"Where is Leonards?" Margaret asked, turning to see if she could catch sight of the man who had just accosted them so publicly.
"So you did know him," John said, walking quickly and clearly expecting her to keep up the pace. "Margaret, what are you doing here?"
She had to almost run to keep up with him, her heart racing as they neared the carriage.
"I cannot tell you." She said breathlessly.
He stopped, turning to face her. Even in the dim light, there was no mistaking the fury on his face. She felt herself shrink back under his glare, feeling thoroughly irritated with herself for such a reaction. She owed him nothing; she had done nothing to him, nothing to incite such a furious reaction.
"I think I deserve an explanation!" His voice was low. "You cannot imagine what I thought when I saw you - hand in hand-"
They stood in the shadows, hidden away in darkness as they glared at one another out of the sight of curious eyes. She wished she could tell him everything, for honesty was a trait she valued highly. Yet she would lie to him happily if it meant Fred's safe passage back to Spain was ensured.
"I know how it looks. I know how it must appear to you, Mr Thornton. I cannot - I cannot tell you who that man is. Why did you interfere? I thought you'd gone!"
"I don't know. I was going to leave, then I heard him call your name. I saw him approach you, and I could not - I could not stop myself. He wasn't talking to you, was he?"
"Yes, he was." Margaret said firmly. "He was talking to me."
"Don't do this. Don't lie to me." John urged her. "I'm taking you home. What the hell are you doing out alone at this hour?"
"I wasn't alone."
"That does not make it better."
"I will be quite alright, thank you."
The longer she was with him, the closer in proximity they were to one another, the more tempting it would be to confess everything to him, to share the burden of the secret she carried. How could it be, she wondered, that she trusted this man so greatly - and yet, she scarcely knew him in any real sense of the word?
The carriage was waiting, as she had instructed the driver. She thanked God for that small mercy, that there was at least a way out of this. That Mr Thornton apparently insisted on accompanying her home, for he was still following her as she reached the vehicle, was less ideal. She could not be in his company and keep a level head.
"Get in, Miss Hale."
"What if someone should see?"
"Oh, now you are concerned for your reputation?" John asked, his voice hollow. "Yet cavorting with a man on a station platform late at night is of no consequence?"
"Are you to be rude to me the entire journey?" Margaret asked. "For, if that is the case, then I think I should rather walk."
She climbed into the carriage, taking her seat blindly in the darkness. As the door closed and he sat down beside her, she felt the weight of him upon her as his lips met hers with a desperation she had never felt before. She kissed him back eagerly, the passion she felt for him stealing any sense of propriety she might have had. She clung to him desperately, hands roaming his back, fingers threading through his hair; his own hands gripping her waist tightly, as though she might disappear.
And then, as quickly as he had advanced on her, he was gone.
"The truth, Miss Hale."
"Miss Hale?" Margaret said breathlessly. "You would kiss me like that and call me Miss Hale?"
"Who was he?"
His voice was curt, as hard and demanding as she had ever heard it. Had they so easily returned to their previous relationship? Did contempt come so easily to him, that he could declare his love for her one moment and be so cold in the next?
"Nobody. Nobody at all." Margaret said.
It would have been far better if she had the foresight to think of some clever lie, some reason that she might be out so late at night. Her senses were muddled, a chaotic jumble of fear and sorrow and desperation that made her all but useless.
"Is he your lover?" John asked. "No, no, I do not think that he is. Not from the way he flinched when that man said Hale. No, I think that he is your relation. He was the Hale Leonards was talking to, I've no doubt of it. But I do not understand. Why the secrecy if you have nothing to hide? Why would your relation allow you to be out so late at night without a care for how it looks?"
"He is my friend. A f-friend of my father's, come to see Mother." She paused, trying to hide the trepidation that had crept into her voice. "That is all."
"And why was your friend leaving so late at night, with only an unmarried young lady to see him onto the train?"
"Damn it, Margaret. I'd have the truth. You mock us both with these blatant lies. You are a poor actress."
"What do you wish to hear?" Margaret countered furiously. "You will not accept what I have told you so perhaps you could enlighten me about what you expect me to say?"
"I wish to hear that you have no attachment to that man. That he does not know you as I know you. That you are not hiding some sordid secret from me. You cannot imagine what I am thinking." He fumbled for her hands in the darkness, taking them in his own and pressing them against his chest. "Tell me I am wrong."
How easy it would be to lie, to weave a story that would protect her secret. Yet, somehow, she was driven to trust him. Naive as it may be, she needed an ally in this, somebody who would help her navigate any storm to come once Leonards spoke of what he had seen that night.
"You are not wrong."
He dropped her hands abruptly, and they landed unceremoniously back in her lap. Oh, she was making a terrible meal of this! It ought to be so simple; either she did not tell him any aspect of the truth, or she told him everything. Yet here she hovered, somewhere between the two.
"He is your lover."
"No! No. It is nothing like that. I promise you… it is only you that… Please, forgive me but I truly cannot tell you. It would do him a great disservice. I swore to him - swore to my father.."
"What? I don't understand."
"If I tell you the truth, it could do that man I was with great harm."
"He could have done you great harm. Leonards was drunk, aggressive. What if you had been hurt?" John asked. "I would keep whatever secret this is, Margaret. Trust me. I just need to know the truth."
"I am quite well." Margaret shook her head. "He is unharmed - but if Leonards should tell..then my secret-keeping will come to naught anyway. You would find out either way."
"Tell me who he is, Margaret. I would not betray your confidence."
"I cannot tell you because - because you are a magistrate."
John stiffened. She could feel it in his hands, though she could not see him. His fingers stilled in hers, for he had been brushing tiny, invisible circles against her skin. Now, there was nothing, no tenderness between them. She could practically hear the working of his mind as he thought upon what she had told him.
"He is a criminal," John said in a dull voice. "That is why you cannot tell me. The haste to see him onto the train, the late hour at which he's travelling.. That is why you would not allow me into your house that day. Margaret, what is going on? I don't know what is happening. I feel like I am going mad."
"You swear you will not take any action on this?" Margaret asked, squeezing his hands imploringly. "I know what you must think - we were not careful enough. It has been so hard, Mother had to see him-"
The babbled words escaped her unbidden, her chest heaving with anxiety as she revealed the most precious secret she had ever carried with such ease. Her mind screamed at her that she was a fool, that Fred would see the gallows if her trust in Mr Thornton was misplaced.
"No. No, not an uncle." Margaret took a deep, shaking breath. In that moment, she decided that it was too late; she must tell the truth and hope only that John took mercy on them. "My brother."
The silence that filmed the carriage was overwhelming. Margaret felt her pulse thud heavily in her ears, her breath caught as she waited for Mr Thornton's response.
"You don't have a brother."
"Yes. I do. I have a brother. My only sibling, my parents' beloved son, and we must deny he ever existed for his own sake."
"Your father never mentioned a son. All these months, and he never once mentioned any child besides you."
"It is too painful for him. The grief of it affected my parents very badly. I hope - I hope by telling you the truth, Mr Thornton, that you might try to see the situation with a little sympathy. It was wrong to bring him here, but I truly believe my brother to be innocent of his accused crime. I would do anything to see his name cleared."
"Mutiny. Fred was in the navy and.."
Perhaps he had been expecting some more ordinary crime; theft or some such. He said nothing as she recounted the long story of how her brother came to be a wanted man. When she had finished, she was met with silence.
"Please. Say something."
"The Navy are after him."
"Yes. He will leave England as soon as he can. If Leonards should tell anyone of his identity..if they find him, John. He shall be hanged."
"Nobody'll believe the word of a drunk like Leonards. He's nothing but trouble, I'll see him up in court before long, mark my words. As far as anyone knows the Hales have one daughter. Your brother, he'll leave England by tomorrow?"
"I believe so, yes. Just as soon as he can."
"And you'll not bring him back to Milton again?"
"No. No, I swear this shall be the last time he sets foot on English soil unless we can free him from his false conviction. I just hope we have done enough to keep him safe."
"What was your father doing, letting you accompany him? Anyone could have seen you. You could have been hurt, the streets aren't safe for ladies at this hour, never mind the rest of it."
"He wasn't thinking clearly. None of us were, I suppose.. I know it was not the best idea, but I was so desperate to make sure Fred made it safely onto the train. If anything I suppose it drew Leonards' attention to us more. If I'd have just stayed at home, perhaps Fred wouldn't have been noticed at all. You are right, a young woman out so late at night is a strange sight."
"If Leonards comes to me and presses the matter, I will tell him the man was nothing more than a business associate. It will not explain why you were there, but it will protect your brother at the least."
He held her hands once more, clutching them to his chest, keeping her close. She did not move away from this embrace; she welcomed his touch, knowing that he would do his best to protect Fred, to keep her family safe..His intervention would surely mean more than her word ever could, should a man as immoral as Leonards decided to raise his suspicions. Her forehead came to rest against his, his arms wrapping around her and tugging her closer. She did not fight this, for it felt so right there was no fight left within her.
"You've no idea what I thought when I saw you there. I believed the worst of you."
"I know. I am sure a great many people will join you, once Leonards has told anyone who cares to listen what happened here."
"There is a solution."
"What?" Margaret asked.
At the note of hesitation in her voice, the embrace was broken. She felt his absence in her very soul, her hand reaching for him in the darkness.
"Please. My head..I cannot be asked to make such a decision now! You promised me time, yet you would ask that I make such a decision after what has just happened? No, I will not. My mother lies in the chapel of rest, my father sick with grief. I can only pray my brother makes safe passage from England. You would ask me now?"
"You're right." He exhaled heavily. "You're right, of course you are. I am foolish. Forgive me."
"I would ask for more time, John. I do certainly not wish to marry in such grave circumstances; whatever damage to my reputation, surely marrying whilst wearing black would cause infinitely more? I am grieving."
Another pause, silence so painful she could scarcely breathe.
"Thank you." She took a deep breath. "Thank you for tonight. I - I cannot thank you enough. I do not know what would have happened if you were not there."
The carriage slowed.
"We're here. Do you want me to speak with your father?"
"No. No, he will be long asleep by now. Please, do not tell him about tonight. He does not need to know."
"Very well. Goodnight, Margaret."
Margaret disembarked the carriage, staring blankly as it clattered away. She did not know what had just happened, her body numb and mind racing. She could only hope that John would keep his word - and that he would protect her through whatever was to come.
A/N: Apologies for the long wait. Thank you for all of your reviews and kind messages about the story so far - I hope you enjoyed this chapter.