lost and alone in a strange and unfriendly world. The hundreds of graves along the trail bore testimony to the harshness of the journey west.

Her throat tightened. In the last week alone, she’d recorded more than forty graves in her diary. Lives of all ages, snuffed out by cholera, measles, mountain fever and so many other hazards that struck the innocent and unwary emigrants. Each new grave site, some off-trail, others smack in the middle of it to keep coyotes and wolves from digging up the bodies, ate away at her confidence. Was she doing the right thing by continuing onward to Oregon?

How could she, a widow with three, soon-to-be four, children make it across this wild, hostile land? And if she made it to Oregon, she’d be faced with starting over, alone. She wrapped her arms protectively around her swollen abdomen. Feeling the movement of the baby nestled safely inside her brought forth another worry, but she refused to even think about giving birth out here so far from home. It was just another fear to keep her awake at night.

“Ian! Come back!”

At the sound of the high-pitched shout, Eirica whirled around to see her youngest child running away from his older sister. Giggling with delight in the chase, Ian, barely two, dodged Lara, unaware that he’d run into the path of several oxen being driven away from the crowded wagons camped along each side of the trail to find better forage.

Eirica’s heart jumped into her throat. She picked up her skirts and ran awkwardly. “Ian, stop! Come back!”

Intent on dodging three-year-old Lara, Ian kept going; his little legs, brown and sturdy from nearly three months of living outdoors, flew over the uneven ground.

Hearing Eirica’s panicked shouts, a short, plump woman wearing baggy men’s woolen trousers and an even baggier shirt, darted in front of the oxen and scooped Ian into her arms, safely out of the path of the bellowing beasts.

Sofia De Santis carried Ian toward Eirica, holding him upside down, much to the little boy’s delight. Lara skipped alongside her, her thumb in her mouth and a small square of blanket clutched in her curled fingers. Her baby-blue eyes were wide with worry.

“The
bambino
is full of energy.” Sofia chuckled, tickling Ian’s belly, eliciting more giggles before righting him in her plump arms and handing him over to Eirica.

Eirica hugged her squirming son, her heart still beating a wild tattoo against her breast. She smiled weakly at the newest member to join her small wagon train. “Thank you, Mrs. De Santis. I swear, Ian is such a handful. I can’t seem to make him understand he can’t just run off.”

Ian wiggled and protested. “Down, Mama, down.”

Eirica lowered him to the ground. He tried to take off again, but she held tightly to his wrist. “Ian, you cannot run off. There are far too many people and animals around. You’re going to get hurt.” Seeing his tiny features screwing up to protest, she pulled several carved wooden animals from a pocket in her dress. “Here, take these and go play quietly beneath the wagon while Mama tends to supper.”

Rebellion forgotten for the moment, the little boy eagerly grabbed the prized wooden figures made for him and his sisters by another member traveling in their wagon party. Content for the time being, he followed Lara to the shade beneath their wagon and settled on his stomach with the toys spread out before him. Lara sat cross-legged beside him.

Eirica sighed ruefully as she watched Ian use one figure to attack another, then set both to pouncing on Lara’s knee. Her daughter giggled around her thumb. At the sight of her children playing happily, a sunburst of love warmed Eirica from the inside out.
Please,
she prayed,
keep them safe and healthy.
She didn’t know what she’d do if she lost one of them to the indiscriminating hand of death.

“Ah, to be so young.” Sofia’s long, graying black hair, piled haphazardly on top of her head, had loosened during her mad dash after Ian. She deftly removed two thin, tapered sticks and rewound her hair on top of her head, then jabbed the makeshift pins through the loose bun.

“Sure wish I had some of his energy. He’s going to be the death of me yet.” Eirica bit back a yawn. Her day was a long way from being over.

Sofia beamed. “Ah, but he is strong and healthy. It’s normal for him to be curious. He’s a very bright child. This is good, no?”

“Ian is smart,” Eirica agreed, her gaze softening on her two youngest children. “But he has no fear. He’s not afraid of anything, and that scares me something fierce.”

Sofia’s smile faded. “My Gino was just like your little boy, always getting into mischief and running his poor mama to exhaustion when he was a wee
ragazzo.
Nothing stopped that boy; always ready to learn new things, eager to explore new places. When he left our village to travel, I used to pray for his safe return.”

Her deep, husky voice broke, and a tear fell from her soft, brown eyes. The single drop of moisture spread along the lines age had brought to her face. “I worried for nothing. It wasn’t his wild running about that killed him,” she whispered in a broken voice.

Eirica felt sorry for this woman who’d lost so much. Two sons, a daughter-in-law, two grandchildren and her husband had succumbed to cholera within days of one another. All the poor woman had left of her once-large family was a seventeen-year-old granddaughter and two grandsons, aged twenty-two and ten. Like Eirica, she too faced starting over without the support of her family. It wasn’t fair, yet Eirica knew many more women would lose members of their families before reaching Oregon. She reached out and squeezed the woman’s fisted hand. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. De Santis.”

Sofia squared her shoulders. “Life is not always kind, Mrs. Macauley. I thank the good Lord daily that I still have Dante, Catarina and Marco. They are Gino’s children and carry his blood in their veins. All I have to do is look upon them to see my son, or with Dante, my husband, Luigi.” She fell silent, lost in thought.

Eirica rubbed her arms and hugged herself. The enormity of what lay ahead made her want to drop to the ground and weep with the unfairness of it all. The daily passing of mounds of dirt, hastily formed crosses and piles of stones haunted her, kept her awake at night. What if she lost Ian, Lara or Alison? She’d already lost her husband, but unlike Sofia, Eirica suffered no grief over Birk’s death—a source of guilt that continued to eat at her. But no matter how hard she tried to grieve and feel sad over his death, she only felt a welcome release from a six-year marriage that had been her own personal hell.

“My Luigi, he had so many dreams,” Sofia whispered.

“They all do,” Eirica responded sadly, thinking about the vast number of men who’d forced their women and children to make this horrendous journey. Like so many others, Eirica hadn’t wanted to leave all she’d known to journey across this wild, untamed land—but she’d had no choice. When she’d refused to go to Oregon, Birk had threatened to take their children and leave without her. Eirica pressed her lips together. Becoming a widow was the only good thing to come from this perilous trip.

Her lips twisted with bitterness. Her husband had known full well she’d never allow him to take her babies from her. Now she held their lives in her hands; she was pitted against an unpredictable land that both fascinated her with wondrous sights and frightened her with the sheer magnitude of what lay ahead. Her palms grew damp. She wiped them on her apron, her eyes filling with tears of frustration.

How she wished her mother were still alive. But Mary Newell had died two years ago, helped into her grave by a cold, indifferent husband who wouldn’t even allow an old sick woman to spend the day abed, gathering her strength after falling ill during the harsh winter. Memories of the woman who’d spent her life waiting hand and foot on her husband and eight sons brought tears to Eirica’s eyes.

Old resentments welled up inside Eirica. Birk had refused to allow her to go care for her mother during the day, even though they were neighbors. She’d defied him once, sneaked out to take her ma some fresh bread and honey. He’d found out, though, and that act of disobedience had earned her a broken arm and bruised ribs. It was the last day she’d seen her mother alive. A month later, Mary had just given up, laid down and died, a broken woman.

Eirica fought back tears of regret. If only she’d stood up to Birk, done something to help her mother, maybe her ma would be alive today.

The need to talk to someone who understood what she was going through overwhelmed Eirica. She glanced at Sofia. Though the woman was more than twice her age, Eirica felt a closeness to her that was missing from the other women traveling with her. Jessie and Coralie were younger, childless and newlyweds. Anne was older, but she was happily married.

“What are you going to do, Mrs. De Santis? Are you going to continue or head back? Barnaby Thurston and his sons are turning back. Can’t bear to go on after losing his wife. Heard several other families are considering joining them.”

Sofia straightened and met Eirica’s worried gaze, her own fraught with determination. “I shall go to Oregon. It’s what Luigi wanted. I’ll claim the land he dreamed of and make a new life for my grandchildren.” She considered Eirica through narrowed eyes. “You aren’t thinking of turning back?”

“I wish I could.” Though Eirica spoke the words aloud for the first time, she knew it was fruitless. Thanks to Birk’s laziness and drinking, she had no home to return to. He’d lost their farm and their small, crude cabin, leaving them no choice but to move into her father’s home before they’d taken to the trail.

“You have no other family? No
madre
or
padre?

Eirica brushed her tears away, furious with herself for wishing for things that could never be again. “No one who cares,” she said, leaving it at that. She’d spent her whole life trying to please her father and brothers, but it was never enough, never appreciated. All her long hours of work and devotion to ensure their comfort had been met with more demands, contempt and indifference toward her own wants and desires.

As she’d quickly discovered after she and Birk had been forced to move in with her family, nothing had changed in the five years she’d been gone. Though her three older brothers had married and lived in homes a short distance away, five of her younger brothers still shared space in the cramped three-room farmhouse along with her pa. And with her ma gone, they and her pa had expected her to step in and wait on them. She wasn’t a daughter or sister to them. She was a slave, someone they ordered around. They’d even started making demands of Alison who’d only been four, having her fetch and carry for them as they were too lazy to get up and do it themselves.

Sofia nodded as if she understood what Eirica left unsaid. “Then you and I must be strong and help each other.” A shout from one of her grandsons made Sofia smile. “I have much to live for.” With that, she excused herself to go finish her supper preparations.

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