This OS has been written as my first participation to North and South fandom in French, nearly 6 years ago (time flies).
I hope that you'll like this short story, that's a "what if". I love "what if's" for this fandom, as you have already seen with "My only debt".
Disclaimer: The story and characters belong to Elizabeth Gaskell
The train stopped in a cloud of steam. "Milton! Milton station! Ten minutes stop!" The stationmaster shouted in his megaphone. Henry Lennox opened the compartment door and held it as Margaret Hale climbed down the train. Then, he followed her, carrying their travel bags. Margaret thanked him when someone called her name. Surprised, she turned. She searched the crowd for a moment before she saw Mr. Thornton walking toward her. He looked casual with his jacket carelessly thrown on his shoulder. His lips stretched into a thin smile as he made his way through the crowd.
"Miss Hale!" He greeted her.
Margaret smiled and offered him her hand, and he shook it warmly. She hadn't expected to see him at the station, disembarking the same train as her. She hesitated slightly.
"I don't want to seem nosy, but where are you coming from?" She asked.
"In fact, I was travelling in the South. Now that I have time for me, I visited some places I wanted to see for a long time." Margaret couldn't wonder what his destination had been, because Thornton added: "And you? Why are you here in Milton?"
"I'm here on business," Margaret immediately replied.
She hadn't expected to see Mr. Thornton, and that was making her nervous. And her nervousness was showing on the way she was speaking. She tried to calm down.
"I have a business proposition for you. I asked Henry Lennox to come with me. He knows the administrative part better than me."
If Thornton was annoyed when he saw Henry, he barely revealed it. He briefly frowned and clenched his jaw, then he extended his hand. Both men greeted each other respectfully.
"Come to Marborough Mills, we could speak about this business in a better place." John offered.
Margaret and Henry followed him outside of the train station, where he stopped a cab. The travel to the mill was quick and quiet. Henry didn't speak, and Margaret asked John how his mother and sister were doing. He gave her a short but warm answer. The cab stopped in front of the door of the mill. John jumped out and raise his hand to help Margaret. She took his hand with a smile. She felt like he'd changed his opinion about her, that his bad esteem from before her departure to London had disappeared. She realised that he was still holding her hand, squeezing it softly. She redrew it reluctantly and adverted her gaze from John's. She didn't see the smile on his face as he looked at her.
The cab left, and Margaret and the two men entered in John's office, in the mill. Thornton sat and invited his hosts to do as well. He didn't wait long before asking Margaret what her proposition consisted of.
"Don't bother with paperwork now," he added. "I want to know all about this before saying anything."
John was going straight to the point, inflexible. However, he was curious about Margaret's proposition.
"I have to get this right." She said. "It's a business proposition."
Margaret felt nervous in front of John, who was staring at her. She didn't know where to look at, and her eyes swayed between John's light eyes and her hands nervously wrinkling her dress on her tights. In the end, she kept her glance on him.
"I have some 15,000 pounds. It is lying in the bank and presenting very little interest. Now, my financial advisers tell me that if you were to take this money and use it to run Marlborough Mills, you could give me a very much better interest." She swallowed. "So you see, it is only a business matter. You'd not be obliged to me in any way. It is you who would be doing me the service…"
She was cut off when John suddenly rose. He walked to face Margaret.
"Can you come with me for a moment? I must speak with you alone. Mr. Lennox, can you stay here?"
"Henry, please be patient." Margaret added, rising from her seat.
She followed John outside, at some distance of his office's window. When she rose her head to look at John, she saw the sky beyond the buildings of the mill.
"I'd forgotten how blue the sky could be here in Milton."
John rose his head. "It's been a while since I've looked at the sky here. But where I was, in the South, it was the first thing I saw."
He looked down at her. She didn't know why he wanted to speak to her alone and didn't know what to say.
"You'll not guess where I've been."
He didn't wait for Margaret to answer and took a small yellow rose from his pocket. He offered it to her, and she took it with delight.
"To Helstone? I thought they're all took over." She said, gently stroking the petals.
"I've found it in the hedgerow," John replied. "You have to look hard."
They stayed silent, looking in the other's eyes. Then, Margaret spoke.
"Why did you want to speak privately?"
"Why did you make this proposition?"
John wasn't aggressive, only curious, and Margaret felt like he hoped that her answer would be a good one.
"Before all the financial aspect, and the pecuniary benefits, there's something else. I can't see you in another carrier. In my mind, you're bound to Marlborough Mills, to cotton, to trade. You are a manufacturer, as much as my father was a parson. He was a parson before anything else and I thought that teaching wasn't for him. He enjoyed it, but he did not get the appreciation he deserved. Except for you, and you became a great friend for him. And I wanted to thank that friend."
"To my father, you were the best of all."
Thornton took her hand in his. He looked at her with passionate and tortured eyes and Margaret supported his gaze with blushing cheeks.
"Margaret…" His voice was deep and passionate. "Can we be more than friends? Can I hope for a different answer than that fateful day if I propose again?"
Margaret diverted her eyes and her cheeks became scarlet red.
"Margaret…" Thornton breathed.
His opinion about her was back to the beginning, when he had declared his love to her, knowing she would refuse. This time, Margaret knew her answer would be different. She gently squeezed his hand between hers and lifted it to her lips to kiss his knuckles. Thornton placed his free hand on her cheek, and Margaret raised her head. He smiled.
"Is that a yes?"
Margaret nodded, a gentle smile on her lips.
"Of course it is. I realised how I was wrong when I rejected you, my behaviour back then was shameful…"
"Do not speak of the past," Thornton cut her off. "The future is in front of us."
He bent, and pulling Margaret to him, put his lips on hers. Margaret replied immediately to his kiss. Thornton cradled her face between his hands. They kissed for several minutes that seemed hours to them, then only a few seconds when they parted, staying joined by their foreheads.
"We'll have to tell the news to your mother. I don't think she'll be really enthusiastic about them."
John pulled away from her and looked at something behind her. He smiled.
"I do not think we'll have to tell her."
Margaret turned around to see Mrs. Thornton standing behind a window of the house, watching them. It seemed to Margaret that she was smiling, even if her eyes looked as strict as usual.