As Margaret walked hurriedly through the streets, she cursed herself for not having learned gentlemanly manners for life in the north in addition to the ones she had still only half learned for ladies. Should she have tipped her hat at the man coming out of the pub? He’d looked surprised, but was it surprise at someone wearing clothes of Frederick's quality having acknowledged a working man, or had some of her hair come loose and given her disguise away? She fought to control her breathing and pace, praying she was not blushing even with her heart hammering in her chest just as it had at her wedding. She would soon be home. Or, what had been home and had become home again while wedding preparations were made and her things brought back north, but as of tonight was home no longer, though Dixon had remained the night to begin the process of closing up the house.
Her heart sank as she recognized the carriage out front. Thornton’s carriage. Now their carriage. She only hoped it was John, and not his mother.
There was no point in going round the servants’ entrance and trying to sneak upstairs in the hope a dress of hers remained in her old wardrobe. If even Frederick’s clothes he’d left behind were in her trunk, there surely were no longer any items of hers here.
She knocked on the door, certain her heart was knocking harder against her ribs, and even more certain that, if John were in the house, he could hear it.
John was in the house. He’d opened the door as though he’d been waiting for her knock, still resplendent in his wedding clothes. Relief, joy, and shame mingled in her. Relief it was John and not his mother, joy in the memory those clothes evoked—his face when he had seen her in the church, the sun that had shone bright and warm even in Milton that day—and shame that he was still cloaked in wedding finery when she had removed hers, and not exchanged it for traveling clothes for a honeymoon in Scotland, or indeed for any other honeymoon activities. It looked as though she had run away. She had, in fact, run away. Now she had to hope he would believe she had intended to run right back.
Strong fingers closed around her wrist and pulled her inside, but remained gentle. They didn’t let go once the door was closed, instead pulling her close and wrapping her in an embrace. Though she could sense Dixon hovering in the background and feel her intense stare, she remained in John’s arms, letting the rhythm of his heartbeat soothe hers. In her relief, she felt exhausted and burrowed more deeply in John’s arms, even as she knew she would need to face him soon, as well as Dixon.
After a long moment, she stepped back, wondering how she could begin to explain. As she opened her mouth to try, however, the memory of his gentleness even as he’d pulled her inside overtook her. “You’re being so kind,” she couldn’t help but say, even as her mind caught up and realized that her new husband might not appreciate her surprise at his gentleness. They had come so far—to the altar, even!—but there was still plenty of room for misunderstandings and confusion. After all, the fact that they were standing in her former home both attired as men spoke to that.
Again, his response surprised her, though she tried to take more care not to show it this time. “Would you have me play the overbearing master?” he asked, amused.
She blushed, the memory of his hand around her wrist taking on a different quality.
His quick intake of breath indicated that he had caught the meaning of her blush, but before he could respond (properly, she was sure, in front of Dixon. She wanted a most improper response later. In their bedroom), she teased him back: “Here in the north, we value our independence.”
John held her gaze, still smiling a relieved, fond smile and then looked her up and down, eyes lingering on where she had bound her breasts so that she could wear Frederick’s shirt. He raised a brow. “Clearly. Tell me, is fleeing from one’s marital home while wearing one’s brother’s castoffs on one’s wedding night a tradition in the south?”
When Dixon looked as though she would claim just that in order to get her mistress out of an awkward situation, Margaret intervened. No matter how embarrassing her reasons for this subterfuge, John would find out, and she was glad that he still wanted to rather than turn away from her for how she had just acted.
Still, she blushed. She could not speak of this in the foyer. “Could we go through to the kitchens? I need to speak with you both, but tea would helpful,” she explained.
When the tea was ready, she poured for John as well as Dixon, noticing how her hand looked smaller coming from her brother’s sleeve. She caught John noticing as well, and more of her trepidation fell away.
She finally sat, cradling her tea, and prepared to confess, wishing all the while that she had simply let John discover it in bed. It could not have been worse than sitting at her old kitchen table wearing Frederick’s clothes with a worried Dixon. Turning to face Dixon, she said simply “I need some of your salve.”
Dixon looked puzzled for a moment, then looked between Margaret and John with sympathy. “I see. I might need to make some new, what with packing up the house. It could be anywhere, but I'll go and look.”
With that, they were left alone. “Salve?” John asked, clearly not understanding how lack of salve had led to his new bride dashing about in Milton attired in her brother's clothes.
Now that she was alone with him, Margaret felt some of her anxiety return and closed her eyes for a moment. John took her hand. His hand had retained some of the warmth from the tea, and suddenly she could imagine his strong, warm hands on her, rubbing in the salve, rubbing in other places…
She sighed, knowing her upcoming revelation would prevent any such vision from coming true. “It’s my courses, John,” she said, striving to sound matter-of-fact rather than mortified or too disappointed. “I felt them starting and needed Dixon’s salve and advice on what to do without ruining our first night together. I put on Frederick's clothes so it wouldn't look like I was leaving you to anyone who saw me. And now I’m afraid that I have ruined—“
Again, John surprised her. She hadn't expected disgust. Rather, some sort of awkward glancing away, possibly reassurance that he wasn't disappointed. Instead, John drew her into a kiss that made her forget the sensitivity in her breasts and the ache of her back and other places.
He ended the kiss with one last nip to her bottom lip and stroked a curl that had come free of its pins. “While I’m sorry for your pain, I am so glad it is nothing more than that," he said with a roughness that made her all the more ashamed for having caused him such worry. She was even more ashamed at herself in the face of his thoughtfulness when he continued, "I’m sorry you had no one with you with whom you could speak….”
Lips tingling, Margaret felt she could weep with shame and relief and desire. “It’s become clear that I can speak to you. I should have—“
John looked away for a moment, then back at her, eyes dark. “I’ll not deny that I was concerned. But your face when you saw me, the look in your eyes…I knew it wasn’t me you were running from. And seeing you in these clothes—“ his hands reached slowly under her jacket, giving her time to pull away, if she wished.
She leaned forward, gasping when his fingers trailed over her breasts, all the more sensitive for being bound.
A clattering in the hall had them springing apart post-haste.
Dixon entered, bearing a covered jar that smelled of cloves, lavender, and marjoram.
“Now,” she instructed John, “you’ll want to put this on her feet. And here” she said, gesturing toward Margaret’s belly “as well as here,” she continued, turning her slightly to show the area on her lower back where the salve should be placed. Margaret felt warm all over. This was actually happening. Dixon was instructing her husband on how to touch her.
John watched avidly, seeming not to mind being instructed.
“And now, Mr. and Mrs. Thornton, I think you’d best be going home,” Dixon proclaimed, gathering up the tea things.
“Thank you, Dixon,” John said, sounding awkward for the first time, and rose, extending his hand to Margaret.
They had to stop briefly in the foyer to retrieve their respective hats, and then it was to the carriage, where the driver only briefly glanced at Margaret before looking discreetly away.
John proved more adept at sneaking into his home—their home, she reminded herself—than she had been at sneaking into her former dwelling, and they were soon alone in the bedroom, which had been made ready with bunches of roses from Helstone.
Margaret stared, then ran to John and enveloped him in an embrace so strong her hat flew off.
John retrieved it from the ground and placed it in the closet.
“Allow me to be your valet?” He asked softly. She nodded, and held herself so that he could remove her jacket. She shivered, trembling with anticipation as he left her to hang up the jacket, then came back and worked on her cravat, fingers tracing over her throat in a most unprofessional way.
Soon, she stood only in her undergarments, breasts still bound, heart pounding to wake the whole house.
John kissed her once more, pulling her in. She could feel her mostly bare skin against his clothes and noted, with a shiver, another thing she desired.
Despite the excitement Margaret could feel, John looked hesitant, glancing at her bound chest and back to the wardrobe. “We don’t need…if you’d rather...” he said gently.
Margaret did need, and if concern for her comfort was the only thing stopping him....Reaching forward, she put his hand where she’d looped the binding around, encouraging him to unwind it.
She closed her eyes and spun, letting his hands and her body do the work of baring her breasts. The cooler air of the room and a muffled exclamation from John let her know she was free. This time, she pulled him in for a kiss, needing the reassurance of the familiar and wanting to feel even more of her nakedness against him.
The pressure of his chest against her sensitive breasts made her gasp, but again, their kiss soon distracted her, especially as his mouth trailed kisses down her throat to her chest, pausing to worship each erect nipple with a short kiss that left them pleasantly tingling.
Then he’d taken her in his arms and lifted her up to sit her on the bed before kneeling in front of her with the salve, anointing her feet. Surrounded by roses and candlelight and John massaging her feet as though making another vow, Margaret felt heavy with anticipation, just as she had in the church. Only this time, the anticipation was tinged with remarkably less worry.
The scent of the salve was familiar, but the strong hands kneading it into her feet, unlocking tension she knew she’d carried and tension she had been unaware of, were different. She wanted them everywhere. Now unabashed, she even spread her legs, hoping he could soothe, or at least mask, the deeper ache, but he only kissed up her thigh before gently turning her over and massaging the salve into the small of her back.
When he turned her over to massage her belly, she tried to guide his hands down, under her drawers and into her, but he’d resisted, gently drawing her hands up over her head and instead scooping up more aromatic salve, alternating light and deeper touches to take the ache away.
She grew wetter and wetter and more and more frustrated, wishing for more of his touch and also wishing she could touch him. He seemed to sense she was at her limits, for soon enough he finished with a kiss and rose, washing his hands at a nearby basin and removing his own clothing much faster than he’d removed hers.
She watched from the bed, hands still positioned over her head where he had placed them. “May I move my hands?,” she asked in a tone she’d meant to be sarcastic but unfortunately came out more breathless.
He grinned at her look of annoyance at herself, but then gave her permission in a low tone that made her shiver.
She drew her new husband into a kiss and explored him, beginning by trailing hands over the arms that had pulled her away from danger and closer to him, always closer to him.
At last, when they were both flushed and panting and now both liberally coated with sweat and the balm he had applied to her, she once again guided his hand into her drawers, and this time he did not resist.
Though he did not ask once again whether she was certain, those strong, sure fingers were hesitant at first, circling around her lips in a way that made her almost ticklish and which was teasingly unfair. She may just have told him so, because she received a pinch on the backside from his other hand, which was also just unfairly arousing.
He kissed her as his finger finally slid into her and she gasped into his mouth, as he drove it in deeper, replacing the familiar ache of her impending courses with a new ache, but an ache that also brought pleasure.
“Mmmmm, John, I—thank you, I’m so lucky—“ she started as he started to remove his finger, but then his thumb circled another part of her as a second finger started to enter and she went rigid, panting and moaning and begging him to continue until she relaxed into a boneless heap, drawers finally all the way down and off.
When she opened her eyes again, John was hovering over her, looking astonished and pleased. “Satisfied, Mrs. Thornton?” he asked.
“Mmmmm,” she moaned and stretched, feeling lassitude throughout her body, but wanting more of her own pleasure and desiring to feel more of his. “I want…if you don’t mind, to feel you inside…”
John rubbed against her briefly, struggling to keep himself in check. “I assuredly do not mind, if you’re certain….”
Margaret showed him she was.
Afterwards, she got up on shaky legs and washed, taking note of the way her blood sang with joy even as she was exhausted to the core. She could still feel John deep within, and thinking of it made her nipples perk once again.
Drawing a shift over her head, she was surprised to realize she had never taken her hair down. Parts of it had come loose during their activities, but she still needed to take several pins out.
“What a mess,” she said, shaking her head at herself in the mirror and trying not to imagine what her mother (or, God forbid, John’s mother) would have said.
“I’ll brush it for you in the morning,” John promised. She turned, surprised to find he'd been watching her. She thought he had fallen asleep. He looked nearly there, she thought fondly. When she returned to bed, he brushed his fingers through her hair until they both fell asleep, thoroughly comfortable in their new home.