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A Soul Lost at Sea

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A/N:  Hey sweethearts! For those of you rejoining me after Felicity's Sweet Revenge and Oliver on Vacation, thank you for coming back! I'm so excited to write this Olicity Victorian AU, because I really want to pay homage to those wonderful novels I used to gobble up like candy in my youth - the ones with the sultry sighs and windswept hair and torn bodices - and I sincerely hope to do the genre justice. Please be advised, I plan to go full-on breathy romance with this one, and hopefully give you a complete departure from reality, and it WILL get smutty (although, in keeping with the time period, it'll be a slow build).  Thanks so much for being here to read with me!! :) Tina

Acknowledgments: Great big sloppy kisses to Lisa (quiveringbunny) for the most amazing cover I could have ever hoped for – you’re an incredible artist, and you captured the emotions so perfectly!  And huge hugs to Mel (mel-loves-all) for her encouragement and insight into writing a period romance. 

Disclaimer:  I do not own Arrow :(

Additional Disclaimer: No actual bodices will be harmed in the making of this fic ;)

*** 

A Soul Lost at Sea

***

Prologue: At Sea

Off the coast of China.

1852…

Oliver heard that a man’s entire life passed before his eyes just as he was about to die. That wasn’t what he saw now, though. Forced to kneel on the cold, wet wood of his ship’s deck, his left eye swollen shut, his blood dripping down the back of his throat from what he assumed was a thoroughly broken nose, Oliver couldn’t see his life passing before his eyes. All he could see were the faces of his sisters.

He could see all seven of them, just as they had been on that day, three long years ago: standing in a row, watching him ride away from their home on his way to join the Royal Navy. He saw Laurel, with her brow cocked and lips pressed together while she waved a disapproving goodbye; Juliette, with giant, brimming tears in her bright blue eyes; the twins Ruby and Pearl, pulling on each other’s pigtails even as they tried to behave; Constance, clutching her favorite doll with her soft gaze cast down; and Octavia, a sleeping babe in Thea’s arms.

Thea. Oliver’s Thea. She wasn’t the closest sister to him in age, but she was the closest in spirit. She was the girl who’d spent her life at his heels, challenging him and fighting him and making him laugh until his eyes watered.

Thea’s face was the one Oliver could see most clearly right now, even with the sun baring down on him and the remainder of his ship’s crew, blinding each of them to anything but the brutal pain that had been inflicted on them today.

The sight of Thea would forever be burned into Oliver’s brain, just as she’d looked at the moment when his twenty-year-old self had abandoned his family for adventure on the high seas. Thea hadn’t just been angry then; she hadn’t just been sad; she hadn’t just been in pain. She’d been all those things and so much more. Because Oliver took something from her that day – he took something from all of them – and he’d done so under the guise of duty and honor.

One of the few men still alive and kneeling on the deck with him groaned in agony and Oliver sucked in a shallow breath against his cracked ribs. Sweat dripped down into his eyes, the sting of the salt barely noticeable against the other traumas to his body. But the agony of the gashes and bruises he’d gained today felt justified, while he took what he could only assume were his last breaths on this earth. Oliver knew it was good and fair that he should feel this pain, because at this instant he could finally acknowledge to himself that joining the Royal Navy wasn’t done out of duty or honor.

He had simply run that day.

He’d run like hell away from the responsibilities of a family who depended on him with their very lives. He’d run from their ancestral home: the home that had lost a beloved mother and harbored a barely functional father. Oliver had run from the burden of seven younger sisters and an estate full of servants who’d all looked to him, the young and foolish heir of Starling, for guidance and leadership. He’d run…straight into this.

A pistol fired a few feet away from him, followed by the thud of another body slumping lifelessly onto the ship’s deck. Oliver turned his head to see the form of his captain lying at the feet of a viciously large man with stringy black hair and a wicked grin. The man kicked at the captain’s chest before he moved down the line of kneeling bodies to the next member of Oliver’s crew, a boy named Roy who was barely a year older than Thea. Roy, an orphaned lad who’d emulated Oliver from the moment he stepped foot on this ship.

The dark-haired pirate dropped the smoking pistol to the deck in order to pull a sword from the scabbard at his waist. He poked the tip of the blade against Roy’s chest and chortled. Roy winced but he did not cower.

“Stop,” Oliver growled through clenched teeth. “Stop this now.”

Oliver. Don’t,” the man kneeling beside him hissed.

Oliver turned his head to see Tommy, his childhood friend and fellow shipmate, at his side. Tommy’s nose bled down into this mouth, his teeth red as he grimaced and shook his head.

“I have to try, Tommy, I have to…”

He didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence. Not before the imposing pirate removed the tip of his sword from Roy’s chest, took several steps down the line of kneeling men, and brought his blade swiftly to rest on the back of Oliver’s neck. “What did you say?” he spit out, pressing the sharpened silver into Oliver’s skin.

“I said stop this,” Oliver answered, forcing his words past the metallic taste in his throat. “You will not kill any more of my crew.”

Your crew?” the man echoed, his cruel gaze roaming across the front of Oliver’s stained shirt and trousers before coming back to his face. “And who made you Captain of this ship?”

Blood dripped down Oliver’s spine as the pirate’s blade dug a trench into the skin of his neck. “You did. Just now. When you shot that man.”

The pirate glanced back to the fresh body laying on the deck, amongst all the other bodies he and his band of men felled this day. Except it wasn’t his band of men. Oliver knew this vicious executioner before him wasn’t in charge here. And he also knew his only hope for saving the few shipmates he had left was to appeal to the ranking officer of this pirate crew: a man Oliver could only assume would be shrewd and intelligent, based on the organization of the attack he’d witnessed today.

“Well, now,” the dark-haired pirate continued, “aren’t you the brave lad, taking responsibility for what’s left of this ship? And you get to be Captain, too. At least until I take your head from your neck. Which, unfortunately for you, is going to be right now. So I hope you enjoy your elevated status for the next two seconds.”

Oliver forced himself to keep his one good eye open while the pirate gave him a smirk and pulled his sword back, hoisting it up into the air in preparation for a swift downward swing. Oliver could only see Thea’s pained face in the silver reflection of the blade and the image forced him to scream out in a vain attempt at salvation. “Don’t be a daft ass, pirate! You’re throwing away your own treasure!”

“Slade!” a voice shouted from behind the pirate’s back. “Put your sword down!”

The command came barely in time, and the dark, looming man Oliver now knew as Slade bore a look of absolute disgust when he obeyed. Slade lowered his weapon and shifted to the side, standing before Tommy while turning to face the man who stepped toward them. “Captain,” Slade acknowledged with a bow of his head.

“What seems to be the problem here, Slade?”

“This boy says he’s the captain of this ship now. So I was going to teach him a lesson by taking off his head.”

“I see,” the pirate captain answered, his tone even and calm. “You’re a worthy teacher, Slade. Although lessons often do better if the person remains alive to learn from them.”

Slade’s eyes narrowed but he averted his gaze to the ground when his leader came to stand beside him.

Oliver stared up at the captain. He wasn’t nearly the size of Slade and yet Oliver understood this man wielded more power in his voice than Slade did in his entire looming body.

The captain’s discerning gaze landed on Oliver’s face. “What is your name, boy?” he asked, the English words tilted with an accent to match his obvious Chinese heritage.

“Oliver.”

“Well then, Captain Oliver, do tell me why you think I am throwing my treasure away.”

“It…it’s just that…”

“Speak quicker. Or I’ll allow Slade to behead you, as he so desperately wants to do.”

Oliver swallowed against the lump in his throat while Slade’s fist tightened around the grip of his blade. “We are the treasure,” Oliver replied as quickly as he could.

“You?”

“Yes, us. Men are rich property. We could be your property.”

The pirate captain’s brow rose. “And why would I want you to be my property?”

“Because I have a strong back. And a strong mind. And I know these waters through and through. I cannot speak for the remainder of my crew, since each man here must choose for himself. But as for me, if you allow me safe passage on your ship, I will pledge you my servitude for as long as you desire it.”

A smirk pulled at the edge of the captain’s dark, sun-weathered lips. “Safe passage? You think the existence of a pirate is a safe one, Captain Oliver?”

“No, it’s…no, Sir. I do not.” Oliver glanced at the bodies piled up around them on the deck, his ears filled with the grating caw of carrion birds circling above. “But this existence was not a safe one, either,” he realized, refocusing his good eye on the man standing above him. “All I am asking for is a chance.”

A chance to make it off of this ship alive. A chance to find my way back home some day. A chance to take care of my sisters as I should have three years ago, to make up for my selfish choices and utter lack of courage. A chance to see Thea again…to see her and hold her and tell her I’m still here for her.

“A chance for what?” the captain asked.

Oliver shifted his knees against the cold, wet wood of the ship’s deck. “For life, sir.”

The captain did not respond. He just stood and stared at Oliver, measuring him, for what felt like hours. Until Slade’s cruel voice cut the silence. “Captain, you cannot honestly be….”

“Silence, Slade.”

“But…but he’s one of them!”

A flash of metal appeared then, the tight edge of the pirate captain’s cutlass instantly pressed to the leathery skin beneath Slade’s chin. Oliver absorbed the even, unmoving gaze of the captain and the slight but distinct glimmer of fear in Slade’s eyes. The grizzled pirate swallowed hard, causing a drop of his own blood to slither down his captain’s sharp blade.

“Do you and I have a problem, Mr. Wilson?” the man holding the cutlass questioned.

Another swallow, another drop of Slade Wilson’s blood against the blade. “No…no…”

“What was that?”

“No, Captain.”

The pirate captain removed the metal from Slade’s throat, the cutlass re-sheathed against his body before Oliver could even register the rapid movement. Oliver stared up into the dark eyes of his new Captain. Dark eyes that held fathomless determination. And undeniable pain. And unquestionable fatigue.

Oliver could not be certain if he would live to see the light of another morning, but if he did, if this gamble he’d taken granted him a chance at life, then he would owe his allegiance to this man. And he would serve him well. At least until the moment he could break free forever.

He stared at his new Captain and the pirate stared right back, the deep lines in his weathered skin a makeshift map of all he’d seen and done. For a moment, Oliver doubted the possibility of earning mercy from such a man. He braced himself for the swing of the captain’s swift blade, but didn’t shrink from his fate. Instead, he held the pirate’s steel gaze, maintaining his ground on the rocking, blood-soaked deck of his ship.

The pirate finally nodded his head. “My name is Yao Fei. I am your master now, Oliver. And you will address me as Captain.”

“Yes, Captain,” Oliver replied, but the man had already turned away. Oliver focused his limited eyesight on the long black hair hanging down Yao Fei’s retreating back.

“Bring him!” the captain shouted over his shoulder to Slade, the words trailing while he continued walking. “And anyone else who still breathes!”

Oliver felt a smile spread his lips, even when Slade stepped back in front of him. Because at least they all had a chance now. A chance.

“I don’t know why you’re smiling,” Slade growled. “Because that man isn’t going to live forever, and the moment I become Captain, you will kneel before me again.”

“Well, until then, I suppose we’ll have to learn to get along, Mr. Wilson.”

Slade huffed out a laugh. “I don’t think so.”

Oliver still smiled in reply, even as Slade balled his fist tight and struck Oliver’s jaw with fierce abandon, knocking him down hard onto the bloodied wood.

***

Chapter 1: Home

Starling, England.

1857…

Oliver rode the last miles to his home on a horse.

After three years spent in service to the Royal Navy, and another five years “lost” at sea, he finally stepped off the dock at the Port of Starling in the middle of the night, to no fanfare at all. Tommy, Oliver’s childhood best friend and his comrade these eight years, stepped off the dock with him. The two men embraced for the briefest of moments before parting ways.

Within minutes of his feet hitting English soil, Oliver purchased a horse from an innkeeper using one of the few gold coins in his pocket. To be honest, it was severe overpayment for the rather bony creature. But Oliver couldn’t waste time haggling…not when his home and family were finally within his reach.

Moonlight illuminated the path of the horse’s hooves while he galloped them toward the Queen estate. Oliver appreciated the cover of night and trees, not wanting any of the locals to recognize him just yet. He didn’t want rumors about the return of Lord Oliver Queen, heir to the Earl of Starling, to spoil that surprise for his sisters. Because Oliver honestly hoped his return would be a good surprise. He hoped Thea would be waiting for him. He hoped all of his sisters would be there, of course, but especially Thea.

God, how many of them will already be married?

Oliver knew Laurel, Thea, Juliette, Ruby, and Pearl would all be of marrying age by now, and each of them could already have homes and families of their own. Which would leave only Constance and Octavia for Oliver to come home to, provided his youngest sisters even remembered him. Sadly, Octavia could not possibly know him; she’d only been a babe when he left. But Constance might recall him. Some of the older servants might, as well. And Oliver’s father – Robert Queen – should remember his only son. That is, if Robert still lived.

When the horse finally rounded the edge of the wooded path and found the opening of the lengthy entryway leading to the Queen lands, Oliver attempted to focus on the large house looming in the distance. His ancestral home looked even bigger somehow, and as he took in the sight of the place he’d dreamt of nearly every night for the last eight years, Oliver’s heart stuttered in his chest.

Please let someone within those walls remember me. Please.

The horse’s hooves beat a loud and steady tattoo on the dirt path lined with overgrown shrubs. Oliver frowned at the sight of the unkempt entryway, his grimace growing even deeper with the further evidence of deterioration he noted when he moved closer to home. Vines now overtook the front face of the manor, and crumbled brick and mortar lay in piles beside the once proud parapets surrounding the entry. Even the adjacent fields, which harbored thriving crops in his youth, appeared barren and still in the dark night.

He slowed the horse’s movements, easing the willowy steed to a trot as the trepidation in his chest grew. He’d left this place…left these people. He’d left them all here to fend for themselves eight years ago, and seeing the current state of their home, Oliver acknowledged that they had not faired well in his absence.

That realization made his scars ache. Not the elusive scars within his heart and mind, but the actual scars that littered his body. In times of great stress, he could feel them all – each and every one. They had all healed over time, of course, at least to varying degrees. But Oliver knew by heart the location and circumstance of every scar he’d amassed through the years and right now they all nagged and pulled at his heart.

“Don’t hate me,” he whispered to the people he could not yet see, his gaze fixed on the dilapidated face of his home while he brought the horse to a halt before the entrance. “Please don’t hate me.”

Oliver dismounted just as the front door opened. He blinked his eyes, trying to make out the dark figure illuminated from behind by the glow of the house’s innards. The person standing in the doorway was a woman…he could tell from her small form and gently curved silhouette. But he didn’t know which woman she was.

“It’s me,” he said in a hushed tone, hoping to not scare the tiny creature. “It’s Oliver.”

“Oliver? Oliver? Is it really you?”

“Thea? Is that you, Thea?”

She launched herself at him. Oliver caught his sister against his chest, his arms folding twice over her back as he lifted her from the ground.

“Oh God, oh God, you’re here,” Thea breathed, her shaking arms circling his neck. “How is this possible? I thought you were dead. We all thought you were dead.”

“I’m not dead,” Oliver insisted, even though he knew it was a lie. The brother Thea remembered had died years ago and the Oliver who came home to her tonight was another man entirely. But at least he had come home. “I’m here, Thea. I’m here.”

“Thank the sweet heavens,” she sang, her words catching with emotion while tears fell down her face, moistening his skin. “I’ve missed you so much, Oliver. I love you.”

Oliver held her tighter, squeezing onto her as hard as he could, allowing eight years worth of tears to seep silently from his eyes. “I’m home now. I’m home.”

***

Pennyshire, England.

Ten months later…

Felicity Smoak walked among the primly kept gardens of the Smoak estate, soaking in the beauty of their family manor in the distance. The home Noah had purchased for his wife Donna, as well as Felicity and her sister Caitlin, was expansive and ornate and quite simply gorgeous. Felicity remembered thinking the estate was a castle when her parents brought her and Caitlin here ten years ago. She’d only been twelve years old then, and Cait only nine, when this became their life.

Felicity still couldn’t quite believe that this was, in fact, their life now. A life of rich foods. And household servants. And silk clothes. And scratchy undergarments – which she refused to wear, if for no other reason than the irritation. Although the fact that her refusal to wear knickers irritated her mother was a tiny joy in an otherwise dull new world.

But a lady of status should always wear knickers, Felicity. That is who you are now; you are a lady of status. Or at least a lady in the making.

She frowned at the sound of her mother’s voice in her head. Felicity supposed she would never get used to feeling like a lady, instead of the London street urchin she’d been – contentedly running amok in filthy alleyways, covered in dirt and wearing breeches meant for a lad. And technically, she wasn’t Lady Felicity. Not yet. Not until the day she would be married into title.

Forcibly married into title,” she corrected herself with a grimace.

Flopping down in the lush grass beneath a sun-shading elm, Felicity cleared her thoughts of the ominous future before her and instead concentrated on the present. Pulling her spectacles from the pocket of her overcoat, she perched them on the tip of her nose. Then she unfolded the London newspaper she’d pilfered from her father’s study last night, a jolt of thrill flashing through her body at the thought of her sneaky accomplishment. Grasping the newspaper page in both hands, Felicity’s eyes moved purposefully over each story, her brain soaking in the information and cataloguing it instantly.

She lovingly read every word, from the notifications of Parliament, right down to the paper’s advertisements: sellers announcing miracles that ranged from insomnia cures to hair restorative tonics to other kinds of tonics…namely gin, brandy, and rum. Felicity giggled while she read, envisioning rum-soused men dozing off in their Parliament chairs while sporting overgrown hair and drunken grins. Shaking her head at the farcical image in her mind, Felicity’s eyes finally travelled to the most exciting story on the page, the one she’d saved for last.

The pirate Blackheart struck disaster upon another Chinese village this week, looting and destroying at will…Efforts to capture Blackheart have been futile yet again and he remains at large…Rewards continue to grow for anyone aiding in the capture of this menace and his crew…

A chill ran up Felicity’s spine at the thought of such a beast as Blackheart wreaking havoc out in the world. She wanted to say her chill originated from fear, because that is the reason a lady of status would shiver with such a thought. But Felicity knew her heart better than that, and for a moment she allowed herself the vision of Captain Felicity of the Royal Navy, avenging the world with the pirate Blackheart beneath her blade. She would bring the beast to justice, and then she would collect the bounty on Blackheart’s head. Which would mean that she would have her own riches and be able to support herself. And never, ever be forced to marry.

Felicity smiled wildly with that daydream, the smile remaining on her lips even when she stood from the ground, refolded the newspaper, and slipped both the page and her spectacles back into the pocket of her silk-and-lace peach overcoat. The fine silk dressing gown beneath her matching coat flowed softly across her knicker-free legs as she walked toward the backside of the Smoak estate. Felicity headed purposefully for the kitchen door, even though she was well aware that this was a servants’ entrance.

Holding her breath, she listened for voices before stepping inside. The chattering sounds of two women – Isabel and Helena, the family maids – tickled her ear, and Felicity grinned. Donna Smoak often complained about her husband not being able to find more cultured maids to work in their household, despite the fact that Pennyshire was only a half-day’s carriage ride away from either London or Starling. But Felicity loved the fact that their family’s “new” money would not attract more refined servants…because she could read her father’s newspapers and books from morning until night, but there would never be a better wealth of information in the world than the mouths of maids.

“Good morning, Isabel and Helena,” Felicity offered when she entered the kitchen.

The servants jumped a bit before spinning around to face her.

“Miss,” they said in unison, both giving her a curtsy. Each of the maids were a few years older than her and each were beautiful, with long, dark hair and tall, shapely bodies outlined by pinstriped gray uniforms.

Felicity shifted a loose blond curl behind her ear while glancing down to the basket of fruit on the counter. “It is a beautiful day, is it not?”

“So beautiful, Miss,” Helena agreed. “Would you like a piece of fruit?”

“Yes, thank you,” Felicity said, grabbing a sprig of grapes amongst the apples and oranges, appreciating the fact that such rich offerings were a staple in their household now.

“Hope you’ll have a lovely day, Miss,” Isabel added.

“You as well.” Felicity nodded to both of them, making eye contact and exchanging smiles. Then she stepped through the vast kitchen and out of the doorway, into the long hall.

Felicity’s foot landed purposefully on the squeaky floorboard just to the right of the kitchen door and she bounced against it a few times, with lesser and lesser intensity, making it sound as if she were walking away. Once her task was complete, she stepped off to the side of the board and leaned her spine against the wall beside the kitchen, stilling her body and opening her ears.

“Did you see that, Isabel?” Helena’s voice drifted into the hall. “She picked a fruit.”

Isabel laughed shrilly. “The Picky Princess of Pennyshire managed to pick something!”

Felicity winced at her assigned title as she eavesdropped from her favorite spot outside the kitchen doorway.

The Picky Princess of Pennyshire.

Would she never live that down?

The maids giggled together until Isabel hummed in the back of her throat. “Can’t really blame her though, can you? For not picking the heir to the Earl of Centreville?”

“Why can’t I blame her?” Helena bit back. “Lord Bartholomew Allen is a true gentleman. Not to mention rich and of a pleasing countenance. The Picky Princess would have had everything a woman could want if she’d accepted him for a husband.”

“Listen to you, Helena. Of a pleasing countenance? You’re starting to sound like one of these stuffy country fools. And I can most definitely see why Felicity refused him.”

“Alright then…go on and tell me why she should have refused Lord Allen’s courtship.”

“Because he’s entirely too young and pure of heart. He never would have ravished her. Not once. And even worse, there’s his name.”

“What’s wrong with his name?”

“Bartholomew? Do you really have to ask what’s wrong with Bartholomew? Can you imagine screaming that in bed? Oh, Bartholomew! Give me your manly cock, Bartholomew!”

Felicity pinched her lips together, her eyes watering while she tried to muffle the unintelligible noises coming from her throat.

“Isabel! You’re evil!” Helena shrieked. “And bloody hysterical!”

“Bartholomew! Oh, Bartholomew! Don’t stop rutting me, Bartholomew!”

Helena’s cackling laughter resounded through the kitchen and into the hallway as Isabel grunted and groaned quite animatedly.

“But you know Felicity and Cait call him Barry,” Helena defended. “That isn’t terrible.”

“It’s terrible,” Isabel snipped. “And even if his name were better, he’s still barely a man. I wouldn’t want a boy between my legs.”

“Well then, who do you want between your legs?”

“You mean if I could pick any man in the world?”

“Yes.”

“Hmm. I suppose I’d pick…the pirate Blackheart.”

Felicity’s eyes widened.

Blackheart?” Helena echoed. “Why would you spread your knees for that? I heard he’s old and grizzled, with stringy black hair and dark cruel eyes, and that he eats the limbs off of children for breakfast.”

“Oh, rubbish. I heard he’s young and fine, with long, flowing black hair and a chiseled jaw and cheekbones, and that he beds a dozen wenches a night.”

Young and fine? He’s been terrorizing ships and ports for over twenty years! How could he possibly be young and fine?”

“Well…what if he’s discovered the Fountain of Youth? Just think of it! To be young and beautiful forever, and a pirate’s bride!”

Helena clucked her tongue. “Young and beautiful are both well and good, but I don’t believe pirates actually take brides, Isabel. Only mistresses.”

“I suppose I’ll just have to be the head of his mistresses, then. And I’ll keep Blackheart’s hands so full, he’ll only be able to bed six other wenches a night!”

The maids burst into ferocious giggles while Felicity stood stiff as a board in the hallway, her brow lodged solidly into her hairline. She dared not move a muscle, until a lowly whispered, “Tsk! Tsk!” drew her attention. Her gaze flew down the corridor to where Caitlin now stood.

Felicity pinched her lips and stared at her sister while Cait frantically motioned her away from the kitchen door. Dropping her shoulders, Felicity shimmied sideways across the silent floorboard by the wall until she reached the end of the lengthy hall. Once satisfied that she was out of the maids’ range of hearing, Felicity stepped over onto the finely woven rug in the adjoining corridor.

Popping a few grapes into her mouth, Felicity chewed as innocently as possible. She swallowed hard before looking to Cait’s face. “What is it, dear sister?”

Cait shook her head. “Why do I always know where to find you?”

“I must gather knowledge in any way I can,” Felicity replied with a grin.

“I highly doubt that what our maids say could be considered knowledge, Felicity. And I think you would know, better than most, not to listen to the gossip of others.”

Felicity frowned at the withered look on Cait’s sweet face. “I hear the gossip, Cait, but I don’t listen to it. Not if I can help it. And there’s a world of information inside of all that idle prattle – a world of information that I cannot obtain from books or newspapers.”

“I realize you believe that. And I also realize that you want to fill your mind with all the knowledge there is.” Cait reached out to run her hand down Felicity’s arm. “Even if there are some things you do not wish to hear about.”

“What does that mean? Do you know something I do not?”

“I’m afraid I do.”

Felicity watched her sister’s eyes fill with concern, which made her stomach plummet to her feet. “What is it? Just tell me. Please.”

Caitlin exhaled. “Papa wants to see you. Now. And he’s wearing his serious wig.”

“Oh heavens, not the wig.”

“Yes. The wig.”

“Dear God,” Felicity breathed, knowing Papa’s ridiculous wig could only mean one thing: Judgment Day. “I suppose I’d better be off to see him, then. I assume he’s in his study?”

Cait nodded as she fell into step beside Felicity’s now unsteady feet, walking in sync while turning several corners through the manor on their way to Noah Smoak.

“Do you want me to come in with you, Felicity?”

“No, thank you. I must do this on my own.”

“But you know I’d do anything for you.”

Felicity stopped a few doors down from the study and turned to look into Cait’s eyes. Her sister contrasted her in nearly every way: Caitlin was taller and thinner, and had brown hair and eyes in opposition to Felicity’s blond and blue. But mostly, Cait was an angel, as pure and glorious as fresh fallen snow sparkling in the morning sun.

Bending over to avoid the wide bell cage of Cait’s stylish maroon skirt, Felicity pecked her on the cheek. “I know you would, Cait. And I would do anything for you. But don’t worry about me. Everything will be fine, I’m sure.”

Cait grabbed Felicity by the shoulders and gave her a quick hug, unable to hide the tears in her eyes when she released her and turned away. Felicity watched her sister glide down the hallway, hearing the soft rustle of her fine dress even after she floated around the corner. The moment Felicity was alone, she took a deep breath in and inched toward her father’s door.

“Are you in here, Papa?” she called when she arrived at his study, cautiously stepping one foot over the threshold. “Cait said you wanted to see me?”

“Yes, Felicity. Do come in.”

She saw her father then, sitting behind his stately desk with his frumpy white wig of curls pulled down hard over his head. Even with the potential doom stretched out before her, Felicity couldn’t help but smile. “No one wears those wigs anymore, Papa,” she chided, stepping forward to embrace him as she always did.

Noah Smoak held out his hand, stopping her advancement. “Felicity. Do not. We have serious matters to discuss.”

Halting her footsteps in front of his desk, she bit down hard into her lip. This was not like her father. He never refused her affections. Even in his foulest mood – when he might refuse the company of his wife or of his younger daughter – Noah never refused Felicity. Not before now.

“I…I do not understand what could possibly be so serious that I cannot hug you,” she said, unable to hide the quiver in her voice.

Noah’s brow knitted together. “You will see soon enough. Sit down, please.”

She edged slowly into the ornately carved chair facing him.

“Now then, my eldest daughter,” he began with unfamiliar formality, “you and I both know there is a matter which we have not settled in your life. The matter of a husband.”

Felicity’s heart pounded with his words but she forced a soft smile onto her lips. “Oh, Papa, we do not need to visit this silly business again, do we? Don’t you agree that I’ll be of more use to you and Mama here?”

“No. You cannot stay with us. You must marry into title. You know this.”

“But, why can’t I…”

“You will marry into title and that is final!”

His barked words made her blink rapidly, fending off the moisture springing up in her eyes. Felicity schooled herself and nodded. “Yes. I do know what is expected of me.”

Noah’s body remained stiff, despite the earnest awareness in his gaze. “Felicity, the expectation I place on you is of vital importance to the future of our family status. Our money is plentiful, but it is not old or noble. I need you to marry a noble man of noble birth. And as such, I have decided to give you a choice between two men of appropriate standing.”

A choice? He is giving me a choice this time?

Felicity clasped her hands in her lap, gripping her fingers while she awaited the verdict.

Noah leaned forward, looking her in the eye. “The first suitor I have selected for you is George Susserby, Duke of Dunworthy.”

Acid pushed immediately into her throat. “The Duke of Dunworthy? He’s older than you, Papa! With sons older than me!”

“Yes, but it is proven that he can have sons, since he has had them with his three previous wives. And even though your son with the Duke would not be first in line to his estates, he will still be titled.”

“But how can you even be sure a man that old can give me a son?”

Noah sighed. “Men can have children quite late in life, dear girl. It is the woman who must have a young and healthy womb to grow her husband’s seed.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Would you like me to moo now, Papa?”

“What?”

“Well, if I’m going to be treated as cattle, I thought I could moo to complete the picture.”

Noah’s voice fell to a frightening level when he replied. “You will watch your tongue with me, Felicity. I indulge your manner of speaking quite often because I am your father and I know how you’ve been raised, but your frankness is neither proper nor desired amongst people of society. And I am not the villain in this story. I found you a suitable man – a young, intelligent, pleasant man – and what did you do with my efforts? You refused him! You simply refused the heir of Centreville, flat out! So now this is the decision you are left with. You should just be grateful that I am giving you any choice in the matter.”

Felicity clenched her teeth, unable to keep herself from glaring across the desk at her father. Even though she knew he spoke the truth…she had refused Barry. And that decision led her here, to this moment.

“So,” she said, trying to keep her body still when all she wanted to do was run for the door of the study, and then keep on running, forever. “Would you care to tell me who my other choice of husband is?”

Noah settled back into his chair. “His name is Lord Oliver Queen. He’s the heir to the Earl of Starling.”

Her jaw fell open. “You mean the Royal Navy sailor who was lost at sea for five years?”

“Yes, that’s the one. Apparently, he and a fellow shipmate were castaways for that time period, but they’ve been back in Starling for nearly a year now. The Navy gave them each an honorable discharge shortly after their return to England, secondary to the suffering they endured. And now the young heir is home, attempting to manage his estate.”

“What’s wrong with his estate?”

“It fell into disrepair in his absence. His father Robert, the Earl of Starling, has not been well for some time. So now Lord Oliver Queen is responsible for upkeep of their manor as well as the care of his seven sisters, all of whom are unmarried and require dowries.”

Her breath caught in her throat. “So…so you’re saying that my one dowry can provide for seven others?”

Noah sighed. “I am a very wealthy man. You know this.”

Felicity’s heart sunk deep inside her chest. She had never felt more like an object for sale than she did at this moment. And that thought brought fresh tears to her eyes.

Her father’s shoulders dropped at the sight. “Felicity, dearest, please see that I am trying to be reasonable here. I realize I did not give you a choice in the matter a few months ago when I presented Lord Allen as your one and only suitor. But I am giving you a choice now.”

Felicity shook her head, because she knew this wasn’t really a choice. Because even if she could choose which man she would marry, she still couldn’t choose neither. She could not choose to make her own decision.

A knock at the door of the study startled her, nearly toppling Felicity from her seat.

“Come in,” Noah said.

Felicity turned to see a sharply dressed man step into the room, carrying a large black case. She looked back to her father. “Who is this, Papa?”

“This is Mr. Havensborg. He is a photographer.”

“Who is he taking a photo of?”

“You. The photo will be placed in a locket, to be sent to the man you choose to marry.”

Blood boiled behind her eyes, instantly drying her tears. “How lovely. I’m glad my husband will have a chance to view his goods before he purchases,” she bit out.

Felicity,” Noah growled.

“Fine. Just…fine. I’ll take the photo.”

She sat quietly, trying to calm her nerves, as Mr. Havensborg assembled his equipment and then placed a stool into the middle of the room for her. Felicity moved to the seat when instructed and posed as she was told. But her eyes still drifted to the floor while she considered the options her father had given her: to be the fourth wife of an old man who did not need her for anything more than a place card; or to be the much-needed, but possibly unwanted, wife of a returned castaway with a home to rescue and seven sisters to provide for.

Sadness sunk into her chest with either thought because Felicity knew that, as a woman, marriage was her only option for lands and support. Which meant her life would never truly be her own and her decisions would always be made for her, by one man or another. And this ruse of a choice her father presented now was not really a choice at all.

The popping noise of the camera snapped Felicity from her thoughts and she glanced up to see that Mr. Havensborg had already completed his task.

“But…I wasn’t even looking at the camera,” Felicity considered aloud, although she understood it didn’t really matter. This photo would simply prove to her future husband that she lacked significant physical malady and hadn’t been born with three eyeballs.

“I’m sure it will be fine,” her father dismissed with a wave of his hand, turning his attentions back to the photographer. “Now please have the photo placed into a fine metal locket, Mr. Havensborg. I would like this completed as soon as possible.”

“Of course, Mr. Smoak. Where would you like me to send the locket?”

“I will messenger you with the proper address by the end of the day.”

Felicity’s brow shot up with her father’s words, her stomach churning anew. Rising from her seat, she moved to the far corner of the room, staring at the bookshelves and trying to seek comfort by looking to the volumes of pages she loved so much. But even the sight of these treasured books could not calm her tortured heart.

The moment Felicity heard Mr. Havensborg leave the room, she spun around to face her father. “The end of the day? You’re only giving me until the end of the day to choose?”

Noah’s stern gaze did not falter. “That is correct.”

Felicity sucked in a deep breath, prepared to yell at the top of her lungs.

But then Helena entered the room, carrying the basket of fruit from the kitchen.

“Oh, pardon me, Mr. Smoak,” Helena offered. “I was just bringing in your food.”

“You can place it on the desk,” Noah said, his discerning gaze not leaving his daughter.

Felicity glanced to the maid, watching as she deposited the basket and then turned silently toward the wall. Helena pulled a dusting cloth from her apron and began moving it idly across the frame of a painting. Felicity stared at the maid’s back, wondering when this woman would leave so Felicity could resume arguing with her father. For all the good it would do her.

But then, as she stared at Helena’s idle movements, the wheels in Felicity’s mind turned in a new direction. Because she knew beyond doubt that nothing she said to her father would change his mind on this matter. So her only hope now was to gather more knowledge to inform the dreaded decision she must make.

Looking back to him, Felicity straightened her spine, stared him in the eye, and began speaking loud and clear. “So what you’re saying, Papa, is that I must make a choice between the two men you have picked for me to marry. I must either choose to wed Oliver Queen, heir to the Earl of Starling, or to wed George Susserby, Duke of Dunworthy. And you are only giving me until the end of the day to make that choice.”

Felicity did not have to look at Helena to notice the hitch of her breath.

Noah Smoak’s brow rose. “Yes, Felicity, that’s exactly what I’m saying. But thank you for repeating it all in summation because now I am certain you have heard me.”

“Oh yes, I heard you, Papa,” she replied, her eyes darting to Helena’s retreating back as the maid hastily fled the room. “And I will have my answer by the end of the day.”

“See that you do,” he said, his tone still stern and formal. But then Noah exhaled heavily, his eyes softening. “And please try to see that I do this for your own good, dearest. For your future and the future of your children.”

Felicity nodded, even though she didn’t want to hear his gentle words, or see the kindness in his eyes. She could not accept that right now, not when he was giving her this wretched ultimatum. So she simply curtsied to her father and diverted her attention to the exit.

She walked to the doorway with calm poise, but the moment Felicity stepped out of her father’s study and into the hallway, she began running as fast as her legs would carry her. When she finally arrived at the lengthy corridor leading to the kitchens, she took great care not to step on the squeaky floorboards. Instead, she shimmied with her back to the wall, across the quiet part of the flooring, until she was close enough to the kitchen door to hear the maids.

Although she didn’t really have to be that close, because Helena was screeching.

“Isabel! Isabel, Isabel, Isabel!”

Felicity heard the back kitchen door slam shut, followed by the sound of footsteps.

“Bloody hell, you’re going to crack my ears, Helena! I could hear you from outside!”

“But you are not going to believe what I just discovered!”

“Calm yourself down! I can barely hear my own thoughts over your racket.”

Helena took several deep breaths, but then cackled riotously. “Oh, Isabel, it’s so good!”

“Out with it, then.”

“It’s the Picky Princess! She’s been given another pick!”

Another pick? Do you mean her father found her a new suitor?”

“Not just one suitor…two! She gets her pick of two men now!”

“Oh God, this is good! Tell me! Tell me!”

“Well, her first choice is Oliver Queen, heir to the Earl of Starling.”

Isabel gasped. “Oliver Queen? Are you certain?”

“Indeed.”

A hush fell over the kitchen and Felicity squinted her eyes in the hallway, as if that might help her to better hear the maids. But then Isabel inhaled sharply and spoke with grave certainty. “This is not good. I think perhaps Felicity should have chosen Lord Allen after all.”

“You’re changing your mind about her refusing the young heir? Why?”

“Because, Helena. As much as Bartholomew Allen is a boy, Oliver Queen is a man. And even if I don’t rightly care what becomes of the Picky Princess, I still don’t think it’s proper that she be asked to handle that much of a man.”

“Well perhaps Oliver Queen was quite the man, once upon a time. But I don’t think he is anymore, not since he returned from the sea.” Helena sighed. “I hear his time as a castaway beat him down to the pulp. I hear he’s merely a broken shell of a man now. Nothing left of him but the skin on his bones.”

Felicity’s heart thudded deep in her chest.

A broken shell of a man. Nothing left of him but the skin on his bones.

Isabel gave a haughty laugh. “Maybe Lord Queen only has the skin on his bones remaining, but let me tell you, that’s some bloody handsome skin.”

“Really? Have you had your hands on his skin?”

“Unfortunately not. But I know many a maiden who sought his company back when he was a young and wild buck, trolling the streets of London with pockets full of gold coins and flasks of brandy. And I hear he’s still as gorgeous as he ever was, perhaps even more so now, after all that time spent laboring at sea. I imagine his muscles have muscles.”

“But…is that what a wife really wants? Just a pretty shell for a husband? Because I don’t believe any man could return home – after being lost for five long years – with his heart intact.”

“Blimey, Helena, when did you become such a sop?”

“All I’m saying is that it makes sense for his heart to be damaged.”

Isabel harrumphed. “Honestly, I don’t care about the damage to his heart, as long as his body is intact. After all, the man has a history of being quite the rake, fully capable of rutting a woman in a good and proper way. I think any wife could appreciate that. In fact, my cousin’s best friend’s sister personally knows fifteen different girls the young heir bedded back before he left for the Navy. They all say he’s hung like a bull with the stamina to match.”

Felicity’s eyes widened as she stared blankly at the wall before her.

“So I don’t think it rightly matters whether Lord Oliver Queen is a broken shell or not,” Isabel continued, “because a man with that past doesn’t forget how to take care of a woman’s needs, no matter how broken he’s become.”

The kitchen quieted while Felicity’s heart pounded even louder.

A moment later, Helena exhaled. “I suppose you’re right. And even if he is damaged goods, I imagine he’s still a better choice than the other man.”

“Who is the other option for the Princess?”

Helena giggled. “Are you ready for it?”

“Yes, yes! Tell me!”

“George Susserby, Duke of Dunworthy.”

Isabel’s shriek resounded into the hallway, making Felicity jump.

“Good God, tell me you’re joking, Helena!”

“I’m not! I swear I’m not!”

“But the Duke of Dunworthy is old enough to be her grandfather!”

“I know! Can you imagine choosing that? Although…”

“Although what?”

“I heard he has vast, fine estates, filled with the best of everything London has to offer. The Princess would want for nothing.”

“Nothing except passion and lust and desire,” Isabel scoffed. “If she picks that, she’ll turn to dust within the year, simply from lack of use.”

“Oh dear, that’s probably true. I’ve heard the Duke falls asleep in his soup bowl at the dinner table. And that his last three wives all died of boredom.”

“And I heard he only has one ball hanging beneath his shriveled old cock.”

Felicity vomited a bit in her mouth.

“Only one ball? Bloody hell, that’s horrid.”

“Isn’t it, though?”

“God, could you imagine having such a choice to make?” Helena questioned, her voice now falling low and hushed. “I can honestly say, for once in my life, that I do not wish to trade places with the Picky Princess of Pennyshire. Not at all.”

“You do have a point. We may just be working girls, but we can at least choose our own mate based on good-and-lusty desire. Or based on love, if you believe in that sort of thing.”

“I do believe in love, Isabel. And I’m grateful I can love any man I want. But the Princess cannot. She can only choose to live out her days with a wrinkled old Duke who will kill her with boredom, or to throw herself into the arms of a handsome ex-rake who is already dead. And that is not really a choice at all.”

With those words, Felicity turned and fled down the hallway, not even mindful of the noise she made when her feet trampled over the squeaking floorboards.

***

Oliver stared at the shrub before him. It was an unruly boxwood plant, living beside another of its kind in one of the many congested gardens behind the Queen manor. But it would not be unruly for much longer.

Hoisting his sword above his head, the metal of the blade gleaming brightly in the noonday sun, Oliver poised himself. His eyes sought out the overgrown, skewed branches, his body preparing for the kill. Then he brought the sword down in a swift, sure stroke, cleaving the unwanted foliage away with sharp precision. He repeated the motion again and again, until the plant bowed to his command.

“There you have it,” he acknowledged to himself while inspecting the newly squared shrub. “It is perfect now.”

“I’d say so,” a voice replied from behind him, causing Oliver to spin around and direct his sword at the intruder, all in one rapid, blurred motion.

Thea didn’t even blink when the tip of the blade pointed to her chest. “Hello to you, too, Oliver.”

He instantly dropped the sword to his side, his hand fisting the grip. “You shouldn’t sneak up on me like that, Thea. I could have taken off your head.”

“But you wouldn’t,” she stated with a shrug.

Oliver heaved out his held breath. Swiping at his sweat-soaked brow with the long sleeve of his white cotton shirt, he returned his attention to the boxwoods. Raising his sword again, he prepared a fatal blow for the next unsuspecting plant.

“I see you finally trimmed your hair,” Thea spoke to the back of his head.

“Yes. The length was irritating me.”

“It looks darker, since you’ve cut it so short. No more blond streaks now, just a light brown. I remember when you were a young lad and had hair nearly white as snow.”

And I remember when you were a babe and didn’t track my every move.

“But you’ve kept the prickly scruff on your jaw.”

“Yes, that’s right.” Oliver brought his blade down, slicing off another section of unkempt branches while hoping his sister had finished stating the obvious.

Thea sighed. “Why do you do this?”

“Do what?”

“Constantly attack things with your sword? There’s no one to battle here. You’re home. There’s nothing to fight against.”

Oliver didn’t turn around. He also didn’t respond. Because it still felt like there were so many things to fight, regardless of what Thea thought.

“You worry me so much when you do this,” she continued, her breathing turning uneven. “It makes me frightened that you’re going to leave us again.”

“I’m not leaving. I’m here now. I told you that the first night I came back.”

“Yes, you did. You told me then that you’d come home. But it’s been ten months since you rode back to our doorstep, yet I still don’t think you’re home.” She moved, stepping up to his side, working to gain his attention. “In truth, I have yet to see my brother. I mean, you look like him, but you don’t act like him. All you ever do is hack at things with your sword. Especially the shrubbery. And please do not think me ungrateful…we have the finest sword-maintained shrubs in all of Starling, I’m sure. But even though you’ve hardly left our estate since your return, you’re still not really here.”

Oliver forced a deep breath in before looking to her, but the fullness of his lungs didn’t stop the constriction of his chest when he witnessed her pain. So Oliver dropped his gaze to the ground, and let the air sink slowly out of his body. And he tried, for the thousandth time since he’d arrived home nearly a year ago, to clear his memories of the fathomlessly wretched things he’d done while he was away.

Thea stepped closer to his side. “It’s as if you left a world out there at sea – a whole other world that’s waiting for your return – and you pine for that world as you lay here in wait.”

He shook his head with her words, because even though Thea was right about the fact that he’d left a whole other world behind him, it was not a world he wanted to return to. Ever.

“You don’t even smile anymore,” she persisted in his silence. “Do you know that? You don’t laugh, either. I mean, I don’t expect you to chortle uproariously at every turn, but a little chuckle from time to time seems fair. Although at this point I will settle for a simple smile.”

Oliver forced the tip of his blade into the soil at his feet, freeing his hands. He turned his body fully toward his sister’s. Then he pulled his lips up obligingly.

Thea winced. “Good Lord, I hope that is not your definition of a smile.”

“That was a perfectly fine smile.”

“No, it was not. That was terrifying, to be honest. I swear sometimes I think you’re just like Father. Except instead of hacking at things with a sword, Father merely sits in his study all day long, pickling his innards with brandy and waiting for the days to pass until the moment the Reaper comes to take him away.”

Oliver grimaced, because his sister’s joust hit him square in his chest. He didn’t want to be the man their father had become – wallowing in misery and wishing to die. He wanted to be something more. But honest to God, he just didn’t know how.

Thea’s brow knit together at the look on his face and Oliver realized that his obvious uncertainty made her tenacity understandable. After all, Thea and Laurel had worked to hold this estate together since the moment he’d escaped to the seas. His sisters had grown, through those eight years, into fearsome women; they could do the work of any servant and still hold themselves poised in the face of society. Laurel had become their family’s unfailing leader and Thea could wield a sharpened blade – both an actual sword’s blade, as well as the cutting blade of her tongue – better than most men he’d seen. They were exceptional people and Oliver wanted to be the brother they deserved. He wanted to be a man that each of his seven sisters could look up to, since Robert Queen had failed them all on that front.

Thea,” Oliver entreated with both his voice and his eyes, “please understand that I’m doing the best I can. I perform all the chores Laurel asks of me. I’ve been tackling these gardens single-handedly and I’m beating them back into shape, slowly but surely. I do everything our servants would do, if we had any remaining. I don’t know what other function I can perform in order to make you see that I am here to stay.”

Thea stilled for a moment, her head tilting as she regarded him. “I’ve not seen you cry once since the night you came back home. Despite all the pain I know you must have gone through in your time away.”

He ran a rough hand through his cropped hair. “Is that what you expect of me? You expect me to burst into random fits of tears?”

She stepped further into him, craning her neck to meet his blue eyes with her green ones. “You have to let someone in, dear brother. It doesn’t have to be me; it just has to be someone. For your own good, you must let someone inside, so you can find your joy again.”

“I am perfectly well as I am.”

She placed her fists on her hips. “Promise me you’ll try, Oliver. Promise me you’ll try to find a reason to smile.”

“Thea…”

Promise me!

He stared down at the little ball of determination that was his sister – with her worn grey work dress, roughly pinned brown hair, and deep, fiery eyes – and Oliver huffed out a laugh.

“Aye, Captain. I promise you.”

Thea grinned with the title he awarded her. Then she curtsied, which looked strange coming from such a perfectly ferocious woman. “I’m going to head back to the house now,” she stated, turning on her heels. But her tracks stopped the instant they started. “Oh, I almost forgot. Tommy’s come to visit again. He’s in the kitchen, speaking with Laurel.”

Oliver’s brow rose with that information and he picked his sword up and followed Thea to the back of the manor. They cleared the distance between the gardens and the house in just a few minutes. Oliver could hear Thomas Merlyn speaking before he even stepped inside.

“The years have been so kind to you, Laurel,” Tommy offered Oliver’s eldest sister in a deep, soothing tone. “Although I’m sure you’ve heard that before.”

“I heard it just last week, in fact,” Laurel replied when Oliver and Thea entered the kitchen. “From you, Tommy.”

The dark-haired man straightened from his position leaning on the counter the instant Oliver entered his line of sight. “Well, if it isn’t Lord Queen. Bloody good to see you, mate.”

Oliver’s lips pulled into a straight line. “Did you come to see me, Merlyn? Or did you come to see my sister?”

Tommy’s gaze drifted back to Laurel for a moment and Oliver observed the wistful, besotted look on his friend’s face. He remembered how his father used to look at his mother just like that, like the sun rose and set within her. And he remembered how Robert Queen had spiraled into hell the moment Moira was lost to them – how he’d sunk instantly into a world of drinking and gambling, of self-pity and sorrow.

It was a fate Oliver would save any man from, if he could.

“Well I’m here to see you, dear friend. Of course,” Tommy answered once he managed to drag his eyes from Laurel’s.

“Good,” Oliver bit back. “Then why don’t we go for a walk? Just you and I? Perhaps in the gardens?”

“The gardens? Are they even capable of being walked in?”

Oliver gripped his sword harder. “They’re getting there.”

Tommy glanced down to Oliver’s clenched hand before offering the women a lazy smile each. “Lady Laurel. Lady Thea. I do hope to share your sweet company another time.”

Laurel gave him a stiff nod before turning her attention to her brother. “Oliver?”

“Yes?”

“The rugs in the main hall need to be taken outside and beaten, and I cannot lift them by myself.”

“I’ll get to it later today.”

“Thank you.”

Oliver took one last glance at Thea before he led Tommy out of the kitchen and onto the path behind the estate. His friend fell into step easily beside him, as Oliver knew he would. After all, he and Tommy had spent most of their lives together, in one form or another: from childhood playmates, to companions in youthful debauchery, to fellow sailors, to…all of the roles they’d filled in the last five years they were at sea. Oliver knew he could count on Tommy for anything and everything, since Tommy was truly his brother in every way that mattered.

“So,” Tommy said, breaking the easy silence of their walk. “I suppose you’ve heard the newest tales of the pirate Blackheart.”

Oliver’s fingers twitched against the hilt of his sword. “No, I have not.”

“Don’t you read the newspaper?”

“No.”

“Well, they say Blackheart is looting and destroying villages in China.”

Oliver glanced over to meet his friend’s pointed gaze. “That is what pirates do, isn’t it? They loot and destroy.”

Tommy smiled, but it did not reach his eyes. “Yes, I suppose they do.”

Oliver looked out to the vast, uncultivated fields past the Queen gardens. “We are back now, Tommy. Back to civilized society, back to the life we always wanted to live. So now we must let go of the past and the things we cannot change.”

“And how are you doing with that? Have you been able to just let things go? Because I’ll tell you honestly, I’m having a bloody hell of time letting anything go.”

Tommy,” Oliver pleaded, his voice cracking. “We’re…we’re good here. Things are good for us now.”

“Damn, Oliver. How often do you have to tell yourself that lie in order to believe it?”

Oliver halted his footsteps and spiked his sword down into the earth, allowing his shoulders to slump beside his oldest and deepest friend. “God, I tell myself that lie constantly. And I still don’t believe it.”

“I know. I know exactly how you feel.”

Shaking his head, Oliver tried to maintain the grasping hold he had on his life. “It will get better, won’t it? If we tell ourselves that it will get better, then it will. Right?”

Tommy didn’t reply for the longest time. Then he clapped Oliver on the back and gave him a genuine smile. “I do know one way I can make things better for you. And also for me.”

Oliver eyed him cautiously. “I’m listening.”

“Well, you see…it’s just…your sisters are all beautiful. And smart and brave and lovely. And yet they’re all unmarried, because they lack the funds to attract advantageous suitors. I’m sure they could each find suitable husbands if they had proper dowries. And you know my family still has money. Lots of money. So I could…”

“No, Tommy. I won’t accept charity.”

“But it wouldn’t be charity. It would be repayment. Because I owe you, Oliver. In a hundred different ways, I owe you my life. You know that as well as I do.”

“You don’t owe me anything. And you know I would do it all again, in order to keep you safe. So I won’t accept your money. Only your undying friendship.”

“Well, that you’ll have. Always,” Tommy offered.

He opened his mouth to speak further but Oliver folded his arms across his chest and looked away, back out to the fields. Tommy fell silent beside him, just as Oliver knew he would. Because Tommy still understood when Oliver meant what he’d said and when he was done with discussions.

Honestly, Oliver felt quite done with this discussion. But even as certain as he was that he could not accept charity from his oldest friend, he was equally certain that he did not have a clue as to how he could earn the money his sisters needed to live bright and vibrant futures. He only knew that he owed it to all of them to figure out the answer.

***

A/N:  Hey guys!  I hope you've enjoyed the beginning of what will be a long, and hopefully fun, story.  I plan to post again next Thursday, and in the meantime, I'd love to know what you think!  And please come say hello on Tumblr anytime @TinaDay3W :) Tina

Up next...Chapter 2:  Decisions