It was said by the good people of Franklin Ridge, in the Colony of New Jersey, that Patrick Devane was the angriest man in four counties and on that December morning he did nothing to dispel the notion.
His housekeeper Mrs. O'Gorman dabbed at her rheumy eyes with a wrinkled handkerchief. "'Tain't my fault, sir," she said through loud sniffles. "The child's willful as her mother and there wouldn't be a thing I could do to stop her."
"The child is six years old," Patrick snapped. "She requires a firm hand and a watchful eye, two things you are unwilling or unable to provide."
Mrs. O'Gorman's expression shifted from lugubrious to sly. "And a child needs a father, if I may be so bold, and it seems to me you been one in name only."
"Enough!" His roar rattled the walls. "You'll be out of my house by nightfall."
"And I'll be thanking the Almighty for that," Mrs. O'Gorman said, thrusting her chins at him. "I'd rather be workin' for Fat George in London than spend another day in this terrible place."
"Take care, woman, or I'll see that you get your wish." Mrs. O'Gorman, no longer concerned with employment, was a woman unleashed. "'Tain't my wish that's comin' true, mister. 'Tis yours. The child is gone--just the way you wanted it--and if she has the sense of a May fly, she won't be back here where she ain't wanted."
With that the woman stormed from the library.
He swore softly at her retreating back. The truth ofttimes carried with it a scorpion's sting.
He'd heard them whispering belowstairs. How his cold heart had driven his warm-blooded wife into the arms of another man. And the way he treated the child was cause for scandal. He kept her clothed, fed, and sheltered as was his duty as a Christian man. And now he would see to her education, as well. More than that he could not be asked to provide.
"'Tisn't natural to treat your own flesh and blood this way," Mrs. O'Gorman had said to her cronies the other day when she thought he could not hear. "All that money and not an ounce of warmth in his black heart."
"My papa is the best man in the world," Abigail had declared, biting Mrs. O'Gorman in her plump forearm.
Mrs. O'Gorman had tried to shake her off but the child clung to her prey like a hound to a fox and it had taken three servants to finally pull her away.
"Poor little thing," Rosie, the scullery maid, had whispered loud enough to be heard in Trenton. "Him always treatin' her like a poor relation when it's his fault she's the way she is."
Abigail had rewarded the girl with a kick in the shins that had sent Rosie packing. If he did not put a stop to it, the child would drive every member of the staff from the house, nursing bite marks and bruises.
His hand had been forced and he was not ungrateful.
"This cannot go on, Abigail. Arrangements will be made for you to attend school in Boston."
"No!" Her gray eyes darkened like the sky before a storm. She had spirit, this child. He would grant her that. It would serve her well in the future since she had not been granted beauty. "You cannot make me!"
He chose to ignore the challenge. "The Girls School of the Sacred Heart is a fine place. They will teach you the things a young lady must know to make her way in the world." The things a mother would teach her daughter, if the mother had seen fit to stay.
Her plain little face crumpled beneath his gaze. So much power to have over one so small and defenseless. Better to break the cord between them cleanly and be done
"I hate you!" she cried when he informed her that the matter was closed to further discussion. "I hate you!"
"I don't doubt that," he'd said, turning away. "There is little reason for you to feel otherwise."
She lacked her mother's beauty, but she had her mother's spirit, that fiery temper and pigheaded stubbornness, and for a moment he'd felt a stab of dark emotion in the center of his chest.
How many nights had he stood over the child's bed, watching the way her tiny fists pumped the air as she slept? She's fighting the world, he'd thought as pride filled his heart. Same as he'd fought the world as he struggled his way out of poverty. The notion of life renewing itself suddenly made sense to him in a way he'd never imagined.
What a fool he'd been.
He had loved once and deeply and he would never love that way again. Few who knew him today would believe him capable of so tender a sentiment, but there had been a time when his bitter heart had known how sweet life could be. A time when all things had seemed possible, if only because he knew how to make dreams come true.
"I'll build you the grandest house in the thirteen colonies," he had promised Susannah in the throes of new love. "You'll have servants and fine gowns from Paris, everything your heart desires."
His dreams were as big and untamed as the country that had given him birth and with a woman like Susannah VanDorn by his side, there was nothing he couldn't do, no dream he couldn't make come true.
He'd built the house. He'd filled it with servants. He'd showered her with silk gowns and satin slippers and more love than any woman had ever known. For every dream he fulfilled, a new dream sprang to life, eager to take its place.
But those dreams were now long gone. Susannah had destroyed them the day she walked out the door and into the arms of another man.
The child. There is the child to consider. The child he had once believed the reason he had been put upon this earth. The sad-eyed little girl who looked to him to explain something even he didn't understand.
The truth was Abigail wasn't his child at all but the offspring of another man. Living proof that he'd been cuckolded, not just once but a multitude of times, by a wife as faithless as a stray cat.
"My parting gift," Susannah had called the revelation as she rolled her rings and earbobs in a long strip of velvet and tucked it into her satchel. "I had been with three other men the month she was conceived." Her full red lips curved upward in a smile. "The odds are not in your favor, my sweet."
He came close to murder that night. Blood lust flooded his brain, forcing out reason and sanity. With one blow he could snap her fragile neck and put an end to the pain and misery she'd caused him. Salvage what remained of his pride.
"Do it," she'd dared him, her eyes blazing. "Do it and pay for the action the rest of your pathetic life."
He'd let her live and regretted that decision every hour of every day since.
A man with a dead wife was an object of sympathy.
A man with a whore for a wife was an object of scorn.
He saw their looks each time her name was mentioned. He heard the whispers when they talked about the child. Pious, sanctimonious bastards, the lot of them, feigning concern when all they cared about was lively gossip for their parties. Martha Washington's latest haircomb or his miserable plight--it was all the same to the good people of Franklin Ridge.
He knew more about the lot of them than they could ever imagine. He knew the spies and the traitors, knew how many guineas it took to sway a man's devotion to a cause. Every man had his price, whether it be silver coins or the gold in a woman's hair. He made it his business to know what that price was.
He turned at the sound of Cook's voice in the doorway. Her full face was still flushed from the heat of the hearth fire. Her fingers, knuckles swollen with arthritis, twisted the coarse tan fabric of her apron.
"You wish something?" he asked. He saw to it that his tone did not betray his chaotic thoughts.
"The child," Cook said, meeting his eyes. "She missed the midday meal. William from the stables and my Joe are willin' to lead a search for the wee one."
"This is not the first time she has done this and it will not be the last."
"But the sun will set within the hour and--"
"I know when the blasted sun sets, woman! Do you take me for a fool?"
She was wise enough to keep her own counsel. "Begging your pardon, sir. 'Tis dangerous times and many's the innocent who comes to a bad end. We love her like she's one of our own.
And for all he knew, she just might be.
"Have William saddle my horse," he roared, tired of the censure in their voices. "I'll search for the blasted child myself."
And when he found her he would see that she was on her way to the Girls School of the Sacred Heart in Boston before the sun rose in the morning.
"I hate you!" Abigail Elizabeth Devane cried as she lashed out at Lucy with the toe of her leather boot. Her six year old heart was set upon murder. The doll's soft rag body tore at the seam beneath the right arm and a strip of pale green cotton poked through. Lucy was stupid, a baby's plaything, and Abby wasn't a baby any longer. That's what her father had told her that morning when he said that she was to be sent away to school near a place called Boston.
She reared back and kicked the doll again, harder this time. A rip opened up on Lucy's left leg. Wads of yellow checkered cloth bunched through the opening. Good! That was better than blood, better than big pieces of broken bone. She wanted to throw Lucy into the river and watch her sink. She wanted to toss the doll into the cooking fire in the kitchen of the big house and smell the stink of burning cloth.
Grabbing Lucy by the right arm she made to fling it against one of the big pine trees when she noticed that Lucy's head was hanging by a piece of yarn no thicker than a cat's whisker.
"Lucy!" All thoughts of violence forgotten, Abby clutched the doll to her breast and began to sob. The tears came all the way from the soles of her feet, big ugly gulps that would have embarrassed her had there been anyone around to hear. Big fat tears rolled down her dirty cheeks and she was glad there was no one there to see her wipe them away with the back of her arm.
The only person on earth who loved her was Lucy and see what she had done to her. Everything Abby had suspected about herself was true, every terrible thing she'd heard whispered when they thought she wasn't listening. She was as ugly of spirit as she was of face and even Papa was counting the days until she left for the Girls School of the Sacred Heart.
"If only the little one was pretty," Cook had said the other night as she stirred the stew pot bubbling in the grate. "Pretty makes up for a multitude of sins. That might warm his cold heart some."
But Abby knew she wasn't pretty. Her hair wasn't shiny like gold coins or red as the leaves that had fallen from the trees. It was mud brown, as ordinary as the day was long. And instead of eyes as blue as the sky, hers were round blots as grey and ugly as a rainy day. Was it any wonder Papa always looked away and frowned whenever she entered a room?
"I'm sorry, Lucy," she wailed, clutching the doll even tighter. She had a mean, wicked temper and now Lucy would be the one to pay the piper. It wasn't fair, it just wasn't--
She tilted her head to the left, listening. What a strange sound that was, a sputtering hiss that made her think of a big tomcat with his back arched, ready to fight. She knew a big snow storm was on its way but not even the winds that howled down from the hills made a nosie like that. Heart thudding inside her chest, she peered into the surrounding woods, afraid she might see a giant peering back at her with fire in his eyes.
Cook had told her a story about a ferocious mean giant who feasted on the bones of wicked Englishmen. Abby had the feeling a small girl from the colony of New Jersey would make a tasty morsel.
She waited, but the woods remained still and silent. The noise sounded again, louder this time, and Abby wished she'd stayed closer to home. Hunters trapped bear in these very woods. She tried to imagine what she would do if a snarling furry beast leaped out from behind a tree, ready to pounce. Maybe if she ran real fast she'd be able to make it back home before anything terrible happened to her
She tucked Lucy inside the front of her cotton dress and was about to hike up her skirts and run when she saw the most amazing, the most splendid sight in the world! There, dancing across the tops of the trees, was a big red ball, so big that it blotted out the sky. It moved slowly, hissing as it did, swinging a funny-looking basket beneath it.
She watched, awestruck, as the bright red ball seemed to dip toward her in salute, then suddenly caught a breeze and rose higher and higher until it didn't seem big at all any more.
"Oh, Lucy," she whispered, her temper and the frigid weather forgotten. "Did you ever see anything so beautiful?" It had hovered over the stand of pines just to the left of the clearing, as if beckoning her to jump in the basket and go off on a grand adventure. And she would have, too, if it hadn't floated away before she could run over and grab hold.
Short legs pumping fast beneath her skirt, she ran toward the trees. If the big red ball returned, she and Lucy would be there waiting and they wouldn't think twice before leaping aboard.
Papa would feel so bad that he'd forget all about that school in Boston and let her stay with him forever. And Mama would hear about her wondrous adventure and she would come back home to stay and the big white house would be filled with laughter the way it used to be.
It wasn't like Dakota had never been in a ridiculous situation before.
Just two months ago she'd accepted a blind date with the son of her mother's favorite tarot card reader from South Jersey, a guy named Brick who sold vinyl siding for a living and had all the creative imagination of his namesake. They'd spent a terrific hour and a half discussing the relative merits of faux cedar shakes before Dakota developed a sudden headache and had to cut the evening short.
"You didn't give him a chance," her mother had said in an exasperated tone of voice. "Elly read his palm a week ago Thursday and she swears she saw your name scrawled across his life line."
Which didn't surprise Dakota. Her name was scrawled across the life line of every loser on the Eastern seaboard. As bad as that blind date had been, nothing--not even the time she'd trailed toilet paper from the ladies room at the swanky Palmer Inn--was worse than this.
You didn't need psychic powers to know nothing good ever happened when you threw fate a curve ball. Her destiny was clearly tied up with Andrew and Shannon's. She'd been fading away like a ghost in an old B-movie and she had no doubt she would have vanished into thin air in another moment if she hadn't managed to scramble aboard with Andrew's help. Climbing into that gondola had been the equivalent of psychic CPR.
She glanced at her hands. She couldn't see through them. That had to be a good sign. Wherever she was, she was solidly connected. But where was she? Where were Andrew and Shannon? And, even more important, when were they?
Her stomach lurched as she remembered the sickening sound the basket made as it scraped the tops of the trees and the look of fear in Shannon's eyes.
"They're fine," she mumbled. Their destiny had never been in doubt. She was the one who'd been heading home with a bag of jelly donuts, only to find herself propelled headlong through time.
You panicked, kiddo. The second that balloon tilted, you were ready to bail out.
"Ridiculous!" She'd heard that little girl as clearly as she heard her own voice and something, some suppressed maternal instinct, had taken over and forced her to leap from the basket.
You leaped just before it went down, Wylie. You'd have been something on the Titanic.
So she was an idiot. Big deal. A few crossed neurons and she'd conjured up a lost little girl that only Dakota Wylie, Super Librarian, could rescue.
Now, there she was, a good twenty feet off the ground, clinging to the branch of a maple tree that didn't look strong enough to support a bluejay, much less a plump American woman who believed in physical exertion only at gunpoint.
Of course there was always the remote possibility that some kind soul with a reinforced aluminum ladder would come strolling through the woods in search of a damsel in distress.
Why on earth had she eaten that last raspberry jelly donut anyway? Those few ounces of fat and sugar might be enough to send her crashing to the ground. She shifted her weight over to what she prayed was a sturdier limb.
The branch creaked loudly in protest but it held and she breathed a huge sigh of relief. Somebody should invent a way to determine these things without offering yourself up as a human sacrifice.
As it was, if the fall didn't kill her, the weather might. The dark, jagged cloud cover that had rocked the gondola was gone now, replaced by heavy cream-colored skies that promised snow. Lots of it. Goosebumps marched up and down her arms and her teeth chattered from the cold. Her t- shirt and jeans weren't going to cut it for very long.
Now you've done it, Wylie. Leave it to you to screw up the forces of destiny.
She clung to the branch as a furious blast of wind shook the maple. Maybe she wouldn't have to worry about climbing down from the tree. Another icy gust like that and she'd drop to the ground like an overripe peach. She longed for a down-filled jacket and fur-lined boots. Hard to believe last night she'd been praying for central air-conditioning.
So now what, hotshot? How are you going to get out of this one?
What if she'd jumped out during the Seventies and was being condemned to a lifetime of disco music and platform shoes? She'd need a shoehorn to get her hips into one of those slinky polyester dance dresses, the kind that required lots of attitude and breasts that saluted the sun.
Well, there was no hope for it. She couldn't hang there like a bat for the rest of her natural life. Those snow clouds lowering overhead meant business and if she was going to find shelter before nightfall, she'd better get to it.
In the next tree a woodpecker tapped relentlessly against the hard wood. The machine gun rat-a-tat-tat provided a counterpoint to the din of two jays squabbling overhead. Another, sweeter sound floated up toward her. "Oh, Lucy...it was so beautiful!" A child's voice, high and clear.
"Hello!" she called out. "Is somebody there?"
She waited, listening to the quality of the silence. Was she crazy or was it different than it had been a few moments ago?
"I heard you," she continued, trying to sound as friendly as the circumstances would allow. "Don't be shy. I need your help." And I need it now.
She waited, scarcely breathing, as the branch she clung to creaked ominously. Finally she heard the crunch of frozen leaves underfoot as a little girl of no more than five or six stepped into the clearing.
Her brown hair was plaited into two uneven braids that drooped over narrow shoulders. She wore a heavy woolen cloak that brushed her ankles and leather slippers that had seen better days. The cloak was unfastened and Dakota spied a plain cotton dress, faded from many washings. There was nothing of the 20th century about the child.
Was this the little girl she'd heard just before she leaped from the gondola? She waited for the stirring of her blood, the rush of excitement that always accompanied a leap into another person's mind but there was none.
The girl's narrow face was pale, her nose unremarkable; the last time Dakota had seen eyes that wide and round was at a revival of Annie. The child was a little slip of a thing with an air of sadness about her that Dakota could feel in her very bones without benefit of psychic help. A coincidence, she thought, looking away. The woods were probably lousy with kids. Just because the Little Matchgirl down there had popped up right on cue, didn't mean she had anything to do with Dakota.
This couldn't be her destiny. Kids weren't part of her karma.
She'd known that since she was fourteen years old, and she'd be willing to bet that not even the fact that she'd barreled through time like a human cannonball could change that fact.