Margaret was certain she had never been more uncomfortable in her life. As was traditional, the men and women had splintered away from one another. The men smoked and drank brandy and discussed politics. The women were cast into a different room, left to make small talk about children, or the weather, or dresses. It inevitably descended into a petty competition over who owned the nicest furniture or some such nonsense. It was interminably dull.
It was even worse this evening. After her argument with Mr Thornton at the dinner table, the reception Margaret was currently receiving in this room full of women was frosty to say the very least. Margaret sat in a chair in a corner, staring at her hands lying folded in her lap as the other women spoke to each other and thoroughly ignored her. Mrs Thornton was, of course, furious with her. Margaret had caught the glares from various women when her gaze had strayed from her own hands. Fanny, in particular, was entirely unsubtle in her contempt.
In the hallway, the clock struck ten and Margaret wanted to go home. Her mother would be going to sleep soon, and though there was no great desire to share what had happened at the dinner table, Margaret knew her mother would want to know every detail of exactly what had happened at the dinner party.
Once the clock had finished striking, Margaret stood up. Mrs Thornton caught the movement and turned to her.
"Are you leaving, Miss Hale?" She asked, eyebrow raised as her eyes fixed on Margaret's. "So soon?"
Margaret felt every eye in the room on her, and she stood a little straighter. She would not be intimidated by a room full of women who could not speak up for what was right, for most of them seemed to have no empathy or understanding for the plight of others.
"My mother is not well, and she will be retiring for the night. I would like to go home in time to speak with her." Margaret explained. "I know that she will be eager to hear of this evening."
"The men have not finished." Mrs Thornton pointed out. "I doubt your father is ready to leave.
"I am sure he will be once he realises the time. He will be eager to see her himself. Excuse me for disturbing your conversation. Thank you for a fine evening." Margaret nodded her head. "Goodbye, everyone."
Goodbyes were mumbled and half wished, though not a woman rose to say goodbye properly. Good, Margaret thought. She did not care if they thought her wild or haughty. She did not care what they thought of her at all.
As she left the room and closed the door firmly behind her, Margaret walked slowly down the hallway as she made her way back to the main parlour where the men were. She had only been in the main living room of the house, close to the front door. Thus, this part of the house was unfamiliar. The house felt rather dark and dingy to her - though, so did her own house. Perhaps it was Milton itself that had this effect. The buildings were tightly packed, crammed together in a fashion that meant light did not come into the rooms so easily. Besides, there was rarely any sunshine to speak of in Milton anyway. Everything felt grey, the layer of smoke that covered the city making everything feel dull and unclean.
The wallpaper was quite nice, Margaret conceded. She absently reached out and touched the raised flock of the pattern, before snatching her hand away. She was not a child - it would not do to be touching walls just to see what they felt like.
If she was honest with herself, she had had a little too much wine at dinner. She was not used to it, though it was not the first time she had taken wine with dinner of course. London society drank heavily; the men more so than the women. The men here, too, would be drinking brandy after dinner. Margaret could not stand drunk men; they leered and they made fools of themselves. Her own head felt rather fuzzy, as though it was made of wool.
As she reached the end of the seemingly mile-long corridor, she saw a door to a room she had not noticed before. The light was on inside, the door open a crack but not enough to see inside. Pushing the door slightly and peering round as it swung open, she noted a mahogany desk and a towering bookshelf on the opposing wall. This must be Mr Thornton's study. His bookshelf called to her; she always enjoyed seeing what other people read. You could tell a lot about a man by the books he enjoyed.
"Miss Hale." A sharp voice startled her, and she whipped around.
Mr Thornton stood in the doorway, arms folded as he looked at her. She expected him to be furious, but when she looked at his face, his eyes crinkled and lips quirked as he stared at her with an expression that she dared hope was amusement.
"Mr Thornton. I am sorry, I saw the door open and I could not resist looking at your bookshelves. It was rude of me, and I apologise." Margaret said, eyes downcast.
Her face burned. Of course she had known it was wrong. A man's study was a private place, and though the door had not been closed, she had not been asked in. Though embarrassed, she was glad it was Mr Thornton who had caught her - she did not think Mrs Thornton would be at all amused to find Margaret poking around her son's bookshelves.
"What do you make of them?" He asked, stepping inside and gently kicking the door with his heel so it closed slightly behind him. He joined her, his hand reaching out to touch the spines of the books. "Are they to your taste?"
Margaret looked carefully at the bookshelf in front of her. It was rather tall, though slim, and held around twenty books per shelf. Many of the lower shelves were empty, and the ones around the height of Mr Thornton's chest were jammed full. It seemed a strange use of the space, and she had expected a man as meticulous as Mr Thornton to be more organised.
"You do not have many books, but the ones you do have are quite interesting. I believe we have a similar taste in fiction." She ran her fingers along the spines of the books. Taking a deep breath, she turned to face the man standing beside her. "I owe you an apology, Mr Thornton."
"And I owe you one as well. I spoke harshly to you in front of others, and I am sorry. I am sorry I spoke roughly to you at all, but as you can imagine it is something of a sore subject in this house, at that dinner table."
Margaret thought on his words; now it was just the two of them, things did not feel as tense. He did not smile at her, but he did not frown either. He was just staring down at her; though, from the great height at which he stood, that in itself was rather intimidating.
"No, no you spoke with conviction. To be clear, sir - I am not apologising for my basket. I will never regret helping those in need but I do so let my tongue run away with me. My mother will be mortified at my conduct, should my father or Mr Bell tell her. She does not like it when I speak my mind so. She says it is unbecoming of a young lady."
Mr Thornton looked at her, the smallest smile tugging at his lips. He smiled more than she thought he would the first time she had met him. Though he had a fierce temper that seemed to flare easily, she could see the humour in him too. She felt that he teased her sometimes, and she had often heard him make little quips to her father about one thing or another.
"You have beliefs, and you stand by them. There is something I admire about that, though it is no great secret I do not approve of your methods. You don't understand this world, Miss Hale. The union is more dangerous than you realise, brutal in their tactics. I would not want a young lady like yourself to become entangled in such unsavoury business."
"I do not believe the union men to be of bad character, Mr Thornton. They are desperate men who struggle to support their families. Have you been to Princeton yourself?"
He raised an eyebrow at her question. Margaret knew her tone as impertinent, but she did not care to alter it.
"Aye, of course I have. I am no ignorant master who does not know his own workers, Miss Hale. I know the poverty, I know the conditions they live in. I run a business, rightly or wrongly, and I pay them the wages I can afford to pay and still turn a healthy profit. They are welcome to take or leave my employement, but they do not leave because they know that I run a fair mill despite what they try and claim."
"I want to learn more about it." Margaret said, her eyes fixed on his. "I want to learn how this world works, how things could be improved for them, to make things fairer-"
"You should not be in here, Miss Hale." Mr Thornton said, his face turning hard once more.
She had offended him once more, as she seemed wont to do. She squared her shoulders, refusing to be intimidated any further. If he could not have a civil conversation, that was his fault, not hers..
"I have already said that I am sorry for being here without your permission." Margaret said, crossing her arms as she waited for his response.
"Yet you have not left. Your father will wonder where you are."
"My father is no doubt engaged in conversation," Margaret said. "But of course, if you wish me to leave I shall go. It is just - you have been blocking the door, Mr Thornton."
He stepped aside, and she swept past him. As her hand reached the doorknob, she squeaked in surprise as she was pulled back by Mr Thornton's hand gripping her bare elbow. She gasped at the force with which he held her. For a moment, she felt fear squeeze at her; was he going to hurt her?! She did not believe him capable of that, but why was he holding her so?
She turned to look at him, stunned that he would dare to touch her in such a way. Her heart raced, her throat tightened. He loosened his grip on her arm but did not let go. Instead, he raised a hand to her hair. She had never given any indication that she wanted him to touch her at all. Yet she did not struggle, she did not turn away.
"Miss Hale." His voice was lower now, his grip relaxing on her arms so she could turn and leave any time she wished. "I cannot stop thinking about you."
"Really?" Margaret asked, breathless at his proximity and sudden confession.
"You look beautiful this evening." He whispered, his fingertips brushing the bare skin of her upper arms. "So beautiful."
"Mr Thornton - " She felt as though she were drowning. "Mr Thornton, I cannot-"
"Of course." He stepped back, his face tight. "I am sorry, Miss Hale. I do not know what has come over me - to touch you in such a way, unbidden and unwanted-"
"Not unwanted." Margaret said, the treacherous words coming out before she could stop them.
"Really?" Thornton asked, echoing her earlier reaction.
"I must confess, I have thought about you." Margaret whispered. "I - I think you to be a good man, Mr Thornton. You may think I do not, but I do."
"I think you a fine lady, Miss Hale." He leaned in close to her, his hand coming to rest on her cheek.
Margaret blinked up at him, aching to lean up and kiss him. She could not; for a start, he towered over her and she was sure she would not reach his lips, landing awkwardly somewhere on his neck instead. Secondly, she could not because to kiss this man, secretly in his study with a room full of people next door, would be a mistake that would indelibly damage her reputation. Besides, she was not even sure that she liked him. Why on earth was she so drawn to him at this moment?
They froze, their faces so close together that their noses almost touched. And then, in a moment that would surely be seared into Margaret's memory for all time, Mr Thornton's lips were against hers. Margaret had never been kissed before. She did not move away; in fact, she brought a hand up to rest against his cheek.
He moaned as her palm melded against his jaw. It was a tiny sound, and she might not have heard it if his lips were not pressed against hers. Indeed, it wasn't so much that she heard it that she felt it. His hand moved lower, to the small of her back. She found herself being pulled closer to him. There was not an inch between them; the swell of her chest pressed tight against him as he stooped lower to continue kissing her.
Margaret felt as though every inch of her was on fire. Her brain was screaming at her that this was ridiculous; should somebody come in, her reputation would lie in tatters and her father would surely die of shame. A young woman, unmarried as she was, should not be kissing handsome (though utterly infuriating) mill owners at dinner parties.
This feeling was wonderful; intoxicating, in fact. Her heart thudded against her ribs, her fingertips tingled. Her lips burned. His hands raised to the back of her neck, one fingertip tracing down towards her back. It made her shiver in the most delightful way, not like she was cold at all. She wanted this to go on forever.
And then, it was over.
John sprang back from her. He looked at her in shock, his hand rising to his lips as if to check they were still there.
"Christ." He muttered under his breath, rubbing at his forehead. "Miss Hale-"
"You may call me Margaret, I think." She said shakily, smoothing the skirt of her dress.
"Miss Hale," he continued "I am sorry, I do not know what came over me. You should leave."
When he realised that she would not leave without speaking with him first, Mr Thornton stepped forward. He opened the door, and with a cursory glance into the hallway left without a word. Margaret stared after him, taking a deep breath. She turned back towards the bookshelf, not wishing to leave the room until the burning blush that she felt on her cheeks had gone.
After a few minutes, Margaret stepped into the hallway. Thankfully, it was empty. As she walked towards the door of the room the men were in, her father emerged. He looked a little bleary eyed and unsteady on his feet. He was not a great drinker - perhaps Margaret and John were not the only ones who had had too much alcohol that evening.
"Ah, Margaret! I was just coming to find you, my dear. I thought you would be with the women." Her father said, his arm going out for hers.
She took it, and she noticed he was leaning rather heavily against her. She took a deep breath, trying to steady her rapidly beating heart.
"I was. I - I was coming to see if you were ready to leave. I am terribly tired."
"Good, good. Let us go then. Have you bid goodnight to our hosts?"
"I have said thank you to Mrs Thornton." Margaret said. "I have - I have not seen Mr Thornton. I thought he was in there with you."
Her father shook his head.
"I have not said goodbye to him myself. He left to go and see to something in the mill, and I have not- ah!" Her father smiled warmly, and Margaret did not have to turn around to know who he was smiling at.
"You're leaving?" That voice, deep and gruff and unmistakably his, asked.
"Yes, John, we must get back to see Mrs Hale before she retires for the night. Thank you so much for the wonderful evening."
The two men shook hands, and Margaret finally dragged her gaze away from her shoes when her father nudged her to say goodbye to their host.
Mr Thornton held his hand out for her to shake, and she took it. She inhaled as she felt his fingertips graze the sensitive skin of her palm, his eyes fixed on hers. Had that been deliberate?
"Miss Hale. I hope we can part friends." He said with a smile, that small smile she saw every now and then when she took tea with Mr Thornton and her father.
"Of course." Margaret said, though in truth she did not know what was going on. "Thank you for this evening, Mr Thornton."
They looked at each other, eyes unable to tear away, until the sound of her father's voice broke the spell and their hands dropped back by their sides.
"See you next week, John. Monday, wasn't it?"
"If the strike continues, aye." Mr Thornton said, weary at the talk of the strike. "I will send word if I cannot make our lesson, of course."
"Of course. Whatever you need. I shall look forward to it! More Plato, I think. You are doing so well."
John smiled again at the compliment. Margaret felt her cheeks heat. Oh, that would not do at all.
"Good night, Mr Hale. Miss Hale." He nodded to them both, and walked with them to the door.
There was no need for him to show them out personally; they had servants for that. But as Mr Hale took his coat and hat from the girl waiting by the door, Margaret felt a hand rest on the small of her back. She turned, and Mr Thornton stood so closely to her that she could feel the brush of his jacket against her arm. She knew the angle of their bodies would hide the fact this man was touching her if anyone in front should turn around - yet, if someone should emerge from the rooms behind them..
Margaret lingered for a moment, looking up and meeting Mr Thornton's eyes. He looked at her with a strange expression, and her heart was beating so fast there was no possible way it could not be heard echoing through the whole house. Without blinking, she stepped forward and swept past her father to stand in the now open doorway.
"Goodnight, Mr Thornton." Margaret spoke first.
She took her father's arm to help him down the dark steps. As they went down together, she could not help but look back.
Cross armed and stern faced, John Thornton was watching her as she left.
She did not understand that man.