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Chapter Twenty Seven
Arriving home about two hours after she had departed, Grayson met her at the door as always while Nigel reined the coach for the stables. Margaret’s face was bursting with smiles; she could not help herself, until she saw Grayson in the light of the parlor. He handed her another port, replacing the one he had removed from under her nose at dinner. Margaret thought he looked like a cherub. He was ecstatic and struggling to keep his stoic composure for which he was so famous. Margaret knew that he smelled victory for his gentleman.
“You have a very smug look about you tonight.”
“Yes, smug. You know . . . self-satisfied. That smug.”
“If M’lady says so.”
“Do you smell victory?” Margaret asked.
“Mr. Thornton said that he was going to ask me to marry him, when I have accomplished what I want to do.”
“I am well pleased, M’lady.”
“That is it? Well pleased? My greatest happiness is on the horizon and all you can say is that you are ‘well pleased’?”
Margaret threw up her hands, downed her port and headed to her room. She could not wait to be in the tranquility of her bed and return to the memory of her new found sensuality. She undressed, slipped on her thin nightshift and went to her mirror. “Certainly, I have changed. I am a woman now, or almost. Why cannot I stop smiling?” Margaret stared at herself for a long time. Aside from the unbreakable smile, she looked the same but knew a woman had matured within her being this night. Margaret flung herself into bed, ready to dream about her ecstasy with John. She hardly remembered what happened after he had lifted her buttocks and pulled her snuggly against his hard ridge. She remembered being swept away by his closeness, his intimacy and then his fever which ignited her, turning her into pliable dough. Her bones melted as the flame raged in the folds of her womanhood. Once the passion unfurled she was hopelessly lost in him; whatever he wanted, whatever he did to her, she could not get enough of him. Margaret remembered with embarrassment how she had clamped her legs around his waist. It seemed to have been a good thing to do. John responded to her needs from that moment and took her to a place she had never been to. Even though it felt more sexual than sensual, the look in his eyes and the feeling in her heart, said it was love. John was an experienced sexually mature man but even he was surprised at what transpired. Margaret laughed at his looking forward to experimenting. An overwhelming feeling settled on her that she was desirous and she wasn’t going to be an old cold maid. She drifted to sleep with dreams of what was to come.
John had a difficult few hours finding sleep. He didn’t think he knew himself now. Or was it he had to learn how to handle love. In the moment of uncontrolled passion, John had to sate himself with just the touching of her body to his. The fear of losing her was great and he needed to quell his anxiety. He found himself going from an animal to a man overcome by the wholly unexpected response he was receiving from his lady love. John smiled thinking, “She may be a lady, but she is tortuously a woman in all aspects.” All he could think about before falling asleep was how he had to gain his strength back. He wanted strength to love her like he needed to love her.
* * *
With Higgins on one side, Margaret on the other, and John with his cane in hand, made their way to the back of the hospital. The word had circulated that John Thornton was being released this day and every newspaperman and trade publication journalist was outside, waiting for interviews or just some statement from the man, himself. Branson was waiting outside the hospital’s front entrance, intending to keep the journalists decoyed into expecting him there. Margaret had Nigel waiting out the back door with her coach. John had finally told Margaret that her horses, wagons, and coaches needed to travel over land to get to Milton. She could train load the horses but the wagons and coaches would be left behind . . . so That is what she had done. It took her caravan of horses and wheels almost four days to make the entire trip. She did not want them to rush.
Arriving at John’s Marlborough Mills home, Nicholas took most of John’s weight on his shoulder to help him up his front steps, and ultimately up the high stairs. The mill workers that saw John exit the coach had to come over to say welcome back, and other greetings. They were truly glad to see him alive and well and home. John’s hair had a long way to grow before being back to his normal length. It was easily seen by those close the terrible scars that ran down his head like two white snaking rivers where the hair follicles were still too short to cover over the jagged lines. There were gasps among some of the workers but John still smiled and waved to them as best he could.
Nicholas turned to his friend and said, “John, you know we’re going to have to plan a meeting with our people soon, at each of the mills. They’ve been very worried about you.”
“As soon as I am able, Nicholas, I want to do just that. I am extremely tired of all this bed rest. I will take a few days to get around the house and then I will spend a week in the office before I start back in fine fettle. I am feeling very well, except I tire on this leg and have an occasional headache. I know how Margaret felt when she arrived here and had to stay in bed but would not.”
“Did I hear my name?” Margaret asked, coming into the parlor behind them, carrying John’s coat over her arm and Nigel carrying his bag. “In here, Nigel . . . I think. This looks like his bed chamber. I thought I was going to live here awhile but it didn’t work out that way.” Margaret marveled at the austereness of the room. It was clean of course, but devoid of any type of ornamentation. She smiled, sensing he was much as herself. Buy only what you need and use. Figurines and the like were of no interest to Margaret, even though she had inherited a rather large collection of various objects d’art. She loved the wall hangings but the dust catchers she could do without. There could be a fortune in those little china treasures but she would never know it. To her, it gave the appearance of ‘putting on airs’. In fact, she had carefully walked her new home and had many of them packed away on the fourth floor.
Jane and Cook appeared at the top of the steps and cheerfully welcomed their master home. Once John had regained most of his memory, he told Nicholas to keep them on, pay them, allow them to come in a few days a week, until the last couple days before he returned. Cook had prepared his favorite meal today.
John ambled over to the couch and sat down with his leg propped up on the length of it. “Ah . . . ‘tis great to be home. Thank you Nigel for bringing my bags. I hear you and Branson have become good friends. Branson says that you know all about the mischief that is going on in this city. You must have had a very interesting job. Are you sure you want to be domesticated in a service position?” John asked, smiling.
“Quite so, Master Thornton. Mistress Hale is such a handful to work for. She keeps everything interesting, but you never know from one moment to the next what she is going to need you to do. Being her driver is not as traditional as I thought it would be. I am finding it very much to my liking. That entire house staff have great attitudes and Grayson is wickedly funny to work under. We scheme all the time.” Nigel finished in a lowered voice.
“Has he taught you properly how to take care of a top hat?” John asked.
“Yes, he has, Mr. Thornton. How did you know that?”
“I have absolutely no idea, but it just came to me. I guess he appears that sort of man in his own right, very proper. I do not know of any homes with butlers in Milton, as yet.”
“What is that you’re saying Nigel?” Margaret asked, returning to the room from sorting John’s bag of clothes.
“I was just telling Master Thornton how nice it is to work for you and Grayson. Life is never dull. Miss, if there is nothing further, I will be at the coach.”
“Nigel, I will be here a while. Either visit with Branson or come back in an hour or so for further directions.”
“Very good, Miss.” Nigel tipped his cap and left, going down the backstairs toward the Thornton stable.
Nicholas Higgins walked to the bar. “I think a small celebration is in order, do not you?” he asked, raising a brandy bottle to Margaret and John.
“I have been waiting for a celebration,” said John.
Margaret finding a seat said, “Yes, me, too.”
“Thank you, Nicholas,” John said. “I will have a scotch and Margaret will have a peach brandy, I will bet.”
“Is there any peach brandy?” Margaret asked, surprised that John should suggest something they had never discussed.
“There should be, Nicholas,” John offered.
Nicholas did the honors, handing them around and then poured himself a different brandy. Peach just wasn’t to his liking.
They all sat and toasted the miracle in the room. John had beaten the odds that he would be sitting there today. The doctors had well documented his every stat, reaction, and outside influence – Margaret being most of that chapter.
“Margaret, I am so sorry that I have missed documenting your tremendous burden in this brave act of moving a working mill. I know being asked to remain in the hospital still longer after the cast was removed, forced my missing your final push into Milton. Where are you now with everything?” Although he was very interested, John wanted her there for as long as he could hold her talking, afraid she had soon leave.
“All the iron is in the buildings and most is running. There is a clean-up and refurbishing at the old building before placing it in the hands of a Property Agent. We have got a ways to go in Lady Mills, as we’re still hiring and training but that is working more smoothly than I anticipated. Several of the looms must have slid in their crates and need minor repairs. Orders are now being filled since Thane has figured out the national shipping procedures from here. We’re still holding onto the international orders, waiting for your help. I think we will be running full bore by the end of the month. Oh, and by the way, I have had a clerical fellow do all the documentation of the move, to the best of his ability, not being a mill man. With the increase in workers, I am going to have to gather some accounting people soon, I see, and maybe he will stay on. I would like to have one smooth month under my belt, and then I would like to challenge all other Masters to a little wager.”
“Thank you for the documentation. It will be most appreciated by those that would like some information. Are you serious about a challenge?” John could not help but gawk at the sincerity on her face and the realization that she meant what she said. “Do not you think you need more time?”
“I could surely use it, but I want to find my own ground here and make a stand. I may not win but I think I will not embarrass myself. I’d like to quell any of the rumors that have started. There are many doubts which my staff are hearing out there amongst the mill workers. My people want to prove themselves so they can hold their heads up high. Do you think this is foolish?” Margaret questioned John with the wisdom of it.
“What type of challenge are you thinking about? Surely, it cannot be about volume output.” John made it clear.
“No, I am going for the big one. The one we all gauge our business on. Whoever has increased their ‘percent to sales’ over last year, same month. What is the percentage of improvement over a year ago.” She stated.
“Will you include your new international sales figures in that?”
“Why should I not? We have had the orders in hand for months. It’s just that I hope we can start filling them next month. I am already feeling a second shift coming on. Would not many of the Masters have expanded their business in some way, over the last year?”
“Yes, I am sure of it. I can see no unfairness there,” Nicholas said.
“Nor, I,” John spoke up adding his insight. “I know that will keep a lot of masters out of the challenge as their increases are probably modest, but everyone will enjoy the contest, regardless. We will make it clear that the sales can be counted when the goods are shipped. We will not count orders in hand or worry about when the payment is made.”
John looked at her with a proud smile, saying, “Miss Margaret Hale of Lady Mills, we have an accord. I will work to set the contest up three months from now. At the culmination of the challenge, we will have a Milton Mills party meeting, where I will also introduce you to everyone as well as declaring a winner. It would probably be wise for Mr. Latimer to track the figures, since he is a banker and not a Mill Master. I am anxious to speak with the other masters, just to hear what the word around the mills is about you.”
Nicholas laughed lightly and said, “There is a lot of head scratching and plenty of doubts floating around out there. They’re all stymied by a woman to start with. They do not know exactly how to understand it. There is no dissension anywhere, though, which is the good news. And she is had no trouble hiring.” Turning from John to Margaret, Nicholas added, “I can see where you will eventually weed out some of your early hires, unless they’ve changed their lazy habits because of your management.”
“Yes, we are documenting those workers, almost daily. If someone is slow because they are confused, we will train further, but a few of these people are lay-abouts and most likely drunks come nightfall. Aside from the long days and hard work, I have enjoyed the feeling of working among my peers. I feel I could travel to any mill and speak to any master about any problem I was having, if I wished. The two of you do not know how good it’s been for you to have others of which to ask your questions. I know we’re the ‘all knowing heads’ of the factory, but what do we do when we cannot facilitate the proper answer? I have had no one. Being in Milton is like being in a library with information and experience all around you. Most of all, though, I love seeing the coaches slow as they pass Lady Mills. They must think they’re going to see something different at my mill. Right now, the Masters must look upon me as a spoiled child, wanting to act like a grown up. Wait until the challenge. I will show them a serious contender in the business,” Margaret said smiling, but pounding her fist lightly on the side table for emphasis.
“Margaret, I can hardly wait to visit your mill. How about your home? You have sold it, have you not?” John asked, sipping his scotch.
“It sold almost as the last pieces of furniture were packed but I never told you it was sold. How did you know that?” Margaret asked, wondering where John got his information, but continued. “There were several offers of interest and I was fortunate to be able to pick my buyer and feel like it will be well taken care of. It was sad driving away that last day, watching it grow smaller in my vision. I know Grayson felt it even more than I. That has been my home for longer than I have actually owned it. I know my uncle would be proud of me, though. Another very nice delight is that there is interest in the Helstone Mills buildings. Well, I guess I should say there have been some inquiries. From what I understand there is a coach builder that is wishing to locate to Helstone. He will need a large place to store and display his coaches, plus, of course, the building of them. But through all this, the most important thing to me is that you are home and recovering nicely.”
Nicholas rose and walked to the bar to set down his empty glass. “I think I will take that as a hint and get back to work. John, just send Jane if you need anything. If you want papers or reports to look over, just let me know. How will you make out this evening with no one here?”
As John was about to dismiss needing anyone, Margaret spoke up. “I think I will be here, Nicholas. I know John wasn’t expecting that as you can tell by that wicked smile he is now wearing. I want to feel good that he can get around at night. He should not need anything from below stairs during the dark hours but we will experiment a couple nights anyway. Since he is still totally incapacitated for a while longer, I think my virtue is safe.”
John laughed, saying, “I wish I could be as sure as you are. Could it be my chaperone needs a chaperone?”
“Mr. Thornton, that sounds rather almighty of you. Could it be you’re the one needing a chaperone?”
“Is that a promise?” John said chuckling out loud.
“Now, I know I am leaving.” Nicholas smiled at both as he walked to the door. “John, I will see you in the morning if not before. I hope you have a good night’s sleep — finally. I know that hospital bed was too short for you. All right then, until tomorrow.”
“Good bye, Nicholas and thank you for everything. I have had many hours to reflect on what I have put on you these last seven weeks and how you managed to work with Miss Rose Bud.”
“John,” Nicholas said, pointing to Margaret, “there is your solution. She attacked the Rose Bud nightmare and resolved it all within 48 hours. That was her main reason for coming to Milton. She had no idea what had happened to you when she arrived but she was determined to see if Miss Rose was being an underhanded scheming woman. She can explain it to you. Good night, again.” With that Nicholas disappeared down the steps.
John waited to hear the front door close and then crooked his finger at Margaret, indicating for her to come to him.
Although both feeling anxious for the privacy, Margaret was not about to let him get away with such a playful hand gesture and a curving finger wagged in her direction. “And just what is that? Do you have hand therapy, too? Certainly, that is not directed towards me, like I am a pet waiting for his master’s signal.” She could not help but laugh, so she turned her back on him. “I think I will go downstairs and talk to cook. I should not be long.”
John could just feel the wonderful need to dominate, albeit moderately, in their budding relationship. He was a man not used to being deprived of the leadership role in anything he did, but he knew all too well that she had never taken directions from anyone either. Eventually, she would walk all over him and he would love every step she took.
It was several hours later when John was awakened by a gentle shoulder nudging from Margaret. “John, wake up. Your feast is waiting. I must say your cook has really outdone herself.”
John slowly opened his eyes, happy again to see that he was at home resting on his own couch. “I am sorry, Margaret. I must have dozed off. How long have I slept?”
“I think it’s nearly three hours, now. You had a rather exhausting early afternoon getting home and up those steps. Can you sit up, or do you need some help?”
“I could use a little help to sit up.” As Margaret put her arm under his neck to help him, he pulled her to him for a very firm kiss. Margaret molded into him, but knew the table was being set for dinner and Cook and Jane were up and down the stairs. She pulled away from John explaining her reasoning. He smiled at her.
“I tend to think you were jesting with me when you said you needed help,” Margaret said with seductive banter.
“Maybe help isn’t what I really needed but I needed that.” With the aid of his cane, John rose to a standing position with little difficulty. “I will be fine when I can gain some strength back in these legs and get this knee bent. Maybe you would like to give me some therapy this evening and force my knee to bend. That is where my greatest challenge lies, from what a doctor told me.”
“Of course, I will help you. Once you’ve changed into your nightwear later, we will get started on that. Can you sit at the dining table with your problem knee?”
“I have only tried that a couple of times at the hospital. It certainly does not bend like it should, but I can sit. What I have not accomplished is getting a sock and boot on that foot, yet. I cannot reach it.” John was swiftly struck with head pain and grimaced as he was making his way to the table.
“What is it, John, your leg?”
“No, it’s my head. The doctor said I will have bouts of headaches for another half year. I am to expect them to slowly ease as time goes on, but since I woke from the coma, they nearly stop me in my tracks. I have passed through the dizzy stage, at least. That was one of the reasons for an additional week in the hospital. Somewhere in my bags are some powders to take but I think I will try to work through this one. The food looks wonderful. I shall enjoy this second only to you.” John thought about the sumptuous meal before him, and this equally sumptuous lady dining with him. He felt he was in heaven.
John found a comfortable position in his dining chair, leaving his leg sticking straight out, under the table. As the cook set the final tureen on the table, John layered her with praise and expressions of ‘thank you’ many times over as he cast his eyes from one festive dish to another. There was enough food on the table to feed six people. They were small portions but a huge variety to choose from; he didn’t know where to start. “Thank you again, Cook, but I see you forgot to bring the trifle dessert. You have significantly outdone yourself. Please, you and Jane partake of all that will be left over,” John said reaching for the meat platter of beef and lamb. Margaret assisted in the items he could not reach. “A king could not dine better,” John said to Margaret and Cook.
“Master,” asked Cook, “the trifle was supposed to be a surprise,” she said, casting a weary glance at Margaret.
Margaret caught that look from Cook, and said, “I didn’t say a word, honestly. John, how did you know about the trifle?”
“I do not really know, but all my favorites are here with the exception of that. Surely, it has to be somewhere in this feast,” John said as he eyed the banquet spread out before him.
That was the third time that John had spoken about something he should not have known about. Margaret watched as he struggled to remain the gentlemen with proper eating etiquette and told him to stop holding back. “Dig in with his fingers if you want to.” Margaret told him. She watched as he smiled as he ate and then grimaced from the ache.
An hour later, with licked fingers and bellies about to burst, Margaret served them each a port to top off the banquet as they took to their seating in the parlor. “Outstanding,” John muttered.
“How long has Cook been with your home?”
“I do not really know, probably over ten years . . . ever since the mill first started showing a profit. So . . . tell me about you and my thorn, Miss Hawthorn. If it wasn’t for you, things could have been horribly different.”
“John you cannot know how different it would have been had you married her and discovered her scam. I know the gentlemen that you are and you would have been taken in by that awful woman. Someday, you must tell me how that all came about. I do not know you well enough but I just cannot see you being involved with her.”
“Margaret, I may tell you all if you ask, but I will say it was the lowest point in my life. All I can say is that, against my own better judgment, I was weak of the flesh and could not fight off the forced seduction. I literally nauseated myself and begged for it to be over just to get her out of my house and my life. I am sure my abrupt and rude attitude throughout the performance was what may have prompted her evenge against me. I think it very strange, but several days out of my coma, after you walked away, those words that you told me about how you unmasked her scheme came back to me. Even though I didn’t understand what you said while I was under, your words returned to me, with great relief. All I can think is that it was the last thing on my mind before the accident and it was one of the first things I thought about when I became fairly stable with my memories. Now, enough talk. Please come over and sit by me. I have been waiting almost two months for this time alone with you.”
Margaret smiled at John’s request and walked towards him. John was lying on the couch, with both legs stretched out as he had had to sit in his hospital bed. As Margaret approached, he grabbed her wrist and pulled her down on his lap. He wrapped her to his chest feeling her warmth and then pulled back to kiss her passionately. Margaret held him tightly around the neck as she accepted his warm moist tongue into her mouth. For many minutes, they could not get enough of one another. Passions were rising and John knew he would not be at his best, and slowed the fervor. He gently set Margaret away from him, still on his lap. Beaming, he said, “Margaret, I want to talk to you about your visit to me in the hospital.”
Margaret’s cheeks flushed red, more so than the fever John had ignited, moments ago.