Margaret sat down on the edge of the bed, careful not to pull the bedding too tight over her mama’s frail form. “Mama? You wanted to see me?”
Mama’s eyelids fluttered before opening and revealing that tiny spark of life that was all that was left of Margaret’s dear mother.
“Margaret. You’re here.”
“Of course I am, mama. You asked for me, remember?”
Mama’s eyes dimmed briefly, before the light of life flared back up again. “Yes, Margaret. I did.” She reached out a tremulous hand and rested it on Margaret’s fingers. “I’m afraid I don’t have much time left, my love. And there’s something I needed to discuss with you.”
Margaret leaned closer. “Of course. Anything you want to tell me, I'm happy to listen.”
Mama took a deep breath and Margaret tried not to be concerned by how shaky that breath was. “It’s something I was going to talk about with you when it came time for you to be married, but I fear... I fear I will not live to see that day.”
“Mama, please. I wish you wouldn’t speak this way.”
A sad smile curved Mama’s lips. “Very well, my love. Still, I must speak to you about the relations between man and woman. Between husband and wife.”
Margaret hesitated. “I’m not completely ignorant, Mama. I know about Sylvie. She spent time alone with the blacksmith’s apprentice and ended up with child. And she... she wasn’t the only one.”
Mama sighed. “Yes, the lower classes often suffer a weakness of morality that can lead to sin. At the same time I have wondered if their baser natures didn’t have some benefits. For you see, the gentler classes – they suffer more greatly from the punishment of Eve.”
“The pain of childbirth?”
“All women feel that pain. But for us, there is also pain in making a child.”
Margaret swallowed hard, feeling distinctly uncomfortable with the very idea. “You mean... in the relations between man and woman?”
“Yes, my love. I’m afraid so.”
“But... you and father...” Margaret’s voice trailed off as her mind rebelled from the very thought.
“Your father is the best of men,” Mama said gently. “And we both understood the necessity of bringing children into the world. Once you and Frederick had passed the delicate stage of infancy, however, your father and I decided... well, your father agreed that there was less need to... well.”
Margaret smiled weakly and didn’t say anything. When Mama pleaded exhaustion, Margaret couldn’t decide which of two of them was more relieved that the conversation was at an end.
“Oh, there you are, Margaret. Please come in and sit down next to me.”
Margaret glanced quickly around the empty drawing room, the drawing room that normally held, at the very least, Mrs. Thornton and Edith, and usually John as well. “Of course Aunt Shaw,” she answered with a hint of wariness, and took the proscribed seat.
“As your wedding is coming closer, my dear, I wanted to speak alone with you.”
The wariness turned to dread. “Aunt Shaw...”
“The passing of your mama, my dear sister... it was a sad blow to us all, but the more so for you, as it leaves you without a mama in this most delicate time of your life.”
“It’s left to me, as your closest female relative, to explain to you what you can expect on your wedding night.”
Margaret let out a silent sigh and resigned herself to the inevitable.
Aunt Shaw paused to smile tremulously. “I’m so very glad you are marrying for love, my dear Margaret. My own marriage was a brilliant match, you know, but when it comes to the wedding night...”
She cleared her throat. “At any rate, you must understand that relations with your husband are one of your wifely duties. They can be onerous at first, but you will adjust over time. Eventually, your husband will find solace elsewhere and your matrimonial duties will be greatly decreased.”
Margaret flinched. “You don’t mean,” she lowered her voice to the barest whisper, “a mistress?”
“That’s one possibility,” Aunt Shaw answered. She paused before adding, “Let me give you a piece of advice, my dear. It’s best not to ask questions for which you do not want the answer, especially of your husband.”
Margaret swallowed, her eyes stinging and her throat too thick to speak.
“One other thing. The first night will be painful, there’s not much you can do about that.” She leaned in. “After that, however, you’ll find that a touch of oil can smooth things along greatly.”
“Miss Hale. Thank you for coming.”
“Of course, Mrs. Thornton. After all, we’re soon to be mother and daughter.”
They both winced.
“That is why I called for you, Miss Hale. I am speaking to you now because of the promise I made to your mother. If your aunt were not so silly... well, nothing to be done for it. In a few days you will be married to my son and it is up to me to ensure you know what to expect on your wedding night.”
“No, do not try and silence me. Putting off a difficult duty only makes it more so, and I’ve put this duty off long enough.”
Margaret sank down into one of the hard backed chairs that made up Mrs. Thornton’s private sitting room. She had a feeling that she’d want to be seated for this.
Mrs. Thornton hesitated before sitting rigidly in the chair across from Margaret. “I imagine, if anyone has spoken to you about your wedding night, that they spoke in very general terms, as my mother did for me.”
Margaret nodded weakly.
“In that case, you should know that relations between a husband and wife consist of the husband inserting his male organ into your female organ. It will hurt at first, because of your maidenhood, but in time the unpleasantness will fade.”
“I had heard... something like this before,” Margaret choked out.
Mrs. Thornton eyed her narrowly. “And what else have you heard?”
Margaret hesitated, but acknowledged to herself that Mrs. Thornton did seem to be sincere and she had provided information that was useful, if a bit scary. “I’ve been told that... that men will eventually lose interest in relations, or will take a mistress.”
Mrs. Thornton’s expression darkened. “You think my son will stray?”
“I don’t want to think so,” Margaret said honestly. “But if relations are so unpleasant...”
“They do not have to be,” Mrs. Thornton said sharply.
“You speak of...” Margaret lowered her voice, “oil?”
For a brief moment, Mrs. Thornton looked completely baffled. Then she shook her head. “I mean, relations between a man and wife can be enjoyable for both.” Her face softened for a moment and Margaret imagined that she was remembering her husband. It lasted but a second before Mrs. Thornton grew stern again. “However, you must understand that as worthy as a man may be, he is only a man. He will never know what you enjoy unless you tell him.”
Margaret swallowed against a suddenly dry throat. “And how will I know what I enjoy?”
Mrs. Thornton gave her a thin smile. “You’ll just have to practice.”
Margaret thrust her shaking hands behind her back and cast an eye around the room. The wallpaper was a dark shade of green and the furniture mahogany. The overall effect was handsome, and very masculine.
Margaret had a bedroom of her own, of course, on the other side of their adjoining door, but she would be spending her wedding night in her husband’s rooms.
“Well?” John asked, his own hands tucked out of sight. “What do you think?”
“It’s very nice.” Margaret strove to find something else to say, but could come up with nothing better than, “Remarkably handsome wallpaper.”
John’s lips twitched. “I’m pleased to hear you say so.”
Margaret relaxed slightly at the hint of humor and John’s hands slipped out from behind his back as his shoulders grew less tense.
“Margaret... it’s been a long day. Perhaps we should—”
“No,” Margaret said, stepping closer. After everything she’d heard from her mother and Aunt Shaw and even Mrs. Thornton, she could think nothing good could come from putting this off. Taking one of John’s hands between both of hers she added, “I don’t want to wait.”
John smiled down at her and her breath caught. Looking down at the captured hand, Margaret marveled how lovely a man’s fingers could be. Running her fingertips over John’s long, slender hands, she searched out every callous and scar. The skin was smooth overall, but there was a roughness between the index and middle finger, where John held a pen for hours at a time as he worked on the mill’s accounts.
John’s other hand entered her field of vision. It was large enough to cover both of Margaret’s.
She looked up and John leaned down, pressing his mouth against hers. His lips were soft and dry and infinitely tender and the last of Margaret’s worry fell away. This was the man she’d married. This was the man she trusted.
“What next?” she asked breathlessly as John pulled back.
John stepped back and his eyes ran over the white satin and lace wedding dress. It was quite the most fashionable dress Margaret had ever worn, with steel crinolines, pagoda sleeves, and a tight bodice that required her to lace her corset to a positively uncomfortable degree. The look in his eyes made it worth every shallow breath she’d had to take throughout her wedding.
“That’s a lovely dress, Margaret. Would you mind if I removed it?”
Oh, dear. “I think you might need to,” Margaret gasped. “I can’t breathe.”
There was a quick scramble as John tried to find all of the hooks and at the same time Margret scrambled to reach her laces and all of a sudden she found herself in nothing but her chemise and drawers and she wasn’t entirely sure how she ended that way.
Abruptly nervous, she fought the urge to cross her arms over her chest. “Do you not need to disrobe as well?”
John hesitated. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
Margaret couldn’t help but smile at that. “If it must be done, there’s no benefit to putting it off.”
John nodded and brought his hands up to his cravat. Margaret watched in avid curiosity as John pulled the tie free with a few quick jerks and shrugged off his coat. As he began to work on the studs of his shirt, she stepped forward and stopped his hands. “May I?”
“Please,” John murmured, his voice so deep Margaret imagined she could feel it in her bones.
The studs were small and slick and fought Margaret’s fingers, but as she freed each one she found herself revealing an undershirt and, on impulse, she brushed her fingers over the soft wool.
John gasped and Margaret wrenched her hand away.
“No,” John said quickly. “Don’t stop.” He took her hand and brought it back to his chest. “Touch me. As much as you’d like.”
With John’s explicit permission giving her confidence, Margaret unfastened the rest of the studs and pushed off John’s shirt. He looked so handsome standing there, his arms dusted with black hair that contrasted sharply with the soft pale skin.
Overtaken by a strange urge, Margaret pressed her lips to that delicate skin and discovered the strong bulge of muscle lying just underneath.
“Margaret,” John said, sounding a little breathless. “Margaret, can I touch you?”
“Yes,” Margaret said, most of her attention still focused on John’s arm. The curve of the muscle just above his elbow was really quite fascinating.
They spent a long time touching each other in front of the fire, the rest of their clothing falling away. Margaret was amazed at how quickly her consciousness faded; other than one uncertain moment when her drawers were pushed down, she barely noticed as more skin was revealed.
Barely noticed, that was, until it came to John’s undergarments. She reveled in the sight of his chest, strong and covered in hair, and his stomach, flat and firm with a tiny bit of hair below his navel stretching down to his pants. When he reached for the waist of those pants, however, Margaret hesitated.
John noticed. “Margaret? Are you all right?”
“Yes,” she said, and now it was her turn to sound breathless. “I’ve never... I mean, of course I’ve never... I mean...”
John shoved his pants down and Margaret squeaked.
“Best to get it over with, I think,” John said wryly.
Margaret stared. She couldn’t help it. No wonder everyone said this was going to hurt. It was harder for her to believe Mrs. Thornton’s promise that this could someday bring her pleasure.
“Margaret?” John asked, sounding worried.
She took a deep, shuddering breath, grateful that she’d already taken off her corset. “I’m fine.” She considered her watery knees and suggested, “Perhaps we should sit down.”
“Or maybe we could move to the bed.”
The bed. Of course Margaret knew this was coming, but her brief moment of confidence had fled and now all she could think about was what her mother and Aunt Shaw had told her about her wedding night.
She wondered what the servants would think if she rang the bell and asked for some oil.
A hand curled over her shoulder, warming her skin and chasing away some of her fear. “It’ll be all right, Margaret. You don’t need to be afraid.”
“I know,” she said, unconvincing even to herself.
John’s hand squeezed ever so slightly, giving her some of his strength. “Come on."
He moved away, pulling back the blankets and crawling under the sheets. Margaret took a deep breath and followed.
It was easier under the covers. Warmer. Safer. John propped himself up with an elbow and leaned over to brush his lips against hers time and again. Margaret met his lips with her own, learning the taste of his mouth and the feel of his fingers against the side of her cheek.
John shifted until he was lying over her, and Margaret’s first thought was how much easier it was to feel him, to wrap her arms around his back, to reach his lips with her own. She ran her fingers over his skin, especially caught by the sharp curve of his shoulder blades, and by the slight curve of his waist.
Somehow John ended up between her legs, though she didn’t even realize it until he pulled back to murmur, “Are you ready, dearest?”
“Yes,” Margaret said, leaning up to try and recapture his lips.
He obligingly leaned down and covered her mouth with his own as something hard and blunt pressed between her legs and thrust forward.
It hurt. Margaret cried out, but the sound was lost in John’s mouth and he kept kissing her even as his hips went still, giving her time to adjust.
He pulled his head back a few minutes later. “All right?”
Margaret shifted her hips slightly, gauging how she felt. The sharp pain had faded, to be replaced with an ache and a strange fullness. She wouldn’t call the feeling good or pleasant, but it wasn’t awful. Based on what everyone had told her, “not awful” was rather better than she’d expected from the night. “All right.”
John eyed her for another moment or two, then his body shifted and Margaret felt something move inside of her. “Oh.”
John stopped again. “All—”
Margaret thumped him on the back. “Don’t keep stopping. It’ll take all night if you do.”
John’s lips twitched. “We have all night.”
“Yes, well, I’ve heard this gets better with practice, not with time, so please continue.”
He didn’t continue. Instead, he raised his eyebrows. “And where did you hear that from?”
Margaret blushed. “Your mother.”
All of the humor dropped from John’s face and he grimaced. “Oh.”
“You did ask.”
“Please don’t remind me.”
There was a bit of silence. “Are we done?” Margaret asked hesitantly.
John laughed, a little breathlessly. “No, we’re not done.” He leaned back to search Margaret’s eyes with his own. “Tell me if I’m hurting you.”
“I have it on good authority that it can’t be helped, at least not for the first time.”
“Don’t tell me who that authority is.”
“My lips are sealed.”
“Well, that would be a shame,” John murmured and he leaned back down to kiss her as, under the sheets, his body began to move again.
Margaret kissed him back with all of the passion she had in her, focusing her attention on the feel of his lips and his hands. When one hand brushed over her breast, she let out a startled, “oh!”
John hesitated, then brushed her breast again, this time more deliberately.
“Oooh,” Margaret breathed out, almost purring.
The sound of her voice had a remarkable effect on John, who arched his back and thrust with a furious abandon before suddenly going rigid for several seconds.
Then he slumped down on top of Margaret, breathing heavily and nuzzling his nose against her neck.
Margaret guessed that now they were done.
Overall, it had been much better than she’d anticipated. There had been pain, that couldn’t be denied, but there had also been a surprising amount of pleasure. The feeling of his hands on her breasts, for example, would need to be explored more thoroughly.
From her neck came a muffled, “How are you feeling?”
Margaret smiled fondly and pressed her lips to John’s temple. “Good. I feel good.”
He grunted and curled up closer to her. Eventually he would probably become uncomfortably heavy, but at the moment his weight on hers felt quite lovely and she savored the sensation as she followed her husband on the slow sweet slide into sleep, already working on a list of things she wanted to practice.