Borrowed and adapted from my series, "The Thornton Tales," this one-shot sees John and Margaret shyly and awkwardly navigate thorough the early days of their engagement. With lots of coy cuddles and kisses, the newly betrothed couple try to both express and restrain their passion for each other while they live under the same roof and eagerly await their wedding day. Then, one morning, they unexpectably stumble upon a private and precious ritual that will last throughout the fifty years of the Thornton's happy marriage.


THE CROOKED CRAVAT

From The Thornton Tales

PART 1 OF 1

It had all begun a few days after John had brought Margaret back home to Milton.

During her early days settling into their future home, their nest, it was clear to anybody with eyes that both John and Margaret were head-over-heels in love with each other. Their smitten smiles and giddy laughs were more than enough evidence of their mutual attraction and affection, which seemed to create an aura of passion that swathed the pair in their own clandestine, heavenly realm.

However, at the same time, despite their gladness at finally being reunited and having their love requited, they had each been acutely shy and charmingly awkward. They had both yearned for each other for so long, but neither of them quite knew how to go from being distant in both location and relationship, to suddenly being engaged and, quite scandalously, living in the same house whilst still unmarried. Therefore, over the first genesis days, their bond was explored and expressed through a series of blundering kisses, clumsy huddles, tongue-tied chance-meetings in passageways, and radish-red flushes at their inelegance. Nevertheless, despite their self-consciousness, the newly affianced couple had found resourceful ways of coyly demonstrating their fondness for each other.

They each had their own methods of disclosing their ardour, of revealing their devotion. Margaret would nestle beside John while he read his newspaper, and in turn, he would drape his arm around her and draw her close, inviting her head to lay on his chest, (when nobody was looking, of course). Again, while John sat at the summit of the dining table for breakfast, Margaret would sit on his right, the tips of their fingers playfully brushing against each other as they passed the teapot. Whenever Margaret wished to go for a walk to visit her friends or survey her reinstated hometown, if John were free from commercial demands, he would fold her arm around his and proudly escort her about, constantly revelling in the congratulations that came his way, never missing an opportunity to introduce Miss Hale as his intended. Then, in the evenings, John would purposefully conclude his business as soon as possible, and instead of toiling in his office as was his previous disposition, he would now impatiently race home to the woman he treasured. The once severe master would beam from cheek-to-cheek and after hunting her down, would swiftly scoop Margaret up and hold her as snugly as he could without breaking her. It was after many hours of murmuring sweet sentiments into each other's ears and stealing a kiss under the cover of shadows, that his mother would force John to relinquish his fiancée, so that they could both begrudgingly go to their dispersed beds.

However, it was five days after Margaret had come to reside at Marlborough House that it had started, and John had discovered his favourite routine.

One morning when John had been readying to leave for the mill, he turned as Margaret entered the drawing-room, plainly oblivious to his presence, for she was still pinning up her hair, the loose ends of chestnut locks dangling over her shoulder. On seeing him, she had halted and fluttered, unsure of whether she should come or go. After a moment of graceless indecision, they had both stopped what they were doing, glanced nervously at each other, blushed a great deal, and then keenly edged closer, eager for a brief assignation before the demands of the cotton trade so cruelly separated them.

'Good morning, you,' John had sighed, encircling his large hands around her slender waistline, and pulling her near so that he could deposit a featherlight kiss on her eyelids.

'Good morning, you,' Margaret echoed modestly, her fingers demurely stroking his muscular forearms.

His heart galloped as she sniffed and snuffled, as his lips ghosted the tip of her lovely nose, which then wrinkled enchantingly.

Good God! – how was he ever supposed to leave her everyday for work?

John had always been enthused and energised by his enterprise and knew that it fuelled him in the same way that food or slumber nourished others. Nevertheless, since Margaret had entered his household as his wife-to-be, he had come to bitterly resent anything that took him away from her for even a second, even his faithful mill. In the long and lonely period of their estrangement and parting, John had constantly imagined what life would be like if Margaret had agreed to be his wife. He had thought about their wedding, their children, their quarrels, their ideals, their shared triumphs and struggles, but oddly enough, it had never once occurred to him that he would actually have to abandon her everyday and how damned difficult that was going to be.

As Margaret coquettishly swayed in his hold, too timid to look at him properly, John let his hungry eyes drink in every inch of Margaret's beautiful face. He did not think he would ever tire of seeing her in the morning, with her sleepy eyes that sparkled brighter than any twinkling star. He could not count the number of things that he enjoyed doing with, to, or for his betrothed, nor which was his preferred act of service. He suppressed the urge to think about another certain activity that he would be looking forward to doing with, to, and for his alluring bride. Scolding himself, John determined that it was best to banish that seductive yet sinful fantasy from his mind…for now…but not for long…Hell! - hopefully not for long!

One of John's cherished privileges was simply being allowed to touch Margaret. For so long he had craved her, ached for her, longed to reach out and simply fondle the folds of her dresses. But now, he could do so much more than that, letting his hands innocently wander over the permitted parts of her person. But even more gratifyingly, he felt his manly sense of pride soar like an eagle at the very idea that she welcomed his fervid attention, and that she voluntarily ran into his open embrace, wholeheartedly making his secure arms her home.

He basked in the sensation of her waist, her limbs, her back, her hands, her shoulders, and her cheeks. Her body was so pleasing in its shape, so well-proportioned in its size. Her silky skin was soft and warm like melted butter, and he was endlessly craving a taste of it, never quite able to satisfy his appetite. Everything about her enticed him like a witch casting her incantation and he most willingly fell under her spell. He adored it every time one of her unruly tresses strayed from their fastenings and curled over her temple. Margaret would typically absently push them away, but now, she was learning to leave them be, for there was another, a helpful servant who was more than agreeable to oblige in this task. John would let his trembling fingers rise to Margaret's visage and with reverence, he would coil her locks around his digits and slowly tuck them behind her ear, his fingers skimming her flesh. His heart would skip a beat as he sensed her moan, shudder, and unwittingly shift into his touch, silently appreciating his ardour.

At any rate, on this particular day, John was about to commence his now established pattern of peppering her face with gentle kisses of farewell, but, much to his surprise, as he moved his head closer to hers, he was halted by her hand, which she positioned firmly on his neck. John's eyes flew open questioningly, as he searched her features for clarification, worrying that he may have caused offence. Without uttering a word, Margaret shook her head and began to yank at the ends of his cravat, tugging it loose, and whipping it clean away.

John stilled and gulped as she exposed his strong neck and stared at his uncovered skin, the hairs bristling in knowledge of her presence and anticipation of her contact. He knew that this was not the first time she had seen him this bare, indeed, she had seen him in a much more shocking state of undress at the train station. But still, on that occasion, he had been so distracted by the excitement of seeing her again and the euphoria of their elopement, that he had not even noticed his lack of propriety.

However, today, this was quite a different kettle of fish.

Margaret subsequently commenced to narrow her eyes and titter to herself, as she affectionately tidied John's shirt collar, as if it were the most natural thing for her to do, something that she had done a hundred times. She then leaned in so close that he could smell the fragrant scent of her neck, which intoxicated his lungs with a thrilling aroma, and she wrapped the ascot back around his neck and began to arrange it with vigilant care.

John continued to stand in stupefied amazement, fascinated by this simple yet delightfully intimate undertaking. On registering his stunned gape, Margaret coloured, her slightly visible chest resembling the shade of a cherry tomato. Much to John's alarm, she almost withdrew, but to his relief, she thought better of it, allowing her courage to prevail.

'Your cravat was crooked,' she explained bashfully, embarrassed by her bold act of familiarity. 'We cannot have the most important man in Milton stepping out of his front door looking any less than his very best,' she defended, hiding her mortification behind a veil of giggles.

Lord! – how he loved her!

Margaret took her time in fixing his necktie, perhaps a little longer than was strictly necessary, her lithe fingers slipping between the fabric and stroking his jaw, something that made every nerve in his stiffening body tingle.

At last, she concluded her mission, and after rubbing her hands along his lapels, she breathed: 'There, Mr Thornton, my man is as dashing as ever.'

John was speechless.

For what felt like an age, he was rooted to the spot, simply panting and struggling to breathe, as he mutely asked God what he had done to deserve such overwhelming happiness. Then, abruptly, John lurched forward and captured Margaret's mouth with his. As she stumbled backwards under the intensity of his desire, his ravenous hands reached out and hauled her nearer, so that her tantalising body was flush against his own. He gripped her for dear life, terrified that he would wake up at any minute to find that this had all been no more than a heavenly dream, invented by his obsessed mind.

John groaned as Margaret let out a gasping breath and swooned into his ministrations. She raked her fingers through his hair, pressed against him, and parted her lips diffidently, to allow him greater access.

Finally, after the clock chimed the hour and interrupted their tryst, they both pulled away, breathless, letting their foreheads rest together as they allowed their fiery senses to calm.

'Margaret,' John exhaled, his voice deep and husky.

'Yes, John?' Margaret answered, her pitch high.

He closed his eyes, the sound of his name on her honeyed lips so delicious that it threatened to tear his resolve to shreds. If he was not careful, they would be on that train to Gretna Green as fast as he could carry her. God! - where was his renowned self-denial when he needed it most?

'I love you,' he confessed.

John scowled, for he felt horribly inept, because even although his declaration was true and he had now told her of his undying love more times than he had fingers or toes to count it on, he cursed himself for not being more eloquent in his address, in his ability to woo her with words. If only he were fluent with a romantic tongue, then he could poetically describe just how much this darling woman meant to him. But for now, "I love you," was as much as his inadequate vocabulary could accomplish.

However, he was soon enticed out of his resentful, self-deprecating mood by the feeling of his Venus tenderly patting his sideburns. Opening his eyes, John gazed into her own orbs, ones that glistened with unshed tears of joy. They conveyed a profound and prophetic message, one of constancy, trust, admiration, and unwavering friendship.

'I love you too,' she smiled, reaching up on her tiptoes, so that she could place a reassuring peck on his cheek. John grinned, for their considerable height difference meant that she missed and could only reach his chin, but all the same, the misplaced kiss was appreciated.

Holding her head in his splayed hands, he looked at her with lingering devotion before reluctantly stepping away, taking one last glance at his darling girl. As John quitted the parlour, he mischievously wrenched at the ends of his cravat, causing it to once again become askew. As he strode outside and walked towards his office, he hoped and prayed that his dishevelled appearance would later catch Margaret's eye, and that she would once more allow them to engage in their private act of informality, performing the precious roles of husband and wife.

As it would turn out, Margaret did notice John's scruffy appearance and had commenced her fussing the moment he trapsed through the door at the end of the day. While John had watched her with serenity, he had a funny feeling that she had guessed of his tomfoolery, but just like him, she was more than happy to pander to any excuse that allowed them to be close, to be content in each other's company and caresses.

It was a routine that John evoked the following day, and the day after that, and the day after that…

Little did he know on that unassuming morning, that this ritual would become an established habit of John and Margaret Thornton's, one that would endure for over fifty blissful years.