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Gentleman's Secrets

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Margaret clutched her side, her head ringing with the sounds of laughter and clinking crystal. Her fingernails scraped the wallpaper as she stood on her toes, craning her neck expectantly. For all the effort, she could achieve only a scant view over the people milling about in the rosy candlelight.

A golden flash of ringlets caught Margaret's eye. Her obvious discomfort became disappointment as she watched a young woman twirl into her handsome suitor's arms. Whoever it was, she was certainly not Mrs. Fanny Watson. With Dixon occupied in the kitchens, Fanny had, against all odds, become Margaret’s sole hope of relief.

Slumping against the wall, Margaret resigned herself to temporary immobility. Her eyes, as hungry for distraction as her stomach was for food, settled on a peripheral corner of the dancing area. Despite the servants’ fastidious attentions, one of the golden ropes had slid down, opening the velvet drapes. The accidental moonbeam filtering through painted each couple whirling past with an ephemeral streak of silver. The effect was utterly romantic, though she'd never been one for dancing.

She dismissed the notion of a turn about the floor as quickly as it came. Mr. Thornton, also lost to the crowd, had no doubt been entrapped into conversation with the other mill masters. His absence was just as well, as Margaret could never hide anything from him. At the moment, her greater problem was the inability to breathe.

Her eyes closed as the shrill words which precipitated her present distress echoed in her mind.

"Honestly, Margaret. Any lady who is anyone at all should be laced far tighter than this!"

The young Mrs. Watson had barged in at only ten past seven that morning. She'd barely entered before appointing herself to the task of scrutinizing every aspect of Margaret’s gown. First, there was the make of the bustle, which was woefully small. Equally insufficient was the length of the train, a "dreadful" inch shorter than Fanny's own had been. Fanny had supervised zealously, having Jane fetch useless odds and ends from every corner of the house. Dixon had, rather presciently, left an hour earlier for the flower arrangements.

Dixon had returned by eight o'clock, ready to lace Margaret in as usual. Fanny would have none of it. With a look of abject horror, she held up the corset with two fingers as though it were a piece of refuse, declaring loudly that only a proper lady's maid could be trusted with the task. Shoving Dixon aside, Fanny presented Margaret with a boned article of gold brocade. It was quite small, French, and the same as used by a one “Lady de Clare.”

Much to Fanny's surprise, Margaret had well prepared for such nonsense. She never been in the habit of lacing tightly, more mindful of her daily walks than of fashion. This day would be no different.

What Margaret was regrettably less prepared for was Fanny's stomping, so petulant at Margaret's protest that Mrs. Thornton had poked her head in to investigate. The old woman cast only a warning look at both young women before ducking out. The briefness of her visit was much to Margaret's gratitude.

Under normal circumstances, Margaret did nothing she did not wish. However, Fanny’s incessant prattling had not eased her growing headache. She’d also not slept a wink, warping her typical iron will considerably. It was how it came to be that twenty minutes later, she was listening to a sermon on the virtues of a 'presentable' figure as Fanny yanked at the laces. By the time Edith and Aunt Shaw arrived in a flurry of embraces, Margaret had already stepped into her gown.

The carriage had arrived soon after. The dawn chill still permeated the courtyard as Margaret stepped out, and Margaret hesitated a moment too long on the landing. Dixon took the opportunity to fuss as she adjusted the late Mrs. Hale's small diamond brooch pinning Margaret's cape. “I cannot believe it is the last morning," the old woman had said with sad fondness, “that you will be Miss Hale.”

And so it was that Miss Margaret Hale became Mrs. John Thornton. In the end, she had gotten her wish for a simple ceremony. Corset aside, her gown was modest, its cream satin accented with wispy golden ferns. Her bouquet was of Michaelmas daisies, their lavender almost white against the sun-bright centers. Those little yellow circles were almost the hue of Helstone roses, for which it was now too late in the season. The service itself had passed in a blur of stone and grey and 'amens.' It was only when John had slid the band on her finger, his eyes shining with nervous joy, that Margaret's heart soared. It was real: He was hers and she his.

Had they married when first he asked, the day might have looked quite different. She would have arisen to a sky that was sunny, rather than grey, before donning her favorite muslin. The six Boucher children would have worn eyelet as they skipped, scattering rose petals onto the red clay path. Nicholas and Mary would have been there—perhaps even Mr. Boucher. Her childhood friends, few though they were, would have lined the church road to greet her. And there, at the end, would have stood her parents and Fred, their smiles brighter to see her happiness than all the rest.

Now, it was only fantasy. Without her parents—and worse, without Fred—it would never have been a true Helstone wedding. The Margaret who had dreamt of it was a different person—naive, perhaps. She was not the woman who had made Milton her home at last.

"I dare not ask what you are thinking with that look on your face, Mrs. Thornton."

Margaret turned around to see Mr. Thornton—John, she corrected herself—standing not a foot from her. His eyes, alight like a sky on fire, could arrest her from across the room. At this proximity, she did not know where to look. As had become habit, she chose the floor.

It was a habit that was difficult to break. For so long they had been pointlessly at odds before at last they'd overcome their stubbornness. To make up for lost time, their engagement had been short. To marry sooner was worth every raised eyebrow and speculative whisper. Neither Mr. Thornton nor Miss Hale could not explain that, abrupt as their love had seemed, they'd waited years too long already.

Their engagement at least permitted them to walk unchaperoned in the parks—a pleasure they delighted to learn they had in common. As they strolled in the crisp air above the smoke and warehouses, it was Margaret who did most of the talking. Her return to Milton was still so incandescent, so exhilarating, that she wanted to sing her joy to the hills. She asked an endless barrage of questions about the welfare of hands and shop owners and masters alike. John answered each one patiently, his mouth twitching with amusement.

It was only when she paused at length that he would speak. As was his predilection, his thoughts were of the future: of the mill; of prospects. But sometimes, when the wind was quiet, he would murmur of the past. That he could not sleep for days when she'd left. That he'd wanted to kiss her hand when it had brushed his that night at tea so long ago. These revelations would come so unexpectedly and innocuously that she often almost missed them. Yet with each word, her soul resounded with 'yes.' He was letting her in.

Still, the intimacy of the heart was different than this—the sheer newness of him so close. From the moment she'd seen him looking down on the mill floor, she had measured his features, so sharply handsome that she could feel them as much as see them. The memory of her fingers grasping the nape of his neck the day of the riots, her cheek close enough to feel the warmth of his breath, always left her with a restless ache. She felt it again, and more acutely, as he strode toward her on the train platform, sleeves rolled and collar undone. By the time his lips had curved so tenderly against hers, defiant to all scandal, she was lost. Exhilaration coursed through her as he'd held her closer in their booth, every stolen kiss more urgent than the last. Her pounding heart was almost pressed to his when the ticket taker came. They'd had only a moment to collect themselves before pulling away.

Margaret quickly looked up, unaware of how long she had been lost in her reverie. For what she deduced was more than a few moments, he had been extending something toward her. Flowers.

“They did not arrive in time for the ceremony, I’m afraid."

With an astonished breath, she touched the familiar glossy leaves. Little clusters of yellow petals were bursting from them, fully bloomed.

"How on earth did you get them?"

"New York. Last in the greenhouse, so I was told.”

She held back a laugh at his gruff tone, so at odds with the gentle earnestness of his gaze. He should be scolded for such extravagance, even if he had found the roses. Her roses.

“But how could you incur such an expense on my account? We have already spent—“

“It was worth every pound.”

Margaret shook her head at his stern jaw and the rare smile that accompanied it. Any further argument would be half-hearted.

Realizing that John was still rather awkwardly holding the arrangement, she nodded toward a nearby servant. As she placed the bushel of flowers into her arms, Margaret grabbed a few loose stems for herself. Already, she knew it would be her most cherished wedding gift.

“Fetch a vase for these, please, and put them in the sitting room.” The young servant girl—one temporarily borrowed from the Watsons' home—bowed to her mistress and was off.

When Margaret turned back, John was already lost in thought. Like her, he had little interest in trite conversation and being the fixture of attention. He surveyed the throng of Miltoners hopping to a jig with mild apprehension.

“We shall have to oblige them again at some point before the night is over, I'm afraid.”

A flush bloomed on her face at the recent and rather embarrassing memory. After much clinking of glasses, and the newlyweds' refusal to kiss before the crowd, the Thorntons had conceded to a dance. Both of them had narrowly missed each others’ toes on several turns.

"I fear we would both do ourselves an injury at that pace,” Margaret teased. “But a waltz might have been agreeable had you not been engaged elsewhere.”

"Already I am derelict in my husbandly duties, it seems.” John eyed the small group of mill masters huddled in the far corner. As Margaret now understood too well, business was the inescapable fabric of Milton society.

He extended his arm with a wry smile, looking thoughtfully at the chaise beside them.

“Shall we agree to not dance, then?”

With a polite smile, Margaret bent her knees slowly, trying not to lean too much on his elbow. Just as she settled onto the cushion, another pang tore through her side.

When she looked up after catching her breath, John was perched on the edge of the seat, his brow furrowed with concern.

"I am well, I assure you." She bid him to sit back with a wave of her hand. “The laces were tied a bit too tight this morning, that is all."

John frowned dubiously as he looked across the room. “I'll venture to guess it was my sister’s idea rather than your own.”

Margaret blushed furiously, both at the accurate assumption of what caused her present condition and who was (partly) to blame.

“...And so she said, ‘But why can we not have two carriages if a horse has eight legs?'”

John rolled his eyes toward the uproarious laughter, while Margaret cringed as she turned toward the familiar high-pitched voice. As often occurred at such events, a small crowd had surrounded Mrs. Watson. The Thorntons watched as her fan cut the air with a theatrical slice, almost knocking poor Mr. Watson to the floor.

“Fanny assured me it was how all ladies are wearing it in London,” Margaret blurted, appraising her sister-in-law’s ruddy cheeks and Watson's rather appalled expression. If only she'd found Dixon while she had the chance.

John raised a facetious eyebrow, his smile crooked. “To think that the most sensible and willful woman I know consented to such impracticality."

“My good sense was misplaced this morning amongst the hairpins, I am afraid.”

Margaret could not help but grin. Marriage seemed to have already brought an unexpectedly easy humor to the master of Marlborough Mills. She sighed, her determined smile fading a bit.

“But I suppose not much about weddings is sensible, is it?”

A look of tenuous strain returned to John's face. "A Milton wedding is not a Helstone wedding, I know."

“But you know I’d no longer wished for that.”

“Yes, but you cannot truthfully tell me that this—” he made a sweeping gesture to the room—“is what you wanted, Margaret.”

She could not lie to him, so she dared not answer. As predicted, Mrs. Thornton had balked at hosting only a small wedding breakfast. In the spirit of compromise, Margaret had ceded control of the domestic details in which she took little delight. Somewhere in the proceedings, the wedding 'breakfast' had lengthened into a fete that had well outlasted the daylight.

Watching her husband's pensiveness, an insensible fondness overtook Margaret. Not long ago, she had construed his silences with all the prejudice in her heart. It had taken too many of his kind gestures, once so willfully ignored, to see that his reserve was more often born of thoughtfulness than anger.

And, in truth, she did not mind the occasional tempest. All of London's gentlemen combined could not exhibit such passion.

"No, John," Margaret finally replied. "Marrying you today is all I wanted." She paused, his Christian name lingering on her tongue. Her fingers danced over his hand, which she found situated respectably on the cushion between them.

"And I cannot thank you enough for the flowers. I could not have wished for a better gift."

He brushed the apple of her cheek. “I was too overcome earlier to tell you how beautiful you looked today.”

“I—I thank you. I was a bit overcome myself, even before the corset.” Margaret bit her lip, already chastising herself for her inadequate response. He had always, unlike other men, praised her character over her appearance, a habit which only augmented the effect of his words upon her now. Furthermore, she did not dare elaborate how much the rare grey of his suit had brightened his eyes. If she could help it, he might never don black again.

He moved closer, the hand that had swept up her arm stopping below her sleeve.

"It is not right of me to say—“

“To say what?”

Margaret knew she’d sounded as curious as she’d felt. She forgot her embarrassment entirely as the thin silk of his lips traced the shell of her ear.

“To say that you look even lovelier when you are so pale."

Whether it was the depth of that inimitable voice or the shock of such a gesture in public, she was helpless when he cupped her cheeks in his hands and brought his mouth to hers. His tongue traced the seam of her lips before he, a mirror of her own frustration, delved into her with maddened impatience. The seeded pearls woven into her gown popped off with tiny pings, her petticoats bunching around his trousers as he pinned her to the chaise. Margaret's grip tightened, the pulsing between her legs quickening as his firm warmth pressed deeper into her skirts. She held back a sated moan, trying to remember how to breathe, as kisses seared ever lower on her neck. She cried out only when her breasts spilled from her bodice and into his hands, the sound of ripping fabric tearing through the air—

“Thornton!”

Margaret retracted her hand as if burnt. When she finally looked up, her husband was staring at her with a very unreadable expression.

With some apparent irritation, John waved to acknowledge the call. It was Slickson, a bit red-faced and gesticulating wildly.

"I am sure it is the same story about Henderson’s that he's told but a million times." He put his hands on his knees with weary reluctance. "But I'd best pacify the man before the brandy unhinges him altogether."

Margaret nodded, both relieved and disappointed as he rose. When he looked back, however, his expression had changed. His eyes, those eyes, were a darker sapphire than she’d ever seen them.

“And perhaps when I return,” John murmured, “you might tell me what has so quickly restored color to your cheeks.”

He bowed slightly, with the same reverence as ever, before he turned. His aquiline profile darkened to a silhouette just before he strode away.

It was not until he was out of sight that Margaret slumped in shocked embarrassment. Her face had always been an open book, for better or for worse. Never had she had thoughts of that nature, corset or not.

Not quite that nature, anyway...But, regardless, he had seen them.

Placing the flowers she was still clutching onto the table beside her, she glanced at the clock above the chimneypiece. It was only ten past eight. Edith and Aunt Shaw were, no doubt, already hunting the room for her as they’d not fussed over her for some time now. Margaret turned back toward the party, bracing herself for more fatiguing socialization.

“Not enjoying the celebration, I take it?”

She nearly tore her neckline with the speed at which she turned toward the gentleman now standing above her.

If, she thought with growing consternation, he could be called a gentleman at all. Finding some difficulty in focusing on a particular aspect, her eyes swept over a long velvet brown jacket and checkered pants. Both were too loose for what seemed to be a pair of slender legs. The ensemble clashed horribly with a black silken top hat and the sweep of ash brown curls brushing his shoulders.

“I am quite enjoying it, thank you.”

The man’s pearled smile widened, despite her clipped reply. “No need for ceremony, madam." He looked with amusement about the room.

"I share a similar disaffection for fetes myself, you see. Particularly those as ostentatious as these.”

Margaret's eyes narrowed with deliberation. He was certainly not at dinner, and was unforgivably late. He had also missed their introduction and that embarrassing round of dancing. Clearly, she thought with some amusement, he had no idea that he was speaking with his bride. Though she took no umbrage to his ignorance, he seemed very free with his speech, this stranger. Very free, indeed.

She was toying with the idea of admitting her identity when he eyed the vacant space beside her.

“May I, then?”

Before she could reply, he took the liberty of sitting, rather languorously, beside her anyway.

The corners of his eyes creped as his smile deepened. “I daresay, a woman so divinely charming should not be left to languish in a corner.”

Though Margaret had inched away, she could not help but assess his features as he turned toward the light. With scant wisps of silver at his temples, he was years older than John, she surmised. The length of his hair was, upon closer look, less unseemly when accounting for the diamond shape of his face—an array of angles from valleyed cheeks to razor-thin lips. The narrow gracefulness of his features, rare in a man, were ill-matched with a pair of thick eyebrows that were two shades too dark. They served only to better highlight the uncommonly pale green of his eyes.

Ignoring the heat creeping into her cheeks, Margaret offered a dry smile. Men too quickly presumed that all women enjoyed superficial flattery.

“Sir, you do not know me to call me ‘divinely charming,’ if I could ever own up to such a thing. I can also assure you that I am not languishing as I’ve no inclination to dance.”

The man's gaze drifted downward before landing on the arm of the chair. “Are you merely an observer of human nature, then?”

Margaret stilled her wrist, hearing how audibly her fingers were drumming against the stiff cushion beside her. With a flush, she folded her hands primly. “Perhaps, if such a classification satisfies you.”

The man released a throaty laugh, one too genuine for polite society. “Satisfy me? Indeed, it does.”

Leaning against the arm of the chaise, he surveyed the room. His features enlivened as he looked directly across from where they sat. “No doubt, that one provides enough entertainment for an entire West End production.”

Margaret frowned as she witnessed the subject of his fascination. As luck would have it, it was Fanny, now fully in her cups as opposed to merely half and liberally sloshing her champagne onto a mortified Watson. She giggled like a schoolgirl as she attempted to spin the helpless man around.

With a small measure of familial duty, and much indignation at his impertinence, Margaret gave the stranger a warning glare.

“Though I am keen to observe, sir, I derive no pleasure in mean-spirited speculation—especially about my sister-in-law.”

“Indeed not, madam. I meant no offense, of course.” He put a finger to his lips in an exaggerated gesture of contemplation. His eyes, which apparently never ceased to rove, rested on Fanny’s old piano in the corner of the room.

“Do you play, then?”

“I regrettably take little pleasure in it.”

“Hmm." He propped his chin on the ball of his palm, scrutinizing her as though she were some marvelous puzzle. "Perhaps it is reading in which you find pleasure?”

Margaret raised a vexed eyebrow at his persistence. Something in the way he stretched the last word of his sentence sat undeniably ill. “I have read many books, sir.”

“And I would wager you the best read woman in this room.” He gazed at the ceiling, a rather quixotic look in his eye. “If women are to have the same duties as men, they must have the same nurture and education."

A dull stinging began in the corners of Margaret's eyes. While her father had seldom read to her, she remembered that passage particularly well. It evoked the scent of drying snuff and drier paper, scents too long missed.

“Plato. It is curious that a man in trade would consider such books worth his while." She paused, smiling. "Though, of course, there are some men in Milton who seek acculturation through the classics.”

“You will forgive me, madam, but I do not recall saying that was in trade—nor that I hailed from Milton.”

Margaret's cheeks were peppered with heat as she replied, trying to ignore his sly grin. The measure of his accent was obvious.

“No sir, I suppose you did not.”

He cocked his head roguishly. “And you, my lady, are certainly not from these parts.”

“I confess, I am not from the North, though I am proud to have called Milton home for some time now.”

“Ah, how mysterious! And now, I believe, is the part where I inquire what brought you from—Hampshire, I would wager—to Milton?”

The faint smile that had unwittingly crept over Margaret’s face faded. She’d no interest in recounting her early days in Milton to anyone, let alone a stranger. Those memories were heavy with smoke, confusion, and loss. The worst was the day her mother had discovered the truth impelling their relocation. There was no forgetting those inconsolable cries piercing the stuffy air of their Crampton home. It was the last time Margaret had heard her raise her voice.

“My father wanted us to come here," she finally replied. "He wished to enlighten the people of Milton.” As she turned toward him, forgetting her resolve to maintain her distance, her eyes lingered on the roses she’d placed on the adjacent table.

“I wish he could have been here today.”

From such a stranger, Margaret expected only a pithy comment. Instead, she found in his eyes a profound empathy wholly at odds with his previous commentary, shallow as it was. It disturbed her more than anything else he'd said in their short conversation.

“Forgive me, madam. I meant to cause you no distress.”

She looked up, compelled to say the only thing she could. “You meant no offense, sir.”

"But enough of this...I would say a change of subject is in order."

Margaret frowned. She'd already been away from the party far too long to have gone unnoticed. She smoothed her skirts, secretly musing about a way to politely extract herself.

As she was about to tuck her hands beneath the silk, something very soft brushed her hand. It was the smallest rose from the table which, to Margaret’s dismay, the man held in his palm. Moving his hand away, he held the broken stem to his temple.

“Such pomp suits me ill, does it not?"

"I am not known for my subtlety sir, so I am inclined to agree."

"And I am known to respect a woman who speaks truly," he replied, still wearing the ridiculous flower.

Margaret’s mouth twitched, despite his taking such liberties with décor that was not his. His lightheartedness was refreshing, however brash his speech. For some reason, that impish twinkle of his eyes, like those of an old storyteller, sparked a vague recognition.

She was still trying to make the connection when she felt cold leather brush the crown of her head. Fingers clad in the same material smoothed a curl behind her ear as silky petals tickled her earlobe.

“I think, however,” the man murmured, “such ornaments suit you very well indeed.”

It was as though heat radiated from his fingers. She worked actively to dispel thoughts of him being anything but an ill-mannered stranger, one who had just touched her.

“I doubt it, sir, as I am too old for such decorations.” She pinched the rose from her hair and peered anxiously toward the edge of the room. She had dangerously long.

“If you’ll excuse me, I’ve not yet greeted the Beresfords of Lindon. They are my mother’s family and would be most offended if I did not engage them.”

Something like disappointment skittered across the man's features before his thin smile returned. “It would pain me to keep you, madam, especially from the esteemed Beresfords of Lindon." He winked.

“But please at least permit me the pleasure of assisting you up.”

She was considering the tersest refusal possible when the stranger's wiry frame sprung upward, his offer seemingly forgotten.

“Ah—Thornton! I was just getting acquainted with your new bride.”

Margaret looked up at the familiar arm silently proffered to her, appraising her husband’s stiff jaw and posture. A spike of guilt shot through her as she grasped John's sleeve rather feebly. There was no knowing, she mused as she stood straight, how long he had been standing therer.

“So I can see.” John nodded curtly, sending a shallow wave of nausea through her. “Margaret, Mr. Thomas Everhart.”

Margaret froze. So distressed was she at John's impending judgement that she only now took note of the stranger's address to her husband—one which signified this Mr. Everhart's explicit knowledge of her being Mrs. Thornton. Indeed, Everhart was a name she was sure she'd not heard before. Not even Fanny, who could rattle off nigh every person of import from Milton to London, had ever mentioned him.

Everhart smiled, more eagerly than ever in the wake of John's frigid welcome. “Delighted to be properly introduced, Mrs. Thornton.”

It was only after a lengthy pause that Margaret saw his outstretched hand. Remembering herself, she reached out with a hesitant motion she hoped was not obviously unschooled. Shaking hands was still an awkward convention to her.

Without warning, he bowed, rotating her palm toward the floor. Color dusted her cheeks as she again felt the shape of his fingers through supple leather. His lips, soft despite their thinness, dotted a kiss over the lace of her glove beneath her knuckle. In the span of a breath, he drew closer than before. She could almost taste the crisp fall air that still clung to him.

In a moment, the interlude was over and he stood tall again. Margaret resisted, with a modicum of difficulty, the urge to wipe her hand on her skirt.

John stepped forward, folding his arms across his chest. It did not escape his wife's notice that he had failed to extend his own hand.

“I had not expected to see you in Milton, Everhart.”

“Always to the point, aren't you, Thornton?” said Everhart with a chuckle. “Why, I am here on business, my good man.”

Margaret got the discomfiting sense that business, or talk of it, was not what prompted her husband's black glare.

“I should have said I am surprised to see you here specifically—especially as I don't recall Mother sending an invitation.”

Everhart shook his head with mild castigation. "Have you ever known me to bother with such formalities, Thornton?"

"Formalities or," John turned to Margaret, “what some might call common decency.”

The warm blue of his eyes was now a clouded, defiant slate. He drew himself to his full height, his acid words still cutting the air.

Everhart tugged at his coat sleeve mischievously. “Well, I do admit I am not suitably dressed, though I did hope it would be overlooked."

"Your attire does not concern me. I also doubt that your business involves my mill, or my wedding for that matter.”

"Come, come, Thornton. I only wished to congratulate you and Mrs. Thornton on your wedding day. I’ve no intention of discussing financial matters on such a happy occasion."

His eyes darted to Margaret, their depths holding an intent that now matched his twisted lips.

“I’ve also no intention of delaying you from any marital...bliss.”

Margaret looked up at her husband with a desperate flush. His face was now a veritable storm.

“You will excuse us then,” John grated, his arm tightening around Margaret’s waist. “Our invited guests demand our attention.”

"Why, of course." Everhart held Margaret’s gaze for a moment too long before nodding at John. He pulled his loosened gloves tighter, caressing every crease of leather until it was again smooth. Margaret's stomach sank, feeling as though she were watching something she shouldn’t.

Everhart bowed wordlessly to John, and then to Margaret.

"And until next time, Mrs. Thornton. I await a second conversation about Plato."

Before she could reply, he tipped his hat, as though to flaunt the impropriety of wearing it indoors. Both Margaret and John watched in silence as the mysterious interloper strode away. Neither moved until they heard the click of the closing door from the hall.

"Who on Earth was that man?" Margaret demanded in a whisper.

John rubbed his temple, peering into the hallway as though expecting Everhart to rematerialize like some ghastly specter. “No one of consequence.”

“It surely did not seem—”

He turned to her, severing her inquiry with blazing eyes.

"Seem like what? Though he had made himself acquainted with you, Mrs. Thornton, I would caution you against judging him based on a single conversation."

Margaret’s veins ran hot and cold. There was now no doubt John had seen the exchange with the flower. Though it was unwanted, a man who was not her husband had touched her all the same.

But, indeed, it was unwanted. Her eyes narrowed at the slight curl of her husband's lips. The presumptive jealousy of his tone was too close to that of the other John Thornton—that man from long ago whom she had so tried to forget.

“You need not worry about judgment, Mr. Thornton. It seems you have judged me quickly enough yourself.”

She had already taken a few steps away from him when she felt a light grip on her arm. Gently, he spun her back toward him, almost as if they were dancing. She watched agape as he brought the back of her palm to his lips. He had, she realized with sudden lightheadedness, never kissed her hand before.

It was, notably, the one that Everhart had neglected.

"I thought nothing could bring out my temper on such a day. I saw you sitting near another man and—" He shook his head. "There is nothing to excuse it. Forgive me, Margaret.”

A swell of guilt overtook the effect of his tenderness. Evidently, sitting was all John had seen.

"I would be grateful, for reasons I will explain,” he urged before she could speak, “if we could leave the matter for the night. But I promise that tomorrow I will answer your questions as honestly as I know you ask them."

Beyond her control, the tightness melted from her shoulders at John's unfurling smile. He’d known well the effect those words, laden with sentiment, would have upon her.

“Very well, then,” Margaret replied.

They walked back toward the party arm in arm. She glimpsed a few of the guests departing, some of whom were weaving a bit as they entered the foyer.

“The celebration has been lovely,” she said brightly.

John stared straight ahead, as though at something she could not see. “Indeed it has.”

Margaret plaintively surveyed his shuttered expression, having no other gems of conversation to mine. "There is still some packing to be done for our trip. I believe that Dixon has almost finished securing the trunks.”

"I see.”

“I—I hear there are some new shops in Portsmouth. I was thinking that perhaps we could—“

Portsmouth and plans faded instantly as she felt those long, broad fingers brush a delicate place beneath her jaw. She should be angry that he was not listening at all. Instead, she tried to keep her head from lolling shamelessly into his hand.

John averted his gaze, as though embarrassed. It was only after a moment that she realized he was staring above the scant lace at her neckline. Recalling what his imagined touch, his kisses, had felt like in that very spot made her feel warm—everywhere.

"I do not wish another moment of discomfort for you, Margaret," he murmured. "I will tell Mother we are to retire."

She frowned. “But what would she think of us?” And what of our guests?"

“Almost all the guests have gone,” he replied softly.

The lulling rumble of his voice did nothing to diminish the pull of heat drawing her toward him again, nor the burn of his gaze.

Indeed, it seemed he was right. All the masters were gone. Other than Edith, Aunt Shaw, and a few of Fanny's loyal stragglers, there was no one left to miss them.

Her heart thundered. There was no way, despite her nerves, to refuse. There was also no consent she could give that could sound proper. With a shaking breath, Margaret said:

“You’d better go and tell your mother, then.”

There was no hiding his relief with that perfect crescent smile, still present on his face as he bowed. Margaret looked away as soon as she glimpsed the grey satin gowned figure toward which John strode with purpose. It was never wise to risk censure from the Thornton matriarch.

She peered into the hall until she saw the first few steps of the grand staircase. It would be some effort to climb them in her state.

There was also the bigger problem, she realized fretfully, that she had no idea what would happen when she reached the top.