Raised in the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee in the 1820s, sixteen-year-old Emma Simms dreams of the day she’ll escape her life of poverty to start over in the big city of Knoxville. But when her mother dies, she’s left with no one but her drunk, abusive stepfather, Luke Simms, and her dream abruptly becomes a nightmare. Luke plans to literally sell Emma down the river—to a notorious brothel in Knoxville.
River Joe, the mysterious Cherokee-raised frontiersman, knew from the first time he set eyes on the beautiful Emma that he had to have her as his own. And one glimpse of the handsome, buckskin-clad stranger they call the “white Indian” ignites the flame of dangerous desire in Emma’s heart.
Their passion could consume them both, but their love may be the one thing that can save Emma from a fate worse than death.
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It should have been a beautiful morning, that spring day in 1824. But sixteen-year-old Emma could not hear the birds singing. She did not see the blooming wildflowers or the lovely blue sky.
The only person who had come close to loving Emma Simms, who might have protected her from those who threatened and terrified her, lay in a grave at Emma's feet. Her mother, Betty Simms, was dead. After years of miscarriages, with Emma her only surviving child, Betty had finally carried a baby full-term, only to die giving birth. The baby had died soon after.
Emma had no doubt that the difficult birth and all the miscarriages before it were the fault of her stepfather, Luke Simms, whose name Emma had long ago been ordered to take as her own. Luke had worked both Emma and her mother like plow horses on his small farm along the Hiwassee, deep in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
Life was hard, and the farm had never amounted to much, for Luke was lazy and liked his whiskey. While fences needed mending and sheds were falling down, Luke had begun selling off livestock. There were only a few pigs and cows left, and Emma wondered how they were going to survive much longer.
"Ashes to ashes," the preacher was saying now. He had come from a distant settlement, one Emma had never seen. She had lived her whole life on this little farm, which her real father had owned. He had died when she was four years old. Her mother had then married Luke, a neighbor, who seemed friendly enough at the time, but who soon turned into a drunken tyrant, putting his "woman" and stepdaughter to work, using a hard hand on them when they "got lazy." He had never been kind to Emma, nor had he seemed to have any fatherly feelings for her. And after Emma's mother had had several miscarriages, Luke seemed to resent her more and more, accusing her of being a "useless woman" for not giving him any children of his own.
Now Betty Simms lay dead after trying to do just that. Twenty-nine. She was only twenty-nine. Compared to her mother, Emma was already an old maid at sixteen. Her mother had given birth to her at thirteen.
"Mountain girls get married young," Luke Simms was always complaining. "Why ain't that daughter of yours married off yet? You know Tommy Decker wants to marry her."
"She hates Tommy Decker," her mother would argue. "Tommy would be cruel to her."
"A man can treat a woman any way he pleases," Luke would answer, glowering.
Betty Simms always gave up the argument then, but at least she helped stave off any decision about Emma's marrying Tommy.
Emma's eyes stung with tears as she stared at the wooden box in the freshly dug hole behind the collapsing cabin where she would now live alone with her stepfather, a thought that made her feel ill. She had not known truly warm love and affection even from her mother in years, but she didn't blame the woman. Betty Simms was worn out and abused. She had turned hard; she had lost the ability to see beauty in life, the ability to love softly and gently.
But Emma struggled to hold these things in her own heart. In one tiny corner of her mind she knew by instinct that there were such things as peace and love and that the song of birds and the brilliance of spring flowers were things of beauty. In stolen quiet moments alone she had allowed the sweet air of the Tennessee mountains to renew her spirit; let the soft swish of the rushing waters of the Hiwassee River soothe her soul; let the sight of a bird in flight give her dreams of going away and finding a better life; and she had dared to dream of loving a man who would be kind and gentle, a man who would be nothing like her stepfather, or like Tommy Decker, who stood now on the other side of her mother's grave.
She refused to look at Tommy. Surely now that her mother was gone, Tommy would come for her, demand that her stepfather allow them to marry. Emma could think of nothing worse than being Tommy Decker's wife. To call herself a slave would be a more fitting description. And she shivered at the thought of how he would treat her in the night. He had told her several times, with an ugly, teasing grin, exactly what a man and woman did to get babies.
"And we're gonna have lots of babies, Emma Louise Simms, if you get my meanin'."
"I might be like my mother and not be able to have babies," Emma would reply.
"Well then, we'll have fun findin' out, won't we?"
Emma swallowed back a lump in her throat. She felt exposed now, vulnerable, unprotected. Her mother's objections had been the only barrier between herself and Tommy. Now she could feel his cold blue eyes on her. She guessed Tommy could be considered good-looking, if he were not so mean. He was twenty now, tall and strong, his hair red as fire and his skin peppered with freckles. If he smiled kindly, it might be a nice smile. She had struggled to find something about him to like but had never come up with even one commendable trait.
Tommy hadn't an ounce of kindness in his soul. Every time he came to visit her father, sometimes with his friend, Deek Malone, he took the opportunity to tease Emma with talk of bad things men and women did together, to threaten her physically. She had always stayed near the house, and she had always depended on her mother to protect her. But now her mother was gone, and she knew instinctively that Luke would never help her if Tommy chose to go through with any of his threats.
She glanced at her stepfather and saw no tears. The man stood staring at the wooden box as though he were angry at Betty Simms for dying and taking the baby with her, and he had always blamed Emma for her mother's birthing problems.
"If she hadn't had you so damned early in life, her insides wouldn't be all messed up," he would say. "That first husband of hers should have kept himself from between her legs for a while, till she was older."
The words rang in Emma's ears. Picturing what he meant, and remembering Tommy's descriptions of mating, made her positive she could never do such things. Even if she met a kind man, the thought of having babies terrified her now — not only the act of mating, but having seen her mother's pain and agony and now her death. Taking a man and having babies were surely humiliating, painful experiences, and she wanted no part of it, especially not with Tommy Decker.
She could not help letting out a whimper then, and her thin shoulders shook. So many things confused her, the contrasts between beauty and ugliness, peace and turmoil, smiles and tears, life and death. She had no one to console her, to talk to her, explain things to her — only Luke, Tommy, and his father, Jake, who were their closest neighbors, and the preacher. Emma wished she could talk to Mrs. Breckenridge, the traveling schoolteacher who had spent so much time with her a year ago. Mrs. Breckenridge and her husband were dedicated people who trudged through the Smokies, visiting mountain families and bringing formal schooling to children who would otherwise have none. The little bit of reading and writing and numbers Emma had learned had made her hungry for more, and her mind had begun to fill with curiosity about the outside world.
Mrs. Breckenridge had worn fine dresses and had told her about theaters and schools of higher learning, and big stores in big cities like Knoxville where a person could walk in and pick out anything she needed and buy it on the spot. Through Mrs. Breckenridge Emma had seen another kind of life, a gentler life, and most of all, she had seen love — real love between a man and a woman. Mr. Breckenridge was so good and considerate, with never a harsh word for his wife.
Then Luke Simms, in a drunken rage, had thrown both Mr. and Mrs. Breckenridge off his property, telling them never to come back.
"Quit fillin' my daughter with ideas about bein' somethin' special," he had shouted. "She knows her place. She's right where she belongs, helpin' her ma and pa. Before long she'll be married off and busy puttin' out babies like a woman's meant to do. She don't need no education."
The Breckenridges had left, fearing for their lives, and Luke Simms had burned the few books Mrs. Breckenridge had left behind. Emma would not forget that day for the rest of her life. She felt a prison door was closing on her. Now, with her mother dead, that door had been locked. She didn't know enough about the outside world to go into it alone. This little farm deep in the mountains had been her whole world. With no money, little education, and no experience in anything but feeding pigs, how could she go to the big cities Mrs. Breckenridge had told her about? Calhoun, Knoxville — they were downriver, far away. And they were places Emma knew next to nothing about.
The future seemed hopeless now. Instinct told her the Breckenridges would not return. They had deserted her, just as her mother had now deserted her in death.
Emma lifted her tear-filled blue eyes from the grave, trying to find some beauty in the day to keep her from wanting to die. Rhododendrons and azaleas bloomed wild here and there in the surrounding woods. Mockingbirds, robins, wood thrushes, and hundreds of other birds sang their songs, oblivious to the sorrow in Emma's heart. The hickory, oak, sycamore, poplar, and maple trees all burst with new green leaves; nuts were forming on a nearby walnut tree, their green skin hard and new.
She concentrated on the woods and the birds, not even hearing the rest of the preacher's words. She let her mind wander to less painful thoughts, remembering those four days last spring when she had seen the white Indian. He had never come back, but for a long time she had wondered about him, fantasized about him.
Somehow she sensed he was different from Luke and Tommy. He could have hurt her, could have done bad things to her, but he had not. And the look in his dark eyes still brought a wonderful warmth that moved deep inside her chest and belly, stirring a curiosity about men, making her wonder about things she had never dared to consider before.
And then, as though some powerful spirit had read her mind, her thoughts took form. The white Indian appeared in the trees just beyond where Luke and Tommy stood. Emma was unable to stifle a gasp, and it made everyone else turn.
He stood so still at first that one would hardly have noticed him, the way a deer would do to keep from being seen. Yes, Emma could see it was the same man, the same magnificent body and buckskin clothing! His nearly waist-length hair was tied to one side of his head and hung down his broad chest, nearly reaching the wide, leather weapons belt he wore. His skin was tanned dark, and even from a distance Emma could see he was as handsome as ever.
"My God! It's that white Indian," Jake Decker exclaimed.
"What!" Tommy Decker stared. "Hey you!" he shouted. "What the hell are you doin' there watchin' us?"
To Emma's disappointment, the stranger turned and disappeared. Her heart pounded with excitement, and suddenly she felt hot and sweaty. He had come back! It had been a whole year, and he was back again! Why? She had thought she would never see the white Indian again. How ironic that she should see him now, in this sad, dark moment of her life.
"You sure that was River Joe?" Luke asked Jake.
"Sure I'm sure! I seen him once — last year — tradin' with Hank Toole."
"Kind of gives you the shivers." Luke scowled.
"Probably sneakin' a look at Emma," Tommy said. Emma felt his eyes on her again. She refused to look back at him. "All that pretty blond hair probably fascinates him, after livin' around them savages all his life."
"Not all the Cherokee are savages, son," the preacher cut in. "Most are quite civilized."
Tommy looked darkly at the man. "You preachers and your missionaries are always on the side of people like that. But they're still savages as far as I'm concerned — me and most others around here. We've already chased them higher up into the mountains, and if we're lucky they'll get out of Tennessee altogether. The government is gonna make some laws that will chase all of them pesty buggers clean to Indian Territory where they belong."
The preacher breathed deeply, and Emma could see he was struggling to control his temper. "I do believe they were here first, Mr. Decker."
"Maybe they were, but this land is meant for us whites. We know what to do with it. They waste it." Tommy clenched his fists. "And I don't like that white Indian goin' around peekin' at my woman."
Emma felt her pride and anger rise quickly at the remark. "I'm not your woman!" she blurted, fighting her terror.
"You will be soon!"
"Mr. Decker, this is a funeral," the preacher interrupted. "This poor girl's mother has just died, and I have not finished the service yet."
"Then hurry up and finish," Tommy yelled. "I want to go find that River Joe and find out what the hell he was doin' around here!"
Emma burst into tears and dropped to her knees beside the grave.
"I'm sure he was just coming here to trade something or look for a job. He has worked other places. He means no harm, Mr. Decker. I'm sure he left because he realized there was a funeral taking place."
"You calm yourself, Tommy," said Jake, the young man's father. "Let the preacher finish his service."
Emma sniffed and wiped at her eyes with a shaking hand. How she wished her mother would just wake up and come back to protect her. The preacher continued his little sermon, and soon it was time to shovel the dirt into the hole.
Emma wanted to scream. She wanted to tear at the box and pull her mother out. She almost hated Betty for leaving her now. Why had her mother not just left Luke? In her heart Emma knew the answer: remote mountain life was all the woman had ever known; she was afraid of the outside world.
Emma wondered then if her own fate would be the same. Would she end up abused all her life, married to a cruel man, finally dying young, never knowing anything else? She wept as Luke and Jake filled in the grave.
Tommy watched Emma, hungering for her. She was the prettiest girl in the mountains. Her blond hair was the color of cornsilk, her eyes big and blue. Over the past year her breasts had filled out to a roundness that made them seem too big for her tiny body. She was so small for her age that she always seemed too young to marry, even though she was older than most married mountain girls.
But Tommy wasn't really sure he wanted a wife at all. If he could have Emma Simms without marrying her, that would be even better, for he wasn't certain he wanted to settle in these mountains and be just a homesteader. He liked adventure, wanted to go to a big city like Knoxville. He liked riding with young men from other settlements, liked heading into the mountains to raid Cherokee settlements.
Tommy Decker was sure he knew all he needed to know about women. He had taken most of his own by force, finding the fight stimulating, convinced that they all actually enjoyed it. But he had not been able to conquer Emma, and it frustrated him. She was so stubborn and proud, and would hardly look at him. Other girls had fought him, but not with the same determination in their eyes. Most of the others had given up in the end, but something told him Emma would never give up, never submit to him willingly.
He wanted badly to break her down. It was becoming obvious that even if he married her, she would still not be willing. And for some reason Luke Simms still had not given his final permission to marry Emma. Tommy could not imagine why the man was putting him off, but it didn't matter anymore. Tommy didn't really want to be married and tied down. He had considered it only in order to get under Emma's skirts, but more and more he was determined to do that without the bonds of marriage.
Now that Emma's mother was dead, perhaps it would not be so difficult. Emma's mother had always gone along with Emma's refusal to marry Tommy. But now if Tommy took what he wanted without the legality of marriage, Luke probably wouldn't do a thing about it. Luke didn't care one whit about his stepdaughter.
That girl needs a good lesson, he thought. He was sure, with all his experience, that once he got inside her she would like it. She would probably wish she had given in sooner, and then he would get the ultimate revenge. He would break her down and then refuse to marry her, just as she had been refusing him. He smiled at the thought of it, almost laughed out loud.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Tennessee Bride"
Copyright © 1988 F. Rosanne Bittner.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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