What came to be Scarlett Elizabeth Dahlia had been found under a tree by a river one scorching August day. She was found by her adoptive parents, Cynthia and Mason Sterling. Later Mason told his friends that he and Cynthia would have ridden right past if the baby had not been screaming at the top of her little lungs. The tree was far enough off the path that the basket in which the baby lay could not be seen, and the steady clop clop of the horse’s hooves on the hard gravel made enough noise. But screaming she was and had been for some time, it seemed, for by the time they had reined their horses in and dismounted, the baby’s face was a bright, furious red. Scarlet, thought Cynthia, before scooping the baby from the basket and holding her close.
“Mason, she’s burning up!” Cynthia said and looked at her husband who was standing at arm’s length. “The river! Mason! Your jacket!”
Mason looked down at his waistcoat, which had cost a pretty penny and with which he was loth to part. “My jacket…”
“Quick!” Cynthia cried. The little thing in her arms was burning up, and he was just standing there! If she could count on him not to just drop the poor child she would have done it herself by now.
With some reluctance, Mason dragged the jacket from his shoulders and went to the riverbank. Crouching, he held one sleeve and tossed the rest of the coat into the water, looking resigned as the water turned its light blue to dark. Hauling it back in, he carried it to her and held it out.
Cynthia took the sodden jacket and wrapped it around the baby before bathing its tiny brow with a sleeve. “There, there, you poor little thing! It’s okay, it’s okay, shhh…”
After a while, the scarlet color of the baby’s skin began to calm to its natural shade, and she began to quiet, looking at the two strangers with wide eyes. Those eyes in that moment melted both their hearts.
They searched dutifully for the baby’s parents as they cared for her, but every inquiry they made was done with a hope for its failure. In this they were diligent, for they were good folk and did not wish to steal the child of another. As time went by, and the little girl grew, little by little, their search tapered to nothing.
Though her color had faded, the name stuck, and Scarlett became a permanent member of Mason and Cynthia Sterling’s world. They were both overjoyed. After years of fruitless(but enjoyable) years trying to have their own children, they had begun to accept that there would be no pitter-patter of little feet for them. Now Scarlett, who was just learning to walk, filled their house with the sounds of youth.
And what a house it was! The Sterling estate was not the biggest or the richest, but to a child Scarlett’s size, it went on for what seemed like miles, and she never forgot it. The slaves adored her and would often comment on how she was “jus’ cute as a li’l button” when she came toddling their way. Mason and Cynthia were delighted with her, and the speed with which she learned. She did not speak as often as some children, but the insight she demonstrated in what she did say never ceased to amaze Mason.
As she grew older, she would often stand for long periods of time perfectly still holding on to two rails on her own little balcony, looking at all the world she could see. From there, she could see over the lawn and the slave quarters, and into the fields beyond where the slaves worked. The Sterling estate grew some of the best cotton for miles around, and the slaves took great pride in that fact.
As the little girl continued through adolescence, her curiosity seemed to grow with her. One night, she began to wonder, then ask about herself, as all children do. Mason and Cynthia were taken by surprise by the question and before they could consult with each other on the subject or plan what to say, Mason blurted out the truth. Scarlett’s whole world fell apart. She was nothing more than a throwaway. Discarded trash that had been left for the scavengers to find.
Nobody, not even Scarlett herself, knew that as she lay beneath the tree that hot August day, she had sustained permanent brain damage. Deep within the gray matter of her mind, something had gotten hot enough to rewire itself and was just waiting for something else to activate it. In the trauma of learning her origins, this new connection had lit up and changed Mason and Cynthia’s little girl forever.
That night, there was a fire in the Sterling Manor. A modern fire inspector would have looked upon it with great suspicion, for it started at the door of the master bedroom, on a hardwood floor, with no natural tinder. The sleeping Mason and Cynthia Sterling were dead of asphyxiation long before they were consumed by flames, along with the rest of their house. The slave quarters started to burn as well but were caught in time and the fire extinguished. The main house was a total loss.
Only Scarlett survived. One of the slaves found her, dry eyed, at the edge of the lawn, watching the fire burn. The slave spoke, and Scarlett turned to her, but not before the woman saw the savage expression of satisfaction on the girl’s face turn into tears as fake as she had ever seen. The slave woman never spoke of it to anyone, but she was sure she had seen the devil.
In the following weeks, the Sterling estate was dismantled and parceled out to the highest bidders. Slaves were sold and the property went for a staggering sum after a fierce auction. What little was not destroyed in the fire was included in the auction. Scarlett Sterling, not yet seventeen years of age, had inherited a fortune.
As the only remaining Sterling, Scarlett could have stayed and used the money to rebuild, but she had no interest in staying. While the estate of her so-called parents was divided, she had been staying in an orphanage. The other girls had been leaving her alone to grieve her loss, which suited her just fine. She used the time to plan. She would lie about her age and get as fine a house as she could with what she received from the sales, and start a new life. She was frightened but determined.
When she found out about Dahlia Manor, everything changed.