Margaret had finished eating and packing, all the while thinking about seeing Megan again. Her pleasant thoughts of seeing her best friend were interrupted with other, more pleasant thoughts. She had very little sleep last night thinking of Mr. Brampton and his spontaneous farewell and the breathtaking Mr. Thornton, who would soon be picking her up. In the cold light of day, she could not help but chastise herself for accepting a ride from a stranger. Nevertheless, he did not feel like a stranger. She remembered the warm and peaceful spell he wove over her with that sultry voice.
Her aunt and cousin seemed to have finally come to the end of their tirade over her going with the stranger on a train. She hoped that Mr. Thornton could put them at some ease if he came inside. Margaret’s mind was whirling. If she were told that she had to choose between the two gentlemen right now or never breathe again, she would be hard pressed to do it.
Kindle was everything a woman could want: attractive, finely built, polite, protective, passionate, possessed of a career, although she did not know much about it, and by the looks of his carriage and horses he was probably well situated. If he were looking for a woman of wealth to aid his declining family’s historical castle or some such thing, he probably would not be controlling his behavior, which Margaret believed he was doing.
Mr. Thornton, on the other hand . . .
She knew nothing of the man except the city he lived in and the fact that he seemed like he would be well versed in the milling industry. That was all. He was mysterious. Margaret had heard of “love at first sight” but never thought it was real. It made interesting reading in her books, but surely, this was not what was happening to her, could it? There is just something about him, was an understatement. From the time she turned around in the bookstore aisle and blissfully sunk into his blue eyes, which looked like the sky at early twilight, she was almost lost. Still lost in the excitement of getting to know more about Mr. Thornton, she heard her cousin call to her from downstairs.
“There is a carriage outside, Margaret.”
Margaret thought Mr. Thornton was a bit early, but that was nice, too.
She heard Edith calling to her as she swept back the curtains.” It is your gentleman from last night. Come to say goodbye again, no doubt.”
“What!” Margaret whispered to herself as she rushed down the stairs to the door.” Kindle, what a surprise,” she said as she held the door open for him.
He peeked to see if anyone was watching them and quickly kissed her. “I thought I would come and take you to the station. I took a chance that you had not left yet.”
Still standing in the foyer, a worried Margaret said, “Oh, I wish you had said something about that last night. I have made plans. My ride should be here in a few moments.”
“Can’t you dismiss them?” Kindle asked, still smiling while trying to steal another kiss.
“I am afraid not. I am sorry you have come all this way to carry me to the station. Actually, I do not know where you live to know how far you have come. Where do you live?”
Knowing his address would give away his nobility, he said, “Margaret, when you return, we are going to talk about that and a lot of other things. There is much about me that you do not know, and I want that cleared up. My feelings for you are much more than I have felt for anyone, which is causing me to seek honesty in all we do together. That is not to say I have been dishonest about anything, but I have avoided some areas because I feared your reaction. That will be our priority when you return the day after tomorrow.”
“I do plan to be home in two days, on the four o’clock train. We will get to all you want to say as soon as I return. Oh, here is my . . . new acquaintance, who is taking me to the station, as he lives in the same city as my friend. It will be nice not to be alone for such a long journey, don’t you think?’ Margaret said, smiling, hoping to smooth over the frown now beginning to form on Kindle’s face. “Would you mind grabbing my bag, and I will walk out with you and introduce you.”
Kindle leaned down and collected Margaret’s satchel as Margaret shouted to her family that she was on her way. Both Edith and her aunt hurried to the front to say goodbye and saw Mr. Thornton heading toward the door. “What a mess this is,” said her cousin to her mother, “but Mr. Thornton sure is a fine-looking gentleman.”
“Poor Margaret. It looks like she might have two suitors who are colliding, right now.”
“Goodbye Margaret. Have a safe journey and a nice time with Megan,” called her aunt from behind the crowd that now seemed to be jammed at the front door.
Margaret stepped outside with Kindle behind her as Mr. Thornton was getting to the door, removing his hat. “Hello, Mr. Thornton. Thank you again for offering me a ride to the station. This is Mr. Kindle Brampton, a new friend. Kindle, this is Mr. John Thornton, a very new acquaintance.” The men shook hands politely, but the air was growing heavy with a primitive territorial mind game played by the male combatants. Margaret was sure she was exaggerating that in her mind, but that is exactly how if felt. It made her feel desired. How delicious and fancied she felt. She quickly dismissed her selfish and naive thoughts.
Margaret had not realized that she was on the mark with the men’s behavior.
“Hello, Miss Hale, Mr. Brampton.” John took the satchel from Kindle’s extended hand while wondering if this man was one of the men, he had seen with Margaret in his visions.
“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Thornton. I have never been to Milton. They say it is a thriving city, now.”
“Yes. It is not London, but it has a lot of the same amenities, all new, but the people are much different there.”
“How do you mean, Mr. Thornton? How different are they?”
John had not missed the fact that Brampton’s coach and horses could only be afforded by the most affluent members of society.
“There are no highborn people. If you live in Milton, you are either poor or you manufacture. Even, the wealthy work. Everyone there works. It is a working town, a mill town, Mr. Brampton,” John said, holding his head high. He paused a moment. “Miss Hale, I believe we have need to leave now.” John noticed Brampton wrapping his hand around Margaret’s waistline at her back, assisting her toward the carriage while John walked behind with the satchel. John suddenly felt disheartened at their apparent closeness. He felt as if he had been punched in the stomach.
Kindle held her hand during the step up, and John stowed her satchel. “Good day, Mr. Brampton. It has been a pleasure to meet you,” John said as he climbed inside.
“The same, Mr. Thornton. Margaret, please have a nice time with your friend in Milton. I will see you upon your return, and we will talk.” Kindle closed the door and stepped back, nodding to the driver.
Margaret waved as the carriage pulled away. She felt that Kindle was playing a game when he said they would talk when she returned, clearly intimating some sort of relationship between them for Mr. Thornton’s benefit.
John and Margaret rode in silence for a few minutes. “It will be lovely to have someone to talk with on the long trip. What do you usually do on long trips, Mr. Thornton?”
“Most of my long trips are business related. I am usually giving a speech somewhere and have plenty of notes and diagrams to study during the hours,” John said.
“And this trip, Mr. Thornton, did you speak somewhere?”
“No, not this time, Miss Hale. I was just researching a subject.” John left his explanation hanging, hoping it would spark some curiosity in her.
The station stop had been close to Margaret’s home, so their journey was short. “Mr. Thornton,” she paused, “is your research something that you can speak about?”
The carriage pulled to a stop and John exited, handing his and Margaret’s satchels to a porter, then handed her out. “You, Miss Hale, seem to be the reason for my trip.”
The porter followed the pair to the ticket window, carrying their bags.
“Two tickets to Milton,” John requested. He turned to Margaret as she was beginning to speak, and said, “Please, allow me.” Leaning in to hear what the ticket master was asking, John responded, “One ticket is one way, and the second ticket is a return.”
No words were spoken while the two of them and the porter walked into the bustling crowd on the platform. John walked quite a long way down the platform until he found an empty coach. The porter entered the coach first and set their baggage on the overhead shelf. John handed him a coin. “Thank you.”
“Please, Miss Hale, have a seat.” Margaret sat next to the window as per her usual routine when it was available. “Miss Hale, would you feel more comfortable if I were to sit next to you or across from you?”
No one had ever asked that question of her before, but it did not take her long to think of the differences with the atmosphere that was now hovering around them. The peace and warmth were already settling through her body, but Margaret was selfish and wanted to look at his handsome face. “Would you mind sitting across from me? I do not know if it will make our conversations harder or easier. If we get a crowd in here, then we shall sit next to each other. When I am sleepy, though, I may borrow your shoulder if you do not mind.”
“I would not mind in the least,” John replied.
The train started its hissing of steam as the brakes were released. The loud chugging sound permeated the coach, and Margaret knew it would be several minutes before she could ask the question that was filling the coach. She could feel his eyes on her again, but he would deflect them when she looked his way. She looked at the overhead, forgetting that she had brought her Milton book. It would be a help when she was stuck for conversation. As she rose to reach for it, Mr. Thornton rose up instantly, too.
“Can I assist you, Miss Hale?” he asked.
The train was still lurching forward, causing Margaret to fall into his chest. John immediately had his arms around her to steady her. He took embarrassingly too long to ease his grip and hold her by her shoulders. Margaret did not want it to stop, either. Before he knew why, John pulled her tighter, leaned down, and kissed her long and hard. Embarrassed, John backed away, still holding her. “Please forgive me, Miss Hale. I do not know why I did that. I am sorry. You must think I am a rogue or a cad at the least. However, I am not. Maybe I will be able to explain myself before our trip is completed. Again, I am sorry.”
Looking down, Margaret pressed the back of her hand to her mouth. She said, “Please . . . do not be sorry, Mr. Thornton.”
Astonished over her comment, he glanced down at her again and said, “John.”
Margaret, stuttering, asked, “W-what did you say?”
“I said John. Please call me John, if your society permits that.”
“Mr. Thornton . . . John . . . I have no society. I, too, appreciate the casualness of first names. Please call me Margaret.”
“If you wish, but please accept my apology.”
“Accepted. If you do not mind, I was reaching for my satchel to retrieve my Milton book.”
John guided Margaret backward a step and encouraged her to sit while he collected her bag.
As he reached overhead, pulling his coat upwards from lifting his arms, Margaret’s eyes wandered shamelessly. She was aware that their kiss had meant a lot to him. Margaret started to wonder what type of woman she was turning out to be. Ideas of a more sensual nature were seeping into her consciousness more often. These new men in her life were spurring and stirring her inner passionate feelings, feelings she had only read about.
John had totally forgotten about his situation. He had been hard since he had put his arms around her. He was mortified to be standing almost directly in front of her as he reached to the overhead. He knew he could not say anything, could not apologize . . . could not do anything but be an idiot for the moment. He quickly gathered her bag and sat down on the same bench until he would return it. “Oh, God, she is blushing,” John thought. “At least, blushing is a good sign. She could have been frowning.” John calmed his nerves somewhat with that thinking. He could have thrown away everything in one absent-minded moment of lustful thinking.
Margaret wanted to burst out giggling when offering her thanks. She could not look at his face, not yet, anyway. Calming her knowledge of his desire for her, she said, “Thank you, John,” as she plundered her satchel. “Oh, here it is.” She buckled her bag. John took hold of the case, and she could see his hesitation on returning it to the top shelf. He did some type of contorted twist to swing it up, and Margaret could not hold it in any longer. With crimson rising from her throat to her cheeks, she burst out laughing. He had to know why she was laughing. It seemed suddenly the heaviness of the air lifted as they passed through the awkward new acquaintance stage in a highly unconventional manner. “I am sorry to laugh, John.”
“Why are you laughing, Margaret?” he asked, playing dumb as he returned to the seat opposite her, tugging his coat around him as he sat.
Sweat beaded on Margaret’s top lip and out came the giggles again. “Oh, it is nothing, really. Well . . . I do not really mean nothing. Not in that way, of course.” Margaret realized she was digging a hole and could not get out of the way of herself.
Now John joined in the laughter, duly relieved that she took this embarrassing event in the manner in which she did. “All right, have it your way, do not tell me.” John had to let her off this delicious hook for both their sakes.
John waited for the question to be asked. He had decided to be honest with her because he knew no other way. He folded his arms and looked at the passing scenes as the train rolled down the tracks.
Margaret did not know how to bring up the subject, opting instead for other conversation. “John, what is it that you do in Milton?”
John unfolded his arms and gave her all of his attention. “Margaret, I am a mill master. I, and a partner of mine own two cotton mills. Shortly, I believe he will allow me to buy his fifteen percent portion so both belong to me while he buys his own mill. We have been good friends for a long time.”
“Have you always lived in Milton?”
“Yes, I had rather humble beginnings there, but through diligence, I have made a good career for myself.”
“This career, does your wife mind it?” Margaret knew that would be seen as an obtuse way to find out if he was married, but she could think of no other way to find out.
“I am not married as yet,” John responded.
“That sounds like you soon will be. Do you have a lady picked out?”
“I think I would like to defer that question until a later time,” John said with a penetrating stare at her, as Margaret got closer to asking what he wanted her to know.
“You seem to be playing a game with me, so here it comes. As we exited the carriage, you said I seemed to be the reason you came to London. If I am to believe any of this, you must tell me why you assume to know me.”
“Let me preface my explanation by first saying that my original reason for coming to London was to do research on this strange phenomenon that has recently happened to me. Almost six months ago, I was involved in a rather serious accident that left me in a severe coma from a head injury that I sustained. After I was back on my feet, I started having visions that I could not explain and still cannot – that is why the research.”
“Oh, I think I have heard of such a thing. You have become gifted, is that right?”
Amazed at her knowledge, he said, “I guess you could say that. I am not at all sure that I like it, except for what has happened recently. My first real vision warned me, as I see it now, that my horse would be mildly injured. I dealt with the injury but feared this vision entity far more. There was a second vision that warned of a big personal mistake I could make and did not. Nevertheless, these past six weeks or so, the visions have been very pleasant. I still find them disturbing, as they interrupt my life the way I have always known it. But recently, my life has been pleasantly engaged in this chaos of unknown origin.”
“That is very interesting. I am most fascinated to hear your story. And what do I have to do with any of this?”
“You, Margaret Hale, have been the source of my latest and most agreeable visions.”