Margaret stood at the railing, gazing out at the sea. They would arrive in Cadiz soon and she could barely contain her excitement.
She glanced at Thornton who was sitting on the deck chair, engrossed in his book. She felt queasy from the pitch and roll of the sea. How he managed to read, she would never know but he certainly cut a dashing figure. She took a moment to admire her husband.
Her husband, she thought with a swell of love and pride and a touch of wonder.
A year ago, even a few months ago, the idea would have been fantastical. But then suddenly it had become gloriously real and everything since then felt enveloped in happiness.
It had started with that incredible afternoon and the trip next day to London to announce her engagement. As she had predicted, her aunt did have a lot of questions but Margaret guessed all her happiness must have been shining in eyes because Aunt Shaw stopped with the questions and started talking about engagement dinner and wedding date.
Edith had a sly I-knew-it look on her face the entire time but was delighted that her headstrong cousin had finally succumbed to love and as only a sister can, had proceeded to tease her rather shamelessly about it. Henry had offered her his congratulations before taking his leave. Margaret didn't see him for the rest of her visit. Mr Bell, who had been in London, had been delighted and relieved by the news, so much so that he agreed to stay on with his doctor for the full treatment.
Thornton had come to London to accompany her back to Milton and had surprised her with a stunning emerald engagement ring. She had wanted a proper engagement after all, he'd reminded her.
If Margaret had any lingering apprehensions about sharing a home with Mrs Thornton, it had all been laid to rest upon her return from London. The preparation for Fanny's wedding had unexpectedly brought them closer. As Fanny's closest friend and John's affianced bride, Margaret had found herself spending a great deal of time at the Thornton house and getting to know her future mother-in-law better.
They had married two months after their engagement and three weeks after Fanny and Andrew's wedding. The newlyweds had just returned from their honeymoon and it seemed like the perfect time for Margaret and John to get married.
The wedding had been a small but elegant affair. Aunt Shaw, Edith and Capt. Lennox along with baby Sholto had come to Milton for the wedding. Mr Bell gave Margaret away. After the wedding breakfast, the two had left for Helstone where they'd spent a few days. They had decided to wait until they heard from Fred to plan a proper wedding trip.
Upon their return from Helstone, they had found a letter from Cadiz waiting for them. Of course, Fred would be delighted to receive them. He had taken up Mr Barbour's offer and was settling into his new life. So Margaret and Thornton had included several days in Cadiz as part for their trip. From Cadiz, they would travel to France.
Although she had been married for only a month, Margaret found that married life suited her quite well. Her days had a comfortable pattern. Together with Hannah, she would spend the mornings instructing the household staff on the tasks for the day and deciding the menu. Margaret saw no reason to make any change to either the routine or the household that Hannah had set up and run smoothly for so many years. She assisted Hannah with tasks that the older woman found exhausting and took on any new responsibilities that came along.
Margaret would devote a few afternoons every week to the school, sorting out any administrative issues, checking on students' progress and reading stories to the children in the evening. After the mill closed for the day, Thornton would walk to the school. It was something he began during their engagement and it soon became a part of his routine. The children were used to seeing him stand in the back of the room, listening as Margaret read out the stories, while the school staff found it terribly romantic and sighed dreamily. Margaret teased him about it, but he would tease her right back by pointing out that she rather enjoyed being the subject of such envy. At which point, she should would call him out for his vanity. Suffice it to say, it was a routine that neither planned to relinquish.
Fred stood on the dockside, scanning the passengers disembarking from the ship. He spotted his sister quickly. She was scanning the crowd below and a moment later, she saw him. They waved excitedly at each other and she pointed him out to Thornton.
Fred watched their progress as they made their way down the gangplank. The two seemed very much in tune as Thornton quietly guided Margaret through the crowd with his fingertips on her back. They made an extraordinarily handsome and happy couple. Even from this distance, he could feel the happiness that they seemed to radiate.
The second Margaret stepped on land, she ran towards him. He caught her in a tight embrace.
"I can't believe you are here," he said putting her back on her feet. "And a married woman, with a husband in tow," he grinned at her. Margaret gave him a bashful smile.
Fred turned to Thornton and extended his hand, "Happy to finally meet you."
"As am I," Thornton said, shaking his hand.
Thornton quietly regarded the young man whom he had mistakenly thought his rival. The brother and sister had identical dark brown hair with a touch of auburn. Fred had the same thoughtful look as Mr Hale, he noted.
"How was the journey?" Fred asked, once they had collected the luggage and packed it in the carriage. "Was the crossing peaceful?"
"It was. Uncommonly so, from what I understand," Thornton imparted.
"And did you enjoy the journey?" Fred asked Margaret.
"I liked it on the deck but—" Margaret mimicked the waves with her hands "—it is unsettling."
That made Fred chuckle. "You will get used to it. You are a Hale."
Margaret looked outside the window taking in the new sights and sounds. Cadiz was so completely different from any place that she had seen—the sweeping view of the sea, the charming narrow lanes, the whitewashed houses, the relaxed and cheerful people. She turned to Thornton to see his reaction. They caught each other's eye the same instant and smiled.
"We are almost there," Fred announced. "It is not a big house, but I hope you'll find your room comfortable."
"You don't need to put yourself out on our accord," Thornton offered graciously.
"Really, Fred," Margaret added with a slight roll of her eyes. "It's just us."
Fred cocked a brow at her. "You, I'm perfectly happy to let sleep on the floor," he said.
Grinning, Margaret punched his arm in retaliation.
Thornton leaned back in his seat, enjoying their interaction. It was interesting seeing this side of her. The difference in age between Margaret and Fred was not very great and it showed in their utter ease with each other and their banter. He could see why Margaret must have found it hard to understand the formality that had existed between himself and Fanny.
The carriage soon rolled to a halt. Stepping out, Margaret sucked in her breath. The house was a small but pretty villa but what took her breath away was the riot of pink bougainvillea against the pristine white walls. The effect was stunning.
Fred showed them inside and introduced them to the housekeeper who came once a day to clean and cook. While Fred spoke with the housekeeper, Margaret wandered over to a desk to examine the miniatures kept on it. Thornton joined her and picked up one of the little portraits that looked like Margaret. She must have been about ten when it was painted. He smiled to himself, she had always been beautiful.
"Rosita wants to know if you need a maid," Fred asked from the door. "I'd assumed you would bring yours along. Doesn't Aunt Shaw travel with an army of girls?"
"She does, but I don't like the unnecessary fuss," Margaret replied.
"Well, do you need one? Rosita can arrange it." The housekeeper began telling Fred something and he turned his attention to her.
"I can offer my services," Thornton said, leaning down to speak in her ear.
"With ironing and mending?" she teased with a smile.
"With dressing and undressing," he whispered, his mouth deliberately brushing her ear.
She caught her breath, her smile replaced by a heated blush. Her blush got more heated as she remembered him kneeling at her feet, his fingers trailing up to the edge of her stocking.
"Maggie?" Fred poked his head back in.
Startled, she snapped her head up.
"The maid," he reminded.
"I will manage without one," Margaret said in a perfectly casual voice.
Once the two had settled in their room, the three had a leisurely lunch. Margaret was delighted that Fred and Thornton seemed to get along well without her help. They found plenty of subjects of mutual interest, so she left the two men to talk while she took out her pencils and drew the flowers.
In the evening, Fred took them out and showed them around the main plaza and the local market. Margaret walked ahead, stopping occasionally to look at the displays while Thornton and Fred strolled behind her conversing.
Margaret had noticed a group of girls on the opposite side of the plaza. One girl in particular had been quietly stealing glances at Fred.
"Who is she?" Margaret finally asked, when this went on for some time.
"Who?" Fred followed her gaze and turned to look at the group. "Dolores Barbour," he answered and went back to whatever he was explaining to Thornton.
Margaret continued looking at the young girl. They caught each other's eye and the girl bobbed a quick nod in acknowledgement before turning back to her friends.
After bidding Fred goodnight, Margaret made her way to the guest bedroom. John had retired early to give her and Fred time to talk alone. She softly pushed open the door of their room, careful not to make any noise. He was a light sleeper and the slightest sound would wake him. But she found him sitting with his book.
"Oh, you are not sleeping," she remarked as she let herself in and shut the door.
"When have I ever slept before you?" he asked, closing the book.
"I thought you might be tired." She set the lamp on the table. "What time is it?"
"Just after midnight."
She sat down on the stool to remove her boots and then padded over to where their bags were kept and pulled out a nightgown.
He never understood why she bothered with it. She would not be wearing it. He intended to comment upon it but he noticed that she was lost in thoughts.
"What are you thinking about?" he asked.
She looked up. "About that girl in the square."
"What about her?"
"You didn't notice?" she asked surprised that he hadn't. "She was looking at Fred the entire time we were in that square," she said, her eyes sparkling with meaning. "And Fred knew which of those girls I was asking about," she continued with girlish eagerness, "He didn't even wait to see who I was talking about."
She looked at him for his response.
He raised one amused brow. "You sound like Fanny."
She looked utterly indignant at that. "You!" She looked around for something and then grabbed the first thing she found—her hairbrush—and threw it at him.
Smiling, he caught it neatly in one hand. "The element of surprise is clearly not your strong suit."
She was trying very hard to be cross but drat it all, now she wanted to laugh. Hiding her smile, she turned around in her stool and began unpinning her hair.
Thornton leaned back to watch her. It was a nightly ritual he loved. As the pins came out, her hair would loosen with nothing to hold their weigh. She would shake her head when she had pulled out the last pin and her hair would tumble down her back and fall around her face.
He had been right—her hair was not curly but it was not straight either. It had a few loose waves so that when she moved her head, it made the long, cascading mass ripple. He loved waking up to it fanned out on his arm. He loved running his fingers through it, feeling their weight and softness. And he loved it when it fell around them creating a private haven as she bent over him.
Margaret pushed her hair away from her face and looked at the table top and then around, searching for—
"Looking for this?" he asked holding out her hairbrush.
She rose to reach out, her hand coming within inches of his when she suddenly yanked it back before he could grab her wrist and pull her into the bed with him.
"The element of surprise," she said folding her arms and giving him a smug smile at having foiled his little trick.
Thornton allowed her a moment of triumph before he got up and bending down, scooped her into his arms and carried her to the bed.
"John!" she cried in surprise but finally gave up laughing.
He settled against her, propping himself on one elbow. "So you would like to meddle," he continued their conversation as if the interruption hadn't occurred at all.
"Horribly," she confessed.
"But you won't."
"No," she admitted ruefully. "When I asked him about her, he said she is Mr Barbour's daughter and Mr Barbour is his employer."
Thornton smiled down at her. "The last time I heard someone say something like that, he married my sister."
"I know," she said with a happy sigh. "I want him to have someone to love and care for him."
"Don't worry about Fred. Give him some time. From what I gathered, he has a very promising career here. Mr Barbour should have no objections," he assured her.
"I hope so," she smiled.
"So what are our plans for tomorrow?"
"We will go to the beach and attend a puppet show in the evening," Margaret said, the enthusiasm returning in her voice.
"A puppet show?"
"Yes. It sounds interesting. It's called Tia Norica—Aunt Norica," she translated helpfully.
"Very well, madam," he said, dropping a kiss on her nose.
"Cadiz is so lovely and so different. We must come here again."
"Mmm-hmm," he kissed the tip of her nose again, and then her cheek and her jaw.
"And we must visit Helstone again," she continued while she was still capable of words. "I never showed you the place properly."
They had not gone out or explored much during their short stay in Helstone, although Thornton had cheekily assured her that he had been perfectly delighted with the sights that he had seen.
"We have all the time in the world," he said and repeated the kisses on the other side of her face.
Margaret felt a delicious warmth spread throughout her body. She stretched lazily, feeling completely and utterly content. This is what she wanted—this love and this friendship as well as the quarrels and the disagreements that she was sure they will have a fair share of. But their lives will be rich and full and that was all that truly mattered.
"I love you," she whispered, before lifting her head to kiss his chin. She nuzzled into the open collar of his shirt, deeply breathing in his scent.
He fisted his fingers in her hair and gently pulled her away to look at her.
"I love you too," he said before taking her mouth in a searing and passionate kiss.