L.C.: So . . . yes, it's been a while. I originally decided not to post this epilogue, but I eventually changed my mind. In case you're happy with how the story ended in the last chapter, you can choose not to read this, of course. But if you do choose to read this, I hope you'll be satisfied with how I chose I "end" this story.
I'd like to say thank you. I couldn't have asked for better readers! :)
May 24, 1882
The golden waves rolled beneath them—gentle undulating curves shimmering as it caressed the ship. Wild winds blew mightily against the white sails, and it propelled the Elizabeth full speed ahead toward the vague edifices along the horizon.
Aboard the ship, Tom barked at every free man in sight to start hauling up cargo below deck where it could be within closer reach come unloading time. The sun was already tame as dusk drew near that they basked pleasantly under its tender warmth.
A chuckle escaped the first mate's lips upon catching a pensive blond lounging by the forecastle—particularly isolated. He approached the man and stood daringly on top of the short rails, holding a rope overhead for support. Two bottles of ale was in the other hand.
"Thinkin' again, Cap'n? 'Tis sure is gud te see home agen."
Grant grinned, sparing his mate a short glance as he received his bottle. "I agree, Tom."
"N' this time, there be no more sailin'? Ya gots enough money now that we struck our luck in trade this year. Ya cud finally start with that expansion yav been plannin'."
"Yes, I could. I'll never say it's the end—since one day I'll stand behind the wheel again—but I'll miss sailing this big beauty. It's been a part of me since I was but a lad who had run away from home. Back then I had yearned nothing but to get away and have a grand adventure, and . . . look at me now. Old . . . and definitely wanting nothing more but to return home."
Tom gave a heart laugh. "If yer old, Cap'n then I must be senile. But we got spunk left in our old bones. Can't blame ya, Cap'n. With a lass so fine, I'd be wantin' te go home as soon as I can too."
"It's been three years, Tom, can you believe it? It felt only like yesterday when we found that brat in our ship. Bloody hell, where did the days go?"
Depleting his bottle, the mate shrugged. Yet the glint of wisdom in his eye couldn't be missed. "Time flies wen yer havin' the time o' yer life. Any plans 'bout that pretty rock ya gotcher hands on in Africa?
Grant shoved his hand deep inside his breeches and fished out a tiny tanned leather box. Opening the box, he revealed a gorgeous five-carat diamond lodged on top of a silver band. He had bargained for the chunk of diamond—pink, or rather, with a shy hint of rose, and had it chipped, shaped, and polished by the finest jeweler in Paris.
Grant gazed at the ring before enclosing it inside his palm. "This little thing? I'd casually just hand it over. Get it down and over with."
Tom scoffed, taking another swig from his bottle. "Hand it over? The crew n' I will give ya a beatin' if ya jest 'hand it over' te the sweet lass! Ya cud at least give a decent show fe us, laddie."
"And hear you laugh about it? I'd rather not be the target of those whistles you're so good at."
"We'll only be relieved te have ya off our bachelor list. More wenches fer us. They'll grieve ya fer only a few days."
The blond smiled at his mate's humor before turning pensive once more. It was a sentimental ride home as it would be mark the end of his roguish years of exploring the outside world. His youth would be remembered fondly with memories of a wild past filled with adventure and excitement. But now he had a new future to look forward to. A new beginning.
"You think she'll like it?" he humbly asked while eyeing the English portside looming closer.
"I betcha she'll love anythin' ya give her whether it be silver 'r a mere strip o' rope. Just that the intentions are the same. 'Tis confoundin' how that lass loves ya so. The gal's a saint te 'ave put up wi' ya fer all these years."
"Touché," the captain muttered, downing half of his bottle.
Port was so close now that he was beginning to see the vague features of the sailors and cargo men hustling and bustling about. It won't be long now . . .
"It's been a pleasure sailing with you, Tom."
"N' 'tis been an honor servin' as yer first mate, Cap'n," the man responded with a proper salute. "Hope now that ya'll be close te retirin' from cap'ncy, I'll have my ol' job back? Horses ain't as excitin' as runnin' this beauty, but 'tis close enough."
"I was thinking of putting you in charge of some things in the trading company I'd be putting up."
"Hah! Ya know 'm no gud wen it comes te books n' keepin' n' all that nonsense. I'd rather pick up horse dung than that!"
Tom's vehement opposition to the prospect amused him until he finally relented. "Alright, Tom. Then my coach will be anticipating your return. I'd still say nothing makes those horses run as fast but your firm grip with them."
They both casted a lingering glance at the sun behind then, shining majestically over the golden English Channel. It was a scene they both appraised with their eyes—a sunset unlike no other they had witness through the years.
"Aye, Cap'n. T'day is only the start of sumthin' even more excitin' than sailin' the seven seas, n' fightin' wi' pirates. N' 'tis a beautiful start fer sure."
The clinking of their bottles emphasized their agreement. But more than that, it emphasized on the long years of unlikely friendship that was to last a lifetime.
The bustle to be expected from port had waned now in the late hours of the afternoon. Sea gulls roamed in circles up in the air which, from time to time, she would turn her attention to. The ship was already a few minutes late, but no matter. Soon he would be back!
She stood patiently, waiting in her plain but pretty midnight blue dress adorned with subtle cream lace around her while her train was cut to a minimum however heavy with folds that were up to the latest fashion. Her neckline was high, scooping as high as her collarbone. It made her appropriately look more of an adult now that she was twenty-two. But her hair failed to cooperate, refusing to be tamed by pins or kept under a hat. Her flaming locks were only artfully styled on one shoulder.
Her face lit up radiantly upon catching the familiar sails and craftsmanship of the Elizabeth's mighty hull. She could even see him now—her love, dashingly clutching the sail ropes with a hand and one boot precariously balanced on the thin rails while the other leg dangled over the water. His dirty blond hair, however still trimmed, was as tossed and wild as ever. The captain wore red—her favorite—tucked under the coffee breeches she once had borrowed from him three years ago.
She had ceased attempting to board the ship after considering the scandal of it all—not that she cared what other people thought, but it was for her father's sake at least. Waiting was pure torture though as day after day would be spent doing leisure with Grant in mind. Every night she would wish nothing but his return, and now that he was so close to her . . . it took her breath away with excitement!
The ship docked, followed by the lowering of the thin plank serving as the bridge to home. Grant couldn't have been happier departing the ship though faint sentimentality loomed at the back of his mind. His entire focus had been shifted away from memories once he caught sight of her standing faithfully in wait of him.
She was always there to greet him the moment he landed.
Bloody hell, she was a beautiful as ever if not more. He would've felt ashamed of his attire, which paled to the luxury of hers if he didn't know how much the redhead loved his casual sailing attire. She loved his tunics enough to snatch a couple of them for herself or have a seamstress sew her a smaller replica for her sleeping apparel.
The captain stopped six meters away just for teasing. He grinned wickedly, catching the ethereal glow of the sun on her profile that made her look like a goddess descended from the heavens with her flaming hair spun from the setting sun itself.
They stared at each other tenderly until he saw the flicker of dimple on her left cheek when he opened his arms. It was hardly a subtle invitation, and Franchesca broke into a run in eager response, leaping into his arms with breathless excitement.
He couldn't believe how he could stand the months not hearing her glorious laughter, but his heart burst with joy to hear it echoing in his ears. He swung the lady off her feet shamelessly, without regard of his crew watching from behind.
"You've been away much longer this time, Grant. I missed you terribly! Eight months is too long!"
"Why, I missed you too, love. I was detained by some late cargo, but all's well now."
He set her down to he feet without relinquishing his hold on her waist. He loved her smell as well as everything else about her. From behind, he could hear his crew's chuckles already. Tom deliberately cleared his throat just to get him moving.
"Shall we go then? The carriage is waiting. I hope you don't mind that your Aunt Emelia invited me over for family dinner. You should see Gianna—I don't doubt that she receives flowers everyday from potential suitors waiting for her to reach the proper age."
"Like hell they do! Well, all of that is about to end—"
"And Gerry's been smitten with a girl for months now! But I dare say he's still too shy to make a move. And your father . . ." she looked at him intently as they walked. "I hope you don't mind that he'll be present for dinner?"
"I'm more surprised Uncle Henry agreed to it." She sensed wariness to his tone as always when Anthony Hartley would emerge in the conversation, but she knew both father and son were making progress in terms of their strained relationship.
The redhead squeezed his arm to make a statement. "Differences can be set aside, you know."
He slowed his pace when she flashed her a stunning smile, feeling his emotions for this woman overwhelm him. He had sensed her attempts to reconcile him with Anthony Hartley since last year. She had remained brightly optimistic when she started, despite that his mood would turn sour at the mere mention of his father's name. But she persisted anyway in playing mediator and surprisingly managed to get the cold, proud Anthony to join them for dinner. Grant knew she had only to pout to get him to attend that dinner.
When he was a coward escaping the brokenness of his life, she had fixed him. He would never have regained his brother's trust had it not been for Franchesca, neither would he have found the strength to return home, to his family and friends. If he hadn't met the woman in his arms, he would still be sailing the seas in restless pursuit of life.
And he never would have found it.
He dropped on one knee then and there in the middle of the port though his escort thought nothing of it.
"Has your shoe laces come undone, Grant?"
He fought not to laugh and bore only a teasing grin. "Oh, I found something quite interesting."
Franchesca cocked her head to one side quizzically. "What is it? A coin?"
The breathtaking jewelry he held up was far from the grimy penny she figured he'd found. The silver band encrusted with a clean-cut diamond looked so lovely that she just stared at it with eyes ready to pop.
"Actually, I found this in Africa and had it made in France. Bought it on impulse, and now I'm afraid I don't know what to do with it."
He was already there, down on one knee, a ring in hand. It couldn't be more obvious, he was sure. Hope was in her eyes—he saw it leap to those gray irises—but she apparently didn't want to presume anything after his teasing.
He took her hand to remove the lingering doubt.
"I want to marry you, Franchesca Marie Ashford. I don't deserve you for you are too good for a bastard like me, but I love you. And I think you've waited for me long enough. I wrote to your father, and he finally begrudged me his consent. You've made me, a once broken man, as closest I've been to becoming whole." He grinned roguishly. "I say closest because I realized that there's only one thing missing: you. Will you make me a whole man, Ches?"
When she stood there shocked speechless, he returned to being teasing. "If you don't want it, I guess I'll just have to throw it away—"
"No! I do! I do want it!" she cried out suddenly, snatching the ring from his finger so fast that he laughed. She was still such a child sometimes. She looked the part too, holding the ring so preciously like a toy she wanted to hoard for herself.
"And here I thought I've been rejected," he said with feigned hurt for added dramatics.
She gasped as if it was the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard. "I could never reject you! I want to be your wife, I do! More than anything. I was just . . . shocked."
"Do you like it?"
She beamed at him when he slipped it right onto her finger. "I love it! It's the most beautiful ring—and it will never ever leave my finger!" He couldn't resist himself seeing her flushed and breathless, and her joy soared to new heights when he pulled her toward him for a melting kiss.
Franchesca pushed him away after a few seconds, failing miserably to look stern. "People are looking!"
"Then let them watch, love. I may be an engaged man, but I still won't obey all those rules—not cooperatively anyway," he muttered before sealing his lips over hers for the second time.
They both parted in smiled when the whistles and cheers reached their ears. Behind them, Franchesca saw every single one of the crew pumping their fists in the air or clapping madly over their much-awaited reunion. It amused her to even see a quick exchange of coins, informing her of the many wagers set on their captain's proposal.
From the corner she saw Tom, James, Lackley and Shepard looking at them with congratulatory smirks on their faces over their improper show of affection. She gave them a playfull wink in return before turning her eyes back to the captain who donned the same smug look his mates had.
"Sound like you have some avid supporters, Mr. Hartley," she teased.
"Why, I do, Miss Ashford—or should I say, "soon-to-be-Mrs. Grant Hartley"? As a matter of fact, I have a good woman as well who is just about the vainest creature alive. She's quite a stunner though, and she has these dimples and that impossible pout no man could resist. But more than beauty, she has a heart of gold filled with all those virtues of compassion and love."
"Humph. You resisted me just fine to stay away all these months," she muttered with a haughty air. Her well-defined pout formed on her lips.
Grant smirked. "Well, they do say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, brat. And seeing how I'm already so fond of your little pouts, I'm interested to see how much more I could love you—to the point that I'll spoil you rotten with it."
"You'll be staying home then—for good?" The sparkle in her eyes was too apparent to escape notice, but it pleased him.
He nodded his confirmation and received her full weight against his body again, her arms flying to the back of his neck. "You've made me the happiest woman on this world, Grant, and I love you so. I wouldn't trade one minute of these past years—neither for a castle nor a charming prince nor for all the wealth in the world!"
"Princess brat," he whispered teasingly to her ear.
Her reply was clear and sweet when she whispered it to his ear after she grazed a kiss on his stubbled jaw.
"My dashing pirate."