“You there! Get on with ya!” a deck hand shouted, kicking Bradley’s rump soundly with his booted foot. Bradley went sprawling to the deck face first, much to the delight of the other sailors. Their howls of laughter rang in his ears as he tried to stand.
The sudden movement of becoming upright proved to be his undoing once again. He leaned over the side of the ship and was sick, losing the very meager meal he’d eaten earlier that day.
“Ya don’t want to do that, you won’t have anything in yer belly until this time tomorrow at the pace yer workin’,” one of the other sailors said with a smirk. “Remember, ya don’t work, ya don’t eat.”
“Why will no one tell me where I am headed? Why I am here?” Bradley growled, still clutching the side of the ship for support. “It’s been five days. Where am I?”
“We’ve told ya plenty, ya just didnaw like that answer,” one of the sailors called over his shoulder. “Now pick up that pail and get back to yer work.”
Bradley turned around, a murderous look on his face. He brushed his mouth with the back of his hand and nearly retched again at the smell coming from his filthy shirt. Glaring at the unruly deck hands, he turned in a slow circle and watched them as they laughed.
“I am Bradley Landon, Earl of Stillscar. You shall remember that and treat me accordingly. Every last one of you will be hanged for your assaults and your insults.” This only made the men guffaw even harder, and Bradley fumed as they laughed.
“Well, your majesty, had we but known you was royal we’d have put out the fine dishes for ya,” someone called out.
The only man whose name Bradley had learned strode towards him. Bowley, as the others had called him, looked fierce and had a jagged scar that ran the length of one cheek.
“It don’t matter none who ya used to be, sir,” Bowley said with a sneer that made his scar even more grotesque. “The captain bought ya, and ya work for him now. So you’ll either shut your mouth and work or you’ll starve. Understand now?”
“Bought me? Ridiculous. He can do no such thing,” Bradley insisted.
“Oh, but he can,” Bowley assured him. “You owed a debt that ya could naw pay. The captain has paid it for ya, so now ya’ve got seven years ‘til it’ll be paid back.”
“Seven years? That’s impossible!” Bradley roared, but as he looked around, realization hit. All of these men were in the same situation, all indentured to the captain for their debts.
His heart sank as he looked out over the side of the ship to the dark gray water that surrounded him for miles. This was his reality, one of his own creation. Only days ago, he’d been faced with the heart-rending decision of whether or not to sell some of his property in order to continue living in a style to which he was accustomed. Now, he owned nothing more than the clothes he was wearing, and those were quickly becoming unwearable.
“Best get to work, lad,” Bowley said, his tone still menacing. “Any day ya don’t work is another day o’ yer life that ya owe the captain.”
Someone threw Bradley’s mop to him and it landed on the wooden deck with a hollow thud. The bucket followed shortly after, splashing its filthy contents all over him.
Why? Why is this happening to me? In misery, he leaned down to retrieve his tools. Have I truly been so wretched that this is my well-deserved fate?
As he turned to move towards the aft of the ship in order to finish his first chore, his eyes landed on a wooden sign hanging above the captain’s quarters. The hand-lettered words mocked him, the gleam from the red and gold paint piercing his heart.
He was a prisoner for at least the next seven years, nearly a third of his life that he’d already lived, aboard the Luci’s Return.
“Gideon, are you still not finished getting ready? The guests will be here any moment,” Luci called out, chiding him spiritedly.
“I’m almost finished, but I cannot decide which of these to give to Collin,” Gideon answered, looking over the pile of matching valises he’d laid out at the foot of the bed. “There are too many to choose from.”
“I’m sorry, dearest, but I don’t know what a young man needs to go off to school,” Luci explained. “I asked the shopkeeper, and of course he was even less help in his haste to turn a profit. So I bought several. Why not choose one, and give the others to some of the students who also were accepted to Oxford?”
“That’s a grand idea, dear. I shall do it. So which one do you think Collin would like?” Gideon pointed to the leather satchels with their sturdy buckles, and waited while Luci perused them.
“Well, this is the first one I picked out. It caught my eye for being rather stylish but still very serviceable. But in any event, Collin and his mother are arriving in only a few minutes. My parents are here, and the children are climbing the walls like circus animals. We must hurry.” Luci kissed Gideon’s cheek and left him to finish dressing.
“Ah Collin,” Gideon mumbled with a sigh. “The decision is a hard one because I don’t wish you to go…”
When he could stall no longer, Gideon finished and went downstairs. His oldest son, Nicholas, was waiting for him on the stairs.
“Do I really have to go down there, Father?” he asked, his wide brown eyes moist and his chin quivering slightly.
“Of course,” Gideon answered, scooping up the small boy and holding him in his arms. “Why would you not want to?”
“Everyone is so happy to see Collin go, but not me,” the boy answered, burying his face in his father’s lapels and sniffling.
“Oh, Nicholas,” Gideon answered, ruffling his son’s hair and holding him tightly as he cried. “We’re not celebrating that he’s leaving, not at all. I’m just as gutted about it as you are. But we’re happy that such a bright young man and a good student is seeking an education. He will make us all proud.”
“I don’t want to be proud. I want him to stay and play with me,” Nicholas wailed.
At the sound of tears, Luci reappeared. “What’s the matter?”
“Just a touch of homesickness for one who has not even left home yet,” Gideon said lightly. “Here you go, Nicholas. Mother will get you a sweetie to cheer you up.”
Gideon passed off his four-year-old son to Luci, then only made it a few more paces before he almost tripped over his daughter, Margaret, reading on the stairs.
“Margaret! What are you doing here?” he cried as he caught himself. The eight-year-old looked up at him inquisitively, as if she’d only just realized there were other people at home.
“I’m reading my book,” she replied plainly, holding it up so he might see. “All of the chairs downstairs are filled with people.”
Gideon leaned down and plucked the book gently from her hands, being careful not to lose her place. He hoisted her to her feet by her hands until she was standing, then held out his elbow to escort her.
“The reason the chairs are all filled is because those people are what is known as guests,” he explained, teasing her lightly. “And when there are guests in the house, we mustn’t disappear to the staircase to continue reading Robinson Crusoe. Besides, your grandparents have brought your Great-Aunt Mary along, and you know how she longs to see you.”
“I suppose I shall have to be near the people,” Margaret said, sighing dramatically. “May I at least keep the book in my lap when everyone is talking after the dinner?”
“Yes, but only if you are careful not to let anyone discover it. They will say you have no manners and will never marry.”
“I don’t want a husband, I want to find out how Captain Crusoe gets off that island,” Margaret answered with a growl, but she followed her father down the stairs obediently.
By the time the evening ended several hours later, Gideon and Luci had long since sent the children off to bed and bid their guests goodnight. Walking up the staircase to their room, Luci squeezed Gideon’s hand gently.
“It will be hard to see him go, won’t it?” she asked, ducking her chin to look up at Gideon’s averted gaze.
“Yes. I suppose so,” he answered brusquely.
“He will be back, of course. His mother will remain here, and he intends to become a solicitor in the village. He won’t be gone so long, don’t worry,” she reassured him.
“I know all that,” Gideon grumbled. “But… I don’t know.”
“I think I do,” she answered. “You haven’t lost anyone in a great many years, and it hurts every bit as much as it did when it was your parents who left.”
Gideon turned to look at her sharply, but his features quickly relaxed. He nodded sadly. “I think that must be it. I’ve been a mess these past few weeks, worrying and stumbling about—”
“And grousing and shouting at the dogs and being cross with the children when they merely wished to ride their ponies inside the house,” Luci interrupted, smiling at the humor of Gideon struggling to chastise them gently as they sat astride the animals in the foyer.
“I know, I’m sorry, Luci dear. I just…” He paused and looked away for a moment before saying, “I just didn’t know it would be so hard.”
“Well, then that’s the measure of how much you really care for someone, isn’t it?” she answered. “Seeing them leave and feeling a terrible pang of regret means they matter a great deal to you. And he does, Collin was the first person you were able to care about, even when your heart was set on hurting those who’d hurt you first. You were able to put aside all of your grief and anger to make sure that his life was as happy and fulfilling as it could be.”
“I suppose so. I never thought of it like that,” he confessed before kissing Luci gently. “But he’ll be back, you say?”
“Of course,”’ Luci laughed. “You won’t even have time to miss him.”
“And you promise our children will never leave?” Gideon teased. “Never go off to school or marry some cad who tried to ruin my business and leave me a pauper unless I sign over Margaret to him?”
Luci laughed as she continued walking, leading Gideon up the stairs by the hand. “I don’t know, something tells me Margaret would make him very sorry for it. She comes by that honestly, you know. She gets it from me.”
“And I’m proud she does, too,” Gideon said in a serious tone, stopping Luci and turning her to face him. “Our children are the best gift you could have ever given me. They are… amazing creatures. Just like their mother.”
“They also have an adoring father to guide them, you know,” she answered, smiling. “I may say that I do all the work of raising them, but I suppose you help now and again.”
“Careful, Miss Ross will hear you,” Gideon said, whispering loudly. “I don’t think she approves of our methods.”
“That’s because we’d have to have a method first for her to approve of,” Luci retorted. “There’s a reason those ponies were in the foyer and trust me, it was not Miss Ross’ doing.”
Luci turned to go upstairs again but Gideon stopped her a second time. This time, he pulled her close to him and held her in his arms, kissing her soundly.
Luci smiled. “What was that for?”
“For being my wife. For being their mother. For being… you. And being wonderful at it.” He wound his arms around Luci’s shoulders until she leaned her head against his chest, nestling against him and twining her arms behind him. He kissed the top of her head and said, “Not so long ago, I never could have imagined that I would have so much.”
“All this?” she asked without looking up. “And if it was gone tomorrow? Leaving you penniless with a family to care for?”
“I shall never be penniless if I have all of you. I will be wealthy beyond even a king’s desires so long as I have you and the children.”
Luci pulled back and smiled in a way that Gideon couldn’t quite read. “You know, as a man of business, you should be very well versed in understanding how to increase one’s wealth.”
“Well, I suppose that is a particular aspect of my business,” he said, his brow furrowing in confusion. “Why are you concerned with increasing wealth?”
“If it’s as you say and you are wealthier than any king could hope to be, then you might be pleased to know that your wealth is increasing,” Luci said, still smiling in that odd sort of way.
She waited silently, patiently. Gideon stared at her for a moment, watching her expression to decipher what she could be meaning.
“What game are you playing at, my dear?” he asked, narrowing his eyes suspiciously as he laughed at her expression.
“Oh, it’s no game. One’s wealth is very serious business, especially when one has been investing the way you have. I should think it might be another six months or so before you see a return on the investment, though.” Luci raised an eyebrow at him, and Gideon only stared.
Suddenly, it dawned on him. “You? You mean… increasing the wealth that is my family?”
Luci laughed and only nodded, leaving Gideon to grab her in his arms and hold her tightly. He kissed her once again, then laughed so loudly he wondered that the children did not wake up.
“That is the best news, Luci! What a welcome announcement!”
“And it couldn’t have come at a better time. Collin may be gone from us for some time, but a new little joy will be here to mend our hearts from the loss,” Luci said, obviously pleased.
“You are all I need to mend my heart, Luci,” Gideon said proudly. “You accepted me when I was at my worst, and you’ve made me a better person each day since then. I love you and I’m grateful to you for it.”
“And I shall always love you, Gideon,” she replied happily. “You are every bit the man I hoped you could be, the one I knew you would be. I’m grateful to be your wife, the mother of your children, and the one who has the privilege of loving you each day.”
One last thing before you go!
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