For a moment, he believed he must still be sleeping. Surely he was in his bed in Milton, dreaming of her. Perhaps he had never gone to Helstone at all. But no, there was the yellow rose in his pocket, crinkled but vibrant.
And there she was, staring at him with a look of wonder. The conversation was stilted, for he could not help but stare back at her in adoration, knowing what he now knew of her brother, of his mistaken assumptions. And when she informed him that she had been to Milton, an unstoppable wave of hope swept through him, robbing his lungs of the necessary air to breathe. If it could possibly be what he thought—
She turned away to solicit assistance from another man, Henry. But he could not bear to let her go, and so he guided her to a nearby bench and asked her to explain. She did, halting and stilting and altogether overcome with nerves. He could not help but shift closer to her, for once unconcerned with propriety and reputation. His eyes were on hers as he realised that the woman he loved, the woman he adored more than anything else, had travelled back to him to offer salvation.
When she began to spin the tale that he would be doing her a service—attempting to avoid offence, he assumed, or damage to his pride—he could not bear the distance any longer. His hand crept down to grip hers. Her skin was soft and smooth under his, and he could not resist brushing his thumb across her knuckles once, twice, three times. And then her hands brought his to her mouth, placing a reverent kiss against his skin, and he was lost.
Slowly, cupping her cheek in his hand as if she were span of the finest glass, John set his mouth to hers. It was a gentle kiss, one that demonstrated his love and restraint. His lips trembled against hers; he could scarcely believe that it was happening. For months he had dreamt of her lips on his, and now he realised that his hopes and dreams never could have matched the glory of this kiss. Her lips were soft and sweet against his, her breath shuddering against his mouth, and he never wished to let her go. But he must, at the very least to ensure that she was equally swept up in the storm of feeling.
“I apologise,” he whispered against her mouth, in fear that his ardor had frightened her. “Are you—”
“London train about to depart,” the station master called, cutting him off. “London train is about to depart.”
Margaret stood without a word, and he was forced to watch her walk away from him yet again. This time, he found he did not have the strength to watch as the train bore her away, to London, to the south. His heart in pieces, the weight heavy in his chest, he turned away, to the train that would carry him in the opposite direction. Everything that had seemed bright and hopeful only moments before lay in ruins, and he was faced with the prospect of returning to Milton in despair.
But then he caught her reflection in the glass window, and his heart beat a battered rhythm in his chest. He feared once again that he was dreaming, but seized the last of his courage and turned to face the truth. And there she was. A smile overtook his face as he realized she had only left to get her bag, and he could not help but ask, “Coming home with me?” He felt the need to speak the words aloud, to make it real.
She said nothing, but offered him the bag she still held in her hands. He took it, allowing her to precede him into the compartment. Once they settled, sat side by side, she reached for him gently, nervously. John was happy to oblige, and brought his lips down to meet hers. There was less nervousness on his part, less restraint. His Margaret had seen everything he felt for her, had felt it in his mouth on hers, and still had chosen him. The knowledge raised his spirits, buoying him with such happiness he felt it must radiate from his very skin.
It dawned on him, now that they were safely ensconced in his compartment on the train headed north—toward Milton, toward their future together—that he needn’t agonise any longer. There was no need to entreat Margaret to look back at him. This time, his love—his sweet Margaret—sat at his side. No longer leaving him behind.
The thought sent happiness fluttering through him, and he could not remove his gaze from the woman who had set his heart aflame so many months ago. And Margaret battled her reserved nature in return, and gazed upon him fully. But it was not enough to look. Their lips met again.
The outside world would intrude soon enough, he reckoned. Once they returned to Milton, there was so much to be done. But at the moment all he wished to do was bask in her presence, and breathe her in. And so he did.