Ellen Pierce and her brother are determined to reach the Alaska gold rush. But when ice stalls their steamship, all seems lost, until Buck Lewis makes a decision: he’ll lead all who dare to follow on foot toward Dawson City. Buck is determined to leave behind a heartbreaking past. No amount of ice or weather will stop him. But he never counted on a woman joining a dangerous wilderness trek—or on falling in love with her.
As their journey unfolds and Christmas approaches, Ellen and Buck discover that the greatest gift of all can’t be wrapped in paper and tied with a bow. It comes from, and is received in, the heart. Come share in a soul-deep romance that gives a joyful reminder of a redeeming God who makes us each unique, yet loves us all the same.
Have you ever considered the snowflake? I have. I have a fascination with them. They say snowflakes are one of a kind, like fingerprints. Can you imagine how many snowflakes are in a handful of snow? A yard full? A city’s worth? And that’s just in one snowfall. What about a winter’s worth of snowflakes across the entire world? What about every snowflake that has or will ever fall? Can you imagine the diversity in each intricate design? The perfectly symmetrical arms that appear like sparkling glass under a microscope? The bends and twists, the nubs and branches on a piece of floating, fluffy frozen water? Only God has that much imagination, that much creativity, that much timeless knowledge and wisdom. Only God could build a snowflake with each one having its own identity.
We are like the snowflake. Fantastic and unfathomable and fragile. Our lives are a moment in time, but that moment is all ours. There is no one like you ever made or ever to be made. If God took the effort to make each snowflake with its own unique shape, how much more did He expend on you, His beloved, in His image?
We forget, I think, how valuable we are to Him. When the snowflake melts, what does it become? Streams and rivers, lakes and oceans. Life-giving water. God created one-of-a-kind water droplets for you to drink. I can’t fathom such love.
Dear beloved reader, do not sell yourself short. Do not think for a moment that you don’t mean everything to Him. Do not let man and Satan, sin and evil, rob you of your worth. After all, God gave His one and only son for you.
Remember that the next time you look in the mirror and see only shortcomings and failures. Remember. It’s hard, I know. But I promise, I will try and remember it too.
If you would like to learn more about the science of snowflakes, here is a wonderful Web site:
Discussion Questions (Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t read the book yet these questions might give some of the story away!)
Be there, be there, be there, be there.
The words thudded in time with my heartbeat as I let myself into the cold, tiny cabin aboard the steamship. I turned and shut the door with a soft click. Only a few minutes, that’s all I had before my brother would find me missing and come looking for me. Only a few precious minutes alone.
I rushed over the rocking floor to the side of the lower bunk, knelt down, and reached underneath to pull out my heavy trunk. My fingers shook with fright and cold as I fumbled with the latch and lifted the lid.
I shoved aside dresses and stockings, a petticoat that had seen better days, and a pair of shabby pink slippers, then dug down to the bottom of the trunk. My fingers crushed around the feel of tulle as tears sprung to my eyes.
It was still there.
My heart lurched, as if it had long forgotten this wave of bliss. My eyelids dropped shut as I lifted out the long veil, stood, and clutched it to my chest. I stroked the delicate fabric, unable to look at it yet, savoring the blindness that heightened my touch as my fingertips ran along the silken crown at the top, each faux pearl against the lace a seed of delight. A laughing sob leapt from my throat, and I opened my eyes.
The veil was already two years old. What would happen when I lifted it out and found it yellowed with age?
I’d first seen it in a dressmaker’s shop window on a windswept, autumn day in San Francisco. I walked inside that shop without thinking what I was doing.
A woman with gray-and-black streaked hair rushed from a back room, smoothing down her skirts as she stepped into her showroom. She smiled at me, like I could be a paying customer, and I pretended I was.
“How can I help you, my dear?”
I stood mute for a moment and then pointed toward the window. “May I—” I swallowed hard and rushed out the rest before my courage failed completely. “May I see that veil?”
“Of course.” The woman turned to fetch it. She was round in a motherly way that made me feel better somehow. “You must try it on.”
And I did.
I let her arrange the tulle, so long that it flowed from my head to the floor behind me. She fussed over the combs in the headpiece, placing them into my thick crown of curls I was forever trying to manage, trying to conceal the full glory of. Rich brown hair as to be almost black, curling all the way down my back but never to be seen—always caught up and away into a hat or cap or knitted net that kept it from any temptation of man. It was understood that I would never let it down.
The woman finished positioning the great white veil on my head, as if it was a normal day’s occurrence, and I supposed for her it was. But I’d never had a day like that. She fluffed up the gauzy poof in the back and then gave a great sigh and stood back, her hands over her wide bosom.
“It’s perfect.” She beamed, gesturing toward a mirror.
I turned toward the wavy glass, my stomach seizing and trembling. As my face came into view, my hand, too, lifted to my chest. I blinked but the image didn’t fade; it only grew stronger. Brown, wide-set eyes, round and startled, a thin face, pale against the walnut hue of my hair. The veil was white and stark and beyond beauty. My heart pounded so loud I was sure the woman could hear it. But she only looked at me, over my shoulder in the glass, with a kind smile.
“It’s lovely on you, dear. When is your wedding?”
Had the woman spoken? I couldn’t hear beyond the roar of my blood. I stared and blinked at my image in the glass. A bride?
I jerked my gaze away from the glass, unable to see my reflection for another second. My hands clawed at the delicate combs, frantic to free them from my hair.
“Never,” I whispered, thrusting the delicate piece into the woman’s arms. With tears blinding my eyes, I stumbled from the shop—out into the cold nothingness of my life.
Weeks passed but I couldn’t forget. Symbol, talisman, covenant, promise…hope. It took months of hoarded pennies, lies when questioned about the rise in the cost of flour or milk, and the shattering of my pride to go back to that shop. I knew the woman would look at me with pity in her eyes, but the need to have the veil was greater than any of that. And it was still here in my trunk. Jonah hadn’t found it yet.
The door swung open and crashed against the wall.
“Oh!” I turned and faced him, my brother, crushing the veil to my chest. My breath froze as he advanced.
“Where have you been?” His voice was reed thin with a grasping, clawing undertone that I knew only too well.
“I was tired.”
“You’re up to something. What do have there?”
He advanced on me. I took a step back and then another until my legs bumped into the room’s narrow bench. “It’s nothing. Please, I was only going to lie down for a little while.”
Panic rose in my throat, suffocating me as his eyes went black. His thin arm struck out like a coiled snake and snatched the delicate tulle.
“No!” I held tight to my precious hope. “Please, it’s nothing of value. Let me keep it. Please, I’ll do anything.”
“A veil.” Shock lit his eyes, and then he made a low sound that was so hollow, both terrified and angry—an eerie, mad, moaning sound. “Ellie, you can’t leave me. I won’t let you leave me.”
He tugged harder as his gaze darted around the cabin, as if looking for a place to crawl in and hide. His gaze, suddenly sharp in focus, snapped back to mine. He inhaled. “It’s that man, isn’t it? You’ve been talking to him. I saw you.”
His grip on the veil tightened as he stepped so close to me our noses nearly touched and his breath came and went in quick gasps across my face.
“There is no man, Jonah. Please, it’s just a memento. It was mother’s. I keep it to remember her by.” The lies flowed easy and vivid, but I could tell by the trembling of his lips and the rage eating up his eyes that he did not believe me.
He grasped my wrists in a searing hold, his hands, so frail and weak looking, were stronger than a steel trap. The cloth of the veil twisted around my hands and his. With one hand holding one of my wrists against the wall, he jerked my other hand up and out.
I cried out in pain as the veil made a long ripping sound. My eyes clenched shut as sobs escaped my usually tight throat. “Noooo.” I turned my face away from him toward the wall and wailed.
Loud footsteps rang across the floor, and then Jonah was wrenched away from me. My eyes blinked open, pools of heartbreak rolling down my cheeks as the man of my dreams held my brother’s arms behind his back.
I watched, unable to utter a word, as he hissed into Jonah’s ear. “What is the meaning of this? If you ever lay a hand on her again—”
He didn’t finish the threat, but Jonah’s eyes went blank, dead. He looked like a little boy again. The boy I’d always protected.
“Don’t hurt him.”
Buck Lewis shook his head at me. “No one deserves to live like this.”
“I’m all he has.” My voice was a whisper. Everything in the room went deadly quiet as Buck studied my shattered, pleading eyes.
An enormous crash interrupted my horror. The ship lurched and tilted as a great splintering, the groaning and cracking of ice, exploded in sound. I fell back against the wall as Jonah used the moment of distraction to slither away from Buck’s hold.
“Come on!” Buck turned toward the opening in the doorway. “The ship may be damaged. We can’t stay down here.”
The three of us rushed to the top deck.
It was true. The steamer was locked in ice, inescapably gripped in the cold fingers of winter. I looked around at the collapsed faces, mirroring misery, the tall and lanky down to the short and stocky, all on the verge of a full-blown panic.
I wanted to say, “I told you so,” tried to tell Jonah in a hundred different pleading ways before this God-forsaken journey began, but knowing better, knowing it wouldn’t change the next time he got that stubborn, tight-lipped look, I kept my mouth closed. Silly men. Silly dreaming baby-men. Always wanting to conquer, to kill, and then build it up all over again. A tiny laugh bubbled up into my throat as I studied them from the edge of the crowd—hating them, loving them, scoffing and admiring.
Captain Henry Conrad stood at the bow of the steamer looking smaller than his six feet and 250 pounds, diminished by the simple law that in certain conditions water turns to ice. He gestured at the crumpled map in his hand while the moaning wind whipped red into our cheeks. The men crowded around him, knowing the truth but wanting to hear it explained—their dreams of riches, for the duration of this Alaskan winter at least, were over.
Sinclair, a man who wore his father’s idealism on a chubby-cheeked face, cursed a violent streak. “That Yankee in Seattle promised we’d make it. I knew we shouldn’t take a Yankee’s word for it.” He slung his hands into the pockets of a pair of expensive trousers, causing the seam to strain against his backside, and scowled at the broad, whiskered face of the captain.
“It ain’t anybody’s fault the Yukon River freezes up so early,” put in the tall, lanky Zeke Robbins. “We were straddling the seasons, pushing as far and as fast as we could and we knew it.” Zeke only needed a stalk of wheat to chew on and a floppy hat to complete the picture of the middle-American farmer.
“We may as well face it, gents.” The captain intervened before a full-fledged fight could break out. “We’ll be sitting out the winter right here, huddled together on this pile of wood, unable to move an inch until spring thaw.”
What would that mean to the lone woman of the expedition? Should I be afraid? Would my brother protect me? Or would he only accuse me of self-absorbed romanticism should I voice any hint of my scandalous concern?
Several voices cried out in stubborn rebellion to the idea of giving up until the clean voice of another quieted them. “As I see it, gentlemen, we have one other choice.”
They turned in eager silence, necks craning, bodies leaning in, straining for a way out of the certain despair that would engulf them at the end of this meeting. If any man could salvage this mess, it was Buck Lewis, and they all knew it or had heard it in bits and pieces of stories that made him out a hero and a legend.
I studied him. What was it about him that held me so entranced? He had a weathered face, bold with a hint of recklessness, intelligent blue eyes that could cause a lesser man to turn away, a lean-muscled body with reflexes that could save a life, and an easy common sense that made him the voice of reason in turbulent times. The young men idolized him. The older men respected him.
I had tried, for the first few weeks of this journey anyway, to ignore him.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t feel his presence the moment he neared or didn’t feel as if I knew him every time our gazes locked. Oh no. Everything in me wanted to follow that pantherlike stride as he walked by—with my eyes and my feet and then reach toward him with my hands and my lips. And then he’d spoken to me and all was lost.
Buck stared each man in the eye. “You should know what you’re in for. If you plan to stay, you’ll be looking into the face of starvation, hoping it doesn’t look back. Hunting parties will go out daily with the threat of sudden blizzards and wild animals to hound your heels. When the food runs out, the unfathomable will start looking pretty. It may come down to the strong surviving, but the means of that survival might not be something you can go to bed with. Might be something you have to wrestle over for the remainder of your days.”
He paused, scanning their collective gaze, taking stock. “For those who don’t like the sound of that and still want to reach Dawson City before spring, they can trust in dogs and sleds and pray for enough good weather to mush overland.”
“What are you going to do, Buck?”
“How many miles to Dawson?”
“When will the food run out?”
Buck answered the first question. “I’ll be going to Dawson.” He paused, then continued with a flat slap to his voice. “It won’t be an easy trip. It’s a good two hundred miles. That’s a week’s worth of walking in bitter temperatures with the food running out.”
“But we’d make it, right, Buck?” A freckle-faced young man from Iowa squinted up at him. Buck could have said the sky was made of cotton candy and this boy would have nodded in agreement.
Buck gave him a hard look. “I don’t know, but you are welcome to join me and see.”
A grim contemplation fell on them as they each considered the odds.
Sinclair was the first to speak. “I didn’t come this far to cool my heels all winter on this ice barge. I’m coming with you.”
Buck nodded, but his eyes said he would rather take a marauding grizzly along. Ronnie Nelson, George McCallister, Adam Walker, and Randy Olsen all volunteered, all young and strong and capable.
“I’ll be going with you.”
My head jerked up in shock as my gaze swung toward the familiar voice. Why would my ragged, haunted-looking brother want to take on something so dangerous?
Buck matched my reaction. “What about your sister? You would leave her on board?”
Jonah scowled. “She’ll be coming with us.”
Buck’s gaze found mine on the other side of the crowd, hugging the outskirts. Why did he care when no one ever had? I wasn’t worthy of a man like Buck Lewis’s attention, and it was only a matter of time until he figured that out.
Buck turned back to Jonah. “You explain to her how rough it will be, or I will. Then, if she’s determined, well then, she’ll know.”
My brother’s face turned stony at the rapid-fire orders, but he nodded. He wouldn’t tell me anything of the sort, but Buck wouldn’t know that I would have already thought out every detail, every possibility for success or failure, and planned for it the best I could.
It was my job to take care of Jonah, not the other way around.
As the men scattered into disheartened, muttering groups, Buck watched Jonah grip Ellen’s arm and pull her back toward their cabin. A feeling of fierce protectiveness rose so strong that his muscles leapt to follow them, but he clamped down the urge with gritted teeth and a clinched fist around the rail as a tether. He was on a mission and Ellen Pierce was not part of the plan. He needed to remember that.
He turned toward the ice-clogged water and squeezed his eyes shut, but the vision of her was even stronger in the dark. He remembered the first moment he’d seen her on the steamer. She’d been just across the deck, not more than ten feet, then she turned around and looked up at him. She was the kind of woman that stole a man’s breath at first, taking a moment for the shock to wear off and his jumped heart to settle down. But he could have grown used to that. He could have resisted the ethereal depths of her dark eyes that spoke pain and passion in equal measure, but then he went and did a fool thing: He spoke to her.
“You’re not traveling alone, are you?” It had been a stupid thing to say.
She gave him a quick smile, a gentle curve of rose-colored lips, and a flash of fearful reticence in her eyes before looking down and then behind her. “No, my brother is with me.”
She was as skittish as a new colt, but she didn’t run away. She stood there, eyes downcast, waiting for him to say something else.
His mind went blank and his mouth went dry. What was wrong with him? He was never this unsure of himself. “You got a name?” Had he really just asked her that? Of course she had a name. A warm flush filled his cheeks and he looked away.
She didn’t seem to notice. She took a step forward and held out a mittened hand. “Ellen Pierce, and you?” She smiled, with just a hint of a teasing light in her eyes. “Do you have a name?”
Buck cleared his throat and reached for her hand. It was small but the grip was comfortable, like two puzzle pieces locking together. “Buck Lewis. Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”
Ellen gazed up at him through thick, dark lashes and his heart did a double beat. His wife, who he had loved more than life itself, had never made him feel like this…this floating, dizzy, anchorless unease.
Before he could say something else that would make him look like an idiot, a man strode over with angry, clipped steps, came up from behind her, and grasped her arm, wrenching her hand out of his. He glared at Buck. “Is this man bothering you, Ellie?”
Ellen backed away shaking her head. “He just introduced himself, Jonah. Please, don’t make a scene.” She whispered the last in a terse tone.
“You stay away from my sister, got it?”
So this was her brother. A small, wiry man with sunken cheeks and eyes. Physically he presented no threat, but those eyes… A strange darkness possessed them that sent a shiver down Buck’s spine.
“I didn’t mean any harm.” Buck spoke in a low, calm voice as he would to a cornered animal.
“Just stay away from her.” Her brother pulled her away with a jerk on her arm.
Buck curled his hand into a fist. That had been the first of many times he saw Jonah manhandling her, and every time Buck wanted to plow his fist into the gaunt face. He kicked at the side of the ship as he thought back to what he witnessed today.
Her brother was growing more dangerous, demented even. What if he snapped? Killed her? Buck didn’t want to care, shouldn’t care, but he did. Lord, what can I do about it?
His wife’s face, her eyes, how they’d widened with the shock of the bullet as it entered her chest, flashed before him and nearly sent him to his knees. He hadn’t been able to protect her. He had insisted she come with him to Skagway. Kalage’s death was his fault.
God, why didn’t You stop me? Why didn’t you stop him?
Buck quieted his mind and tried to hear God’s answer. He closed his eyes and waited.
He heard nothing but the deadness of his laden heart and the moaning of ice all around.
The early morning air had a stinging crispness that felt different somehow, as if we were inhaling crystallized snowflakes into our lungs instead of air. Garbed in my tattered coat and mittens, I followed the fourteen men setting out for Klondike gold and the city in the north that made poor men’s dreams come true: Dawson City. Our only assets were three heavily loaded sleds with motley beasts for dogs and inexperienced mushers for drivers.
I looked at the facts around me and tried to do what Buck told us to do—pray the clear skies would hold—but I choked on the first line. I didn’t pray anymore, hadn’t prayed in years.
What could my brother be thinking to command that we do this? I’d tried to convince him the night before. The memory of him curling into a ball on the bed and rocking back and forth with low moaning swept through me.
I went to him, tried to comfort him with a hand on his back. “Jonah, we would be safer waiting out the winter here on the steamer. Please. You’re not thinking clearly.”
He turned, snarled, and then spit at me. Before the shock of that wore off, he leaned into my face and, with a guttural sound to his voice, let loose a stream of curse words, evil horrid words directed at me, about me. His face contorted with a hatred I’d not seen before. I backed away from his crazed eyes, but he grabbed me.
“I will tether you to a dogsled if necessary. I’m going to get me a claim, and even if it kills you, Ellie, you are going with me.” His eyes rolled back in his head. He began to shake and sob. “Don’t leave me alone, Ellie. Don’t do it.”
I saw it then. That dark presence that haunted him, a specter I could neither see nor hear but recognized the signs of all too well. It grew stronger, desperate, at times like these. Sometimes it had us running like rabbits, moving from city to city. Sometimes it watched us hide in Jonah’s make-believe world, where he was god and king and could do anything. And then there were the times it just hovered in a low hum, coloring his every thought and action and eating away at his flesh until I could hardly remember the strong, handsome youth I had known as my brother so many years ago.
Despair filled me as my cage, that promise I’d made to my mother, clamped around me. “Yes, I’ll go, Jonah. Don’t cry.”
He abruptly let go of my wrist and collapsed on the bed like a limp rag doll. I spent the rest of the night quietly packing our things.
Now I fumbled with the straps of the snowshoes that would supposedly allow me to skate across the depths of white. Buck walked among us, checking the packs, explaining the duties, the protocol that was our only chance of walking upright into Dawson.
Most nodded their sober understanding, a few ventured questions, but Sinclair puffed out his chest and flat out complained when told he would walk instead of drive a sled. “I don’t know who you think you are, Lewis, and who made you leader, but I’m not taking orders from the likes of you.”
Buck pinned him with a steely glare and stated loud enough for all to hear, “Some trail advice, Sinclair. Plan on taking the worst of the chores, the lowliest of positions for the next week. And then, if you get better, consider yourself lucky. We work together to stay alive.” He turned his back on the seething man, giving me my first real shudder of the horror that lie ahead.
Men like that could ruin us.
When Buck came to me, he paused, his first hesitation of the morning. He waited for me to stare back into his ice blue eyes, reminding me of the floating crystal in the air, as breath robbing…and as cold. “You sure about this, Miss Pierce?”
He wanted to hear it from my lips. He needed to hear me say it. I also knew that if I said I did not wish to go, he would overpower my brother’s demand and see that I stayed the winter on board the steamer.
The trail ahead would be harder than anything I’d known, miles of wading through the cold, deep tundra, but the ship behind me was full of men I didn’t know or trust. With Buck and my brother gone, it would only be a matter of time before they found plausible reason to abuse me—but I might have a better chance of living through that.
I hesitated, feeling the tension in Jonah’s body beside me, seeing the hidden hope in the man’s eyes before me. “I’ll go.”
Buck nodded and turned away, but not before I saw the tanned skin around his eyes crinkle, a fine web of lines from some long-forgotten place of happiness, and then I heard his deep exhale.