My dear readers, thank you for all your lovely reviews and amazing messages of encouragement to continue with this story. I have no plans to give up on it- I have just been so busy recently. I won't bore you with my personal life, but I had some sadness in my family and other priorities took over as a result. I should be back in the game now and looking forward to the distraction writing gives me. I hope you are not too angry with me for the long wait. This has been a hard chapter as it is sooo important. I will say little more on that at the end of the chapter so I don't spoilt it now. It's another long one.
Happy reading! Elle x
Whilst the vicar's monotonous sermon on repentance provided rather dreary background noise, John Thornton looked over at his wife sat beside him, a modest distance from him on the pew, and smiled at the expression of boredom displayed on her face. His mother had found herself afflicted with a headache that morning and chosen to remain at home and John had made the most of the opportunity to have time alone with his wife to ponder the changes that had come about in their relationship.
Margaret had finally given him something. It had taken months- over a year, in fact, from the moment he first told her he loved her, for her to even suggest that she might possess the capacity to care for him more than she did any random man she interacted with on the street. Now, finally, after more months of waiting, she had admitted that she felt something for him in their physical interactions, which only made him want to make her feel more.
He should have known that she would regret her decision to accept his request of a sham marriage- it had only been a matter of time. Of course, her embarrassment at asking him to allow her to have children had not been lost on him. In truth, he had not comprehended what she was requesting until she had specifically asked him to change their agreement to include them. In that moment, the world had seemed to stop spinning. Even now, his mind was so jumbled, a mesh of contradictory feelings in response to her request. Truly, she could have asked for the moon and he would have agreed to give it to her, with no idea how he could fulfil such a promise, but his will to do whatever she asked did not stop the confusion and anxiety he had felt ever since.
What exactly did she want from him? If anything, he felt less clear about this than he had before. By all accounts, she wanted children and friendship, but if she truly felt something when they had shared limited physical intimacy, could that not mean that she might one day be capable of loving him? Of wanting him as much as he wanted her? No matter what her motives were, the fact that the concept of bearing his children was something she had craved strongly enough to change the original terms of their agreement, had been the sole focus of his mind in the weeks that had passed since that night.
Perhaps he should thank her maternal instincts for the subtle but significant changes that had quickly followed in her demeanour towards him, for, although their physical relationship had not developed into the promise of things shared only between a husband and wife, hadn't even come close to that, he had been acutely aware that she was touching him more. Each moment of contact, had been completely innocent. Almost. Her hand would often brush against his as she served his tea in the evening or handed him some paperwork at the mill, lingering for longer than was necessary in a way that he knew was entirely deliberate. Each time a slight smile played at the corner of her mouth, her cheeks blushing a delicious shade of pink, and John felt himself consciously struggling to keep his thoughts under control as he remembered the feeling of those hands against other parts of his skin.
He lived for the secret smiles they shared as the passed each other from a distance at the mill or as she spotted him sitting with the workers and desperately tried to forget that there was a strong possibility that this could not last- that he was eventually going to have to tell her that they could not afford to keep the kitchen running for much longer or face financial ruin. Business had not picked up at the mill and although they were not in irreversible trouble yet, precautions needed to be made.
Her small fingers now stroked fleetingly against the skin of his neck as she untied and removed his cravat before bed, her teeth nibbling her bottom lip as she studied him whilst she performed the simple action, before returning to her own attire and leaving him missing the scent of lavender that invaded his senses with each close interaction. One night he had struggled to loosen the wretched thing and she had determinedly taken control, unknotting the stubborn fabric, her touch soft, almost caressing, despite her concentration. He had never struggled so to remove the article before, but he craved the opportunity to be close to her without pushing her to do something she was not yet ready for, and so the knots became more and more elaborate and harder to untie every night.
Then there was the softness of her lips pressed delicately against his, for barely longer than a moment, before he left for the mill in the mornings on the steps of the mill house door, away from his mother's eyes- another secret that only the pair of them knew- one initiated routinely by her that thrilled him far more than it should have. It was a simple thing, hardly scandalous, yet progress nonetheless. If she had placed such a kiss in front of others he would had dismissed it, it was hardly unchaste, and she had done so numerous times before in the façade they performed, yet alone in the doorway it made his heart skip, and he craved the feeling of hopefulness that had begun to accompany the look in her eyes as they met his. The look that almost fooled him into thinking she would pull him back to her and kiss him again, before she wished him good day and he turned from her, headed towards the mill.
At night, despite his best efforts to think of other things, the way she had once let him press his body against hers through the cotton of their clothes, the way her breath had caught in her throat and the way her body had shuddered and her eyes widened on the occasions he had brought his lips to her neck, was all he could see running endlessly through his dreams. He always felt relieved when he woke prior to her and could attempt to control his longing before she could notice. More than anything he yearned to see that reaction again, to feel her shudder in his arms and to hear the wisps of sighs that escaped her lips as he kissed the side of her neck, just below her ear- a sound that only he knew existed. It seemed like years ago that he had foolishly thought that she would give herself, unmarried, to another, but he felt the relief of it again now. That physical sign was what gave him hope most of all. That was how he had suspected she felt something. Even when she had kissed him back, she had been guarded, not cold but absent somehow, but that had been different. He knew that in the heat of the moment (until she had restrained her-self once again) she hadn't wanted him to stop.
A few days after their conversation, she had come to him and they had redefined the terms of their agreement. It was a surprisingly easy conversation, with far less embarrassment than he had expected- just two friends making arrangements together. They would wait until the mill had made it through the winter months and, when she was ready, they would begin to try for a baby. John had no idea what Margaret's understanding of how these things worked was, but he had felt it necessary to check she understood that they would need to be intimate more than once, and perhaps for a few months before achieving the result she wished. He had had half expected her to change her mind. Instead, he had been surprised, that she had hardly batted an eyelid and simply stated that she was already aware of that and her wish remained the same, if his did, blushing attractively, but not ashamedly.
Other than that, they would go on much as they had been. There would be no requirements of either of them, but they had agreed that physical contact was inevitable between two people who functioned in such close quarters. To his surprise, Margaret had been the one to specify that if physical contact (such as had happened spontaneously already) was to happen again in the meantime, then neither of them needed to feel guilty but must stop the other if they wished to. The slight catch in her voice as she had said it caused his vanity to pridefully choose to believe that she rather hoped such contact might happen. He was well aware that now it was a real possibility, the act of consummating their marriage still terrified her more so than ever, and supposed she felt that smaller moments of intimacy might help her feel less afraid. Another man in such a position might have been pleased, and made the most of such vulnerability, but not him.
Despite their agreement and his desire to kiss her (amongst other things), he had refrained, pushing down his want. The only contact they had engaged in had been originally dictated and controlled by her and that was how he intended to keep it. He had promised to wait and wait he would. He had told himself he would give her the children she wanted, go through the motions if needed, but one day she would want him to make love to her.
John could not help but think that the new agreement was more a marriage than most of the couples he knew shared, which only added to his confusion. All that was missing was for her to love him back. Then again 'love' was the one thing that was missing in most marriages. He hoped it would not be absent from his for too much longer. Perhaps if they created children together, their bond would be strengthened, and love would follow.
An annoyed cough interrupted his thoughts and his attention was stolen from staring shamelessly at his wife to the owner of the cough who was sitting on his other side. Fanny rolled her eyes at him and tutted so loudly that he was not surprised his wife was now staring at him questioningly as were Mr and Mrs Miller with their four children on the row in front. John didn't particularly care about Fanny's disapproval and simply shrugged at the Millers and Margaret before ignoring his sister completely and pretending to focus the entirety of his attention on the priest.
"What was the commotion about behind us, Fanny?" Mrs Miller asked nosily as the congregation sung the final hymn with gusto, creating a cover for their conversation, and John rolled his eyes. No doubt she had been waiting eagerly for the chance to get any gossip she may have missed.
"Oh, John was simply staring at Margaret quite inappropriately for someone who is in the house of the Lord, Mrs Miller," Fanny answered, self-righteous judgement seeping into her words. She paid no heed to John and Margaret who were sat beside her and clearly able to hear every word. John's annoyance flared. It was only jealousy that caused his sister to react so strongly to such a minor thing.
"It seems your brother has no problem with inappropriate actions when it comes to the new Mrs Thornton," Miss Latimer added, leaning forward to add her opinion from the row behind. Her tone was jovial but the expression on her face displayed smug satisfaction as she turned her gaze to him and John had no doubt that she was referring to the innocent embrace she had observed once before between he and his wife in the same grave yard that they would exit through in a matter of minutes.
"I had overheard something a little scandalous not too long ago…" Mrs Miller added, turning to look Margaret up and down critically, without even a pinch of subtlety.
John felt his anger peak, but before he could give the women around him some choice words, a hand was on on the back of his neck, caressing his exposed akin, small fingers softly playing with his hair silenced him. Margaret had moved herself closer to him, one arm resting on the back of the hard, wooden pew draped around his back, where it delicately attended to his hair and the other slightly tentative hand came to rest across his legs where it intertwined with his own, squeezing tightly in encouragement.
She leaned into him, close enough that he could feel her breath against his ear and whispered, "Might as well give them something to gossip about, since they're going to anyway." Softly and deliberately she kissed his cheek, her lips lingering longer than was decent in public, and John breathed an amused sigh. The now comforting smell of lavender, invaded his senses as her head came to rest against his shoulder and he rested his own on the softness of her hair, making the most of such harmless closeness.
Mrs Miller's eyebrows raised so high up her large forehead that they almost disappeared into her hairline and she uttered a scandalised, "well, really!" loudly, before her husband shushed her and physically spun her torso so that she was forced to return her focus to the front of the chapel. John could not see how Miss Latimer had reacted, if indeed she had reacted at all, but the silence from the row behind implied she had decided to mind her own business for now.
His mind longed to wander, to focus on how long it had been since he had last kissed her and what the reaction of the local gossips might be if he was to kiss his wife in full view in the wake of the Sunday service, but he would not let it. Instead, he brought his attention back to the chorister who was desperately trying to keep the congregation singing in time with the rather slow organ accompaniment.
When, finally, the service was over, Margaret sat up properly and John helped her into her coat before adorning his own and saying goodbye to Fanny and Watson.
"Can you believe it? In church no less!"
"They weren't exactly chaste before the wedding, if Ann and Jane are to be believed, so I was hardly surprised…"
Within seconds Mrs Miller and three other women John did not know had formed a coven, the former presenting the fresh gossip ready to be devoured.
John did not waste time to hear the distain of others. Swiftly, grabbed Margaret's hand and pulled her with him, down the aisle of the church towards the exit, thanking the priest along the way and tipping his hat to Mr Hamper and his wife. His strides were purposeful and long and Margaret seemed to have to perform a slight jog, in order to keep up with him.
"John, are you quite alright?" she asked him, with a confused laugh, as he finally slowed down once they had left the confines of the church yard gates.
"Sorry," he apologised, aware that his actions must have seemed rather odd. "I just didn't want you to hear anymore of the poisonous words spewing from those women. I know how it upset you last time people were gossiping about us…" he explained, remembering the look of sadness on Margaret's face as Fanny had relayed all that the housewives of Milton were speculating on at his dinner table.
To his surprise, Margaret smiled deeply and attractively giggled into her hand.
"How thoughtful for you to think of my feelings but I really couldn't care for the idle thoughts of women, whose own marriage must be a colossal disappointment for them to be so obsessed with ours! Mrs Miller has four children, for heavens sake, she can hardly be shocked by… well… that…"
John could not help but smile back at her. How different this Margaret was from the one he had known mere months ago. He was inclined to think that over these past few weeks she had been the happiest he had ever seen her and as she took his arm and began to lead the way home John too felt happier than he had in months, perhaps years even.
"It is precisely because they do not have any ounce of love in their marriages that they are obsessed with any sign that others' might!" He told her, noticing the way her cheeks coloured at the word 'love'. It was still too soon to have hoped she might love him yet, he knew that, but there seemed to be no point in hiding his desire for her to love him back at this point.
A slight cloud passed across her face and she turned to look back towards where her parents lay in the ground.
"I wonder what my father and mother would think if they knew what a stir I seem to constantly cause…"
John wondered what on earth had made her think of her parents at that moment. She had not mentioned them in weeks, but he knew from personal experience that they must be there at the back of her mind- in her thoughts constantly, though physically absent.
"I think your father (at least) may have known a little of what a stir you have a tendency to cause in Milton, Margaret." He replied teasingly.
"What makes you say that?" She asked sharply, and John inwardly cursed for having inadvertently backed himself into a corner. Of course, it was a subject that was still sensitive for her! He could make up some excuse about her father having witnessed the storm that seemed to rage between Margaret and himself whenever he visited her father for lessons, but it would be dishonest. That was not what made him suspect Richard Hale had known of his daughter's headstrong ways.
Sighing, he stopped and turned towards her.
"Do you remember he wrote me a letter, whilst he was in Oxford?"
She nodded thoughtfully, her teeth troubling her bottom lip and waited for him to continue.
"He was a little worried about… well, he had some troubles on his mind … and may have mentioned them to me."
Her brow furrowed in confusion.
"What did he say?"
"Nothing negative, I assure you, but I think he may have known his daughter better than you think…"
Her large eyes studied him carefully and she nodded but did not look convinced.
"I have told you before that you are welcome to read it, Margaret." He reminded her gently. "Perhaps it is time?"
His wife did not reply, but he could see her determination reflected in her eyes. She wanted to read it. John racked his brains to try and remember what exactly it said but found he had paid so little attention to it that it had completely evaded his memory.
It did not take them long to return to the mill house and John led Margaret upstairs to the small dressing table in their bedroom, where the letter still lay cast aside. The parchment was open, her father's red wax seal still in tact on one side of the envelope and John watched her reach for it and run her thumb across the bumps of the hardened wax. For a moment, she simply stood, staring at the white paper as though it was something precious and he simply watched her, not wanting to rush something that seemed to affect her so. Finally, she opened it and began to read.
"Remember, when I asked you to marry me again, I had not read its contents yet, Margaret." He interrupted her, bringing her gaze back to him for less than a second before she continued reading. Suddenly, he felt anxious, as though her knowledge of the contents would affect her opinion of his character. He watched her eyes ravage over the words and waited.
My friend. My only friend in Milton, in fact. I am sure you will think me mad when you receive this letter- I will not blame you if so. Having spent some time with my dear friend, Mr Bell, I have had much occasion to ponder many things and one of them is your relationship with my daughter. I am old, John, and without my darling Maria here with me, I know I am not of strong enough heart to continue in this life for too much longer. This leads me to worry about the fate of my poor daughter, Margaret. She is passionate and loving but stubborn and too naive to realise the consequences of her words and actions and I fear she has already fallen victim to vicious rumours about her character. I do not know what she is supposed to have done, but I know any wrong doing on her part will be through her wish to help others and not through any impropriety. I have shared my fears with Mr Bell and he seems to be utterly convinced that you once hoped to marry Margaret and I believe that I too may have noticed some of the signs of such feeling in your countenance? I hope you are not offended by my words, John. Truly, I wish no offence, and if I am wrong, please ignore my ramblings. If, however, I am right, I must implore you, when the time comes for me to depart this earth, please find it in your heart to make her an offer of marriage. For all her facades, Margaret is still very young and in need of guidance and I fear you may be the only man who can both stand up to her and care for her as she needs. Please, John, when I am no longer here, she will have no direct family in England, no financial support and a reputation that is in decline. My wife's family will offer to look after her, but I fear that would only condemn her to a life of misery. I only ask that if you have even a shred of amorous feelings for her, that you take care of her in my absence.
I wish this letter was a little lighter in content! Alas, I have been thinking to deeply on mortality and therein lies my downfall. I suppose that it what comes of reading too much Plato!
John knew she had finished reading, but her eyes still focussed on the words and he shifted, uncomfortably, desperate to know what she was thinking.
"Are you alright?" He asked her gently, coming to stand closely beside her.
"I admit it is a little upsetting to read that my father had so little faith in me…" She said softly, offering him a sad half-smile. "Sometimes ignorance is happier, I fear."
"That is not how I read it at all." He told her truthfully. "I think Richard Hale was rather proud to have had such a strong daughter and only wanted her to be with someone he hoped might be strong enough to challenge her." He elaborated softly. "I think he knew full well that someone who could not match you in spirit would tire you easily and was fully aware that you would find only that in London."
She seemed to be pondering all that he said as she re-read her father's words.
"Thank you." She said at last. "If that is what he was truly saying, then he was right. Perhaps you knew him better than me in the end."
He shook his head at her words.
"I think you know that's not true…"
Gently he took the letter from her, placed it back into its paper casing and replaced it on the dresser.
"You know, when he wrote to me informing me of all he was going to say to you, I hated you…"
Despite her use of the past tense, John felt her words like a stab to the heart. He had suspected she had hated him following his proposal, believed it right up until she had accepted his proposal, but hearing her confirm that she had felt such abhorrence for him hurt, even now. Yet the source of her hated was something completely out of his control.
"It was not your fault of course, my hatred was entirely misplaced, but knowing you were the final person he metaphorically spoke to on this earth, rather than me or Fred, truly hurt. I was immature and jealous…" she admitted honestly.
He nodded, swallowing heavily at her confession.
"That is why I was so convinced you must hate me and where only proposing because of his letter. Until our wedding day that is… I fear, I always have been too passionate and lacked the ability to control my emotional responses."
John remembered the heated conversation they had shared in the carriage back to the mill. A turning point of such significance that he hadn't truly understood at the time. He wanted to comfort her somehow and tell her than she had him and Fredrick but did not want to re-open the wound of her brother's fate. As for her passion, if only she had directed it towards him in a positive way, rather than through disgust.
"Do you still hate me?" He asked, only half serious.
Margaret's forehead creased, and she studied him, her expression one of incredulity.
"No, John. Of all the things I feel about you, hatred is not one of them!"
Every neuron in his brain wanted him to ask her what that meant. What specifically did she feel for him? Yet, some-how he knew she would not tell him.
"Do you still feel passionately about me?" He had intended to keep his tone light and joking so that she might refuse to answer, and he flinched at the seriousness and bluntness that infiltrated his question instead. It was not even what he truly wanted to ask, but rather as close as he dared to get.
Her eyebrows raised a little and she fixed him with a stare of such intensity that he felt as though she had caused heat to infiltrate his veins. She pursed her lips a little and he could almost see her mind turning over and over as it formed a response.
"I feel passionately about a great many things and I fear that it will be my downfall." She answered, confidently and he nodded, trying to hide his unfair disappointment.
"I am trying to be better," She added to herself, as though she had missed his meaning completely. "Do you think my father would have disapproved of my behaviour in the church today? Would he have disapproved of me causing more scandal to befall my reputation?" She asked out of nowhere, her eyes focussed back on the letter.
"No, Margaret," he assured her firmly. "I think he would have found it ridiculous, and after all, it was Fanny tutting at me that started the whole thing. Besides, it was worth their tattle just to see Mrs Miller's look of disgust."
She smiled at that, a small giggle escaping as she remembered the expression in question. Determinedly, she moved from him towards the door, turning back to him as she grabbed the handle before walking away. She did not mention the incident or their conversation again.
It was barely a few weeks later, as the February darkness fell over Milton, that John's hand clenched the paper he was holding before him, crumpling it around the edges with a vice-like grip. Why was it that just as soon as he finally had reason to hope that the fractured pieces of his marriage might be about to fall into place, his financial dealings began to explode so spectacularly around him? John felt numb as he read the letter from the bank for the fifteenth time, his eyes not truly focussing on the words. He knew what they said by heart. Far too well he knew the significance- the magnitude of what they would mean. He had always prided himself on his resolve and determination to see past the trials he had been dealt, his mind always on the success he sought but in the cold, loneliness of his office, he could no longer force himself to muster such strength.
The thing that hurt most of all, more than losing his pride and livelihood was knowing that he had brought the only woman he had ever loved down with him. It hurt so much more each time he admitted just how much he loved her- how far he had fallen (further than he had known was possible)- because of the misery that he felt every time he gazed into her eyes and realised that that smile would not be there when he told her that no matter how ardently he fought to keep the image of the family she had asked him for in view, it faded as he realised it was increasingly likely that he couldn't give her the children she wanted. He had wanted them too- wanted them from the moment he had realised he loved her and needed her and as she had begged him, so he had vowed that he would save the mill and give her what she wanted if it killed him. The blow was all the more agonising because of how far their relationship had come. In the last few weeks John had really started to believe that it actually might happen. There had been times when she had embraced him softly under the cover of the darkness of her room and he had wondered whether she was going to tell him she was ready. He had been so sure it would not be too much longer.
His eyes returned to the tyranny of the black cursive in front of him and John Thornton was forced to admit that he had failed. The bank wanted their money and he did not have it- nor was he going to have it in the allotted time. He had begged them for another extension, assured them of his belief in the profitability of the mill, but they would not budge. Without a miracle, there would be absolutely nothing left to try to save. Everything he had worked, struggled and sacrificed for was slipping away into darkness and there was nothing to grab onto. He could make more cuts at home and in business, but it would not be enough. There would be no house for any children to live in and no money to feed them for a long time. In six months, the bank wanted their money and then they would lose the mill forever.
For the first time in his life, John Thornton wished he was a gambling man. If only he had bought into Watson's speculation, his financial troubles would be over and when she was ready he would try to make Margaret happy! If only…
Deep down he knew that it was madness to think in this vein. His wife was livid enough to find out he had considered such a thing, and he dreaded to think of the fall out had he actually agreed to such a frivolous whim. She might never have softened towards him if he had betrayed her in such a manner, which would have been worse- far worse.
Still, his hands clenched into fists as he thought of the inevitable hardships to come and the impossible task of both telling his wife and mother they were to be effectively homeless, whilst he was forced to start again at the bottom of the chain. Despite the pounding his pride would receive, no doubt Fanny would appeal to Watson to find him a position at his mill, but it would be for a meagre wage and they would be forced to sell much of their furniture, and acquire a much smaller residence, smaller perhaps than the one he had helped Richard Hale and his family to secure in Crampton and with no stability. It would be a life of scrimping and saving and hard labour and John felt unbelievably old as the enormity of the task ahead towered over him.
He wanted to shut himself away from the world, to revel in his despair, but perhaps it was for the best that he could not. One of the other mill owners, Hamper, was holding a party that evening at his residence and he, Margaret and his mother had been invited and already agreed to attend.
Thankfully, it was unlikely that anyone else would know of the dire state of his finances yet, but if they were to fail to attend, questions would be asked. It was far better to bear the torture and put on a united front rather than avoid contact at all.
With once last painful glace at the paper, John discarded the letter onto the top of a pile on his desk and shut up his office, to return to the house.
How on earth he would muster the strength to keep up appearances for the evening, he did not know, but he knew for sure that the party would be far easier than telling Margaret the truth once and for all.
When he entered the house, he could hear her playing the piano, the symphony drifting across the hallway from the sitting room to where he stood, drawing him in. Soon, such a sound would be absent, the instrument sold, and all it had come to symbolise-the happiness Margaret had begun to find in his house- would be ruined.
He could not face her yet. He was too much of a coward.
Determinedly, he mounted the stairs to his bedroom and set about making himself look presentable. Even after washing and dressing, he dithered, avoiding his fate until the clock beside the bed chimed seven thirty and he knew he could circumvent it no longer. Like a condemned man, he made his way to the sitting room, following the sound of her playing.
The sight he was greeted with arrested him in the doorway. Each time he saw her, he thought her more beautiful, but dressed in a pale blue gown, with her long, dark hair softly pinned up, so that wisps had escaped to rest about her face and shoulders, her beauty was enough to cause his troubled mind to momentarily forget the afflictions that lay in wait and simply stare at his wife, committing every detail to memory, as though he would never see her again.
The chime of the clock on the mantel piece, reminded him of what he must do, and his breath caught in his throat as he came to sit beside her on the piano stool, even as she continued to play and his heart broke as she leaned into him, just a little. Boldly, he placed his hand gently around her waist, ready for her to flinch away from his touch, but she did not. The usual scent of lavender that lingered on her hair was missing, replaced with something sweeter, perhaps honey. John did not know whether it was a permanent change or just for tonight but something about it matched her completely and he knew he would recognise it anywhere.
With the last few melancholy notes, Margaret finished playing, and for a moment, she did not move. Despite the stillness of the room, the atmosphere felt heavy and now that they were both sat in silence, John was acutely aware of how closely they were situated and that his hand was still possessively resting on her rib cage, high enough that he could feel her rapid heartbeat through the material beneath his fingertips.
"I've missed you," she whispered, finally shattering the silence. A small but wistful smile adorned her face as she turned further into him and his heart plummeted deeper, when only yesterday it would have soared.
"You look…" He trailed off as his eyes, swept appreciatively across her open neckline and slender shoulders, nearly exposed, except a thin lace lining. He swallowed deeply at the pink flush that crossed her cheeks, extending down to her neck and the skin across her collar bones under his scrutiny.
"You look so beautiful," he told her honestly, his voice breaking, "everyone is going to wonder why on earth you would marry me."
"I suppose you look appropriately dressed too…" she shrugged, pretending to be nonplussed, before breaking into a small smile at his lack-lustre attempt at mock outrage.
Her face fell a little and she bit her lip and John could see a thousand thoughts running through her brain as she assessed him. Her face and body were just inches from his and as she brought her eyes back to his, John knew he was in trouble. He tried desperately to remember what it was that he was supposed to be telling her and why, but he seemed to be unable to remember anything other than the intensity with which she was looking at him.
"Kiss me," she whispered. It was a command, not a request and it broke his heart.
"Margaret…" he began, tortured. He had dreamed of this, the flush to her cheeks, the quick rise and fall of her chest and her breath held in anticipation. Everything in him implored him to oblige without a second thought, but, how could he? If he did not tell her all now, it would be so much harder after they had shared even a few moments of physical intimacy. He had no choice but to disclose all to her now, regardless of how it would bring the world crashing down around them.
"Please, John," her voice was thin and barely audible, but her desperation was evident in her pleading blue eyes, a longing he had craved but never before seen displayed there reflected back at him.
Without allowing his common sense to stop him any longer, he twisted her body around on the piano stool so that they faced each other, and he kissed her. He kissed her as though he was the tide following the command of the moon, grasping the glimmers of passion he knew she was capable of. As if of their own accord, his hands shakingly ventured to places they had not dared go before, and she sighed breathily in response, her hands making their own tentative exploration across his clothing. The discordant sounds of a variety of keys being pressed simultaneously as he shifted her body to lean her back against the piano, filled the stillness of the room, interrupting his thoughts and bringing him crashing back into the present.
Begrudgingly, he pulled back a little. "We need to talk…" he spoke against her lips, fighting to remember why he couldn't allow this to continue without telling her everything first.
"We don't have to go tonight…" she said quietly, blushing furiously, but her eyes never once left his and his heart skipped a beat as he realised the enormity of what she was trying to tell him. Now she wanted to try for a child with him? Just as he had realised he could not give her that? With a desperation he had not seen in her before, she pulled his lips back to hers, her hands in his hair as she kissed him in a way that told him that she was not going to ask him to stop or tell him she was not ready this time.
He had to cease this and tell her of the mill. Breathing heavily, he broke the kiss, resting his forehead against hers for a moment and just breathed with her. Gradually John's mind began to clear, and reality returned.
"We don't have to stop," her eyes were no longer closed, but rather wide and imploring. "Please John?" she begged, and he moaned in frustration. Was this some sort of cruel trick? Some plot meant to torture him?
"We can't do this," he voiced, the words weak and cracking; the restraint required to stop her was almost painful. His breathing was laboured and his chest heaving as he struggled to gain control of his senses.
Swallowing deeply, she nodded and allowed him to pull away from her. Her own chest was heaving, and the skin displayed by her low neckline was still flushed and John tore his gaze from the appealing sight.
"John? Margaret? Are you ready?" His mother called from the hallway as she clattered around with something on the other side of the closed door and John cursed, withdrawing to the other side of the room.
He was too late. How could he tell her now? He knew Margaret would not forgive him if he did not tell her before his mother and he understood why, even though it would affect his mother as much as he and his wife. It was different for Margaret, of course. She had no-one to tell, but if she was to speak to her cousin or aunt about something that had a direct effect on his life, without consulting with him first, he would feel betrayed.
"We must leave now!" his mother declared, as she burst through the door and John informed her that they would be out in just a moment.
If she noticed anything amiss, his mother was ever tactful and did not mention it, nodding agreeably and heading out of the door to wait in the carriage.
"Margaret…" he began as soon as he was sure his mother could not hear, but his wife slammed the piano shut, her jaw set, and she walked briskly past him. Without a glance in his direction, she followed after his mother to the waiting carriage.
In silence he follower her. Neither of them spoke for the entirely of the journey, whilst Hannah Thornton took intrigued glances between them, no doubt assuming they had argued and were displeased with each other once again.
Still they did not speak to each other, even as he offered her his arm (which, surprisingly, considering her cold demeanour towards him, she took) and he escorted her into Hamper's home, indirectly introducing her to various people he did not care to talk to.
When they were finally alone on the outskirts of the room filled with people conversing in groups, they stood together, neither looking at the other as he wracked his brains on how to begin to explain himself to her. Sighing softly, she leant into him, taking his arm in her own. Her anger seemed to have left her now and been replaced by regret.
"I'm sorry," she whispered self-consciously, her cheeks flaming, and her eyes focused on her hands; John suspected she was trying not to cry. "You didn't want that, and I should have accepted your wishes as we agreed."
He shook his head, not believing what he was hearing.
"I shouldn't have expected you to…" she swallowed loudly, and her eyes looked frantically around the room. "I knew we weren't really going to…" she trailed off unhappily, and John released a deep breath of incredulity that after the very thing he had dreamed of had started to happen, he had been forced to ruin it.
"Please don't hate me, John."
His mouth dropped open in disbelief. Each word made him hate himself more and more as it hit him just how enormously he had failed her in every sense by deluding himself and her into thinking that their finances would get better. He had known deep down that they would not.
"Oh, Margaret," he began, leaning into her to be sure that only she would hear, "if you only knew just how much I want that! If you only knew just what I've imagined doing to you..."
Margaret blinked, her eyes focusing on him wide with confusion at his words.
John cursed himself for being so ungentlemanly. He should not be thinking of her in such a way in the first place, let alone telling her, and the guilt he felt at having done so, still doing so as he noticed her fear, only added to his torture.
"Just, please, let me explain everything as soon as we return home and I promise you will understand why we had to stop." He pleaded as a tear fell from her still- wide eyes and he miserably raised a hand to softly wipe it away. Relief flooded through him when she nodded, before she was beckoned over to join a group of young ladies by Fanny and left him standing alone, with his self-contempt.
Alone, he watched her laugh with the other ladies and fawn over the beauty of Fanny's fan and dress and wished they could have stayed at home and continued what they had begun.
Other mill owners and gentlemen of the town tried to fruitlessly make conversation with him throughout the evening, though John knew he was lousy company, and he soon lost sight of his wife. When she returned to his side, making easy conversation with those who came to socialise with them, and it became apparent that she was no longer distraught, John started to relax and enjoy the feel of her hand on his arm and the faint scent of honey in her hair.
"Your mother has left with my sister, Thornton." Watson's voice and hand held out in greeting diverted his attention back to the room and reminded him they had not arrived alone. He had quite forgotten his mother had been with them. "My wife is feeling unwell and your mother has taken my carriage home with her. I do believe she will be staying the night at our house."
He was pleased she would not be there when they returned home. It might make his task easier.
"I do hope Fanny is not too ill?" Margaret inquired, her genuine concern for his sister evident. It was unlike Fanny to leave a gathering early for fear of missing something of great importance.
"Oh, nothing serious. Just the usual tiredness and sickness. Fanny and I are expecting a baby in July."
John felt the word "baby" like a stab to the heart and his eyes flew to his wife's face.
"Oh, how wonderful!" He heard her say, but the sparkle in her eyes dimmed, just a little, giving her true feelings away.
"Isn't it?" Watson, replied as he poured himself another drink and consumed it in one.
"That is one blessing of your dire situation, I suppose, Thornton. At least Margaret is not with child. The expense of that extra burden would be even more financially crippling!"
Margaret's eyes flicked towards him at the mention of her childless condition and her cheeks flamed red, perhaps as she remembered how desperate she had been for him them to forget Hamper's party and attempt to rectify that very thing.
"Watson…" John's tone was harsh- dangerous- and he felt her shiver at the sharpness.
Watson, however, seemed unaffected, simply pouring another drink.
"Of course, if you had only agreed to join in the speculation, then you would not be losing the mill, John! I did try to tell you, but you thought you knew better…"
His wife's eyes widened, confusion crossing her face, then rage directed at him, and his anger at Watson and whoever had told him of his situation flamed. He did not know what to say. How dare Watson, speak of such a thing in public at all, especially when he had barely found out himself? He wanted to apologise to Margaret, to explain and beg for forgiveness for not telling her himself, but he would not give Watson the satisfaction of seeing that. Instead his eyes met hers, pleading and sorrowful. She must have seen his sincere plea as he saw her face soften a little, though her brow was still creased. It was a testament to how much she had matured that she did not confront him at all, or storm away from him in some dramatic fashion.
Watson was waiting for him to speak, staring at him with pity and John could not abate his anger any longer. He could not stand to be pitied.
"Who told you?" He asked, his fists clenched and his tone still dangerous, even as his wife tenderly took his hand, a warning to calm down.
"Mr Grimshaw, at the bank. We met together this morning. As we are family now, I think he hoped I might help you with a loan to get you started, as you'll have nothing..."
His face creased with distain and he sought out the gentleman in question on the other side of the room.
"Mr Grimshaw had no business sharing my circumstances with you. He barely shared them with me this very morning!" He fumed, frustratedly running a hand through his hair.
"Do not be too harsh on him, John." Watson had to reach up a little to pat him on the shoulder, causing John to flinch back. "Afterall, this is your own doing. The speculation was your way out of this- the way out for all of us following a strike such as that! I told you over and over- even at your dinner table, if you remember..."
John could do nothing but shake his head.
"I am sorry you have been affected by this misjudgement, Margaret…" Watson rested a comforting hand on Margaret's arm until she shook the man off and moved closer to John, her distain seeping through.
"There is nothing unwise about refusing to enter something as risky as a speculation, Mr Watson." Margaret spoke coolly. "I would far rather be destitute but know my husband's conscience is clear than have all the wealth in the world and know I have married a man who is willing to bet the livelihood of hundreds of men, women and children on a mere speculation." She spoke quietly but firmly, avoiding his gaze.
"John, I feel a little unwell myself, perhaps we should thank Mr Hamper and retire?"
Watson scoffed a little but did not attempt to rebuke her, simply wishing her good health and him a pleasant evening.
John did not trust himself to speak again and so gritting his teeth he followed his wife's lead out of the party and into the carriage. Her face was blank and her eyes unseeing as they rode the short distance through the Milton streets and John knew it was better not to speak until she had processed the severity of the situation. He had been a fool to think that such misfortune would remain private in Milton, for even a few short hours! Of course, someone would know. He cursed Grimshaw for telling his brother-in-law, cursed Watson for telling wish wife and himself for not telling anyone.
Margaret's head was reeling. They were to lose the mill? To lose everything? How could that be? He had told her the mill was struggling, several times in fact, but he had never made any indication that there was a chance they could lose it! How had she not known how bad things must have become? Was that why he had stopped her advances earlier? Had he known they could not afford too fulfil their new agreement? She supposed that he had tried to talk to her before the party, to tell her himself and she had been so angry at him for doing so. It had taken so much courage to lay herself before him like that and days of talking herself into it and it had hurt to be rejected, when she had thought he would be pleased.
It was not long before the carriage came to a halt and, silently, they made their way into the house, locking the front door and retiring to their chamber, without pause.
"Margaret?" He called her name once the door to their sanctuary was closed, the fire already lit and finally she turned to him, sinking onto the bed and patting the space beside her for him to join. He looked tired, his eyes heavy and burdened and his body hunched as though carrying a great weight. Dejectedly removing his dress jacket, he took a tentative seat beside her, rubbing his tired eyes.
"Please believe me when I say I wanted to tell you." He began, his voice rasping as though it was protesting against having to explain at all.
"I was going to tell you when I got home from the mill. That's why I stopped… what we were starting. It had nothing to do with me not wanting to continue that…" he trailed off sadly and Margaret believed him. With that assurity the intense embarrassment she had felt at the time and carried since, alleviated a little, though it did not quell the disappointment.
"I truly only received the news that the bank is placing a final demand for the money we borrowed to get through the strike today, or I would have already told you. You must believe me?"
A final demand. She did not know specifically what that was, but she knew enough to figure out that there would be no chance of charity from the bank. His hands had returned to his lap and twisting as though they could not keep still and wished he might still them so that she could think more clearly. John seemed to be waiting for a reply and so she nodded, taking one of his hands in hers and running her thumb across his knuckles to calm them.
"And we do not have the money and will not have it?" She asked, when she felt she had made sense of what he was telling her. She supposed if they could not repay the loan they would be evicted to reclaim the lost money.
"We do not have it and will not." He confirmed.
"but there must be some way we can get it?" she asked, refusing to accept that there was nothing to be done. Perhaps there was some obvious answer they were overlooking. "Might business not pick up?"
His whole countenance spoke of defeat, which annoyed her far more than the situation itself. As Margaret gazed at her husband, she did not recognise him at all? Where was the man who had built Marlborough Mills into the empire it had once been?
"We only have six months. We will be able to repay the majority, but it will leave us with nothing and no chance of keeping the mill open. We are going to have to stop the kitchen- we simply cannot afford it any longer. If we do so, we should be able to keep the mill open for the full six months and save enough so that we are not completely destitute, but it will be a stretch."
He rubbed his forehead as though recounting the details were causing him a headache began to remove his cravat. For once, easily untying the knot and slipping it off rather than asking her for help.
"There must be something we can do?" asked Margaret, refusing to give up hope. It could not be correct that it was a foregone conclusion that they would lose the mill! "We could take on more orders, work longer hours. If we told the workers, I am sure they would understand and put in more time!"
"It is not about the orders. It is too late, Margaret!"
His words implied he was growing frustrated with her, yet there was no sign of such frustration in his demeanour and tone, which infuriated her further.
"Too late?" She asked incredulous. "So, you have given up?" She was almost shouting now at his despondency. "Then you must have known this was coming. Why did you agree to change the terms of our agreement if you knew this might happen?"
"I wanted to make you happy. And I had truly thought that if we only kept the mill going through the winter, we might recover, but I cannot lie to myself and you any longer. The mill will not recover; it was hit too hard by the strike and then the winter."
It was completely pointless to shout at someone who made no move to shout back and Margaret felt a little ashamed of herself as she regarded the man in front of her. She had seen him angry, embarrassed, impassive, but never had she seen him in the state he was in now. He seemed somehow smaller, his body hunched over and his head in his hands. He was a broken man, defeated and despairing and Margaret wished he was angry instead. She would have taken the man on the day of the strike, a man so full of resentment towards the strikers over this one.
Margaret thought of all she knew about the man who was her husband, all his mother had told her, and all her father had told her, and her anger started to leave her. If he had accepted this situation then there must truly be no other way out. She let that thought wash over her. They would need to leave the house, live on barely anything and he would need to find another job. There was no telling how long it would take to rebuild what they would lose, but Margaret knew it would be years if it was possible at all.
"Have you told your mother?" She asked quietly.
He shook his head.
"I have failed her, and I have failed you. I knew there was trouble ahead when I married you and yet I brought you into this situation anyway. The only blessing here is that Fanny is taken care of."
Margaret's heart ached as she realised how sincerely he believed his words, that he was a failure.
"This is not your fault. We will tell her together." She said firmly.
He nodded into his hands, and Margaret got the distinct impression he was trying not to cry.
She grasped his shoulders and made him look at her.
"You are not a failure, John! You are the most hardworking and caring man I know, and I am proud of you for all you have done and continue to do. I know your mother and I do not agree on many things, but on this matter, we firmly concur."
Somehow, she knew he would not allow himself to cry, but undeniably there were unshed tears pooling in his eyes as pain crossed his face.
"but I cannot fulfil our new agreement. It would be possible, of course, but extremely unwise to try to bring a baby into nothing, a family with no way to pay medical bills."
Margaret thought about that and felt a jolt of sadness as she remembered the Watson's and Edith's happy news and that she and John would not be joining in their happiness for the foreseeable future. It hurt a little to admit that he was right and that it would be a foolish idea to pretend they could, but she would have to accept it.
"Is that why you stopped me earlier?" She asked, blushing at the memory of how much she longed for him to say that they should damn the party and keep doing what they had started. "Is that why you said we can't…" She swallowed deeply, forcing her eyes to hold his, rather than look away as they longed to.
He nodded sadly, and his eyes scrutinised the neckline of her dress desirously.
"I did not want you to think I don't want to do that with you! I do. There are ways to still do that and limit the chance of a baby, if your reasons for wishing for that were different…" he trailed off taking a deep breath and forcing his eyes back to her face. "But I couldn't continue without you understanding that if we do that it cannot be for the reason you want."
Was it wrong that as much as she had wanted to have a baby, to have joined Edith in cooing over their children, her disappointment when he had stopped her earlier had not solely been about that at all? When she had imagined them being together as husband and wife, the thought of children hadn't always been there. Margaret could feel her cheeks flame as she allowed herself to admit that perhaps there was another reason to desire such intimacy with him, a feeling that grew the more time she spent with him and made her long for his presence when he was away from her. She had not been lying earlier when she had said she missed him. For the majority of the afternoon, since she had seen him from a distance at the mill, she had thought of his scent, the warmth of his embrace and the softness of his cheek beneath her lips and she kissed him goodbye. For weeks now she had craved to be close to him, tried to make him happy by interacting with his mother and visiting him at the mill. She would never have admitted that she had been reading one of Fanny's magazines and seen that gentlemen were often attracted to the scent of honey and borrowed some from her sister-in-law with the intent of wearing it that evening, but the wisps of hair that fell about her face and carried the scent was proof. She would also never have admitted that Fanny had once told her that he liked pale blue fabric because it matched her eyes and picked the dress she was wearing for that very reason. Did that mean that her intentions were not solely what he believed them to be? Was it wrong that she had wanted him to want her in a way that was not strictly decent to speak of? She feared she knew the answer.
"Children can wait, John. There are things more important than that." She said honestly, trying to stop her brain from focussing on such uncomfortable thought and felt her heart melting at the look of complete relief he gave her.
As her eyes raked over him, lingering at the open buttons on the top of his shirt that exposed a glimpse of skin beneath, Margaret felt the same need from earlier, a need that had been building for weeks. It was a pull towards him that made her crave his body rather than the potential outcome of being with him that she had tried so hard to ignore. This time it was relentless, desperate. It was shameful and wrong. It went against everything they had agreed, the whole point of their marriage but Margaret was not sure she had the strength to resist any longer.
"John…" She whispered, suddenly overcome by how much he must care for her as it dawned on her that he had worried first about her reaction to their unfulfilled agreement, rather than the trials to come. "You are not alone in this." She squeezed the hand that still lay in hers tighter. "We will face this together."
His eyes bore into her and Margaret wished he would kiss her, but he did not, though his face was mere inches from hers and she sighed in surrender to what she knew they both wanted as she made her decision. Without asking for permission or considering how it would change their relationship, Margaret closed the distance between them and kissed him as passionately as she could. Instantly, he was kissing her back, as though he needed her, like a drowning man needs air. He was kissing her back as though it was all he had wanted to do and had just been waiting for her to make the first move. Somehow, they were removing clothing, tossing it aside with little care and attention and this time, when he lowered her carefully back onto the mattress, pressing his weight on top of her, Margaret's could feel his heartbeat reverberate through her where their skin pressed together, synchronising with her own, as though they were one, meant to be together. Margaret knew they were approaching the point of no return and she tried to clear her screaming mind, to reassure herself they were doing the right thing. If she only let him do this, he might understand what she felt for him, might feel how much she wanted to comfort him and be with him through the trials he was going to face. If she only let him do this, she too might momentarily forget the sadness that threatened to overwhelm her as she realised how alone they were against the world, with her mother and father gone and only Hannah Thornton for help. Time ceased to exist as, rather suddenly, he wasn't just kissing her lips any longer, and she wasn't just kissing his. With each kiss or caress her skin flamed and her heart raced harder than before as she copied the way he scorched a trail across her neck and down to her chest. John did not stop, or ask her if she wanted him to stop this time, but it did not matter. If he had, she would only have begged him to keep going once again.
In the final moments, as he whispered, "I am so in love with you" and Margaret could not contain the tears that brimmed as she fully comprehended the enormity of what they had done and the truth of his words. More than anything, she wished her voice would have allowed her to say it back, but it was all too much. Even as he held her body against his in the early hours of the morning, the tears still fell, and she sobbed into her pillow as she realised she had been a fool, for weeks, months, possibly all along in thinking she could stop herself from falling in love with this man. Her father had known his friend was the only one who could make his daughter happy and he had been right. Despite her best attempts not to, she had fallen in love with John Thornton.
Dear readers, I hope I have managed to keep this story T rated. I know some of you will be disappointed at the lack of explicit content, but I hope it has remained plot driven, rather than becoming graphic with little plot. I suppose what I am saying is I hope I have kept it more about the plot and implied rather than explicitly stated. I hope you enjoyed it. I promise I won't make you wait so long for the next one. x