Chapter 1 Excerpt
The morning mist had almost lifted in the village of Stanishire, the farmers and fishermen
were readying the market, women were shouting chores to sleepy children, and Aoife was on her
way to collect her father from the town brothel, where the painted ladies entertained men’s
When she reached the main street, she dismounted and tied her horse to a hitching post.
She walked around the corner of the brothel where no one could see her, adjusted her skirt, and
ran her fingers through her hair. Practice had taught her how to jiggle the finicky latch so its
reluctant grip released and granted her entrance. The back hallway was dark and quiet. Maggie,
the young girl who helped cook and clean, was opening windows to release the sweat and
perfume-laced air. Broken glass littered the floor, and cards from unfinished games lay scattered
“Maggie,” Aoife whispered.
Maggie turned into the dust motes in a sliver of daylight. Over the years, Aoife had
learned to call her gently and not to sneak up on her lest she startle the young girl as she had
done the first time they met here when Aoife was eleven and Maggie just nine.
“Eeeeef-uh!” Maggie’s eyes lit up as she called Aoife’s name. She had always over-
enunciated each syllable in what sounded like a sigh of relief.
She took hold of Aoife’s hand, pulling her around the corner and into the kitchen, one of
the only places in the residence that passed for a respectable room.
“Wait here,” Maggie said, kissing Aoife on the cheek. “I’ll be right back.”
Aoife looked around at the pots hanging on the wall that Maggie kept so shiny. A rolling
pin on the counter was coated with flour and the smell of bread baking in the oven filled the
dimly lit room. In the corner was Maggie’s chair with a basket of women’s stockings waiting to
be darned. Aoife turned her back to the parlor door and everything that happened there,
pretending her visits with Maggie by the fire were no different than a visit with any other village
girl. The sight of Maggie humming as she patched up stockings always made Aoife think of her
younger sister, Tara, lying under her heavy blankets, sewing away at some pattern their mother
had her working on. Aoife felt that Tara and Maggie would have enjoyed chatting over their
sewing, if only Tara were not stuck in bed with a perpetual cough and Maggie the progeny of a
“Aoife. You look quite bright and alive considering the early hour.”
Aoife jumped as Maeve strolled over and pulled a leaf from Aoife’s hair.
“I see you’ve been busy with your studies,” Maeve added.
Aoife touched her hair, searching for more debris. Maeve’s dressing gown exposed her
cleavage and her long, dark curls draped over her bare shoulders without apology. Aoife had
seen her dressed, powdered, and painted since she was a girl, and she admired the way her gaze,
so piercing, seemed to command respect from everyone. But what had captivated Aoife the most
was something more powerful and more impressive than Maeve’s beauty. Although crow’s feet
now punctuated her eyes, and her waistline had thickened, the most powerful men deferred to
her, bowing their heads in her direction when she traveled through the streets.
“I couldn’t resist the path through the woods,” Aoife replied, knowing she could hide
nothing from her.
Maeve stared at her. The affection in her appraisal was always slightly distant, stopping
just short of motherly.
“Seamus is taking care of things,” Maeve said with her usual calm.
Aoife nodded and looked again at the shiny pots, trying to focus on anything but Seamus’
highly embarrassing ritual of waking her father, the fairly infamous Finnegan, from wherever he
had ended his evening and saddling him on his horse. Maggie pulled a loaf of steaming bread
from the oven and set out plates, knives, and a bowl of fresh butter. Each of them took their place
around the table as Maggie generously portioned out the bread. Maeve let her shawl fall over the
back of her chair and straightened up her shoulders, exposing even more of herself. Aoife
flushed and bit quietly into her bread, savoring the flavor and the moment.
There was an honesty and warmth in this kitchen that she never felt in the presence of her
own mother. Conversation and warm bread was what made coming to get her father for all these
years worth the lashings she used to receive from her mother when she returned home.
“I hear that your latest suitor was seen heading out of town yesterday,” Maeve said. “I
gather his hasty departure means that there will be no nuptials?”
Aoife shook her head and cast a quick smile at Maggie.
“I can’t imagine why you didn’t want to marry that one,” Maeve said. “Lots of gold, a
manor house to the east with more land than you and your horse could ever discover, and
handsome, too. What more could a girl want than a man with piles of gold and a good set of
“A man who is blind and deaf and preferably feeble – with deep pockets, of course. Then
I can live my life in peace and never have to worry about his teeth – or mine for that matter.”
Maggie giggled, and Maeve raised an appreciative eyebrow, offering her signature half-
smile, half-smirk. Aoife grinned and took another bite of the steaming bread.
“And what do your parents say?” Maeve asked. Her features had softened, but her
thoughts remained inscrutable. “I can’t imagine they find your refusals as entertaining as we do.”
Aoife fell silent. This was an unexpected detour in the script. They avoided direct
references to Aoife’s family. It made breaking bread between them possible, since the money
Maeve took from Aoife’s father by night was one of the greatest strains on her family’s
resources, reputation, and love. The medicine that Tara often went without after her father’s
reckless trips was reason enough for Aoife to despise Maeve, but she had learned to avoid
dwelling on these realities. She needed Maeve enough to tolerate her father’s indiscretions, since
rescuing him had now become a means of escaping her life. Discussing her family jeopardized
“Well, no, they are not exactly pleased,” Aoife replied, her brashness fading.
Maeve wiped the corner of her mouth and cleared her throat. Something in the air had
“You know, at some point, perhaps sooner than you might expect, they will stop coming.
First, the young ones with stacks of gold and good teeth. They have the most fragile egos and
will seek out friendlier pastures. Then eventually, even the wrinkly ones, with and without gold,
will find calling on you not worth the effort,” Maeve paused. “The tales of your beauty will be
replaced by tales of new faces with more welcoming smiles. The choices left to you will be
The bread balled up in Aoife’s throat. She could have had breakfast in her own home if
she wanted this type of talk. She suddenly felt incensed that Madame Maeve dared to criticize
“My mother mires me in these traps daily,” Aoife dusted the crumbs from her hands.
“She appreciates neither the risk to my reputation I take coming here nor the fact that I am the
one who has run the farm for years now.”
“This is true. Your family would be in the poor house and your sister probably with God
if not for your courage and your brains,” Maeve said. “But I’m not talking about them. I’m
talking about you and your future. You must understand that there are consequences for you,
whether you say yes or no to the suitors who come your way.”
She raised an eyebrow, which seemed loaded with a warning left to Aoife to decipher. It
had a familiar ring to it, like the warnings her mother made so often about the consequences of
Aoife’s trips to Maeve’s house.
“No respectable man will ever want to marry a girl who consorts with vile women, not
when he thinks he can pay a few coins for her instead,” her mother would say.
Her mother lived in such a dream world she did not recognize that Aoife was trying to
protect the family’s reputation and as much of their finances as was possible. Her mother worried
more about Aoife’s reputation than the food on the table and Tara’s medicine. And because of
that, a chasm had grown between them too deep to ever cross.
“My choices are just as narrow as every other girl’s. I know that,” Aoife said standing up
abruptly. Her shawl dropped to the floor, its power to protect her no match for the storm brewing
in the kitchen. “But I’d never compromise myself – or give men control over my body for money
like you do. Of that you can be sure.”
“I wasn’t suggesting that,” Maeve replied, completely unruffled. “But it’s interesting that
you did. And, Aoife, no matter what choice you make – your husband’s house, my house, or the
nunnery – you are exchanging control over your body for money. Of that you can be sure.”
“I have given half my life already to protecting my family. Everyday, whether I’m seeing
that fields are reseeded and sheep are sheared or carting my father home from here, I am picking
up the pieces of my family’s fortune that my father has broken apart,” Aoife said with less
command of her voice than she would have liked. “And now, after I’ve done everything I can to
save this family, they – and you – expect me to sell myself off to the next buyer, supposedly to
protect them? I can’t do it.”
Aoife knew there was no way for a woman to survive in the world without the protection
of a man, yet the security they offered was never guaranteed. Her father’s choices still chipped
away at the pieces of what was once her mother, Bronagh. Still bedecked in the jewels of their
courtship, she found her only solace and comfort in embroidering ornate and regal designs and
patterns by the night fire, awaiting his return from Maeve’s as if her delicate hands could
somehow stitch back together the girl he had unraveled and the lives he had torn apart at the
seams. Bronagh would not even consider selling her tapestries or needlework to help support her
family, for that would have been beneath a woman of her status. Aoife, however, was not built to
sit and sew while their fortune and Tara’s health deteriorated at the hands of her father. She
needed to be on her feet fixing the problem, not decorating the home they were sure to lose if no
Bronagh had traded away her soul for a broken promise of safety and love, and she
expected Aoife to do the same. But now Maeve, too? Her advice was nothing less than a
“For women not made to curtsey obediently through life, there is no easy choice.” A
subtle urgency belied Maeve’s calm. “However, refusing every suitor is not a means of
controlling your life, but rather giving over control to whatever or whomever is left over.”
“So I should marry the next man who comes along or end up in a whore house like you?”
Aoife said, wincing at her angry words.
She was angry that Maeve had taken her mother’s side, but she did not relish wounding
the one person who had always been a source of strength and understanding. Despite her words,
Maeve’s features revealed not even the slightest hint of hurt.
“What I am saying is that you ought to turn away any option which would leave you
without hope of peace and contentment,” Maeve replied. “But do not fool yourself into waiting
for a perfect choice to present itself, because it never will.”
Aoife felt her stomach lurch. She needed to get away from this house, this woman, and
the truth. Turning around, she marched outside where her father was standing. She walked to her
horse and looked to see if he needed assistance. The legacy of too much mead weighed on his
haggard figure as Seamus helped him to his horse.
“I’m so sorry to have inconvenienced you this morning, my sweet Aoife,” her father’s
worn voice eschewed sadly.
“I know, father,” she replied. “You’re always sorry.”
He swayed precariously in either direction and then took Aoife’s hand suddenly.
“You’re too good to me, Aoife,” he whispered. “You should be reaching for the–”
“Stars,” she finished. “I know, Father.”
He closed his eyes and pressed her hand between his.
“My hand’s grown since we spent our nights stargazing.”
He nodded and Aoife felt a pang of nostalgia sweep over her. She missed the way he used
to pick her up from her mother’s side by the fire and take her out of doors to look at the moon
and stars. The memory of the polished scent of him from her childhood came back over the
stench of mead that clung to him now. He had been a good father once upon a time. She looked
up, searching for any fragment of the man who tossed her high in the air as a little girl. The
sparkle of a tear danced at the corner of his eye. There he was. She kissed his forehead tenderly
and he sighed with the soft smile reserved only for Aoife. His favorite.