A/N: I probably shouldn't even be starting another fic, considering I already have one going, but I just couldn't help myself. This little variation crept into my brain one day and wouldn't leave me alone. I had to put it down on paper – so to speak – and see where the story led me. Sadly it has only given me this one chapter so far, the remainder of the story is still floating around inside my head, but because of my other commitments I'm afraid I must warn you not to expect an update in a hurry. This story is pretty much a filler – it occurs when and if inspiration strikes.

It is set just after the passing of Mr. Hale, but in this story Margaret's remaining family have not yet returned from the continent and Margaret is left in Milton to make the best of her rather sad situation.

I know the North & South fandom is rather small but please drop a review and tell me if you feel the story has merit and whether you'd welcome a few more chapters!


Chapter 1

"The poor girl," commented Mr Bell, sadly shaking his head.

"Indeed, to lose both one's parents in such close succession and at such a young age, is very unfair," replied Mr Thornton, his brow heavy with exhaustion and sadness – both his own sadness at the loss of his dear friend Mr Hale, and for Margaret and the pain and anguish she must be suffering. He knew she would not welcome his sympathy or his pity, but she had it all the same.

"I imagine she will go to live with her family in London?" enquired Mr Thornton, with a practiced air of indifference.

"That is just the thing Thornton, her family is still abroad. The Aunt is in Italy or some such place and the cousin is currently residing in Greece with her husband. I have tried contacting them but it will probably be several weeks before they even receive my correspondence and then several weeks more before I get a reply. And what do I do with poor Margaret in the mean time? She has no one else in the world to care for her, save me; and short of marrying the poor girl…"

"NO!" Bellowed Thornton, momentarily losing control of his carefully schooled emotions, as the old man's suggestion stabbed straight though his heart. Somehow knowing Margaret did not wish to marry him was nowhere near as painful as imagining Margaret married to another – that was just incomprehensible, every fiber of his being seemed to scream out in protest!

"Well, exactly my point Thornton! Besides the fact that I'm old enough to be her father; I am set in my bachelor ways. I have neither the need nor the inclination to marry – and especially not to condemn such a lovely creature as Margaret to caring for this old wreck," he said indicating himself, "when she should be out enjoying her life with someone she could love as an equal."

Mr Thornton had to take several deep breaths to compose himself before he dared to reply. He could feel his hands shaking with suppressed rage; rage against these unfair and tragic circumstances and rage against Margaret. If only she had accepted him all those months ago, the question of her welfare and her future would not now be an issue, but as it was…

"Forgive my outburst Mr Bell, I did not mean to insult you, it's just that…"

"Oh, I know Thornton, I know! I may be old but I'm not dead yet, nor am I blind. These old eyes are still sharp enough to see that which is clearly before them," interrupted Mr Bell, his pale face etched with sorrow, but his eyes sparkling with a very knowing look.

Mr Thornton didn't know how to respond. He always knew Bell was no fool, but to think that man could know what he was currently thinking and feeling made him shift uncomfortably in his chair. He was in no mood to engage in a battle of wits with this old man. He was no match for Bell. The man was a sphinx; sly and conniving, and could talk riddles around you so that before you even knew what you were about you found yourself saying far more than you ought.

"Where then will she go?" he asked, in an attempt to redirect the conversation back to the problem at hand, (anything to avoid discussing the shame and hurt of Margaret's rejection).

"To be blunt Mr Thornton, that is why I requested this interview. I know you are not as indifferent to her as you would like me to believe. Would you not consider…"

"Mr Bell, my wishes and feelings on the issue are of no importance. I will gladly do all within my power to aid and assist Miss Hale, for her father's sake as well as her own, but I will neither force her into something she does not desire, nor will I demand something of her in return for my assistance.

"In light of this pronouncement, if you feel there is any practical way in which I can assist Miss Hale, then please tell me so and I shall see what may be done, but please do not meddle in things which will not only not aid Miss Hale, but which may in fact hurt her more." His tone was stone cold as he uttered this speech, though his heart ached in its core as the truth of each word sliced through that organ. He did not want Mr Bell's sympathy or his sharp witted comments; he wanted to ensure that the old gentleman knew that he would hear him out on any topic save for the one that he was hinting at.

Mr Bell's eyes were keen and glinted like agate in the dim lamp light of Mr Thornton's office. The mill had closed for the day, and her workers had long since returned to their cold cramped hovels; yet their master still sat in his office, hard at work – his eyes red and burning from staring at his ledgers in the muted light of his desk lamp. Mr Bell took in all of this upon first entering the office; so too did he note that although Thornton must have been sitting at his desk for more than two hours after the mill had closed for the day, his ledgers remained woefully incomplete before him.

He saw too with a quick glance of his feline orbs, the heat that seemed to smolder behind the cool blue eyes of the Mill master every time he mentioned Margaret's name. He knew it would be unwise to push the matter further with Thornton; his mind was made up even if his heart could still be tempted – and with a man like John Thornton, he did not think it would be prudent t to appeal to his heart – he was a businessman, not a philanthropist.

"Well Mr Thornton, if you cannot accommodate me then I must appeal to Mrs Thornton. She is a woman and a mother too. Surely she must see what poor Margaret is suffering? Surely she can offer comfort and companionship? If you would be amenable to allowing Margaret room in your house I shall personally ensure that all her expenses are covered. I always spoke with Richard of Margaret being like a daughter to me, and though I cannot, and have no desire, to replace my dear friend in her affections, I will ensure that she wants for nothing."

Mr Thornton's face grew dark and he frowned in consternation. He was momentarily dumbfounded. He couldn't possibly have Margaret stay under the same roof as him, never mind his mother! Mrs Thornton was not a cold woman but he knew that his mother did not think kindly of Margaret. She was protective of him and could not forgive Margaret for refusing his offer of Marriage, and she would resent the scandal that was still attached to Margaret ever since the events at the station all those weeks ago. But now, given the circumstances, could she put aside her hatred to help this poor orphaned girl? He knew that if he asked it of her she would do it, not for Margaret, but for him.

But could he ask it of her? More importantly, could he put aside his own pain - his own pride - to help Margaret?

"You are perfectly within your rights to offer Miss Hale whatever support, monetary or otherwise, you feel necessary, but if she agrees to stay at Marlborough mills I shall ensure she wants for nothing. I do not want or need your money, sir."

"Perhaps not, but if you think that Margaret will be satisfied to become a burden on your purse as well as invade your home then perhaps you do not yet know Miss Hale as well as I had imagined," said Bell archly, idly rubbing the rim of his hat as it rested carelessly on his knee.

"I know Miss Hale's sense of righteous indignation will be amply fed by my determination to brook no argument in this matter. She has other causes that will benefit more by your philanthropy than I will. No doubt were you, or I, to point this out to her, she may perhaps look on the scheme with a kinder eye."

"You speak no doubt of the Mill workers which she has befriended?" enquired Bell. "Well I did not intend my money to be used to support the down trodden labourers of Milton."

"Well if you think that she wouldn't be using even a portion of her money for that exact purpose, then perhaps you do not know Miss Hale as well as you may like to think you do Mr Bell."

Bell smiled knowingly and nodded his head in silent acknowledgment of the hit. "May I then put the matter before Margaret for her consideration Mr Thornton?"

"She will not accept."

"Well in that case I shall have to make her understand that there is no other choice."

"If she does not choose it then I would rather not force her hand. There are many reasons for her not to look kindly on the prospect of her relocation to Marlborough mills; I shan't bore you with the details, but rather than add to her misery I would rather attempt to assist her in some other way. After all, you have not yet spoken with her yourself; you may find she has other friends willing to help her." The last words of his speech were uttered in bitter accents as memories of Margaret embracing the stranger on the station platform flooded his mind's eye and jealous bile coursed through his veins, polluting his heart.

"I can assure you Mr Thornton that as per my conversation with Margaret this afternoon, she declares her isolation in this world. She is friendless and alone; she must accept your offer."

"My mother's offer, Mr Bell; I am not in a position to offer her anything."

"On the contrary Mr Thornton you are in a position to offer her everything yet you refuse to even discuss the merits of such a course of action?"

"Mr Bell, you forget yourself! You may be Miss Hale's guardian but you are not mine, and I must therefore request that you respect my wishes for not discussing this matter further. You may tell Miss Hale that she is welcome here for as long as she chooses; that nothing will be asked of her or expected of her in exchange for her accommodation. My sister is just lately married and as such we have more than enough room, and I'm sure my mother would welcome the company."

"And her maid - Dixon? I wouldn't wish to inconvenience Mrs Thornton by throwing a servant into the mix, but she is now the closest thing to family which remains to Margaret; I do not think she would cope well…"

"She may bring anyone or anything that may contribute to her comfort and contentment. I would not deny her her friends."

"Thank you Mr Thornton. You have been most generous. I shall inform Margaret of the arrangements that have been made and shall hopefully find her less resistant than you believe I shall find her."

Mr Bell didn't stay after the agreement had been reached but instead shook hands and took his leave.

Thornton was tired. It had been a trying week and with the prospect of what waited before him; between having to inform his mother of their new house guest and of having to bury his own pain and heartache and try and support Margaret, he imagined that the week that he had just lived through would be but the beginning of many wearisome weeks, and possibly months, still to come.

But whatever it took, he would do it. He had realised this several weeks ago; after his cover-up of the death of that man at the station, he realised that there were no limits to how far he would go to protect her. He would do anything for Margaret.