Coming home With Me

John Thornton couldn't believe his good fortune. He was dreaming, surely. Perhaps he was suffering from too many nights of lost sleep and the agony of knowing he'd failed at his business. Perhaps his tired brain had finally succumbed to the fevered dreams he'd suffered from every night since his beloved Margaret had left him.

That was the only possible explanation for why said beautiful creature appeared to be sitting next to him in a north-bound train compartment - he d merely brought up her lovely face and graceful form so the memory could aid him in bearing everything he must. But she turned to him just then, a beaming smile lighting up her features even more than the afternoon sun ever could. His eyes fell from her brilliant eyes to the upturned curve of the rosebud perfection that was her mouth - a mouth that he'd dared to kiss not a hour ago with a passion he could no longer contain. A mouth that had returned the affection he offered- hesitantly at first, as became a lady who (he had no doubt in his mind) had never been so embraced before. But after a moment her reaction had grown warmer and more assured until he'd had no doubt that her feelings for him were as strong as his for her. He could still feel the pressure of those lips on his - God in heaven, this sweet madness had every evidence of being reality.

A train whistle blasted shrilly just then, and John flinched, closing his eyes and sighing. So real... if not for his mother and Fanny, he'd gladly slip forever into such a fantasy. A dream where he'd found his Margaret - in a train depot, of all places. That she'd offered him an investment in him and his mill - ostensibly for business purposes, even though her eyes and tone had communicated otherwise. He d touched her hand for reassurance that he didn't hate her, as she must have thought all these long months - and she'd accepted his touch... and then had bowed her lovely head and pressed the lips he'd dreamed of for ages against his hand. In his dream, he thought he'd died and gone to heaven in that moment.

Then, they had kissed for an interminable period, his senses reeling, his heart racing as if he'd been running for miles. He didn't care that they were embracing in a public place or that Margaret, had she been real, would have no doubt struck him hard in his face for his impertinence and violation of her virtue. None of that mattered. In his dream, this beautiful, brave young woman had looked on him with the eyes of love and offered him what she thought was his heart's desire - though he knew he'd sacrifice the mill, his pride, or anything she asked of him if she'd only offer him what he truly wanted - herself, heart, body and soul for the rest of his days.

Then, like all dreams, it had taken a turn for the worse. She'd turned away from him without a word - walked away from him... again. It had left his entire body shaking with disappointment and aching from the loss of contact with her. But of course - even in a dream, how could a woman of substantial means lower herself to being matched with a man who now had nothing but himself to recommend him. She could have any man she desired. And judging from the glowering expression on Mr. Henry Lennox's face from the south bound train compartment, he'd minded very much the scene he'd just been witness to. Margaret could hardly do better for herself than ally herself with a man about to make his mark on the world such as he. While he, John Thornton, was merely a man to be pitied after the ruin of all his hopes. Not nearly good enough for his Margaret.

His Margaret... his stomach turned at the mere thought of any other man touching her in the way he had just dreamed. Possessing not only her lips, but every precious scrap of her. Margaret... no longer bearing the name of her estimable father, but that of a stranger. His Margaret... lost to him indeed, forever. John pressed his lips together tightly. He was no coward - for his mother's sake, he'd have to bear this knowledge in life rather than run from it in death. But his heart would no longer beat - he'd become more machine than man, and perhaps God would be merciful and all feeling would be lost to him before long.

He'd turned back towards the train in utter defeat, but the dream turned again, and he'd looked up to see her dear face in the reflection from the window. Turning around, he'd seen the light in her eyes again - and his heart had risen up in his chest to beat again. "You're coming home with me?" he'd asked, his voice shaking. And she'd smiled... looking down for a moment, and following her gaze, it registered with him that she was now clutching a red carpet bag in one hand. His eyes had met hers again, his heart swelling so much he thought it would burst inside him. Without breaking gaze with her, he'd allowed her to enter the compartment before climbing in next to her and shutting the door before she could think better of her choice. Uncouth beast that he was, he dared not risk letting her leave him - never again.

But now... when he opened his eyes again, she would be gone. He would be alone again - haunted by the memory of the only woman in the world who could ever matter to him in a personal sense. She was in London being admired and feted not only by Mr. Lennox but by God only knew how many other men. He could never compare, never compete with any of them - and yet he knew somehow that none of them would love Margaret the way he did. He knew her - knew her heart and her mind and everything that truly made up Margaret Hale. He'd loved her long before she'd had money and he'd love if she still had nothing. She was a treasure beyond price without any material attachments and he'd have been proud to have her bear his name. No other woman ever would, there was no question of that. And somehow... somehow he had to bear life without her.

And then... he felt a gentle weight on his shoulder, and still keeping his eyes closed, he turned his head ever so slightly and inhaled. Violets... the scent that always permeated the air when she was near. Still not quite daring to believe his senses yet, he blindly reached out and touched her hair and reveled anew in its silken softness. His eyes opened... and she was still there, her head now leaning against his shoulder, one smooth white hand resting lightly on his arm.

"Margaret?" he rasped, unable to modulate his tones due to the overwhelming nature of his emotions. Her head lifted from his shoulder and turned, her eyes meeting his. "I thought you'd fallen asleep, Mr. Thornton. You look so tired -I can't imagine what you've been through these last months."

One of her sweet hands left his to caress his unshaven cheek, and he instinctively leaned his face into her touch. "I didn't dream it - you're here with me," he murmured, still not quite completely credulous. His eyes closed, but quickly opened again, not daring to lose sight of her, precious hallucination or no.

She laughed gently. "Mr. Thornton, you regard me as if I were some apparition that might disappear if you look away." She smiled as she leaned closer to him, taking his rough, calloused hands in her white, smooth ones. "I am no ghost, sir - I am flesh and blood, as you can plainly see."

Her warm, sweet breath rushed across his face as she spoke - in all his tortured imaginings, he'd never been able to conjure that sensation and had feared he would never know such a thrill of feeling from a mere whisper ever again.

"John. Call me by my name, my love." he asked her. His eyes were fastened to her rosebud mouth as they formed words, his ears ignoring all sound except for that which left those lips. "If you wish... John." Her voice was shaking a little, as if the emotion of the moment were just as overwhelming to her as it was to him. His name on her lips - not just a formality. It was a more glorious sound than any music he d ever heard.

Before he could stop himself, the words stirring in his heart poured out of him. "Marry me, Margaret. I don't deserve you, and God knows you could do better than a wreck and a failure of a man such as I am. But I love you with all my soul and I would be the richest man in the world if I had you by my side - for you are my treasure, dearest Margaret. I'd give anything to call you mine, even if you still had naught in this world but the dress you stand up in right now. I'd work as a laborer with no stain on my pride to provide you with a dress for our wedding and a home to take you to - I swear it. I'm lost without you, my love..." his voice trembled, but he never broke gaze with her. "I've been lost without you and you must believe me when I say that I could own all the mills and cotton in England and I'd still be a wretched beggar without your love."

His hands squeezed hers as his heart tightened in trepidation. "Marry me, my love. You've told me you're willing to gamble your fortune on me - could you bear to risk your heart and your future in the same fashion? I swear you'll not regret it." And with that, he took a deep breath and waited. The whole world balanced on what Margaret would say next.

Her clear blue eyes regarded him for what seemed an interminable moment. His heart raced, watching her regard him in such a solemn fashion. What was she thinking? Was she trying to find the words to let him down easy this time? But she had just shown her affection for him with such sincerity and ardor just a short time ago that he was convinced she was no longer indifferent to him. Was it the differences in their social status, then? And yet she'd left the reputable Mr. Lennox to ride back to London on his own - surely if she was worried about what would be said when he reached her aunt's house, surely she would have not left a seemingly more desirable match in Mr. Lennox for a bankrupt man of business such as himself.

John was so lost in his own whirling thoughts that he almost missed Margaret's commencing to reply to him. Abruptly, he focused back on her face and her serious, measured tones."Mr. Thornton - John..." she blushed as she corrected herself. God, but she was even bonnier with her cheeks all flushed like that! "I... I never expected or even hoped that you would renew your addresses to me, especially after the foolish and insensitive way I reacted when you first paid them to me. No, please..." she continued, when he would have interrupted her. "Please allow me to apologize for my unpardonable behavior to you at the time. Your mother was right in telling me that I had no idea of the sort of man I'd turned away."

Her eyes fell before his and she looked down. "I had no right to accuse you of any of the things I did on that terrible day. I honestly wished the words unsaid not long after you left. Though I do not think I was wrong in refusing you at the time, because I cannot honestly say that I returned your affections, and I should have made you unhappy if I had accepted you without being able to requite you. But I should not have been so ungracious and so unkind, and I only hope you do not still bear me any resentment, sir. The thought of your despising me on that - and another score - has troubled my heart deeply for many months now."

Had he blinked a moment earlier, he would have missed the clear teardrop that fell into her lap. Poor precious girl - to think she'd been in similar agony all these months - and if he'd only put his pride in his pocket and not believed that she had been unchaste with that stranger, whom he now knew was her renegade older brother, they both would have been spared so much pain - they would have been man and wife already, surely.

"Margaret," he lifted her lowered chin so that her gaze met his again. It was important that she see as well as hear the truth from him. "My love, please don't cry your tears are the worst possible torture." Margaret just looked down again, fumbling in her pocket. "My handkerchief," she murmured agitatedly. Without removing his gaze from her face, John took out his own handkerchief from his vest pocket and wordlessly handed it to her. She took it with trembling fingers and dabbed at her eyes. John watched her, admiring the gracefulness of her movements. Everything about her fascinated him, and he knew with satisfaction that she would never have to worry about his affection waning or his attention wandering from her - this extraordinary woman had the power to keep him in her thrall for the rest of his days.

When she had composed herself, she raised her eyes to his again. Now, he told himself. "Rest your mind on those matters, my love. I forgave your harsh refusal of me a long time ago. And..." he took a breath before continuing. "I know now that the man at the station that night was not a lover - and now I must beg your forgiveness for thinking that you would ever behave in such a manner. I've been a jealous fool, and I won't deny it to you, as ashamed as I am now to think of it. We might have both been spared months of agony if I'd just trusted in you. But I know the truth now - and I think you exceptionally brave, the way you've protected your brother. Much the way you protected me from harm." he bent his head gently to kiss her hand.

"You know about Frederick," Margaret's voice shook, but John just kissed her hands again. "I know why you and your family never mentioned him - and I promise that his secret is safe with me. Even if he is not to become my brother-in-law, I would never put your brother's liberty in jeopardy." He grinned at her, though his heart was still racing in anticipation. "You haven't answered my proposal, by the by, Miss Hale. Do you have any more objections besides my non-existent resentment?"

"Your mother-" Margaret began, but John cut her off before she could finish. "My mother will learn to love and respect you as she does me. I don't say that it will be easy, but it will come to pass. And I hope you will be able to look upon her as a mother as well someday. But my mother's feelings on the subject are not as important as ours - yours and mine. If you love me enough to marry me, as I do you, that is all that will ever matter. Do you love me, Margaret? Will you marry me?" He needed to hear the words - her actions today had surely implied them, but after months of believing he would never be able to even ask the question of her again, he sorely needed some kind of assurance for his present relief.

Tears filled her eyes again, but they were accompanied with a brilliant, seemingly incredulous smile. "I do love you, Mr. Thornton, she smiled. "John. Oh, I must learn to call you that now. If you think me worthy of your good and honorable name, I would be glad to take it for my own."

Her voice was laced with sincerity, with honesty... and with love. She loved him. His words to her were indeed true - he was at this moment, the richest man in England ad it had nothing to do with money or mills.

John leaned forward and kissed her, unable to contain his happiness. Margaret kissed him back, fervor for fervor. As the train carried them on towards Milton - towards home, he reveled in their new-found love. Life would never be never free of pain or hardship - they'd both suffered too much these last months to deceive themselves that way. But he could face anything right now - no hardship would be unendurable now that he had Margaret in his arms - and in his life - for good. He still couldn't quite believe his good fortune, but he'd never take it for granted.

"We're almost home, love." He whispered in her ear. "I'm so glad you're coming home with me."