PrologueThe prince of darkness is a gentleman.
New England, 1835
Alex Stafford was just like Mama said. He was tall and dark, and Sarah had
never seen anyone so beautiful. Even dressed in dusty riding clothes, his
hair damp with perspiration, he was like the princes in the stories Mama
read. Sarah's heart beat with wild joy and pride. None of the other fathers
she saw at Mass compared to him.
He looked at her with his dark eyes, and her heart sang. She was wearing
her best blue frock and white pinafore, and Mama had braided her hair with
pink and blue ribbons. Did Papa like the way she looked? Mama said blue
was his favorite color, but why didn't he smile? Was she fidgeting? Mama
said to stand straight and still and act like a lady. She said he would like that.
But he didn't look pleased at all.
"Isn't she beautiful, Alex?" Mama said. Her voice sounded strange . tight,
like she was choking. "Isn't she the most beautiful little girl you've ever
Sarah watched Papa's dark eyes frown. He didn't look happy. He looked
angry. Like Mama looked sometimes when Sarah talked too much or asked
too many questions.
"Just a few minutes," Mama said quickly. Too quickly. Was she afraid?
But why? "That's all I'm asking, Alex. Please. It would mean so much to her."
Alex Stafford stared down at Sarah. His mouth was pressed tight, and he
studied her silently. Sarah stood as still as she could. She'd stared at herself
in the mirror so long this morning, she knew what he would see. She had
her father's chin and nose, and her mother's blonde hair and fair skin. Her
eyes were like her mother's, too, although they were even more blue. Sarah
wanted Papa to think she was pretty, and she gazed up at him hopefully. But
the look in his eyes was not a nice one.
"Did you pick blue on purpose, Mae?" Papa's words startled Sarah. They
were cold and angry. "Because it brings out the color of her eyes?"
Sarah couldn't help it, she glanced at her mother-and her heart fell.
Mama's face was filled with hurt.
Alex glanced toward the foyer. "Cleo!"
"She's not here," Mama said quietly, keeping her head high. "I gave her
the day off."
Papa's eyes seemed to get even darker. "Did you? Well, that leaves you in
a fix, doesn't it, darling?"
Mama stiffened, then bit her lip and glanced down at Sarah. What was
wrong? Sarah wondered sadly. Wasn't Papa happy to see her? She had been
so excited that she was actually going to be with him at last, even for a little
"What would you have me do?" Mama's words were directed at Papa, so
Sarah stayed silent, still hoping.
"Send her away. She knows how to find Cleo, I would imagine."
Pink spots appeared on Mama's cheeks. "Meaning what, Alex? That I
entertain others in your absence?"
Sarah's smile fell in confusion. They spoke so coldly to one another.
Neither looked at her. Had they forgotten she was there? What was wrong?
Mama was distraught. Why was Papa so angry about Cleo not being home?
Chewing her lip, Sarah looked between them. Stepping closer, she
tugged on her father's coat. "Papa ."
"Don't call me that."
She blinked, frightened and confused by his manner. He was her papa.
Mama said so. He even brought her presents every time he came. Mama
gave them to her. Maybe he was angry that she had never thanked him. "I
want to thank you for the presents you-"
"Hush, Sarah," her mother said quickly. "Not now, darling."
Papa flashed Mama a thunderous look. "Let her speak. It's what you
wanted, isn't it? Why are you shushing her now, Mae?"
Mama stepped closer and put her hand on Sarah's shoulder. Sarah could
feel Mama's fingers trembling, but Papa bent toward her now, smiling.
"What presents?" he said.
He was so handsome, just like Mama said. She was proud to have a
father like him.
"Tell me, little one."
"I always like the candies you bring me," Sarah said, feeling warm and
proud beneath his attention. "They are very nice. But best of everything, I
love the crystal swan."
She smiled again, glowing with joy that Papa listened to her so carefully.
He even smiled, though Sarah wasn't sure she liked his smile. It was small
"Indeed," he said and straightened. He looked at Mama. "I'm so pleased
to know how much my gifts mean."
Sarah looked up at her father, thrilled at his approval. "I put it on my
windowsill. The sun shines through it and makes colors dance on the wall.
Would you like to come and see?" She took his hand. When he jerked away,
she blinked, hurt, not understanding.
Mama bit her lip and reached out a hand toward Papa, then stopped
suddenly. She looked afraid again. Sarah looked from one parent to the
other, struggling to understand. What had she done wrong? Wasn't Papa
pleased that she liked his presents?
"So you pass on my gifts to the child," Papa said. "It's good to know what
they mean to you."
Sarah bit her lip at the coldness in Papa's voice, but before she could
speak, Mama touched her shoulder gently. "Darling, be a good girl and go
outside and play now."
Sarah looked up, distressed. Had she done something wrong? "Can't I
stay? I'll be very quiet." Mama couldn't seem to say more. Her eyes were
moist and she looked at Papa.
Alex bent down to Sarah. "I want you to go outside and play," he said
quietly. "I want to talk to your mother alone." He smiled and patted her
Sarah smiled, utterly enchanted. Papa had touched her; he wasn't angry
at all. He loved her! Just as Mama said. "Can I come back when you're done
Papa straightened stiffly. "Your mother will come and get you when she's
ready. Now, run along as you've been told."
"Yes, Papa." Sarah wanted to stay, but she wanted to please her father
more. She went out of the parlor, skipping through the kitchen to the back
door. She picked a few daisies that grew in the garden patch by the door and
then headed for the rose trellis. She plucked the petals. "He loves me, he
loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not" She hushed as she came
around the corner. She didn't want to disturb Mama and Papa. She just
wanted to be close to them.
Sarah dreamed contentedly. Maybe Papa would put her up on his shoulders.
She wondered if he would take her for a ride on his big black horse.
She would have to change her dress, of course. He wouldn't want her to soil
it. She wished he had let her sit on his lap while he talked to Mama. She
would have liked that very much, and she would have been no bother.
The parlor window was open, and she could hear voices. Mama loved
the smell of roses to fill the parlor. Sarah wanted to sit and listen to her parents.
That way she would know just when Papa wanted her to come back
again. If she was very quiet, she wouldn't disturb them, and all Mama would
have to do was lean out and call her name.
"What was I to do, Alex? You've never spent so much as a minute with
her. What was I to tell her? That her father doesn't care? That he wishes she
had never even been born?"
Sarah's lips parted. Deny it, Papa! Deny it!
"I brought that swan back from Europe for you, and you throw it away
on a child who has no appreciation for its value. Did you give her the pearls
as well? What about the music box? I suppose she got that, too!"
The daisies fluttered from Sarah's hand. She sat down on the ground,
careless of her pretty dress. Her heart slowed from its wild, happy beat.
Everything inside her seemed to spiral downward with each word.
"Alex, please. I didn't see any harm in it. It made it easier. She asked me
this morning if she was old enough yet to meet you. She asks me every time
she knows you're coming. How could I say no to her again? I didn't have the
heart. She doesn't understand your neglect, and neither do I."
"You know how I feel about her."
"How can you say how you feel? You don't even know her. She's a beautiful
child, Alex. She's quick and charming and she isn't afraid of anything.
She's like you in so many ways. She's someone, Alex. You can't ignore her
existence forever. She's your daughter"
"I have enough children by my wife. Legitimate children. I told you I
didn't want another."
"How can you say that? How can you not love your own flesh and
"I told you how I felt from the beginning, but you wouldn't listen. She
should never have been born, Mae, but you insisted on having your own
"Do you think I wanted to get pregnant? Do you think I planned to have
"I've often wondered. Especially when I arranged a way out of the situation
for you and you refused. The doctor I sent you to would have taken
care of the whole mess. He would've gotten rid-"
"I couldn't do it. How could you expect me to kill my unborn child?
Don't you understand? It's a mortal sin."
"You've spent too much time in church," he said derisively. "Have you
ever thought that you wouldn't have the problems you do now if you had
gotten rid of her the way I told you. It would've been easy. But you ran out."
"I wanted her!" Mama said brokenly. "She was part of you, Alex, and part
of me. I wanted her even if you didn't"
"Is that the real reason?"
"You're hurting me, Alex!"
Sarah flinched as something shattered. "Is that the real reason, Mae? Or
did you have her because you thought bearing my child would give you a
hold over me you otherwise lacked?"
"You can't believe that!" Mama was crying now. "You do, don't you?
You're a fool, Alex. Oh, what have I done? I gave up everything for you! My
family, my friends, my self-respect, everything I believed in, every hope I
"I bought you this cottage. I give you all the money you could possibly
Mama's voice rose strangely. "Do you know what it's like for me to walk
down the street in this town? You come and go when and as you please.
And they know who you are, and they know what I am. No one looks at
me. No one speaks to me. Sarah feels it, too. She asked me about it once,
and I told her we were different from other people. I didn't know what else
to say." Her voice broke. "I'll probably go to hell for what I've become."
"I'm sick of your guilt and I'm sick of hearing about that child. She's
ruining everything between us. Do you remember how happy we were? We
never argued. I couldn't wait to come to you, to be with you."
"And how much time do I have left with you today? Enough? You've
used it up on her. I told you what would happen, didn't I? I wish she had
never been born!"
Mama cried out a terrible name. There was a crash. Terrified, Sarah got
up and ran. She raced through Mama's flowers and across the lawn and onto
the pathway to the springhouse. She ran until she couldn't run anymore.
Gasping, her sides burning, she dropped into the tall grass, her shoulders
heaving with sobs, her face streaked with tears. She heard a horse galloping
toward her. Scrambling for a better hiding place in the vines about the creek,
she peered out and saw her father ride by on his great black horse. Ducking
down, she huddled there, crying, and waited for Mama to come fetch her.
But Mama didn't come and she didn't call. After a while, Sarah wandered
back to the springhouse and sat by the flowered vines and waited longer. By
the time Mama came, Sarah had dried her tears and dusted off her pretty
frock. She was still shaking from what she had heard.
Mama was very pale, her eyes dull and red rimmed. There was a blue
mark on the side of her face. She had tried to cover it with powder. She
smiled, but it wasn't like her usual smile.
"Where have you been, darling? I've been looking and looking for you."
Sarah knew she hadn't. She had been watching for her. Mama licked her
lacy handkerchief and wiped a smudge from Sarah's cheek. "Your father was
called away suddenly on business."
"Is he coming back?" Sarah was afraid. She never wanted to see him
again. He had hurt Mama and made her cry.
"Maybe not for a long time. We'll have to just wait and see. He's a very
busy and important man." Sarah said nothing, and her Mama lifted her and
hugged her close. "It's all right, sweetheart. You know what we're going to
do? We're going to go back to the cottage and change our dresses. Then we'll
pack a picnic and go down to the creek. Would you like that?"
Sarah nodded and put her arms around Mama's neck. Her mouth trembled,
and she tried not to cry. If she cried, Mama might guess she had been
eavesdropping and then she would be angry too.
Mama held her tightly, her face buried in Sarah's hair. "We'll make it
through this. You'll see, sweetheart. We will. We will."
Alex didn't come back, and Mama grew thin and wan. She stayed in bed too
late, and when she got up, she didn't want to go for long walks the way she
used to. When she smiled, her eyes didn't light up. Cleo said she needed to
eat more. Cleo said a lot of things, carelessly, with Sarah close enough to hear.
"He's still sending you money, Miss Mae. That's something."
"I don't care about the money." Mama's eyes filled up. "I've never cared
"You'd care if you didn't have any."
Sarah tried to cheer Mama up by bringing her big bouquets of flowers.
She found pretty stones and washed them, giving them to her as presents.
Mama always smiled and thanked her, but there was no sparkle in her eyes.
Sarah sang the songs Mama taught her, sad Irish ballads and a few Latin
chants from mass.
"Mama, why don't you sing anymore?" Sarah asked, climbing up onto
the bed with her and setting her doll in the rumpled covers. "You'll feel better
if you sing."
Mama brushed her long blonde hair slowly. "I don't feel much like
singing, darling. Mama has a lot on her mind right now."
Sarah felt a heaviness growing inside her. It was all her fault. All her fault.
If she hadn't been born, Mama would be happy. "Will Alex come back,
Mama looked at her, but Sarah didn't care. She wouldn't call him Papa
anymore. He had hurt Mama and made her sad. Ever since he'd left, Mama
had scarcely paid attention to her. Sarah had even heard Mama tell Cleo that
love wasn't a blessing, it was a curse.
Sarah glanced at Mama's face, and her heart sank. She looked so sad. Her
thoughts were far away again, and Sarah knew she was thinking of him.
Mama wanted him to come back. Mama cried at night because he didn't.
Mama pressed her face into her pillow at night, but Sarah still heard her
She chewed on her lip and lowered her head, playing distractedly with
her doll. "What if I got sick and died, Mama?"
"You won't get sick," Mama said, glancing at her. She smiled. "You're far
too young and healthy to die."
Sarah watched her mother brushing her hair. It was like sunshine flowing
over her pale shoulders. Mama was so pretty. How could Alex not love
her? "But if I did, Mama, would he come back and stay with you?"
Mama went very still. She turned and stared at Sarah, and the horrified
look in her eyes frightened her. She shouldn't have said that. Now Mama
might guess she'd heard them fighting
"Don't ever think that, Sarah."
"No! Don't you ever ask such a question again. Do you understand?"
Mama had never raised her voice before; Sarah felt her chin quiver. "Yes,
"Never again," Mama said more gently. "Promise me. None of this has
anything to do with you, Sarah." Mama reached out to pull her into her
arms and stroke her tenderly. "I love you, Sarah. I love you so much. I love
you more than anything or anyone in the whole wide world."
Except for him, Sarah thought. Except for Alex Stafford. What if he came
back? What if he made Mama choose? What would Mama do then?
Afraid, Sarah clung to her mother and prayed he would stay away.
A young man came to see Mama.
Sarah watched her mother speak with him while Sarah played with her
doll near the fireplace. The only people who came to this cottage were
Mister Pennyrod, who brought firewood, and Bob. Bob liked Cleo. He
worked at the market and teased Cleo about rump roasts and juicy legs o'
lamb. Cleo laughed at him, but Sarah didn't think he was very funny. He
wore a soiled white apron covered with blood.