For Papa, who is the most inspiring person I have ever known. I will love you always.
April 23, 1879; Ashford Residence, England
Light feet treaded cautiously over the carpeted floor, careful enough not to bump on anything in the darkness. The intruder blew a sigh of relief upon feeling the heavy velvet fabric of the curtains and, clenching a handful of the fabric, pulled it apart.
The morning rays filtered through the wide glass window and bathed the entire room along with the curled figure underneath the bed sheets in blinding sunlight. The sleeping girl moaned and struggled for her blanket against the insistent maid tugging at its end.
"Miss Franchesca, you have to wake up now!"
"Five more minutes. . ." was the lady's groggy reply.
"But Miss Franchesca! Your father wishes to speak to you now! Please get up! I've been told to help you dress immediately."
Franchesca opened her heavy eyes and squinted against the early morning light. Her mind began stirring as well against the heavy temptation of sleep. She eyed her handmaid Paige Simons for a moment and finally made efforts to rise from bed. Her bright red auburn curls rolled down to her shoulders as she sat up.
Of course she had to wake up, she thought, smiling in delight. It was the twenty-third of April—her birthday! She, Franchesca Marie Ashford, is finally eighteen!
The thought of the exciting celebrations propelled her to move quickly.
"Paige, where's Daddy?"
The young maid appeared from behind the closet holding up an emerald green dress. "He's in the dining hall, Miss."
"Paige Simons!" The red head pretended to look cross but broke down laughing with much excitement at her house help. "Have you forgotten what day it is? It's my eighteenth birthday! It's official! I am no longer a little girl, but a refined lady! Now those snobby adults would have to take me seriously! My coming out tomorrow would show them that!"
"Yes, you were always yearning for this day, weren't you, Miss Franchesca?" Paige muttered in good humor as she smoothed over the woman's rumpled bed sheets. She'd known Franchesca since they were children and knew of the lady's frustrations well when it came to being treated as a child just because of her status and gender.
Franchesca's head popped from behind the changing screen, smiling to show one perfect dimple on her left cheek. "Hmm . . . what do you think of the blue dress instead of the green one?"
"Whatever you like. I don't think I'm allowed to say that the blue has a more daring neckline than the green since green is your father's favorite." She said coyly. Franchesca laughed and threw the green dress on the carpeted floor.
"Isn't this wonderful, Paige? Think of all the privileges I am now allowed to do! What more, I don't have to go back to that dreadful finishing school! And no more governesses or an army of chaperones following my every step! I've been tortured enough to last me a lifetime!"
Paige smiled to herself, proceeding to tidy the army of bed pillows on the bed. She was in the process of fluffying the pillows when she uncovered a rather worn out book beneath the heap of pillows and tangled blankets.
Franchesca stepped out from behind the screen with a fresh glow about her. "Paige darling, can you be a dear and help me with my hair?" she requested sweetly, pointing to her flaming, tangled mess-of-a-hair. "Paige?"
"Pardon me, miss. It's your story book. I'll put it aside on the shelf right away."
"No, it's alright. Just put it there. I was reading it again last night." The young maid did as she was told and rushed to her lady's side to help perform a miracle to her hair.
"You've read that book a thousand times, miss. I'm beginning to suspect you've memorized the whole book already—word for word!" she joked, stroking the woman's red curls with a brush. She heard a dreamy sigh escape from Franchesca's lips.
"But isn't it just wonderful, Paige? I mean, think about it! A princess who meets her true love disguised as a ruthless pirate! Isn't it exciting? I so terribly want to go to sea and—and see the world's wonders with a sword on my hand and adventure before me!"
Franchesca smiled and inhaled deeply. She felt the maid tame the last few stray stands of hair with a clip on the back of her head.
"I'm not much of a risk taker as you are. All the things you said just spelled danger! But whatever, it's your birthday and Sir Frederick is waiting for you downstairs."
Franchesca smiled at her companion, said her thanks, and rushed to leave when Paige caught up with the date.
"Happy Birthday, Miss Franchesca."
The red head's smile was all she needed to know how much her words were appreciated. It was the lady's special day after all; nothing ought to ruin it!
Her father was already seated in his usual chair at the head of the dining table finishing the scraps of his breakfast when Franchesca arrived. Even at so early in the morning, he was already dressed in his impeccable clothes. She observed him quietly and confirmed how her father was definitely more handsome than any other male she knew who was in their fifties.
"How pretty!" The red head smiled as she inspected the colorfully wrapped and ribboned box waiting for her at her seat. She knew he would give her jewels, just as he did the many birthdays before. Her suspicion was confirmed when a pair of emerald earrings hardly surprised her beneath the eccentric wrappings.
Franchesca gave her father a heart-warming smile nevertheless. "Thank you, Daddy."
Her smile wavered when the man responded with a distracted smile. The man's mind was heavily occupied today—she could tell. And though she always bullied her father to be the most predictable man in the world, there was something wrong which she couldn't pin-point to be what exactly.
She mustered the courage to ask just as a maid served her breakfast. "Is there something wrong?"
Frederick Ashford gulped his tea and cleared his throat before looking her straight in the eye. "It's nothing. I just feel as if time has flown by me. The little girl that used to sit on my lap has now turned to this beautiful lady. Look at you, so gorgeous . . . just like your mother."
Franchesca smiled at the memory. She hadn't noticed it before either, but it seemed the gray strands on her father's dark hair had tripled since her last birthday. She carefully observed the man's heavy sigh. That surely wasn't a good sign.
"Ches, now that you're already eighteen, I'm expecting you would've matured since last time; therefore I'll cut to the heart of the matter. I've arranged—"
She knew what he was going to say even before the words left his lips. Of course the issue had to be brought out again sooner or later! Franchesca felt her mouth dry and her voracious appetite wane.
"Oh, Daddy, please, no . . ."
"Ches, I've told you a thousand times that this is the best option for you!" Frederick reasoned as he laid the newspaper he held down on the table.
The lady's mouth fell apart. "But an arranged marriage, Daddy? I don't want to spend the rest of my life with a man I don't love!"
Frederick pushed back the plate on the table—a sign that warned the red head of his lousy patience. "Romance can come after the marriage, darling. I've met the young man, and he seems most suitable for you. His name is Eric Danver, and he's the heir of an extensive fortune. He has a very honorable and respectable heritage. I should say you would like him very much."
She doubted that. Men around her age are all imbeciles from what she'd seen in their behavior. All her previous suitors were proud, obnoxious, and, in her opinion, big wussies beneath their expensive attire! They hardly has qualities that could impress her.
"Oh, so it's Eric now," she said with angry sarcasm. "I thought it was that Preston Hartley. Wasn't he my betrothed?"
"He was before I found out how unsuitable he turned out to be. Luckily I've met the Danvers and mutually agreed on having Eric replace him."
"But I don't love him—neither of them!"
"Franchesca Marie," he muttered rather tiredly, pinching the bridge of his nose, "this matter has been decided since you were seven. I've given you eleven years to think it over! By this time I expect you to act more mature—"
"But I don't want to marry in this way, Daddy! And besides, I've just turned eighteen. I want to see the world first—go to sea—"
Her talk of adventure wasn't taken well; the man's tone expressed his growing temper. "Don't talk silly, Ches. I've arranged a meeting with the young man tomorrow at your coming out party, and that is final." He added a warning glare when the lady opened her mouth defiantly. "That should certainly give you enough time to throw out that ridiculous notion of yours."
Franchesca felt the tingling pain of an invisible slap that came with those words. The hurt in her eyes was impossible to miss, and the man sighed regretfully, feeling much like the villain.
"Young ladies don't belong to see, darling." He spoke more gently for her daughter's sake. "You will marry Eric, and that's that. I'm not sure if you've realized that this matter has already been decided. It's what's best for you, sweetheart."
The lady pushed her seat away and threw her napkin back on the empty chair. "I'm not hungry after all."
"Franchesca . . ."
Frederick threw his own napkin on the floor in frustration when his daughter ran up the flight of stairs to her chambers and a hand on his graying hair. His present lay forgotten on the dining table as he stood up, leaving in an equally foul mood as his red headed daughter.
Franchesca ignored the sympathetic glance Paige sent her way and politely refused the hug she offered, wanting to be alone in her misery. She stormed into her room and locked everyone out just so they won't see her cry like a little girl despite her gloating of having become a refined lady.
She knew the day would eventually come when she would be cornered by her father's decision once and for all. For more than half of her life she lived with the reality of her decided engagement with a man she has never even met!
Moist gray eyes roamed around the spacious room from the luxurious upholstery, grand four poster bed, and a wardrobe and bathroom as big as a whole bedroom. She never would doubt her father's love in spite of the circumstances. The man cared for her deeply, often spoiling her with all a girl could want. Since her childhood, and especially after the death of her mother, she had a special way around her father. Whatever she wanted—as long as it was within reason—he gave from a stable full of horses to an army of dolls! It only frustrated her to fail when it came to her marriage. The stubborn man won't change his mind no matter what plea she threw at him! 'It's for her good,' he always said. He was building her future for her.
Franchesca reclined on her bed, accepting the comforts of her pillows as she cried silently. Her tears were interrupted only when she felt a painful stab at her side. The story book Paige discovered lay beneath her among the pillows; she held it to her lap and began leafing through the worn pages.
It had been the last gift she received from her mother at the age of five. Every night the lady would read her a small portion of the book, always ending in a way that she would plead for more. Her mother told her of dangerous adventures on the sea, large ships, and of dashing pirates with their mighty swords! Franchesca smiled slightly as she recalled each and every story telling with each turn of her page. The colorful drawings always managed to cheer her up. At one page the dashing pirate held his damsel in one arm as he came sliding down from the evil king's tower to their freedom! That had been her favorite part next to the happily ever after.
Her fingers lingered on the sketches of the handsome pirate, her eyes showing undeniable yearning for her own adventure. It was quick how the idea seized her mind, and a daring plan was already fast forming in her head when a knock sounded on the door.
Franchesca jumped from the bed. Her mind was busy calculating her loss and gain of her rather stupid but bold idea. It wad perfect and she punished herself mentally for not coming up with it sooner! If she'd be careful, she could escape to sea and be free if but for a while before she would be married off to a complete stranger. Without further hesitation she dried her eyes, fixed her hair back into its pins as best as she could, and proceeded to compile a list she would need for an adventure of a lifetime!
Brown eyes stared transfixed at the mischievous red head rushing about the room in the dead stillness of the late hour. Franchesca's clothes lay in a messy heap on the bed as she debated on what other necessities she should bring with her.
The hushed yet urgent tone snapped the maid out of shock inflicted by the lady's announcement of departure. Dissuading the red head came to her lips immediately.
"You cannot be serious, Miss Franchesca. You're just angry at your father—don't do something rash and stupid!" Paige bit her lip when the young lady was looking at her with those wide eyes that told how dead serious she was on leaving. In this state, not even the divine heavens could discourage her!
"Have you even thought how dangerous this could be? People aren't always as kind as you think. There are bad men out there. And where are you going? How do you think your father would react should he find out that his daughter has run away?"
"I'm not running away, Paige," Franchesca said calmly at the frantic brunette, "not for good anyway. I'll come back after my adventure and . . . perhaps I shall marry then if Daddy should still want it. It would be like a . . . a vacation for me as an independent woman!"
"Master Frederick loves you, miss. Please don't go. Besides, it's your big debut in a few hours come morning. Think about that!"
Franchesca stopped pacing and frowned. "I know he does. But he's too stubborn! This may be my last chance for freedom, Paige. If I don't get away now, I'll never even know what it feels like to be free and reckless! If I marry, it'll all be over."
"You wouldn't know that, Miss. Perhaps the Sir Preston Hartley would be kind and an understanding husband."
Franchesca scowled. "It's not that Hartley man anymore, Paige. It's Eric Danver. Daddy said something about Preston being unsuitable for me so he arranged another man to marry me. But nevertheless if it's Hartley or Danver, I simply don't want to marry either of them!"
The news came as a surprise for the brunette in the same manner it surprised her. After all since she was seven the name of Preston Hartley had already been engraved in her mind as her future husband! It insulted her how her father could just casually pick some gentleman over the other to whom she would be spending the rest of her life with! She couldn't care less though if it were one man or the other as long as she didn't love any of them.
"Maybe your father is right though. Maybe it is for the best. This marriage would secure you to a more than comfortable life—not all women could afford such assurance."
The heiress dropped the dress she had in hand back on the bed with a resigned frown. "I am already a lucky girl, aren't I? But heavens, Paige, I still want is to be given the freedom to choose who I want to spend the rest of my life with!" she cried, returnign to the act of raiding her closet. "I want to discover what it would be like to meet that one person who can make my knees weak! I want a real man and not just some arrogant rich bloke who's got nothing to boast but his inherited fortune. I want someone who will cross swords for me and take risks for the sake of adventure!"
The red head's gray eyes locked on the tattered story book on the bed and picked it up as tender as if she was handling fragile glass. Franchesca smiled with mischief in her eyes.
"Someone like a pirate."
She laughed at the evident horror reflected in her friend's dark eyes. Paige has always preferred to siding with her comfort zone than taking risks, sticking by with the natural dreamy prince charming fantasy. The head maid would've given the timid girl a chiding should she over step on boundaries while Franchesca could afford mischief to her heart's content! Despite that Paige is a good two years younger than her, she has always been the one with sense and reason to her daring ideas.
"Don't try to stop me," Franchesca pleaded. "I need to take this chance. It may be the last one I'll come across for the rest of my life!"
She saw the maid grimace at her mastered puppy grey eyes and perfected pout. She always knew she had a soft spot on the house helps just as she had with her father and everyone else. "Please, Paige? Please?"
Paige moaned. "Oh! Alright! I'll help you, but I want to come with you—"
"It's thoughtful of you, but you can't, dear. I need you here, and besides, you're terrified of the sea! You always got sick on ships, remember?"
"But I can't possibly leave you alone, Miss Ashford! What if something goes wrong?"
Her friend would make an excellent mother and wife already, she could tell. Franchesca placed both hands on the woman's shoulder. "Paige, I will be fine. I promise you, I'll come back in one piece. And that's why I need you here. Someone's got to reassure Daddy of my return and well being. You know how he worries. I know it may sound silly, but I feel as if Mother's watching over me."
Paige hesitated but her loyalty and confidence on her young mistress' promised won over doubt. She looked over the red head's packing and shook her head. "You would probably need food and a blanket—and money. Also, if you plan on blending in properly, I'd suggest you don't bring any of your beautiful dresses. They attract too much attention and practically scream wealth with the rich designs and fabric! I'll go gather some of my clothes downstairs. It should give you a higher chance of slipping away from your father's hounds. No doubt, he'll dispatch a lot of men to find you once he discovers you're gone."
Franchesca inspected her reflection in the mirror as soon as she changed into the clothes Paige handed her. She looked different somehow. Her skin wasn't used to such coarse fabrics and plain style, but it was warm and comfortable enough to serve its purpose. Paige released the sparkling pins that kept her red hair in place and combed it with her hands so that it looked as ordinary as possible. Why, she felt unusually light and closer to freedom already! How very interesting!
The young maid threw away the majority of her luggage and packed the remaining of her meager belongings inside a knapsack. She wrapped the lady with a shabby dark green cloak to hide Franchesca's flaming red hair that was certain to turn a few heads.
"Wait a minute," the young heiress muttered, pulling back the pillows from her bed till she found what she was looking for. The little story book went safely to the knapsack that hung on her shoulder.
With everything set, Paige led the lady down the sleeping halls of the Ashford mansion.
"We'll go through the back door behind the scullery. The cooks pass here in the early mornings when they need to go to the market. Sometimes the other maids use this passage in sneaking out to meet with their lovers."
Franchesca crossed the tiny passage with ease, adrenalin and excitement pounding in her veins for the knowledge that she had taken that deciding step outside the boundary of home.
"Most importantly, you wouldn't want anyone knowing of your lineage, Miss," Paige whispered, "Never tell anyone of your identity. There are really a lot of bad men out there who won't hesitate to take full advantage of you should they know of your handsome inheritance. Promise me, you'll eat three meals a day, and don't you dare be careless and get caught. Here," the brunette pressed a small pocket knife to her palm. "for protection, Miss Franchesca. Use it if the situation calls for it and should anyone try to harm you, scream bloody murder! I wouldn't want to see a corpse in our next meeting so—"
The young maid was interrupted when the lady pulled her to a tight embrace. Franchesca buried her nose in the maid's shoulder.
"Thank you, Paige. You've always been such a good friend. I will miss you so."
Paige smiled and flushed at her mistress' sincerity and released herself from the red head's bear hug.
"Take care of yourself, Miss, or else, I-I would give you a taste of my slipper!" That would be the first threat she ever said to her mischievous mistress. Franchesca smiled and promised.
"Head straight for the docks, Miss, and select a ship that would take you anywhere your heart delights. But be careful."
Paige watched as her young mistress walk briskly off into the distance and was swallowed within the night's shadows. The woman's parting words still rung in her ears.
She hasn't met a person with a kinder heart than the young Miss Ashford. For all her brat-ish and coquettish ways, Franchesca was the only one who treated her with such respect regardless of her status as a house maid and treated her as a friend the moment she came to be under the Ashfords crying and alone many years ago. Paige swore to herself the moment the six year old Franchesca introduced herself that she will repay the young lady in every little way she could. Because even though the heiress did not realize it, she had been the better friend first—the kindest and most wonderful person Paige has ever known.
L.C: Wow, it's been ages since I last posted here. So many readers have requested for more at the end of ODAP so I'm sorry if it seems as if I've kept all of you waiting. Sadly, as you guys would know by now, this is not a continuation to ODAP whatsoever. I have new lead characters with entirely different personalities and a whole different plot. I will refer back to my old characters though, just for the fun of it so it can be sort of connected.
Concerning my super long hiatus, certain things have changed for me since the end of ODAP. If you've read my profile, you would know that my father who has been diagnosed to be suffering from stage four pancreatic cancer earlier this January passed away three months after on April 17. While the time has been very brief, he never gave up, and despite everything left prepared to ensure his wife and children's well being. There is not a day that I don't miss him, but it's good to find comfort in writing. It's been such a faithful companion to me.
Another thing would be that I had and will be having summer classes (it's part of my curriculum, and yes, it sucks), meaning less time for writing for me. This would also mean that I won't be able to update as fast as before, so just a heads up on that. Of course, I will still do my best to keep you satisfied with updates.
About this new story, I'm still very unsure about it, but hopefully it will all come together at some point. Anyway, here is chapter one (and I'm biting my fingernails). Please do drop me a word just to share your first impressions and all. I missed my readers so much, and I cannot express how excited I am to hear from you again . . . and maybe nervous too, heh.
Much love, hugs, and kisses!