PLEASE NOTE: For anyone currently reading, "A Mother's Final Gift," then this story does contain some mild spoilers for chapters not yet posted.

A Tribute to Family

I don't know when it started,
Or how it all began,
But God created families,
As only our Lord can.

He was teaching what it means
To love, honour, and obey.
He wanted a strong bond
That we don't see too much today.

He wanted someone to hold us
And show respect for others.
He wanted someone who'd be gentle,
So he created mothers.

He wanted someone strong,
A support filled with love,
So he created fathers,
Sent from Heaven up above.

Brothers and sisters came next,
With that, an instant friend.
Someone to look up to,
Someone on whom to depend.

When he put them all together,
He was amazed at what he'd done.
He had created a family,
Mother, father, daughter, son.

But look at the family,
Created by only two.
How many we've become,
And all because of you.

We have a lot to be thankful for,
The memories through the years.
The many times together,
Full of laughter, full of tears.

I don't know where we'd be today,
If it weren't for the two of you.
To show us strength, support, and love,
Like only the two of you can do.

Michelle A. Moran


From The Thornton Tales


'I suppose you shall refuse to tell me anything about this surprise, then, Mr Tight-Lips-Thornton?!' Margaret huffed light-heartedly.

'Correct,' he verified. 'You ain't prying nothin' out of me, woman!' he teased, rumbling into her ear, and laughing when she squirmed in his arms as his breath tickled her.

Resting his head on his pillow, John thought on all that he had planned over the next week. It was true, he did indeed have preparations in place for their wedding anniversary, but he was not about to spoil the surprise by letting his wife in on his secret, not just yet anyway.

You see, the Thorntons owned a modest house in a small village called, Stirling, situated twelve miles away from Milton. It was a secluded, idyllic, picturesque setting, surrounded by rolling green fields, dense woodland, narrow cobbled streets, winding country lanes, and a silvery river teeming with trout. And, of course, nestled in the heart of this rural retreat, this sanctuary, was their cottage, Schiehallion, the place where they had honeymooned and lived with the Hales during the final weeks of Mrs Hale's life, God rest her soul.

John knew that taking Margaret away when she was so near her confinement was perhaps a mite reckless, but Doctor Harrison estimated that the babe was not due for another three weeks. As we know, John was not one to speculate, but if he were a betting man, then he would wager that they would be just fine, because all of their other babies, save Maria, had been born two weeks late, Margaret's fertile womb growing strong, strapping, and rather sizable Thornton cubs. So, in spite of the element of gambling underpinning his covert plan, John felt confident that all would be well.

Of course, one may be excused for being cross with John for such imprudence, a man known far and wide for his cautious and pragmatic ways, but you see, this husband was terribly keen to take his wife away for a few days, given the fact that she both needed and deserved a period of peaceful respite. Despite John begging Margaret to rest, the conscientious and considerate woman in her was constantly pottering about, fussing over the children, the school, the house, the servants, even the blasted dog. Indeed, John had been aghast to return home only last week to find her bent double over the tub scrubbing a mucky Ruff, the devilish dog having dug up yet another molehill in the park. Needless to say, a horrified John had spat out all manner of concerned splutterings, and after helping his wife to her feet, escorted her back to their bed, and tucked her in tightly lest she escape again, the bulldog in him had growled at a sheepish Ruff. 'You and I are getting too old for this, boy!' he had seethed through gritted teeth, the Labrador regarding his incensed master with his usually wagging tail wilting between his legs, aware that his latest shenanigans had landed him in the doghouse. Still, it was worth it, for what a marvellous mountain of a molehill it had been!

All in all, an uneasy John could see that his wife was exhausted and wearing herself thin at every turn. That is why he felt she needed to be removed from the distractions and demands of Milton for a brief spell, so that she might withdraw from the stresses and strains that inundated her daily, and so that she might benefit from an interval of serene repose. It would simply be a few days when it would be just the two of them, (well, and a bump, for wherever Meg went, lumpy bumpy had to come too). Alone, shut away from the world, a dedicated John would wait on her hand and foot like a devoted servant, pandering to her every need and whim, even although, Margaret, ever his unassuming darling of a girl, would never ask for a single thing.

John gazed down at his wife who had begun to yawn groggily, her eyes closing as she dozed. Snuffling affectionately, John deposited a kiss on her earlobe and let her be.

Yes, John thoroughly believed that the fresh air and tranquillity would do both her and the baby the world of good. Besides, with the ever-increasing efficiency of trains and other means of travel, they could easily get door-to-door within an hour, a most comfortable and convenient commute that left him with few concerns worth fretting over.

John had asked Beth Howard, their country neighbour, and a most obliging friend, to prepare the cottage for their arrival. Mrs Howard was a dear lady in her late forties, her greying hair, weathered hands, and white-starched apron her defining descriptive features. She had emigrated from County Cork in Ireland thirteen years ago after the potato famine had devastated her family's farmlands. Following several solitary years of listlessly drifting across England and never really feeling like she belonged, she had at last found her place in this lonely world when she married a jovial bricklayer from hereabouts, named Robert. However, sadly, the couple had never been blessed with children of their own, so Mrs Howard doted on the Thorntons, with Margaret being like a surrogate daughter to her and the little ones her grandchildren. The door of her home was always open to them, the children learning to bake bread and make jam in her kitchen, whilst Mr Howard taught them how to fish and how to tend to the livestock. John and Margaret's brood were always excited to help pick and harvest the summer apples that ripened in the Howard's orchard, and seeing their faces tanned and ruddy from an honest day of toil and vivacity forever brought their parents such contentment.

For John and Margaret, it was important to them that their city bairns had the opportunity to play within the midst of nature and participate in both its cultivation and conservation, so that they might gain spiritual nourishment and bodily wellbeing from the unpolluted fruits and fecundity of the land. What was more, for Margaret, a girl who had been born and brought up in the country, it meant everything to have her little lambs grounded by the most nurturing mother of all, Earth. She wanted them to pause and smell the fragrant aroma of flowers; to feel the soft, wet grass as it squelched underfoot; to listen for the sound of the brook as the fresh water flowed past; and to look up at the awe-inspiring sight of the twinkling stars, each sense a portal which connected her children to their souls and to the majesty and artistry of God. As Saint Paul had said: "When you are walking alone, listen to the sermon preached to you by the flowers, the trees, the shrubs, the sky, the sun, and the whole world," and with such pure teachings, you will be a learned and satisfied being indeed.

At any rate, Mrs Howard relished it when the Thorntons came to stay, they were like an adoptive family for her, and so, she was continually eager to offer whatever help she could to make their holidays as comfortable and merry as possible. For this particular visit, she would go above and beyond John's simple request to air the rooms and would take it upon herself to scoor and scour the cottage from top to bottom to ensure that it was suitably sanitary for an expectant mother. She would then fill the pantry with Margaret's favourite foods and treats, all locally sourced goodness, for Mrs Howard knew that John was anxious that his wife should keep up her strength, given that she often neglected to eat properly when she was busy clucking over her family like a mother hen. Then, of course, Mrs Howard would adorn the cottage with wildflowers, a variety of cheerful spring colours that would bring a smile to the couple's face. For a final touch, not long after acquiring the cottage, John had planted a bush, one which contained a cluster of yellow Helstone roses, and so, Mrs Howard would make sure that a vase of these flowers was arranged in pride of place beside their bed, so that they might wake up and be greeted by such a wholesome sight every morn.

John had it all planned out in his head. He and Margaret would go for leisurely walks, his dear wife no doubt waddling as she tried to carry the hefty burden of the babe and avoid the inevitable fissures that marred the country paths. John often worried about Margaret going out for strolls when she was with child, but alas, she could not be stopped, and the more he tried to persuade her to remain indoors, the more tenacious she became. Indeed, she would reveal her characteristic obstinacy by ensuring her walks were as prolonged and vigorous as possible, until, in the end, a fatigued Margaret was forced to lean on John, who had to near enough carry her home.

There had been that time when she was pregnant with Ricky and Danny and had vanished from the mill property for several hours. After frantically hunting high and low for her, wondering how he could have possibly lost something that had become so large around the middle like a shuffling sphere, John had eventually found a missing Margaret sitting in the churchyard above the city, her eyes sorrowful, her body clearly worn out. At first, John had assumed that his wife had been overcome by the memory of those who were buried here, of those whom she had lost since coming to Milton. However, when he had ventured to mention this, Margaret had suddenly howled like a banshee and wept louder and longer than before, until at last, she had confessed that she had not been thinking about that at all, but that she had been sad because she had become stuck on the bench, unable to stand unaided, and now the thought that she had been so silly and selfish whilst sitting in a graveyard had broken her sweet heart. Oh dear! As John had handed her no less than six handkerchiefs, (a basic necessity that he always carried about him when she was pregnant), the master had scolded himself for well and truly putting his lumbering foot in it that day.

Returning his mind to their impending holiday, John intended to make sure that Margaret slept as much as possible, and he secretly looked forward to spending many a relaxed hour with her lying in his arms. Margaret was so charming when she was with child. She would grow sleepy and would drowsily nestle against him, taking shelter and sustenance from his secure embrace. John found his wife irresistibly lovely when she was pregnant, her body flourishing as if it lived and breathed to bear children. Her skin became softer, her hips became curvier, her lips became plumper, her hair became thicker, her breasts became larger, and her eyes sparkled like stars. She was a goddess, his goddess. He knew that when he took her to bed, he longed to make love to her, and perhaps they would lie together as man and wife at the cottage, but if not, then he would be content to massage her back, feet, shoulders, and ankles, easing that persistent ache that pestered her.

John looked down as Margaret sighed in her sleep and bit her bottom lip, no doubt having pleasant dreams, ones which the master could only hope he was part of. Pulling her delectably close, John rested his chin on her shoulder and burrowed her back against his chest.

Yes, John could hardly wait! You see, the excursion was not just in honour of their tenth wedding anniversary, no, it would be a treat for Margaret's thirtieth birthday, a momentous event which would take place only a few weeks later. John was acutely aware that by this point, his beloved wife would have one more baby to care for, (or two, or help! – maybe even three!), so her time and energy would be absorbed by another, not affording much opportunity for John to spoil her on her special day. Therefore, John was determined to give Margaret the rest and undivided attention she deserved, and with her devoted husband constantly by her side, the Howards at hand next door, and a dependable doctor on standby just down the lane, he felt confident that his plan would go ahead without so much as a hitch or a hiccup. Well, provided that the baby did not come sooner than he had predicted, of course. But then again, if it did, John would not be sorry, no, he would be overjoyed to meet his new son or daughter, all thoughts of other things fading away into insignificance as he held their angel in his arms.

John exhaled contentedly. Yes, he had so much to look forward to, for by this time next week, he would either be sat in his bed in Stirling with his wife in his arms, or he would be sat right here in Milton with his new baby in his arms, and each contrasting prospect filled him with equal and endless manly exultation.

However, John's contemplations were then interrupted by Margaret, who began to shuffle and shamble about in a bid to get comfortable, her bump making things awkward.

'Can you not even give me a hint?' Margaret asked blearily. 'Just a tiny clue as to what we will be doing?' John smiled, he could feel her toes distractedly sweeping against his shins, something Margaret did when she was sleepy, a habit that was so timeworn that she hardly even knew she was doing it, but all the same, the velvety brush of her skin against his always made John hum blithely.

'No, not one!' he denied, kissing her head, forgetting that she was still wearing her crown and found that a daisy irritated his nose and made him sneeze. 'You shall just have to wait.' When he noticed her petulant pout, John dipped his head to kiss those appealingly puckered lips. 'Patience, my love, patience,' he grinned. 'You will like it; I promise you that much.'

Then, caressing her belly and feeling his babe stir in morning greeting, John added: 'I have one more gift for you.'

Margaret's eyes flickered open.

Oh, my! What could it be?

'Oh, John!' she cried, lolling her head back so that she might look at him properly. 'You are fairly indulging me today, Mr Thornton, I feel quite pandered to. In fact, I feel like Fanny,' Margaret said, poking a little harmless fun at her pampered sister-in-law, her elbow gently jostling John in the ribs. 'It is too much!'

'Ah, well, this is not just for you, Mrs Thornton, but for all of us, and it is something you have wanted for some time,' he provoked, goading her into guessing.

She tilted her head like a bird and eyed him curiously, but alas, she did not venture a guess, since Margaret knew that she already had everything that she had ever wanted or could ever wish for. She had John, her children, Milton, friends, a roof over her head, clothes on her back, food in her tummy, and most of all, she was rich in love, the most precious thing in all the world. What else was there?

John propped himself up on his arm and looked down at her from above, his eyes glinting in the sunlight that bathed and blinded the room in a golden glow.

Clearing his throat, he announced: 'We are to have our likeness taken.'

Margaret wrinkled her nose. 'A portrait? A painting?' she queried in confusion. 'But we had a painting completed eight months ago to commemorate your fortieth birthday,' she reminded him. Indeed, the family were accustomed to having a revised portrait commissioned every few years to celebrate the growth of their ever-increasing family. Then again, perhaps John meant to include the new baby, but Margaret thought this most unlikely, given that they tended to wait until the children were a little older before involving them, since then, the artist could capture their distinctive looks and personalities more accurately. What was more, it was absurdly challenging trying to sit for hours at a time with a wailing and wriggling babe in arms.

John shook his head. 'No, not a painting.'

There was a pause while Margaret thought on this, trying to decode his hidden meaning. Eventually, after the clock had ticked away for near enough a minute, Margaret suddenly let out a strident gasp and a hand flew to her mouth. 'Heavens! John! You…you don't mean?'

He nodded, a broad grin spreading across his face.

Margaret squealed with delight, grabbing and shaking him by the shoulders. 'Darling! Is it truly true? Are we to have our photograph taken?!'

'That's the one,' he confirmed.

Margaret leapt up, a little too excitedly for John's liking, what with the baby and all, and hurled her arms around his neck yet again. 'Oh, John! You wonderful, clever man! Do you mean it?'

'Aye, I do,' he corroborated, scratching at his sideburns. 'I know you have wanted our cyanotype taken for a while now, but it is hard to find a chap with one of these new-fangled camera devices any nearer than Manchester, and I was certainly not about to pack up and pack off our unruly troop of Thorntons all the way to the city for that,' he groaned good-naturedly.

John tried not to imagine the incalculable stress that would be involved in taking all of his boisterous scamps on the train at once, what with all the jumping on seats, leaning out of windows, and pulling cords, they would be thrown off on a charge of rowdiness by the time they had reached the first station. For such a feat, John needed eyes in the back of his head and as many arms as an octopus just to prevent one of his rapscallions instigating one of their pranks and inadvertently derailing the train and dooming them all. You must understand that it was not that the children were naughty or immune to discipline, no, not at all, since they could certainly behave like well-mannered and knee-high ladies and gentlemen when it suited them. No, it was just that they were extremely spirited, and when they were all together, the accumulation of their liveliness seemed to amass the same energy and explosiveness of a volcanic eruption. But all the same, despite their challenges, John loved his children unconditionally, and he would rather have dynamic progenies opposed to dull ones any day of the week. Indeed, for all that his Thornton tykes made John want to tear out his prematurely greying hair at times, he knew that he would not change a single hair on their cherished heads, not for all the world.

At any rate, on the rare occasions they ventured to London to see Edith and her family, John always ensured that they went prepared with a stack of books and toys to keep the children entertained throughout the parentally perilous journey, along with the hawk like supervision of his mother and Dixon, two wily women who the mischievous rascals could not outfox, no matter how hard they tried.

To be honest, John often thought that he and Margaret's sanity would never have survived this long without the experienced support of his mother and the matronly Dixon, forever thanking his lucky stars that they had such stalwart and uncomplaining help. All the same, John still sometimes wondered whether Dixon had ever forgiven him for marrying Margaret and asking a Beresford belle to be the wife of a lowly tradesman. What was more, every time they announced that Margaret was with child again, Dixon would glare at him, as if to say that his excessively passionate northern ways and amorous attentions towards Margaret were scandalous in their unseemliness, quite beyond the pale. In turn, a bristled John longed to tell the intimidating servant that it was not all his fault, that Margaret was just as enthusiastic a lover as he, but no, even he knew that was a loutish liberty too far and his wife would surely never cease her blushing.

'But I decided that it was time,' John went on, returning to the moment and sighing in relief to know that no trains or travel would be involved in this particular undertaking. 'And luckily, an acquaintance from the court told me of a fellow who has just established such a business here in Milton, so, I acquired his services as soon as the trial adjourned, lest his appointments became retained and reserved by others quicker than Fanny can buy out an entire haberdashery,' John smirked.

Margaret clapped her hands in glee. 'How thrilling!'

'I asked him if we were allowed to smile, because I know how sad it makes you to see everyone so dreary and severe, Meg, and he said yes, we could. It turns out that the apparatus will not fail if we crack a smile, that is not how it works, or so I am informed,' John educated, himself intrigued by these innovative machines.

Margaret purred contentedly. 'It will be quite extraordinary, I am sure of it! Will he take a photograph of all of us? Of all us Thorntons?'

John tugged her close and rubbed his stubble along her soft cheek and moaned in gratification. It was funny how now, even after all this time, that the sound of Margaret referring to herself as a Thornton, of her voluntarily affiliating herself with him and his family name, taking it as her own, still filled John with such overpowering masculine satisfaction.

'Yes, I've asked him to take a handful, even if it costs a pretty penny,' he responded, the shrewd businessman in him always weighing up the differentiation between expenditure and return on investment. It was a question of value which was always a primary principle for the economical man who could never quite shake off the memory of years striving to break free from a prison of poverty, the haunting experience making him practical and prudent to the last.

'I thought he could take some of us with the children, although it might be difficult with them all wiggling about like worms. The image on the plate may develop defectively with a blur, but it is worth a try. I am hoping the excitement of it might lull them into a trance and they end up staring at the contraption in stupefied silence,' he said, praying for a miracle under his breath. 'Then I intend to have some taken with mother, of course, and…,' John rolled his eyes, 'with Fanny.'

Margaret giggled. Poor Fanny! She knew that they were being rather heartless in their teasing today, but then again, her sister-in-law's pretentious airs and graces had been particularly taxing of late, ever since Watson's brother had been made the Mayor of Milton. The irony was that the supercilious woman had chosen not to remember that John himself had been offered the position of office first but had declined on account of his commitment to his other responsibilities, most notably his family. In all honesty, it was an honour, but John had no interest in being mayor, and what was more, even although Margaret would make a most exceptional mayoress with her natural grace and generosity, he would never subject his shy girl to all that superficial handshaking at a string of senseless social engagements. No, John was more than content with who and what he was at present, and so long as Margaret was by his side, and they were surrounded by their happy and healthy children, the fulfilled man could have no greater ambition than that.

'And then, I will certainly be requesting the fellow take some of just you and I, Nutmeg,' he added, playfully licking her nose, a reminder of a private joke between them which dated back many years. 'I thought you could perhaps put on that striking red-cherry dress you sometimes wear at Christmas,' he suggested bashfully, his wife noting how his hand crept up her leg and came to rest on her thigh at the thought of her in the alluring gown he was so fond of, his fingers gripping the silky flesh he found there. 'I know that it is not the season, but the remarkable sheen of the material might come across well in the photograph, even if the colour cannot.'

Margaret tutted. 'I doubt that I shall still fit into it,' she griped, her hands struggling to cover the expanse of her belly. 'I certainly shan't be able to squeeze into it the now.'

John laughed heartily, his deep timber filling the room. 'No, not now, you daft mare! No, the man is coming in July, four months from now, which will hopefully give you and the baby a chance to settle. But it does not matter, my darling, you may wear whatever you wish, for I am sure my beautiful wife will be as radiant as ever!' he predicted, lifting her hand so that he might kiss her fingers one-by-one.

'But no, on another and more serious note,' he continued reflectively, 'I thought that it would be worth commissioning some further photographs, some of the mill for example, and of your school and hospital, and of Milton as a town. I thought that it would be a rare visual account of our lives. It would be evidence of who we were and how we lived. We could preserve memories for future generations to look at, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, for example. I was thinking of The Thornton Tales series you are writing for our children and what a grand idea that was. It made me think how I could help, and this seemed like a good place to begin. Who knows where our lineage of Thorntons will be in a hundred years' time, Meg, and I want them to be able to look back and see where they came from.'

Margaret leaned back, and with her palm, she caressed his chiselled chin. 'I think it is a splendid idea, Mr Thornton! The best you have ever had!' she praised, purring as he kneaded the knot at the base of her back, the reprieve sending a wave of relief gushing through her.

'Hmm, well, second best,' he corrected with a wink. 'After having the idea to marry you. That is the very best idea I have ever had and ever shall.'

'Well said, husband,' she concurred, 'well said.'

Just then, both John and Margaret were roused by a sprightly stirring in her womb. It would seem that the baby was finally waking up.

'Good morning, you,' John welcomed, lowering his head to kiss her belly which remained snug under the layers of blankets. 'We are extremely excited to meet you, little one,' John enticed, his voice rich with affection. 'Not long now, I should think, my lumpy bumpy one,' he predicted, using the couple's pet name for their foetuses, while he felt the shape of her stomach with his splayed hands, the husband now an expert on his wife's body and how it responded during the various stages of pregnancy.

Slipping down the bed, John deftly raised one of his wife's petite feet into the air and drew the covers away from her. Detecting his ploy, Margaret lay back and allowed him to continue with his ministrations. With an impish grin, John ever so slightly tickled the base of her foot.

That did it!

The next thing they knew, they could see the outline of a foot protruding from Margaret's tummy as the baby offered a thumping kick.

They both laughed.

'This funny little one always likes it when you do that,' Margaret sighed, stretching herself out so that the baby could have more room to twist and turn about at leisure.

The baby kicked again, the distinctive outline of their foot and toes visible beneath her expanded skin. 'Oh, my!' Margaret cried.

'There, Meg, they are giving you your Mother's Day gift,' John joked. 'I think this one might be like one of those Etonian fellows and take up that new sport everyone is talking about…what is it called? The one our boys are always gibbering on about?' John mused, massaging her ankle.

Margaret sucked her teeth. 'Football?'

'Ah, football!' he confirmed. 'That's it. Aye, it will never take off, just you see,' he foretold, not knowing that Frederick would one day be the captain of his Oxford team and would win the national cup for this game which would soon take Britain and the whole world by storm.

Spying the hands shift on the clock and strike the hour, John noted with a grumble that it was time for him to get up and ready himself for church. He would much rather stay in bed with his wife, but alas, he could hardly abandon his mother and Dixon to round up the rabble that were, after all, his children.

Groaning as he stood, John removed his shirt and hauled on a fresh one, his muscles twitching at the breeze that floated in through the open window, the vivacious spring air stimulating him. Rummaging through his bureau, he found a pale gold cravat with red and white speckles, the ascot complementing his wife's flowers, a fitting choice for this day.

'I feel so useless lying in bed like a lazy lump while you, Dixon and Hannah tend to the little ones all on your own,' Margaret frowned, always frustrated when she was unable to lend a helping hand. 'May I not do something useful while you are gone? – Anything!'

'No!' came a sharp retort, and John regarded her with narrowed eyes that brooked no argument. 'Absolutely not! You are under strict instructions to stay in bed and not lift a finger. I am the master in this case, madam, and any descent from my decree will be dealt with most severely,' John said, attempting to sound serious and stern, but a small smirk still curling the corner of his lips. 'Moreover, wife, you are already occupied with the most important task of all, and that is growing and nurturing our babe, so as long as you keep doing that, I think you are doing more than enough. Besides, Meg, there will be three of us to watch them,' he reminded her.

'Yes, but there are seven of them,' she countered. 'You will be outnumbered in battle,' she quipped, and they both chuckled, although, they both knew that she was right and that three astute adults were a sorry match for seven crafty children.

As John tied his cravat around his neck, the door creaked open and Maria, Danny and Hannie all appeared. The girls were attired in crisp, clean dresses, one of lavender, one of emerald, each adorned with smart muslin sashes to finish them off, the excess material of the ribbon bunched and puffed to form pretty little bows.

'Goodness!' Margaret cooed. 'How lovely you are girls,' she complimented. 'My lovely lasses.'

Hannie began to jump up and down in giddy gaiety before spinning in wide circles so that her skirt swished around her in a thrilling spiral. 'Wheee!' she screeched, galloping between her father's legs and pretending to yank at the reins of a horsey, an imaginary and impressive stallion of regal white.

'We're waiting, Pa,' Danny heralded. 'Ready when you are, old pal,' he saluted like a soldier acknowledging his commander-in-chief. However, Danny being Danny, ever the cheeky chappie, did so with a puckish puckering to his lips.

'Right you are, son,' John replied, as he strolled over to Daniel, the lanky lad already reaching the height of the master's sturdy chest. Taking out his comb and licking his thumb, John began to fondly neaten the boy's unruly sandy hair and straighten his clothes. In turn, Danny filched the comb from his father and tidied up the back of his head, a small tuft of black mane that always stubbornly refused to conform.

'There, Father,' Danny nodded. 'Now you do us Thorntons proud,' he proclaimed with a wink.

In response, John grunted good-humouredly and patted his son on the shoulder. 'If only I had half your good looks and confidence, my boy,' John hailed. 'If only,' he repeated, thinking back on his boyhood days, ones spend first in introverted insecurity, then in instability as he dug his family out of a pit of deprivation and destitution. Lord! ─ what John would have given for an ounce of Daniel's self-assurance back then! 'You will go far, my son, I just know you will,' he prophesied, bumping his forehead gently against Danny's, like a noble stag knocking antlers with his young buck, his successor to the throne.

'Now then, you go and wait in the parlour like biddable human beings and not like a herd of wild animals in a zoo, and I'll be done and down in a minute,' he directed, the officious tone of the master in him strumming his Darkshire chords like a Milton mandolin. 'Make sure none of you run amuck before I get there, mind, I know what you're all like,' John said suspiciously, knitting his eyebrows.

'We will be good, we promise,' Maria vowed, her corkscrew ringlets of russet brown bouncing beneath her bonnet trimmed with jade lace.

'You make sure to look after our Ma, little brother or sister, until we get home,' Danny bade, nodding to Margaret's bump. 'We love her an awful lot!'

'Bye-bye, Moo!' Hannie called, flapping her hand as her brother picked her up, the infant's straw dolly from Spain tucked under the crook of her arm.

Margaret laughed. 'Goodbye, my ducks!' she said, blowing them kisses of fond farewell. 'I will see you when you return, but I shall miss you dreadfully! Hurry home to me.'

'We will!' they shouted over their shoulders.

Waving goodbye, the children departed, closing the door behind them, and the parents listened to their footsteps disappearing down the passageway, gladdened to hear orderly walking, opposed to the din of riotous running. Both mother and father chuckled as John sat to put his shoes back on. Before he went, Margaret reached up to fix his cravat and smooth down his lapels, a treasured tradition which dated back since the days of their engagement. Smiling at her sweetness and the continuation of this cherished ritual, John captured his wife's face in his hands and leaned in to place one last and lingering kiss upon her honeyed lips to sustain him until he could see her again.

However, as he did this, he felt Margaret suddenly stiffen and then turn as still as a statue. Taking his head away, a bewildered John observed the startled look on his wife's face, her eyes wide, her lips parted, her heart clearly racing beneath her ample bosom.

'Meg?' he asked, lightly shaking her arm.

But she merely gasped in response.

'Margaret? What's wrong?' he pressed, growing increasingly anxious. 'For God's sake wife, what is it?!'

A serene smile spilled across Margaret's flushed face. 'Well, John, it is just…I rather think that you may need to delay our anniversary surprise for a few months.'

John cocked his head. 'Why?'

Shooing him away off the bed, Margaret slowly peeled back the bedcovers, only to reveal a pool of sticky liquid covering her legs.

John's eyebrows shot up into his hairline. 'Ah!' he nodded with collected calm, no longer abashed or alarmed by such occurrences. 'I see…well, no church for me today, I should think,' he forecast in relief, rising to ring the bell for assistance, the master knowing his designated labour procedure like the back of his hand after five preceding births.

With his typical air of efficiency, John would see that his wife was settled, have Billy fetch Doctor Harrison, ensure that Dixon and Mrs Denby-Ashe were here to aid Margaret, and then go and speak with his children and reassure them before sending them to Fanny's with his mother. Finally, once these preliminary preparations were all put in place, John would not leave Margaret's side, no matter what, even if it were not customary for fathers to remain in the delivery chamber, his irregular conduct inciting both servants and fine folk alike to tittle-tattle at the couple's peculiar decision to engage in such an indecent display of intimacy. No, wild horses could not drag him away, for he knew his right and proper place as a husband and father, and that was holding his Meg's hand while she bravely birthed their babe.

John suddenly snorted in amusement as he pondered over how he would have to rearrange their little holiday for later in the year. 'Thank goodness I do not venture into the world of gambling and guesswork!' he chortled as an afterthought, taking a hold of her hair, and braiding it into a plait, knowing that Margaret preferred to have her long strands out of the way from her perspiring face and neck at such a time. 'I think this rather proves that I am not cut out for speculation.'

Margaret giggled as John helped her to get into a more comfortable position for her looming labour, her hand clamping around his as a concentrated contraction pulsated throughout her body, signalling that this baby was determined to get a move on and join his or her family for Sunday luncheon.

'Ooh! Ouch!' she panted. 'I think that a certain someone is just as eager to meet us as we are to meet them,' Margaret laughed. 'Oh! And how perfect, John, just to think…it's Mother's Day!'

End of chapter notes:

Well done to Katie Howard from Canada, who won the competition to have her name included in this story as a guest character. Katie chose to have her grandmother, Beth written into the story, a lady who lived an interesting life, and who emigrated from County Cork following the Irish Potato Famine. Beth later married a bricklayer from near Oxford called Robert Howard in 1853.

This story contains references to my North and South retelling novel, "A Mother's Final Gift," as well as existing stories from, "The Thornton Tales," including:

─ "Like Father, Like Sons.'

─ "Remember, Remember."

─ "The Crooked Cravat."

─ And, "The Christmas Cherry."

It also references other up-and-coming stories for, "The Thornton Tales," including:

─ "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?"

─ "Baby Blues and Baby's Breath."

─ "Milla."

─ "Dada's Doll's House."

─ "Women Who Write."

─ "No Rest for the Wayward."

─ "Sunday Snuggles with Smooch and Snuffles."

─ "Giddy-up Horsey!"

─ "Business vs Bath, Bed, and a Good Book."

─ "The Master Who Drew the Venus de Milo."

─ "Lumpy Bumpy."

─ "Hannie's Horse."

─ And, "When Lizzie Left Home."

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