Will Lassater comes to California to build a logging empire, never expecting to fall in love with the golden land. Then he beholds Santana, an exotic Spanish beauty, and in her dark, luminous eyes he sees all that is beautiful and irresistible about the rich and fertile country—all that he wishes to possess yet does not fully understand.
With every beat of her innocent heart, Santana knows that this tall, handsome, blue-eyed American is the only man she can ever love. But between Santana and Will stands a lifetime of tradition—and a powerful and ruthless Spanish don who vows to kill any man who dares to covet his intended bride. Now, as Will’s dream of Lassater Mills becomes a reality, he will risk everything to make Santana his own. And though love cannot protect them from vengeful enemies or the fires of change raging across the land, it may give them the strength to face an uncertain future, and—in the midst of tragedy—the courage to begin anew.
“A poignant, touching story that will bring tears to your eyes! Rosanne Bittner proves time and time again that she is a master at her craft!” —Literary Times
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February 1854 ...
"Keep her steady into the wind!"
Will Lassater was sure the captain's shouted order had been lost in the roaring storm. He clung to the rail of the Dutchess Dianna as the worsening tempest tossed the 300-ton vessel about like a rowboat. Although it was only early afternoon, the clouds had blackened the sky to near darkness, and the violent deluge had hit suddenly as the ship rounded the Horn. In spite of his powerful grip and logger's strength, Will could barely hang on enough to prevent himself from being tossed overboard.
Until now, the weather through the South American seas had been tranquil and delightful, and they'd reached the tip of the continent yesterday. Now Will was worried he would lose not only the precious cargo of lumber he had intended to sell in California, but also his life.
Back in New England he had experienced many howling storms, but nothing like this, and at least then he had been on dry land. How would his mother and brother take the news of his death? Going to California to build a new lumber mill had been his father's dream before his own death a year earlier. Now it was up to Will to make that dream come true. He could not disappoint his family.
Another spray of ocean water nearly sent him overboard, and his thoughts turned to his mother, gentle, loving Ruth Lassater, who had sent him off with tears and prayers ... and with the precious wooden box that represented all the strength and dreams of her late husband, James Lassater. That little box was packed away in Will's gear. He would carry it to California, God willing, and it would be as though James Lassater were with him, helping him build the family business in a new land. The stories they had heard in Maine about the trees in California seemed farfetched, that they were too big for one man to fell. Will was going to find out if that was true.
For now, though, he would be lucky to survive this storm. The rugged Dutch flute that carried his valuable lumber and maple syrup was usually easy to manage, requiring only a sparse crew. At the moment those men were running in every direction, answering orders shouted into the wind by the ship's captain, David Eastman. Eastman had carried Lassater lumber to faraway ports for years. He had been highly respected and trusted by James Lassater, and now Will could only pray he was skilled enough to keep this ship afloat through what Will was convinced had to be the worst storm even the captain had experienced.
The wind roared in his ears, and salt water drenched him with such force, he could hardly find a moment to take a breath. He shivered from the cold, the wicked wind and rain penetrating the rubber slicker and hat he wore over his wool jacket. Somehow the rain had gotten down inside his rubber boots, and his feet were sloshing in cold water.
The ship groaned and tossed, and Will expected the lumber in its hull to burst through at any moment, breaking open a hole that would send them all to the bottom of the ocean. The biting wind numbed him; the rain that stung his face was mixed with snow and sleet. It was only by his own strength that he managed to hang on to the railing as another huge wave raised the ship's bow so high, he was sure it would flip over. Two sailors came sliding down the deck, screaming all the way, trying to grasp something to stop their descent. One was close enough for Will to reach out and grab.
"Hang on!" he shouted, clinging to the man's wrist. The second man kept sliding, and Will watched him roll up onto a stack of ropes, then fly over the top of the ship's railing and disappear. "Man overboard!" he screamed, still clinging to the first man, but his words were lost in the wind.
The ship crashed down, creaking and shaking as a wave passed under it, and the sailor Will had grabbed was flung forward. Will lost his grip, but the sailor had already grabbed hold of some rope that was wrapped around one of the masts. The ship tilted in the opposite direction, and Will began to slide past the sailor. This time it was the sailor who grabbed hold of Will, yelling at him not to let go. They grasped each other's wrists, and there was no time to wonder about the man who had gone overboard. It was impossible for any man to leave his post or let go of his security to try to go save another.
The rain continued to pour in windblown sheets, so violently that Will could not even see who he was holding on to. He guessed the sailor didn't know who he was either. The ship heaved again, and somewhere in the wind Will could hear Captain Eastman shouting more orders. He clung to the sailor, managing to crawl to the same rope and grab hold of it himself as the bow again crashed down.
By God's grace the ship held together, but it continued to pitch and roll, and Will closed his eyes and prayed. It was bad enough his mother had lost their father. He did not want her to get the news of her son's death also. He silently begged God to save the Dutchess Dianna and its cargo, not for the sake of wealth or his own neck, but for his mother.
There came a rumbling sound above the howling wind. Only seconds later a heavy barrel rolled toward Will and the man beside him as the bow again rose. "Look out!" he yelled, throwing himself over the sailor. He grunted when the barrel glanced off his shoulder and rolled on past, smashing against a post at the stern and spilling its contents of maple syrup. The syrup was quickly washed away as another roaring wave battered the deck.
Will rolled off the sailor, agonizing pain in his left shoulder.
"You all right?" the sailor shouted.
"Don't know," Will groaned. "I can hardly move my left arm."
"It's you! Mr. Lassater. I didn't know. My God, sir, you might have just saved my life. That barrel would have smashed into my head for certain." The sailor put an arm around Will and clung to him as yet another wave washed over them. "Can you hang on, Mr. Lassater?" the sailor shouted. "Your barrels of syrup must be coming loose. I'll go try to secure them."
"I'm all right, but to hell with the damn syrup! It isn't worth risking your life over." Will could barely see the man for squinting against the freezing rain.
"All part of the job, Mr. Lassater. You've got cargo on board that's damn valuable in California."
The sailor left Will before he could answer. Will watched him stumble and crawl and grab on to things as he made his way toward the bow. He disappeared in another wave, and Will ducked his head against the pummeling water. When he looked up again, he could barely see the sailor maneuvering himself around the barrels tied at the bow. Will had had the cargo area of the Dutchess Dianna packed so solidly with lumber and even more syrup, there had been no place else to put the extra barrels.
"Damn!" he muttered. If the rest of the barrels broke loose, more men could be hurt. He struggled against the raging wind, making his way forward in spite of the wild heaving of the ship. Fierce pain shot through his left shoulder when the ship tossed him against a mast, and it took him a minute to recover his balance. The ship's quartermaster appeared out of nowhere then, grabbing hold of him.
"You should be down in your cabin, Mr. Lassater!"
"I'm not going to let the rest of you risk your lives for my cargo without helping!" Will shouted in answer. "Help me forward so I can help that sailor up there secure those barrels of syrup."
The quartermaster obeyed, and the two men hung on to each other as they made the precarious walk to the bow.
"I cannot stay with you!" the quartermaster shouted in his Scottish accent.
"Go ahead and do what you have to do! I'm all right!"
Both men's faces ran with rain, and Will could feel more rain trickling down his back inside his shirt. "Throw me that rope!" he shouted to the sailor who was already tying more ropes around the barrels.
The sailor obeyed, and Will ran it around the barrels. He handed it back to the sailor, who had crawled across the tops of the barrels to the other side. He had already managed to tie one rope with no help, but with Will there it could be done much faster. Will ignored the pain in his shoulder and grabbed yet another rope. The sailor climbed back to the left of the barrels and tied it securely to a huge eyebolt in the side of the ship. He crawled back over the barrels while Will wrapped the rope around them, then handed it back up to him. The ship heaved mightily again, and Will slipped, crying out when he landed on his injured shoulder. He slid back down toward the stern, but managed to grasp the corner of a secured storage chest. He clung to it, amazed by the power of the storm, even more amazed that the Dutchess Dianna still had not broken apart.
"You're going below whether you like it or not!" came a voice near him. He looked up to recognize the red jacket of the sailor who had helped secure the barrels. He wondered how the man could stand to be out in this cold rain without a slicker, but he figured he must be accustomed to such weather and predicaments. As for himself, Will was beginning to wish he had tried the jungles of Panama rather than sailing the Horn, and he decided that if he ever went back home, that was the route he would take. Or he would take a wagon across the American plains and risk being killed by Indians. Anything but this.
He tried to protest as the sailor steered him toward the door that led to the quarters below, but because of the pain in his shoulder, he couldn't do much struggling. "I want to stay up top and help!" he shouted.
"You're just distracting the rest of the men," the sailor told him. "They feel responsible to protect you. After all, it's your cargo we're carrying, Mr. Lassater. You might say we're protecting our wages."
They both clung to the railings as they half stumbled down the stairs. "And here I thought you were being a good samaritan," Will said.
The sailor laughed, something Will was surprised he could do in the midst of such anger. "Not on your life," he answered. He guided Will to his cabin, and by the light of a madly swinging oil lamp, Will could finally see the man's face. After three months of sailing with these men, he knew each one of them well, and had a pretty good idea which sailors were the best and most dependable. This was one of them.
"Derek Carlson," he said. "You big Swede. I wasn't even sure who was helping me out there."
The ship rolled again, and Will caught hold of a support post with his right arm. Derek let go of him and clung to the doorsill. "You stay put till the storm is over, Mr. Lassater."
"I think by now you can call me Will."
"No matter at the moment. I'm going back up top. Soon as this storm is over we'll take care of that shoulder."
Before Will could reply, the man disappeared. The ship pitched again. Will kept his arm wrapped tightly around the post as he slid to the floor to sit down and ride out the storm. He hoped California was as peaceful and warm and beautiful as others had told him it was. "And those trees had better be as big as they say," he muttered, "after going through all of this to get there."
At the moment he wished he were back in Maine in his parents' mansion, sitting by the hearth in his father's study, drinking good whiskey with his brother Gerald and smoking his pipe. At twenty-nine, Gerald was four years older than Will. He looked just like their father with his dark hair and eyes. He stood six feet two inches tall, broad-shouldered from years of wielding axes and saws. Everyone told Will that he looked more like their mother, with his sandy hair and blue eyes, but he stood nearly six feet tall himself and was even burlier than Gerald, something he liked to tease his brother about. It was all in good fun, for they were very close, and had grown even closer since their father died and the running of the mill had fallen into their hands.
Will had planned to marry and settle in Maine once. It still hurt some to think of Helen. He had loved her, but she had drowned at sea on her way home from a trip to Europe to visit relatives. Now he understood more than ever how awful it must have been for her. It had been equally awful for him and for her family, not having a body to bury. Would he die the same way? How ironic that would be, and how terrible for his brother and his mother.
He hung on for dear life as the ship rolled and pitched again, and water seeped under his door and dripped through the ceiling above.
Will awoke to the sight of a blue sky outside the tiny window of his cabin. He was lying on his cot, still fully dressed, even to his slicker and boots. It took him a moment to remember how he had gotten there and why he had slept so hard. He shifted on the cot, gasped at the pain in his left shoulder. The rest of his body also ached, especially his right arm, from hanging on to the post for hours until the storm finally abated. He had stumbled to his cot, managed some sleep.
He looked around the tiny room. Only three private cabins were available on the cargo ship — one for the captain, one for the first mate, and one for any guest of the captain or a special passenger. The rest of the men slept in three-tier bunks in the hole, and ate in shifts in the ship's small kitchen. Will and the captain and first mate took their meals in the captain's cabin, which was the largest.
Now Will felt guilty for having nicer quarters than the sailors, who had struggled so valiantly the night before to save the ship and his cargo of lumber and syrup. One man had lost his life, maybe more by now, for all he knew.
He winced as he sat up and rubbed his shoulder, then rather gingerly stretched and bent his left arm. In spite of the pain, he could raise it, and he determined he must have a bad bruise, but probably nothing was broken. He closed his eyes and breathed a prayer of thanks, then removed his boots and stood up to take off his slicker. Everything underneath was still wet, and although every movement hurt him, he knew he had to get into dry clothes. He stripped down and threw the wet clothes in a corner, then hung his wool jacket over the back of a chair to dry out. He shivered in his nakedness and quickly grabbed a pair of clean long johns from his bag and pulled them on.
After throwing some wood in the small heating stove, he poured lamp oil over it from a large bottle kept in a secured compartment on the wall. He was glad to see that the oil had stayed put in the storm, and that the stove had not fallen apart. He lit the oil and closed the door, opening the damper all the way so that the wood would burn hard at first and quickly create hot coals.
Just as he grabbed a flannel shirt from his bag, someone knocked at his door. He got his right arm in the sleeve and opened the door, grimacing as he put his left arm in the other sleeve. Captain Eastwood stood outside the door with Derek Carlson.
"My sailor here says you were hurt last night," the captain said. "I came to see how you were doing. Derek was also concerned."
Will studied their faces, seeing the terrible weariness in their eyes. "I think I'm okay. Just bruised."
Derek put out his right hand. "You saved my life, Mr. Lassater."
Will guessed the sailor was about the same age as himself. He was a few inches taller than Will, and he seemed as broad as he was tall. His white-blond hair spilled in long waves around his ruddy, rather homely face. Will shook his hand, noticing the strength in the man's grip.
"And you saved mine, as well as my barrels of syrup," he answered. "I'm grateful for that, and I do wish you would call me Will." He looked at the captain. "I wonder if I could have a minute alone with Derek."
"Just as long as you're sure you're all right, Mr. Lassater. I do have a lot of things to do this morning, lots of things to be repaired. We're in the clear now, and from here on the weather should be good. It won't be long before we come into some warm Pacific winds. We'll make good time then, and we'll be out of this cold."
"Sounds damn good to me," Will said.
The captain looked at Derek. "Don't be too long. There's a lot of cleaning up to do, sailor."
"Yes, sir," Derek answered.
The captain left, and Will ushered Derek inside. He sat down on his cot and offered Derek the only chair in the room. Derek had to bend his head a little to keep from bumping it on the low ceiling. He sat down, and Will noticed he still wore the red jacket, which was so wet that Will could smell the wool. "I want to thank you again, Derek, for helping me. And I want to ask you if you're completely happy working on a ship."
Derek frowned. "Why would you ask that, Mr. — I mean, Will?"
Will grinned. Derek was known to the crew as an open, honest man who simply did as he was told. He was big and strong and a hard worker, never complaining.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Forever Tree"
Copyright © 1995 Rosanne Bittner.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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