At last, we've come to the end of this story. Thanks for journeying with Thornton and Margaret!
In the Company of Children
I studied Mr. Thornton's clear, blue eyes and sensed his wariness. Whether it was from fear of breeching propriety or something else I did not know, but there could be no wavering on my part when a little girl was missing.
"There is no need to ask, sir – of course you may accompany me."
He bowed stiffly in acknowledgment before suggesting that we regroup. Our party then splintered off after agreeing to meet back in half-an-hour, Mr. Thornton and I setting off for the other side of the pond.
Despite his aloofness I was excited to be with him. I had barely been able to contain my joy when I heard his voice and then saw his striking figure enter the drawing room. I had forgotten how exquisitely handsome he was – how his great height made him appear larger than life, how his dark majesty could excite my entire being.
It was clear that he was surprised by my presence, but astoundingly he showed no sign of abhorrence. In fact, there was a softness in his gaze and voice that I had rarely seen, and despite his recent adversity he seemed in good spirits – until I mentioned the mill. Then I learnt of his true opinion of me – how he thought me opportunistic and lacking in compassion. Will I ever convince him of the genuineness of my offer?
Neither of us spoke until we had reached the other side of the pond. Mr. Thornton then scanned the surrounds before admitting, "Well, there does not seem to be any sign of Daisy here. Do you have any ideas on where she might be?"
I directed him to a path that led to a fountain – another popular place with children. Again, we walked wordlessly until I found the courage to break the silence.
"I honestly fear that I am to blame for Daisy's disappearance, Mr Thornton. She was extremely upset this morning when she found that Sholto was not with me, upset enough I feel to have run away."
"I doubt it, Miss Hale." said he. "I have spent enough time in Daisy's company to know that her countenance at present changes like the wind. My fear is that she is truly in danger."
Suppressing a sudden attack of anxiety, I replied, "We shall not fear the worst just yet. She may still be here in the park, I daresay."
"I agree that she may not be far away." he concurred, "There are certainly some grand hedges here that a child could hide in."
"Yes, but she would have reappeared by now if she was merely hiding. Unless…" A sudden thought struck me. "Unless she was trapped in her hiding place, like up a tree."
"A tree? There must be hundreds of trees in this park."
"But how many can be climbed by a five-year-old girl?"
Puzzlingly, I saw him cast the briefest of grins. "I gather that you have previous experience in climbing trees."
"Yes, when I was a girl." I replied, thinking back to the many afternoons spent in the treetops.
"Was it on the oak at the edge of the meadow or the willow on the village green?"
I halted, completely astonished by his words.
"No, you cannot have been to Helstone!"
"Why not?" he challenged. "Particularly after all that your father had told me?"
So he had visited Helstone in memory of my father. Papa would have been touched to know that his dearest friend in Milton had not forgotten him. "I think his heart never left the place." I reflected. "If circumstances had been different he would have lived out his life there."
"And a serene life it would have been. I never fully appreciated the countryside before, but it struck me on my visit how much I had missed as child, not having had the pleasure of climbing trees or being acquainted with wild ponies. What a wonderfully free childhood you and your brother must have had, Miss Hale!"
I gasped in shock and felt my knees weaken – so he knew!
Such was my bewilderment that it took me several attempts to ask him how long he had known.
"Only a few days." he replied gently. "You need not fear from the authorities – it was Higgins who told me of your brother – in the greatest confidence I might add."
I exhaled unsteadily from sheer relief. "Mr. Thornton, you cannot possibly comprehend how much I wished to tell you about Frederick."
I wanted him to know everything so there would be no more secrets, misunderstandings, or lies. So I told him of my brother's involvement in the mutiny, how he had been condemned for doing what was fair and right – condemned forever to exile.
"Mother suffered bitterly when she found out about the mutiny." I recounted, "By the time she fell ill my brother had been in Spain three years. Her final wish was to be able to see him again, so despite the risk of capture, I wrote urging him to come. It made Mamma very happy to have him by her side again – we were all happy to have him home – but it came at a price.
Though I kept my eyes averted, I still felt his intense gaze upon me. "Leonards lived in Helstone for a time and so knew about Frederick. When Dixon told us of meeting him, Father and I knew that Fred could not stay. We planned for him to leave on the night train, but somehow Leonards was at the station!"
"You weren't to know that he worked at Outwood."
"Did he? Well, he spotted Fred soon after we arrived. He threatened him and then took him by the collar. Fred shoved him away… And Leonards fell down the stairs…"
I bowed my head, unable to stop the shame from flooding in. "I cannot repent enough for what happened afterwards. I know that lying to the inspector only made things worse, but at the time I did not know what else to do. As long as Fred was in danger I knew that I had to keep his visit secret.
"If it was not for you…" I breathed in deeply. "I know you do not want to be thanked, but you must know that when you called off the investigation you were saving my brother's life. I am forever in your debt, Mr. Thornton, and that I will never forget."
Fearing his disgust, I dared not meet his eyes – but I could never have predicted his response.
He stepped forward, and to my astonishment, took my hands and enclosed them in his.
"Oh Margaret, you owe me nothing."
My heart turned to hear my name pronounced so simply, so gently – so lovingly. But I must be dreaming, for surely he could not still love me? Could he?
At my call, his strong arms encircled me – and I was lost.
My tingling hands and thundering heart confirmed that his affection was indeed very real. The warmth of him, the texture of his coat against my cheek, the rapid rise and fall of his chest, the very smell of him – these were glorious sensations too addictive to deny! Wanting more, I reached out to return his embrace.
"John." I whispered once more, relishing the sound of his name on my tongue.
He instantly tightened his hold, enfolding me deeper into his arms.
"Margaret, my courageous girl, my love…" I heard him murmur, and an overwhelming feeling of comfort, peace and perfect happiness radiated through me, cherished as I was by this man who somehow had become my all.
When I eventually pulled away to study his face, I saw that the furrow in his brow had disappeared along with the iciness in his eyes. We gazed at each other, unaware of anything aside from our heightened breathing, glowing cheeks and beaming smiles.
But reality intruded – in the faint sound of muffled tears.
"Do you hear someone crying?" I inquired.
"No… Wait, yes I do hear it."
I looked about me but could not pinpoint the source. John too looked around and then strode off in the direction of the sound. Thankfully he had not far to go – Daisy sat in a tree less than thirty yards away. I looked up to see the little girl straddling a branch some eight feet above the ground, wiping her tears away with the back of her hand. Though she looked visibly frightened, there seemed to be nothing else wrong with her.
"Daisy! Are you alright?" John called to up to her.
She shook her head vehemently. "I'm scared."
"Stay where you are – we will help you down." he assured her, before vaulting on to one of the lower branches.
Daisy watched wide-eyed as her Uncle John scaled the tree. In an attempt to set her at ease, I asked, "However did you get up so high?"
"Tommy dared me to climb, so we climbed and climbed. But I got scared and then he left me all alone. I've been here ever so long, and no one has come until you and Uncle John."
John had by then reached the branch directly beneath Daisy's and held out his arms. "Here I am, Daisy. Can you slide down to this branch here? Yes, that's the way, one foot and then the other. And now to this one…"
Slowly, they made their way down the tree one branch at a time until I was able to take Daisy from John's arms and place her on the ground. When I found her shaking, I wrapped my arms around her and said, "You need not be frightened any more, my dear – you are safe."
She threw her arms around me, crying, "I'm glad you're here, Miss Hale! And thank you for saving me, Uncle John!"
John jumped down to the ground, lifted Daisy into his arms and kissed her cheek. He then pulled out his handkerchief and wiped away her tears before declaring, "I am glad you are safe, my little one. Would you like to return to your mother? She would be very happy to see you."
Her reply was a resounding 'yes', so hand-in-hand, the three of us returned to the pond. Sophie was indeed ecstatic to see Daisy, running from the other side of the pond to meet us. She lavished her with cuddles and kisses, but Sophie was also quick to show gratitude to her daughter's rescuers.
"Good cousin John, dearest Margaret, I thank you for bringing Daisy back safe and sound. My child, do you now understand why you should not wander out of sight?"
Daisy nodded. "I don't like being in trouble or being scared up a tree all alone. But I've learned something else too, Mamma."
When her mother asked what that was, Daisy replied, "That I must have Uncle John with me when I climb trees! He is a very good climber."
This drew another hearty kiss from her mother along with amused smiles from John and myself. "Goodness, I have certainly involved you in one near disaster after another, have I not?" Sophie said to me, "And now I have kept you away from your luncheon too! You need not stay and worry your aunt further, Margaret."
"I suppose it is time for me to head back, but we must meet again soon."
When Sophie assured me that she would call in the next day or two, I turned to leave – but was arrested by a touch on the arm.
"May I accompany you home, Miss Hale?" John asked.
Unable to refuse such a tempting offer, I instantly accepted.
We took leave of the ladies, and John then offered me his arm. I took it smilingly, thinking of Anne Latimer and her past efforts to gain his attention. The smile did not escape him.
"What amuses you, Miss Hale?" he asked as we leisurely strolled towards Harley Street.
I shook my head. "I had better not say, Mr. Thornton."
"Indeed? It must certainly be very amusing then."
I grinned even more broadly. "It may be odd, but I was thinking of Miss Latimer, whom I observed used to derive much pleasure from taking your arm."
"Mmm," he replied, a little piqued by my remark. "And what did you observe of me?"
"You certainly did not object to her attentions."
That pleased him even less, but rather perversely, I continued on. "No, at the time I was certain that you enjoyed her company. Your sister undoubtedly thought her suitable for you, much more suitable than my presence ever was. In fact, she even hinted that a match was imminent-"
He turned me roughly by the shoulders to face him. "You must know, Margaret. There has only ever been one woman to win my heart, and that woman…"
Suddenly he dipped his head and eagerly pressed his lips against mine. Stunned by his swiftness, I replied tentatively at first, but the feel of his lips became so intoxicating that I could not help return his kisses with equal ardour. Very soon we were caught in a whirlpool of yearning, joy, and tenderness.
After a long, sumptuous moment, it was he who pulled away, though only to capture my face in his hands. "That woman is you, my love." he murmured, softly kissing my brow.
Feeling dangerously faint, I asked breathlessly, "Please… Let us find a place to rest for a moment."
Somehow he managed to guide me to a secluded bench and then sat down beside me. He kissed my hand but did not release it, choosing instead to stroke it delicately with his thumb. I held my breath as the tiny movement sent sharp pulses of sensation throughout my body. Raising my eyes to his, I was exalted by the unconcealed adoration I saw there.
"Oh John…" I sighed, "I cannot believe that I awoke today thinking that you could not ever care for me again."
"I had once told you that I loved you."
"That was an age ago, and not even the strongest love could endure all that had passed since then. I…"
I shook my head as I was once again filled with shame. "I refused to recognise your true worth at first, refused to see the strong, intelligent, and kind man in front of me. When I realised that the man I was determined to despise was the finest man of my acquaintance and the one whom I loved, it was too late!"
Lowering my voice, I murmured, "I deserved to be rejected for all the pain I caused you, and I thought you had long forgotten me."
He put his arm snugly around my shoulders. "I may have tried to forget, but I never came close to succeeding. I was, and still am, utterly bewitched by you, my darling."
At his poignant words, I laid my head upon his shoulder, nestling ever closer to him. His voice brimmed with emotion, as he told me, "When the mill closed I felt like I was drowning in despair – from failing everyone I cared for, from knowing that I had wasted years of toil. I would have little reason to hope if it were not for you, Margaret. You are my inspiration, for you had overcome hardships much greater than mine."
I blushed. "I do not warrant such a compliment. I may seem strong, but I am only a flawed human being, no different from anyone else. You had yourself progressed from draper's assistant to master before the age of thirty against all expectations."
"I have had my trials, but they were nothing compared to yours." He looked down at me in earnest. "You have lost both home and family in a short space of time and still remained strong – for me there could be no greater inspiration. I went to Helstone to learn how my Margaret came to be, and the answer arrived from simply wandering through the meadow. Its peacefulness brought home just how different our childhoods were – how happy and free you must have been – and how your family should have been congratulated for surviving the move to Milton."
Intriguingly, he delved deep into his pocket – and extracted a yellow rose. "Do you recognise this?" he asked.
I took the flower, and laughed dryly when I realised its origin. "Is it from the parsonage?"
He nodded. "A little battered, but resilience and luck has seen it through, just as it has seen us through. We may not have met again if Higgins had not told me of your brother."
Buoyed by pure bliss, I beamed up at him. "Then we must find a way to thank Nicholas."
"Yes, we must." he added, lifting a hand to cup my cheek. "For today has been the greatest of miracles."
His whole countenance spoke of love, a love that echoed in my heart. I tenderly ran a hand over the roughness of his jaw and the silkiness of his hair, until it settled around his neck.
Gazing into his clear, blue eyes, I whispered, "My dearest John, I do not want this day to end."
In response, he simply smiled. "Do not fear, my love, for you will have many more like it…" he said enigmatically, "If you will have me."
Sigh, all things must come to an end. Please tell me what you think!