Branson carried returned a slightly embarrassed, but totally euphoric, Margaret back to her cottage later that morning. She hardly knew herself after last night. She felt consummated with John, who had lovingly and tenderly delivered her to womanly rapture. Again she had witnessed him in a different light. Another awe inspiring moment revealed the passionate, sensual man that lay hidden, and he had waited only for her. Margaret felt she had witnessed the two extremes of male love, and she was certain that John, like in most things concerning him, was the exception to the normal. The evening before had affected Margaret like none other. The sensual pleasure was almost more than she was capable of holding. The depth of love that she felt for John last night was too engulfing, even more so than the physical pleasure
She felt flustered over her reckless abandon and having given herself up to him so eagerly. She knew she had cut every proprietary string that had bound her all her life, and this was as big a revelation to her as the pleasure of it. She was finding a new Margaret that, until this past week, had lain fallow. In the light of day, it was too much reality to look into his face and realize that he knew every intimate part of her, having listened to her moans and her pleadings and felt her spasms. She would not want to see him too soon, again, as her sensibilities and new awakenings were raw.
She decided to write John a note, explaining as best she could, about her feelings.
My dearest love,
I find this note very difficult to write, but I must express my feelings to you, for I am not strong enough to look into your face and say these things. Last night . . . your tenderness and love for me was what allowed me to completely trust you and deliver my entire being into your hands. You not only brought me the greatest pleasure I have ever known, but exposed me to a part of myself which took me far from the rigid proprietary that has bound me all my life. I’m having severe awakenings, and it’s all so hard to grasp at one time. Looking back over our entire time together, I now realize the exact moment when I took you into my heart. I am sure you are probably thinking that you know when that moment was, but I think you would be wrong. Someday, I will tell you about it; I think you will be surprised.
You were my champion last night, in all aspects, and will forever be. I am still floating above the clouds today, and have to find my way to earth; please give me time. I feel overwhelmed and a bit disconcerted over my own blatant sexuality. I know you brought that out in me, but the realization of it has stunned me. I am rather embarrassed to see you for a while. Please understand.
Soon, my love…
Margaret closed the note, sealed it, and asked Adrian to run it up to John’s home, taking the buggy she had acquired several weeks previous.
It was no less than 30 minutes after Adrian returned, when a carriage pulled up in the back of her home. John exited the carriage and walked briskly to the back door, opened it without knocking, and saw Margaret there. He picked her up, grabbed her shawl, and carried her outside and into his carriage. He was having none of this, “I am rather embarrassed to see you, for a while.”
Branson ruffled the reins and set the horses toward a path outside of town. His instructions were to go nowhere, specifically, but out of town where it was peaceful. He didn’t need to stop anywhere, just keep driving.
Dixon saw part of what took place, so she knew Margaret would be out.
John immediately took Margaret into his arms and kissed her very long and hard. If he held her as tight as he wanted to, she would suffocate. Margaret returned the welcome embrace.
Finally retreating, John held her face between his hands as Margaret tried to look away. She was shy at this moment. “There will be no hiding from me ever again. If you feel embarrassed, then I want to share that with you.” He pulled her to him for another long kiss. Finally allowing her to breathe, he said, “Margaret, you are experiencing love, love for me, and I can almost die from my own emotional ecstasy. Do you think I have lived all these years in hope of you, and would not want to desperately see that in you? You gave yourself to me, and wanted me, as I did you. That wasn’t sex; it was touching each other’s souls, deep down, where only we can share. Don’t hide or shy away from the experience of our own private moments. There’s no embarrassment to each other. It’s love Margaret, real love, far beyond the words that could express it.”
John pulled her in for another long kiss, parting her lips with his tongue. She anxiously awaited this. John could feel her shyness starting to melt away. He pulled his arms from around her and held her shoulders, while he kissed below her ears down to her breast. Her arms being free, she took her hand and massaged his arousal, without being prompted. He lightly slipped her dress down her shoulders and kissed the swell of her breasts. He licked his way back to her neck and up to her chin, finally finding her mouth. He kissed her closed eyes and feathered her face with more kisses.
“I love you touching me,” John moaned. “Don’t ever stop.”
They rode in silence for a while, John holding her tightly around her shoulders as she sat back against his chest. “Someday soon, all of our nights will be as we have now shared.”
John signaled to Branson that it was time for home; otherwise, he was likely to take her in the coach. Those fun games would come later. These new tender moments needed nurturing.
“So . . . you are going to make me guess the moment you decided to love me? I must know when that moment was, so I can chastise myself for not doing whatever it was I should have done, years ago.”
Margaret smiled at John. “I wouldn’t say it was the moment I fell in love with you, but the moment that tore at me like I’d never felt before. I was awestruck at my own feelings, never having recognized those feelings ever in my life. It was later when I realized that was the moment I knew you had found a place in my heart. I shall not tell you now.”
“You know that will be on my mind until the day you tell me?”
“That’s my plan,” Margaret said, laughing.
“Margaret, I love you so much that you have been in my head for over four years. I’ve dreamed every possible way of loving you and you loving me. I do not think I can separate fact from fantasy anymore. Could I ask at least one question?”
“You can ask, but I’m not promising to answer.”
“Fair enough. When you had this epiphany, was I there with you?”
“You were there.”
“I sense that we were not together, by the sly way you answered that. All right, I’ll just have to give that a lot of thought, or wait for the day when you decide to tell me. I’m quite interested to know.”
A week later, John was invited to Margaret’s home for dinner. She was excited about the dinner because she had prepared the meal herself. John arrived promptly, with a bouquet of flowers this time, having berated himself for not doing that in the past. He kissed her without a care if Dixon was near. Margaret did not shy away from that fact, either.
“Thank you, John,” she said, as she searched for a glass vase she wasn’t sure she owned. She went into the kitchen and returned with the flowers in a large canning jar, setting them center table.
John had wrapped his arms around Margaret and was asking her to play the piano for him, when suddenly he stiffened.
“What is it John?”
“Can you hear the bell ringing?”
“Yes, what does it mean?”
“There’s a fire at a mill somewhere. I must go. I’ll see you as soon as I can.” With that, John fled out the back door to his carriage. He whistled for Branson and they pulled away as fast as Branson could take his seat.
“Oh no!” Margaret cast her memory back to a conversation she had had with John: He clearly painted a picture of 300 corpses, lying on a hillside, the result of a mill fire. Those kinds of fires consumed everything in their path, almost instantaneously, he had told her.
Margaret worried for John and anyone who would be in harm’s way. She paced the floor wondering what she should do. She couldn’t stand waiting to hear from him, knowing he’d do all he could to help. She decided she had to go, even if it meant the possible horror of staring into the dead eyes of victims. She ran to the back door and called to Adrian for the buggy.
Margaret sat in the front seat holding onto Adrian as he whipped the horse up as fast as they could manage. Horror arose in the night as the sky lit up; the flames were licking the twilight. Margaret sighed in temporary relief that it did not appear to be one of John’s mills, but she knew that wouldn’t keep John safe.
As they got close, there were many carriages and horses tethered, not allowing them close proximity to the fire. It seemed everyone in the city had turned out to watch or help. Adrian took Margaret by the hand and pulled her through the crowd as fast as Margaret’s feet could run. The mill did not belong to anyone she knew, but she frantically started looking for John. The flames were leaping into the air. Margaret saw the incredible speed with which it was moving and suddenly understood John’s rage on that day they had met. He had desperately tried to prevent this type of monumental catastrophe. It was a horrifically devastating sight. The top floor appeared to be almost fully engulfed, and it was just beginning to spread to the downstairs. The northern far end was starting to collapse in on itself. Where is John? She could see a mass of people huddled over on the south end of the building where the flames were rapidly approaching. She spotted Nicholas and pulled Adrian that way.
“Nicholas, are there many people in there?”
“There a three people, plus John, in those flames on the second floor. John is trying to rescue them at this end; no one else would go. John ran up to the second floor stairs like a fool, before the flames took it. He’s been handing them out the window and holding them while he drops them down into the crowd.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“Oh God, not John.”
Margaret saw John come to the end window, black faced and gasping for air. “How many?” he shouted down.
“One more,” someone shouted, and John disappeared back into the room where ashes were drifting out and flames were licking at the window, half a room away from where he was. The window exploded out.
“Oh God. Oh God, please let John be alright,” Margaret pleaded. She had a premonition of him not making it out. Her black cloud was returning. She began to cry and shake uncontrollably.
Nicholas pulled her to him, trying to hold her as she watched the dreadful scene unfold. “You know John; he’ll be alright. Do you think he’d take any chances, now that he has finally found you again?” he asked, trying to reassure her.
“Nicholas, I can’t live without him.”
“Looks like you won’t have to. He’s got the last victim and he’s about to lower her down.”
Margaret’s heart stopped as she watched an exhausted John sweating black rivulets and gasping for fresh air, as black smoke rolled out of the window where he stood. He lowered the woman as far as he could. “Such strength,” Margaret thought, as he released the woman to the waiting crowd of arms. Whatever she suffered from the fall was nothing compared to the possibility of losing her life. Margaret watched as she fell into the crowd.
“No!” Nicholas hollered suddenly, and then took off.
Margaret looked back at John, wondering why Nicholas was hollering. John was overcome by the smoke and exhaustion, he was staggering, unconsciously. Margaret screamed. Like a rag doll, John crumpled to the sill and fell through the window to the ground below; he never felt the impact. In horror Margaret watched him fall, then went screaming and crying in the direction she believed he must lay. She had to push her way through the horde of people watching the fire. She could hear Nicholas calling loudly for Dr. Donaldson.
“Oh, please dear God, save my John. Please God, don’t take John, too.” Margaret was praying out loud as she pushed and shoved her way to the man who had become the rest of her life.
As she approached, she could see him sprawled on the ground at a torturous angle; his eyes were closed and blood dripped from his mouth and one ear. Dr. Donaldson was hovering over him, while Nicholas yelled for everyone to move back so he could have air.
“Hello Mrs. Reed,” Dr. Donaldson said, calmly. “Well, he’s certainly got a concussion, but he’s alive,” He quickly removed John’s cravat to bind his ribs. “He’s had all the air knocked out of him, too, which isn’t a bad thing really, considering that it’s all smoke. Higgins, get some men and let’s move him away before this side comes down on us. Mrs. Reed, I do know he has a broken arm and maybe a couple ribs, plus a pretty nasty bump on his head; he must have bit the inside of his mouth; that blood doesn’t look like internal bleeding. I can tell more once we get him to my surgery. Our main concern will be to watch for the severity of the concussion and internal bleeding, but I don’t see any discoloration on his side to the ground, so that is a good sign. I hope they can get that flat carriage here before he wakes up and feels the pain.”
Instead of Nicholas bringing men to help move him, he guided the flat cotton wagon back, stopping near John. Several men helped Nicholas lift him gently onto the wagon and Nicholas helped Margaret up to sit beside him, Dr. Donaldson with them. Margaret called to Adrian, instructing him to come to the surgery.
Margaret, not caring who was around, began wiping his face with her petticoat hem. He was soaking wet with sweat and black with soot, but he was alive. She didn’t think he could look any more agonizingly beautiful, lying there injured with his closed eyes, blood running from an ear and mouth, black faced, bloodied knuckles and dirty clothes. “So this is what a hero looks like,” she thought.
Six hours later, John opened his eyes to a white, unfamiliar room, wondering where, and what, had happened to bring him there. He became aware of a whimpering sound and slowly turned his head, feeling immediate pain. Margaret was there, holding his hand, her head bent down in prayer.
“Margaret?” John said in a very raspy, almost inaudible, voice.”
Margaret looked up at him. Her face was full of tears, her eyes red and puffy and errant locks of hair cascading down her sooty face. She hadn’t left John’s side for a moment, even to clean herself. “Oh John, you’re going to be all right. I thought I had lost you. I saw you fall.”
“Shhh shhh . . .” John, seeing the tortured look on her face, tried to console her.
“I will never get that out of my mind, ever. I thought I was going to die, myself, until I could get to you.”
“Margaret,” John whispered, “it’s over now.”
“You were so brave saving those three people, but it almost cost you your life, and mine, too. If you hadn’t fallen through the window and had fallen to the floor, you would have burned to death. There would be no rescue for you, John. You were only out of that window by minutes before the room flashed into flames.”
“Did everyone else get out?”
“Yes. You saved the only people that were trapped up there.”
“So, what did it cost me . . . and you?” John asked, still trying to swallow the rasp out of his voice.
Margaret handed him some water. “You have a concussion, three broken ribs and a broken left arm, plus lots of abrasions and bruises. Dr. Donaldson said you will be here another day so he can observe the severity of your concussion and ensure you don’t have internal bleeding.”
She paused for a brief moment, then in a quiet, solemn voice, whispered, “John?”
“I love you. Love doesn’t even seem to be a strong enough word for how I feel, deep within my heart. I’ve wanted to say it so many times, even way back, long ago, but you wouldn’t let me. I just can’t hold it back any longer.”
John pulled her up with his right hand and drew her sooty face towards his mouth, giving her the deepest kiss that he was able. “These are the words I’ve waited to hear you say. Margaret, you know I love you, too, with all my heart and soul. But please tell me that I don’t have to go out of a second story window again, for you to tell me you love me the next time.”
“John Thornton! Don’t jest. I was hurt more serious than you were, watching it from below.
John tried to laugh but began coughing, as Margaret said, “I had planned to say those words to you tonight, in more expressive tones than in the heat of passion, but you went running off putting yourself in danger for strangers. You have to know that I loved you long before we were intimate, don’t you?
“Yes, my heart felt that you loved me, but my mind wanted you to be sure for yourself. I knew I took with me a piece of your heart on that day we met in London. Margaret, are you sure? Do you feel ready to commit to a real courtship? That means not seeing other men, and saying those three words once in a while.” He tried to smile, regardless, but he was beaming.
“John, I am at the other side, of my quest to find the confidence in myself and my love for only you, as you challenged me to do. I know what will bring me a life of happiness, and it is you. You’ve steadfastly helped me through my doubts, and I feel good about bringing a whole person to you now.”
“Margaret, you were always a whole person, and I’ve known that since the day I met you. We’ve had a rough road, but we’ve both made it to the other side – you finding yourself confidence and I painstakingly hoping you would choose me, to spend the rest of our lives together.”
“John, I love you so much.”
“Can I ask you a question, since I’m lying here all broken, and have nothing to do but think?”
“It makes me nervous when you ask if you can ask me,” Margaret smiled.
“Well, I guess you know how I’ve felt. You do that to me all the time.” John coughed.
“All right, ask then, and get rid of that smarmy look on your face.” Margaret grinned.
“God, I love to see you smile. Ever since you left that statement dangling in the air about, ‘I was there’, when you realized you had some feelings for me – well, thinking I have been with you since you’ve moved back to Milton, and with you in London on the veranda, that seems to leave the funeral. I highly doubt it would have been then, because I was with you.” John paused, watching her expression.
Giving nothing away, Margaret asked, “Is there a question in there somewhere?” She was practically gloating.
Rasping his words, John said, “Unless I have misunderstood you and there was no cryptic meaning in your statement, then that leads only to a time before you left Milton.” John stared at Margaret’s straight face, trying to decipher any hint. “This seems extremely curious to me since you said that, and I am becoming quite obsessed with it now.”
“I still don’t hear a question in there.” Margaret was teetering on outright laughter.
“All right, here it comes. You have just heard me explain my thinking on this. My question is: Am I headed in the right direction?”
Margaret shrugged her shoulders and sighed. “Your logic seems to have a lot of merit, the way you seem to see it, being a man, that is. Tell me, when will men ever learn that they will never figure out a woman?”
“Pardon me?” John said, raising his eyebrows. “Who are you? Where is Margaret Reed, my woman? I seem to remember, not so long ago, being rather proficient at showing her how well I knew her. And I don’t remember having to figure out anything, either. She’ll tell you how much I knew of her. Please go find her.” John had to cough out the words he was trying to emphasize and laugh at the same time.
Margaret immediately blushed from head to toe, and she could feel the heat rising in her embarrassment. She put her hands over her face and bent over to hide in her lap. She was praying no one heard that. John was inwardly trying not to laugh at Margaret’s red ears which were giving away everything. Margaret jumped up from her chair and turned away from John. She was flustered and she was amused at the same time.
John had to add, “Remember, we share everything, Margaret, even embarrassment. Come here and kiss me, unless you want me coming off this bed.”
Barely recovering from her red face, she walked back to John’s side and happily gave him a kiss. John asked, “So . . . is that the only answer that I’m going to get?”
“Mr. Thornton! You seem to have one unbroken arm. Would you care for a matched set?” With that, Margaret burst out laughing and John tried to do the same.
“But since you are laid up with time to think, I will give you the real answer to your question. Yes.”
“Yes, to all of it?”
“I think that constitutes a second question, does it not?” Margaret laughed.
“Whoever you really are, you are driving me mad. But since Margaret isn’t here, would you mind kissing me, again?”