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Chapter Text

Two things preoccupied John Thornton’s thoughts at any given moment: the mill’s precarious finances, and Miss Margaret Hale. Neither gave him much pleasure lately.

The former held fast as he stalked his way through the smoky streets of Milton, on his way to procure fresh ink from the stationer’s. Ordinarily he would have sent someone else on this errand, but when the inkwell ran dry he’d decided a break from his office would do him good. For too many hours he had toiled over paperwork, until his hand cramped and his thoughts dulled. Alas, his preoccupation had followed him out into the world, numbers and calculations chasing each other in a whirlwind inside his head.

The strike had cut deeper than he’d feared and it would be a bitter struggle to ensure the mill’s survival.

It was hard to believe the strike had come to an end only a few weeks ago. Events had accelerated in the intervening days, and it seemed every time he stepped outside his office, some new calamity had occurred. First, the passing of Mrs Hale, then his witnessing of Margaret—Miss Hale, he corrected himself—on the station platform in an embrace with a stranger. That had led to his intervention on her behalf despite his better instincts, his tender feelings leading him to protect her from the damage an inquest would bring.

Yet the turmoil it brought to him personally—the bile of his envy towards this stranger and the anger Miss Hale’s actions stirred—bade him lock himself away from the world under the guise of steadying his ship. He didn’t need to spend so many hours pouring over figures, ink-stained and sleep-deprived, but it seemed a better alternative than retiring to the house and listening to the servants chatter. For Miss Hale’s carelessness had ensured that her actions reached the servants’ ears, and through them his mother and sister, even if the constabulary remained unaware of the events at Outwood station.

Though he’d forbidden the household to speak of her any further, if only to ensure he did not have to be reminded of her existence in the place which was meant to be his sanctuary, he knew the damage was done. Mrs Thornton believed the worst of Miss Hale, and Fanny was thrilled to have a minor scandal to chew over. At least he could trust his sister to hold her tongue outside the house, on pain of sullying her own reputation by gossiping like a common fishwife.

Still, how could Miss Hale have done such a foolish thing? Her social position was already precarious—her father had no great wealth to protect her with, and she’d already caused one round of rumours on the day of the riot. It would not take much for her reputation to be shredded entirely, and then even Milton’s course excuse for society would be done with her.

Ah. Yes. His thoughts had inevitably turned from one preoccupation to another.

As if to taunt him further, the source of his second torment appeared on the street before him. Her back was to him, her head covered in the wide bonnet she often wore, but he would recognise that fine posture, the determined set of those shoulders from any angle, in any light. So firmly had he committed her form to his memory, shameful as the idea was, that it would only take the barest glance for him to identify her.

He slowed his pace, not eager to face her for the first time since he had intervened with the Leonard’s case. She clutched a basket under her arm, running her own errands though her dark dress announced to the world her recent loss. As she approached the grocer’s, two women left the draper’s shop three doors down. They existed in the periphery of his consciousness, only coming into focus when they crossed paths with Miss Hale.

She nodded her head and uttered a greeting—he heard the soft melody of her voice if not the words—and they ignored her. Turned from her, noses held high, and made to cross the street.

Unbidden, his concern at their strange behaviour propelled him along the flagstones until he was nearly level with the women, though they took no notice of his arrival. He recognised the pair now—Slickson’s wife and her sister.

“Have I done something to offend?” he heard Miss Hale call after them, shock making her more hesitant than she’d ever seemed around him.  

They did not respond to her, but Mrs Slickson caught John’s eye. She halted, as did her sister, though she addressed Miss Hale when she responded. “We would prefer it if you refrained from attempting to converse with us—we have our own reputations to consider, and little enough in common with the likes of you.”

“Excuse me?” This response had more of Miss Hale’s customary fire, though she didn’t get to wield it before Mrs Slickson continued.

“We are aware of your disgrace. All of Milton is! If I were you I wouldn’t dare show my face in the grocer’s—not that he’s likely to serve you anymore.”

Miss Hale gasped, and for the first time she noticed Mrs Slickson’s eye line, whirling to find Mr Thornton behind them. He would have spoken, but was struggling to contain his own shock, and the boiling rage that was beginning to bubble through him. It was inappropriate for him to shout at another man’s wife, but if he opened his mouth to speak to Mrs Slickson, he wasn’t sure he could contain his temper.

Not that it mattered. Margaret had coloured, her cheeks stained with her humiliation, her eyes wide and glassy. Her mouth opened, moving as she fought for words, but none came. Instead she ducked her head, hiding her face from them all as she hitched her skirts and fled.

He turned, ready to give chase—to offer comfort—but he knew she would allow him no such thing. Besides, his anger was better served here, bled out where it could not be drawn by the girl’s ability to exasperate him.

“That was a poor display towards a young woman in mourning,” he bit out to Mrs Slickson, every syllable a battle not to become a roar.

Mrs Slickson’s sister raised her chin haughtily. “From what we’ve heard, she has provided quite the display of her own while in mourning.”

“What you’ve heard are the idle words of shop hands, I’ve no doubt.” That was all it took—the grocer’s assistant speaking to the draper’s workers. Careless words and eager ears, famished for entertainment in the dullness of their lives.

“Oh no, Mr Thornton.” She smiled, a narrow slit of malice which suggested she might have some small inkling of his regard for Miss Hale, and was relishing the chance to reduce her in his eyes. “We heard this from your own sister.”

“From Fanny?” 

His ire had a new target then, one which had him abandoning his errand and walking away from the women without any further attempt at good manners. His sister had ignored his warnings and run to others with her snippet of titillation. Now, her inclinations had done another woman real harm.

Miss Hale was no longer in danger of losing her reputation; the damage was done. She would be ruined.

John knew what he must do.

Chapter Text

Margaret was thankful for the hushed silence of the house in Crampton when she crept through the front door and closed it behind her, unready to face any further interaction for the time being. A kind of shocked numbness held the waves of humiliation at bay, although her flushed cheeks were not entirely due to her flight home. She paused in the hallway and struggled to gather her breath.

This would be only the beginning. Other incidents were sure to follow.

The worst part was to have a witness to her dressing down. Though Mr Thornton was already well aware of her conduct—indeed, he likely felt it worse than it had been—it still chilled her to think of how he’d been a spectator at such a low moment. And she had not even dared defend herself to the other women, not when it would necessarily involve her telling untruths before him. She had lied quite enough already, and he knew it.

She tiptoed into the kitchen, depositing the empty basket in its usual perch. Dixon would have to go for groceries herself when she returned from her own errands. Margaret had no fear anyone would dare raise the issue of her public indiscretions with their faithful maid.

Not that any reticence would last long. One wagging tongue had already become two, and would easily multiply further, until there might be nobody left in Milton who had not heard whispers about the southern girl and her wayward behaviour. Her future here held a stark promise: that of a social outcast. Worse, it threatened her father’s standing in the community, already frail enough.

Margaret felt quite friendless, so soon after Bessy’s death. Now she felt even Nicholas Higgins was forbidden to her, lest that fuel the fire any further. Instead, Margaret must confine herself to the house under the guise of extended mourning, and take steps to free herself from the circumstances she found herself in. She could see only one path open to her at this juncture: a move to London to live with her Aunt Shaw, freshly returned from Italy. There, the tittle-tattle of provincial towns would not follow her.

It would pain her father for her to leave him, but it was the only way to shield him from the effect her careless actions would cause.

Indeed, she must write to Aunt Shaw today, begging renewed shelter under her roof. Margaret would claim an intense desire to be away from the place where her mother had died, and return to the house where she had spent many happy years in her youth. Perhaps, there, she might indeed be able to find some measure of that happiness again, no matter how unlikely it seemed at this time.

She moved upstairs to the sitting room, which lay empty. Her father appeared to be out of the house entirely, likely gone to the lyceum hall to resume his lectures. However, a small pile of correspondence waited on the mantel above the fire, addressed to Margaret in a familiar hand.

It was fortuitous Aunt Shaw had already written to her, providing Margaret with a natural opening to plead her case, and she took the letters down. The second also bore her name but not writing she recognised, until she turned the envelope over and found the stamp of Henry Lennox.

Her pulse quickened at this—he may have news of Frederick, who had not yet written to Margaret to confirm he was safely back in Cadiz. She bit her lip and retreated to her own room, where her writing desk awaited. Here she could read and then respond without interference from anyone returning to the house.

Lennox’s letter was her priority. She devoured the words hastily with her breath caught in her lungs until she was sure he had not written to tell her Fred was caught. Then, her fears allayed, she read the letter again, confusion replacing her dread.

Whilst I have every sympathy for your brother, in light of current circumstance I believe it improper to associate myself further with your family.

What on earth did he mean?

She turned, then, to Aunt Shaw’s letter, hoping she could shed light on Henry’s innuendo and half-hinted at decision.

What she found in this letter was worse.

To return to England and in the depths of my grief for my dearest sister, be faced with whispers about your conduct…the accusations about my failure to instill in you a proper regard for morality…the insinuations being made about Edith! I am only glad she still dwells in Corfu, away from the harshest words!

Somehow, word had made it to London about two salient pieces of hearsay: Margaret protecting Mr Thornton during the riot, and being seen out at night with a stranger. Aunt Shaw was effectively disassociating herself from her once foster daughter, and forbidding contact with Edith, at least until Margaret’s reputation was repaired.

Yet Margaret had no idea how she would do such a thing.

The world span away from her, her fragile hope shattering as the true hopelessness of her situation settled. She was forced to stay in Milton, facing the slander and ridicule. At some point it would inevitably reach her father, and this would be a terrible blow to him in his fragile state. 

It seemed, in her desire to provide comfort to her mother in her final days, Margaret had taken risks that would have a lasting impact on them all. Frederick might yet be captured and tried, and her father faced greater heartbreak while she met an unhappy future as a spinster. No man would have her, not even—

She quelled that thought. He must despise her now. Of all the things she might have done to dissuade his affections, she had surely surpassed any purposeful scheme she could have dreamt of. 

Margaret was not sure why this thought stung so much.

She heard the front door close downstairs and hastily stashed the letters in a drawer, any thought of responding to them discarded. It was clear no answer was expected. Margaret left the room and returned to the sitting room, awaiting her father’s entrance.

John did not go immediately to the Hales’ home, forced instead to return to the mill and complete the day’s work. Despite his thoughts being consumed by Miss Hale, he must focus on his business, lest he have nothing at all to offer. He even took lunch in his office, though he did enquire if Fanny was home, ready to tear a strip off her for her loose tongue. Luckily for her, she was out calling on other ladies, though hearing this John’s ire only grew. He knew what topic would preoccupy her.

It was right that he did not blindly act, as he had once done before. He could not be led by his passions, even though they guided this decision, because nothing seemed to cause greater conflict between himself and Miss Hale than his own temper. Even if his anger was not initially aimed at her, she had a knack for stoking it and drawing it towards her anyway. No, when he approached he must be calm and logical. Miss Hale had a keen mind and would respond to a solid argument, well made.

To that end, he sent a note to Mr Hale, expressing his wish to resume their lessons when Mr Hale felt ready. John was sure his friend would need company, isolated as he was, and John’s avoidance of the house following Miss Hale’s indiscretion must only have served to exacerbate that. In truth, John had been a poor friend to his teacher, even though he was sure Mr Hale had more on his mind than Plato, and was also unaware of his daughter’s unwitting part in a criminal inquiry.

The note he received in return explained that Mr Hale would be dining with his friend Mr Bell that evening, but he would be available the following night. This suited John well, as it meant Miss Hale would likely be alone tonight. He would not need to speak to her in front of her father, a conversation he had no doubt she would wish to hold in private.

John’s thoughts lingered a moment on his landlord. The man was genial enough, if he did personify everything John perceived wrong with the south. A Milton man by birth, and yet he had left it all behind for a life of intellectual pursuits, with precious little in the way of obligations or responsibilities. Even financial matters were delegated to others for the most part. And yes, John envied his wealth a little, but what John had, he had earned through his own toil. Better the workers turn their own resentments to the likes of Mr Bell who gained their wealth through a fortunate birth.

John’s preoccupation with the man came from another concern entirely. Mr Bell had a certain charm which John had never been able to cultivate, and had lavished this on Miss Hale at the dinner some weeks ago. While he had been as gallant with all the ladies present, his interest in Miss Hale had appeared to be more than good manners or the politeness of a family friend. Not that John could blame anyone for turning a hopeful eye on Margaret’s beauty, and yet he did. He wondered, though, if Mr Bell’s interest would be piqued by Margaret’s vulnerable position.

He clenched his fist so hard around his pen that it cracked between his fingers.

Hours later, forsaking his own dinner, he approached the house in Crampton. Though the longest days of summer had passed, the sun had not yet relinquished its hold on the sky this evening, and plenty of folk were still to be found on the streets of the town as he walked. Though none would judge him for visiting the Hales, not when his presence here had been a regular occurrence for a while.

John rapped on the door and waited until the round, stern face of the Hale’s servant appeared in the gap as it opened. She made an efficient keeper of the threshold. Though the woman was several inches shorter than him, and several rungs below him socially, the sour expression on her face always made him feel like an errant child. 

“Mr Hale isn’t home,” she stated, without opening the door any wider. 

“It isn’t him I’ve come to see.”

If she ever feared a tongue-lashing for impertinence, the way she raised an eyebrow at him did not suggest it. She opened her mouth to turn him away, but another voice carried down the stairs.

“Dixon? Did I hear the door?” Margaret enquired, and John could not help the way his heart beat faster at the sound of her.

“Yes, Miss Hale,” the servant replied. She offered no further information.

“Well? Who is it?”

“Mr Thornton, miss.” She did not break eye contact with him, waiting for the dismissal which would allow her to shut the door in his face.

“Oh.” There was the briefest of pauses, and John wondered if all his loin girding had been in vain. “Send him up.”

Dixon appeared as if she wished to argue but stepped aside instead to let John pass. She disappeared into the kitchen while grumbling under breath as he made his way up the stairs.

He approached the sitting room cautiously, entering to find Miss Hale sat rigidly in her usual armchair, her hands clasped together and face turned towards the window. 

“Good evening,” she murmured, without looking at him.

She had every reason for being tense around him. They had not spoken since she refused his hand, and the display in the street today likely meant she was afraid he had come to abrade her for her foolish behaviour. 

He took another chair, one positioned where if she turned to face forward she would naturally be looking at him. “Miss Hale,” he greeted, and the words sounded grave even to his own ears.

Her shoulders drooped, her body language deflating before him. “It isn’t true,” she said in a small voice. Not at all like the forthright woman he had learnt to admire.

“Excuse me?” Every time, she caught him by surprise.

She was bolder this time, turning in his direction. “What you believe, it is not true—”

“I saw you with my own two eyes.” He did not mean to sound so blunt, and yet there the words lay.

“I am aware, and yet what you believe you witnessed—well, it is not as people are insinuating.”

He remained silent, willing her to continue, but instead she sat with her gaze cast down to the floor, her lips sealed.

“Then this man is not your lover?” he pressed.

That bid her raise her head and give a firm shake of it, her eyes meeting his with a pleading intensity. “No,” she stated, equally as firmly. “I have no lover. Nor have I ever had one.”

It was evident she spoke the truth. A weight lifted from him, one he had not been aware of until he felt the air rushing freely into his lungs at his next breath. His heart unclenched, unfurling from the tight knot it had formed since the evening he saw her on the platform, the ugly threads of envy snapping and loosing their hold on him.

“Then who is he to you?” For that mystery still remained. John had not imagined her familiar embrace, the one which had given rise to his bitterness.

“I—I cannot say. Not yet, at least. The secret is not mine, and to reveal it might do harm.”

She seemed so miserable in her words, so reticent and careful, that he did not press further. He had received sufficient answer for now, even if it niggled that she still did not trust him enough with this secret. Had he not proved that he was worthy of her trust? But no matter—she had revealed enough that he felt assured in proceeding with the business which had brought him here.

“I thank you for your honesty, though that is not the reason I have come this evening.”

Her eyebrows lifted in a display of curiosity, then something in his face must have given her some insight into his mission, because she dropped her gaze once more with a little hitch of breath. Some of the tension returned, a leftover from the last time they had been in this room together. Neither had thought at the time he would return with the same purpose—not so soon, and yet the moment was upon them.

“I know you do not care for me.” Why were the words as hard to find the second time? They stuck in his throat, as if he hadn’t rehearsed this for hours when he should have been completing his accounts. “You made that abundantly clear and I had resolved myself to live with the weight of my affections, silently and invisibly. This morning’s altercation has made it apparent I must take action. Last time…last time I told you I did not wish to rescue your reputation. Now, as circumstances have changed, I feel I must offer again.”

“I see.” She would not look at him, instead concentrating on the hands she was wringing together. Delicate skin he which to grasp, to calm them both.

“No, I doubt that you do.” He tried to gentle his voice. Could she hear the tremor within it, the nerves taking hold no matter how much resolve he channelled? “Your father is a dear friend of mine. I have no desire to see him brought low by society’s punishment of his daughter for her perceived transgressions. I already fear for his health and further strain may be his undoing. A marriage to a man with a solid reputation would repair your own before it can be shattered irreparably—and I have that reputation.” He did not mean it as a brag, without the pride his mother would have injected into the conversation. 

“I do not wish to be a burden upon anyone,” she said quietly.

“You would not be!”

“I fear your offer is only made out of obligation, due to your previous…request…and your compassion for my father. Therefore I would certainly be a burden, a heavy one carried for many years. I never hoped for a loveless marriage and your first offer made it clear that you, too, wished to marry for love. For us to join now would poison the both of us.” Still she did not lift her head.

“Then I must correct you,” he replied, “before we go any further, because you seem under some misapprehension that a marriage would be loveless on both sides.”

Her startled gaze met his for only a moment before it dropped back to the carpet, and his frustration propelled him out of the chair, down onto his knees before her where she could not shy away from him. Her wide eyes regarded him with the faintest glimmer of unshed tears.

“Miss Hale, my prior words still hold true. I love you, and make this offer to you with no expectation that you would return that love. I ask only for your friendship, and your companionship.”

“How could that be enough?” Her voice was barely above a whisper. “Surely it would be a cruelty to you, to—”

“No, no it would not,” he insisted. “Let me make my case, plainly. Let me lay out all the reasons I believe this to be the best course, for both of us, before you dismiss me out of hand. Please.”

He had not come here to beg, but that was how he found himself, a supplicant at her feet. The last word apparently sealed her permission, because she nodded her assent. Was that a flash of hope he saw in her? No, it must be his own desperation, reflected back at him.

He retreated to the chair, but he had her attention this time. Her gaze did not stray from him as he spoke.

“I have no care for a captive wife,” he began, “but nor could I leave you at the mercy of a world which judges you so harshly. I could not bear to know you are unhappy, not when it was within my power to prevent it. Even if you do not believe it possible of me.”

She opened her mouth to speak, and John rushed to clarify.

“Our past disagreements have come from poor communication. I believe that no matter how firmly your heart is set against me, we could at least offer each other a friendly alliance. I am not the coarse, unthinking man you judge me as.”

“I am aware of that,” she cut in. “I did indeed judge you hastily, and the more I have learnt of you, the more my respect has grown.”

“I am glad to hear it.” She would never know what that gladness felt like, a rush of lightness through his blood. Respect wasn’t close to what he wished she felt, but it was a start. Far better than dislike. “It means you are more likely to consider me over any alternatives.”

At this, her confusion returned.

“Your father dines with Mr Bell tonight,” he soldiered on, doing nothing to ease her bewilderment. He stumbled, trying to make it clear why he was a stronger choice. “There are other men who may still wish to seek your hand, despite your diminished reputation. Some will see you as low-hanging fruit, and treat you as such. Their perception and expectations of you would not be as you deserve, and I could not willingly expose you to their cruelty. Others will expect you to accept their hand because you have no expectation of making a good marriage closer to your own age.”

It was clear who he meant by the last, and Margaret’s expression told him she thought of the same man. “Mr Bell has always been quite kind to me,” she defended him.

“I am sure he has. I believe him to be a good man in all ways, Miss Hale, and one who could keep you in great comfort. But he is not a young man, and there is no love between you. A man of his age seeks a wife only because he wishes for an ornament on his arm, and a nursemaid at his side.”

She bristled at this, clearly uncomfortable at the thought of it.

“You may settle for less than love,” he said, “but could you settle for less than respect? I have thought long on the type of man who might make you happy, to understand if there are facets of myself I might excavate to become more appealing in your eyes. You do not seek wealth. It is apparent that you need someone who will not dismiss you for your beauty, but cherish your mind and your conviction as well.”

Margaret had flushed lightly at his mention of her beauty, but she ought to become used to it. If she did assent to become John’s wife, he intended to remind her of his esteem for her attributes as often as possible. He was not known for being loquacious, but he would learn if it would ensure she was always sure of his feelings.

“I would not seek to curtail your freedoms,” he continued, “within reason. As my wife, you would need to be seen as standing beside me when it came to matters of business, rather than against me.” Her mouth pressed into a firm line of discontent and he hurried to reassure her. “But you would be mistress of Marlborough Mills, and I would be willing to listen to your thoughts on such matters. You have a keen interest, and I would not dismiss that out of hand. Rather, we could find common ground, as you once hoped I would do with my workers. So you see, marriage would not be a prison or a cage for you.”

“You have still not told me what benefit this might bring you. I may be inexperienced in matters of love, Mr Thornton, but it strikes me that unreturned affections can only breed misery.”

“Not the kind of anguish which would arise were you married to someone else and miserable yourself. Or worse, gone from my life forever. I would rather have the opportunity to do whatever possible to prevent that kind of sorrow, on both our parts. I will not lie and say that marrying you would not bring me some measure of happiness. Of delight, even, though I have not sought to bind you to me out of selfishness, as I hope I have made clear.”

Margaret swallowed when he had finished, and held his gaze.

“I am—I am honoured that you would consider making such a proposition. And yet I am not sure I could wilfully subject you to such a uneven relationship.” She held up a hand to prevent his interruption. “However, I feel it only fair that I take the time to contemplate your offer in full, before making a decision.”

“Yes. Of course.” She was correct, it was fair, yet he wanted an answer from her immediately. Either she should dash his hopes for good—let him wash his hands of her once and for all—or give real life to the hope living in his chest. It did not seem fair, but at least she was considering him this time.

And he would not let go of her even if she did not give the answer he wanted once more. He knew he could not, even if he would relent to her decision in public. In private, in his heart and mind, within his soul, he would cling to his earnest adoration of her no matter what pain it caused him. He could do nothing else.

“I will not deliberate long,” she vowed, as if sensing his desperation.

He did not speak again, though before he departed he reached out for her, lifting one hand from her lap and to his lips. The kiss he placed there was gentle. He was taking liberties to do even this much. Yet it was all he could offer in lieu of the courtship she deserved, the courtship he had twice failed to deliver. 

Then he departed, to wait in agony for the blade to fall a second time.

Chapter Text

Margaret sat quietly long after Mr Thornton had departed, musing over the terms of his offer. 

It wasn’t as though she had anything more important to occupy her thoughts with.

She had promised him a swift response, and yet the more she thought on it, the more difficult the decision seemed. Though his proposal may appear a golden opportunity—a good marriage by any standards, which would also restore her reputation—her reservations were challenging to overcome.

It was plain that her actions had failed to diminish her within his eyes, at least not sufficiently to extinguish the flame he carried for her, and one small part of her was very pleased with this knowledge. A vain part, she decided, one which should be excised rather than be allowed to guide her choices. For her own pride was not the most important aspect of this endeavour, not when Mr Thornton’s own sensitivities were at risk. However much she did or did not like him, she would not willingly subject him to the cruelty of unrequited passion within a marriage.

But was to spurn him entirely a greater cruelty? He had certainly expressed that he believed so, and shouldn’t she place greater weight on his own testimony regarding what he was able to bear?

And yet—what if prolonged proximity did not produce the friendship he had requested? Margaret was well aware marriages entered into without love could deepen into profound bonds over time, but all she and Mr Thornton had ever managed was to antagonise one another. It was entirely possible this ability would lead to a sour outcome for the both of them.

Not long ago, she would have believed Mr Thornton of attempting to procure her because of her reduced circumstances. The facts would suggest that to be the case now, except Margaret did not think it so, not with the way he had spoken to her. He truly had a better understanding of her than she had could have expected. Who else could have surmised the dismay which overtook her at the thought of marriage to a man who wished to confine her to the domestic sphere? A woman in her position should not expect any more than that, yet Margaret did, and Mr Thornton had manifestly pledged that to her.

Was this to be her lot, then? One unpalatable marriage proposal, or another? Or spinsterhood and social exclusion? If only she knew Frederick was safely back in Cadiz—but no, her father would never agree to move there. Not if it meant leaving her mother behind in the churchyard in Milton. Besides which, Margaret was not convinced he would survive the journey, and there was no question of Margaret departing without him.

It was quite the quandry she found herself in.

Only the return of her father roused her from her thoughts. The sun had now set, and she hurried to light the candles so he would not find her sitting in darkness. Then she retrieved her embroidery, which she had not touched in many days, so it did not appear as if she had been sitting idly.

“Margaret?” he called. “Are you still up?”

“Yes, Papa, I am still awake.”

“Oh, good.” Then two sets of footsteps sounded on the stairs, and Margaret braced herself for her father’s inevitable companion. “Have you had a pleasant evening?”

Mr Bell entered behind her father with a tip of his hat, and Margaret returned his smile despite her turmoil. She did like Mr Bell, as good a friend to her father as Mr Thornton was. 

She must either lie or tell all about her visitor. Instead, she chose a diversion. “I am sure the company has not been as good as yours.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Mr Bell replied. “There wasn’t a bonny face among them.”

Was it her imagination, or did he contemplate her a moment too long? Curse Mr Thornton, for planting this suspicion in her head!

“Mr Hamper will be disappointed to hear you say so. I have heard he places great stock in his own looks.”

Mr Bell chuckled at her response, expressing real merriment, even if her father only displayed exasperation at her poor humour. 

“I must see where Dixon is with the tea,” he said. “You will stay for a cup, Mr Bell?”

“Of course.”

“I’ll go,” Margaret offered.

“No, there is no need for you to rise.” Her father was gone down the stairs before she could dissuade him, leaving her only in the company of his friend.

Mr Bell took the seat Mr Thornton had vacated earlier, and the memory threatened to bring a flush to Margaret’s cheeks. 

“While the company left much to be preferred,” Mr Bell said, “the conversation was rather enlightening. Especially when your father was absent.”

“Oh.” The flush evaporated, leaving Margaret chilled again, and with nowhere to look but at her embroidery.

“At the same time, it was concerning, not least that a group of manufacturers had lowered themselves to the same petty gossip their wives trade. It regarded a woman of good regard being seen with a mysterious fellow late at night—”

“It was Frederick,” she interrupted, her words a rasp. She could manage little more.

“Yes, I had surmised.” Mr Bell regarded her thoughtfully. “You know, Margaret, in his more sentimental moments your father has discussed his fears with me. I am, after all, your godfather, and it is partly my responsibility to ensure your welfare.”

Fearful of where the conversation might be leading, and unable to control her own movements, she rose abruptly. Like a marionette yanked upwards by its puppeteer, only in this instance it was her own instincts which compelled her to move. “I am sorry, Mr Bell. I am tired and it has been a trying time lately. I believe I will retire. Goodnight.”

She did not give him opportunity to respond, nor even spare him a glance as she swept from the room. Only in the sanctuary of her bedchamber, with the door bolted behind her, did she feel at ease. 

She had been rude to Mr Bell, but she trusted he would understand, or chalk her behaviour up to that of a high-strung young lady. Men often seemed to do that. And she had not lied—it had been, and continued to be, a trying time. Surely he knew she would not wish to discuss her reputation with him, not where her father might walk in at any moment and be witness to their conversation? At least the other men had had the sense not to discuss the issue in front of her father. Yet if word had already reached their ears, it was widespread indeed.

It was unlikely Mr Bell had intended to make her an offer that night—no, he would discuss it with Papa first—but what if he did intend to make her an offer soon? If he had promised to take care of her, then it would follow he would reach the same conclusion Mr Thornton had: a secure marriage was her only recourse.

Would it be so bad? Mr Bell was kind, always, and did not infantilise her as other acquaintances often did. She had certainly never found cause to quarrel with Mr Bell. Then again, she could not envision more than five minutes of conversation with him, polite as it may be. And would he require her to leave Milton—and her father—behind to live in Oxford?

It was fanciful to wish, and inappropriate to pray on such an issue, but Margaret nevertheless hoped she was not doomed to a life of woe whatever she chose. She was sure not get a wink of sleep until the issue was resolved.

John did not retire when he returned from Crampton, but instead ventured back into his office. He would be poor company this evening, and the only way to spare Fanny’s tears—well-deserved as they were—was to avoid her entirely. He found that he did make progress on his work, now the words he had been planning all afternoon had been excised.

Curiously, he did not find himself fretting over Miss Hale’s decision. She would either have him, or she would not. He would not need telling no a third time. It was well enough that they’d survived an entire conversation without raised voices, or serious disagreement of any kind. Even the thought of it made him smile, though he fought to quell the hope it threatened to swell into.

He had never really considered what it would be like to have Margaret as his wife. His prior proposal had been made without much forethought, as he had been too concerned with the aftermath of the strike and her injury. Since then, he had not dared to contemplate offering a second time until the day was upon him. Now, he had this twilight between his question and her response, and it gave his errant imagination the window of opportunity to take flight. 

What would it be like to live in the same house as her? To take his meals with her, and not have to hope for scraps of her presence? To be able to take her hands, to grace her with kisses—

No, that he would not be able to do. His affections would need to remain unmanifested, because her comfort would be more important than his urge to caress her. Her presence would be enough, and he would gladly feast on that instead.

But he got away from himself. She had not said yes to him, and was likely of every inclination to decline him once more. It did him no good to dwell on his own fancies of what a happy marriage between might look like, when any marriage was unlikely to materialise.

At breakfast the next morning his mother commented on his unusual terseness, but he bit his tongue and did not rise to her questioning. Fanny remained safe for now, because John would not reprimand her in front of the servants, but he could bide his time on that matter. For her sake, it would be better if that happened before Miss Hale declined him a second time.

And with that, he realised he already knew what her answer would be. 

It was a relief, then, that a note came early for him, before he had managed to bate the overseer into quitting after receiving more than his usual dose of John’s temper. The note was from Miss Hale, and invited him to the house that afternoon when Mr Hale would be in town with Mr Bell.

At least she had kept to her word, and did not leave him waiting.

He was not, ordinarily, a nervous man, but on his approach to Crampton his usual resolve nearly failed him. A sweat had broken out on his temple and his palms, one he could not attribute merely to the weather, and this time Dixon’s unwelcoming demeanour nearly had the desired effect on him. Instead he approached the sitting room on legs that felt like they would not support his weight, and when he entered she was by the window with her back to him. It was so like the manner of her previous rejection that he immediately seated himself, heavily, and felt all the air leave his lungs.

She turned, every inch of her form regal, and he could not wait for her to swing the axe with gentle flattery and platitudes. No, he needed her to answer him immediately, so he could abandon the entire endeavour and remove himself from her presence.

“Just tell me,” he said, the words containing no small amount of the desperation welling inside him.

She faced him and spoke.

“I accept.” Margaret put her response to Mr Thornton as baldly as he had demanded it.

“Excuse me?” His forehead wrinkled in confusion.

“Your offer, I accept it.” She felt some of her boldness leave her, and took her familiar seat. “That is, if you do not wish to retract it.”

“Of course not!” He was looking at her with the strangest mix of bewilderment and—well, hope. His hands, which had been clenched into fists, unfurled, and he stared at her unblinking. “You—you mean it?” 

She nodded, and the hope overcame everything, his features rearranging into a perfect expression of joy. She had never seen such unfettered happiness on his face, nor anything close, and it made him appear so much younger. She could feel the emotion spilling out of him and creeping over her, so that she returned his smile bashfully. At least, in this decision, she had pleased one person.

It had been an important factor in her choice: would a marriage with one enamoured party not fare better than one with two indifferent parties? For her own part, Mr Thornton’s offer had been better than she had any right to expect, even within a love match. She was sure his love for her would translate into kindness, and she could ask for nothing more.

Then Mr Thornton sat back and drew one hand over his face, as if he was trying to contain the happiness within himself. When he next spoke, he appeared closer to this usual grave self, though she could sense his emotions still lurking below the surface.

“I have a lesson with your father tonight. I can discuss the matter of your hand then.”

“Yes. That is why I asked you to come this afternoon.”

“You do not feel it too soon, then?” he asked with hesitation.

“No, I will not change my mind,” she said, answering his unspoken question.

“Very well.” He sounded a little breathless, and his fingers were gripping the end of the armchair, his thumb stroking across the fabric. It gave her the sense that he wanted to touch her, and that made her want to shy away. Not only from him, but from herself, the memory of his kiss on her hand an echo on her skin which troubled her more than she could fathom.

He had a moment’s thought, his mouth threatening to tug back into the smile he had buried, before he spoke again. “I would like to set a condition for this arrangement.”

She looked at him questioningly, and waited for him to continue.

“There must be no lies or secrets between us.” He met her gaze and held it. “I will not demand you reveal the identity of the gentlemen at the station, but there cannot be anything else. That way lies the ruin of any marriage.”

Margaret nodded her assent. “It seems perfectly reasonable to me—even obligatory, in a marriage.” She fought the urge to break his gaze. “And I hope soon to be able to reveal everything to you. Before the final banns are read, if possible.” If she had not heard from Fred by that point, then all hope for him was likely lost. “I mean—I assume you do not intend for a long engagement?”

That garnered a searching look from him. “No. Quite the opposite,” he admitted.

“And I have no need for an elaborate affair.” At his raised eyebrows, she hurried to clarify. “I have always wished for a simple day. Fuss and frivolity do not suit me.”

“They do not, Miss Hale.”

“Margaret,” she corrected. He had earned the intimacy, hadn’t he? She did not miss his flash of joy at her invitation.

“Well, I am not sure my mother will be happy about a small wedding, Margaret. She believes such occasions should reflect our station in Milton. However, I am sure I can win her to our way of thinking.” He paused and lapsed into such a grave expression that Margaret feared what he was going to say next. “There is the issue of—once we are living together…I am not sure how to put this delicately.” He would not meet her gaze, and she even detected a hint of a blush on his cheeks and the tips of his ears. “I told you I did not want an unwilling wife, and to that extent there are certain duties I would not expect of you.”

“I see.” She was certainly blushing, and unsure of where to look. “H-however, I do wish for children. Not only because it would be expected of me, but because I believe they would make me happy. They may even bind us together.” She glanced up at him from under lashes, and he was still focused on the cloth of the armchair. Her words directed his attention back to her.

“Do you understand what that would entail?”

Margaret bit the first retort which threatened to escape her tongue: that a life in the countryside did not shield one from the facts of reproduction like the town did. She had witnessed animals in congress and been baldly informed about its human counterpart by the cruder village children, who delighted in her discomfiture. While she may not know the finer details, she was better informed than many a young bride. Still, she was attempting to rebuild her image in his eyes and such a declaration would not assist with this—instead she found a more modest answer.

“I understand women often endure what they must in the marriage bed for the sake of bearing children.”

Endure?” His horror at her choice of words did not escape her, but Margaret knew of no other way of putting it. “I would not ask you to endure anything.”

“Yet I would insist that children are part of our future.”

He swallowed, seeming caught between propriety and his own distaste at her unvarnished acceptance of conjugal duties. “Then I have only one note on that issue—no child should be born within the first year. That way, no one can accuse me of raising a cuckoo.”

If she thought herself flushed, it was nothing compared to the fresh wave of heat which followed this suggestion. It made sense—that whispers would arise if a child was born too soon—and she should be thankful he was still considering her reputation, but she wished to enter the marriage properly. If she were to be a bride, then she would embrace every facet of the role as countless other women did, and not shrink from the parts she might find distasteful. Yet how could she do that without appearing base in his eyes?

“That seems fair,” she replied. This time, she met his stare again, and she could not deny the frisson which passed through her at the elation radiating from him.

“I must go,” he said, rising from the chair. “I will speak to your father this evening, and then we can discuss plans is more depth.”

It was her turn to be breathless, especially with the way he grasped her hand and brought it to his lips once more. This time, he whispered her name, and did not look away from her until he had left the room. The look in his eyes, the weight of emotion in the depths in them, remained with her for hours to come.

Everything was going to change.

Chapter Text

John returned to the mill in a much improved humour to the one he had left it in. If the hands had any reason to whisper about his sudden light mood he did not care; it certainly was not due to the finances, which required as much attention as ever. It was fortunate Margaret wished for a simple wedding, because the cost of paying for something akin to Fanny’s twice might cripple him.

Even that couldn’t remove the smile from his face. He had a wedding to pay for—his own—and if Margaret had requested one fit for a queen he would have delivered it. He believed her regal enough, even if his own early assumptions about her had proved wrong in many ways, and would do anything she asked of him, if it only it would make her smile in return.

Yet she didn’t require it, and he suspected that even if she knew the sway she held over him, she would not abuse it. Had that not been her main concern about this arrangement between them, how perilous it might be for him? He cherished her concern, even if she would be so generous of spirit with any person as he had found her to be. He loved her, and would love her, and would spend the rest of his days with her. That would be enough.

It would give anyone the right to bear such a smile. That, and the privilege he had earned of referring to her as Margaret, a luxury he had refrained from even in his thoughts. 

Though he tried to retreat into his usual stoicism for dinner that evening, his mother was too practised an observer of his moods. 

“You seem happier than at breakfast,” she commented.

“Do I?” he responded, as blandly as he could accomplish. 

She cast him a gimlet eye but did not pry further, even as he continued to treat Fanny to a cold shoulder. Fanny, for her part, did not notice, prattling on about lace choices while their mother carried on a share of the conversation for both of them.

He was early to Crampton for his lesson, but Mr Hale welcomed him in regardless. Dixon’s regard, on the other hand, appeared to have sunk even lower, and he suspected she was well aware that, if all went his way, Margaret was to be come a permanent resident of Milton.

Margaret was not in the sitting room, and though it made sense she had afforded him some privacy with Mr Hale, he still felt her absence keenly. It seemed now that he would soon be afforded her presence on a continual basis, he craved it immediately, though this was an urge he had long felt regarding her.

It had been some time since his last lesson, and there was some awkward discussion around where they had lapsed, before Mr Thornton realised he must put all thought of learning aside.

“In truth,” he began, “I did not come here to discuss Aristotle, invigorating as I usually find him to be. Instead, I came about a personal matter. A request, of sorts.”

“Oh?” Mr Hale’s bewildered face did not suggest he had any inkling of what John was about to ask him.

“You see, since your family’s arrival in Milton, I have gained a particular…fondness for your daughter. While we have not always seen eye to eye, I have come to appreciate her great spirit and the way she cares deeply for people. You have raised a wonderful young woman.”

“Ah,” Mr Hale now appeared to have gleaned the direction John was steering the conversation. “It is is nice to hear you say so, and although I have a father’s partiality, I must say I agree.”

Boldened by the encouraging smile Mr Hale now wore, John continued. “In time, that fondness has turned into a very tender affection for her. As such—as such, I have come to ask for your blessing to seek her hand.”

Mr Hale sat back in his seat, hands steepled beneath his chin. “This is certainly not a turn I expected this evening to take. Or any evening, if I’m honest with you.”

“I understand that I have not been particularly forthcoming with my feelings. Let me make it clear, then: I love your daughter and wish to marry her.”

This caused a beatific smile to grace Mr Hale. “Nothing would delight me more, John. You have been a dear friend to me through this trying time and I cannot imagine anyone better to ensure her wellbeing. To hear your offer comes from a place of affection is more than I could ask for: I would rather see her unmarried than married unhappily. So, yes, you have my blessing, and my gratitude.”

“But?” For John could hear the hesitation in his friend’s voice.

“But John—I am not sure if Margaret will respond how you hope her to.”

John chose his next words carefully. “I have good reason to believe my suit will not be unsuccessful.”

“Really?” Mr Hale considered this, nodding thoughtfully before breaking into his broadest smile yet. “Then I shall pray you receive the answer you desire.”

John basked in the way his friend had been brought to happiness for the first time since the loss of his wife. Mr Hale likely believed that Margaret had indicated she returned John’s affections, and he was not inclined to disabuse his friend of the notion, lest it bring them to the crux of the marriage pact instead. Not that John feared Mr Hale would rescind his blessing, but he would not want to cause him any distress, nor would Margaret be pleased about it.

At this stage, the discussion lapsed into polite speculation about the engagement and wedding, though John could not reveal what he had already discussed with Margaret about her wishes. The blessing now made it feel more concrete to John, and he pondered what kind of engagement ring she would prefer, if he could indeed procure one in such a narrow window of opportunity. He had no idea what stones she preferred, as she did not often wear jewellery, and he had never seen her in anything particularly opulent. In his opinion, she had no need of such decoration, but a ring would be a signal of his serious intent: not only to her, but to anyone who might still wish to gossip.

This line of thought led to an awkward enquiry about her month of birth, and Mr Hale’s mind was sharp enough that he divined the path John’s own was on.

“She has never had much fondness for trinkets,” he said. “In fact, I wonder—” He lapsed into silence, before rising from his chair. “If you’ll excuse me a moment.”

When he returned, he had his hand clasped around something small enough to fit into his palm, and it was only when he held it out shakily towards John that he could see what it was: a small gold band with a pearl set into it.

“This was her mother’s,” Mr Hale said. “It was meant to go to Margaret—she always liked it as a girl—but I have not yet been able to part with it. However, I now feel that seeing her wearing it would be a balm to my soul.”

It was a lovely piece, elegant in its simplicity, and would suit Margaret perfectly. Even the stone was her namesake. Yet John hesitated. “Surely this should be a gift from her father, not her fiance?”

“It may well be the only one you can entice Margaret to wear,” Mr Hale warned.

“Very well.” John did not take the ring. Not yet. “Then if the time comes to present her with it, we should do so together.”

“Yes. I would like that very much.”

Margaret did not appear before John left the house, and he tried to contain his disappointment. He had seen her three times in two days, and each meeting had been momentous, changing their lives and setting them on new paths. He should not hope for another glimpse this evening, not without risking another change which would rip his newfound happiness from his grasp. Instead, he returned home with his continued lighter step.

He shouldn’t put it past his mother that she would be waiting for his return, the shrewdness from earlier still written on her features. She turned from her perch by the window in the sitting room, her own mood impenetrable to him.

“I can think of only one reason why your mood has lifted so much,” she said, her stare demanding no deflection on his part. “It’s her, isn’t it?”

He would not lie to her; there’s had always been a relationship of great honesty, even if neither were particularly demonstrative in their emotions. And though he felt the ice below her question, the sharp edges she held in wait if he confessed, nothing could pierce his buoyant mood. “Yes,” he responded simply.

She took a powerful intake of breath, passing through her teeth almost like a hiss, and he waited for her to begin with her scolding. 

“So now she has deigned to lower herself to your reach, when she knows she has no choice. What did she do, throw yourself on her mercy and pretend she has found a great love for you?”

John case her a warning glance. “I am under no illusion about her feelings. I asked her because I cannot see her shunned and mistreated.”

“She has only herself to blame for that, and it is not your duty to rescue her.”

“No, it is not. But I have offered, and she has accepted, and mother, I am happy. Is that not enough?”

Her face softened for a moment. “I can see the joy in you, John, and ordinarily it would give me no small amount of happiness of my own. I want you to be happy, my son, but I do not believe she will make it so. I have seen the disdain she holds for your affections, and how low it brought you—how could I celebrate your wilful submission to that?”

“It isn’t like that,” he insisted.

“Love blinds you! After all she has put you through—”

“What exactly did she put me through, mother? A rejected proposal after no attempt at a courtship—I had only my own foolishness to blame for that.”

“I told you then that I could not like her, and I still stand by it. She had no right refusing you then, but she has less right to accept you now. Her scandal will attach itself to your good name and sully your own standing.”

“She is not what you believe her to be. That much I know—she remains as virtuous as she has always presented herself to be. And this is but a storm in a teacup—swiftly dealt with, the rumours will subside.”

“You are naive to think a stain like this will be so easily scrubbed from memory. And what of your sister? What if this foolishness costs her own engagement?”

A gasp from the edge of the room drew John’s attention to where his sister lurked, no doubt drawn by the raised voices and her love of a great drama. “No!” she protested. “Say it isn’t possible!”

“It is,” their mother said bitterly, “if Watson has any sense of his own reputation and what associating with us might indicate. Why, he might call the whole thing off, and then no one will have you either. It would certainly not be an appropriate display of fraternal care!”

Fanny gave a dramatic sob, and for the first time, John’s temper flared. “I will have no one accuse me of undermining Fanny’s welfare, mother, not when I worked so hard for so many years to ensure it. And no, Fanny, you are in no danger. Your fiance is too pleased with his simpering young bride to give any care for how he appears among the other masters. Though if it did cost you, it would be a lesson learnt—for Margaret is only in this position because of you!”

Fanny let out a shriek of indignation, one she had used all too often during their childhood and which had no effect on John anymore. “And how exactly is this my fault?” 

“I once asked you to be a friend to her, and instead you have dragged her reputation through the mud for your own entertainment. You may think nothing of it, but our own family has been the source of such scrutiny before—you benefited only from the restoration and did not suffer the shame. You should be thankful Margaret does not know you are the source of her humiliation!”

This oblique reference to their father’s passing had Fanny’s lower lip trembling, but she did not protest further.

“Margaret, is it, now?” his mother muttered.

“Yes,” he retorted. “I will call her Margaret, for she is to be my wife, and the pair of you will need to make your peace with that.”

He left them to their sulking, retiring for the night. He did not enjoy leaving them on a sour note, but the conversation was not going to progress beyond the point it had reached. Instead he sought rest. The coming days would bring more toil and more change, of that he had no doubt.

The warm summer air made his nightshirt unappealing, even after sunset, but he donned it anyway after a refreshing wash, and retired to the bed.

His anger had left him on his ascent of the staircase, and he had no doubt his mother’s would have softened by morning as well. Her position towards Margaret would be more difficult to reconcile, but then it was unlikely Margaret was expecting a fond welcome from those quarters. They would have to learn to tolerate each other’s company, that was all—though John was sure they would find some common ground. Both were principled women and sooner or later, something would unite them. Likely against him, he realised with a smile. 

The thought of Margaret—who, truth be told, was never far from his mind—had him reflecting on the day and their discussion. A swift wedding was the ideal solution to her predicament, and he could not deny how eager he was for them to be united. Even if she had accepted his proposal the first time, he had never envisioned a prolonged engagement. He was a steadfast man, but he had little patience. When he requested marriage, it was a marriage he wanted, not a belated courtship.

And yet—lying here, he could admit to himself he was anxious. What if he had misjudged her once more, and they remained simply too different to manage even a cordial relationship? What if familiarity bred contempt on her part, once she lived alongside him, and reverted to her original opinion of him as coarse and crass?

Worse, what if in his eagerness, in his…passion for her, she could not bear to ‘endure’?

He blanched at the memory of that word. She had borne the idea with such grace, her practical side overwhelming any maidenly squeamishness she may have felt, and he supposed that she had been raised to expect that was her lot. Perhaps she still thought he mind worked best in terms of trade—he would provide her a home and a renewed reputation, and she would give him marital comfort and heirs in return. She could not be more wrong, and only his own behaviour in the early days of their marriage might enlighten her.

But to think—in less than a month, she might be sleeping beside him. He would need to keep his affections to a minimum, unwanted as they would be—no kisses, no caresses—but she would be close by, always. Then, at some point, there would be children, if they were so blessed, and only if the marital bed did not cause her discomfort, for then he would withdraw. Children could not fail to brighten the household, and even erase the bitterness from his mother’s heart. 

For now, he would have to endure the solitude of his bed, and the days until Margaret was truly his.

Margaret was pleased that she had not changed her mind one wit overnight, though she hadn’t anticipated she would. She had made her decision with a clear head and knew it was the best option for all concerned.

She had burnt her letters from Aunt Shaw and Henry without sending a response; they would not appreciate one, and she could not risk either Dixon or her father reading their contents. Perhaps in a few days she could write to Aunt Shaw and announce her engagement, though she thought a better course of action would be to delay until after the wedding. It meant her only relative in attendance would be her father, but then Aunt Shaw—and Edith—would have insisted on such a hoopla that she was not entirely distraught about their absence.

She found it stifling to remain in the house, though she did so, enticing Dixon into completing all the errands with subtle flattery. She would only venture out into society only once the engagement was properly announced, or if she had the company of Mr Thornton himself. Before then, she expected nothing less than the jeering she had faced a few days ago.

Her father didn’t say much, but then he wasn’t aware she had already accepted Mr Thornton’s hand. The man himself was coming to dinner that evening when they would confirm her acceptance, and Margaret occupied her day with keeping the house spick and span. 

Her nerves grew as evening approached, though she couldn’t pinpoint why, and it was only when the feeling shifted at Mr Thornton’s arrival that she realised it had not been nervousness at all, but anticipation. Quite why that was, she couldn’t say, but surely this couldn’t be a bad thing?

He looked very handsome in his dark suit, something Margaret had privately conceded on prior occasions, but there was a difference this evening and that in itself took her most of the meal to decipher. As Dixon cleared the plates away, Margaret grasped it: he was veiled in a softness this evening, his usual flinty demeanour chipped away to reveal the warm glow of happiness. He cast her so many furtive little glances that even Mr Hale grew exasperated at the lack of subtlety—it was clear which way the evening was headed.

Indeed, her father didn’t wait for Mr Thornton to commence an announcement. “I trust I am to be giving my daughter away sooner rather than later, then?”

Mr Thornton failed to stifle the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, and Margaret answered in his stead. “Yes, papa, I have agreed to marry Mr Thornton.”

“This is wonderful news!” He raised his glass and realised it was nearly empty. “I should ask Dixon for more wine, so I may make a toast.”

“No more for me, papa,” Margaret replied, and Mr Thornton also declined.

“Still, there is something I must retrieve. Allow me a moment.”

Her father left the room, leaving them alone for a brief spell. Margaret was not sure what to say: they had covered many topics during dinner, all too impersonal for a time like this. Instead, she fiddled with the bracelet she had worn for the evening, a movement with certainly seemed to capture Mr Thornton’s attention.

He had apparently found something he wished to say. “I would like—that is, if it doesn’t make you uncomfortable—if you would call me John.”

It was entirely proper given their new status, and she nodded her assent. Then her father returned, something concealed within his hand which he did not show to her when he retook his seat.

“Well, I don’t have a proper toast to make, but I would like to express my happiness on this occasion. To see my dearest love matched with one of my dearest friends—it is more than I could hope for.”

He raised his glass, and they followed suit. Margaret found she was smiling too, for her father’s newfound delight had a positive effect on her own mood. Still, she was curious about the object he had brought back with him, and only when he lifted it to reveal it did her mood change once again.

Her mother’s ring.

Her tears brought concern from both her father and Mr Thor—John—though she managed to control the worst of them and assure them she was quite alright, merely overwhelmed. She barely felt John slip the ring onto her finger, though his reassuring squeeze of her hand earned him a thankful smile, and she was much recovered by the time he took his leave.

From that evening, time slipped by quickly. A brief engagement was all very well, but Margaret found there was hardly less planning involved than in an elaborate wedding. An announcement was printed in the Milton newspapers on the first Sunday after the engagement began, and from there a ceremony was arranged for a Wednesday four weeks later, allowing for the banns to be read. 

As the planning took up so much of Margaret’s time, it meant she did not have opportunity to dwell on how greatly her life would change. Her days had become consumed by invitations, flowers, and fabric. Had there’s been a normal engagement, she would have spent even more time calling on the women of Milton or receiving them in Crampton, yet at this stage she remained a pariah and she was spared their company. 

Alas, Margaret’s once secret wish of marrying in her favourite dress could not be realised, not when appearances were so important at this wedding. She must wear white, and that involved braving the draper’s shop, although with Dixon as her shield she did not suffer any rudeness, only a sullen politeness. The staff were not as attentive as they could have been, yet must have realised that as the new Mrs Thornton she might bring a lot of coin their way and it would not do to alienate her.

Dixon’s mood was fouler than ever but she would not reveal her thoughts to Margaret, and Margaret was glad of it. She did not need a window into Dixon’s mind to discern what darkness pervaded there: Dixon had hoped her mistress would leave Milton at some point and never return. Now, she would never leave. It did not mean Dixon would have to remain here in the north forever—she was staying on with Mr Hale, as the Thornton household had quite enough staff, and Margaret could not leave her father unattended. One day, Dixon would be able to return to her family in the south, even if it meant leaving her last attachment to the Beresford sisters behind. 

Margaret’s only real moment of distress came when she was informed of Mr and Mrs Boucher’s death. Mary Higgins made the trip to Crampton to inform her in person, as her father had his hands full with the newly-orphaned brood of children. It was the children’s fate she fretted over, though Mary assured her they had been accepted into the Higgins household, even if there was precious little coin to be found there at the moment.

“Has your father still not secured new employment?” Margaret asked.

“No. None of the masters will ‘ave him—I’m afraid we’ll all lose him t’bottle if he doesn’t find something to relieve his idleness soon.”

“Leave it with me,” Margaret assured her. “There must be something we can do.” 

The solution seemed obvious to her: Nicholas Higgins could be employed at Marlborough Mills. Mary surmised her father had already enquired there, chased away by the overseer, but Margaret believed a sound argument would persuade John to listen to Nicholas’ case.

She took a circumspect route to Marlborough Mills, to avoid unpleasant confrontations with those who would still make their distaste publicly known. She slipped across the busy yard without much notice in her plainest bonnet, though her reception by the serving maid was distinctly frosty. John was still in his office, but she’d hoped to speak to him before dinner—and without her enquiry turning into another disagreement.

For now, he was not home, but she was ushered upstairs to see Mrs Thornton, and Margaret had not gathered her wits before she was deposited in the sitting room, her trepidation considerable.

She had not seen her prospective mother-in-law for many weeks, and that was unusual in itself, as she should have been called upon by the Thornton family immediately following the engagement. She had not considered the snub this represented until she faced the black-garbed, imperious figure before her.

“We did not receive notice you were coming, Miss Hale, so we have had no time to prepare.” Her tone was censorious—and in truth she had some room to criticise, as Margaret should have notified of a formal visit.

“I am sorry,” Margaret replied. “In truth, I have not come to impose on your hospitality, but to see John.”

The other woman’s nostrils flared at the use of her son’s Christian name. “No doubt you have come to decide which papers you wish to impose on these rooms, as more befitting to your taste.”

Margaret could only blink her astonishment at this attack. She rallied, seeking a soft and conciliatory tone. “New papers would seem an unnecessary expense, given the house is tastefully decorated at present. I have always admired the current ones.”

Her attempt at flattery—genuine as it was—did not seem to appease Mrs Thornton. “I’m sure. What other ways will you try to amend the ways of this home to suit yourself?”

She was ill-prepared for this confrontation, and had not considered that Mrs Thornton might see her as an invading force. “I can assure you that I have no plans to make changes to the running of your house, only learn from you.” 

Even this did not not soften the steel in Mrs Thornton’s glare. “My son may gladly bend to your every whim—”

Margaret laughed sharply at this, her own temper slipping through. “That is not true!”

“No?” Mrs Thornton challenged.

“It is exceptionally rare we are even in agreement.”

“So it may appear to you, Miss Hale, but John has already risked his own reputation in order to spare yours. You know as well as I do why that is. Let me make it clear to you: I will not idly stand by if you twist his affections for your own selfishness. You will not drag his standing through further scandal, and you had better endeavour to ensure his happiness at winning your hand lasts beyond the wedding.”

“I have not come here to be insulted, madam, and I cannot feel that John would be horrified at the tone you are taking with me. He is aware of the disparity of regard between us, but I am not the grasping shrew you portray and certainly have no desire to inflict the misery you describe on anyone, let alone my husband.”

But Mrs Thornton showed no sign of apology, so Margaret retreated from the house, her task quite forgotten. Instead she left the house under a storm cloud, worried that she would be thrust into a perpetual conflict with her mother-in-law, one which she could see no immediate escape from.

She did not see John again until their wedding day.

Chapter Text

The day was bright enough the sun managed to burn off the worst of the clouds and drive the smoke from the sky, a rare occurrence in Milton. It meant that when John stepped out to set out for his wedding, he was left blinking at the stunning blue.

He hoped it was a good omen.

His mother was silent and grave beside him as they waited for Fanny to join them on the porch. They had not spoken of her opinions since the night they had quarrelled, and John knew her position had not changed. Yet when she glanced up at him, she could not hide the glimmer of a smile threatening to breach her defences. It had to be a natural reflection of his own joy, shining through the prism of her maternal love, which even her doubts could not dim.

On John’s part, he felt calm. He had expected trepidation, or nerves, or any combination of emotions which would make him shrink from the day, but instead he welcomed it. It might not be the day he had hoped for when he first asked for Margaret’s hand, but it was his wedding day nonetheless. All marriages were hard work, and John had never been afraid of hard work, so he did not feel daunted by the task of earning Margaret’s friendship or affection. Instead, he intended to enjoy the day and bask in the joy of being joined with her.

Once Fanny had wended her way down the stairs in her ridiculous skirts, the carriage swept them to the church, where the banns had been read over the previous Sundays with no hint of opposition. It was to be a small ceremony, even with the other masters turning out to gawk, though once inside the church he found it prettily decorated with floral arrangements in shades of white and soft pink. Margaret had done this entirely on her own, without a mother or bridesmaids to assist her—she had no real friends to call on for help—and therefore he had not expected little touches like this. 

Another unexpected sight was the number of people brimming from her side of the church. His own small family was bolstered by the many masters and their families, as well as the various merchants of Milton. Yet while the front pew only held Mr Hale, the servant Dixon, and the exasperating Mr Bell, the rows behind swelled with people in patched and worn Sunday best—many of whom John recognised as hands from his own mill. One face stood out, in the second row, the infamous ringleader Margaret had once revealed to be on first name terms with. Nicholas Higgins had not only attended Mrs Hale’s funeral, but now had turned up for Margaret’s own wedding and apparently corralled half the townspeople to come on her behalf as well.

John was not sure if he ought to be touched on her behalf, or worried about the unusual friendship between his bride and the troublemaker.

Putting it out of his mind for the moment, he proceeded to his place before the altar and waited for her to arrive, listening to the bells peel out the occasion.

It did not take long, the organ striking up as she crossed the threshold into the nave. He forced himself to face forward, rather than turning to strive for a vision of her approaching him. He had to clasp his hands together and focus on the sharp bite of his nails into the flesh of his palm—only when he had a glimpse of white in his peripheral vision did he dare turn his head.

His breath left his body and he was quite sure he did not regain it until the ceremony was over. He came to himself as she was signing her name next to his in the registry, her face still obscured by the veil, her lovely form wrapped in the silk and lace which had stolen his faculties. How he spoke his vows, he could not recall, though if he searched his memory he could find the clear, determined way Margaret had repeated hers.

Depositing the quill back in the inkwell, John held his arm out for Margaret to loop hers through, and he led her back down the aisle of the church and out into the sunshine. He was aware of the warmth of her at his side with every step.

Here, their guests awaited with a cheer and rice, and even his mother did not hide her smile from him this time. Only now did he turn to Margaret to lift her veil, carefully draping it over her hair and exposing her upturned face. She appeared radiant to him, and he would nurture that belief even if it was only his imagination which made it so, though his imagination did not supply the shy smile curling her mouth at the sight of all their guests. 

Then they were into the waiting carriage, seated side by side and shielded from their well-wishers with the closing of the door.

John struggled to find the words he wanted to say—he was afraid of piercing the mood, of mis-interpreting Margaret’s seeming resplendence as a shared joy she did not truly feel, of starting out their marriage on the wrong terms. He wanted to thank her but it seemed crude to do so, even if he felt he owed gratitude to someone for the overwhelming elation he carried. Eventually, he settled on a compliment.

“You look beautiful.” It was a simple truth, one he’d always believed and had little to do with her wedding finery, though it was true in the shining white and with a modest blush on her cheeks she did appear to transcend earthly beauty and become something heavenly.

“Thank you.” She turned to him and offered a deepening of her smile. “You are handsome today, as well.”

Though it was offered tentatively, he could not help the pride which swelled inside his chest. He’d never spent much time considering his own appearance, though he knew his features were not delicate enough to be considered attractive by upper class ladies, but to know Margaret did not find him entirely disagreeable to look at did appease him. He would never come close to her own rank of beauty, but he could not believe any man was capable of that, not when she was as lovely as she was in this moment.

“You seem happy,” he ventured.

“I am,” she replied, and he did not begrudge the element of surprise in her voice. “I did not expect anyone to turn out for me, and yet the pews were full—”

“You seem able to charm anyone you turn your mind to.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” she said, dipping her head shyly. “Your mother is quite immune.”

“She will come around,” he promised.

Margaret did not respond, and they remained in peaceful silence until the carriage turned into the yard in front of the mill.

The wedding breakfast was to be hosted by the Thorntons, out of step with convention, if only because the Hales’ home was too small to accommodate the expected guests. John half-hoped many of them would not turn up—it was going to be tedious to host them all. Yet his mother insisted on holding it, and if this marriage was to repair opinions, he must bear whatever social niceties would do so.

When the carriage came to a halt, John climbed out and turned to help Margaret, taking pleasure in the weight of her hand in his as she stepped down, even if their skin was separated by her satin gloves. Mr Hale, his mother, and Fanny had ridden ahead together and waited for them on the threshold while John and Margaret walked together up the small flight of stairs towards the doorway.

Margaret stepped forward, as if she were going to cross the threshold, and John stilled her with a squeeze of his hand. She turned to him in confusion.

“I think you’re forgetting something,” he said, which did not make her any less perplexed. 

“I am?”

His heart raced at the thought of what he was about to do, his palms slick with perspiration. “You may want to hold onto my shoulders,” he stated, as he bent at the knees to guide her into his arms.

“What are you—oh!” She was airborne, cradled against his body and blinking at him rapidly.

“Really, Margaret, it’s considered good luck,” Mr Hale teased his daughter as John carried over the threshold.

“Of course. I forgot,” she murmured even as her cheeks coloured, and she seemed as eager to be set back down on her feet as John was eager to carry her around like this forever. At first he thought this was the first time they had ever been this close together, her body nestled against his, but stepping inside the house reminded him of the last time he had carried her in exactly this way. That time, she had been unconscious, and John had been distraught, worried she might never awake. In the hours after that event, he’d recalled her arms around his neck, and marvelled at how natural it had felt—as if she was always ought to be there. Now she had returned to her natural place, even if it only lasted a few seconds before he bowed to her wishes and let her go.

“You know Margaret does not like to be the centre of attention,” he said.

“No,” her father agreed. “We should be thankful the guests were not here as witness, or she would have made a great fuss over it.”

Margaret’s face was still distinctly flushed, and she would not look at either of them as John guided their party up the grand staircase into the dining room.

Here, the tables were laden with gifts and food. By the time the first guests arrived from the church, Margaret had regained her composure, standing serenely at his side to greet them and accept their congratulations.

If she was aware of their scrutiny, or of the likelihood many of them were here to judge the circumstance of this hasty marriage, she did not give any observable sign. Instead, her ever-regal posture provided no hint of weakness or any possible chink in which an attack against her character could be made. For the first time, facing this scrutiny beside her, John felt as if they were a united front, standing together against those who would seek to diminish them. With Margaret, for Margaret, he could defeat any enemy.

Even when Slickson made excuses for his wife’s absence—some fabricated health complaint or other—Margaret’s grace did not fade, wishing the woman a swift recovery and dismissing Slickson with a cutting glance at the next guest in line.

After the guests had all provided congratulations and were seated, they ate, though hardly a morsel passed John’s lips. He was too entranced by the creature beside him, and by her every movement. He found himself cataloguing every dip of her eyelashes or flutter of her mouth, and sometimes when his attention was pulled away by one of the guests insisting on conversation, he would catch their raised eyebrows or amused stare.

“I never did think to see it,” said Hamper. “Not only is John Thornton caught, but he is well and truly smitten!”

John acknowledged this with a nod. “I cannot deny it.”

“Can anyone blame him?” said Mr Bell. “I think we would all be so happy to have claimed such a beauty. Why, I once believed Margaret a goddess—and she blushed in much the same way as she is now to hear it!—but that day was nothing compared to this, with her in such finery. Don’t you agree, John?”

Somehow, the man had a way of making John want to disagree with his every word, no matter how much truth he spoke. “I think Margaret’s beauty has little to do with any finery—she has always appeared completely lovely to me. She shines from within.”

Mr Bell raised his wine glass as if to toast. “Spoken like a man truly in love! Maybe it is the flush of love which makes her so radiant in our eyes, then. Come, John, surely you must wish to kiss your beautiful new bride?”

With every pair of eyes in the room now on them, John had no choice, though he knew Margaret would not appreciate this level of attention. She had stilled, and he gently leaned towards her to place a small kiss against the corner of her mouth. Had she moved, even a fraction of an inch, and the kiss would have been fuller, but she did not stir and he did not wish to cause her undue discomfiture before their witnesses.

It was his mother who came to their rescue—aware that any public kiss was beyond the bounds of true decency—and took control of the conversation, commenting on the auspicious weather.

John thought to pay closer attention to their guests, so they would bore quickly and leave, but as he turned away from Margaret to face Hamper fully he felt her give his hand a small squeeze. Without observing her, it was hard to say what she intended to convey, but he decided to consider it a message of gratitude for sparing her a more elaborate display of affection.

Later, as many of the guests finally realised they had outstayed their welcome, only a handful of people remained in the Thorntons’ dining room. One of them was Mr Hale, and Mr Thornton took his renewed congratulations as Margaret conversed with Mr Bell.

“I cannot begin to tell you how my heart has been lifted and warmed by this day,” Mr Hale said. “I know Margaret is young, but there have been times when I wondered if perhaps her spirit and her unconventional ways would leave her unwed. For her to have found love with you, my good friend, invigorates my spirit and leaves me contented in a way I’m not sure any other match would.”

“It is her spirit I have come to love,” John replied, “for all Mr Bell’s allusions to her beauty.” He did not mention how Margaret felt about the match—Mr Hale seemed under the impression that his daughter came to the union with the same feelings as John, and he did not wish to disillusion his friend.

“I can see that, and I could not be more grateful. She has had such a trying time these last few years, but she has born them all with such grace, and I cannot claim to be entirely responsible for it. Do you know, John, I put more responsibility on her shoulders than I had any right to.”

“I am sure Margaret would not begrudge you any burdens which you have shared,” John replied kindly.

“Perhaps not, but they weigh on me all the same. What other young lady could have taken on the duty of arranging the move here to Milton, or finding us lodgings? To say nothing of nursing her mother, which she kept quiet from me until the very end. These are not things I ever anticipated my daughter undertaking, yet in the absence of her brother—”

“Her brother?”

“Yes.” Mr Hale peered at him through his spectacles. “I am surprised Margaret has not confided in you about Frederick. Why, he was here when her mother passed, and that was all her doing—”

It took John several moments to collect his thoughts, fragmented as they had become at this revelation. If she had a brother, and he had been here when Mrs Hale died, then—yes, the timing fit—the man at the station. It had to be!

“I believe,” he replied haltingly, “Margaret felt compelled to keep her secret to the immediate family, as it was not hers to disclose.”

“Well, then, allow me to divulge it, given you are now family.” And Mr Hale laid out the whole sorry affair, making it very clear to John that the man he had seen Margaret embracing at the station had indeed been her brother, returned to England in secret.

A fresh tumult surged inside John: sorrow that she had not felt able to trust him with this secret, pity that her reputation had been sundered by her best intentions, and gladness that now he knew the truth, and his unblemished good opinion of Margaret could be restored. Yes, she had lied, but he understood her doing so in the trap in which she had been caught, and now he knew that he was the only man to so much as kiss her as chastely as he had during the breakfast.

“I am glad you told me,” he said to Mr Hale, “and if there is anything I can do to assist your son, name it, and it will be done.”

Though the day was still young, the Thorntons found themselves alone when the last of the guests had departed, their newest member appearing small beside the dark shadow of John’s mother. Margaret seemed timid, especially in the glances she spared for her mother-in-law, and John wondered if she had any inkling of the mistrust which lay there. There was to be no honeymoon, not while the mill still required a great deal of attention, and it meant the privacy they might ordinarily have received as newlyweds was missing. 

“Margaret,” he enquired, “perhaps you would like to retire to my study?”

He did not miss his mother’s arched eyebrow at this, though Margaret seized the suggestion.

“Yes. Thank you.” She trailed after him, and it struck him that she did not know the layout of the house: he would have to show her before the day was out. It would not do for her to feel unwelcome in her new home. 

She took in the study appreciatively, perhaps not expecting him to own so many books. The decoration was masculine in taste, but the contents of his shelves were clearly the centre of her attention. 

“You seem tired,” he said, closing the door behind them. She nodded.

“Truthfully, I am exhausted,” she admitted. “It has taken a great deal of energy to act so…” She paused, and immediately his mind completed her thought, his happiness bursting as if someone had stuck a pin in it.

“Happy,” he interjected, with no small of amount of bitterness.

“No!” she replied adamantly. “I was going to say indifferent. It has been tiring pretending that I don’t care about their opinions—and I don’t, but to make it absolutely clear to them, to keep my chin up and look them in the eyes knowing what they believe of me.”

They hovered on a threshold between conflict and conciliation, and John knew it was his duty to prevent the former. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I should not be so quick to fear the worst. It has been a trying day for you.”

“But not for you.”

“No. It has been the happiest day of my life,” he admitted with unvarnished candour.

She cleared her throat. “I would like to get out of this veil before I catch it and ruin the lace. It has been bothering me all morning.”

That was his cue. They abandoned the study and he swept her through the house, up to the master bedroom, where he guided her to the mirror so she could unfasten the veil. She paid a little more attention to the furnishings in here, which were good quality though a little dated. He didn’t doubt that she would want to make changes, in this room he had never considered more than a place to sleep. Her practised eye took in the details and her brow furrowed in confusion.

“This is your bedroom,” she commented.


“Then where is mine?”

The question surprised him. “I don’t understand.”

“My…room—” Then her expression shifted to one of clarity and the faintest dismay. “Mama and Papa never shared one, you see. It is not the done thing in the south.”

John had heard of the custom, yet had failed to even consider it during the arrangements for Margaret’s move. “I apologise,” he muttered. “I can arrange for one of the guest rooms to be made up. Although, I think to do so tonight would cause some discussion amongst the maids.”

“Oh. Yes, I see.” She considered it further. “If it is unusual in Milton, then we mustn’t, because that will cause gossip whenever I were to move rooms.”

Neither had got through the discussion without embarrassment and Margaret could not meet his eye despite the clarity of her speech. How they were going to survive the night was beyond John.

Her veil removed, they returned to the study, where they shared peaceful hours; Margaret perusing his book collection and he working on paperwork, though his concentration was not at an ideal level, not when he was attuned to her every movement. Dinner was quiet and stilted, even Fanny unwilling to engage Margaret with her usual bright babbling, and afterwards John found the time shifting between long, drawn-out minutes, seemingly infinite like molten glass being stretched thin, and hours which passed in a breaths span. 

Margaret departed to bed earlier than he did, needing the time to divest of her wedding gown, and only when the maid who had helped her descended the stairs did he follow. He did have his own dressing room adjoining the bedroom, where he was able to wash and change into his nightshirt without scandalising her. Then he slipped through the door into the darkness.

If she was awake, she was doing an excellent job of feigning sleep. The candles had been snuffed and he had to carefully make his way around the trunk which had taken residence at the foot of the bed. Ordinarily he slept somewhere in the middle, but now she had claimed one side and he would have to suffice with the other.

He crept under the covers and she did not stir, facing away from him so all he could see was the white cloth covering her shoulder, and the cascade of brown curls loosed across the pillow. It was the first time he had ever seen her hair undone, and he had to retract the hand which reached unbidden to caress them. Instead, he lay back upon his own pillow and contemplated the distance between them. Smaller than it had ever been, apart from the two occasions on the threshold of the house, and yet it seemed an insurmountable gulf to him.

She was right, when she said for her to have a separate bedroom installed would cause talk, even if only among the servants. But her comfort was of more importance, and, truth be told, John could not bear this every night. To be so close to her, the heat of her body warming the space between them, but to be denied any hint of affection, was the worst form of torment he could have concocted for himself. Despite the overwhelming joy of the day, he was seized by sudden regret. What if this was what he had condemned himself to? Years of polite distance as he yearned for her—what if it soured even his love and turned their marriage into a cradle of misery?

It took him many hours to find sleep.

Yet with the dawn, he woke to find Margaret curled into his side, one hand almost fisted in the fabric of his nightshirt, her face relaxed in her sleep. Her full mouth seemed curled into a smile, and though her hair had become somewhat tangled he still marvelled at the sight of it unbound. To contemplate another man seeing her like this, soft and vulnerable and utterly unguarded, caused a sharp pain in the vicinity of his heart, one he quickly cast away with the thought of it.

No, he would not change a thing.

Chapter Text

Margaret’s emergence into wakefulness was soft, comfortable, and full of warmth. She burrowed instinctively into the solid presence beside her, relishing the clean tang of soap on linens and skin, before her thoughts managed to untangle themselves into some semblance of order. She went from having no care for where she was, to remembering that she was not a child anywhere and had no sought comfort in her mother’s bed overnight, to the realisation that she lay in her marriage bed in one sharp moment of dismay.

She wanted to hide her face, to hide her entire being and the red stain of abashment away from the world, but as there was no use wishing for things that could not be. Instead, she forced her eyes open, although it took a few sleepy blinks before she could convince them to remain so.

John was on his back, lying very still and staring at the ceiling.

She cleared her throat. “I’m sorry.”

His eyes fluttered closed. “You have no reason to be.”

His words were very gentle, yet Margaret found herself shrinking away, disengaging from the heat of his body and retreating to her side of the bed. “I think that I do.”


She couldn’t find the words for why she felt such creeping shame, could barely even begin to shape it into a thought, and so she had no answer for him. In the silence, John shifted, peeling back the covers to get out of the bed. 

“You don’t have to leave!” she protested. “I’ll go—”

“No,” he replied firmly. “It is my normal waking hour, so I must rise. The mill has to be seen to. You should rest as long as you need to.”

Margaret did not see how she could possibly go back to sleep now, especially with the sun streaming brightly through the cracks in the curtains, but neither did she wish to expose herself in her nightdress. She averted her eyes when he clambered away, listening to him as he pottered around in the room through the adjoining door, and only then did she move, rolling over onto her own back.

If John was leaving for the mill, she presumed he would spend most of the day there, and Margaret would be alone in the house with her new family. It was to be expected, but it left her with no less dread. His mother had made it quite clear Margaret was not welcome. Today she would be able to occupy herself with unpacking her belongings and finding places for them in her new home, but the task would not last forever, and then she could not avoid Mrs Thornton’s company.

Mrs Thornton the elder, she corrected herself. Why, Margaret was now Mrs Thornton! The thought struck her acutely, her new identity still seeming a distant reality from what she knew of herself. She had been Margaret Hale for near twenty years, and resolved to remaining of that name for some time to come. Now she faced reconciling a new name with her new status and had absolutely no idea how to begin.

With her gaze trained on the ceiling, her only clue to John’s return to the room was the creaking of the door. She had not expected to see him again before dinner, so was puzzled at this. She pulled the covers clear to her chin, and was glad to see he was dressed, even if he had not yet donned his cravat and the pale column of his throat remained exposed to her. The scent of soap grew stronger when he drew level with the bed, the whiskers of the night now shaved away, though he did carry the razor in his hand. Blood beaded on its surface, and the sight of it made Margaret sit upright in alarm.

“You have cut yourself!”

“I have, but not by accident.” He lifted up the rumpled covers from where he had abandoned them, even as Margaret huddled closer into her own share of them. She watched with bewilderment as he wiped the blade on the exposed bottom sheet, leaving a streak of blood behind.

“What are you doing?”

He did not meet her eyes. “The maids will expect blood, when they come to air the bed.” 

She had no answer for that.

“I will ask for them to draw you a bath,” he continued, and she nodded mutely. The words hung in the air, sounding unfinished, and he lingered a moment before departing. She thought perhaps he had hoped for a response, but she had none to give, not with the strength of her compounded mortification.

John’s act was necessary, she knew, and reflected a level of detailed thinking she was still learning to appreciate in him. An unmarked bed might not have been noted by the servants, but this would not go unremarked upon. Yet the thought of them discussing such a thing repelled her, and the charade she and John were partaking in seemed to require such careful and detailed subterfuge that it exhausted Margaret to think of living it for such a long time. 

She did not wait for the maid to arrive to stoke the fire, instead rousing herself now that returning to sleep was unthinkable. Her clothes remained in her trunk, all except her wedding finery, and she busied herself with removing several of her favourite dresses so she had something to wear for the day ahead. Mr Thornton—John—had insisted on paying for a small trousseau, something Margaret’s father could not afford and Margaret had not felt necessary, given many of her clothes were already relatively new. But it was a sign of his ability to support her, so she had relented in acquiring some daytime dresses. Today, she would wear something older, a comfortable yet worn favourite, to ensure it was not ruined as she arranged her belongings in her new home.

The maids arrived with the tub, going back and forth until there was enough water to fill it adequately, and then Margaret dismissed them, not needing anyone to help her bathe. She intended only to clean herself, but soon found herself relaxing into the warm water and considering the day before.

It had been, all things considered, a pleasant day. Despite her misgivings and the circumstances which had led to her marriage, she had found herself absorbing the happiness displayed by the people around her, not least her father. And John—

John had seemed transformed. Even if he was back to his usual stark black suit today, yesterday in his lavender waistcoat and grey cravat he had appeared softened. Indeed, when he had smiled at her with unguarded elation he had looked like a different man entirely. Why, if this were the man who’d come to ask for hand previously, or the one who’d presented himself at her father’s lessons for all those evenings, she might have been slower to dismiss him. She’d meant it when she complimented him in the carriage and told him he looked handsome, but she’d been incapable of expressing why that was so. His happiness transformed him, stripping away his dour exterior to expose some of the man within, and she supposed if she could sustain that feeling within him they might have a more pleasant marriage than she’d anticipated.

She’d almost been moved to weep with happiness herself, when she entered the church and found so many guests on her behalf. Nicholas’ doing, no doubt, and she hadn’t had chance to speak to him, to thank him for rallying her acquaintances in such a way, but the twinkle in his eye as she traversed the aisle suggested he held no ill will against her for marrying one of the masters. 

She wondered how long it would be before she could visit the Higgins again. She had not seen them since her engagement, though they had exchanged brief notes over that period.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a polite knock at the door. She asked for five minutes more, and hurriedly climbed out to dress in her underthings before allowing the maid to enter and assist her. Another maid—Margaret would need to learn their names to avoid appearing rude—entered while the first laced Margaret’s stays, and set about straightening the bed linens, obviously intending to give them an airing and no more. Instead she gave a sound of surprise and glanced at Margaret, who could not help but colour and turn her head away. She saw the two girls share a glance in her peripheral vision, before the one at the bed began to strip the sheets from the mattress.

Fully dressed, she fled the room under the pretence of giving the maids the opportunity to finish their work, but that only meant she had to go down to the dining room for breakfast. She knew John had already left, which would leave her in the company she’d been dreading since her last altercation with her new mother-in-law.

Still, she could not avoid the situation forever. It would do well to face the woman now with as much grace as she could muster, and hope that circumstance had softened her heart as well.

She entered the dining room with a smile she dredged from her memories of the day before, unsure of what greeting she would receive but ready to meet it with all the finesse she had been raised to display. As should have been expected of the elder Mrs Thornton, she wore a stony expression and sat ramrod straight in her chair.

“I am glad you have finally joined us,” she said to Margaret with a complete lack of warmth. “We have almost finished breakfast—we eat early in this house.”

“I’m sorry,” Margaret replied meekly, seeking her own chair. “I am rather tired after yesterday.”

That raised a titter from Fanny, who seemed to be divined some meaning from Margaret’s words she had not intended. Mrs Thornton rebuked her daughter with a waspish look.

“I see. May I enquire why you are not wearing one of the new gowns John so kindly paid for?”

Margaret paused to butter her toast before replying. “I do not wish to soil any of them in the process of unloading my trunk. I know it is unlikely to happen, but new clothes always strike me as requiring a good occasion to wear for the first time and this doesn’t prove to be such a time. If it will please John, I will change before dinner.”

Mrs Thornton sniffed but did not say another word. Margaret ate quickly, bid the pair of them good day, and returned upstairs. All she wanted was a few moments of peace in the quiet of the bedroom, but it was not to be. The maids had emptied and removed the tub, and the bed had been stripped clean ready for fresh linens, but now the girls had returned and begun the process of emptying the trunk. Margaret was relegated to supervising their work, providing instruction on where to place items and what might need repairing before being stored away. 

They were all but finished when it came time for lunch, and Margaret descended the stairs again with no small amount of anxiety. She really ought to attempt build a bridge to her mother-in-law, for everyone’s comfort, but she had no intention of doing that in Fanny’s presence. The chances of Fanny not being at lunch were slim indeed, and therefore the stifled atmosphere would continue for some time.

Margaret took a small parcel with her, which she deposited on the table beside her place setting. Mrs Thornton eyed it disdainfully, but did not have time to comment before a new figure strode into the dining room.

“John!” Margaret exclaimed.

“We did not expect you until dinner,” his mother said with an equal amount of surprise.

“I decided if there is any day where I can spare the time for lunch, it’s when I should be on my honeymoon. Though I can’t stay long.”

“I’m happy you’re here actually,” Margaret said. “I have a gift for you.”

“Really?” John took his seat at the head of the table. “I’m intrigued.”

Margaret held out the parcel to him: a small stack of books wrapped in brown paper. “I intended to give them to you yesterday but I had no idea where they’d been packed. I brought them down to put them in your study.”

John took the parcel with a small smile, his gaze not leaving Margaret’s even as he set them down beside his own plate. “You did not need to spend any money on me.”

“Oh, I didn’t,” she replied hurriedly, dropping her own gaze. “They’re as much from father as from me—volumes you have enjoyed and he believes you will enjoy.”

“Then I thank him for his kindness.”

Mrs Thornton watched the exchange with an expression like a bulldog chewing a wasp (an expression Margaret had heard from the mill workers). “I see you are still trying to raise John to a level of education you find acceptable,” she said to Margaret. “He has no need of such charity, not when he can afford any book he wishes.”

“Mother—” John began with a note of warning.

“I am well aware,” Margaret replied, summoning every ounce of politeness she could. “I’ve seen John’s study and have learnt how much he prizes its contents. Indeed, I have heard him in passionate discussion with my father on many occasions. But my father assures me John does not own these volumes.”

Mrs Thornton did not respond, focusing on her food, though her heaving chest spoke of restrained anger.

“We should put these in my study, then,” said John, “when we have eaten.” Margaret did not miss the glance he shared with his mother, the way he raised his eyebrows in a silent warning. So he did have some idea of her antipathy towards Margaret, then.

It spurred Margaret to eat quickly, meaning they were within the shelter of his study sooner, and with the door closed behind them he addressed her gently.

“You must excuse my mother.”

“I know she cares for you a great deal,” she said. “And she does not care for me at all.”

“Has she been unkind to you?” he asked in alarm.

“No, not at all,” she rushed to appease him, though Mrs Thornton’s behaviour could not entirely be characterised as benevolent. “But I am aware she does not like me, and it cannot be easy for her to see her only son wed to a women she thinks he ought not to be.”

“I will speak to her,” John vowed, reaching for the door handle.

“There is no need.” She stepped forward, placing a hand on his outstretched arm. “This is my task to complete, and she will not respect me for hiding behind you.”

John appeared torn, but he stared at her hand for moment before nodding his agreement. “But if she gives you any cause for upset, you must let me know. I would not have you absorbing any slight out of deference because she is my mother.”

“You do not need to worry—” she relented at his expression “—but I will tell you.”


He had to depart for the mill once more, but it did give her the perfect excuse to remain secluded in his study for the remainder of the day.

So began their married life, which quickly settled into a routine much like the first day. Mrs Thornton did not speak much to Margaret, her anger now a silent presence though no less ominous, and Fanny was absent as much as she could be with preparations for her own wedding. Margaret spent most of her time in John’s study, or when she did share the sitting room with Mrs Thornton she took a book with her as shield from conversation. 

John was only present during the evenings, and his lessons with her father had lapsed for the time being. John himself was reticent around Margaret, their common ground coming from the books they had both read, as Margaret had nothing new to report from the many hours she spent in the house. He seemed reluctant to talk about the mill, for all the hours he spent there, even on a Sunday afternoon after they returned from church. It was not the married life Margaret had expected.

The nights were the most uncomfortable, even if Margaret had begun to look forward to company which was not openly hostile to her. They did not speak when they retired together, but now Margaret had no issues falling asleep next to her husband, knowing that even if she sought his warmth in the night he would not comment on it. She woke when he woke, falling into the rhythms of the house, which revolved around the rhythms of the factory, and yet found herself no less lonely than she had been since her arrival in Milton.

She did find time to write letters to her Aunt Shaw or Edith, informing them of her marriage, and she wrote about John in the most glowing terms. He was, after all, not just the tradesman she had dismissed him as upon their first arrival, but a magistrate too, and yes, a gentleman in her eyes. Whether their response would be positive, if they deigned to provide one at all, remained to be seen.

At least Fred could be relied upon, and she was able to share his responses with John now that he was fully aware of that situation. They’d discussed it in depth, and John expressed a wish to have met her brother when he had the opportunity. It gave Margaret hope that when the mill was back on its feet and could be left in the care of the overseer, John might consider a honeymoon in Cadiz.

Eventually, feeling stifled during the day, Margaret took advantage of the remaining good weather and donned her favourite shawl to visit Princeton. She knew Higgins would be home: he’d confirmed in one of his notes that he still could not find employment, other than minor jobs for little coin. Mary had been forced to take up work in a kitchen, despite her being required to take care of the Boucher children. It was either that or she sought employment with a mill herself, and Nicholas was unwilling to risk losing another daughter to the ever-present fluff.

When she arrived the Higgins’ home was greatly transformed: gone was the sombre hush of Bessie’s last days, replaced with a raucous chaos and an exasperated father figure in desperate need of extra hands.

“Miss!” Nicholas greeted her with equal amounts of surprise, delight, and relief. “You are a sight for sore eyes!”

“So it would appear,” she responded, taking in the ash-streaked faces of the younger children. They looked as if they’d been playing directly in the hearth. “When was the last time they bathed?”

“Well miss, if you can catch any o’ them long enough to get them in the tub, the rest all disappear into the street for fear they’ll be next.”

She nodded at Nicholas and turned to the children, who were regarding her with equal amounts interest and trepidation. “Would anyone like to hear a story?”

And so it went, with Margaret holding court with a tale involving a fearsome giant and a plucky young boy, while Nicholas caught the children one by one and took them into the backroom for a scrub. She even stayed for lunch, sending a note to the house to advise she would not return until dinner, helping him prepare the food and complete a few chores while she kept the troupe entertained.

“I have no idea how you even find the time to look for work; they are quite the handful.”

“Honestly, I’ve given up of late. None of the masters will hear me, so even though I can bring more in than our Mary, it’s easier to send her out to earn. Though I don’t know how long we can keep a roof over our heads at what she brings in.”

“I will bring a basket tomorrow,” Margaret promised. The children looked malnourished enough. “And you did try at Marlborough Mills?”

“Overseer wouldn’t even let me o’er threshold.”

“Then perhaps I can be of assistance there too. I could speak to Mr Th—my husband.” She’d never called him such out loud and had to correct herself mid-word.

“Aye, we’ve not yet spoken of your new status, have we? I believe congratulations are in order.”

“Indeed.” At this Margaret lowered her gaze to her lap.

“They are congratulations, are they not?” For the first time, Higgins sounded wary. “Thornton never struck me as a tyrant, but if he’s being unduly cruel—”

“No, nothing of the sort! He has been very kind to me. It is just such a change, it takes a little getting used to.”

“I’ll bet. Still, I don’t think your husband has any reason to think well of me, and I wouldn’t want to put you in an awkward position.”

“You wouldn’t be. I shall ask if he will at least hear your plea. He will have some sympathy with the plight of the children, if nothing else.”

“Then I thank you, Mrs Thornton.”

When she returned to the house, she was not so lucky as she had been when she stole away in the morning. Her mother-in-law awaited her, seeming the great black crow Margaret had once named her, guarding the roost as Margaret ascended the staircase.

“Barely two weeks of marriage, and you are already making a mockery of your vows.”

“Excuse me?”

“You have spent your day gallivanting around town with those below your position when you have already been the subject of ridicule. Have you learnt nothing? Does my husband’s name mean nothing, after you have done so much to procure it for yourself?”

“I have done no such thing—none of what you have just accused me of!”

She brushed past her mother-in-law, rushing up to her bedroom to wash the grime of the day away and change into a clean dress. Mrs Thornton did not follow her, but Margaret knew the disagreement was far from resolved and would likely re-emerge that evening. If Mrs Thornton did not make her opinion known over dinner, she would certainly save her ire for the next day, when Margaret could not appeal to John’s protection.

Margaret had no intention of hiding behind her husband, not when she hadn’t done a thing wrong. Nevertheless, she did not emerge from the bedroom until she heard the door close at his return home. As she hurried down, she heard him in the sitting room greeting his mother and sister, since dinner was not yet ready to be served, and to Margaret’s alarm Mrs Thornton had already begun to tell her side of the tale.

“She cannot go where she likes, when she likes, John—she is a married woman now!”

“I promised that I would not cage her, mother, and I will not go back on my word. Not unless she does something to disgrace us.”

“And you do not think this counts?”

Margaret announced her presence by clearing her throat. “I do not think an act of charity could be seen as deserving of disgrace in the eyes of any good Christian.”

“Charity?” Mrs Thornton queried dismissively.

“I assisted with the care of children recently orphaned. They lost their father at his own hand,” she looked at John pointedly, “and their mother only days after.”

“Surely you don’t mean Boucher’s offspring?” Mrs Thornton protested.

“I certainly do!”

“Margaret,” said John with open dismay, “he was the one who caused you injury during the riot.”

“I am well aware—and yet his children are innocent of his crimes. If a man out of work can find the means to take them in, care for them and feed them, then it is well within mine to provide assistance.”

“What man?”

She paused before responding. “Nicholas Higgins.”

Mrs Thornton let out an exasperated “That man again!” as John stood, silently aghast. She watched his nostrils flare and his throat work as he tried to control his temper.

“I would speak with you in private,” he eventually said, his voice as low as she had ever heard, a rough scrape of stone that did not invite argument. She nodded meekly and followed him to his study even as Mrs Thornton called after them.

“Really, John, this matter affects all of us.”

He did not respond, closing the door so that it was only himself and Margaret in the room, though the atmosphere was not as pleasant as it had been on their evenings together.

“I thought,” he began, his voice still an ominous rumble, “when I promised not make you a captive in this home, that it was clear that condition relied on your not continuing to risk your reputation, or mine. And yet here you are visiting the union ringleader, a man who would do everything within his power to bring me down—”

“You exaggerate, John! He is not your enemy.”

“Isn’t he? His actions once risked your safety, and the safety of others in this family.”

“He was not responsible for the riot—that it happened at all irks him to this day. All he wants is fair pay and fair conditions.”

John let out a curt laugh. “I’m sure.”

“Honestly, John, the children are my main concern. There are six of them and they would be in the workhouse if it weren’t for Nicholas. They may still end up there. Do you not have any pity for them?”

“Pity? Yes. But perhaps the workhouse is the best place for them. We cannot feed every soul in Milton, Margaret, no matter how much they may tug at your heartstrings.”

“You cannot believe that! If they were put in the workhouse, they would be split up, when all they have is each other.”

“What would you have me do?”

His question was still delivered in anger, and this was far from the ideal time to plead Nicholas’ case, and yet she must at least try.

“Nicholas needs work,” she admitted.

John took a deep breath, then turned his back on her, striding to the fireplace, resting one arm on the mantelpiece. She could see that his hand was balled into a fist. “He should have thought of that before he called the strike.”

“Circumstances are different now. The children need feeding. He is willing to work, but no one will listen to him.”

“And you expect me to?”

“To at least listen? Yes. You are a reasonable man—” at this, her husband scoffed aloud “—and I would not ask it if I didn’t think you would both benefit from Nicholas being hired at Marlborough Mills.”

“After everything, now you think I am reasonable?” His anger had not dissipated entirely, but she could see it was at least cooling.

“Well, yes. I have seen other sides of you these last few weeks that have made me revise some of my opinions. And please understand, I do none of this to undermine you—but at the same time, I now worry that you did not know the woman you married at all.”

He span to face her fully again, alarmed by her last words. “How so?”

“You seem to think I can stop caring for those in need, because my own circumstances have changed. I cannot do that; not because it is my Christian duty, but because I cannot bear to stand by while others suffer.”

“Then I do know you.” He closed the distance between them, capturing her hand between his own. “It is one of the things I love about you, even if the way it manifests frustrates me greatly.”

“I am not so sure. After all, we are so very different, and it strikes me that I do not understand why it is you believe you love me. We had spoken so little before you professed to do so the first time, and I fear you have created an illusion of me which I can never live up to.”

No. I do know you, Margaret, and it is not some daydream I fell in love with.”

“Really?” She withdrew her hand. A small thought which had long niggled away at her came to her tongue. “Because it strikes me that you may not have had much occasion to interact with other women. Was I the first to ever share your interests, your intellectual pursuits?”

“I will admit,” he responded haltingly, “that I had little opportunity or inclination towards courting before you. I assumed all young ladies were like Fanny—vain, fickle girls with a fine education but no thoughts of their own. But you—you challenged me from the first. You were lovely, yes, let me make in plain that I could not fail to respond to your beauty—but you roused my intellectual interest.”

Now he had channelled his usual intensity into a topic which appeared to invigorate him, and Margaret could not move, nor barely breathe, captured by the way he was able to make himself the centre of her attention. Like the very sun himself, when he was at his full power like this, she was the earth who could not escape his lure.

 “And though your compassionate tendencies may incense me sometimes,” he continued, “I craved them. I wanted someone who could care for the welfare of a man she’d never met before, no matter his rank or station. You do it, not from a hypocritical Christian stance like half the master’s wives, but because you think it right. How could I not fall in love with such goodness? You could no more harm another person than the rain could return to the sky.”

“I caused you harm,” she pointed out, latching onto the part of his speech that did not make her blush. “I was exceptionally rude to you when you proposed.”

“Out of fright, I imagine, and ignorance—you did not mean to. I expect you did not realise I would feel it keenly—”

“Then you see, I am not the saint you paint such a picture of. I have flaws.”

“And I know them better than anyone. But I love you because of who you are, not because of who I hope you might be. You are proud, and you have your prejudices, but you remain a better person than I.”

“You are wrong,” she corrected him quietly. “I know there is compassion in you—the kindness you granted my mother, and the wheel you installed—yes, I know it was for your workers’ benefit, not for any grand scheme of profit! Yet you insist on hiding behind this shield of the hard master, playing to the misguided expectations the world has of how you should behave. I have no need to hide, for the world does not judge it in a woman, but I do not judge it in you.”

He would not meet her gaze, blinking rapidly as he focused on his shoes. “If you think that, then I fear I will be the one disappointing you.”

“The only way you could disappoint me is if you insist on playing the cruel master for others’ benefit.” She grasped his hand within her own. “Will you at least consider speaking to Nicholas? For the orphans under his care, if nothing else?”

He stared at her hand a while before responding, before squeezing it lightly and releasing it. “Yes. Though only because there is a pragmatic reason to consider taking him on, and I will not have you thinking otherwise. I must be plain in my thinking, so you do not become disillusioned. And if you insist on visiting him, I must insist you take a chaperone. One of the serving girls, at least.”

“I can put them to good use, so that is no hardship, though your mother may not agree.” She raised herself on her tiptoes to place a kiss on his cheek in gratitude. “Thank you. Come, I fear dinner will be quite cold by now.”

He did not immediately follow her as she left the room, and as she did not look back she could not appreciate the stunned expression on his face at her small gesture of affection.

Chapter Text

With the first disagreement of their marriage out of the way, John felt more secure in moving forward. He and Margaret had found a way to communicate with each other and not parted on bad terms, even if the ill feeling between his wife and his mother appeared to linger. The easy affection Margaret had shown him while in his study inspired him to test the waters further and see what measure of sentiment she would afford him, with a view to assessing her discomfort and ceasing if it was apparent.

He began with kissing her cheek as he left the house each morning, just as he did with his mother. The first time he didn’t wait to observe her startled expression, although he knew she’d stopped buttering her toast as he rounded the table towards his mother, and on his way out of the room he caught her flustered features, her cheeks stained pink.

It was a lovely sight.

Since she did not object that first morning he continued, and added a greeting kiss when he returned from the mill in the evenings. She quickly adapted to anticipate it, and he was thrilled to note that she did not hold any tension on his approach—rather, she would tip her head just so to allow him access when he drew near, even if she did so without being conscious of the movement.

The final addition to their new routine was a kiss before they retired for bed. This did cause her to tense up—her small hands curling into defensive fists when he grazed his lips over her forehead as she sat removing the pins from her hair. He did nothing more, uttering not a word and disappearing into his dressing room to allow her time to get into the bed. As always she’d retreated to it by the time he emerged, but this evening the blankets were firmly clutched beneath her chin, as if…

What did she expect him to do? Did she think he would press for ever more, even when she made her reluctance plain?

He stifled a sigh. Yet the tension did not leave her until he’d made his way to his own side of the bed, turning onto his side so his back was toward her, and snuffed out the candle. He did not nurse any particular ill will for her reaction and slept easily, though was pleased to find in the morning that she’d found her familiar place at his side. They often shifted like this—he ending on his back and her gravitating towards his warmth, close if not actually touching.

In the morning, he left before she rose, and when he returned he did not indulge in his now customary greeting, even if Margaret’s cheek tipped expectantly and her eyes went round with surprise at the omission. He was careful not to kiss his mother either, so it would not appear to be a slight towards Margaret in particular, but when they retired he felt her stiff and anxious in the darkness beside him. He had almost passed into slumber before he heard her anxious whisper.

“Have I done something wrong?” 

This surprised him: they were not accustomed to having discussions in their bed. Instead they’d developed a comfortable silence, exempting the tension of the night before. So to hear her voice beside him, and the tentative, plaintive quality of her tone, moved him to answer immediately.

“Not at all. What would make you think so?”

He could almost hear her deliberating how to proceed: to admit that she had catalogued the kisses he’d bestowed upon her, and noted the omission when it came. To do so would be tipping the power in his favour. Yet John wanted only honesty between them. He’d asked for it when he’d asked for her hand, and he had no taste for playing silly games. Not when one of the things he treasured about Margaret was her plain speech and her previous rejection of the coquettish role society expected of an unmarried woman.

“It doesn’t matter,” she continued, even quieter than before. “We should sleep.”

“No, Margaret, you can tell me,” he urged. “We promised each other no secrets.”

“This is not a secret! It is—I am just being silly, forget I said anything.” He wished he could see her face, but she had the night on her side, hiding her engaging features from him.

“Whatever it is, you may tell me. I will not judge. And now I grow concerned—”

The silence stretched on, until eventually he heard her, so quietly he had to strain. “You didn’t kiss me at all today.”

“I’m sorry?” He kept his own voice soft.

“Usually, when you leave—and then when you come home—you kiss me. On the cheek.”

“I have done that a few times, yes. But I believed I was making you uncomfortable.”

“Oh!” She cleared her throat. “You weren’t. I—I mean—it would be considered normal between a married couple.”

He found himself turning onto his side towards her. While he couldn’t see her fully, her could at least make out the difference between her and the surrounding darkness, her pale profile a slice of moonlight: the graceful line of her forehead, the gentle slope of her nose, the full, plush contours of her mouth, and then the proud jut of her chin. That mouth which formed the basis of his many reveries, soft and pliant as it was, even when it was vexing him.

“I wouldn’t know what is considered normal,” he admitted, “if such a thing exists, nor would I care to ascribe to it. This is our marriage, and we must do what is right for us. If you want me to stop kissing you in such a way, you only need ask.”

“I do not.” Her admission was hoarse, as if the words would not come easily, as if it cost her dearly to say them. If only she knew what they meant to him! There was no shame in giving him this, and he would gladly repay her with any affection she asked of him.

He didn’t press her for more details, even as his chest swelled in elation. He’d got her to admit, however tightly, that she did not mind him kissing her, and that she noticed when he did not do so. It settled some of his own insecurities and gave him the courage to continue. He felt compelled to raise himself up on his elbow, seeking the curve of Margaret’s forehead in the darkness to place a kiss there. He felt her breath shuddering against his cheek as he did so, before he fell back onto his own pillow, facing her once more.

“Sleep, Margaret. You can have as many kisses as you like in the morning.”

He heard her titter, but he’d already allowed his eyes to drift shut, and gave himself over to sleep with a smile on his face.

Margaret wasn’t sure what game John was playing, only that she found herself disconcerted and struggling to predict what his next move would be.

He’d taken to kissing her every morning and every evening after their frankly mortifying conversation in the dark of the night. Mortifying only for Margaret, it seemed, as John appeared oblivious to both her discomfort and her disquiet. Yes, apparently she’d been silly to fret over such a thing, working herself into quite a state over the absence of a couple of kisses, but when it had become routine, what was she to think?

John grew bolder, moving beyond a simple press of his lips to her cheek twice a day, as his forehead kiss now came every night as well. It left her smiling into the darkness every time, pressing her own lips together even if she could not decipher why. Each touch made her breath catch and the skin tingle in his absence, no matter how lightly his lips had brushed her skin. It felt like they were building towards something, even if that something were only the semblance of a real marriage, one based on more than a hasty convenience. 

Margaret knew on John’s part it was based on his love for her, and she felt that ought to be rewarded in some manner, if that wasn’t too tawdry of an idea. That was one of the thoughts which had made her panic on the day he didn’t kiss her—what if she made enough missteps that he did, eventually, stop loving her? She was left horrified at the idea and compelled to do something to try and prevent it.

She still had precious little to do during the day and found herself filling the hours with the nonsense magazines aimed at young women she’d always ignored before. Fanny had quite the collection and it was at least easier to read than trying to engage her mother-in-law in conversation. 

They’d reverted back to those stilted, awkward interactions where each said as little as possible, and only Fanny’s mindless prattle kept the silence from becoming oppressive. Fanny seemed to have embraced Margaret’s position in the family, so long as she nodded and made polite noises whenever Fanny began talking about her wedding plans—which was nearly constantly. So by taking to the magazines, which Fanny treated as a goldmine of advice for both courting and married women, Margaret was offered a little respite.

The advice within—pages and pages of schemes on how to win and then please a husband—seemed absurd at the extreme. The writers appeared quite convinced that men only wanted simpering creatures who had no thoughts of their own and lived to please them. Margaret could only imagine the confusion which would fall over John if she followed it: never disagreeing with him, never engaging in topics more taxing than the trivialities of the household, never appearing anything less than lovely and perfectly agreeable. Why, he’d have thought her a changeling if she paid any attention to this drivel! 

But the magazines did at least give her a schooling in the proprieties she’d somehow managed to overlook as she grew up. Aunt Shaw had done her best, but her mother had been outside London too long to keep up with the changing social mores, and never been too interested in discipling her often-wayward daughter. Meanwhile her father had practically encouraged her divergent ways, letting her have many of the same freedoms as Fred long past the time when he should have stopped her wanderings.

Margaret couldn’t bring herself to regret her upbringing or her childhood, but she did recognise it was a contributing factor to her continual predicaments, and if she was going to repair her reputation beyond merely marrying a man with an intact one, she’d need to pay more attention to these rules in the future. At least the magazines gave her the advice her mother had never seen fit to, so she knew she could hold her husband’s arm in public and exchange chaste kisses with him without causing a scandal.

Though the winter had set in, with snow frequently flurrying across Milton to leave drifts behind, it had its milder patches, and so she encouraged her husband to take walks with her when the sun shone. It allowed her to leave the house and escape the family, giving her and John time to talk over things that did not include Fanny’s upcoming nuptials or, God-help-her, the linen washing schedule. Though she felt he was holding back on some matters when it came to the mill, he was happy to regale her with details of the machinery, or with his thoughts on his lessons with her father. He’d taken them up again, and nothing pleased Margaret more than accompanying him back to the little house in Crampton, where she would sit and take tea with Dixon before spending an hour with the men after the lesson was over.

The company fared her father well, now it was just the two of them. Margaret had not thought the house particularly small until she returned to it following weeks in her new home, but now it felt positively cosy due to the genial presences she found within.

On one of the walks, through a park close to the Thornton home, Margaret felt bold enough to slip her arm through her husband’s, so they could walk together that way. Her boldness made John falter and raise his eyebrows, but she carried on with her chatter as if nothing had happened, and he quickly regained his step, swallowing before he responded to her, the contact unspoken of but his reply lit by a glowing smile which did not befit the words he spoke.

“I have news,” he told her on their next walk, this time on a Sunday afternoon on their way home from church. It was, if not sunny, then mild enough to make the walk pleasant for this time of year. “I have come to an agreement with Higgins.”

This time it was Margaret’s turn to falter, and turn in astonishment to her husband.

“What kind of agreement?”

“I will be taking him on at Marlborough Mills.”

Margaret couldn’t help the jubilant smile she unfurled, and she felt its warmth reflected back from John, his attempt at a stony exterior melting into something more indulgent. “Oh, thank you, thank you!”

“It’s only a trial, mind. To make sure he’s not trouble making or rabble rousing. But all being well, if his work is as good as Hamper always claimed it was, then he’ll be able to stay on.”

“I will vouch for him as well—he will not let you down, I swear it.” Margaret stretched up on her tiptoes to kiss John’s cheek, and took his arm again, tighter than before, to continue their walk. “You have made me very proud.”

She didn’t mean to patronise John, but it was hard to quantify her happiness at him having listened to her. He might like to pretend he was hard-headed and shrewd, but she felt she knew him much better now. She’d had plenty of time to observe him in the habitat of his home, where he was allowed to let his guard down, and this confirmed her growing suspicion that he could be a tender and kind man. She wasn’t trying to change him, but to encourage those behaviours, and therefore letting her delight be apparent would only help her mission.

Now Higgins was back at work, poor Mary was left with her hands full looking after all those children. The family was still surviving on one wage, since Mary could not work with the youngest children still babes-in-arms, and none of them were old enough to work themselves. But since it would just be Mary and the children in the house during the day, even Hannah Thornton could not turn her nose up at Margaret visiting them with a basket to assist with the small tasks she could, for an hour here and there. 

At least now Margaret felt she and John were providing a united front, as he’d proposed they needed to all those weeks ago when they’d hashed out the terms of their marriage. His mother felt less able to criticise what Margaret was doing when it was clear that she had John’s approval, and indeed, Margaret went out of her way to ensure John knew of any plans she made ahead of time. She did not seek his approval—would not ask his permission—but by letting him know that she intended to visit the Higgins’ residence and assist Mary that day, or take a walk up to the churchyard where her mother was buried, then he could not be ambushed with the knowledge by his mother, and he seemed to appreciate that she was doing so.

But beyond anticipating John’s return on an evening—and even Margaret could admit it wasn’t just so she would have a reprieve from the icy atmosphere with her mother-in-law—she had taken to watching out for him. During the day, too, eagle-eyed as she watched out of the window like the elder Mrs Thornton often did. If Hannah Thornton was a crow, then Margaret hoped she appeared a gentler sort of bird at her side.

There was a tension in John when he came home that he would not discuss, and Margaret knew must relate to the mill. Even now some barriers still existed between them, and John refused to lay burdens on her, although she sometimes overheard the quiet discussions he had with his mother. Finances, it seemed. Margaret took it upon herself to look over the household finances and saw no apparent cause of strain, beyond Fanny’s wedding. Perhaps it was only that, since the girl appeared determined to empty every drapers and haberdashery in Milton. It would soon be upon them, though, and then Fanny’s spending would be her husband’s problem.

It was no good. John was going around in circles with the accounts, and nothing was changing. The truth was simple: he would soon be required to make payments that he didn’t have the cash for. His landlord and bank manager had both been reasonable so far, as many of the mill owners had needed a little flexibility after the strike. Yet where the other masters seemed to have bounced back—at least as far as they would admit in public—John still found himself coming up short.

Of course, John was one of the few who didn’t have the deep pockets of family wealth to rely on if he needed to—but he’d never allowed himself to be bitter over that matter before and wouldn’t now. 

He would need to make fresh approaches to Latimer soon if he was going to come to any new agreement. Mr Bell was quite out of the question—the landlord had been generous enough, and though John could imply further assistance would benefit Bell’s goddaughter, he was loathe to do so. John had snatched Margaret out from under the other man’s nose, despite already being aware that the mill’s finances were precarious, and it was now his duty to take care of her whatever happened. He couldn’t bear the thought of only being able to do that with Bell’s assistance.

John rarely felt inferior, but this only served to remind him that perhaps he hadn’t been the best choice available to Margaret. She would never face the prospect of financial ruin with Mr Bell.

Ah, but hadn’t he made it plain that Mr Bell was likely to offer for her? Yes, he’d made the older man appear the less palatable choice, but Margaret was no fool. She’d chosen the Thorntons’ lesser financial situation over the assured comfort she’d have found with the wealthy Mr Bell, and John could only thrill at that. Yet he still could not face the prospect of throwing himself on his landlord’s mercy.

So Latimer who held all the cards, and John was sure the banker was well aware of this when John met him in the clubhouse during luncheon.

Latimer was already at the billiards table, playing a round against Henderson. The club was full of other masters and men of business, so John was forced to join them and their inept dissection of politics.  John was only half paying attention when Slickson slipped up with an ill-thought out comment about Fanny to Watson; Slickson blanched when he caught sight of John’s glower at the innuendo and Watson’s assumption that his answering wink went unnoticed. Thornton kept his fists below the table, tightly balled as they were, and offered only a tight smile which promised worse if that line of conversation continued.

Yet Hamper had never been good at reading the moods of others. “And married life must be treating you exceptionally well, Thornton, given we rarely see you here anymore.  Is it everything you hoped for?”

While the comment may have been benign enough, Hamper’s intent wasn’t: he wore a leer, twisting his already unpleasant face into a mask of vulgarity, and John’s fists clenched in response.

“I have no complaints,” he replied, with a heavy edge of warning in his voice.

“I can see why you were so eager to be married to her,” Hamper continued, obliviously. “One of the prettiest girls in town, to be sure, and perhaps not as innocent as one would believe, but I suppose a little experience is no bad thing—”

“I don’t know what you mean,” John replied, lifting his chin in defiance. He knew exactly what Hamper was driving at, but wanted him to say it openly. Here, in front of the other masters, John would finally put the gossip to rest.

There was a round of scoffing from them, and it wasn’t Hamper who replied this time, but Slickson. “Come off it, Thornton. We all know she was spoilt goods and you were the poor sap she tricked into keeping her.”

John sat back in his chair, folding his arms over this chest, and the movement silenced the other men who watched him with alarmed eyes. John was within his rights to belt Slickson for what he’d just said—for the slight to John’s intelligence, if nothing else. But he wouldn’t. Even with his jaw clenched, he battled to control his temper.

If you are in a fight, he cautioned himself, Margaret will find out, and she will demand to know what was being discussed. It is not worth the distress it will cause her, or the fresh round of prattle.

“You have all met my wife,” he said instead, voice dangerously low. “Long before we were wed. Did any of you think she was anything other than a virtuous, well brought up young lady? One of finer stock than any of us can claim to come from?”

“Aye,” said Hamper, “but a hot-headed one who was easily led astray.”

“What gave you the impression she was ever led astray? Her tendency towards charity? Her mingling with those we consider beneath us? She showed kindness towards Higgins’ daughter, God rest her soul, and there’s no shame in that.”

“Was it charity she was offering that man at Outwood station, then?”

“Her brother, you mean,” John corrected.

“Who?” asked Slickson.

“That man was her brother,” John clarified, as of this were common knowledge. “A perfectly acceptable chaperon, I think you’d agree.”

“That cannot be true—” said Hamper falteringly. “She doesn’t have a brother!”

“Really? Who do you think knows her best—you, as good as a stranger to her, or me, as her husband? I’m inclined to believe I know more about the situation then any of you, not that it stopped your idle tongues wagging like old fishwives.”

Convinced he’d done enough to correct their story, but intending to ensure they could not press him for more details of his mysterious brother, he instead took his leave to the billiards table, where Latimer now waited alone. The other men left, drifting back to their businesses, giving John and his bank manager the privacy he desired.

“I’m not sure what else I can do for you, Thornton. Things are tight for all of us, and if I start bending the rules for you, everyone else will start expecting the same.”

“Why would anyone else need to know our private business?”

“Word gets around. You know what it’s like when they’ve all got a gut full of wine after dinner.”

John composed himself before he spoke again, so his desperation did not seem apparent. “I’m not saying I can’t make any payment. I can—just not the full payment.”

“So you do have some funds?”

“Some, yes.” He didn’t like the glint that had appeared in Latimer’s eye—the sort of look John had seen in hungry dogs. “And when the first batch of orders are paid up, I can meet my payments in full. With extra interest, if needed.”

“I have a better idea. A proposition, if you will.”

Against his better judgement, John said, “I’m listening.”

“Watson’s getting up a scheme. Whatever money we put in, we make back tenfold, at least.”

“What kind of scheme?” he asked warily. If it were so easy to make money, nobody would bother with borrowing from the banks.

“A speculation.”

“No,” John said, instinctively and immediately. “I will have no part in that.”

Latimer shrugged. “If it is successful—and it is expected to be—then you would not owe me any money at all.”

“And if it fails I will still owe you a great deal but have no way of paying for it.”

“Why would it fail? I’ve looked it over and can’t see the downside myself. Why, think of being able to take that delightful new bride of yours on honeymoon! Not even just as far as the seaside, but to the continent! France, Italy, and beyond!”

John didn’t listen to the latter suggestion. He wouldn’t gamble with his livelihood, and his worker’s livelihoods, just to please Margaret in such an extravagant way. He left the club no further forward than he had been—his financial problems had not been lifted, and he felt their weight pressing on him more than ever.

It was plain to Margaret something was troubling John. He came home from the mill later and later every evening and was restless beside her in sleep. Where before he’d been a very sound sleeper—seemingly able to fall into bed, close his eyes, and remain unmoved until the dawn—now she was often woken by him shifting positions during the night. It disturbed her sleep, but she felt no right to complain about it, if he even noticed what he was doing; he needed the rest more than she did. 

Nor did she complain that during his nocturnal disturbance he often woke her by seeking additional closeness—if she was on her side, his arm would come to encircle her hips, or if she was on her back, his large hand would end up splayed across her belly. Even in sleep he seemed to have place secure boundaries between them, and she could not complain that his touch was unseemly or even unwanted. 

Instead it left her confused, but yearning the extra warmth that seemed to seep from him. It was comforting yet also left her as flustered as his cheek kisses, and then in turn she would burrow ever closer to him when she slept. It wasn’t enough that she would curl into his side: now she often woke with her head pillowed into his shoulder, and she had no idea which of them was to blame for it, if it wasn’t in fact both of them. But the closeness seemed to soothe the pair of them, with John ceasing his restlessness when he held her, so she did not speak up in daylight.

In fact their shifting ever closer at night reminded Margaret of her vow to be a good, true wife to him. When she’d made that vow she’d done so with no particular thought to what that might be like—it had always been a vague certainty of any marriage she might make, something she would go through much like the stilted conversations she held with her mother-in-law. Uncomfortable, possibly, but not the greatest labour of her marriage. 

John had seemed horrified by her casual acceptance of that, which baffled her, but now she felt that they were at least growing comfortable with simple physical affection together. It might not be such a leap towards full marital congress and perhaps, if John could be as tender as he often tried to be, it wouldn’t be as unpleasant as she’d been led to believe. At least he would hold her and kiss her afterwards, and not because he felt it was his duty, but because he loved her and was compelled to by whatever divine force drove that emotion. 

Now Margaret could admit that her husband’s company, overall, was far less intolerable than she’d once deemed it. Though the fact she’d told him during his first proposal that she didn’t like him had been, at best, a half-truth—driven by fear and the turmoil of the events of her life at that time—she certainly had a greater appreciation of him now. 

Which was why his troubled demeanour caused trouble in her. The dark circles beneath his eyes made her fingers ache with the urge to smooth them away, as if she erase them with her touch. And she often found herself urging him to eat more, loudly complimenting the cook’s abilities when he left food untouched on his plate.

She even wondered, idly, if it was her presence which kept him late in the mill, but the way he acted around her easily eased that dismay. She often caught the glow of love in his eyes when he thought she was turned away, as if he was trying to shield her from its worst excesses, and as she had noted, his behaviour towards her had only grown more openly enamoured. She need not fear on that front.

So the cause had to lie elsewhere, and that was why she felt brave enough to raise the issue when they were alone in his study, on a rainy Sunday afternoon when they could not take their customary walk. His mother and sister were in the sitting room, so this was as much privacy as they were likely to receive, and she knew that whatever the issue was, he would want the utmost privacy. She steeled herself, seeking to remain standing when he took to his armchair, remaining a few feet away so she had a clear view of him.

“John,” she began, “I know something is causing you worry lately, and I would like to know what it is.”

His eyebrows moved in surprise. Where most of his face he was able to school into perfect stillness, his forehead often gave him away, malleable enough to give away even a fraction of his internal state. This was his undoing today, even as he gathered himself to respond.

“Do not lie to me,” she warned, before he could damn himself by doing exactly that. “We promised no lies or secrets between us. Therefore I can only make it plain I have seen your suffering and cannot ignore it.”

His mouth shut briefly, swallowing down the lie he had been about to construct, but he still sought evasion. “Indeed, but it is nothing to trouble yourself with. Business matters, that is all.”

“The mill,” she clarified, and he was gracious enough to nod haltingly at this enquiry.

“You need not concern yourself. I have it hand as best I can, and have already gone over it as length with my mother.”

If he was trying to soothe her, he failed. “You discussed this matter with her,” she said, trying to keep the stinging hurt she felt from her voice, but John caught it anyway. He was proving alarmingly receptive to her moods.

“She has long been my confidante in matters of business,” he said softly. “I welcome her advice, and when there is no advice to be had, she does not mind me burdening her with my troubles.”

“I would not mind that either.” She sought his gaze and held it, eager to prove she meant her words. “When I said I wanted to be a wife in all ways, I did mean like this as well. I may not have the experience to provide advice, but I have shouldered my fair share of burdens and proved apt at it.”

He regarded her sadly. “Yes, I’m aware of it. Perhaps I sought to shelter you, knowing that. It hardly seems fair, for one so young, to have dealt with so much.”

Though he meant well, that sparked a well of contrariness within her. “Kindly allow me to decide for myself what I may or may not bear. And this issue is likely to impact me—I would rather know the storm is coming and allow myself to prepare for it, then be engulfed in it with no forewarning at all.”

He nodded slowly. “I am sorry. You are right—you are strong and though many would argue it is my place to coddle you, I’d have made a grave mis-step in marrying you if that is what I intended to do.”

“Thank you.” She went to his side, resting her hand on his forearm. Close enough that she was almost covering his hand with her own. “I may not understand matters of business, but if you talk to me about it enough, I’m sure I can learn enough to be of use to you.”

“I am sure of it, too, despite my instinct to shield you from the duller aspects. Even mother often tires of those.” A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth—a rarer feature than it had been of late, she realised. In his tiredness, his face seemed more lined than it had before. 

“Let me be the judge of what I will and will not tolerate,” she insisted. “Now, what is the particular issue at hand?”

He gestured for her to sit, so she took her own armchair, but not before shifting it so they were close enough to sit hand in hand, facing one another, though she did not take that familiarity with him just yet.

He took a deep breath before speaking.

“The strike was a blow. We are behind with our orders—so far behind I don’t think we shall ever regain our footing, not before customers start cancelling. Ordinarily, this would only be a small matter of cash flow. Unfortunately, before the strike I invested in new equipment which entailed borrowing from the bank. As it stands I must not only pay rent but also repay the lending. Our customers will not pay their bills until their orders are delivered, but we will fall into arrears before we can complete enough orders to afford our bills.”

“And there is nothing to be done? Did the strike not effect the other mills?” Margaret had another thought. “Can you not negotiate with your creditors?”

John gave a tight smile. “I have done so already. It suits the bank better that I pay what I owe, albeit lately, than default entirely. Then Mr Latimer would be able to reclaim the equipment but he would need to sell it to recoup his losses, and I would have no means of production to cover my other debts with the bank.”

“What about the rent? Mr Bell is one of papa’s oldest friends, surely he would be amenable?”

John gave her a fond look, one which suggested she was naive. It frustrated her, even if his next words proved him right. “He has allowed us to delay by one month, but then we must repay two months at once. He may be a family friend of yours, Margaret, but he is a shrewd man and has not grown his wealth through charity.”

Margaret pursed her lips. “I shall speak with him. And papa! He might be more open to persuasion than he appears—”

“I would rather you didn’t.” John said sharply, then continued in a softer manner. “It makes me appear weak, to hide behind my wife’s skirts like that.”

“Nonsense! No one would ever need to know except you and I, and Mr Bell, and he well knows this affects my future as well as yours. This would make a better wedding present than—what was it he bought us? Some glassware? Yes, I shall speak to him—oh, don’t worry, I shall pretend you are unaware of what I am doing. I will act quite the silly, simpering lady if I must.”

John sighed but did not contradict her, and that at least told Margaret things were possibly worse than he’d even intimated. If he was willing to allow her to approach Mr Bell, he was putting necessity over his pride. Either that, or he was finally learning not to dismiss her.

“And there is nothing else to be done?” she urged.

“Nothing I would risk,” he said firmly, and if there was more to be understood from that, Margaret did not press for it. 

“Then we will face whatever comes,” she told him brightly, with more surety than she felt. “And I will pray, if not for us, then for the sake of all those who rely on Marlborough Mills to feed their families. God will not abandon us all.”

John felt more at ease now that Margaret knew something of the true financial picture, though her sunny response at the end of their conversation left him wondering if she understood exactly how bad things stood. Perhaps she thought the mill would close but the family would be able to keep their home and maintain their manner of living. 

He couldn’t call the prospect of the scheme a temptation, because he knew too well the risks such nonsense carried. He believed in certainty and taking little risk in business, and despite Latimer’s assurance John knew no guarantees could be made. He was scornful of gambling of any kind, and this seemed to him no more secure than a wager on the horses.

Yet Latimer had hit on his weak spot, the one he’d been musing for weeks before the speculation was raised. If the mill failed, the Thorntons’ circumstances would be greatly reduced. Margaret would go from having a secure, prosperous home to living in genteel poverty, even lower than the circumstances of her father’s household. John would be able to find work, but the family would be back to surviving on little more than the mill hands themselves, setting money aside to try and build themselves back up—it would take years.

No children. Not if they couldn’t afford to feed the extra mouths. But Margaret had made it plain she wanted children—would she hate him for refusing her that?

To John’s disgust Latimer spoke to Watson, who then broached the subject with Fanny, recruiting her to the cause of changing John’s mind. As if Fanny had the faintest inkling what it all meant. As if she was capable of employing any subtlety in the matter, or persuading her brother on anything he’d set his mind against. John dismissed her out of hand and warned her not to raise the subject again, resulting in a tantrum the entire household was witness to, but could not turn his thoughts away from the issue.

Yet then another blow came: the first cancellation. A customer disgruntled at late delivery, unwilling to accept the strike as an excuse or the offer of a discount for taking the delayed shipment. Instead John was left with stock which belonged to no one. He could, and would, seek another buyer, but in the meantime he was left reworking his accounts under the assumption that it would all go to waste.

The numbers drove him back to the clubhouse.

“How long until we would know if the scheme is successful?” he found himself asking Latimer over another discrete game of billiards.

“Several months, I imagine. I can provide you with a copy of the contract, which gives full details.” Now he knew he had John hooked, he tried to reel him in. “I know that won’t solve your immediate problem, but given I’ll be assured you have the means coming to clear your debt, I wouldn’t have any problems in delaying some of your payments.”

John left the clubhouse a short while later with a gentlemans’ agreement reached and a copy of the contract in his jacket pocket.

This should have lifted his spirits. He’d taken action, however much he disliked it, to try and avert disaster. Fanny would be delighted, and even his mother seemed to tentatively support the scheme if John was minded to invest in it.

Even so, John felt compelled to speak with his wife as well; to put her mind at ease, and prove that he was able to take action to provide for her. She could stop worrying about their finances and trust him to be a good husband.

“Is this about the mill again?” she asked that evening, when they were face to face once more in their armchairs. 

“Mr Latimer gave me another option,” he began tentatively. “One proposed by Watson. If it works, we shouldn’t need to worry about finances at all—it would clear the entire debt to the bank and more. But if it is unsuccessful—” He stopped, caught by the memory of another failed scheme, and the way it had blighted his young life.

“If it fails?” she prompted.

“We would have to close immediately. Forfeit the mill, and put all the hands out of work without their pay.”

“Then whatever it is, I object to it!”

“I thought that would be your view. And it was mine as well.”

“Was?” she asked sharply. John remained silent. “What is this great opportunity, which might either save or ruin you?”

“A speculation,” he replied after a long pause. “I invest money in a scheme.”

“You speak as if you have already put money forward on this scheme.” 

It was an accusation, one he shrank from. He could not meet her gaze, for fear of what he might find there. “I have agreed in principle.”

Her silence was full of scorn.

John felt compelled to explain himself, to offer up whatever excuses she might accept from him. “I have always turned my nose up at such ideas—it has always been one of my principles to do nothing without surety. Yet I have a new responsibility now, and that is to provide for you.”

“Don’t you dare!” she admonished, rising and striding away from him. When she turned back to him, her eyes flashed with anger. “Do you think I would agree with you risking the pay of hundreds of people for my sake? Then you do not know me at all!”

He didn’t know what to say. “I am a desperate man, Margaret. I promised you things I cannot deliver—” His throat closed, preventing him from saying another word.

“I am not interested in what you can provide for me, not when it would harm others. Not when I cannot trust you stand by your principles! Why, I don’t know if I know you at all now—the man I thought I was coming to understand would never do such a thing.” She paused in her pacing and turned to face him. “Is there nothing to be done?” she demanded.

He forced a response out. “I can withdraw. It is only an agreement at present—I haven’t signed anything.”

“Then I beg you to do so.”

“You have no need to beg! But do you understand what it may mean for us?”

She lifted her chin in that familiar pose of defiance. “Whatever happens you will be able to do it with your dignity intact and my faith in you unshaken.” Ah, she knew how to bend him to her will. If only Watson had recruited her instead of Fanny. “I’m sorry, I think I must seek rest now. Good night.”

And she swept from the room, leaving him with only the taint of her disappointment for company.

Chapter Text

All of their burgeoning closeness evaporated overnight. Margaret took to her side of the bed, lying stiffly apart from John, and when he attempted to give her his now customary forehead kiss, she flinched away.

He did not sigh, understanding that she was upset with him. He even understood why she was so upset and could not blame her for her withdrawal.

Worse, this night she did not even migrate into his side, so he woke up cold and confused. Instead she was still determinedly curled up tightly on her own side of the bed, putting as much space between them as she could, and had stolen most of the blankets in the process.

It did mean that, for a change, he was able to rise and depart without waking her, a full hour before he normally would leave. He was dressed even before the maid had been up to light the fire or laid out breakfast; he gave terse instructions that he did not need any and went out to the mill. He’d had no intention of meeting with Latimer today but now the extra time he was able to put to use in the office.

A flurry of notes went between he and Latimer, wherein the banker confirmed he would be at the clubhouse again prior to luncheon. John didn’t like that the meeting was being held there, rather in Latimer’s office at the bank, but anything which made the man more amenable could only be a good thing. Even still, he went to the club with a cloud over his brow and a heaviness in his belly.

“Have you signed the contract?” asked Latimer from his customary place next to the billiard table.

“I have not,” said John, “and I will not.”

Latimer expertly sank one of the billiard balls. He often gave off the air of an affable old man, yet he had a sharp eye and sharper teeth. “We had an agreement, Thornton. The word of one gentleman to another.” He continued onto the next shot.

“I have never been accused of being a gentleman yet,” John replied. “But to continue would be the more ungentlemanly endeavour.”

Latimer didn’t even look up from the table, which he was rapidly clearing. He’d win before John was able to take a turn of his own. “If you renege on one part of our agreement, you renege on both parts.”

This was what John feared. Without the leeway Latimer had promised, the mill would shutter even faster.

But at least he would be able to pay the workers when the time came. And Margaret would not be disappointed in him. The thought of her face last night—at first happy that he was involving her in his thoughts, then her dismay at the risk he was taking—was what he grasped to hold himself firm as he considered his next response.

“I understand. I’ll seek alternative arrangements.”

He knew it was a polite excuse—Latimer knew the same—but John made it anyway. There were no alternatives available to him, yet John would not lose face, and he would not be pushed into changing his mind because of Latimer’s tactics.

Latimer nodded. “In that case, I expect your next payment to be made within the month. Otherwise we shall have to take steps to begin recovering the debt.”

At that, he cleared the table, pocketing the black to win the game.

Margaret was waiting for John when he returned home that evening, and she didn’t need to ask him whether he’d done as he’d promised: it was clear in his posture. She did what was necessary and went to him, to take his hands in her own and bestow kisses on the backs of them.

“Thank you,” she murmured, and this small act seemed to lift some of the burden away from him, lightening his eyes. She always marvelled at the power she apparently held over him, which seemed to her to be a dangerous power if it feel into the wrong hands. Privately she vowed never to misuse it, though John was not the kind of man to lose his head over something as irrational as love and would not walk over hot coals even if she demanded it. For that, she was thankful.

“The situation has not improved,” he reminded her gravely. “Sooner or later, the mill will fail.”

“Then we will face it when it does. As a family.”

There it was again: that shimmer of awe over his features, the one which made her feel curiously lightheaded when she witnessed it. Yet Margaret held firm, meeting his eyes despite her urge to duck her head and pretend she did not notice his open adoration.

“Mr Latimer did not appreciate my withdrawal,” John commented. 

“Did you tell him your wife forbids your participation in the scheme?” Margaret asked cheekily.

He huffed. “No, I told him I am a man of principle and remain so.”

“You are,” she replied softly. “It is one of your better qualities, even if we do not always see eye to eye on those principles. It would vex me to think you had wavered on my account. And John—you told me that you have never done anything without surety, but you must only have meant that in matters of business.”

His forehead wrinkled in confusion once more. 

“You asked for my hand without being sure of my answer,” she reminded him, “twice. That took a great leap of faith. You married me without knowing how well we might fare together. You may be very conservative with your money, but you take great risks with your heart.”

He shook his head. “Not at all. On those issues, it was riskier to keep my mouth shut. It was better to know you did not love me than to continue labouring under some delusion that you might. And if I had not asked the second time, I was only guaranteed misery and loneliness—by asking I had at least a chance of gaining you as my wife. It was a worthwhile gamble, and one I would not change at all.”

In a new twist of boldness, he gripped her hand and brought it to her mouth, much as he’d done during that second proposal.

It was only fair, given the way she’d kissed his at the beginning of the conversation. And yet it did not feel fair at all, the way it caused such fluttering in the pit of her stomach, but Margaret did not protest, instead rewarding him with another smile for his boldness. 

“Neither would I,” she responded, and his answering smile far eclipsed anything she could offer him.

Though Margaret found some relief in John refusing to take part in the speculation, and putting his workers first, it was short-lived. He was soon putting in long hours at the mill again, and more than once she had to take his dinner across to his office. She found him there in shirt sleeves, his fingers stained with ink and his eyes bleary, working to the light of one small candle instead of the gas lamps. But he would not waste food, and she would not see him go hungry when he needed his strength the most, so he wolfed down the contents of the plate when it arrived and she was able to return to the house with it empty.

More often, she would take two plates across to him so they could at least dine together. She hated the thought of him spending so many hours isolated in the draughty room and a little company would be good for his spirit. She provided light conversation without requiring him to respond as he cleared his plate. In turn, she was learning to ensure she ate everything on her own plate—the height of bad manners in London and in her late mother’s eyes, but doubtless the habit of a boy who’d grown up making every penny count.

Despite this, it would be later still before John came home, often only to wash and then retire straight to bed. She worried for him, and secretly wondered if the mill failing sooner would lift the burden from him. A small blessing, compared with the grinding effect many months of this would have on him.

On one of the evenings where John did not return home until long after dark, Margaret spotted him in the mill yard, sat down with one of the Boucher children, who was reading from a book. It was young Tom, judging by the little cap he wore. John folded himself down beside the boy on the edge of the ramp that led to the storerooms, peering down at the page as Tom pointed at it. Margaret started to make her way downstairs and outside, but did not get far: instead she made it only down one storey, peaking out around a curtain at her husband and Nicholas Higgins, who were having a discussion which seemed almost amicable. She wished she could hear what they were discussing, but she felt instinctively that if she went outside, she would interrupt, perhaps even become a source of irritation between them. 

She could not deny the happiness she felt at the little moment she’d witnessed between John and the lad. John was a large man, accustomed to using his size to stake his presence in the room, to draw attention and make it clear that he held the power in any interaction. Yet with the boy he’d made himself small, to be less intimidating, and she’d even seen one of his rare smiles as they talked, lopsided and boyish in its own way. Tom had not seemed scared of John at all, not the way many of the workers were always a little intimidated by the master, and it was a touching scene. Not because John was displaying his capacity for tenderness; she was already well aware of that, but because he was displaying it with someone so far below his social station, and someone he had nothing to gain from it. It was his natural instinct to be pleasant with the boy, and it was more creeping evidence of his innate kindness. She would draw it out of him yet.

Under the cover of darkness, she felt safe to ask John what his discussion with Nicholas had been about.

“I saw you talking with Mr Higgins today.” She was careful to use the formal name, wary of the last time she’d inadvertently revealed her familiarity with the man. “I trust he has proved himself to be no bother.”

“None at all,” John agreed. “Though he didn’t quite stick to his agreement—he has actually been doing some thinking while at the mill.”


“Yes. It’ll be beneficial, though. We’re looking at opening a canteen to feed the staff.”

“Are you?” She was full of delight again, grinning at him even if he couldn’t see it.

“It’s not like that—” he cautioned, “it’s a business decision, not compassion. If the workers are fed well they will work harder. It’s only a matter of economics.”

“I’m sure it is,” yet her tone made it clear she did not believe him one bit. His insistence only made it sound like he was protesting too much. “Perhaps Mr Higgins and I are having an influence on you.”

“If you are, it can only be a bad influence.” He tried to sound gruff, but she knew him enough now that it was not sincere. “The other masters will have me driven out of town soon enough.”

“Ah, but perhaps the workers will come to your defence this time,” she teased, and he gave a non-committal hum in response. 

John’s prolonged absence left her once more in the perpetual company of Mrs Thornton and Fanny, though so much of that time was taken up with Fanny’s wedding preparations that it was almost pleasant to have a diversion.

As always, Fanny managed to excel in that manner. One morning the younger girl waited until her mother was engaged elsewhere before quietly asking Margaret for advice on the marriage bed.

“Mama is not approachable about this sort of thing and though my magazines are burdened with wondrous advice, on such matters they are frustratingly circumspect.”

Margaret found herself gaping at her sister-in-law, lost for words. She was not sure what advice she could provide, given her own circumstances, though she was aware that Fanny must not become aware of Margaret’s continuing maidenly status. Such news would certainly make its way to at least Mrs Thornton, and it was nobody’s business except Margaret and John’s. Instead, Margaret drew on the knowledge she’d relied on when accepting the terms of John’s offer, and the nuggets of information her childhood had left her with.

“It is not so terrible,” she told Fanny, “and you will have had such a marvellous day leading up to it that it will be nothing at all in comparison.”

“But I have heard,” and here Fanny dropped her voice to a dramatic whisper, “that it can hurt.”

Margaret offered her a tight smile. “I am sure your Watson will relent if you are in a lot of pain. But if you are merely uncomfortable—well, the standard advice is to lie back and think of England.”

“England? What good will that do me?” Fanny asked indignantly.

“I believe it is meant to suggest you are doing your duty to your country, as well as your husband. The key thing is to think of something pleasant—perhaps your lovely dress, or the things you would like to see and do on your honeymoon.”

“I suppose I could do that,” Fanny mused. “And though I have not seen my Watson’s boudoir, he is not a man of great taste. Rather simple and a little dated, if his parlour is any indication, so I may be able to plan a new decoration scheme to occupy myself.”

At that, she thanked Margaret for the advice and moved onto the well-worn topic of her wedding gown. Margaret could only pray she did not ask for further personal advice before she flew the nest.

John felt a sense of relief on the morning of Fanny’s wedding. His sister had long forgotten the dim threat of Watson calling off the match due to John’s own nuptials, and was now of the opinion that the entire world revolved around the event. John was glad this was the last of the expense he would have to expend on his sister.

It was admittedly an uncharitable response to have, but Fanny had never met a coin she wouldn’t happily fritter away on something frivolous. From now on, it would be up to Watson to guard his money carefully against his bride’s habits. In return, the Thornton household would have one less mouth to feed, and that could only be welcomed at this point. He’d scrounged up the money for a payment to Latimer by delaying one to a supplier, which kept the wolves from the door for now but not forever.

Though John did have a few misgivings about the match between Watson and his sister. She was younger even than Margaret but with none of the good sense John suspected Margaret had always had, and though it was not unusual for a girl Fanny’s age to marry a man so much older, there was no real affection between the pair. Good marriages had been built on less, and all John had the right to ask at this stage was that Watson could provide for Fanny, yet he also hoped that love would blossom between them. He’d as good as raised his sister, and would not willingly give her up into the care of someone who might mistreat her.

John had mentioned this to Fanny, a few weeks’ prior. He’d offered her sanctuary if Watson ever did cause her harm, and promised a swift retribution if Fanny ever came to him with news of the same. She’d brushed off the notion as if it was ridiculous, but then later come to him with a kiss on the cheek and a soppy little speech about owing him a great deal.

Today was the first big public occasion in Milton since his own wedding, and those guests who’d avoided his nuptials had confirmed attendance for these. John hoped this was at least partially because of the gossip he’d corrected among the masters, and that the tittle-tattle about Margaret had come to an end. Nevertheless he knew she remained nervous about facing so many of the people who had judged her, even if Fanny would be the focus of attention.

More than anything, though, John was delighted to be able to spend most of the day with his wife—arm-in-arm if they so wished it. He dressed in a pale yellow waistcoat and maroon tie, and Margaret matched him in a silk dress of similar colours he’d bought as part of her trousseau. 

“You look lovely,” he told her as he entered their bedroom from his dressing room. She was finished adding some pearl earrings to her outfit—another gift from him, to match her mother’s ring.

“Thank you,” she responded with one of her bashful smiles. “I have a gift for you!”

“A gift?” He followed her pointing finger to the hat box on her dressing table. “For me?”

“Is that not what I just said?” She was becoming more frequent in her teasing, and each occasion made his heart stutter with joy. “I thought today would be an appropriate time to give it to you.”

He lifted the lid off and peered down at the top hat resting inside. Black, like his existing one, but in much better shape, and tied with a ribbon of maroon silk.

“The ribbon can be changed,” she said hurriedly, “but I noticed you have rather a lot of the colour in your formal attire, and that the ribbon on your usual hat had become slightly—”

“Tatty. Yes it has. I’ve been meaning to replace it for ages, but never saw the need for the expense.” He said it gently, so it did not seem a censure for her buying it. “Not after I bought the grey one for our wedding.”

“I bought this before I knew about the financial predicament,” Margaret replied with chagrin. “But you had spent so much on me that I felt a small token in return would be appreciated.”

“It is. And you are right, today is the perfect day for me to wear it.” So he did, without further mention to money.

The wedding went smoothly, with Fanny basking in the attention. It made it easy for Margaret to fade into the background at John’s side, though with the wedding breakfast being held in the Thornton house once more Margaret was joint hostess this time. It opened her to the scrutiny of the masters’ wives, but she bore it with grace, and John’s careful examination of their interactions convinced him that whatever damage had once been done to Margaret’s reputation was now repaired.

When the guests left, and Fanny departed to the house of her groom, a new peace settled over the household.

Fanny’s departure relieved Margaret of one burden, as she was no longer required to discuss the frivolities her sister-in-law delighted in. Yet it left her exposed to her remaining burden, that of her mother-in-law, in whose sole company she could rely on most days. It almost made Margaret yearn for Fanny’s return, something she’d believed unthinkable only a week prior. 

Margaret inevitably, happily, found herself drawn into the planning for the new kitchen, which was opened very quickly. Her father was also thrilled with the concept, even if the pair of them were careful not to use the word charity around John. It was not charity, he insisted, as the workers were putting some of their wages in to pay for the food and it hadn’t cost Marlborough Mills a thing. In fact, he claimed he could account for additional productivity and profit because of the change, and an influx of workers seeking positions. 

“My wages have always been a little lower than the other mills for comparable work, if not by much, on account of the cost of the wheels and the fact that the work is simpler.” Margaret nodded at the recollection of Bessie Higgins once confirming the latter. “This way I have not had to raise what I pay but the better quality workers come to me anyway, because I have something to offer them the other masters don’t. It allows me to pick and choose.”

It was one last attempt to save the mill: better, faster workers who made fewer mistakes would increase production, and there would be less fatigue all round due to full bellies. If it raised productivity enough they might be able to deliver their long-delayed orders after all, and catch up with their debts.

The opening of the canteen allowed Margaret to mingle with the workers even more, without having to leave the boundaries of the mill’s domain. There was an additional benefit to this, because while at first some of the hands were slow to speak around her—distinctly aware she was now the master’s wife and not Miss Hale anymore—that soon eased as she was able to show them her attitude hadn’t changed. They might not grumble about the work or her husband in front of her, but they were happy to talk about their families, and to resort to their less-coarse jokes and tale-telling. It meant Margaret was able to determine where an extra basket or pair of hands might be needed. In turn, this gave Margaret the excuse she needed to venture out into town and provide the help she wanted to. Sitting idly did not suit her and never would.

That went for their household as much as it did everything else. John’s fears did not ease, and Margaret was compelled to do what she could to assist.

She decided being forewarned was being forearmed. Her mother-in-law was doubtless fully aware of the precarious financial situation, and Margaret was not too proud to take the lead on the matter. She broached the matter over breakfast, when all the servants were out of earshot. 

“You know that we will soon be required to make reductions in our spending,” Margaret began, causing Mrs Thornton to look up from the newspaper she was regarding with disdain for her daughter-in-law’s company.

“I do know. I’m surprised that you do.”

Margaret ignored the slight. “I talk with John about more than Plato and Austen, and he has come to understand that he must be honest with me. Now, while I understand that things are not so dire as yet, I don’t see why we cannot make preparations for what appears likely to occur.”

Mrs Thornton’s expression shifted into something almost approaching curiosity. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, would it not be wise for us to go through the household spending now and see what reductions can be made? Is there the possibility of us making savings to put to one side so they are available for later?”

“We already have savings.”

“But more would not harm, surely?” John had already explained that his personal finances were technically separate from that of the mill, which was set up as a company, but if the mill closed his income would be drastically reduced. “And any cuts made now would feel less severe than those imposed later.”

“I have always run a very tight household,” Mrs Thornton stated, “but if it will please you, I am sure we can go over the finances and see if there are agreements to be made.”

And though the process began swathed in acrimoniousness, with Mrs Thornton tightly rebuking every suggestion Margaret made, eventually she did agree to make some small concessions and for the money to be set aside instead.

“It seems to me,” said Margaret, “that the greatest outgoing, other than rent, is on labour.” They had a small contingent of household staff, far less than Aunt Shaw had, but then Aunt Shaw’s income had always been greater.

“Surely you are not proposing we put the girls out of work?” Mrs Thornton said snidely. “I thought you were friendly with the workers and their plight.”

“I’m not suggesting that! But—could they not find alternative households?”

“I’m sure they can find more work, but then where would we be?”

“If we only got rid of one of them, and reduced the duties of the others, would that not work?”

At first Mrs Thornton did not agree, but a few days later she sought Margaret out in John’s study.

“I have spoken to Fanny. She has agreed to take Lizzy on. In the meantime, the remaining girls will be fulfilling less duties, though exactly what still needs to be determined.”

“I can help with that. Anything that I can do to help in the house—”

Hannah’s mouth set in that familiar tight line. “Might I remind you that you are John’s wife, and the mistress of this house. It does not become you to take on the duties of a common housemaid.”

“Whether it becomes me or not is irrelevant. If the work needs doing and we have no alternative, then I will do it.”

“For now we have an alternative, and John would not abide it.”

“I’m sure he wouldn’t. But the pair of you do not realise how capable I am, and I would not waste money where it does not need to be spent.”

Margaret didn’t need to do anything—the rooms were aired less often, the fires set only when required, which had the added benefit of using less coal. Whether John noticed the reductions, Margaret didn’t know, but she was pleased they had succeeded in gaining any reductions at all. 

“I do have another suggestion,” she said to her mother-in-law over another breakfast, which earned her another grimace.

“Will I like this any better than the last?”

“If it will save you money, you may like it a great deal.”

“Go on.”

“At the moment my father has a small income, an annuity which covers his expenses even if it doesn’t leave much leftover. However, in the event of our reduced income, would it not make sense to combine our two households?”

“Your father move in here?”

“I was thinking more that we might have to move to the house in Crampton.”

Mrs Thornton bristled at that idea. “Move to Crampton!”

“The rent is a great deal less, and there are enough bedrooms to house us all in sufficient comfort! We would only need one or two staff to keep the house running.”

“I’m sure.” Though Mrs Thornton’s mouth was pressed in a tight line, she as not as dismissive as she might have been. “If the mill does fail, we will need to vacate this house, though Crampton wasn’t what I had in mind. I imagined we would return to Gloswick, where we lived after John left school.” At Margaret’s quizzical frown, she explained further. “It’s a market town, only an omnibus ride away from Milton. The living is cheaper there, though wages are lower, and the air is cleaner. There John would not have to see the other masters so much, or give them occasion to gloat over him, and I might live out my dotage with better air.”

“I see.” Margaret understood, but now she found herself alarmed at the prospect of leaving Milton. Not for leaving her father behind; no, the principle of combining their incomes and living with him would be sound anywhere, if he could be persuaded. Gloswick might be a rural idyll, or what passed for one in this part of the country, but Margaret did not relish a return to such a slow pace of life and reduced society. She might not have to face social ills so often, but then she would not be able to help so much either. “I suppose it will be up to John to decide, and where he is best suited to work.”

Mrs Thornton made a non-committal noise of agreement, and Margaret realised they would both separately be trying to persuade John around to their points of view.

Her next task was to carry out her promise to speak with Mr Bell, yet at present her godfather was in Oxford. This was not the kind of thing she wished to commit to ink, not least because it was much harder to practice guile in that form. In person, Margaret could look for the right opening in a conversation, and retreat at the appropriate moment should things not be progressing as she hoped. In writing, she would need to be plain, and it was all too close to seeking charity for her taste. There were people in the world—in Milton itself—who required charity more than she did.

Luckily, Mr Bell had extended an invitation for her father to visit him in Oxford, to retreat from the worst extremes of a Milton winter if only for a week or two. Her father had accepted on the basis that he had rather less company than he was used to, now Margaret had flown the nest. Mr Bell would then accompany her father on the return journey to attend a dinner held by the Hendersons, other tenants of his. His presence in town would provide the ideal opportunity for Margaret to raise the issue of rent.

The snow arrived once more to Milton on the day of her father’s return. Margaret had plans to visit Crampton before dinner that evening, to welcome her father home, and was already in her thickest coat and sturdiest bonnet when Mr Bell’s carriage turned into the mill-yard. She dashed outside to greet him, thrilled he’d brought her father directly to her so she did not have to make the journey on foot.

Yet as soon as she crossed the yard she could see Mr Bell was alone in the carriage. This was not so alarming; perhaps he had come to see her after dropping her father off. What sent a stab of dismay through her was the expression on his face: grey and drawn, a mask of grief which made her chest tight and her throat close up before he could even alight or speak a word. She knew why he was alone—would have begged him not to say it aloud if she could find the will to utter a word—and could not bear to hear it.

“Margaret,” he said, “your father is dead.”

Chapter Text

John’s attention was pulled from his work firstly by the clatter of the carriage, and secondly by the harsh cry which rang through the air brief minutes later. A wail of pain, abruptly cut off.

He knew that voice, reacting immediately as he fled his office out into the snow with it still ringing in his ears: Margaret’s cry. His thoughts only caught up with his instincts as he burst out into the yard and found her crumpled beside the carriage. One of her hands covered her mouth and her glassy eyes stared at nothing.

Bell was in the process of alighting from the carriage to help her but John got there first, his long legs propelling him to his wife’s side. His hands were gentle on her, but he could not leave her on the ground like that, not as wet and icy as it was. She did not look at him as he guided her to her feet, one arm firmly around her waist, though she sagged into him rather than hold herself upright.

From the haunted expression  on Bell’s face, it evident what had caused this effect. John felt an echo of Margaret’s own sorrow in his chest, for the loss of his friend, but he could not dwell on his own feelings now. Instead, he must focus on Margaret. Now, more than ever, she needed him.

To lose one parent was harsh enough. To lose the second, so soon after, was a merciless act on the part of providence.

He tried to coax her inside with gentle words but she was incapable of walking, burying her face into John’s shoulder as if she could hide from the world and the truth of the matter. His other hand came around her as well, stroking gently at her back, while Bell stood awkwardly to one side, unsure of what to do or say. Then all the strength left Margaret again, and it was only John’s quick reactions, as well as their closeness, which enabled him to catch her.

Once more he found himself with Margaret in his arms. A third occasion, cradling her to him as he crossed the threshold of the house, and only the second time had been any sort of happy occasion. This time they’d gathered an audience; the hands come from the canteen at the first hint of drama. Whispers rippled around the yard, snatches of concern for the mistress—who was well liked by one and all. Higgins at the front of them, taking one look at the scene and removing his cap to bow his head.

Then John delivered his wife into the safety of their home, away from the eyes of the world and the cruelty it continued to dish out.

For all the strength with which Margaret had borne the death of her mother, it was lacking at this fresh blow. She retreated inside herself, shrinking away from her surroundings, draped in black as she sat at the window watching the yard for hour after hour. It was as if she hoped that if she watched hard enough, her father would come home—that time would find a way to remake itself and Bell’s carriage would come clattering in with Mr Hale as its passenger.

It was not to be, but nothing John could say or do would move Margaret. He offered only gentle words and gentle hands, approaching her much as he would a frightened animal, though there was no fear in her countenance. There was nothing much at all, except a deep weariness. The tears had long since faded, though her skin remained pale and drawn, her eyes red-rimmed from a lack of sleep more than from any weeping. That, at least, earned a grudging respect from John’s mother, who showed her own concern in her customarily practical way: entreating Margaret to at least take tea and broth, if she would eat nothing else.

And it was in his mother’s hands he had to leave Margaret, though John felt wretched for abandoning her when she needed him most. The mill required him as well, and the last thing Margaret needed was to be turfed from the house as the family sought new lodgings.

Despite her daytime withdrawal, at night Margaret clung to him more closely than either. She didn’t wait for the veil of sleep to fall before she curled into his side—likely because neither of them were sleeping much at all. But in the darkness, the warmth and solidity of her at his side soothed his waking anxieties, and he hoped he was at least fractionally a balm for her in the same way.

There was no funeral for Margaret to attend; that had been conducted down in Oxford, quietly and hastily arranged by Bell before he began his journey northward with his terrible news. The alternative had been burying Mr Hale without a soul who had known him in attendance.

John hoped Bell would depart as soon as he’d done his worst, but instead the man took up at his usual lodgings in the town and insisted on visiting Margaret daily. He got precious little more from her than John did, but at least he provided a comforting presence in John’s absence. John felt the need to take regular breaks from his office to check on Margaret, having had more luck than his mother in getting her to eat.

On the fifth day he found them in their customary tableau: Margaret by the window in the sitting room, his mother in one of the armchairs and Bell in the other. A bowl of soup and a crust of bread had been placed on the table next to Margaret and as yet lay untouched.

“I cannot stay long,” John murmured, unable to tear his gaze away from the wraith who had taken the place of his wife.

“I had come to say the very same thing,” replied Bell, rising from his chair. “Much as I would like to tarry longer in Milton, I have other business to attend in London, and I cannot delay it any longer.”

“You will not stay for dinner?” his mother enquired, though John knew her well enough to understand this was a politeness rather than a genuine invitation. Another mouth to feed for even one meal was an unexpected cost they would do well to avoid.

“I shall be away by carriage before then, if I have any hope of reaching my preferred lodgings by dusk. I only came to say my farewell to Margaret.”

In response, Margaret’s stare did briefly break from the window and stray towards her father’s friend. “You’re leaving?”

“For now, I’m afraid I must, my dear.”

At this, John and his mother retreated from the room to allow the pair some privacy, lingering in the hallway outside.

“If she does not take a proper meal soon, I will be forced to call for a doctor to attend to her,” Mrs Thornton whispered. “She has grown so pale and wan, it worries me. It’s no small mercy she isn’t with child yet.” John’s face must have reflected some flicker of reaction, no matter how well schooled he considered it, because she continued. “I’m well aware of the regularity of her courses, son. There’s little which goes on this household without my knowledge, even if the servants think me hard of hearing. I was pleasantly surprised to hear them gossiping about the sheets the morning after your marriage—”


“—though I never truly thought that poorly of her. My point being I will not allow her to make herself ill over this.”

The door opened abruptly to reveal Mr Bell. Beyond him, Margaret had returned to her usual pose. “Mr Thornton, would you mind escorting me out?”

John’s mother re-entered the sitting room and John obliged the man, taking it as his cue to return to work.

“I had misgivings about the match,” Bell began as they descended the first level of stairs, and John felt his jaw clench with the first surge of anger. “Not that Margaret would have listened to me had I objected! But I must admit, I was wrong. The way you have attended to her over these past few days leaves me in no doubt as to your devotion for her, tender as it needs to be now. I promised her father I would look after her if anything happened to him, and I half-expected when I returned to Milton I would need to do a great deal more to fulfil that promise. Now I recognise the best thing I can do is leave her in your care.”

John had to clear this throat, swallowing away the subsiding anger, before he could reply. “I thank you.” They had reached the foot of the stairs, and John opened the front door for Bell to pass through.

“Yes, you are a well-suited pair indeed. Though please do not hesitate if anything arises you feel I may be able to help with further. I can’t see there will be, for a capable and resourceful fellow like yourself, but I remain committed to Margaret’s wellbeing all the same.”

Now shame welled within John—because he didn’t have the resources Bell expected of him, and the situation only looked like it would worsen. Yet things were not yet so dire he would stoop so low as to ask Bell for money—though the man was putting a pleasant countenance on now, it did not entirely erase the antipathy John felt towards him. Besides which he was unwilling to put himself even further into Bell’s power.

“If I learn of anything I think it appropriate to involve you in, I will write.”

“Good, good. I will write to Margaret directly when I reach London. Goodbye, Mr Thornton.”

And Bell rounded the corner to where his carriage waited, leaving Milton once more.

John had never held the servant Dixon in particularly high regard—and he knew this feeling was reciprocated—but he had to commend her for her conduct after Mr Hale’s passing. She took it open herself to pack up the house in Crampton and make arrangements, deferring to himself when it became clear Margaret was best let alone during the process. He did his best to judge what she would like, conferring with Dixon for her own knowledge of Margaret’s mind. Mr Hale’s books were added to his own library, though most of the possessions were auctioned off. The funds received from this were added to the household savings, and little as they were, it still acted as a small cushion for them.

John had a quiet word with his mother and had Dixon added to the household staff, for Margaret’s comfort if nothing else—to send her away at this juncture would be a loss too far. It would take little for Dixon and his mother to clash over some disagreement, but for now allowing Dixon to act as a lady’s maid to Margaret soothed her temper and kept her out of his mother’s path.

Mr Bell had scarcely returned to London before John received correspondence from Margaret’s aunt, imperiously announcing she was coming north to visit her bereaved niece.

And visit she did, arriving with many demands and complaints, which they bore with quiet dignity because she had, at least, managed to coax a smile from Margaret, and that was to be respected. John wasn’t sure what the reason for their brief rift had been—though he had his suspicions—but the woman was apparently able to put it to one side in his wife’s time of need.

Towards John, she was less magnanimous.

“Would that you hadn’t married so hastily, I could take her home with me, where she belongs,” she lamented to John after her arrival.

“Excuse me?”

“I can only imagine how horrified my sister would be to realise her daughter was now tethered to such an awful place! And as for you—I’m sure you thanked your lucky stars when you realised you had her within your grasp.”

“I’m not sure I follow your meaning.” Once more, anger roiled through him, only the knowledge that Margaret loved this woman dearly stilling the worst of it.

She did not even have the decency to address him directly, instead inspecting her surroundings with distaste as she insulted him. “You, a tradesman. Marrying a genteel woman like Margaret, and so soon after her reputation was threatened. I’m sure you saw your advantage and took it. A swift marriage and she was stranded here, away from everyone she has ever loved or who is worthy of her love.”

It took John striding away and turning his back on her before he could regain his temper enough to speak. “Then be thankful she is where she is loved, without judgement or ambiguity.”

The aunt did not stay long, making a show of coughing into her silken handkerchief on her final departure.

Margaret’s days had begun to blur together, a ritual of eating little, sleeping less, and watching the world go by without participation. The window had become an occupation of sorts, watching the workers scurry around the yard. Some she knew, others she didn’t, and she entertained herself by giving the latter names and characters, histories and futures, weaving a play based on their actions in the yard. It was better than any reality she might have to face. The ever-present hum of machinery and chatter drove out the quietness in her head, leaving her without a peace she might have to otherwise fill.

Sometimes she was reminded of that reality when her husband crossed below her, his brow stern as ever and his shoulders seemingly weighted down. She understood that she was some part of that burden but in her selfishness she couldn’t ease it, instead seeking him more than ever for comfort at night. There was a special selfishness in this, she knew, in him still being denied his own comforts, but for his part it was if their chaste embraces were the natural culmination of any marital intimacy.

This morning, she was shaken from her reverie, disrupted from her routine, by silence.

It was not Sunday. They had attended church only three days prior, and yet below her window not a soul stirred. 

Curiosity, if nothing else, drove her from her usual place into the dining room, then to the parlour—from room to room, seeking someone who might have an answer.

She found John, not in his office in the mill, but in his study. At home.

“John, why are you here?”

That did not receive an immediate response from him beyond rapid blinking, as if he was flustered by her presence.

“It is Wednesday, is it not, and yet the mill is quiet and you are home. What is going on?”

He rose from his seat to usher her further into the room. “Have you eaten? Here, have my porridge.”

“I will seek breakfast after you’ve answered me.”

“A proper breakfast?” he asked, with a raised brow.

“I swear it. Has something happened—is machinery broken, or another strike, or—” She paused, the truth striking her as she recalled the conversations they’d had about finances mere weeks earlier. “You’ve run out of money.”

His lips pressed together tightly, drooping down at the corners even as he dipped his head, both as a half-hearted nod and a means to hide his face from her.

“So soon?” she continued. “Well, I suppose there’s nothing to be done for it now. I’m sure you did all you could.”

For some reason, this gave Margaret renewed purpose. She reasoned later that the both of them could not be so despondent at once, and this was John’s turn. She could no longer linger and watch the world go by; she must take action to protect her world as best she could from crumbling further.

The shuttered mill brought one immediate, unpleasant visitor. Fanny Watson, as she was now, came to call that very afternoon in a new silk gown, far too sumptuous for daywear in Margaret’s view. Aunt Shaw would have dismissed it as garish.

“I shan’t stay long,” she declared as Dixon poured her tea. “I only wished to confirm the news for myself and pass on my deepest regrets.”

They were gathered in the sitting room as a family, and the glint in Fanny’s eyes told Margaret that regret was the furthest thing from her heart.

“Such a shame, when so many did so well out of Watson’s speculation. Think of all that new investment the other mills will see as a result! Yet Marlborough Mills is to close.”

“Thank you, Fanny, you do not need to remind us,” Mrs Thornton said between pursed lips.

“Watson’s speculation succeeded?” Margaret asked.

“You need not sound so surprised, dear sister,” Fanny responded, “for my husband knows what he is doing in business.” Margaret noticed John flinch at this slight, before Fanny addressed him directly. “Perhaps, if you ask kindly, Watson may forgive you for spurning him and consider lending you enough to keep the mill afloat.”

Margaret had grown tired of Fanny’s gloating, boastful air. “We shall find a solution, and I’m sure your husband won’t be needed.” She sounded more certain of this than she felt, but Fanny was doing nothing to improve John’s mood. She breathed a sigh of relief when her sister-in-law left not ten minutes later.

John retired to his study once more, and Margaret was left in the company of Mrs Thornton, who was quietly embroidering a cushion as if nothing had changed. Yet Margaret knew the woman well enough now that she could read the tension in her, and understand she was deep in thought. Margaret had plenty to think of herself

By the time she was ready to retire, she’d worked herself into quite a state, and her previous inertia had twisted into frantic pacing across the bedroom floor. Back-and-forth, lost in her distress, so much so that she collided with her husband when he entered the room.

“Margaret?” he asked, grasping her upper arms to still her. She stopped moving, but did not meet his gaze. Instead, she had to bite her lip in a vain attempt to quell her internal disquiet from exploding from her. “What is the matter?”

“It is nothing,” she replied, wrenching away from him, but the quiver in her voice betrayed her emotional state.

“This is about the mill,” John continued flatly. 

She could not find the words to respond to him, crossing instead to the window, brushing aside the heavy drapes to look down at the yard. It was not unnatural for it to be empty at this time of night, and yet the stillness felt wrong to her, like an open wound. “I cannot bear it!” 

John came up behind her, closing the curtains as if covering over an indecent display. She whirled and paced away from him once more.

“I cannot bear it, because I am responsible for it!” There. That was the sum of it, the equation she had been labouring over all afternoon.

“You are responsible—Margaret, how can you think that?”

“If it weren’t for me, you would have taken part in the speculation, and you would have the money to keep the mill open. I know, your mother knows it—”

“Has she said something to you?” he asked sharply.

“No, but I would not blame her if she had. My objections swayed you and this was the outcome. I have lost you all that you worked for!”

It took him time to respond, his gaze dark and fierce. “You guided me to the decision you knew I needed to make, based on my principles and your understanding of them. Of me. You helped me stand firm when others wanted me to alter them.”

She shook her head, his words mocking her memory of the situation; how cruel she’d been to bend him to her whim. “And now I remain here, a burden on your finances, with nothing to offer the household. I had no dowry, I have no skills, and I am a poor wife indeed.”

“That is not true.” 

She shied away as he once more reached for her, tears spilling from her eyes. “It is! I do not contribute to the running of the household in any way, I cannot heal the breach between your mother and myself, and I completely failed to ask Mr Bell for any mercy when I had the opportunity. What use am I here? I may as well be in London with Aunt Shaw.”

“No.” One word, a broken gasp. She felt his thumbs on her cheeks, brushing the tears away, his large hands cradling her face. “No, that I could not bear. You do not need a purpose; you are my wife, and you make me happy. Do not make me face this failure without you.”

He was close enough for her to absorb his warmth, as she often did during the night, and she reached up to curl her fingers around his wrists. Then she lifted her head to face him properly. 

“How can that be?” But she didn’t need an answer, not when he’d laid himself bare before her time and again. She didn’t understand, how her mere presence could make him happy, yet the truth of it was there in his eyes. She turned her head, pressed a kiss to his palm. 

She heard his breath hitch. Emboldened by this reaction, Margaret let her hands come to rest on his chest, closer still to that familiar warmth. In turn, John moved a thumb to brush across her lips, and it was her turn to gasp. When she met his gaze once more, her knees nearly buckled under the weight of devotion in his expression. Instead she remained firm, despite the fluttering in her chest. Whatever he read in her face seemed to give him courage; his eyes flickered shut and he brought his lips to hers.

Chapter Text


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.