A/N: Ok, wow….Sorry about last chapter. It was completely terrible. Well grammatically speaking, that is…I went back and fixed the errors. I'm sorry you had to read it that way. My brain has already switched to school-mode, so there's no telling what I was thinking when I uploaded it without going back over it for errors….anyways. Thank you for all the encouragement when it comes to both this story, and also to my education. I really appreciate it, more than you even realize haha. I didn't really have time to respond to your reviews individually, through PM's like I usually try to do, so I'm just going to do it here after the chapter.

And I promise this chapter will be longer than the last two have been. I've been averaging between 5000 and 5500 words a chapter, and my last two were less than three…It will stop…well, I hope it will stop. Some days I'm just glad to be able to get anything written. Busy, Busy, Busy….

Congratulations to Tiffany, the 100th reviewer! =D You are simply amazing.

**Update 1.24.13** I re-posted this. I noticed a super huge error in it, so if anyone got a second notification email, I'm sorry for clogging your inbox.

Chapter Nine

Margaret left the room in somewhat of a haze. She couldn't believe how angry she was. She'd never felt anything equal to it. Her hands were shaking, her face was hot, and she felt an almost overwhelming desire to destroy something…She walked briskly to the drawing room without bidding Mrs. Thornton goodbye, and slammed the door behind her. She winced slightly at her own obvious lack of control with her own temper, but quickly shook her head in an attempt to rid herself of such thoughts. Thinking about how upset she was, was only making her angrier. She was having a difficult enough time going through her emotions on an average day without contributing anything extra.

The nerve of that woman! Margaret thought savagely. It was quite unlike her to think so viciously of someone, but she was quite beside herself in her anger. It was blindingly obvious what Mrs. Thornton's true opinion of her was; she made no attempts to hide her disapproval in the past, and Margaret supposed it only made sense that she would do the same this time. This time was different, however. This time, Margaret actually had done what she'd been accused of. Well, very nearly at least. She had been walking out so late with Mr. Thornton, and while it was not her desire to….entrap him in marriage, she could not deny that something had shifted between them.

But wasn't that what I was trying to accomplish? she thought. For months she had tried, failed, tried again, and failed again, to change something, anything between them. Even just holding a conversation him. Or getting him to look at her with something other than disdain written on his face. Which she had eventually managed, although she didn't really think it was due solely to her own merits. A situation, such as they found themselves in the night before, would never, probably ever have arisen between them by any design of Margaret's. Somehow, the presence of Nicholas Higgins seemed to have acted as some sort of balm on their wounded prides. While she did not regret the previous evening, she certainly had not intended on having such a…relaxed moment with Mr. Thornton.

A blush stole over her face as she thought about the way he spoke her name…partly in embarrassment at her own audacity to allow him such a liberty, and partly because of the fact that he had actually done it. His eyes staring intently at her own, his lips practically burning a hole through her hand. She rubbed the tingling spot on the back of her hand absently, and tried not to think about it anymore. She needed to focus on what had just happened. So Margaret did the only thing that seemed to offer her any peace of mind when she was troubled: pacing. She walked and walked, and walked. While she walked, she gathered her thoughts and tried to cool her anger at Mrs. Thornton down. However justified she might be in it. She knew her father would want to speak to her about it at some point, and she wanted to have a clear mind when that moment came. She tried desperately not to think about Mr. Thornton being just a room away from her, speaking with her father about the events that had just transpired. What would they be talking about? What must her father think of her? Margaret felt the first pangs of uneasiness at the thought. What did her father think of her? Did he see her as a fallen woman, disgraced and dishonored? She had to admit, if a man suddenly burst into a room and acknowledged that he had indeed been on a very late and intimate walk with a young lady, especially to the young lady's father, she would be inclined to think less of her, and the two would most likely be forced to marry-

Her heart stopped beating.

Surely not?

But the more she thought about it, the clearer the possibility became. Would she truly be forced to marry Mr. Thornton? Surely her father would not actually force her into marriage? While she knew that, out of every man she could have gotten into such a mess with, she was relieved, grateful even, that it was him as opposed to someone like Henry Lennox. At least it was someone she respected.

Unfortunately it was someone that did not necessarily harbor any positive feelings towards her. The previous night, their impromptu meeting, and shoddily patched up relationship was absolutely not a strong enough foundation for a marriage. It was barely a strong enough foundation for a friendship! It certainly wasn't enough for her to believe that he would look kindly on being forced into a marriage with a woman that had rejected him, lied to him, scorned him, and completely disgraced him in less than a twelve-month time period.

Perhaps Mrs. Thornton wasn't completely in the wrong.

She sighed, and headed for the door. Perhaps she would go for a walk, and let the fresh air rejuvenate her already weary mind. As she left the room she could hear voices coming from her father's study, one belonging to her father, the other to Mr. Thornton. She quickened her pace, and tried desperately not to hear anything that was being spoken behind the door. She even tried humming quietly to herself, and simultaneously thinking as loudly as possible. Try as she might, eight small words slipped through and penetrated her mind.

"Why are you so against marrying my daughter?"

John sat across from Mr. Hale, looking at his hands nervously. It wasn't that he was anxious about how Mr. Hale would react to what had happened between Margaret and himself (however small and inconsequential it might have been), but more that he feared he would lose the respect of the one true friend he had known. He had listened quietly to John's story, never interrupting him, never changing expression. Merely silent and observing. The only noise he heard from Mr. Hale was the long sigh after John had finished speaking. So here he sat, looking at his hands that were resting in his lab, twisting his fingers together in his anxiety. Finally, after an eternity of silence, Mr. Hale spoke:

"How long?"

"I'm sorry?" John asked, not really understand what Mr. Hale was referring to.

"How long have you cared for my daughter?" He replied slowly. John took a deep breath.

"I do not know, exactly." he said slowly, weighing his words. "It was long before the riots that I realized…" he trailed off uncertainly.

"Does my daughter care for you?" John's throat tightened uncomfortably. He wasn't immediately sure how to respond, as he had been asking himself that very same question for several hours. Did Margaret care for him? If he based his answer off of everything that had occurred between them the night before, he would be inclined to think that she at least held some small regard for him. However he knew from all of his previous encounters with her that she did not care for him in the slightest, something that he had once been dreadfully mistaken about. Then again, he himself had acted quite horribly to her the past months nearly every time they had met. Consequently, he couldn't accurately gauge her demeanor on any of those occasions, which had always been silent and seemed uncomfortable. It had been something he attributed to a guilty consciousness over that abominable lie about the man at the train station. John's heart sank as he tried a few times to make an audible reply.

"No, I do not believe she does." he said very quietly. Mr. Hale said nothing, and John couldn't bring himself to meet his eyes.

"Well," his friend began, sounding weary. "At least I can take comfort in the knowledge that while my daughter may not be herself in love, that she is and will be loved in marriage." John's head shot up as he looked at Mr. Hale, alarm written plainly on his face.

"Mr. Hale-" but he was silenced by Mr. Hale's hand.

"John please, you are clever enough to understand the situation. I have no choice. This obviously isn't what I wanted to happen to Margaret, but I know you. You are an honorable man, and it is clear to me you love my daughter. I can only sit back and thank God that it is you, and not some other man, of whose character I could not rely on." John stared at him with his mouth open.

"You cannot make her do this, Mr. Hale." he pleaded.

"What do you mean?" Mr. Hale replied.

"You cannot force her to marry me." his voice cracked a little, and he cursed his inability to keep his emotions in check. Mr. Hale looked at him, astonished. "It would destroy her. I will not take her away from the one person she has left in this world. I will not condemn her to a life unsatisfied. I could not bear it." I could not bear to see her look at me contempt for the rest of her days, he added mentally.

"I have no choice, John!" Mr. Hale replied, looking wearier than ever.

"My mother had no right to come here and confront Margaret as she did. It was extremely out of character for her, and I'm certain that this entire situation has merely been exaggerated greatly." John replied irritably. "She was very upset, and not thinking clearly. While I have no doubt that she spoke the truth, and someone must have seen, the only thing that could be deemed inappropriate would be the lateness of the hour that we were out, and I believe I have explained my reasoning entirely."

"You have, and you were quite right." Mr. Hale rubbed his face despairingly. "I would not want her walking out so late at night alone. But I will not have her shunned from society, and the object of ridicule and scorn!"

"But she won't be shunned from society!" John said desperately. "I very much doubt everything is a serious as my mother made it out to be."

"Why are you so against marrying my daughter?" Mr. Hale asked him curiously, head tilted to the side. This conversation was not going in a direction he particularly wanted to re-visit. "Is it a matter of social status? Do you believe Margaret is beneath you?" John stood quite abruptly.

"Beneath me?!" He said incredulously. "Do you think that, if your daughter cared for me, that if marrying me would bring her even a shred of happiness, I would hesitate for a moment in asking for her hand?"

"You presume to know my daughter's feelings upon this subject quite well." Mr. Hale's tone was calm and curious, but John heard nothing but an accusation.

"Well it isn't as though she left any room for me to doubt it!" He snapped. Immediately he regretted his words and winced. Now he would have no choice; he would have to tell Mr. Hale about his rejected proposal…something he didn't even care to think about.

"What do you mean?" he asked. John sighed, and made an attempt to steer the conversation in another direction.

"Please, Mr. Hale, think about it. If you decide to that our marriage is the only option, the only way Margaret could go on with life peacefully, then I will do it. I do still have some shreds of honor left, and I would not shirk my duty to her. But I can tell you now, with absolute clarity, that it would make her unhappy."

"You are a better man than you credit yourself to be, John." He looked up at Mr. Hale to try and read his expression, but he had his back turned to him. A few minutes passed and neither man spoke, or even made any sound apart from quiet breathing. A long last, Mr. Hale sighed once more and turned to face him, face unsure, but determined. It was an expression he had only ever seen on Margaret's face. "I will consent to what you have asked, even though I do not necessarily agree with it. I trust your judgment, and I have a great deal of respect for you." John looked down at his feet feeling a little ashamed, and not fully understanding why.

"Thank you," He said sincerely.

"I would have you know," Mr. Hale said quietly. "That I would consider it an honor if I were one day able to call you my son." John looked at Mr. Hale earnestly, his soul practically trembling with longing. He was so affected by this small, honest admission, that he couldn't find his voice. He swallowed thickly, nodded twice, and looked down at his feet again. There was nothing in the world he could've desired more than Margaret by his side, and this man, Richard Hale, as the father he dearly wished he still had. He forced himself to suppress the urge to change his mind, to go find Margaret and beg her, again, to be his wife. It hadn't escaped his notice that this very situation was almost identical to the situation he unremittingly scorned Margaret for. The very incident that made him red with jealousy. The incident that blackened his soul, and poisoned his heart against her. The incident that made him hate and love her in equal parts because he could not have her. He had become the very person he despised. He had become the man who led a beautiful young woman into a somewhat compromising situation that tainted her respectability, and forced her to sacrifice any chance of happiness by binding herself to him forever. But he could not do that to her. He would be the better man. He would try to be the man Margaret deserved. He would do whatever right he could by her. Even if it meant he would lose the respect of others in the process. Then an unbidden thought rose within his mind, and sought to torture him with cold realization.

What if the man at Outwood Station had done the very same thing?

John forced himself to believe that he was making the right decision

Only two things occupied Margaret's mind at the moment: that her father wanted her to marry Mr. Thornton, and that Mr. Thornton didn't want to. She had rushed through the house out the front door as quickly as she could, not bothering to grab a shawl or tell anyone she was leaving. She barely even made out of the crowded streets before the tears started to fall, burning streaks onto her skin that was instantly frozen by the icy wind. The knowledge made her so unaccountably miserable. She had always assumed that Mr. Thornton no longer cared for her, a fact that always made her incredibly disheartened. But somewhere, in the small recesses of her mind, she had truly believed his passionate words when he proposed. The words that had given her just the tiniest hope that things would always work out between them, even if she didn't fully comprehend her own feelings (something that was a regular occurrence as of late), now tortured her.

"I have never loved a woman before; I've always been too busy, and my thoughts have always been absorbed with other things. Now…Now I love, and will continue to love. Don't worry yourself though; there will not be much expression on my part."

She supposed that she had always assumed that somewhere deep down, there was a small part of Mr. Thornton that did still care for her, even though she could not see it. He had told her she would never know of his affection; in fact, until that very moment, she had absolutely no knowledge that he was partial towards her in any way. Yet he loved her then. Enough to want to make her his wife…but not anymore. Now he was sitting in her fathers study, attempting to convince him not to force them to marry. She could not really say that she found it surprising. She had after all humiliated him, rejected him, lied to him, and given him sufficient enough reason to believe she had some clandestine lover. She was however, exceedingly surprised at the burning tears on her face, the slight trembling she could feel in her entire body, and encompassing, suffocating, emptiness. She felt so completely miserable without really understanding why, and at the moment she didn't care to try and discover what that reason was. All she could think about was Mr. Thornton, and the way he spoke her name the night before. The way he'd bandaged her hand with such gentleness. The way his face glowed when he smiled, and his eyes glinted with joy. The way his laugh reverberated straight through her body, seemingly filling her entirely with the sound of his amusement. But more than anything she thought about the way his warm lips felt against the cold skin of her hand only the night before, and how it would most likely never happen again. Margaret was so wholly consumed by such thoughts, that she did not notice the leering and whispers that followed her as she walked. She did not see the contemptuous expressions, or the up-turned noses. She did not notice what the people of Milton were saying about her. She didn't even notice the freezing night air as the sun dipped lower towards the horizon, or the fact that her entire body was shivering. She slowly made her way back home, as silent and grave as death itself.

By the time she reached the road to Crampton, darkness was quickly approaching, and the condemning looks and whispers still followed her. Margaret paid no notice. She stoically climbed the few stairs to her home and opened the door. Seemingly in a trance, she ignored the startled exclamations of whomever had seen her, proceeded directly to her room, and closed the door quietly behind her.

She did not notice Mr. Thornton on the staircase as she passed him.

Things did not improve.

Only a week had passed since his mother had been to see Margaret, and John had never known so much to change in so little time. The first few days afterward, the streets had been filled with gossip. People giving him unusual looks, whispering behind their hands to one another, failing miserably at attempting to discreetly point him out to another person. Under any normal circumstance, this would infuriated him beyond belief. While it was rather irritating, he bore it all with his head held high, comforting himself with the knowledge that he was keeping Margaret happy. Something he would gladly sacrifice anything to ensure.

His mother didn't make matters better. She spent nearly every free moment she had in his presence making rather indignant remarks on how deplorable Margaret's character was, how much better John was without her tainting his exemplary reputation, and exclaiming her pride at his being ability to avoid 'fortune-hunting harlots' as she had called her. It wasn't very long after said remark that John stood abruptly, and (quite alarmingly) forbade any person in the house to speak another word, cruel or otherwise, about Margaret Hale again, before stalking off to the Mills.

He had not been to the Hale house since that fateful day. He tried to reason that it would be unusual for him to be visiting so often if there was nothing happening between Margaret and himself, especially given all the tittle-tattle circulating Milton regarding them. It might look suspicious. But that wasn't entirely true. If he was honest with himself, he couldn't bear to see Margaret. It was hard enough being in this God-forsaken predicament with her, he didn't know that he could stand attempting civilities with her as well. He wanted to make himself believe that he was doing the right thing by her, that he was giving her a future where she would be happy. So he suppressed his desires and dreams, he shut them away in a box within is mind, and vowed it would never be opened again by anyone.

Unless that person per chance was Margaret.

"Master." Nicholas Higgins' stood in the doorway to his office, looking quite stern.

"Higgins." John replied, a little surprised. Although Nicholas was in all probability his only worker with the audacity to seek him out in his own office, it was very unlike him to do so. They usually only spoke outside of the Mill. "Come, in. What can I do for you?" He attempted to smile at his friend, but he wasn't so sure it came across how he hoped it had. Nicholas stepped in his office, closed the door, and faced him with his shoulders squared as though preparing for battle.

"I need to speak with you about something" he said. John tilted his head a little and looked at him curiously. He was silent for a few moments, as though contemplating what to say. "Surely you are aware there has been some talk in Milton about Margaret." John instantly straightened his posture at her name. "More specifically about Margaret and yourself." John stared at him in disbelief. Surely Nicholas Higgins wouldn't dare come to speak to him about-"How could you put her through this?"

"Higgins." John said, his tone dangerous.

"Do you have any idea what sort of hell she's being put through?"

"Higgins." He warned again, a little louder this time.

"You know what they're saying about her don't you?" John stood so abruptly that he pushed his desk forward a few inches. "What they're callin' her? Now I wouldn't have concerned myself in your business, Master if-"

"You shouldn't have concerned yourself at all!" John snapped, all semblance of patience gone. "It is my business, and mine alone. I do not want, nor do I need your opinion on my own decisions!"

"If it were just a few harmful names, I could easily stand back and keep to myself about it." Nicholas replied. "But it's more than that, Master, and I'll be damned if I just stand by idly and watch her suffer because your pride is too wounded to do the right thing!" John anger was greater than he had ever known it to be. Even in the face of the rioters he had not been this angry. His face paled, and his body trembled.

"All I have ever wanted is that woman's happiness! Everything I have ever done was done for her and her happiness! Don't you presume to know the reason behind my actions, Higgins!" Nicholas sighed and looked at him apologetically.

"Today, she was thrown out the grocers shop." he said solemnly. John looked over at him sharply. "Someone spread about that she was at the Station the night that Leonard's was killed. That she was responsible for his death, and that she threw herself at your mercy, and that out of respect for her father, you obliged. And now they believe that she's trying to trap you in marriage because they're destitute." John stared at him, mouth open in horror. "No one will sell anything to them, and all of her father's students have resigned."

"I-I" he stuttered. "I didn't know-when did this take place?"

"I only just found out from Mary." Nicholas replied. "Miss Margaret had come to visit…and to ask Mary to buy groceries on her behalf…I got the rest out of her eventually." John sighed loudly and rubbed a hand over face wearily. He was an idiot for thinking this could work.

God, how he hated himself sometimes.

He grabbed his jacket from the chair it rested on, and put it on as quickly as he could, fumbling a little with the buttons. "Thank you Nicholas." He said a little breathlessly.

"Where are you going?" He asked. John, who was already on the landing outside his office door, paused.

"To ask Margaret Hale to marry me."

A/N: Hopefully, not what you expected. I am really really really really really really really really SUPER REALLY looking forward to hearing your every thought about this chapter. I'm a little uncertain of it, but we're getting closer and closer to the big clincher =D I can not wait. I hope you like this.