Grant Hartford began to assess the damages. He was damned to know how everything had gone wrong so quickly. It was the backhand to her face and the forceful sexual performance he had expected. That had worked in the past, but this time he’d gone too far with a woman who was a lady.
He pulled a sheaf of paper from his drawer and thought he’d start with a list of ‘irons in the fire.’ He sat there for a while. The list was blank. The only thing he knew for certain at that time was that Margaret was alive, now in hospital and married. The beatings to her body were no longer a secret. Maybe his ‘ace-in-the-hole’ was still playable. She never had known for sure that he did know of her brother so now that he didn’t have him anymore, it made little difference.
No one had yet to come after him for offenses against her, so perhaps she was still silent, covering for him, in order to maintain the safety of her brother.
On the other hand, her family would know of her injuries, and Captain Lenox and the Shaw’s knew that Margaret had been seeing him. Therein, lay the problem. Even if Margaret never spoke his name, the assumption would be there. Still, perhaps, they could do little with assumptions, legally.
Her husband could be a thorn in his side. If he was any man at all, he would seek some retribution. It would not matter if his wife admitted it to him or not, he would come after the man that had inflicted the fists to her body.
Grant thought, perhaps, this man, being only a mill master, may be willing to forego his revenge for a price. That was a long shot, but he had no worries about her husband in any regard. He could easily be dispatched, too.
Yes, Margaret had beating marks to her body, but until she told the world what happened to her, nothing was provable. He couldn’t believe a lady would admit what happened to cause his own injury. Margaret was the key. If she could never testify, he could get past the rumors as he’d done once before.
Grant knew he could put on a good act. He’d had Margaret and her family all fooled from the beginning, which included Captain Lenox. It would not be too hard to convince his Commander of his innocence if he tried hard enough. He would ask for reassignment and start over.
He drew up his battle plans and pulled out a map to see where Milton was located. No one in Milton knew what he looked like except Margaret and her family, who would be at the hotels or thereabouts. He would leave for Milton to reconnoiter the playing field and finalize his plans, once there.
He wrote the name, John Thornton, on his paper.
Margaret awoke in the middle of the night with a nightmare. Quickly she became aware that John was sleeping in the chair beside her with his hand on hers. She wondered if she was worthy of this almost unreal man and his love for her. How could she be so blessed?
She laid back down and began to think about the conversation they had never finished earlier about him staying the night. Why she asked herself. She was coming home tomorrow. There had to be more to his wanting to be close than he was saying.
“He feared for her!” swiftly bolted through her head. John loved her, but he was there for protection. That was the only thing that made sense. Why she asked herself again. Grant Hartford would never come seeking her in Milton, would he?
Margaret tried to step into Grant’s mind and see this situation from his perspective. A kaleidoscope of ideas cascaded through her mind. The colored chips of glass would change with every thought. She couldn’t put anything together. Were the police involved; no one had even asked her about informing the police. That was strange in and of itself. Aunt Shaw should have been hounding her to go to the police. John was handling her as delicate as was possible. He had shown no signs of anger or revenge. She would not wish him to be obliged to harm her perpetrator but not speaking about him at all was . . .
“What are you thinking, my love?” John whispered in the dark.
“I woke, not expecting you to still be here and found you holding my hand. How am I so lucky to be the woman of your choice? You’ve had many women to select from over the years, and I wonder what makes me special.”
“It would take me a long time to list all that I love about you. We shall save that for a time when you are healed.”
“Would you ever lie to me,” Margaret asked.
“Now, where did that come from?” he asked. “Do you think I have lied to you?”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
John pulled his hand from hers long enough to right himself in the chair. She was serious. Something was pressing in on her to have any doubts about him.
“Do you have doubts about marrying me?” John asked with a trembling voice held at bay.
“No. I have no doubts about being your wife or your love for me or my love for you.”
“Then, what is this?” John rubbed her arm with one hand and intertwined his other fingers in her hand.
“I guess I don’t mean ‘lie to me’ but hold something from me?”
“Your being here tonight. I think you fear something and you are here to protect me.”
“Margaret, I will protect you all my life.”
“Is that a yes? I am the happiest woman in the world, John, being loved by you. I only have one fear and that is behind me now. I will move on. You will help me through the rough times, I know. By your sleeping in that horrid chair beside me, I feel there is something else happening that I know nothing of. It is a feeling, I have. Everyone is walking on eggs around me. No one has suggested going to the police. That seems strange. It occurred to me that my aunt did not once suggest I do something about that Captain. You know her well enough to know that is not her normal behavior. Talk to me, my husband. Where is your fear?”
John moved to her bed and sat beside her. He kissed her tenderly in the night. He held the sides of her face with both his hands and licked her lips. He kissed her eyes closed.
Margaret raised her arms gently to ensconce his face in her own hands. She couldn’t see him, but she ran her fingers through his hair, down his face, across his lips and pulled him back for a deep kiss that she could feel through her body.
John wrapped his arms carefully around and drew her to his chest, holding her there. He could feel her heart hammering as was his. There was no talking, only feeling. He pulled her braided hair lose and raked it with his fingers. Margaret moaned softly.
“Am I hurting you my love?” John whispered into her ear.
“Quite the contrary. Why do I feel your fingers pulling through my hair all the way to my toes?”
“That’s what love is all about, my Margaret.”
“I think we’d better stop. I’m feeling as if my body is light-headed all over. My nerve endings are tingling.”
“Oh God, Margaret, how I love you.” John made love to her mouth once again and then laid her back on her pillow, but stayed on the bed.
“I’ve had a cot put into our room for me to sleep away from you, but I think I’ll have to move to another room, altogether. I can’t help but want to touch you all over, and you’re still in a hospital. I have no control around you, it would seem.”
“I think I will be glad of your weakness very soon. I cannot think of what my own actions are going to be like after this.”
“Margaret, don’t think. At times like this, when we are moved to an emotional and passionate place, you don’t think, you just do. You draw from me and I from you. We want to become one, that is natural, that is love. You hold nothing back from me. You forget all that you were ever taught as a child, and you give yourself to me as I give myself to you. Never think, just love me. Be one with me.”
“John, that is beautiful. I am not sure I would even have the willpower to hold back if you make me feel like I just did.”
“That is beautiful to hear, too. You have just given me the pride to be the man to make the earth move for you of which I have only dreamt about. It’s within my reach, now.”
John could hear Margaret beginning to weep. He leaned down and swept away the new tears with his mouth and kissed her once again.
Captain Lenox was on the train platform to Milton by 6:00am. He carried with him a satchel with his uniform and other clothes as well as a portfolio of all gathered information. He had sat and tried to draw a picture of Grant, but that wasn’t one of his specialized skills. His training was more into ‘infiltration,’ where Grant’s was setting a battle field with logistics and strategy’s. Lenox had brought his small personal arsenal of two pistols, ammunition, but left his dress sword behind. To his way of thinking Grant had one recourse and that was to silence Margaret before she accused him directly of her mistreatment. Maxwell had to bring the man to Army justice or bring him down. He was an embarrassment to a proud and centuries old tradition of brave men, stemming back to the knights of old. Women were always championed, never mistreated or worse.
With the exception of a daylight cargo voyage across the channel, Frederick had traveled by night, mostly on foot, with the occasional merchant wagon giving him a lift on their way to market in Milton. After three years of running he didn’t feel the Navy was actively pursuing him, but would always be on the lookout should he ever be spotted by forces that knew of such wanted seaman. He felt more at ease from how he managed entry and exit from England, now almost two years ago. No one knew him in Milton. He would only be recognized in Helstone. It would not be beyond the Navy’s realm to check on his sister now and again to ensure that he had not taken refuge with her.
Margaret insisted that John go home and clean himself up and have a meal and hopefully she would be nearly ready for him when he returned. With his hesitation, it took constant prodding by Margaret for him to leave.
“I thought I once heard you say – and it was very recent – that you would not be able to deny me anything. Has that gone away?” Margaret smiled.
John kissed her for the fourth time that morning and did her bidding. He was surprised to find Branson waiting outside. Branson seemed to be nodding off in the box. John woke him by getting into the box himself.
“Master, I’m sorry. I haven’t even been waiting that long.”
“I didn’t expect you, but I’m glad you are here,” John said. “I would like you to go in the hospital and keep an eye on my wife while I run home for a short time.”
“I’ll be glad to, but wouldn’t you want me to drive you home first?”
“I’ll take the team,” John said, trying very hard, not to show his trepidation. It had been a long time since Branson had taught him how to handle a team and turning a coach.”
“You, sir? You’ll pull the coach?” Branson wanted to laugh.
“I see that smile you are hiding. Go ahead, laugh. I will permit it this time because these are unusual times.”
Branson took his Master at his word and burst out laughing.
“You know, Branson, I really didn’t think you would do that.” And then John laughed.
“Here Guv, take my cap. I’d be too embarrassed for anyone noticing it was you driving my team. They are used to an experienced driver.”
“Give me the damn cap and get out of the box,” John laughed.
From ground level, Branson shouted, “It’s WHOA to make them stop and WALK ON to make them start.” He turned his back on his master, almost in a fit of hysterics.
As Branson mounted the hospital steps he heard his master say, “Walk on . . . . walk on.”
“Guv, you have to ruffle the reins at the same time.” Branson didn’t have the heart to watch any longer and entered the hospital. He went to the registration desk to find where Mrs. Thornton was located. He wondered to himself, what should he call her. He’d have to see what Jane and Cook called her.
Branson found his way to the room and the door was open. He knocked lightly to get her attention before proceeding inside.
“Branson! Come here and give me a hug.”
Branson was stupefied. What planet was he on? The master driving the team-the mistress wanting a hug.
“If you wish,” he babbled out.
“It’s very good to see you, Miss,” Branson gently put his arms around her, like an old friend. “My heartiest congratulations on your marriage. Besides being very happy because my boss is finally happy, you will now be saving me long hours of waiting for him.”
“You mean as he visits his past lady friends,” Margaret smiled, putting him at ease for the words he realized he’d misspoken.
“You have a real shiner, there, Miss. I’m not sure what to call you. Do you have a preference?”
“Hmm… you won’t call me Mrs. Thornton, I don’t want that rigid formality in our home as I am sure your master wouldn’t either. What do you call, John?”
“I usually call him Guv, which he has never seemed to mind. Once in a while, I’ll call him Master like everyone one at the Mill does.”
“Let me think. I would imagine Mistress would be most suitable, but you can leave it at Miss, short for Mistress, as far as I am concerned. If ‘the Guv’ says different, we’ll negotiate.”
Branson knew his Master had met and married the perfect woman for him. He almost loved her, himself, in a brotherly fashion.
“We all have been waiting for you to come home.”
“Home . . . that has a nice sound to it, Branson.” Margaret became a bit maudlin, and Branson didn’t know what to do.
“Did you pass John on the way here?”
Branson started with a big smile, and it turned into a chuckle.
“What has you smiling like that? You are going to make me laugh, and I don’t know why.”
“The Guv sent me in here, and he took the team home.”
“And why is that funny?”
“He really doesn’t ever drive the team. It’s been years. We’ll be lucky to see the coach return in one piece.”
Margaret started to laugh and then held herself around the ribs. “I’m sorry. That is funny, but right now, I have a hard time laughing.”
“Miss, we are all terribly upset about the . . . the horrible experiences you’ve been through.”
Margaret had to wonder if everyone knew everything.
“Thank you, Branson. That’s all behind us now,” Margaret said as she saw Branson’s serious face appear.
“What is it, Branson? And just why did your Guv send you to me, when we would meet again in a few hours?”
“I just obey him.” Branson worried that he couldn’t recover from the sense that she just picked up on.
“He is so happy today, he’s acting like another person from the one I’ve always known. I didn’t ask why I just did and am very happy to see you recovering. Do you have a bag packed or can I help you with anything?”
Margaret did not want to put Branson on the spot any longer.
“I’m waiting for a final visit and last minute directions from the doctor. Then, I believe, my cousin should be here any moment, to bring me a frock to dress in. Now, I am just waiting for me breakfast. Why don’t you sit down in that chair and so we can talk. Where’s your cap? Don’t you always wear a cap?”
Branson smiled. “I made the master wear it so no one would notice him. You don’t know how flustered I am at him driving my team.”
“Are they really your team? Is that common for a driver to be hired with his own team?”
“The master bought them, of course, but they’re mine, and he knows that. Besides my lady friend, they are my life.”
“Tell me about your lady friend. Is she pretty?”
“As pretty as they come. She’s about this high,” Branson indicated a few inches shorter than himself, “and she’s a little bit of a thing. She has black hair like the Guv, unlike my yellow hair.”
“Does she work at the mill?”
“Oh, no. She works for a lady in a ribbon shop on the main street.”
“Are there any thoughts by you for a future attachment to her?”
Branson began to squirm in his seat. “I’m not sure how that would work. I will never leave the Guv, and I don’t know how she’d feel living over a stable in two small rooms. I haven’t yet talked with the Master if there was any other answer.”
“Well, Branson, don’t worry. I am now half of the decisions being made in regards to the house. I might be able to have him see my way about some changes. Not in the very near future, mind you, I have to break him in gently . . . like a horse.” Margaret laughed, again, holding her ribs. “I’m sure he would not want to lose you, either. Let’s keep that in mind.”
“Thank you, Miss. I can see where a lot of things are going to change for the better when you are well.”
Edith came through the door with a small parcel in her hand. Aunt Shaw was right behind her.
“I’ll be outside the door,” Branson said and left the room.