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 seen?”
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 while....
“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.
“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 and tight.
“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 cheek.
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 talking?”
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 blood?”