Hello, so my apologies, but as some of you may have noticed, I have had to delete and repost this story since last night. I don't know where I went wrong, but I uploaded an incomplete file before, one which missed out a few pages. Anyway, here is the updated one, and sorry for any inconvenience. For those of you who do not wish to read the full chapter again, (totally fair), then you can find the changed section from the paragraph about ¾ of the way down which begins with, "Finding himself similarly disconcerted and charmed by her coy wavering…"

Please note that this is one of the stories in the collection which does not follow on from, "A Mother's Final Gift," but from the ending of the 2004 BBC series.


Part 1 of 3

From The Thornton Tales

John was sitting at his desk scribbling away hurriedly with intense focus, the likes of which his secluded study had never seen before, the eyes of his walls watching curiously as his pen scurried back and forth and back again like a mouse who had inadvertently sniffed a dash of snuff. With his head hung low over a slanting stack of complicated paperwork, the master's restless eyes were continuously darting towards the aloofly closed door which stood before him, every unrewarding glance leaving him feeling that little bit more disappointed on the inside, a disheartened ache which was beginning to turn distinctly onerous.

John's frenzied diligence this night was no coincidental quirk, but an act of deliberate intent, all in the hopes that he might finish his interminable list of undertakings as soon as possible without resorting to being slapdash, something which the scrupulous master could never bring himself to do, not under any circumstance. John's tasks had become numerous, demanding, and time consuming of late, but he did not mind, not really, since he was innately made, (manufactured, if you will), with an industrious nature, so hard work was no unsolicited nuisance to him, the man thriving on the rewards of a good day's honest sweat, regardless of whether it was his mind or his muscles that benefitted from the exercise. However, as much as John was accustomed to working hard, it was true that he had recently experienced an immense increase in his workload, his slate of activities more unremitting than ever, excessively so. All the same, he could not deny that at least his endeavours were more hopeful than they had been virtually a week ago, and this heartened him, since all of his energy was now fixated on facilitating a most joyous occurrence, and this was the reopening of Marlborough Mills, the first love of his life, but, as it had turned out…not his last.

Yes, it was their mill, or to be more accurate, her mill, a place of saleable and sentimental significance which she had, through an offering of astounding faith, committed into his care.

Because of this solemn responsibility, John had sat at his desk toiling away with little thought of food or sleep for days, his mind harassed with the arduous effort of effectively resurrecting his failed business as swiftly but proficiently as humanly possible. He had former customers to notify across the world, workers to hire from Higgins' list, materials to order in, machines to fix, shipping schedules to confirm, and Lord knows how many financial and legal documents to study and scrutinise to the letter in light of the transfer of a vast investment capital into his tenure. It was a loan, John would always see it as a loan and not his own money, no matter what the law said, and he would be making damn sure that she got every penny back, and better yet, he was determined that she should see a substantial profit, even if deep down, he realised that this ambition was less about what she wanted and more about what he needed.

Indeed, John could admit that his work ethic of late had not been founded on a self-interested acquisitiveness so that he could greedily line his own pockets, no-no, but instead, every second of grind and grit on his part had been a hallowed act of devotion for the one whom he served with all of his body and soul, the master being her most willing servant. It had all been done so that he might prove that the wholehearted trust she had laid at his feet in loving submission had not in fact been naive or misguided, but a justifiable confidence that he would never give her cause to regret. Truly, with every waking breath, for the rest of his life, John would work to verify her belief in his ability of fortitude and reliability of character. By doing this, he could show this sweet creature that her choice to risk everything she had by placing all of her worldly possessions in his hands, along with the tender care of her own gentle heart, had not been a foolish folly, but that gifting herself to John would in fact turn out to be the best decision his darling had ever made, or would ever make.

Yes, it was all very important, but nonetheless, an assiduous John still felt irritated that all of this additional exertion meant that he had been nigh on chained to his desk like a prisoner day and night all week, something which would never have previously bothered him, but now, well, now he had other things to be seeing to, much more pleasant and personal ones that far outweighed cotton and commerce on the scales of worth and substance alike. To be sure, all of this industriousness was all very good and proper, but it had unfortunately prevented a distracted John from spending his precious time with a certain someone, a person whom he wished to bestow his efforts to welcoming into his home, getting to know better, making a good impression on, and for all intents and purposes, wooing.

Glancing up at the door for the hundredth time in the last minute alone, John glared at it, almost as if the firmly shut frame of wood itself was responsible for obstructing him from seeing the one and only person whom he wished to see, or worse yet, for keeping her from him, since it was now past eight o'clock, and with an inward flutter of anxiety, John knew she should be here by now.

She should have been here ages ago.

He knew that. We know that. But why did it seem that she did not know that?

Returning his evanescent attention to his mound of purchase orders, bank statements, and sailing timetables, John found that his face was growing ever more menacing, the lines of his temple crumpled, his jaw twitching, and his expressive eyes clouded with the mist of sullen melancholy. As much as he tried to ignore that tormenting knot of dread which constricted and cramped in his gut, the master knew that for the past three nights in a row, she had been here at eight on the dot, always like clockwork, and now, nearly forty-six minutes past the nominated hour, she was nowhere to be seen.

John twisted the pen in his hands in a state of jittery foreboding, and as his foot tapped beneath the table and his brow dripped with beads of nervous perspiration, he could feel a swell of agitated angst spill out from the confines of cool rationality and begin to gush through his veins with an unbearable heat which scorched him like a sweltering river of magma.

Where the devil was she?

She was not in the parlour, he knew that much, because John had purposefully strolled past it a few minutes before on a fictitious errand just so that he might ascertain whether she was there. But sadly, much to his sulky dissatisfaction, this investigation had turned out to be a waste of time, since he had found the room empty and asleep in a shroud of gloomy dusk, a darkness which was void of her natural sunlight, a warmth which shone from her soothing soul and brightened any room she frequented.

John frowned. No, she had not been there.

He knew full well that she was not visiting anybody, because for one, she would have told him that she planned to venture out, and secondly, her trusty brown hat and coat were still hanging up in the closet by the front door next to John's own sombre black attire, an unusual sight, an informal domestic familiarity which never failed to tickle his sense of manly pride.

John scowled. No, she had not gone out.

The only other place he could think that she might be hiding was her chamber, her temporary bedroom, one which his mother had ensured was as far away from John's as the mistress of the house could manage without having to build an extra wing to the stout stone building. However, he could hardly go and see his fiancée there and accost her in her maidenly sanctuary which he was not permitted to violate by stepping a trespassing foot over the threshold, especially if he wanted to avoid having his ears boxed by the suspicious matriarch who had been watching them like a hawk ever since she had ascertained that they had returned to Milton together on the train, her face blanching to learn that they had been completely alone and unchaperoned. Ever since then, Mrs Thornton had hardly afforded them a moment of much coveted privacy, their guest's chastity being a virtue which she intended to guarantee remained unsullied until the day they said, "I do."

No, with a moody grumble, John accepted that he would have to wait, since surely, she would turn up when she was good and ready…wouldn't she?

All of a sudden, John's head bucked up as he detected the squeaking of loose floorboards and the whine of hinges as his study door creaked open just a smidgen, a tell-tale sign that he was no longer alone.

John felt his heart begin to pump harder and faster in his chest as it sensed the presence of the one for whom it beat….it's mate.

Laying down his pen, John allowed his chary eyes to train upwards, and on doing so, he stopped, and he smiled, the corners of his lips standing to attention, and he stretched so that he was no longer hunched over, but straight, all so that he might get a better view of his most welcome visitor.

'There you are,' he greeted affectionately, the usually thin line of his mouth parting to show a row of remarkably straight teeth. 'I was just thinking about you,' he acknowledged with a bashful dimple to the skin around his eyes which regarded her with penetrating interest, those striking cobalt orbs now brimming with joy at finally being allowed to gaze upon her with unrestrained adoration, opposed to being expected to look away in deprivation or indifference as he had been forced to do for so long. John found himself grinning like a giddy schoolboy at the thought of her being here in his study, rather than at the other end of the country, far, far away, but to be fair, he did think about her all the time, so it was no surprise to either of them that she had been the focus of his infatuated mind this night.

'Margaret…,' John breathed throatily, his twang thick, all the tense stiffness in his shoulders melting away at once, the master still hardly able to believe that he was allowed to utter that saintly name so freely without embarrassment at being caught speaking with such shameful informality, the man now taking every opportunity he could to utter it, the sound of those syllables tantalising his lips too delicious to describe.

Margaret had only been living at the Mill House for five days, ever since John had escorted her to Milton after their chance encounter at the Northampton train station, the day he had brought her back home with him, where she belonged. It had been a strange and surreal time, what with the two of them essentially living together out of wedlock, even if they did still occupy two separate beds, forcing them to say adieu every night, the pair retreating in opposite directions and turning their heads to cast a longing glance behind them towards the retreating form of their love. It turned out that the newly affianced couple were finding that as grateful as they were to be reunited and reconciled after having been so cruelly separated by their misunderstandings for such an inconsolably long period, it was still an odd situation to be sure.

In many ways, John and Margaret seemed to fit together so perfectly that one would think they had been made for each other, just like two complementing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that completed them, and anyone who observed the couple would think that their lives had been intertwined for years opposed to days, the pair of them sharing an instinctive closeness in everything they did. However, in other ways, there was still a reticent part of John and Margaret that was trying to grow used to the idea of having their love requited, of being allowed to express their feelings, and figuring out how to muddle through this peculiar limbo they now found themselves in, this unconventional halfway house between estrangement and the unrestricted freedoms of wedded bliss. One must remember, of course, that while John and Margaret may have loved each other beyond compare, the two of them wishing passionately to demonstrate their fierce fondness for one another, they were, after all, intrinsically reserved creatures at heart, overt affection being a quality which did not come naturally to either of these shy people, both of whom were hitherto unschooled in the art of courting. To be sure, they were both finding that this unorthodox state of affairs that was their engagement was proving more tricky, (albeit exciting and enjoyable), to navigate than they had perhaps at first anticipated.

Nonetheless, for all his clumsy embraces, mumbling sentiments, and awkward staring, John was still jubilant to find that Margaret was not only his fiancée, but that he could rest assured in the knowledge that she was always close at hand, the woman resolutely nestled in his house and heart alike, loyally promising to stay, the lovesick master never having to let her go and watch her leave again, a wrenching agony that might well kill him.

Peering up at the narrow slit of his partially ajar door, John spied Margaret standing there, watching him, his funny little nymph, with eyes wide and wary, her head drooping in demure diffidence, her cheeks blushing like two ripe strawberries, a vivid contrast to the sleeves of her yellow cotton dress which peaked out from behind the door, a frock which may have been exceedingly plain, but to her enchanted lover, it was the prettiest gown he had ever seen.

'Here I am,' Margaret whispered quietly in return, her voice endearingly meek and mild, not at all like he was used to hearing her sound, her icy tone having now vanished, perhaps never to return.

Nonetheless, despite announcing her arrival, Margaret did not move, but continued to sway nervously on the spot, unsure of whether she should come or go, since the girl had been taught from a young age that one ought not to interrupt a man while he was busy at work in his study, and given that John had such weighty affairs to be attending to at present, she felt doubly at fault tonight for entering his sequestered realm, his temple of trade, as he jokingly called it.

But still…she had to talk to him…she had to.

Finding himself similarly disconcerted and charmed by her coy wavering, John began to guess at what might have kept Margaret from him for so long. As well as being busy this evening, John had to confess that he had also been guilty of moping about like a sulky child because he had been missing her dreadfully. Over the past few nights, while he dealt with dreary old matters of business, she had come to him after dinner, and on choosing a book from his library, she would settle herself in the comfortable chair by the fire, and Margaret would read away while he worked. This angel never asked anything of him, she did not want to bother him, and even although they both hardly said a word, they were both content to just enjoy each other's company and to feel like man and wife.

The master had found that bringing Margaret back to Milton had been an education for both of them, and in his case, he had unearthed a new side to the woman he loved. He was so used to seeing his sweetheart as majestic, composed, and insubordinate, this goddess of a woman radiating a rare aura of magnificent yet graceful strength, a true dignity, the likes of which he had never seen in anyone other than his mother. However, while she was still as brave and blunt as ever, John was discovering that Margaret, his Margaret, was also much more cautious than her former self, most likely because she had never found herself in this position before, but then again, neither had he.

John could see that little by little, bit by bit, Margaret was letting her guard down around him and learning how to be herself in the company of the man she had chosen to marry, and this meant that, at times, she was a touch uncertain, and perhaps even just a mite insecure. John too could appreciate that while he was feeling all at sea on realising that his future wife not only loved him almost as much as he loved her, but also that she was now living under his roof, at least he had some solace in this extraordinary state of play, and this was that he was surrounded by familiar things, the man having not been subjected to being uprooted unexpectedly from his family and his home without warning, something which had now happened to her not once, but twice. Yes, in his dear Margaret's case, it must all have felt like a disorientating whirlwind, because after boarding a train from London to Milton with no more than a carpet bag to show for herself, she had found that within a day, she was in love, she was loved, and she had a new life to look forward to. And now, well, she also had a new home, with new people, and a new future, all things which no doubt both thrilled and terrified his valiant girl to an equal degree.

Indeed, as much as John admired Margaret's innate sense of daring and resilience, attributes which he had come to esteem in her whilst he had watched powerlessly from a distance while she had struggled through the numerous personal trials she had been forced to endure over the past couple of years, he now determined to offer Margaret his strength to lean on, now that she had finally consented to let him be not only her fiancé, but her friend too. That is why John had decided to not charge ahead with careless selfishness, since while he would have readily treated Margaret like his established wife, a role which she had long occupied in his lonely heart, John knew that he had to tread carefully and treat her with patient care, because all of this probably felt awfully daunting to her, and far from adding to that nerve-wracking instability, John was resolved to be her shield, her pillar of support.

Therefore, during the past few evenings, John had made up his mind to apply a hefty quantity of self-denial, a miserable trait which he was all too accustomed to bowing down to, because while he would have preferred to leave his work and nestle beside Margaret on the chair, wrap his arms around his fiancée, pray that his mother did not walk in, and then talk the night away, the two of them wittering on about everything and nothing, he knew that he should not. No, as satisfying as that scene would be, in light of Margaret's newfound and no doubt transitory timidity, John had held back and got on with his work, letting her set the boundaries of this new phase in their relationship, and he knew that when she wanted it, Margaret would come to him, and the master was simply gladdened and gratified to have the love of his life here at all.

But tonight, for some reason, she had not come, and John had found himself beginning to sweat and squirm in his seat, worried that something was amiss with his Miss Hale, because for all her reticence, she had not once failed to join him after dinner. And what was more, despite the man having successfully spent thirty perfectly self-sufficient years without her by his side, he now found that unless she was close by, he could not concentrate, and in turn, his heart would grow heavy, and his mind would grow hazy, not one fibre of his being willing to settle without being secure in the knowledge that she was near at hand.

But never mind, she was here now, and that was all that mattered.

Lifting a hand and crooking a finger, John beckoned Margaret to venture closer. 'Come here,' he uttered in a voice which was smooth and soft, his words half an invite, half a plea, but never a demand. 'I've missed you tonight, my darling,' he told her, a slight flush spreading across his cheeks, the evidence of which was thankfully hidden by the generous spattering of stubble which bristled his face. Stretching out his arms so that she might come to him and find sanctuary in the sturdy yet cosy shelter of his embrace, her new and permanent home, John smiled, a smile that was so warm and welcoming that Margaret could not resist surrendering to her lover's call.

A moment later, the door creaked yet again as she pushed it open, and an encouraged Margaret took a single step into the domain that was John's study. There she stood in a state of brief uncertainty, shambling fretfully from side to side as she shuffled from foot to foot, her hands clasped behind her back while one of her porcelain shoulders rose unconsciously and her head tilted to rub against it as people sometimes do when they are uneasy.

Heaven help him, John just wanted to bundle her up into his arms right there and then and kiss her with all his might, but no, he had to employ some restraint, and gripping onto the handles of the chair, he heard the wood groan and splinter under the force of his pent-up passion.

'Am I disturbing you?' she asked tentatively, her eyelashes flapping rapidly.

John grinned, even more broadly and brightly than before. Holding out a hand to her to bid her come hither, he shook his head. 'No, love, never.'

John was about to stand up and go to her, to take Margaret by the hand and draw her into the encircled cocoon of his chest, a safe haven where she belonged, but as he began to rise from his seat, he halted and hesitated, his eyebrows knitting as he eyed her carefully. There was something not quite right about the way Margaret was holding herself, but he could not put his finger on exactly what the problem was, not yet, anyway. Letting his disconcerted eyes scan over her, John rapidly analysed Margaret's posture and manner, and even after a mere fleeting assessment, the spooked man found that he did not like what he saw.

For such a slight person, Margaret always appeared so tall, her poise of grandeur and her uprightness of character adding inches to her stately height, but now, no, she seemed smaller than ever, fragile almost. Again, while her chin had habitually been reared in audacious rebelliousness every time his feisty darling had told him off in the past, John could now see that it was dipped towards the ground, her countenance no longer self-assured, but apprehensive. Ducking his own head so that he might examine her expression, John felt his heart shudder to discern that beneath the stems of her fluttering eyelashes, her eyes, her lovely eyes, they were not dazzling, as per usual, but overcast with ominous disquiet.

Then, all of a sudden, Margaret's head shot up, a cluster of chestnut curls coiling around her face and framing those same unhappy eyes, the sight of which sent tremors of dread spurting throughout John's body, each panicked shiver streaming from his faithful yet frightened heart. As she swallowed thickly, the woman did her very best to rally all the courage her spirit could muster, but oh dear, she failed, and all Margaret could do was shakily proclaim, 'I have something to tell you, John,...and I fear that you shall not like it…not one bit.'

Oh, help! John felt horribly sick, almost as if he had been booted in the gut and groin at the same time, a terrible event which would knock any man down and bring him to his knees.

Something was wrong.

Something was definitely wrong.

Something was definitely very, very wrong.

But what could it be, think thee?