Margaret was sitting in her father's study reading when she heard the knock. It was nearly 8 o'clock PM. She found it curious that anyone should be calling at this hour, especially when she was not expected - by her general acquaintances at least - to still be in residence at Crampton. For a brief moment Margaret feared that her brother Frederick may have braved the journey from Spain. Calming herself, she calculated it to be impossible for him to have received the news so fast. She cautiously opened the door.
Margaret recognised the tall figure standing in the dark immediately. 'John.' She was so surprised she could hardly find her voice. Margaret opened the door wider so that he could come in.
'Good evening Margaret,' he said in his deeply alluring baritone. 'I am sorry to disturb you. Fanny told me you would be here.'
Margaret suddenly felt very self-conscious. John was standing dangerously close, his blue eyes watching her. 'No, not at all. My aunt has retired early this evening with a headache, so you find me all alone this evening.' To her own ears, Margaret's words sounded nervous. 'Do come in to father's study. I will go find Dixon to ask her to make us some tea.'
As she turned to head to the kitchen, John reached out and took her hand. 'No, I don't need tea Margaret.' His touch sent ripples of sensation through her, reminding her of the waltz they shared in London. He led her silently into the study and closed the door behind them.
John did not let go of her hand until they were both seated on the settee. He gazed at her, the slightest smile creasing the lines beside his beautiful eyes. Margaret could hardly breathe. This was different to their other encounters. John had always been more reserved, more restrained.
'John before you speak, I need to tell you something.' Margaret had no logical explanation for interrupting him. She was overwhelmed by her feelings and the words were out of her mouth before she could think it through. 'I know that this is probably not pertinent anymore, but I need to reinstate the truth where it has been grossly misrepresented.' Her words were tumbling out awkwardly. Holding her head high she continued. 'I know that my aunt told you in London that I was intended for marriage with Henry Lennox. I want to declare, while I still can, that I am not engaged to Mr Lennox nor am I ever likely to be. I believe in my heart that I would not make him happy and he,… well he has done wrong by me. I could never consider him worthy of my affections.' Slightly mortified by her own outburst, Margaret bit her bottom lip and dropped her eyes to the floor.
John gently turned her face to look at him. His bemused grin had transformed into the roguish smile that she loved so much. She wished she could capture this moment in a picture so as to look at it forever.
'I know. Fanny informed me of that as well.'
Margaret exhaled in relief.
'She told me the same night I came to see you, just after your father died.' His smile turned into a more serious expression. 'Margaret, do you remember when we sat at Bessy's grave together? I told you then that I wanted to call on you after your mother's death but that my situation was.. complicated.'
Margaret nodded, anxious for John to reveal more about the nature of his attachment to Ann Latimer but fearing it at the same time.
'I feel I owe you an explanation.'
Margaret shook her head not wanting him to feel any obligation to her. Before she could speak, John put his fingers over her lips to silence her. Once again her heart leapt in her chest. John's fingers lingered, then moved to gently caress her cheek. He sat for a moment studying her face before resuming his story.
'It is true that your aunt warned me off you after her dinner in London, but as it was, I had already spent the evening listening to Henry's colourful tale of your plans for a Christmas wedding.' John squeezed her hand. 'Of course I know that to be untrue – now – but at the time I was..well I was blind with jealousy.'
Margaret was giddy. She was glad to be seated for she could feel the sensation leaving all her limbs.
'And in my irrational state I resolved to direct my attentions elsewhere.'
'To Miss Latimer,' Margaret said almost in a whisper.
'Quite.' John looked down in shame and clasped his hands. 'I behaved like a fool and Mr Latimer called me on it. When he returned to Milton late last week he made it clear that I should atone for my actions by making an offer to his daughter.'
Margaret's stomach dropped.
John turned to her again. 'I have been unable to resolve the situation until Miss Latimer returned from London.' John looked at Margaret and the small smile again lit his eyes. 'I spoke with her at length tonight. There is true integrity in her character that I was blind to before. I am glad to say that by her good grace she has released me from any understanding that her father was attempting to bind us with, and has set me free.'
Giving her a meaningful look, John reached into his coat pocket to retrieve something. Margaret saw that it was a yellow rose. 'I gave you one like this the night of the dinner in London.'
Margaret nodded, taking the rose as John offered it. The anticipation of the moment was nearly all too much for her inexperienced heart.
'Do you remember what I said?' He looked at her tenderly.
'You spoke of making new memories.' How could she forget? It was probably the instant that she truly fell in love with him. She put her nose to the flower to take in its scent - just as she did that night in London.
'I had meant that I wanted you to make new memories with me Margaret.' John's expression was full of meaning. 'I am and have for some time been completely under your spell. At the beginning you caught my notice with your astonishing beauty, but later you captivated my soul with your brilliant mind and incomparable virtue. I am so completely, utterly consumed by you that I fear I am incapable of living in peace a moment longer unless you consent to be mine.'
Margaret was intoxicated by his words.
'I know this is terrible timing, and I know that I am breaking every rule of propriety just by coming here tonight, but I cannot let you go back to London. You must forgive my ineloquence Margaret, a London gentleman might write sonnets about you, but alas I am no poet. I am just a lowly manufacturer, from a cold and smoky northern town, that loves you with all of his being.'
When John proceeded to go down on bended knee Margaret feared she would faint. 'Margaret Hale, will you marry me?'
Margaret's hands were trembling as she placed them either side of John's face. His cheeks felt rough to her hands, the sensation sending a quiver through her body. 'Yes!'
John stood up then, towering over her tiny frame still seated on the settee. As he drew her up to stand in front of him, Margaret could see her own wonderment reflected in John's expression. Still holding her hand he moved closer to her. Margaret's heart was thumping. She was anxious and uncertain of what to do. John smiled knowingly and ever so gently tipped her chin up so she was looking directly at him. Slowly he lowered his face to press his lips against hers. Margaret felt a tear escape down her cheek at the joy of the moment. John noticed it too and slowly pulled away.
He looked at her with apprehension. 'Margaret, have I displeased you? Tell me dearest what is the matter?'
Margaret smiled, laughing at her own sentimental heart. 'Nothing, nothing at all. I could not imagine a more perfect moment. Thank you.' Margaret brought John's hand up to her lips and kissed it. 'Thank you. I know it will be the proudest day of my life when you make me your wife.
John pulled her closer then and kissed her again, this time more passionately. Margaret felt dizzy by the time he released her, thankful that he was still holding her secure in his arms.
Margaret stayed there for a time, her face resting against John's chest. She could hear the steady beating of his heart; smell the heady scent of his cologne. She never imagined it would feel like this.
John was the first to speak. 'I must not stay too long or else your aunt will think less of me than she already does. But I must confess that I am loath to ever leave you now that we are finally here together, like this.'
She leant back to regard him. 'Thankfully my aunt sleeps soundly.'
Raising his eyebrows, John stole another kiss before sitting them both down on the settee, his fiancé still held tightly in his arms.
'Are you worried how your aunt will look upon the match?' There was sincere concern on John's face.
Margaret reflected briefly on Aunt Shaw. She was her only family now. 'It will take some time for my aunt to acquiesce. But I will not let her discourage me. My parents I believe, in particular my father, would have rejoiced at having you for a son-in-law. That thought alone is consolation.
John held her tighter.
Margaret marvelled at how safe she felt in his embrace. The sadness was diminished; replaced by hope and contentment more sweet than she had ever known. This was where she belonged - in his arms.
Margaret believed with all her heart that fate had led her family to Milton. There was no doubt in her mind that her place in life was with this wonderful man, and that she would be forever truly happy in this cold and smoky northern town.
Life was as it should be with Margaret now by John's side at Marlborough Street. John asked Margaret whether she would consult with Nicholas Higgins on matters affecting the workers at Marlborough Mill. When the happy couple told Nicholas of their engagement, he had not seemed surprised by the news. He congratulated them wholeheartedly, only giving the Master a knowing grin.
Fanny was ecstatic at the match, now claiming Margaret as her sister. She insisted to all who would listen that she had long suspected John's partiality to her friend and was relieved he had finally made her an offer.
Mrs Thornton was accepting of her son's decision to wed, and quickly made arrangements for alternative accommodation for Margaret during their engagement in order to avoid scandalous gossip in connection with her family. She was slowly getting used to the idea of having a daughter-in-law.
After leaving Milton in a rage, Aunt Shaw eventually acknowledged Margaret's choice of husband and wrote to give her blessing. She even promised to keep Henry away from her house should Margaret and John wish to visit – for Henry's protection she said.
Rumor from London was that Ann Latimer was to be shortly engaged to Samuel de Waldon. Mr Latimer was said to be considering relocating to live closer to his daughter once she was married. Fanny, harboring only a small amount of bitterness, remarked that she wondered whether Miss Latimer had developed a fondness for toy trains and pinned butterfly specimens. John had looked puzzled by Fanny's cryptic comment, but Margaret had laughed heartily.