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John had never considered himself a sensual man. In truth, he’d never allowed himself the indulgence of giving over to his senses, not when his mind was his keenest asset. Richer men than he gave themselves to constant gratification because they had nothing better to do, and it led them down a path of pampered excess, decay and waste, one he’d never had any intention of following. His only recognition of his body came in the way it ached after a hard day’s work, an ache he used to feel proud of, a sign of accomplishment, though nowadays that had shifted to a perpetual exhaustion he was unable to escape.

But in this moment, with Margaret, he gave himself completely over to his body.

Her lips carried traces of the taste of salt, placed there by her earlier tears, but he was more interested in the softness of them, of the gentle way they moved against his own, of how they parted, of the warmth of her breath. 

She was all warmth, in his arms. He was unsure of when he pulled her so close, until were pressed against one another as they often were when they woke up. She was wearing as little as she did every night, only the thin cotton of her nightgown keeping his hand—the hand spanning her back—from being splayed across her skin. Instead he moved that hand upwards, tangling into the curls of her hair, the silken mass which had taunted him for the months since their wedding. 

His other hand cupped her face, and he was very aware of the callouses on his fingers against the smoothness of her own skin. A contrast to him in every way, but where he once thought her delicate, he knew that however soft she may feel, she was strong. Stronger than him.

John was not strong. John was a fool. One as easily swept away by sensual pleasures as any of the men he once condemned, lost in a moment of aching sweetness.

Yet even still a sense of propriety urged him to pull away, at least to end the kiss and put an inch of distance between their bodies, before he was carried away with the demands of his senses. He could only retreat that far, and then rested his forehead against hers, closing his eyes to relish the scent of her—soap and rosewater—and the wildness of her breath. 

She had not retreated from him. No, she had bestowed the first intimacy, that kiss to his palm, which still tingled in the aftermath. She had returned his kisses and burrowed herself closer into his embrace, much as she did at night. He might be a fool, but he did not believe himself a hopeless one any longer. 

He felt compelled to ask it of her anyway.

“Can this mean—” John asked, swallowing down the swell of impending happiness.

Margaret’s breath hitched once more, and he pushed himself to meet her gaze. 

“I-I don’t know,” was her flustered, dazed response. “I do not wish to toy with your emotions, but—oh, it has been such a year! I have never known so much turmoil or loss, and I scarcely understand what I am feeling. I have been tossed from one emotion to another and now think I feel all of them at once. Please believe me—I wish I could return your declarations wholeheartedly, yet I fear I would be making a liar of myself.”

John pressed a firm kiss to her forehead. “No, I would not want that. I prefer your candidness.” He pulled ever further from her, though he could not relinquish his hold entirely, still cradling her face between finger and thumb. She leant into his touch, even if she did not realise it, and the flush across her cheeks matched the colour of her mouth. It took all his strength not to claim that mouth again, or not let his touch roam across her skin.

Instead, he tried to return them to their earlier conversation, which as yet lay unresolved. Fearing it would be impossible to have any sober discussion in their current entanglement, he led her to the foot of the bed, where they were able to sit side by side, even if he took hold of her hand when they were comfortable.

“I will not demand you stay in Milton,” he said, “nor try to entice promises from you which would hurt you to keep.”

“I already have made promises, ones I have no intention of breaking.” John was momentarily distracted from her words—words which made him dizzy with hope—by the way she stroked her thumb against his hand. “My wedding vows. If you wish me to stay, then I will stay.”

“I want you to stay.”

“Then here I will be.”

“But I promised you security, and I have led you astray.” There it was. The reason not to let that spark of hope get carried away.

“Nonsense!” She squeezed his hand tighter. “You have been exceptionally kind to me and without your intervention—why, I dare not think what my circumstance might be now. You have not broken your word to me at all and I would rather be at your side, listened to and respected, than playing nursemaid.”

“I am glad to hear it. And yet—the future will be difficult. It is likely we will lose all comfort—the servants—”

“I am not afraid of hard work. I took on so much in the house at Crampton it will be a return to old habits! Do not worry, John, the house will not decline on my watch. Ask Dixon about Peggy the laundry maid—if only for her reaction. She, at least, will not be happy with the situation.”

“Oh dear. I’m not sure I like the idea of Dixon being unhappy with me.”

“Never fear—I shall protect you!”

For the first time, they shared a laugh, the spell around them fracturing in its easy air, but John would not have traded the feeling between them, not for a hundred kisses. Not with the easy, soft smile gracing Margaret’s face, a smile he had scarce seen there, and not at all in recent weeks.

With that much resolved, they completed their night’s toilette and retired to the bed. This time, Margaret did not even attempt to keep to her side, curling against him immediately. John could not remember sleeping so soundly.

Though their situation was not improved by the morning, John seemed to wake with a renewed energy. He had not yet got out of the habit of rising early, but Margaret did not mind, as she felt compelled to face their changed circumstances as soon as possible. She was out of bed mere minutes after he had departed, washing and putting on the simplest dress she owned herself.

It was a challenge to keep her mind from straying to the events of the night before, and to stop herself giving into a reverie like a swooning schoolgirl. Intimacy was to be expected between husband and wife, after all, but she had never imagined a simple kiss could be so—so consuming. He had been extremely gentle with her, but she had felt every fraction of contact flickering along her nerves, through her entire body. No wonder the very idea of a kiss could reduce other women to giggles and blushes.

Or perhaps it was as she’d said to John—she’d borne so many emotions recently that every last one was amplified until they left her befuddled.

The astonishment of her husband and his mother when she showed for breakfast was not lost on her, even if they attempted to stifle it as soon as it arose.

“We had not arranged for your place to be set,” Mrs Thornton said, her usual scowl wiped away by her disconcertion.

“It doesn’t matter,” Margaret replied brightly. “I have not yet fully regained my appetite and will see to myself afterwards. I thought now would be a good time to discuss household affairs.”

Her mother-in-law’s eyebrows raised at that. “Did you?”

“There is no denying we have to make changes. It will help if we are united and have a firm idea of what needs to be done to prevent the worst outcome.”

“The worst outcome is the mill closing, and that has already occurred.”

“Then we cannot prevent it—but we can combine our wits to ensure optimal circumstances for ourselves. I need to understand how our finances stand. From the last I saw of them, the need to close the mill so soon came as quite a surprise.”

John cleared his throat. “We did not run out cash reserves entirely, but I cannot afford to pay both the workers and the bank. Rather than keep the mill open and then refuse to pay wages fairly earned, I took the decision to close now. The remaining funds will go towards loan repayments until I stop receiving funds my debtors, at which point the bank will foreclose.”

“The money owed to the bank is for equipment?”

“Yes. I have already begun the process of advertising both the equipment and the business for sale. If someone with more cash reserves takes it over and clears the debt, it’s viable. They may even want me to stay on as a manager.” He covered his mouth with his hand, a move Margaret had come to realise was his way of hiding his emotions. “They may not.”

Margaret covered his free hand with her own, earning an arched eyebrow from her mother-in-law. “You have ample skills which will ensure your employment. If not the new owner of Marlborough Mills, then one of the other masters.”

John flinched at being reminded of his change in status. “To that end, I am going to the clubhouse today to see if I may drive up some offers for the equipment.”

It took a certain amount of courage for John to face the other men, given their success and his predicament, but she knew he would do so without letting them see how much he suffered. All she could do was act as his rock and let him know that whatever anyone else might think, he had not reduced in her eyes at all.

With John gone into Milton, Margaret was left to face the inscrutable gaze of her mother-in-law, who had taken up her needlework as if nothing about their situation had changed.

“You are taking all of this remarkably well,” came the opening volley.

“A clear head is the only way through this predicament,” Margaret replied. “We must be calm and efficient, for John’s sake.” That she’d faced worse even very recently did not need to be voiced. “He does not need us at odds at this time.”

“Very well.” The needlework was set to one side. For the first time, something akin to approval registered on the older woman’s face. “What do you suggest we do?”

The household accounts were brought forth, and the morning was spent forging a design for the future, but with the pair of them as allies: not always in total agreement, but able to see each other’s point and agree on the best course based on merit rather than a refusal to yield. They would not begin to sell household belongings unless John was able to secure a buyer for the business soon. However, the household staff would be reduced, with all but Dixon transferred to Fanny’s new home instead, since the Watsons had decided to use their expanded wealth to move to a larger property.

The retention of Dixon above all others was a not a request of Margaret’s, and instead came directly from Hannah Thornton, which she took as a sign of, if not affection, then recognition of the importance of the woman to Margaret. Margaret accepted the extended olive branch with graciousness.

John’s mood when he returned was predictably low—he had received two offers, both so low as to be insults, and so they would wait to see if there was further interest from outside the small circle of masters within Milton.

At least Margaret had a new tool to lift his spirits, within the confines of their bedroom. She had never understood the power she contained in her lips, but holding Margaret in his arms seemed to lift John from his despondency. The effect did not last long, but that only encouraged her to apply the method as frequently as she was able.

Mr Bell wrote to her from London, as he had promised, enticing her to come visit and replenish her spirits. It appeared the news of their plight had not yet reached her godfather, but nor was he aware of her renewed vigour. She waited until she was able to consult with John that evening before responding.

It took some delicious moments before her mouth was free to speak, but she did not mind the diversion.

“Mr Bell has invited us to London,” she told him, rushing to say the rest of her piece before John’s mood could sour entirely at the mention of her godfather. “I know we have little enough funds to squander on such a trip, but I have been thinking this may be profitable.”

“How so?”

“You heard the men at the Great Exhibition speculate about investing in cotton just as I did. This would be an opportunity to meet potential investors—to bring it to the attention of men of Aunt Shaw’s acquaintance. You may not have to sell the business at all—if we were able to convince someone to extend you the capital to pay off the debts, then you could remain an owner. There is another way out of this!”

John was silent for a long moment. “It is—it is worth a try, I suppose. Though I do not expect it to be successful, for what man would want to squander his money on a business already failed?”

“A fool and his money are easily parted—and London is full of fools who think they understand a great deal more than they actually do.”

“Careful now—you are sounding almost as averse to the place as I am.”

She stood on her tiptoes to place a kiss on his cheek. “It has its charms, but is no longer as dear to me as Milton. Nearly all the people I care for are here.”

That brought a smile to his face. “Then, perhaps, we could seek to make a short honeymoon from our trip? We certainly don’t have the funds for the continent, but I had always wished to see the glorious Helstone.”

Margaret’s breath caught at the suggestion. “Do you mean that?”

“I have no intention of sharing you with the city for very long, and a rural sojourn sounds like the perfect tonic for the year we have lived through.”

She smiled. “I agree.” And she rewarded him for the idea with another kiss.