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“Oh, no, it was nothing like a love match,” Fanny says to her gaggle of acquaintances, “though I’m sure it came as close to one as two people such as my brother and Margaret could manage. They are both of them too practical and unimaginative for something so delightfully romantic.”

Margaret doesn’t mean to eavesdrop on her sister-in-law, but Fanny’s voice is too distinct and almost impossible to ignore, even with the low hum of conversation filling the room. She schools her expression carefully and devotes all of her attention back to the two elderly women who latched onto her when she and John first arrived at the party. They appear not to have heard Fanny, or are pretending they haven’t, and despite Margaret’s initial despair at being cornered by the least interesting guests, she feels a swell of gratitude flow through her.

The words aren’t spoken with ill intent, of course. Margaret believes Fanny to be bereft of true malice, though she is often uncaring and childishly vindictive. No matter how innocent, though, Margaret still fights to keep the stabbing hurt they inspire from eating away at her thoughts.

She wonders, sometimes, about her and John. He had declared his love for her well before she even had an inkling of her inheritance, and she feels confident that their marriage meant more than a return to financial security for him. But the angry words they’d hurled at each other during his first proposal, and all the bitterness and sorrow they’d seen since - Margaret can’t help but play out all of them in her head, over and over again, until she makes herself sick with doubt.

A warm hand lands on her shoulder suddenly, startling her out of her thoughts. She knows without looking around that it’s John. Her companions greet him warmly and inform him of their conversation topic - something about religious pamphlets.

“I’m afraid I must steal my wife away from you, ladies,” John says. “We are unused to keeping late hours.”

“Oh dear,” says one, “I did think you were growing weary, Mrs. Thornton, but we were having such a lovely time.”

“It was a pleasure,” Margaret replies as she stands and takes John’s arm. “We will have to continue this another time. Good evening.”

They say their goodbyes to Fanny, and then to their hosts, and as they retrieve their coats, John leans close and murmurs, “I thought to save you from their clutches earlier, but Slickson had some business to discuss that couldn’t wait until morning, according to him. I apologize.”

The warmth in his voice sends a shiver racing down Margaret’s spine. John wraps her in her coat, and once she’s settled takes hold of one of her hands and raises it to his lips, eyes fixed on hers the whole time. With this gesture, Margaret’s doubts and worries melt, at least for the moment, and she is content.