Margaret tried to reach for the parcel that Edith had left at the foot of the bed. John retrieved it for her.
“What’s this,” he asked.
“My frock to wear home and some undergarments. I won’t wear the corset, of course.” Margaret stalled as she waited for the obvious to be mentioned.
“Don’t be alarmed, my love. I will dress you since there will be no corset.”
“But . . .”
“But nothing, my dear sweet wife. You can deny me nothing, remember?” John said to smooth the sticky moment for Margaret.
She smiled, through her weeping that she was holding at bay.
“Somehow, I heard that differently, I thought.”
John unrolled the parcel and found the split bloomers. He gently pulled her to her feet and sat on the side of the low bed.
“Now put your hands on my shoulders and step into these when I say so.”
John readied the garment and told her to lift her foot, and he would slip it into the legging part.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, John. I think so. It’s not the medical condition you know?”
“Yes, love. It’s nerves and the newness of us, again. Here, now step into the other side but don’t let go of my shoulders. This is very enjoyable you know.”
“It is? Really?”
“If you only knew. I am grossly understating it.”
As he slid the garment up, he pulled her gown up and kissed her belly.
“Next we have this half slip, I guess you call it. It’s not that big puffy one.”
“John, the puffy one is called a crinoline. No, Edith knew better about me wearing one of those.”
“We will do the same thing. You raise one foot, I will slide it under your foot, and then you put the next foot inside.”
“Dear husband, I think I have that part down for the past twenty years.”
“But have you ever had a husband help you?”
“I don’t even think my father helped me when I was a small child.”
“How are your nerves doing?” he asked.
“Better. I might come to like this one day.”
“I will love this forever,” John said.
Margaret stepped back, still wearing the hospital tent, a slip, and bloomers. All there was, was the frock. Margaret couldn’t see any way around getting the frock on without taking off the gown.
John rested back on the bed with his arms behind him, smiling at her face as she worked out the next step.
“I’m really going to enjoy the frock,” he said.
“I think I am breaking out in a sweat,” Margaret replied.
“Does that mean you feel warm all over?”
“Yes, it does. No, wait . . .”
The look on John’s face would have made her fall in love with him at that moment if she hadn’t all ready loved him.
“Can you pull this off without kissing me?”
“No,” John said, continuing to rest on his arms.
“Can you limit the kiss to my lips?” Margaret asked.
“All right, Mrs. Thornton. No kissing.”
John stood and looked over the frock to study how it should be handled to slide over her easily. He would have to gather all of the fullness in first, but not before removing the white hospital garment.
“Are you ready? I see how this will slip on faster.”
Margaret closed her eyes and lifted her arms. “Ready.”
John lifted the gown bringing those bountiful breasts into close view. He dropped the white gown and rubbed her nipples with his thumbs, holding her under her arms with the rest of his hand.
Margaret moaned. John was undone by her reaction.
“Please what,” he asked, looking into her closed eyes and saw a flush come to her cheeks. He continued to tease her and please them both. “I’m sorry. But I didn’t kiss you as you asked.” John stopped his self torture and settled Margaret on steady feet. She waivered, and he caught her.
“I think there are two people in this room that rather liked that,” he said.
“I think one of them loved that, and it isn’t you.”
John kissed her lips and found the frock. He gathered the voluminous lower half and slipped it over her head, taking one last look at the perfect woman before him.
“There.” John held her to his chest while she was standing. Finally, he sat her in the chair and opened the door to her room. He looked about the room and gathered the rest of her belongings and rolled them into the brown paper parcel that her cousin had brought.
Nurse Pickering arrived with the rolling chair. “Mrs. Thornton, I’ve enjoyed having you as a patient and meeting the famous John Thornton in the bargain.”
Nurse Pickering maneuvered Margaret into the chair while she watched John’s face. He had no reaction to her compliment. That was the John that faced the world.
“I’ve enjoyed knowing you, Mrs. Pickering. Thank you for listening to me at times and your gentle care. Maybe we could have tea in the future.”
“Thank you, I would like that. Are you ready?”
“Let’s go,” Margaret smiled.
John followed, bursting with happiness to finally bring her home.
The coach was waiting at the rear door. John easily pulled Margaret into his arms. He climbed into the coach at an angle and gently settled her on his lap as he sat. Branson reined the team slowly home.
John kissed her repeatedly during the ride. He slid his hand down her legs and realized she was barefoot. Why hadn’t he notice that before?
“Margaret, did you travel to Milton with a pair of shoes?”
“I must have.”
John remembered they must still be in the guestroom, where Donaldson first examined her.
“Mrs. Thornton, you cannot know how much this day means to me.”
“Do you mean, aside from my body being present.” Margaret smiled.
“Yes, you silly goose. I love you in spite of your exquisite body. How’s that? I have wanted you, the core, and soul of you, in my life. I’ve wanted to talk with you and laugh with you. I admit I want to pleasure you, too, but that is only part of the Margaret, I love. Now, I have all of you. Margaret, my life is abundant. I am a completed man.”
“Yes, that is becoming apparent underneath me.” She laughed.
John smiled. “Be serious for a moment. I’m trying to tell you how much you mean to me. I guess we’re both trying to tell you how much we love you,” he chuckled. He has a mind of his own, sometimes. Most of the time, we get along, but there are going to be times with you that he will embarrass me, especially if others are present. You see, I have issues too, about bodily reactions, but I have no screen to hide behind. You will just have to know me and him. And I will not be ashamed or embarrassed with you.”
“He really does things on his own?”
“Yes, it is a curse that men have been proud of since the dawn of time.”
“I shall be glad to meet him,” Margaret tittered.
Margaret saw the broad beaming smile coming towards her lips, once again.
The drive was slow, the kisses were hot, but they finally made it to Marlborough Mills.
“It appears you are home with me,” John said still holding her in his arms, as Branson opened the coach door. Branson ran ahead and open the house door.
“John, I think I would like to try the steps.”
“Not until I have realized one of my dreams, Mrs. Thornton.”
“And what is that?”
“I’ve always dreamed of carrying you over the threshold. Then I shall put you down, and we shall see.”
A crowd quickly gathered from the mill workers and started to applaud. As John got to the top of the porch, he turned to the waiting crowd, still with Margaret in his arms, as said, “People, meet my new bride, Mrs. Margaret Thornton. When she is recovered, she will want to meet all of you. Thank you for your thoughts this morning.”
John turned and carried Margaret through the door, as Margaret waved to the workers standing there applauding. There again, a pang hammered his heart as he felt his first love would easily interface with his second love . . . his mills and its people.
Kicking the door closed, he asked Margaret if she still felt like trying a few stairs. Margaret looked up the steep expanse and changed her mind.
“Maybe I will try coming down them, first, but not today.”
From a distance, Frederick Hale watched with utter confusion as his sister was carried across a threshold. Now, he remembered seeing that man when last in Milton at the train station. That must be John Thornton. He had to hand it to Adam Bell; he sure found a way to keep her from marrying that other man in London. She looked happy, but he wouldn’t leave until he knew for sure. She looked like she had a black eye. Frederick decided to wait and find Adam Bell. After watching the Milton Grand for several hours, he had only seen his aunt and cousin leave the hotel. Frederick pulled back into the shadows. He needed time to sort out what Bell and told him and what his eyes were telling him before contacting his sister. He walked a distance, not conscious of where he was. He found a small dirty pub in the poor section not too far from the mills and entered. It was dark, and he found a booth where he could watch the front door.
Frederick pulled Adam Bell’s note from his pocket and read it again. He was now in Milton, and so was his sister. John Thornton was not a military man but announced that he had married his sister, to the people who had congregated. He, himself, was free from the man in London, but he didn’t know if his sister knew that. She must know that by now, he thought. Bell should have received his letter and told her. Frederick thought that his sister may have been injured from his glimpse of her, but it was from far away and very quick.
“I’ll have a pint and a beef sandwich,” Frederick replied to the barmaid who had come to his table.
He had to find Bell.
It was nearing midday when Detective Boyle boarded the train for Milton. Before leaving, he had checked on the availability of a telegraph station in Milton and found there had been one recently wired through. The address of the telegraph office and the address of the police station seemed to be within a relatively close distance to each other. He left two men watching Grant Hartford’s movements, although they could not watch him on post. His men could only hope to spot him coming or going through the post gates since he didn’t seem to spend time at his home.
John carried Margaret into the parlor and set her down on her feet easily. Jane and Cook were there to greet her and congratulate the two of them. Margaret enjoyed her arrival not only from the hospital but now to the home that she would share with John. She had never seen past the dining room and parlor but knew it to be a handsome home for Milton. Jane and Cook seemed to be genuinely happy that she was coming in as the woman of the house. Margaret was warmed by their sincere wishes and offerings to help her settle in and eventually learn the running of a house this size.
Cooks first question was about menus and did she want to prepare them.
“Ladies, please.” John interrupted, “my wife is only shortly out of a sickbed. Let us give her some time to heal and adjust before she begins to make decisions. She will be mistress of this house, but for the next week or so, she will be treated as a special guest.”
The staff welcomed Margaret once again and left the room. Cook said the nurse would be arriving in about two hours.
“What would you like to do first, Mrs. Thornton?” John asked, not able to control his happy face.
“I would prefer to sit a while. I don’t feel like going to a bed yet.”
Branson entered the parlor and asked where he should put the parcel of clothes that came home with them. “I’ll take it,” said John, setting it aside, on a chair.” Thank you, Branson. Wait. Don’t leave just yet. I have a question.”
“Your Mistress told me that she and you were discussing her and my feelings for each other earlier today. Is that a true statement?”
Branson looked bewildered at Margaret, “I’m sorry, Miss. No, we did not discuss that, Guv.”
Margaret watched John expand his chest with a triumphant look on his face.
“Branson, please excuse your Master for asking such a personal question and putting you ill at ease. He does not have it correct.”
“If I remember correctly,” John puffed, “I said, ‘I love you, Mrs. Thornton’ and I distinctly heard you say ‘We discussed that, too.’ Is that not correct?”
“Yes, that is correct,” smiled Margaret.
“Margaret, help me understand why that isn’t what I just asked Branson.”
“Are you sure you’re a Magistrate? Heaven help, Milton,” she laughed.
John looked stupefied with his mouth gaping slightly open as he fell onto the couch beside her.
“I see I will have to explain myself to the all knowing John Thornton of Marlborough Mills.”
“Yes, Margaret Thornton of Marlborough Mills, do explain yourself.”
Branson was baffled.
“The phrase as you correctly stated was, ‘I love you, Mrs. Thornton’. Branson and I discussed if he should call me, Mrs. Thornton, or something else.”
John looked at Branson, and he could see Branson was enjoying seeing his boss, upstaged.
“Branson, you are excused.”
“Gladly, Guv,” Branson replied while being glad to be out of that funny moment.
“Margaret, you only have a few weeks to play these games and show me up in front of my friends, staff, and peers. After that, you will be swept off to bed for every concoction of mischief that you place me in. And mind you, you shall beg me to stop.”
John saw her face change with his last statement. He moved over beside her and placed his arms around her.
“Oh, Margaret. How foolish I am. I am so very sorry. I hate myself for bringing back any despicable memories.”
“John, it just caught me off guard. I don’t know why. I don’t want you having to watch what you say or do. I know where I am and who I am with, and I know I chose to be here. These things will fade. And you were talking so lovingly to me, and I just froze. Please forgive me.”
“Margaret, there is nothing to forgive. And I don’t want you to be ‘on guard’ around me. This is all so fresh for both of us. I should have been more sensitive. Margaret, this is for both of us to get through. Do not feel you are alone in getting past these terrible events. We are one, now. It’s our problem to put behind us, not just yours.”
“John, sometimes, I think you are carrying a heavier burden than I am. I know what happened. I know how I feel. I know I will recover. You can only imagine. You may have doubts about my ability to pull through this, and you worry more than I do. One’s imagination can conjure something more intense than is actual fact. Someday, if you want to hear about that night, I will tell you. I am not a weak person. Please, do not, watch what you say. Please, don’t do that. I want the John that I love now, not some other John Thornton that chastises himself. You don’t need to fall on your sword every time you or anyone else says something around me. I am not going to fall to pieces. These all will pass. I’m not sure I could say that if you were not in my life and by my side. You give me the strength to return to the woman I want to be for you.”
“Margaret, never think you need to be more of a woman for me. You – just as you are – are everything I ever wanted out of life. You found your way back to me. You will never know how that makes me feel. There are no words for the feelings I had when I opened the door to find you there. Whether you were injured or not;, I wanted to die of happiness. You are the woman I want you to be. Know that and never change. You make me so proud to be your husband.”
John tenderly kissed her. Then, he backed away and stood up.
“Whew,” he said, walking around the room to cool off, running his fingers through his hair. This isn’t going to be easy, is it?”
“No. It is not. Remember, we will work through this together.” Margaret smiled up at him.
“That’s what I am afraid of.”
“Afraid of yourself?” asked Margaret.
“No, afraid of you!” John replied in all seriousness.
“What do you, mean, John? Why are you afraid of me?” Margaret faltered.
“Because as I said, I cannot deny you anything. If I should excite you before you are ready, it would be dangerous. I couldn’t say, no, to you.”
Margaret laughed with relief.
“I see. I will be to blame when you kiss my fool head off, as you like to say, and then I want more, is that it?”
John smiled. “I think you have it. I am the husband of a very passionate woman, I believe, and if she wasn’t I would make her so. So, I need your help now. Push me away; do not encourage me, or you might suffer the consequences.”
“Maybe I want that.” Margaret cajoled.
“Not the first time around, love. For a long time, I have dreamed of the tenderness of our first night together. There are a hundred plans floating around in my head, do this, don’t do that, gentle here, extremely gently there and then a more active vigorous claim on you. I am almost twice your weight and ten times stronger. Right now you would be crushed under my loving you.”
“Aren’t there slower introductions?” she echoed.
“Oh yes. Those are already planned, or you will have fallen in love with a man gone mad. It’s not that I need do this for me, but I cannot wait to do this for you. I have waited for a real woman I would love, to show me that I am a good lover to her. You are that woman. It has only been and will only be you.”
John had finally sat down by Margaret once again when a knock came to the front door.
“And now it begins – the endless parade of well-wishers. That should dampen the fires. You will be safe as long as there are visitors,” John smiled as he strode to the front door stairs.
“I’ve got it, Jane,” he called out.