John spent the next hour with Cook, finishing up what could be needed at the house. He was surprised to find that he wasn’t quite as naive as he previously thought. He had to concede that living with the woman he loved meant he gladly had to survive with a lot of stuff around him. Soaps, and ribbons, combs and feminine needs where going to need their own room, he laughed.
“Has anyone changed my dresser around? I know there was room that could be made.” He asked Cook
“Jane has done that, sir. There are a few bits of undergarments for Miss . . . Mrs. Margaret in one drawer and one other empty one for her. I think you will need a second wardrobe. When she buys her frocks, that’s going to take a lot of room, but it isn’t necessary today.”
John thought about her frocks hanging next to his clothes. A feeling rushed through him. It was all real. It had really happened. She was his.
After leaving Cook, he headed to see Inspector Mason to talk with him about the latest details, leaving out the part about Margaret’s brother. He wasn’t sure if Mason would see it as he did. But Margaret came first, and if Mason needed that information, he would just have to trust him.
Finding Mason in his office, he entered and closed the door.
“Mason, I’ve come to let you know what is happening. There is reason to believe that this man that attacked Miss Hale could be boxed into a corner and may come searching for her. Easily, he knows that she is a witness to all of his abuses and is unlikely to think she will be quiet about it. Tomorrow, Margaret comes home. I will spend the night at the hospital since this new information has come to light. There seems to be a gathering of protectors for Margaret, including family and friends of family and most of all, myself. You’ve known me quite a few years, and I believe you know I will do whatever it takes to protect her. I cannot stress that enough.”
Mason could read between the lines with what John was telling him. “Congratulations, by the way. It sure took you long enough to wed that Miss Hale. My best to you both. It will be nice to have her here again in Milton. It will be nice of you to give the other single men a chance at the single ladies. I’ve heard today of two successes in men asking a lady out for the evening and have been accepted.”
“Mason, you jest. It wasn’t like that, at all.”
“It’s good the type of man that you are. Humble, I guess I would call it. I don’t think you ever realized the pressure you put on the rest of us, single men. You were a hard man to live up to in the women’s eyes.”
“Now, stop that. You’re beginning to sound like Higgins.”
“I may be kidding you a little, but not much. Now, getting back to this information. Do you know what he looks like?”
“No, but I guess I could ask Margaret’s family that has arrived from London today. As of yet, Margaret knows nothing of this. The doctor and I still feel she could be emotionally unstable in her acceptance of all this torture she endured.”
“And do you know why she endured it?”
“Yes, but telling you would put you in a position in finding yourself at odds.”
“If you are talking about her brother, I have known about him since he left Milton when her mother died. Not knowing that Miss Hale would leave Milton, I looked into that. I’m not interested in doing the Navy’s work for them. I’ve always felt the Navy was too harsh on their treatment of such acts. It’s like they don’t want to hear any rebuttal. I don’t want to see her brother hang, especially now that he’s your brother-in-law.”
“Yes, I guess he is at that. I only learned of his existence a few days ago. If I had only known back then, it would have saved Margaret from all of this. She would have been my wife long ago. Mason, I appreciate you seeing it the way, I do. It appears that he may be heading this way, too, to rescue his sister. He doesn’t know she’s here or she’s married. He’s looking up Adam Bell, trying to find this Hartford. Somehow, we’ll get a description of him to you. He could be here now, or very soon. Since we’ve gotten Frederick away from his watcher, his only recourse now is to silence Margaret with his plan falling apart.”
“I will have a meeting with my men. Keep me informed of any news and get me that description.”
“That I will. Good evening, Mason. Thank you once again.”
John returned to the hospital as the late afternoon gave way to early twilight. He was sure Margaret would be exhausted by now, and he would clear the room for her. First, he sought out the evening doctor, in charge. He didn’t ask; he told him he would be in her room for the night. She could be in danger, and he was not leaving her side. The hospital was glad to give him full responsibility.
John walked into Margaret’s room as if nothing was going on.
“Ladies, I think you have had enough time with my wife. In fact, you have had more time than I have. I want her to rest, so if you will excuse us, I believe Adam is awaiting your company for dinner at the hotel.”
“Margaret, I will bring you a lose frock to wear home tomorrow,” Edith noted.
“That is kind of you, Miss Shaw,” said John “When she arrives home and settles in she will be required to rest for a while. Please do not come to visit until the middle of the afternoon. Take some time and see our city.”
John walked Mrs. Shaw and Miss Shaw a short way down the corridor. “Miss Edith or Mrs. Shaw, our Inspector would like a description of Captain Hartford if you can provide one. He could come looking for her, and we want to be prepared. As I said, I am taking no chances. I would appreciate it if you could stop by the police station which is located in the Central Court House on this very road.
“Please call me, Edith, Mr. Thornton. After all, we’re family, now. Yes, we will stop by the police station. Who do we ask for?”
“Edith, and you may call me John, ask for an Inspector Mason. Tell anyone you meet that John Thornton as sent you to see Mason.” John offered, never looking at Mrs. Shaw. He was not going to offer the same familiar courtesy to Mrs. Shaw, to call him by his given name. She was senior to him, and it was only right that he continued to call her Mrs. Shaw.
“I hope you two have pleasant accommodations in the hotel. It’s not London here. We’re a working town. There are no society levels here. I hope you can bear with us on that score. Good day ladies. My driver is waiting for you outside. His name is Branson.”
Captain Lenox had arrived back in London and decided to see Detective Boyle before going to the Shaw’s home.
“Come in Captain Lenox. What can I do for you?” asked Boyle.
“I believe you are the man that Constable Leyland turned over the Margaret Hale case, to.”
“That would be correct. And you are?”
“I am Captain Maxwell Lenox. I soon will marry Miss Hale’s cousin, Edith. The Captain Hartford, who I only just met a few months ago, has caused me some uncomfortable feelings.”
“Before you go through the whole story, Captain Lenox, I have the report and know of your participation. What can I do for you?”
“I just returned from a small town far outside London where I followed a rumor regarding Hartford’s past. The father of the daughter said that a detective had been there only yesterday. I wanted to ensure you found out all that I did. The police would not speak with me, but the father was very candid about his thoughts.”
“Please go on Captain Lenox. I will be interested to hear what you were told.”
Maxwell was shown to a chair in the detective’s office and began his story. He included everything in case some items were missing from the report that the detective had received.”
“Thank you, Captain. Your information matches ours fairly close except we received more from the police there. I wish I could share it with you, but you understand that I cannot. Have you spoken to your commander about any of your suspicions?” Boyle asked.
“No, I have told no one. Even the family does not know all that I know. I find it very embarrassing that a man of such rank could act as it seems he has. I am not sure how I want to handle this. I’m sure you cannot advise me. It’s just that the Commander should be notified, but I have no witness to bring forward. We haven’t located Miss Hale, yet, to know the whole story.”
“You have now, Captain. She’s been found. She was injured and wound up in a hospital in Milton.”
“Milton? She lived there over two years ago. You said hospital. How badly was she injured?”
“Severely, it would seem. She’s recovering well, and I just heard that she married a man she knew when she once lived there. I believe the Shaw’s left today to see her. I’m going there tomorrow to interview her. I would appreciate it if you didn’t tell your Commander. After all, like you said, you have no proof. I think we do. Let’s not spook him. I have someone watching him all the time now.”
“I will not speak with the Commander, then. I’ll wait and see how you progress. I will be off to Milton tomorrow myself, it would seem.”
“Can you just take off like you did yesterday, today and now tomorrow?”
“I have leave coming to me. It is not a problem, at least for a couple more weeks. I was saving time for my honeymoon, but this has taken a priority in the family’s life. I will not wear my redcoat but will have it with me if you think I can be of any help in uniform. I can understand why Miss Hale ran, but we have no motive for any of this. Can I ask if you know why this behavior?”
“You can ask, but I am not permitted to say. Perhaps, when you reach Milton, more will come to light for you. It would seem that everyone of any knowledge of this case is going to be in Milton by tomorrow. I will be working with a Chief Inspector Mason when I arrive. I’m not sure where I’ll stay if you need to get in touch, but there must be a hotel there somewhere. Certainly, you can find me through their local police station. Thank you, Captain, for bringing your concerns to our attention. It would appear that you are not closing ranks on this and I appreciate that. I shall see you in Milton. Good day, sir.”
Maxwell nodded and left, quite relieved and surprised at the events that took place while he was away for one day. He would stop by the Shaw’s home for his own knowledge.
Not finding the Shaw’s at home, the housemaid said they had traveled to Milton very early this morning. Returning to his quarters, arriving only by minutes when a note was delivered to him. It was from Edith telling him essentially what he had heard from the detective. He pulled his leather satchel down and packed for his trip to Milton.
“Do you know what I am going to do to you when I get you home tomorrow?”
“I don’t know, but I think I’ll like it,” Margaret replied, resting back after her long day of relatives.
“I am going to kiss you until you cannot breathe. We are far behind where we could be in kissing, and I will start making up for it tomorrow. Perhaps, tonight even. I am staying here with you tonight.”
“You are!” was heard from a gleeful Margaret. With a little consideration, she asked, “Why?”
“You wish me to leave?” John feigned hurt.
“No! No, of course not, but it’s not permitted, is it?”
“I permitted it, myself.”
“Do Magistrates have such powers?” she asked.
“Yes, have you not known that?” John replied, kiddingly. “How many weddings do you think take place in hospitals? Have you ever heard of that happening to anyone else?”
“I do not think you are speaking truthfully. I think you just want to kiss me,” she laughed.
“That I do, too, my love.”
“Are you really here for the night?”
“Oh, dear,” Margaret quietly bemoaned. “Can you call a nurse, please?”
“What is it? Do you feel bad?” John asked anxiously.
“No. Before I settle down for the night, I should go over to that screen.”
“Oh, I see,” John smiled to himself. “I can help you get there.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
John didn’t hear the amusement in her voice and was taken aback momentarily. “Margaret, are you really afraid of me or is it just the newness of us?”
“I’m really afraid; you know what I mean. I guess it is the newness of us. That sounds exactly like what it is.”
John was relieved.
“Margaret, I will simple help you to get there since the room is becoming dim. I’m not asking to take away the screen, my love.” He wanted to laugh but held it in. “You will have to talk with Cook tomorrow, and she’ll tell you how proud she was of me as we, together, went shopping for a woman’s needs today.”
“You did not!”
John was silent. John could see her studying his face for some smirk, but he had none.
“You did not!”
“If you insist,” John replied.
“I knew it.”
“All right. I guess we have to start somewhere. You can help me to the screen.”
John popped out of his chair. He waited for Margaret to adjust her gown and start to push the sheet down. John gently felt behind her knees, which brought on a typical male reaction, and swung her legs to the side of bed.
“Did I do good? I can’t see how badly you might be grimacing.”
“That was fine. When I know it’s going to happen and can turn my whole body at once, it works without pain. I don’t know if my rib is getting better or I am just getting used to the discomfort of it.”
“Yes, that’s probably so. I doubt the medication for pain has anything to do with it, anymore.” John smarmed.
Margaret wiggled until her feet touched the floor. “Can you pull my hands now? I can’t seem to use my stomach muscles to stand myself up from this low bed.”
John pulled her to her feet and then took her elbow to steady her for the short walk across half of the room. Arriving at the commode chair, he moved the screen away momentarily so she could maneuver herself, and then replaced it.
“Thank you. You can sit back down now. Don’t hover.”
John was enjoying himself, exceptionally, at her shy innocence. He could hear her rustling her gown which must be a nuisance for women, he thought. The room was finally quiet. He started to smile. Either Margaret was trying to urinate quietly, or she was finding it difficult. He knew it would never happen quietly, as she dribbled into an enamel pan.
“Can you talk or sing or let me hear about one of your cases in the courtroom?”
John could hardly answer for the grin on his face at her nervousness.
“All right. There once was a man from . . .” John stopped. A light tinkling sound was heard. “I h-e-a-r you,” he said.
The sound stopped immediately.
“That’s interesting, he laughed.
“What is?” asked a helpless Margaret.
“That’s very interesting,” John repeated.
“Are you talking for my sake or are you actually talking to me.”
“I am talking TO you, Margaret.”
“Well, what’s so interesting and hurry up about it.”
“That the sound stopped in a snap. Just like that. No more water running into the pan.”
“Can’t men do that?” Margaret asked, now with interest.
“I’m really not sure. I’ve never had an occasion to try it.”
“Yes, I’ve heard about that part of men’s bodies. Once that thing gets going, there’s no stopping it.” Margaret heard the biggest laugh from John and was able to release the rest and finish. “Don’t try to deny that you’re not sure about that.” Margaret chuckled.
John finally caught his breath, and the room was silent again.
“Is everything all right with you? Do I need to leave the room?” he asked, still stifling his last bout of laughter.
“No, I’m done.”
“Are up ready to return to the bed?”
“Not quite yet.”
John waited and could her a few groans coming from the other side of the screen. He was confused. Was there another step he didn’t know about?
“Is there a problem, my love?”
“There seems to be a small one. I think I need the nurse this time.”
“Margaret. Let me help you. I want to help you. We are going to have several weeks of this, so let me help you now, while the room is dim,” he chuckled.
“I can’t bend over to reach my drawers that slid to the floor,” Margaret said embarrassed.
“Lucky me,” said John, quietly.
“Nothing, sweetheart. I’ll be right there and even close my eyes if you insist.”
“If you won’t call the nurse, I have no choice.”
“All right. I am in front of the screen. Tell me what to do.” John was now serious.
Nurse Pickering had stepped into the room unobserved and marveled at the sight happening. She placed her hand over her mouth and continued to watch.
“Close your eyes.”
“Now, slide the screen away . . . that’s it.”
“Next,” John replied, keeping his eyes closed as promised.
“Now, feel my hands?”
“Yes, I have them. You want me to pull you to a standing position first?”
“All right. Here we go. I can’t see what I am doing so shout if I have you off balance.”
“You’re doing fine . . . that’s it.”
“Now, I suppose you want me to find your drawers and pull them up.”
“Yes, and don’t be funny about it.”
“Margaret, this is funny. I shall remember it all my life. I’m supposed to be pulling these the other way. I will try real hard to reverse the male’s coveted role in life.”
Now, Margaret was laughing, and Nurse Pickering couldn’t hold her laughter back either.
“Bravo said Nurse Pickering. You two work well together. I hope it becomes easier when there’s more light.”
John almost fell back on his butt at being surprised by their audience. He recovered gracefully. “Did we pass muster, Mrs. Pickering?”
John stood up and held Margaret’s elbow, guiding her back to bed. The nurse collected the enamel pan and left the room, laughing.
“Well, Mrs. Thornton, this honeymoon has been slightly different than I’ve always thought one should be, but I am loving every minute, even when I heard you,” he exaggerated for good measure. “Let’s see . . . I’ve touched the softness at the back of your knee. I want to do better at that. This was just a trial. You let me skim the sides of your legs as I struggled to pull up your undergarment. That had me in a sweat. Please do not let another man know I did that.”
Margaret was laughing too hard. “Stop. It hurts to laugh this hard.”
“I have had so many “firsts” today, I must write them down. I never want to forget these past two days with you.”
“You will not write them down.”
“I will need to refer to my notes for future reference until I am proficient.”
Margaret just sighed, hoping he was teasing her. He was going to be caring with her shyness. John would soothe her fears, she knew. She wondered where their sense of humor came from when it wasn’t there before. They both were appearing slightly different but in a nice way.
It came to her that two years ago, they had been in love separately, now they were in love together and very happy about it.
Captain Grant Hartford sat at his desk and began to assemble the broken puzzle.
Eight – A Slow Conquering of the Heart
Beth lived in a kind of suspended fear for three long weeks, before she dared to relax. She was convinced Fenton would summon her and tell her she was dismissed from his services. Yet, day after day passed without that happening and she began to breathe more easily again.
Then she started wondering why Fenton left her in peace. From what she knew about him, he was a shrewd and evil man who would not leave such an opportunity unused.
In those three weeks, Fenton did everything to belie his reputation as a cold and evil man.
He was kind to Lily and Oliver when he attended their riding lessons, giving only mild corrections when necessary. Encouraging the children with outings, he not only gradually gained their trust but also won their hearts in allowing them to have one of his hunting bitches’ pups as a pet.
Sometimes, totally unexpected, he would appear in the classroom and just sit quietly at the back. Listening to the children reading or helping them with French and arithmetic, he managed to shut out Beth on those occasions, so that she was forced to leave the classroom. Instead of taking offense, Beth welcomed those encounters of Fenton with his children, for they benefitted from them. Lily and Oliver were actually happy, and Beth loved to see them happy. She had come to love Lily and Oliver, it was as simple as that.
At dinner, Fenton was kind and deferential, having interesting and very neutral conversations in which he also took care to include his mother. Evening meals were pleasant and entertaining but superficial. Beth could not help thinking he was just biding his time, soothing her suspicions and making ready to strike when the time was right. She had, after all, crossed the line of decent behaviour by her break-in attempt.
Then, one evening, Fenton announced he would be going to London for a while.
“I have been neglecting some aspects of my business, My Lady,” he addressed his mother. “I need to go talk to my lawyers in London. Would you care to accompany me and do some shopping?”
The Dowager Baroness replied swiftly.
“My Lord, you know very well I do not care for London anymore since your esteemed father died. My health is not as good as it was and I do not think a prolonged carriage journey will improve it.”
The next day, Fenton had Parsifal saddled and departed for London, leaving Beth with an odd feeling of abandon.
After barely a two mile ride, Fenton halted at an inn on the London road, tossed Parsifal’s reins toward the stable hand and strode inside. The landlord came running and bowing with as much swiftness his rotund form permitted.
“Good day, my lord Brixton! How can I serve you?”
“Ah, Widdicombe! What news? How is your good wife and family?”
“Very well, sir! Our Evie just had her second baby and my Lizzie has gone to give her a hand with the little ones. Was you wanting a room then, my lord?”
“No, just a pint of your excellent ale and send your youngest – Rickie, I believe his name is – to me, will you?”
Rickie, ten years old, lithe and fast, skidded to a halt in front of him just seconds later.
“Wha’ is it ye want, melord?”
“I have a job for you, Rickie. One that is worth a golden boy if you do it right.”
“A … a gol’en boy! Blimey, melord! I’d do anything fer that!”
Grinning, Fenton explained what it was he wanted Rickie to do for him. He was to go and spy on Brixton Hall from the shrubbery. Whenever Rickie would see a light going up in the library, he was to rush back to the inn and tell the baron.
Beth crept down the stairs of Brixton Abbey as soon as she saw the lights go out in the servants’ quarters. With Fenton away, she now had ample opportunity to go searching his desks again. For more than two hours, she meticulously looked for proof or clues about the fatal accident but she found none. Discouraged, she went back upstairs, tears of powerless rage in her eyes. On the first floor, she paused, a thought coming to mind. Fenton’s rooms! He could very well be hiding some compromising evidence there!
With renewed hope, she stole towards the Baron’s chambers, her burglar’s keys at the ready. The door opened silently to a set of rooms as lovely as they come. A large sitting room with a desk and bookcases, some comfortable chairs and a low table, and two doors on either side. One of them led to a dressing room, full to the rafters with Fenton’s clothes, boots, cravats and other items. The other one led to the bed chamber where the large four poster occupied most of the space but there was also an extension that contained a big copper bath tub. Everything was upholstered in the most exquisite taste, and Beth sighed at the sight of it. She would never in her life possess such beautiful rooms.
But, back to her quest, she admonished herself and headed for the large desk. There were four drawers to the left side and a cupboard door to the ride side. All of them were locked. Beth began using her keys and, after a couple of minutes had all the locks open. The contents of the desk were predictable. Documents concerning the estate, ledgers, a writing wallet, nothing out of the ordinary. Yet, at the back of the bottom drawers, her probing fingers encountered something promising – a small booklet covered in bright red Moroccan leather – a diary!
The light of the moon not being enough to read by, Beth lit a candle, sat down in the comfortable desk chair and began reading. Twenty minutes later, she knew she had found the proof she needed. Time to go back to her room.
“Ah, I see you found it! Is it enough, my dear mademoiselle, or do you need extra proof on my involvement in the accident that caused your mother’s death?”
Beth literally froze in horror! Fenton? Yes, there he was, sauntering towards her with his easy long stride and his charming smile on his handsome face. She was done for! Struggling for words but not finding them, she slowly backed towards the windows. His hand shot out and grabbed hers, snatching the diary out of her hand with his other hand.
“Did you think I had not recognized you from the start, Beth? You have changed a lot, I will give you that, but you still have those chocolate brown eyes of yours. They are unique, my pretty, and incomparable to any other pair I have gazed into since I drowned into yours. Do you have any idea how long those eyes have haunted me? More than ten long years, ma petite gouvernante.”
Her heart hammering in her chest as if it was on the verge of exploding, Beth saw the hard glint of desire in those blue-grey eyes and felt the answering tug deep inside her. As Fenton wound his arm around her waist, she all but whimpered with a need that shot through her from head to toe. She actually did whimper when his mouth came down on hers for a savage kiss.
Adam arrived at the hospital only to find John and Margaret in a conference with the doctor. He heard words in regards to a nurse coming to the house for a week, so Adam went back to the waiting area. While sitting with the newspaper that he had recently shown John, he saw Mrs. Shaw and Edith walk over to the information desk. It appeared they left quite early. Adam sighed. This seemed like it was going to be a long day.
As the Shaw’s were directed towards Margaret’s room, Adam caught their attention and they stopped at his urging.
“Good day to you both. I hope you had a pleasant trip,” Adam said glibly, gesturing to two chairs for them to take.
“We’re on our way to see Margaret. We can’t sit and talk,” Mrs. Shaw, huffed.
“I was just at her room. Apparently she is in conference with her doctor. Please sit with me and I will give you the latest news.”
Sitting, Edith asked, “How is Margaret? We’ve been so worried.”
“She is doing well. I hardly know where to start; there is so much to say. I am sure she will go into the detail for you, but it seems that Captain Hartford was mistreating Margaret quite badly. She was being held hostage as his bride, we think, because of my endowment to her. He held over her head the fact that he knows all about Frederick and where he is. There has been no proof of that, though. The doctor has discovered multiple beatings with the last one, a few days ago, resulting in a cracked rib and black eye. Margaret ran for her life. She ran to the only person she felt safe with and that is John Thornton. She still loves him, you know?”
“Dear God,” said Aunt Shaw. Edith started to weep. “And you say she is doing well?”
“Yes, she appears to be, although, we fear there is still some residual emotional trauma that may come to light.”
“What can we do? We can’t take her back where that maniac is,” said Edith looking bewildered and worried. “I look for Maxwell to find us here. He’s been looking into Captain Hartford. He says he doesn’t have a good feeling about the man, and he doesn’t know what’s happened to Margaret yet. He said that days ago, when he and I went looking for her. Her handbag was seen on Captain Hartford’s sofa, but we kept quiet that we saw it, except to the police. The Met is now involved.”
“I am sure we will welcome any news that Maxwell can bring us. There will be no need to take Margaret anywhere. As I said, she ran to the man she knew she loved. John Thornton has loved her since he’s known her. Now, I know by London standards, John Thornton does not equal your society standards, but he is almost Milton’s favorite son. He holds great esteem here. He’s a Magistrate and he is now Margaret’s husband, as of yesterday.” Adam waited for the news to seep in. He didn’t have to wait long.
Although, Edith smiled, her mother exclaimed, “He’s what?”
Adam noticed John was passing through the hall to the outer doors and shouted for him. John turned, expressionless, and walked their way.
“John, you remember Mrs. Shaw and this is her daughter, Edith, Margaret’s cousin. They have just now arrived. I’m afraid I am failing miserably in catching them up. If Margaret is available, they would like to see her right away.”
“Hello, Ladies. These are unusual circumstances to meet you, but I think Margaret will be pleased to see you. I will escort you to her room. I was just on my way out to situate some accommodations for Margaret’s release from this hospital, tomorrow. Before we go into her room, I have a few words that I would like to say to you.”
“Go on,” said an exasperated Aunt Shaw.
“Mrs. Shaw, I want it known to you that I love your niece more than anything in this world, I will protect her from all harm. She loves me, as well. We belong to each other, now. We were married yesterday. You are absolved of all responsibility for her. That now belongs to me. I do not wish to hear your thoughts on what you think is best for her. We see where that has gotten her, haven’t we? I am beside myself with grief over her abuse. I shall take no advice from you. I hope we understand each other, and I think you will hear the same from Margaret. Should I find Margaret despondent after any of your visits to her, I will bar you from seeing her. She is coming to our home tomorrow. If you can act like a loving aunt, you will be welcomed there. Margaret is holding up well, but that is on the surface. Please don’t dig into all the details. Let her speak them as she feels comfortable in doing. Have I made myself clear?” John said, wearing his stern face.
Edith smiled. “Quite clear, Mr. Thornton. Please excuse my mother; she is speechless, never having been spoken to in such a manner. I, for one, am happy she has found her way back to you. Come, Mother; let’s go see Margaret.”
Adam followed behind, smiling to himself and so proud of his friend John. The new John, he remembered.
“John.” Adam called.
“I have some very important news we need to discuss at your very earliest convenience.”
John turned, barely acknowledging Adam’s request, as he opened the door to Margaret’s room.
Margaret was sitting up in her bed, spooning something liquid into her mouth. She dropped her spoon and held out her arms, shouting, “Edith, Aunt!”
John stood back with Adam and watched as the women looked at Margaret in horror and then wondered how to hug her. Margaret seemed pleased to see them. John found a second chair and pulled it to her bedside. He decided to wait a few minutes to see how Margaret would react to their doting.
“Margaret, can’t they feed you anything better than that?” Mrs. Shaw said, and then quickly looked over her shoulder at John.
John waved his finger at her, like a small child.
Adam wanted to laugh out loud. John had surely put her in her place.
John kept his eye on Margaret. Eventually, she looked up at him and nodded. He knew that was a signal to him that she would be all right. He turned to Adam.
“What is so urgent, Adam?”
“When you are ready, we will talk away from this room.”
John walked over and squeezed between the women to give Margaret a tender kiss. “I will be back shortly, my love,” he said, leaving her side.
Mrs. Shaw was last seen by Adam with her mouth hanging open.
As the two men walked down the hall, Adam began to relate the details of the note from Fred. John hung his head listening as headed for the front door.
John stopped, remembering his buggy was around back.
“Adam, we need to talk about this now. Can you round up Nicholas and Branson, while I run some errands for Margaret’s coming home. I will meet all of you at the house within the hour. It seems like you can begin your part of the plan for his fiancé, but there’s a lot more to discuss. I’ll be with you, soon.”
John left by a back entrance and climbed into his buggy. He’d never met her brother, was anxious to do it, but if Frederick had a mind to take care of Captain Hartford, he had another think coming. John was so lost in thought he momentarily forgot what his errands were.
First John stopped on a side street at a small building that he never knew existed. This was where he would ensure that a nurse had been notified by the doctor to be at his home. He was there to see what her requirements were and to purchase them.
The meeting was brief and he found he needed nothing if Margaret had some sleeping gowns to wear before being strapped into clothes. Margaret would rest in their big bed, and he would find a cot to sleep near her in the same room. That was a supply that was offered to rent by this medical service. Apparently, the nurses had to use them when staying with patients but this nurse would use Cook’s room. The woman he met was nearing fifty years and seemed solidly built to lift patients in and out of bed. He hoped she brought a book because she would be excused from the room, often.
That settled, he headed for home to ensure other provisions were purchased by his household staff. He was given a list and wasn’t sure exactly what some of these feminine items were, but would learn quickly. He wanted to tend to Margaret in every way she would let him. He could tell that she would probably draw a line at some aspects of her femininity, but he hoped not. Jane and Cook could use Branson later today, if they hadn’t already purchased what was needed.
Entering the kitchen, he spoke with Cook. He handed her the list, and watched as she smiled.
“So, I see there are some things the mighty Master does not know about women. My, don’t let that get around,” she laughed – and so did John.
“Yes, that is a secret I am forced to admit, but you are fired if I hear you have told anyone,” he smiled. “I would like to go with you to learn, if you can wait an hour or two.”
“I won’t be embarrassed if you come along. I’m right proud of you.” Cook offered.
“Well, let this be our secret. Although, I care not for my reputation among the women, I do have my peers who have envied the knowledge they only thought I had.”
“Oh, you have a lot of knowledge and you know it. This is just the finer details, the inner sanctum, if you will; the embarrassing part of being a woman.”
“Embarrassing? Why embarrassing? Margaret will not be embarrassed with me. I love everything about her that makes her a woman, and my wife and my lover.”
“Master, you’re one in a million.”
John walked up the back stairs to find the three men talking at the table. Cook had prepared some sandwiches for all of them. John walked to the cabinet, poured himself a scotch, and returned to the table for a bite to eat.
Before John could ask any questions, Adam slid Frederick’s note over for John to read himself. After reading it, John set it back in the center of the table. Adam picked it up and folded it into his pocket.
“What have you men been thinking?” John asked.
Nicholas spoke first. “I will be the one to get Frederick’s fiancé settled outside of Paris. We feel he can move on from there should Frederick want to. Adam will stay and help with the Aunt and cousin. Branson will stay, also, since he does not have the experience of finding a residence for Frederick and his bride-to-be. I could probably pass as her father if not an older brother. I certainly don’t look like Frederick, so if anyone thinks they know who she is, my face will tell them they must be mistaken. I will leave tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Nicholas. Just be careful of yourself. Don’t put yourself in danger.”
“It doesn’t appear that will be necessary.”
“By reading that note, I hope you’re right. It would seem so. All right, that part is settled. Now, unexpectedly, we have Margaret’s brother going to risk his life getting into England. I wish there was some way we could stop him.”
“John,” said Adam, “he’s risked it twice before and wasn’t caught. Certainly, you well remember him being here when their mother died.”
“Yes, now that you say that, I even remember what he looks like. I, am willing to and I’m sure Margaret will agree that he can stay here, in this house, until we can send him back home.”
“Guv, from the sound of this letter he won’t be heading home from here.”
“He and I will discuss that. What else?”
“There is still the worry of Captain Hartford, coming after Margaret.” Bell put forward.
“Yes, that is a concern. Do we have any thoughts of him knowing where she is? Does he know he’s lost his advantage, if indeed, he ever had one?”
“John, there is a good chance that Edith’s fiancé, Captain Maxwell Lenox, will find his way here, too. The Met is now involved. Edith confided that Maxwell and she went to Hartford’s home looking for Margaret. They spotted her handbag on the sofa.”
John stood quickly and walked away from the table, turning his back, but still listening.
Adam turned in his direction and continued. “Maxwell has been looking into this man. They are both Captains, unknown to each other before Margaret, but with their training and his information gathering, he may have some insight into what Hartford would do.”
“I will welcome his findings. It seems like we will have a full house in Milton before the week is over. Only one person in the ‘cast of characters’ will be missing.”
“Can we sum this up since we seemed to have agreed on several things here,” asked Nicholas.
“Our priority is to save Margaret and save her brother. John has happily taken care of half of this. That leaves Frederick and this Lisa. I will take care of Lisa beginning tomorrow. I should be gone about four days. Frederick could be here at any time, looking for Adam before going on to London to . . . ah . . . dispatch – that must be a military phrase – this other Captain. Now, where does that leave us?”
John sat back down at the table. “Her brother will be here; he’s former military. This Maxwell will be here and he is military. Both will have good views and ideas about the possibility of this Hartford’s thinking, feeling the net closing in, and how he might seek out Margaret. That is a decision we will look into in the next day or two. I just want to stay close to her until I can get her home tomorrow. Since we now think Hartford may know that Frederick has escaped, he has only one other alternative to free himself of this entanglement and blackmail. I would think he’ll come looking for Margaret to silence her, however he can. I don’t think he has too many choices in accomplishing that.”
“Good God, John, you don’t mean . . .?” Adam said in astonishment.
“I am taking no chances. I’ve said that from the beginning. My anxiety is becoming more acute. I hope I am wrong.”
Adam felt like he would be sick. It had not occurred to him that Margaret could still be in imminent danger. Margaret had no idea, that all of this plotting and revenge planning was whirling around her. And that was a good thing. Maybe her aunt and cousin would be a blessing to keep her mind occupied.
Still sipping whiskey in the Officer’s club, Captain Grant Hartford spotted an article on the third page of the London paper.
Miss Margaret Hale, London, has wed Mill Master John Thornton of Milton……
Grant closed the paper and left for his quarters, feeling he had just loaded his pistol. New plans would be made tonight. There was no doubt in his mind what needed to be done.
Seven – Under Attack
To Beth’s infinite relief, Fenton had no chance to go further down this dangerous path because Raleigh, the butler announced that dinner was ready. The three of them, Beth and her charges, made it through the meal with tolerable ease. Lily and Oliver were quiet but ate well, only darting quick glances at the baron, every now and then, as if they were not entirely sure what to think of him. When the dowager rose to retire, Beth gathered her charges and made it upstairs as well, ignoring Fenton’s dark, brooding gaze.
“I am so very proud of you, my darlings!” she praised while the children were readying themselves for bed. “You have behaved like real genteel-born children, without any flaws, at all!”
“The old lady is very …” Lily frowned for the word so Beth supplied it.
“Yes! Her eyes were like glowing coals! It thought she was going to set me aflame!”
“Silly!” Her brother scowled. “Eyes cannot do that! The baron was nice, do you not think so, mademoiselle?”
“Yes, he was,” Beth agreed and gestured them to bed. She tucked them in and kissed their brows. “Now, you two have a good night’s sleep and then tomorrow, we will go on a walk to collect wild flowers.”
“Can we go and see Granny, too?”, came Lily’s small, sleep-stained voice.
“Promise! We will do that! Sleep well, darlings!”
Stephen Fenton sat behind a desk in his library enjoying a fine old brandy. He had shed his coat, opened his waistcoat and rolled up his shirtsleeves because he truly needed to wind down after the day he had. The cuts and bruises he received in the cottage fire, were troubling him so he poured himself a stiff brandy. With only one small lamp breaking the darkness of the late September night, he leaned back, resting his head against the wall. He did not need more light because he was not working. A glass of brandy and a quiet room were all he needed tonight. He wanted to do some thinking.
Too many unfamiliar feelings harassed him, too many strange emotions but none of them unwelcome.
First, there was the budding warmth he was beginning to feel for his twins. They were fine, sweet children and all these years, he had not known that. He had been a fool, not only for begetting them with silly, young, inexperienced Molly Bradley, but also, once they were born, for not paying attention to them. He needed to remediate that.
Secondly, there was Beth Williams. Pretty, lively, intriguing Beth Williams, who did not want him to know she was in England, on his own estate, in his own home. Did she want revenge for what he did, all those years ago? Stephen could understand that. He had done a terrible thing and so had his father in hiding the truth about her family’s carriage accident.
The lamp on the desk sputtered and went out. Cursing under his breath, Fenton stood and fuddled with his tinderbox to light the other one when the door of the room opened and someone entered, carrying another small lamp. He ducked behind a book rack and waited. Who could this be, sneaking into the library, that late?
It was a woman but the small lamp did not give enough light to see her face. Fenton, however, would have recognized her everywhere. Beth! That ramrod straight, very slender figure, the way she held her head and the elegance of her step had become very familiar during the weeks she was staying in his home.
What was she doing, he mused. Placing her lamp on one of the many desks in the room, Beth ducked a hand into her skirt pocket and retrieved something that looked like a small briefcase. She took several items out of it and began picking the desk drawer lock. Fenton was stunned! Why would she want to investigate his desk?
In the space of half an hour, Beth searched most of the locked-up furniture in the library and sorted through the contents, becoming more impatient by the minute. Fenton watched her the whole time with growing anger, until he could no longer stand it.
“Good evening, mademoiselle,” he said quietly, stepping from behind the book case. Beth startled so violently that she nearly jumped.
“My lord? Oh, I … I am sorry to have disturbed you. I … erm … was looking for a book and I ignored you were here.”
“A book, you say? Well, mademoiselle, books aplenty, as you can see, but you will not find them in a desk,” he said in a low voice, coming to stand beside her so closely that she was forced to step away.
Her back was now against one of the book cases and in the lamp light, Fenton could see her huge, dark eyes widen with fear. Her breath came in short, shallow intakes, causing her chest to rise frantically beneath the black bombazine of her dress. Fenton’s eyes wandered from her alabaster throat over her face and hair and back to her mouth. That mouth slightly opened and was extremely lovely. He bent his head and touched her lips with his in the lightest of kisses. Her mouth was cool, smooth and firm. She did not draw away but softly whimpered, a sound that went right down to his groin.
Tracing the curve of her cheek with a trembling finger as his hand slipped around her head, Stephen could feel the rapid beat of her heart in her slender neck. Her hands came up to rest upon his chest, the warmth of her small palms searing through the fine cotton of his shirt.
In all her twenty-five years, Beth had never been touched by a man. The tender assault of Fenton’s warm mouth was exquisitely pleasant and caused her breath to catch fiercely in her throat. Under her hands, she could feel the muscled wall of his chest, hard as steel and unmoveable as rock. Yet the sensation was strangely reassuring and filled her with an immense feeling of safety. She realised she was not afraid, only increasingly excited as her fingers slid sideways to his back. The movement brought her closer to him and she was forced to tilt back her head so that it lay cradled in both his hands. His mouth was still on hers when he spoke softly.
“What did you come here for, ma belle? What were you searching for? It was no book, was it?”
Pressed close to a healthy male in a sorry state of dishabille should have terrified her, Beth thought, yet it did not. Instead she felt safe and content.
Then, realisation struck her! Safe? In the arms of the man who caused the death of her mother and Julian?
Now, finally, terror shot through her like lightning. Beth tore herself free from Fenton’s grasp and fled.
For a split second, Stephen envisaged going after her and forcing Beth to explain her strange behaviour but then, he gave up the idea. Instead, he lowered himself back into his chair and considered the events that had just taken place.
God! He could not believe what he just witnessed. Beth, trying to pick a lock using a set of real pickpocket instruments!
Beth had been searching for something, that was obvious, but what? He would have to find out so that he could unearth what it was that had brought her here. Stephen realised he had now the perfect opportunity to throw Beth out on the streets, since she had been found out stealing.
Yet, for some reason, he did not want Beth to leave Brixton Abbey at all!
Twilight was falling, and so were Margaret’s eyelids. John could see her fighting sleep and knew he should leave. It was difficult to pull himself away. He wanted to lie beside her. He lifted her hand, kissing her palm and bent over to kiss her slightly parted lips. He could feel her breath as she slept. His emotions were becoming undone. He would seek out the doctor and see when she could come home with him.
John inquired at the registration desk as he neared the hospital doors.
“Mr. Thornton, I will check for you. He may have left by now. Please wait while I look for him.”
As John was waiting, he noticed journalists out front, still waiting after five hours. They were a determined lot, he thought.
A few moments later, Dr. Wagner came strolling into view without his white coat. “Congratulations, Mr. Thornton.”
“Thank you. I wanted to ask when I can take my bride home.”
“She is doing well. No doubt she has had incentive,” he said smiling. I think one more day should do it, but you and I will have to have a talk about this before she leaves.”
“I understand and had expected such. I surely understand there will be physical limitations if that is what the talk is mostly about.”
“I felt like I would not have needed to go over that with you. Your love shows strongly for her. I know you would do nothing to cause her the least bit of pain. No, there are a few other issues to discuss. See me tomorrow afternoon, anytime before five in the evening. And I think we can let her go the following day.”
“Very good then. I shall speak with you tomorrow.” John said.
As John walked out of the hospital doors and began his descent of the stairs; the journalists rushed him. Knowing this was inevitable, he said, “Today, at two this afternoon, I happily married the former Miss Margaret Hale, once a resident of Milton. That’s all I have to say.”
As he looked out, he saw Branson bringing the coach to the center front. He waded through all the journalists as Branson came to move them out of his way. Questions were being shouted at him, but he looked straight ahead in his normal stoic manner ignoring them all. Reaching his coach, he removed his top hat and stepped inside. Branson scampered into his box and whipped the team to a fast start before the reporters could run alongside.
Adam Bell was waiting in his sitting room when he arrived home. John hardly remembered getting home; his mind had been more agreeably engaged.
“Good evening, Adam. I think I need a drink too,” he smiled. “I’ve never had a better day in my life. My wait has been rewarded. All the heartbreak and loneliness has reversed itself. I feel whole for the first time in many years.” John poured his scotch and sat in his favorite chair.
“Cheers, my friend,” said Adam. It’s a bit of a sad time for me as I have had to hand her away from me. I did so in great confidence knowing she is where she wants to be and will be well loved and cared for.”
“Yes, she will. You know me well enough to have no doubts there. I spoke with the doctor before facing the journalists outside. He says Margaret will be able to come home the day after tomorrow.”
“That’s good news, John. She looked the happiest I’ve ever seen her, today. I must admit we were all taken aback at her injuries. I noticed the finger marks on her neck and upper arms. She may be mentally delicate for a long time.”
“I am prepared for that. I am prepared to see her through whatever it takes. There is no sacrifice I will not make.”
“Are you still resolute in your actions against the man who did this?” asked Adam, worried. “She’s going to heal. Isn’t that the most important issue?”
“Yes, of course, it is, but it is not the only one. I will have some redress to her abuse. Adam, maybe you can’t understand this, but if Margaret walked away from me tomorrow, I would still do what I am planning. I cannot be the man that I want to be for her if I let this pass. I do it for myself. She will not know.”
“And if you get caught?”
The coachman carried the Shaw bags to the platform and handed them to a porter. Edith and her mother walked to the ticket counter and bought their fare to Milton. Captain Lenox still had made no appearance, but Edith was assured he’d know where they were when he could not find them at home. Edith could only wonder what he was doing. Maxwell, she knew, had taken a great interest in this other Captain and the mysteries that surrounded him.
Maxwell had traveled to a small hamlet that rumors alluded to having been a part in Hartford’s abandonment of a woman he begat with child. Thinking ahead, he left his uniform home for fear that the townsfolk would shun him. He talked with the constabulary, but with little reason to know the facts, was told nothing. However, he did know the name of the young woman involved.
It took him half a day to locate the family. They lived a little way out of town. Several years ago, Ellen had worked in the local tavern but was now raising a two year old, while living with her parents.
Knocking on the door, he asked to speak with Ellen’s father in private. The two men walked away from the small cottage while Maxwell pled his case against Captain Hartford, and the father believed him. Everyone in town knew the circumstances, so the father had little compunction to hide anything.
The two men sat under a tree and talked for two hours. Maxwell learned that his daughter had been raped but it was her word against the Captain’s and nothing was done about it. Her betrothed went mad and eventually sought out Captain Hartford, and whether it was a fair fight or not, was killed. He had been left for dead, without witnesses and it had always been assumed that Hartford had murdered him. Being a young man, only carrying a knife against a trained military man with a gun, it couldn’t be seen in any other light, as the father told it. Again, that seemed to be common knowledge in the small town but who could go up against the Army.
The father went on to tell Maxwell that a detective from London had been there the day before asking the same questions. He said he was happy to see that the man may not get away with what he did.
Maxwell was surprised. He thanked the man for being so candid and apologized for the intrusion in bringing this up, but promised that he would see that something was done about it. He never spoke of his fiancé’s cousin. It was almost a day’s ride home, and he slept under a tree that night. He was determined to see that justice was carried out. He would contact Detective Boyle at the Met on his way home.
That morning, John had breakfast with Adam in the hotel. Adam told John that he hoped to hear from Frederick today and would find him at the hospital if it arrived.
“John, also, be prepared for the Shaw’s to arrive a little after midday. I am sure they will go to the hospital from the train and send the bags along to the hotel. I cannot say that I envy you their visit. Mrs. Shaw will hover and insist this, that and the other.”
“I have anticipated that. It shall not last long.”
“If you are a gentleman, I’m not so sure how well that will work.”
“I do not intend to be a gentleman. I intend to be a husband, and they will see it that way.”
“You’ve become a study to me, John,” Bell admitted.
“In what way?”
“You are almost a different person. The changes that have taken place in your countenance, over the last five days, have been nothing short of extraordinary. You are still John Thornton, but one I’ve never seen.”
“You have never been in love and cannot know the feeling a man gets when his love has been tortured at the hands of another man. I have usually lived in what I’m now calling ‘middle ground.’ I have been torn to shreds these past days. Middle ground is gone; the John that most people know is gone, for now. I am living either in euphoric happiness or finding the depths of a black soul that must reside in me, right now. I am totally at its mercy.”
“John, you’ve always been able to control yourself. I am sure you will find that with Margaret in your life. Why can’t you control this other half?”
“Because I don’t want to. I can’t explain it. I’ll be glad when it has past.”
“And when might that happen?”
John picked up his fork and ignored the question.
Changing the subject, Adam asked, “Have you seen today’s paper this morning?”
“No, why?” John asked, dabbing his mouth with his napkin while accepting the offered newspaper.
The headline was bold.
Mill Master John Thornton of Marlborough Mills Weds Miss Margaret Hale.
John Thornton stated for this paper, that he and a Miss Margaret Hale, formerly of Milton were happily wed yesterday at 2:00 pm. When asked to comment further, he declined as he left the hospital steps where he’s been seen frequenting of late. The hospital spokesman has declined to speak. It is unknown if Miss Hale, now, Mrs. Thornton, works or is a patient at The Greater Milton Hospital.
Mr. Thornton, a Magistrate and Mill Master of two Mills, is best known for his leadership in the burgeoning age of the Machine . . .
John set the paper down and continued his breakfast.
“No comment, Mr. Thornton,” Adam smarmed.
“I would rather have been left alone,” John replied in a serious tone.
Captain Grant Hartford picked up his personal post from the first delivery. The only note was from his man in Paris. He anxiously snapped the seal and sat in his chair.
I have had it with watching this man. He has disappeared, and so did the woman he was living with. I told you it would take two of us to watch him all the time. Now, he is gone. I’ve spent two days watching the postal station, and he has not returned for any letters. Asking questions has led nowhere. You do not pay enough for this boring work. I quit. If you want him so bad, you come find him. I gave you his address in previous note. Good luck.
“Bloody hell!” Grant shouted, drawing attention from the other officers. He crumpled the note and threw it into the fire.
“What’s wrong, Grant?” Someone laughingly shouted. “Did your woman leave you?” There was general laughter throughout the room.
Grant ignored them and they went back to whatever they had been doing.
He’d lost his prey, his only means to keep Margaret Hale fearful. She didn’t know that, but he didn’t know where she was or if she was alive. With the detective sniffing around, Grant decided he’d have to rethink his tactics because his game was about to fall to pieces. Maybe she didn’t need to marry him, he could just blackmail her for the money – or – maybe she just needed to be gone so he could wipe his slate clean and start with someone else.
John took the small buggy and pulled to the rear of the hospital. As he approached Margaret’s room, there seemed to be a disturbance in front of her closed door. He ran down the hall.
Arriving, the reporters noticed him and turned to fling questions at him from all angles.
“I will answer two questions. This is my private life, and I mean to keep it that way. I will bring my whole mill down here to remove all of you if I have to. I can, also, call out the guards, if you want to spend some time in jail. This room is off limits to all of you. You will eventually know my wife when she has recovered.
“Mr. Thornton, why is your wife here?”
“Mrs. Thornton has unfortunately been the victim of an attack, which happened in London.
“Is there any reason why you rushed a wedding instead of waiting for her recovery? Another journalist asked.
“Quite simply, I love her and have for a long time. That’s all for the foreseeable future until she is well. Good day.”
John walked to the door and stood with his back to it until the crowd had dispersed.
Dr. Wagner came and thanked him for his intervention. You have a lot of power, Mr. Thornton, I’ve never known a whole lot about you, but I am significantly impressed that you have that much clout. Do you often make threats like that?”
“Only one other time when there was a riot at my mill, years ago. It does not please me to bring all I can bear to a situation, but I will not have Margaret harassed.
“I do believe you accomplished your mission.”
“The door is closed. May I go in?” John asked.
“As of yesterday, Mr. Thornton, you have full privileges in the room anytime. But under the circumstances, Miss Hale may have reservations that she will slowly have to work into. I think I’d knock.”
John knocked. “Mrs. Thornton?”
“Who is it?” Margaret called out knowing well it was John.
“Mrs. Thornton, I hope you know my voice by now.”
“Oh come in John. I knew it was you. I’m having oatmeal this morning. Care to join me?”
“I just had breakfast with Adam but a few moments ago. How was your night? As pleasant as mine, I hope.” John went over and kissed her good morning.
“John you would turn red if I told you about my dreams. These dreams are so new to me. You, for being a man of the world, would probably find them quite dull. I’m too embarrassed to even talk about them with you.”
John broke out in a smile. Margaret, my thoughts, dreams, and plans have never included love, and they no longer reflect the opportunity to assuage my needs. My needs are your pleasure now, not my own.”
“I’m embarrassed to say that I have been remembering my romance novels, the rumors, the learning at school, and the women that talk. If half of them are true, I’m afraid I will be a letdown. I don’t know how to do any of those lustful things. I have no experience.”
“Margaret, your innocence is what I look forward to most. We will create our own world, just for the two of us.”
‘You will not compare me to others of more daring adventures?”
“No. Never. I want us to find our way. That doesn’t mean it’s everything that you have ever heard of. I will love pleasuring you every way that you will allow. I am going to be grateful for whatever you give. Our love will grow. Do not dwell on that.”
Margaret looked into his lap and noticed his trousers were tight. “Am I causing that?” she pointed.
“I’m afraid so. You will have to get used to it, for that will happen for many years. I will never have enough of you.”
“Does that hurt?”
“John laughed. I am not going to answer that question. You will answer it for yourself one day soon. Which reminds me, I talked with Dr. Wagner last night as I left. With some training for you and I, today, I can take you home tomorrow. He wants to talk with me about what to expect, sometime later this afternoon. I doubt I will be able to talk with you about it much since your cousin and aunt should be here by then. Margaret, I am going to tell them how it is with you and I, now. You are mine. I am your husband and guardian in a sense. They are resolved of all duties except loving you. Should your aunt try to tell you what is best,,, I am going to speak up. Will you mind that?”
“No, John. I place myself into your hands. You and only you can rule me but only to a certain extent. I will reserve a few of my own rites, you know.”
“Oh, you will, will you. Hmm… We’ll have to discuss that. And to be fair, I expect you to dominate me almost completely. I hesitate in admitting that, but I cannot deny you anything.”
“Do you think we could get the doctor here this morning before my aunt gets here. I am so anxious to leave here.”
“When the nurse comes in, we shall ask.”
Adam Bell checked at the registration desk for the first post and was surprised to see a note from Fred. He thought it would be another day. He tucked it into his pocket and strolled towards the guest lounge. This is what they had been waiting for. Perhaps, during the Shaw visits today, he could meet with John and the other men and solidify plans that had already begun on paper. As soon as they could get Frederick out of Paris, or France, the Captain could have no hold over Margaret. She was now married, but he still had Frederick within his grasp. Adam had to wonder what this Captain thought about Margaret’s disappearance. Would he be glad of it, knowing what he did or would he come after her to keep her quiet? Officers in uniform did not take their commissions for granted. He would go far to preserve what he had.
Adam found a comfortable chair and opened the rather long note.
Received your note and acted immediately. Still in Paris with friend. I have brought my fiancé with me. We will need accommodations for two. Cannot sleep rough on move. I will be indebted for your help in getting Lisa moved out of Paris.
These past few weeks, I have felt the presence of someone around the periphery of my life. If he was there, I have now lost him. Send help for Lisa at the address below. I am coming to Milton on my way to London to find my sister and this man. If in his coercion of my Margaret, he has harmed her in any way, he will be dispatched. Do whatever needs to done to keep her from marrying him in the next few days until I can arrive.
I will find you or Thornton. Don’t look for me.
My sister is too dear to me, and it is like her to do what she is doing. I will not let that happen.
I am leaving Lisa in the care of my friend Nathan. Any correspondence to her or me should be addressed at… Randall
Adam had not expected Frederick to take such actions as entering England again but then realized that Frederick didn’t know John Thornton or the trust he could feel with him watching over Margaret. What would he do when seeing his sister and learning of her injuries? Finding a new place for his fiancé seemed an easy task since Frederick was taking all the risks, but there was good news to know that he had lost his shadow. That pretty much left this Captain out in the cold; it would seem. This situation, with Margaret, seemed to be growing and growing with revenge being the only issue at hand, of which Margaret knew nothing. What would she think when hearing of Frederick coming to her rescue? It was starting to look like a family reunion in Milton with everyone missing the wedding.
Adam felt there was no way that he could stop Frederick from coming now so their plans to move his Lisa could be done quickly and with only one or two of them leaving.
Frederick was going to need a place to stay while everything was sorted out, and that place had to be somewhere on Marlboro Mills property. He’d better find John immediately. It was likely that Frederick left after posting his letter and could soon be here.
Six – Severe Complications
All around Beth was instantly forgotten and she had only eyes for Fenton’s prostrated form. He had fallen onto his side and one arm was trapped under his body. Wanting to do something – at least, to help him – she knelt down beside him. To make him more comfortable, she carefully turned him onto his back – and gasped at the sight of the long, ragged scar that crossed his abdomen. It was of an ugly red and marred the beautiful muscles of his stomach, slicing across the fine spray of dark hair that covered his chest. She put out a trembling hand and touched it. Fenton’s stomach muscles rippled in response, causing a knot of fire to pop up, low in her stomach. Oh, sweet Lord!
There were many burns on his arms and shoulders, some of them bleeding, and he was trembling rather badly. He was in shock, she knew, and needed care but somehow, all she could do, was take his head onto her lap and caress his face.
“Stephen …” Was that her voice, so shaking and full of despair?
“You there, boy!” Granny Bradley’s voice sounded. “Run to Brixton Abbey and fetch help! Mary, bring on some blankets! Ben, Tom, Jack, I need him to be transported into my house, now!”
Then Granny touched Beth’s arm and spoke softly to her. “Come, my child. You must leave it to me.”
Blinking back tears, Beth realised she was compromising herself immensely, sitting in this very close position to a man in full sight of everyone. When the men and Mary came toward them with the items requested by Granny Bradley, she slowly rose and took up her position again with her charges. She waited, however, until they finished carrying Fenton inside before she rode back to Brixton Abbey with the children.
The soft, wavering voice pulled at his very heart as his awareness slowly came back. He could not quite believe his ears, though. Nobody ever had spoken to him that way, so full of concern, of caring, of – dare he think it – love?
When Fenton finally managed to open his eyes, he found himself lying on a board that was carried away by four men, but what he saw most clearly, was the retreating figure of Beth Williams. Beth? Beth, speaking his name so lovingly that his heart was still singing with joy from the memory? Impossible!
“Well, my lord,” an old woman’s voice drew his attention. “I certainly never dreamed of letting you into my home!”
“Mrs Bradley!” Fenton exclaimed, recognizing Molly’s mother.
“Yes, and I should let you rot in hell for what you did to my angel.”
She said it in a controlled voice, however. Fenton found himself breathing again, although he never knew he had stopped doing so.
“I am trying to repair the damage by taking the children into my home, Mrs Bradley. They have an excellent governess to see to their education.”
The old woman’s face was impassive when she neither thanked him nor cursed him for taking her charges from her.
“I will see to your injuries now, my lord,” Mrs Bradley said, matter-of-factly. “You have quite the number of them. So, as we are clear about this, I am only doing this because you rescued little Johnny. Is that understood, my lord?”
“Quite so,” he replied curtly, then continued in a softer voice. “Is the baby alright? He was so quiet when I took him out of his cradle.”
“Yes, he is fine, thank you. Ruby is already nursing him at her parent’s house and his appetite was as good as ever.”
Without further ado, she began examining him, causing him to curse under his breath when she applied some sort of ointment onto his burns.
For the rest of the day, Beth kept her charges inside, asking them to make a drawing about what they had been subjected to, that afternoon. Lily and Oliver applied themselves to it with an unexpected zeal, allowing Beth to sit quietly with them and give herself a break. She badly needed to recover from the appalling emotions that hit her on seeing Stephen Fenton pass out and getting hurt.
What struck her the most had been the realisation that he was concerned enough about his people to risk his own life to save them. She never suspected that of him, nor would she have thought him that brave. He must possess a great deal of courage, judged by the seriousness of the injuries he suffered during the Peninsular War. That scar was horrible and it was little wonder it had cost him months to recover from it.
As the hours passed by, Beth found she could not concentrate on the book in her lap. Her scattered thoughts kept wandering to Stephen Fenton, a man she thought she knew but in fact, did not know at all. A man she was undoubtedly attracted to, which made her panic a little. How could that be? Was it because, today, for the first time, he had shown a genuine interest in his children? He had been patient with their efforts on horse riding, had even praised them.
Their rooms on the fourth floor overlooked the stable yard, and the rattle of the Brixton carriage wheels on the cobbles drew her to the window. Stephen Fenton alighted from the vehicle, a blanket thrown over his shoulders. Denying the help of his valet, he strode toward the house, apparently strong enough, after his ordeal.
Beth resumed her seat again, imagining Fenton’s progress through the house. He would first go to his chambers to bathe and change. By then it would be dinner time, and Beth fervently prayed she would not be required to dine with him and his mother. She would be unable to bear it.
A knock on the classroom’s door startled Beth but it was only Trixie who came in.
“Beg yer pardon, miss, master asks you to come down ter dinner with the children. Says they’re ter dine wi’ the family, ternight.”
As she walked into the dining room, preceded by her two very nervous charges, Beth hoped they would remember what she taught them. Lily was wearing a light blue muslin dress which gave her grey eyes a hint of blue, and her honey-coloured curls were brushed into a neat ponytail. For Oliver, Beth had chosen white knee breeches and stockings, a white linen shirt, grey waistcoat and a jacket of dark grey wool. His unruly curls had been cut shorter so that they were easier to handle. Beth wore her usual black bombazine dress because she was still in mourning for her father.
The Dowager Baroness stood near one of the windows when the children came to stand before her, just like Beth taught them. Lily made a reasonably acceptable curtsy while Oliver executed a nearly perfect bow to their paternal grandmother. Beth saw the surprised look in the dowager’s eyes and was secretly satisfied with her charges.
“Good evening, my lady,” she said, as she made her own curtsy.
“Good evening, mademoiselle,” the dowager replied, but curtly and without warmth. The proud elderly woman had only managed the briefest of acknowledgements on the children’s greetings.
The Baron’s reply to his children was genuinely warmer than it had ever been before. He bowed back to Oliver, then took Lily’s small hand in his and kissed it. The little girl’s eyes widened and her mouth gaped open, which got her a jab in the ribs from her brother. Lily snapped her mouth shut but sent a furious glance to Oliver. That made the baron laugh so spontaneously that Beth felt her heart warm in response. When the children went to sit down on a settee and wait for the butler to announce dinner, Beth addressed the baron.
“I trust, my lord, that you were not seriously injured, this afternoon? It showed of great courage to rescue Ruby’s baby, and I thank you for it from the bottom of my heart.”
Stephen Fenton’s eyes narrowed and he drew in his breath sharply.
“You know that woman? How come?”
Beth bit her lip when she realised she was close to betraying herself if she could not turn this around.
“I must confess to a subterfuge, my lord. I have taken the children to see their grandmother for several times, since I have been in your employ. I beg your forgiveness for it.”
The baron’s cool grey eyes raked over Beth’s figure like a cold north wind, sending shivers all over her spine. His voice was equally cool when he spoke.
“Why do I have the feeling, Mademoiselle Guillaume, that you have many other ‘subterfuges’ to confess? Rest assured that I will find them all out, in due time, ma belle!”
If Margaret thought she had been in a weakened state before, it was now officially confirmed when John walked through the door in his exquisite evening attire. He had a yellow rose in his lapel and a yellow rose nosegay for Margaret. He handed Nicholas and Adam yellow roses for their apparel and went directly to Margaret. Peggy moved away and everyone walked out of the room to give them privacy. Nicholas even closed the door behind them.
John knelt at Margaret’s feet.
“I love you more this minute than any time before. Are you ready to be Mrs. John Thornton?”
“You know I am. John, you are so handsome, you make me want to cry.”
“All for you, my love. Only and forever for you, Margaret. Where is that stunning hospital gown I was expecting? I even wore a white cravat to match you,” he smiled. You look positively stunning. And what are you doing sitting on the side of the bed? Shouldn’t you be sitting up with pillows behind you?”
“I convinced the doctor that there was nothing wrong with me legs. I want to stand beside you for as long as I can. When you kiss me at the end of the vows, just don’t squeeze me too hard. I’ll take a lot of pain for that kiss I want so badly, though.”
“Oh, how I want to squeeze you now. I cannot wait to get you home so that I can serve you and hold you and stroke your forehead and kiss your neck. I am going to stop there, or you will know me better than you should right now.”
Margaret smiled and grimaced once again.
John leaned in and parting her lips gave her a sensual kiss. “I won’t be able to do that with everyone watching. Are you ready?”
“I’ve been ready for two years. I am eagerly waiting to give you my vows. I do so love you, John Thornton.”
John kissed her once again and then helped her to her feet. Do you have a preference where you want stand?”
“I think at the end of the bed. I can lean back on the footboard if I need to.”
“If you need to lean, you lean on me. I want you to lean on me always, Miss Hale. And say goodbye to Miss Hale, now.”
John placed Margaret at the end of the bed and opened the door for the others to take their places.
Margaret was surprised that Adam stood next to her and not John. She realized he was giving her away. She looked up into his eyes, and both had tears welling.
The minister stood facing Adam and Margaret and asked who gives this woman away.
Adam said, “I do.” Adam turned to shake John’s hand and then placed Margaret’s hand into John’s. Adam and John exchanged places.
Peggy collected the flowers Margaret had been holding and Margaret could feel John looking down on her. She peeped up and saw an almost reverent benevolent smile. His eyes were speaking his love to her heart.
Staff from the hospital had drifted in, including Nurse Pickering and Dr. Wagner.
The minister continued into the vows and then Nicholas had to fish out the emerald ring for Margaret’s finger, to hand John. Margaret gasped at its loveliness as John looked into her face and slowly slid it onto her finger, then squeezed her hand. Margaret felt her knees trembling, and John felt that happening, too. He gently folded his arm around her waist and held her up until the final words of Man and Wife were spoken. He had wanted to kiss her tenderly in front of the crowd but found no success there. He kissed her for long moments, to the applause of everyone in the room. John, the passionate man and lover, was finally revealed to all who watched.
As soon as he gave her breath, he escorted her to the chair, where she received all the well wishes and kisses.
The doctor was in and out of Margaret’s room until he thought the festivities had gone on long enough. He could see his patient tiring and spoke to Mr. Thornton. John went to his friends and told them of Margaret’s fatigue. To Adam, he said he would seem him later this evening at his home. Branson carried the minister back to the church and John said he would get a cabby to take him home.
“No, sir. I will be back for you. I will be outside starting at 7:00 pm.
John walked his friends to the hospital entrance while Nurse Pickering changed Margaret back into a fresh cotton gown and got her comfortably settled into her bed.
“Mrs. Thornton, you can’t seem to stop smiling.”
Margaret paused, hearing that phrase for the first time from someone other than John. Her face flushed as the smile grew larger.
“Mrs. Thornton,” she sighed out loud.
“Yes, Mrs. Thornton,” John repeated coming back through the door.
The nurse disappeared knowing that Margaret was settled, perhaps in the best situation of her life.
John quietly pushed the door closed when she had left, not latching it, but hiding them from onlookers. He walked back to Margaret’s bedside and took the chair pulling it close to his new wife.
“Margaret, you have made me the happiest man on this earth today. Even up until you said, ‘I do’, I feared something might interrupt us for what I have waited for since meeting you. I want to make you as happy as I am.”
“You already have. You’ve taken on a woman of reduced circumstances, who treated you poorly, and then left you heartbroken. I am a woman who returns to you when everything in her life has failed her and asks for sanctuary, and you took me in. You give me love and not just abidance.”
“Margaret, stop that. You sound like you are making yourself self out to be a charity case. Had I known there was any regard for me, I would have sought you out long ago. I have done nothing but think about you. I tried to carry on; I saw very few women since you left, but no one could compare to you, my love. Under any condition imaginable, I wanted you, everyday in every way. For the past few months, I have even thought of selling the mills. I had to make some change in my life to get past you or give up living. I could no longer face the world with you somewhere that I couldn’t touch. Don’t ever think there is gratitude in my love for you. You don’t think that I could ever entertain the idea that you returned because I just happen to be a little better than the last man seeking you. Do you? No, I know that you love me and today was something we both wanted. This wedding was not a rescue for either of us. We’re married because we should have done this, two years ago. I know I rushed you into this, perhaps much faster than is proper. Here you lay in a hospital bed, delirious on laudanum and saying you will be my wife. I hope you never come to regret that. I was terribly selfish in gaining your hand while you were willing.”
“John, now you stop talking that way. I was not delirious when I accepted your offer of marriage. It wasn’t long after I was taken from Milton that I knew I had left my heart behind. I felt trapped between the two men I love most in this world. I knew I broke your heart as mine had already done, but my brother’s life could have been at stake and that weighed a bit heavier than my happiness.”
“Margaret, let’s not dwell on the past and the why’s. We have finally reached each other for all time and that’s all that matters, now. We just need you to concentrate on getting you well, so that you can come home with me. You cannot imagine how my mind is carrying me too far off places I’ve never thought of before. You will be loved like no other woman.”
“I hope can live up to your expectations.” Margaret said softly.
“Margaret, you far exceeded my expectations long long ago. I guess I am too anxious to know all of you and I have told you not to think of me being anxious. There is love driving me, not lust. It feels quite different, you know? My desire lies more with me wanting to please you than the other way around. It is a most exhilarating fantasy, waiting to come true. You’re blushing! Black eye, red cheeks, what more could a man ask for?” John laughed.
“I loved our little wedding. Everyone here wanted this for us, too. I am glad it is behind us now, so when I face my aunt, she will have no advice to give me.”
“Yes, I am afraid you have a couple more days of discomfort with visitors. Your aunt and cousin will want to know what happened, why you are here, and why you are married. It will be up to you what you say to them. I will not tell them what I know.” John moved towards Margaret’s lips. It was their first kiss since the ceremony. Margaret was able to manage one arm around John’s neck. John put one arm behind her, anchoring his hand under her bottom and pulled her to him. The other hand stroked her face and neck. He tenderly made love to her with his tongue and hers intertwining. They eventually pulled apart and John withdrew his hand from underneath her. That had been their most intimate contact.
“Yes, my love. What is it?”
“This medicine hasn’t dulled all my feelings.”
“I don’t understand. What are you telling me?”
Margaret blushed and smiled causing John to kiss her again, as before.