In a moment of desperation, Susannah Quinn stabbed her abusive husband. Believing she'd killed him and knowing that no one would likely believe how horrible he'd been to her, she took her three-year-old son, Corey, and fled to the small town of Angel's Valley in the Sierra Nevada foothills. There she's built a new life as a dressmaker and mostly keeps to herself, while trying to heal the wounds of the past. Then one day, a handsome stranger rescues her from the pawing hands of the town drunk. When he later shows up at her cabin, asking for work in exchange for food, she's wary of him, but eventually gives in. Susannah has never known any man to be kind, but when Nate is just that and more to both her and Corey, she can't help falling in love with him, but what will he think if she tells him the truth about her sordid past?
Nathan Wolfe never intended to become a bounty hunter, but after losing his family to marauding Indians, he's forgotten how to care. Desperately needing funds to fix up his ramshackle ranch, he accepted a job hunting down Susannah. Once he's found her, he has every intention of taking her back to Missouri, but something about her sweetness and vulnerability gives him pause. As he gets to know Susannah and her young son, he's reminded of what he used to have with his own family, and he finds himself growing to trust her. It's difficult to imagine her doing the things she's accused of, and he senses her fear, which makes him want to give her comfort. Together, they may find the love they both need to heal their wounds. But Susannah's brother-in-law, the man who hired Nate in the first place, will stop at nothing to find her, for she has two things that he desperately wants and believes belong to him.
Dancing on Snowflakes is the first book in one of Jane Bonander's frontier/western series. However, that series title seems to be strongly in question. Amazon has it listed as the Wolf McCloud series, while GoodReads calls it Blazing Frontier, and FictionDB says it's Indian Hearts. Take your pick, I guess. [Shrug] In any case, it's the emotional story of Susannah, a young mother who was severely abused by her husband whom she killed in self-defense. Knowing no one would believe her side of the story, she took her three-year-old son and fled to Nevada, where she's been trying to lay low, using her maiden name and telling the locals that she's waiting for her husband to return from the war. Our hero Nathan is, himself, a war veteran, who lost his wife and child to marauding Indians while he was serving. Needing money to fix up his ramshackle ranch on the California/Oregon border but not eager to return home because of the memories, he's been hiring himself out for odd jobs, the most recent of which is as a bounty hunter. He's been sent to find Susannah and bring her back to her ne'er-do-well brother-in-law, but from the moment he meets her, he senses that she's not all he was led to believe she is. As they spend time together, they begin to fall in love, but her greedy brother-in-law is still out for her blood along with certain things she took with her that he wants back.
The story opens with Susannah being physically and verbally abused by her drunken husband, Harlan. It's something she's put up with for years, but when he goes after their three-year-old son, Corey, something he's never done before, she can't allow him to hurt the little boy, so she stabs him with her sewing scissors. Believing him dead and certain that she'd lose her son or much worse if she stays, she flees for her life to Nevada, where she's been living a quiet, secluded life, working as a seamstress. However, her solitude is disrupted when Nathan, a handsome stranger, comes to her rescue one day when the town drunk starts pawing at her. Then he shows up at her cabin, offering to chop wood and later fix her porch in exchange for food. At first, she's reluctant to let him into her life, but she gradually comes to trust him and a bond begins to form between them. She's never known a man to be kind or gentle, so when she sees how good he is with Corey and how he treats her with respect, she can't help falling for him. But since she knows that her brother-in-law, Sonny, is still out there and probably looking for them, she plays things close to the vest. Susannah is a classic tortured heroine who slowly blossoms from a tightly closed bud into a fully formed flower under Nathan's tenderness. The only thing that gave me pause is that once Susannah is all in with Nathan, she never really wavers from that even when he starts to distrust her and is even rough with her a couple of times. It seems to me that a woman in real life who'd been through all that she had would probably have regressed under this treatment, so the fact that she didn't seemed a bit off to me. Otherwise, though, I really liked Susannah. Despite her tragic and abusive past, she's a good mother and kind to others, even those who society often wouldn't have accepted.
Nathan was a Union soldier during the Civil War, but now he's a broken man. While he was away fighting he received word that his beloved wife and child were killed by marauding Indians. Ever since, he's closed himself off and become a man for hire, taking on just about any job that pays well. This time, he's been hired by Sonny to track down Susannah. He knows that she supposedly killed her husband, but when he meets her, she seems so sweet it's hard to comprehend her doing what she's accused of. At first, he tries to tell himself that it's none of his business. It's just a job and he desperately needs the money. But as he sticks around her cabin, doing every odd job he can think of in order to stay longer, the more convinced he becomes that she isn't guilty. However, he struggles with the feelings he still has for his dead wife and child. Despite that, he eventually realizes he's fallen for Susannah, but before he can make an honest woman of her, he has to clear his debt to Sonny by paying back the advance he was given.
IMHO, Nathan was a very uneven character. During the first half of the story, I absolutely fell in love with him. He's tender and patient with Susannah, very intuitive of her past abuse even though she doesn't really say much about it and a gentle lover. He's also kind and fatherly toward Corey. Seeing how fearful Susannah is, he doesn't believe she's capable of murder, or if she did it, she had just cause. But after he goes off to earn the money to pay Sonny back and meets up with the guy, he suddenly starts buying into the pack of lies and half-truths that Sonny feeds him about Susannah. He's irrationally angry at her, thinking that she lied to him, when he, himself, lied to her as well, something that wasn't very well addressed. It was definitely a case of the pot calling the kettle black. In fact, he didn't even give her much of a chance to explain herself. Then when he reunites with her, he's rough with her for a short while, saying some pretty mean things, grabbing her chin hard enough to leave a bruise, and later having angry sexual contact with her that I feared might lead to rape. Thankfully it didn't, but I did start to lose some respect for him at this point. Then during the last few chapters, he magically goes back to being the tender, sweet Nathan from the first half of the book, which kind of gave me whiplash. I loved the beginning and ending Nathan, but I didn't really know who the guy in the middle part of the story was.
In addition to Nathan's odd behavior, there were a few other things that bugged me a bit. I was disappointed that Susannah never really tells Nathan a whole lot about her past. Most of his knowledge comes from his own intuition and later from him talking with her best friend, Louisa, who knew her while she was married to Harlan. Although I never really doubted Nathan and Susannah's emotional connection, I think it could have gone even deeper if they'd shared more about their respective pasts and sought comfort from each other in the moment. I also thought the story occasionally lacked focus, veering away to address other things, such as the fate of Nathan's family. The story he was told about their deaths turned out to be false, but the revelation never really went anywhere and as a result, I wasn't sure why it was included as it only distracted from the rest of the story.
However, the biggest issue I had with the book was the excessive use of racist language. This was extremely confusing to me, because the author includes people of color in supporting roles. Susannah's friend, Louisa, is black, and she also befriended Kito, the black smithy in Angel's Valley. These two characters end up having a secondary romance and are the only people Susannah really trusts. Later, we're also introduced to Wolf, a man of mixed white/Native American heritage who basically changes everything for Nathan in a good way and who he ends up hiring as a ranch hand. The author seemed to be giving these characters decent secondary storylines, but it all felt very backhanded because of the sheer volume of racial epithets that were uttered or thought throughout the story, sending deeply mixed messages. I can handle this if it's a book that is specifically addressing racial issues or if it's just a few times and being done by villainous characters, but when the heroic characters are saying these things, too, that's very problematic for me. IMHO, it simply wasn't necessary at all, and I don't believe I've ever read a book with this many instances of this type of foul language before. It got to the point that I was literally cringing at the offensiveness of it. If this wasn't bad enough, there were also ablest insults, when Louisa made a couple of biting comments toward Kito regarding his walking with a limp. I felt they were unnecessarily cruel, and it didn't make any sense to me that a woman who is romantically interested in a man would say something so terrible to him. Louisa was a very feisty and outspoken woman, but nothing would have been taken away from her character by eliminating these vicious words.
Ultimately I settled on a four-star rating for Dancing on Snowflakes but with strong reservations due to the racially charged language. If not for that, I could have seen the book possibly earning keeper status from me. Despite a few weaknesses in the story and characterizations, I generally liked both Susannah and Nathan. Their romance gave me all the feels I've come to expect from the genre, while the love scenes were tender and sensual. The book introduces two supporting characters who go on to get their own stories in the series. Wolf becomes the hero of the next volume, Wild Heart, and Nathan's son, Jackson, grows up to become the hero of the fourth and final book, Warrior Heart. I really liked both characters and a part of me would like to read their stories. However, in spite of that and my overall liking for this book, I'm sad to say that I honestly don't think I'm likely to continue the series or read any of the author's other work because of her excessive use of offensive racial slurs.
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