Welcome Home, Margaret
The London station platform was filled with people, but at least she had missed the early surge of London workers. Margaret had ensured that her baggage was properly stowed onto the huffing train and glanced down the long line of coaches on the track, recognizing that they led to paradise, to her destiny once left behind.
Booker’s family said good-bye to her and had just left the station. It was a sad time, for she liked them very much, and they loved her. They promised to come visit her and asked her to do the same. Aunt Shaw, Edith, and Maxwell stayed there to see her off. Lots of well wishes, hugs, and kisses passed between them as Margaret boarded her train to freedom. Edith cried and waved her lace handkerchief to Margaret, as she stepped into her coach.
As the train pulled away from the station, Margaret waved good-bye to her only family and felt everything falling into place. She was endeavoring to set sail into a brand-new life, ready to find direction and purpose for her existence, and perhaps, her greatest love.
She looked around at her companions in the coach. She gazed at the young couple who were seated in the corner and the gentleman across from her. The couple appeared to Margaret to be newly married, possibly on their honeymoon. The young man had propped himself diagonally in a corner, and the young woman rested between his legs with her back against his chest while he kissed her hair and whispered endearments to her. It was a scandalously improper scene, but she could feel their love and envied them.
She tucked away any thoughts of romance as she reminded herself that she was going to love her freedom. She wanted to twirl in a circle with her hands over her head and let the whole world to know that this was a new beginning for her. Again though, her trip was slightly disturbed as the new unknown rider, a very handsome, elegantly clothed gentleman, kept glancing her way. Even as she read her book, she could see him through her peripheral vision and could feel his eyes burning into her, but at least he had the decency to look away whenever she would look up.
John was getting all of his business affairs out of the way and clearing his desk, foreseeing every detail that could interrupt the lovely time he would be spending with Margaret on her first days in Milton. She would be staying in his home for several days, until the rest of her household furnishings arrived. He still was in a dream world anticipating her return, and there he would remain until he saw her step off the train.
As he spoke to John, Higgins could see that, today, his friend’s enthusiasm knew no bounds. Higgins was amazed by the change in John over the past few weeks. In all the years of their friendship, Higgins had never seen John so full of life. He had asked a question but noticed John was now staring out the office window and hadn’t heard a word, he said to him. Clearing his throat rather loudly, Higgins smiled and said to John, “Ahem. “I said when is Miss Margaret due to arrive?”
John was thinking of the face among the crowd that he would soon see. All those passengers leaving their coaches, yet he knew he would spot her instantly. Hearing Higgins clear his throat, he turned and said, “I’m sorry, I was lost in thought. What was it, you said?”
“Master,” he said, “I can well understand what this day must mean to you, and I understand you’re lost in thought. I, myself, am anxious for Margaret to return. I wish you all the success that one man can wish another. What I said was, when is Miss Margaret due to arrive?”
“I believe she will arrive at 2:00 this afternoon.” John replied.” Are you sure there is nothing that I need to be doing?”
Higgins shook his head, stating that both mills were running at top performance, and no large imports or exports were expected for several more days. He understood that the Master already knew this, but he was only asking out of nervousness. Higgins could see John didn’t know what to do with himself as he moved about the room, looking at books and papers, totally unfocused to any purpose at hand. He had both hands wedged in his pockets, tumbling coins, which was something he never did. In fact, John had remarked in the past how ungentlemanly and annoying it was when one of his gentleman friends did the same thing. “Master,” Higgins said, smiling, “do you see what you are doing?”
Without saying the words, as he wanted the sound of the jingling coins to become apparent, Higgins pointed to John’s hands in his pockets.
“What? Higgins, what are you pointing at?” John quipped, frowning as he began checking the clothes he’d put on that morning.
Higgins started to chuckle as John became aware of the sound he was making.
John’s face lit with a smile, and he immediately withdrew his hands from his pockets and crossed his arms in front of his chest.
“Fine then, Higgins.” John laughed. “If you need nothing from me, then I will be off. Should something arise, send a runner with a note. I should be home for a short while and then I’ll head for the depot a little early in case the train is ahead of schedule. Make sure the helpers are there by 1:30, and thanks.”
“M – i – l – t – o – n, Milton INBOUND,” came the call of the porter, who was walking the swaying train aisle.
John had arrived at the station almost a full half-hour before the train was due, and told his driver to wait for him in the front. His two helpers, with the cart, were at the far end of the platform, where the large baggage was unloaded. He passed his time pacing the platform, checking his watch and looking down the tracks. Aware that he was smiling too much, he wondered what people must think about his behavior. He was shaking with anticipation. John had been nervous other times, whenever he spoke to large congregations of his peers, but now that seemed like nothing compared to this moment. This . . . this was the rest of his life about to arrive on these tracks. John could hear the long pull on the trains whistle coming from around the bend. He moved toward the back into the crowd that was waiting to board, and stood on a bench, hoping to see more clearly, through the crowd of departing passengers, the person who was returning with his heart and soul.
The train came to a stop, and John saw a porter open Margaret’s door – the door to his future – a vision he’d been dreaming about for many years. Margaret was handed out by the porter, her cloak flapping in the wind and a bit of snow blowing past her face. To John, it was as if she stepped out of a Great Master’s painting. She wore no bonnet this day; scattered tendrils blew about her face and her hair was pulled back in a braided knot, which accentuated the arch of her neck. John had another exquisite remembrance for his treasure chest. Her lovely vision smote him like a fist to his abdomen. Noticing all the gentlemen turning their heads her way, he hurried along before too many men could offer her their assistance.
When Margaret saw John standing on the crowded platform, cheeks flushed from the cold, she smiled his way. As she watched him approach, she thought him even more handsome then a mere three weeks ago. Aching to be with him, his approach seemed as if it was in slow motion, she became aware of his every movement, every fraction of a second that he strode towards her, smiling. To assist her with her trunks, which seemed to have come out of nowhere at the end of her packing, he had brought two helpers with him. John met her, doffing his hat.
“Welcome home, Margaret. It is wonderful to have you back to stay.” He wanted to kiss her, but instead he asked, “would you mind showing my men which are your trunks, so they can be loaded onto the wagon?”
John offered his arm to Margaret as they strolled down to the baggage area, and Margaret maneuvered through the piles, pointing out her possessions. The men tipped their heads in recognition and proceeded to load them.
Turning to Margaret and extending his arm again, John said, “Shall we?” As soon as she had stepped off that train, his heart started hammering through his veins. He was sure Margaret could see it pounding through his coat and vest.
She is finally walking out of my dreams and into my life.
“How was your trip?” John asked, nervously, smiling at her.
As Margaret began her tale about her trip, he could see the glow emanating from her rosy cheeks. Her eyes were sparkling just the way he imagined they would, even while blinking the snow away, as she looked up to him. Margaret was still the most beautiful creature in his universe, but now happiness blossomed out of her lit face and made him quiver inside. John didn’t think this moment could have gotten any better, but it just did. He steered her toward the coach but could hardly hear what she was saying, he was so enraptured by her presence and the feel of her arm around his, knowing this was just the beginning.
“John? John, did you hear what I asked you?”
Looking a bit shocked, John managed to stammer, “No . . . No, I am sorry, I was lost in you.” He allowed himself to say, “I’m afraid that is the second time today that I have been guilty of that. I humbly apologize.”
What a disaster, I am.
“Let’s start over again,” he said. “Margaret, how was your trip?” This time John paid attention to her story.
As she finished her account of the young couple, they had arrived at the carriage. Atop was a handsome young blond coachman wearing a nice fitted black tunic with brass buttons and a cap. Pulling the carriage, were four shiny black horses, called a “hour-in-hand,” who had braided tails and were fitted out with highly polished brass buckles. Margaret looked at her conveyance and felt like she was entering a fairytale coach. She didn’t think Milton had such beauty for hire. As John handed her into the carriage, he could see the question on her face, and he smiled to himself. He had to sit beside her rather than across, or else he would only stare and not hear her again.
“John, these are a very handsome coach and horses. You needn’t have gone to such expense on my behalf.” She looked at him and saw a small smirk in the corners of his mouth.
“Nothing is too good for you, Margaret.” His smirked widened.
“What’s that look for? Why this expense?” Margaret couldn’t help smiling back at John’s grin; it was infectious seeing him happy.
John tapped the roof of the coach, and Branson reined the horses forward. “Margaret, this is not an expense for me. I own this traveling coach, another small one and these fine horses. Branson, the driver up in the box, works for me. The Mills have done quite well within the past three years. As Dixon has probably written you, I travel and speak about what we’ve done in Milton as mill and factory owners. I speak to the issues which we have resolved and how we are still working together, as varied manufacturers, to get our product to the masses and improve the living of our workforce. You will be amazed at Milton when you finally get a good look at the city; even I haven’t seen it all. I’ve been selected as President of our Merchant Chamber of Commerce, and like I said before, you had a lot to do with this.”
“I what? You’ve said that before, and I don’t know why and don’t want to hear it. Please, stop saying so.” She turned to look at him in wonder. John noticed she was making the cutest little “o” with her lips.
“Well, if you’ll close your mouth, I’ll tell you why,” John said, reminiscing the fun they had, just weeks ago. Margaret stared at him and then they laughed together as he launched into what she had taught him about his own workers and their care and living conditions. “Because of you, along came a great change to the mills . . .”
“Oh John, I am so relieved to hear this. Your success and wealth are very nice for you, but to think that the workers are far better off than when I last lived here just makes my heart sing.”
John’s own heart was singing.
“I will take no credit for any of this,” Margaret continued, “do not mention such things to others, either. You were getting there. I know you were. You were finding it very hard to accept their crisis, along with your own, back then. You just needed the most subtle of shoves. I am just so excited. I can’t say how many times I’ve thought of the strife here. When things went badly for me, and I would get upset, I would think of the workers in Milton and see my problem set against the picture of theirs. I was always coming out ahead.”
“Margaret, you can say what you will about the people here and what they’ve suffered, but you must know that you have suffered far more. I know of no one else who has gone through one tragedy after another, and yours were such that no one could fix them. Margaret, you are incredibly strong. Stronger than I, I am sure. To be here, happy and bright, and to know that within the past four years, you lost everyone, is nothing short of a miracle. Let’s change the subject; it depresses me to know of what you’ve endured.”
John was taking in her lovely sweet feminine scent. His heart wouldn’t stop its heavy pounding. Unable to resist any longer, he turned and kissed her, covering her mouth with his, holding her head, and chin. Slowly, he pulled back, looking down at her perfect face as her eyes closed. He kissed her eyelids and held her tight.
A poignant moment marked its place in time.
Smiling, Margaret said, “Thank you, John. I’ve been counting the days until that kiss. Here I am today, looking forward to a new life, one of my own choosing. I am very happy already, and I’ve barely begun it.
As John listened, he knew Margaret was singing the lyrics of a love song straight to his heart. “Margaret, before we get into my home, I want to take you through greater Milton. You didn’t have a good look before. Since we have plenty of time, now, I want you to see the uptown section where you, and the Professor will live; it’s about two to three years old. For just a few minutes, sit back, relax, and enjoy the splendor that has bewitched Milton.” They were both silent. Margaret was looking out the carriage window in total awe, while John was looking at her. He slid across the seat facing her and moved towards the window so he could see what she was seeing, in case she had questions. Her scent was the one thing he had missed the most. He could always be aroused by her scent: the smell of her hair, the light fragrance she wore, or the soap in which she bathed. He could hardly restrain himself from reaching out to her this instant. John found that he had to adjust the position of his great coat or things might become embarrassingly obvious. He did not want her to be aware of his awkward moment. Apparently, these rare delicate difficulties were becoming all too frequent, which he didn’t seem to mind, except for his mortification of being noticed.
“Your nice little cottage is ready for you but without all the furnishings. Dixon is at my home still. She will be your chaperone for the coming nights. I believe Dixon will have dinner ready for all three of us by the time we get there. I have asked her to join us this evening. As much as I have enjoyed having Dixon in my home, she has had a habit of mothering me, too much. She dotes on me like I was her son. She’s even learned to sass me on occasion, all in fun, I assure you. It upsets me when I have to tell her that I am the boss, and she always realizes that, but little seems to deter her from doing it again. I have to smile thinking about it. It’s very kind of her to watch over my well being, but I think she crosses the line too often.” Turning slightly in his seat, John leaned over and spoke into the voice box, “Branson, stop at the cottage.'”
The carriage came to a stop, and John saw Margaret’s eyes open wide with wonder; she was still in love with her home.
She inhaled loudly, “John, I think it is enchanted, like a fairy tale. It’s like a big doll house. I do love it, so. I think that I shall never want to leave this lovely little place.” She jumped across the seat, hugged him around the neck, and kissed him on the cheek. “How long do you think before I can move in?”
John felt like he had a little girl on his hands, and she had just opened her birthday present and found her favorite doll. “It’ll only be a few days, less than a week, I should think.” He saw the pout on her face. It was one of those play pouts. None-the-less, she was disappointed, which pleased him very much because it meant she already loved being here. From nowhere, came the thought that he wanted his first child to be a daughter.
“John, thank you for all your help with my move.”
John leaned out the window, “Home, Branson!” and turning to face her, he answered, “my pleasure.”
Someday I will tell her of the pleasure I felt, seeing her step off that train.
“I will be your ride and guide all this week for I have cleared my work for the next five days to be at your disposal, with the exception of one evening meeting. We should be at Marlborough Mills in just a few minutes. It’s quite close to this end of town. You will hardly recognize where you are, from looking at the buildings. As a frame of reference, your cottage used to be the little book store, you frequented.”
“It was? Oh, how well I remember that little quiet book store, always filled with new things to read. I was at it often and so was father. The book store is my new home! I loved that shop, but I am grateful that it has been restored to what it is now.”
John could hear the smile in her pleasant sigh. They were pulling through the mill gates. Dixon was waiting on the front porch when the carriage rolled up to it. Branson came down from his box, opened the door, and let down the steps to peals of delighted sounds. John watched Margaret and Dixon fuss over each other and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Higgins heading out of the office door and trotting over. They hugged each other like old friends would.
“Higgins, close up the office and come on up to the house. You shall stay for dinner, too.
Margaret noticed her carpet bag in the downstairs foyer; she assumed her trunks must have been taken on to her cottage. Everyone ascended the stairs into the sitting room as Margaret and Dixon talked steadily. When they got into the sitting room, John told Dixon to set another place for dinner. Dixon knew he meant Higgins, and headed off to the kitchen.
John removed Margaret’s coat and Higgins hung his coat and cap on a peg. John shed his great coat and waited for Margaret to enter the parlor first. Higgins found a chair opposite where John usually sat near the fireplace, while Margaret slowly glanced around the room and then comforted her buttocks, once again on the couch.
John stood at the bar and asked for drink orders.
“Oh John, say it again, please!” Margaret prompted mischievously.
“I’d rather not,” John said looking a bit embarrassed.
“What’s this then?” Higgins asked, seeing John looking rather uncomfortable.
“Pleeeeeeeease,” Margaret donned her pouty face.
“Brandy, whiskey or port, Milady? What would you prefer?” John asked, doing a mock bow to her again, but this time coming up with a red face. No one had ever seen John like this.
Higgins, Margaret and John, howled with laughter, mainly over John’s embarrassment of acting silly. This was totally unheard of for him to act in such a manner.
“Miss Margaret, I have seen great and wonderful change in the Master here, since the news of your returning, but nothing like this. How . . . did you get him to do that?” Higgins asked, still laughing so hard, he had to wipe the spittle foaming at the corners of his mouth.
Higgins’s remark prompted more laughter all over again, as it made John seem like a performing animal act.
“Higgins, if you value your job, you will forget what you saw here,” John said, followed by another round of laughter.
Higgins asked for a whiskey while Margaret asked for a port. John poured the drinks and handed them around.
Higgins said, “Well, is anyone going to tell me what that was all about?”
“I can hardly explain my own self,” John began. “When Margaret showed up unexpectedly a few weeks ago, she strolled in here with all the brevity of a stage performer, announcing the new Margaret. She was so happy, and full of exuberance that somehow she pulled me onto her stage of merriment. We were being simple, which actually felt good for a change, but I’m sure I’ve never been that free with myself before. Abandoning all my pride, doesn’t seem like it has been enough for her, though. She apparently wanted you to see the act. She shall pour her own drinks in the future.”
Margaret leaned toward Higgins and whispered loudly, “I think I should feel complimented, because I actually saw him pinch himself that night.”
For the first time ever, John was the center of humiliation. He couldn’t stop laughing, he couldn’t stop blushing, and apparently he couldn’t stop Margaret. He had never felt such joy before, even if it was at the expense of his pride and self-respect. Peals of laughter echoed throughout the house, as Dixon, rolling her eyes at Cook, remarked, “There they go again; just like the last time Margaret arrived.”
Cook nodded her approval. “This house has needed that sound since the day it was built,” she replied.
A nice dinner was served, and conversation flowed on and on about Higgins’ marriage, Margaret’s new work, the cottage, the changes to Milton and even the rumors about Slickson’s retirement and sale of the mill. Everyone enjoyed themselves, especially John, as he glanced in Margaret’s direction, often.
Higgins rose to leave, telling Margaret once again how glad he was she was home in Milton. He’d wanted her to see Mary, who was very excited about her return, and to meet his betrothed, Peggy.
“Thank you, Nicholas, for the warm welcome back. I’m anxious to see everyone as soon as I am able.”
Higgins left, leaving John and Margaret alone.
They sat and talked comfortably until dark about the past three weeks and their preparations for this day. Both Margaret and John seemed unable to keep the smiles from their faces. Each knew they were leaving their sadness behind and embarking on a new and wondrous path in their lives.
“You’ve never seen through the whole house, would you be interested in a tour?”
“Yes, John, I would like that,” Margaret said.
To begin the tour, the two went down the kitchen steps and out the back door. Although there was plenty of ground running back behind the mills, there was no porch on the back, to speak of, as the enlarged carriage house had taken up most of the yard. They walked over to the carriage house, and Margaret was introduced to Branson. “How do you do, Branson? It’s nice to meet you,” she said, as she shivered in the frosty air.
“Thank you, Miss,” Branson replied as he tipped his cap.
Margaret, eyeing John, said to Branson, “How is it, working for Mr. Thornton?”
“It’s swell, Miss. He’s a very fair Master. He’s taught me things, trusts me with his horses that he loves, especially Plato. He’s let me live over the stable. And now that I have a lady friend, he gives me nights off so I can be with her. I wouldn’t change this job for any other.”
“Thank you, Branson, I am sure that is a very accurate assessment of Mr. Thornton, although it was far from my first impression, which I won’t go into as I was in error. I’m sure we will see each other a lot in the future. Good Evening, Branson.”
“Good evening, Miss, . . . Sir,” tipping his cap.
As they walked back into the house, John told Margaret how he had admired the downstairs lavatory and the mud room in her cottage. He would have to consider both of those additions in the future. Entering the kitchen, all was quiet. Cook had gone home, and Dixon was in her room. “I’m afraid I can’t show you Dixon’s room tonight, but maybe another time. There were several other rooms, such as a scullery, pantry, back cellar and a door that lead to a cold room below ground, plus a second lower parlor, or staff dining room, that was rarely used. Lately it was mainly used by Dixon, for her small business, as an area for training housekeeping personnel. Coming up the front stairs from the downstairs parlor, John led Margaret to his Mother’s room, which had been completely refurbished. “I’ve had this room changed,” he said. And that was all John said about that room. They passed Margaret’s guestroom, which had once been Fanny’s old room, and proceeded through the parlor, to his library. “I work a lot in here,” John said.
Margaret looked about the room, walking around the huge unadorned desk, taking in all his books in the glass fronted cases which had been designed for the room. There was a comfortable upholstered guest chair, near the front of the desk, a window to the left, the desk chair and one other small chair placed against the wall. There was an unlit fireplace. “John, this is a nice room. It feels warm and cozy even without the fire going. It’s quite manly looking,” she remarked. Then Margaret laughed, “Which I think is the point in here.” John smiled.
The final room they came to was John’s large bedroom with its huge bed; Margaret entered it briefly on her previous visit. At first, she was startled again at the size of the bed, but soon realized that with John’s height, he would need something much larger than average. She walked the room, while John leaned against the door frame with his arms folded. There was a highboy for his undergarments, socks, cravats, and the like; there was a wardrobe for his outerwear; there were two side tables, one holding a gas light, and the other a guttered candle. A bowl and pitcher stand, with a shaving mirror, was off in one corner and two windows flanked the bed. The room smelled masculine and seemed stark, a lot like John himself. Margaret looked at the bed and wondered; could John have any lasting memories in that bed? “John,” she began somewhat cautiously, “if I ask you a personal question, will you tell me the truth?”
“Forever,” John assured her, “always know that.”
Continuing to gaze at the huge bed, Margaret went over, sat on the edge, and ran her hand across the top counterpane cover. “Do you ever entertain guests in here?”
“Entertain?” He was dumbfounded at the word. John straightened his frame in the doorway. This was not a question he had expected from her. He wasn’t sure if he should joke with her, or not. Either way, he was not embarrassed to answer. He realized quickly, however, that she could be thinking that he might be carrying long lasting memories of another woman. “I have had only one woman in this room, other than my family, and that was someone named Margaret Reed; she was here about three weeks ago.”
“John, I’m serious,” Margaret told him, thinking he was attempting to humor her.
“I am too, Margaret. I have never brought a woman into this room. I think you are the first to even see into this room. Do you have any other . . . questions in that regard?” he asked, as he walked into the room and sat beside Margaret. “Let’s clear up any concern you have there. I don’t want you wondering what I am thinking while we both might be in this room.”
“No, I don’t think I have any questions, at least not now, maybe never, but it’s really none of my business,” she finished quietly.
John took Margaret by the shoulders and turned her towards him. “Margaret, I will never lie to you, ever. I am a normal, sexually adept, active male. I have always kept that part of my life private and have always been a gentleman, but if you have any questions about me in that regard, I will answer them. I have sown my wild oats long ago. I am very understanding of the female body and a woman’s wants and desires, but I have never loved anyone except you. Like I said, and told you a few weeks ago, I have had sex, but never made love. Every time I’ve lain with a woman, I have thought of only you. My passion was withheld waiting for YOU.” As he spoke, he rubbed Margaret’s arms up and down trying to soothe her. “After you told me about your husband and your lack of intimacy, I dared hope to think that I might bring you new pleasures for the first time in your life. I am a passionate man, where you are concerned, Margaret, and it’s been waiting in the dark corners of my soul for a long time.”
Margaret rose from the bed and started towards the parlor. She had begun this conversation but no longer did she want to hear of it.
John remained seated on the bed, looking at the floor, wondering if he had said too much. He knew instantly, like a fool, that he had. It wasn’t what he said, but it was the pressure that he had probably placed on her. He realized that Margaret might feel obliged to show him more than what were her truest feelings. As much as he wanted her, he did not want that. John raised slowly, his mind still reeling at the moment. He turned off his light and walked back into the parlor, only to hear Margaret’s door closing.
God, what I have I done? I’ve been nothing but honest. Was I a fool? I never want her to wonder and feel the jealous torment that I felt.
John paced the floor for a while wondering if she would come out. She didn’t. He went to her door and tapped lightly.
“We’ll talk tomorrow, John,” Margaret said through the door. “I’m tired and I would like to sleep now.”
John walked through the sitting room, turned out the gas lights and went to his room.
He sat on the edge of his bed, going over everything he had said to her. What could have upset her like that? Everything, he thought . . . everything could have stepped on her confidence. He was trying too hard, rushing the relationship he wanted so much to build. He wanted to do everything for her, tell her everything, touch her, and most of all show his great passion for her, something which, he realized now, was too much too soon. She knew how he felt about her. Previously, he had convinced himself he would let her come to him, yet he had not done that. He was charging at her, forgetting she had just lost a husband, only to discover, soon after his death, some very unsettling news about him. She had made the move to Milton. She had his feelings to handle, as well as her own feelings and a new house. She was going to be overwhelmed very soon, and John knew he had to be cautious and step back. It was a bitter pill to swallow.
Margaret dressed in her nightwear, sat on the bed, wondering what had made her ask such a question. She was surprised when she heard her own words coming out of her mouth. She berated herself for not having realized that John, being the gentleman whom he was, was still an ordinary man with ordinary needs, and it was wrong of her to questioned. Growing up, thinking of young men had never been much in her thoughts, but of course, that was her own naivety surfacing once again. She should be thankful that John would have no awakening to other desires, as she experienced in her past marriage. It was ludicrous for her to think she would have been the only one in his life, yet, he had never married. How was she going to apologize for her intrusion into the personal life he had before her, and then for her disappointment in his honesty? Sometimes, she wondered if life was fair.
Chapter Twenty Seven
John and Frederick talked into the night, finalizing plans. Both agreed the pressure and anxiety were reaching an alarming pace, but nothing would stop them now, except death – for someone. They would have a meeting early the next day with the others; tell them all they knew and set the last plans of participation. Everyone would meet at the office around ten in the morning, including Branson.
As the plan seemed laid out, all the men would meet in the morning. Afterwards, Frederick would continue to scout Hartford. At four in the afternoon, everyone would meet with Boyle for any last minute information. Ten at night seemed to be the selected hour to put this man behind them all and Margaret. If Frederick found Hartford was not moving as predicted, the plans would have to change at the last minute.
Frederick saw John open a lower drawer in his desk and lift out a pistol.
“Do you have one of these, Fred?”
“I do, but I have no powder and ball.”
“Here.” John slid what Frederick needed across the desk. “Where do you keep it?”
Frederick reached down his trouser front and pulled out a small but powerful blunt pistol.
“I’ve carried this for three years. I’ve never used it on a person, but it has given me consolation knowing it has been there. On my trip here, I had to shoot for food. I must say, rabbits are fast. I used up all my munitions, I’m afraid.”
Both men laughed.
Each man took the time to clean and load their weapons.
John couldn’t remember the last time he had fired it. Many years ago, he had bought a set, feeling one should be in the house. Days after his purchase, he rode into a wooded area and fired for about an hour. He thought it felt strange to hold as it held a great impact in his life, one way, or another. John placed the loaded pistol into his top center drawer.
“I have a second pistol,” John told Fred.
“I’m not planning on missing, thank you. You being a magistrate, what are our chances of getting away with this?”
“None, really. There’s no doubt that Boyle will know. He’ll call us in and hassle us, but there won’t be any arrests. There is no way he can prove anything. It’s all circumstantial. I’m sure he knows what we’re doing in any regard. He has given us too much information for who we are. I may have been privileged to know it, but I do not think its usual practice to disclose what he has to our group.”
“Do you have regrets about taking a life?” Frederick asked.
“Of course, there is regret but I have no doubts. It is something I must do. My conscience will not be bothered with expediting this man to the next life. He’s headed there if the police get to him before we do. I just want the satisfaction of revenge. As a man, I have come face to face with the primitive man that still resides deep within, The Protector. It’s a rather unique feeling of learning more about the man that you really are and what you are capable of doing in extreme circumstances, don’t you think?”
“I’ve been there once before if you know my whole story. Yes, it’s like standing outside of yourself, unbelieving that you are confident in such actions. But when it comes down to it, nothing feels better than doing what is right, rather than what is just.”
“That’s the way I see it, Fred. I know I’ve ruled in my court, on occasions, for the side of right rather than justice. I’ve never been called into question about it. It’s very late,” John said, snapping his watch closed. I would imagine your sister went to bed a long time ago.”
“John, let me just say, ‘thank you’ for being the man to love her. I do not think she could have found another man with the deep feelings for her that I see in you.”
John’s thin smile appeared. “Thank you for saying that. Your confidence in me is well-placed. I would give up my life for her.”
“I think I know that. So . . . where do I sleep?”
As John entered their bedchamber, his heart sank. Margaret was lying across the bed, with her head near the light, book fallen to the floor, still in her day clothes. He didn’t know how far he would get and not wake her, but he would try to undress her.
He thought about which side the break was and then rolled her over onto her stomach. She made a sound but did not come awake. Slowly, button by button, he undid the back. He stood back, looking down at her, trying to use his intellect, on the next moves. Surely he had to pull off that wide skirt, whatever she called it, he couldn’t remember. Next came her bloomers. John gently reached under her stomach and pulled a long end of the bow that tied them on. Slowly, he shimmied them down and then off. Once again, he stood back with is arms crossed and figured the rest was going to be tricky. Should he wake her, he wondered. No, there was the off chance that she would sleep through his fumbling. Considering there were now, two long pieces – one, usually slipped off her shoulders, the other over her head – he thought he would try both over her head, at the same time. That would leave just the rib corset when he was done. He debated with himself over keeping her modesty or not. He opted to turn out the light, as she may have wished.
John took a deep breath and began the slow bunching of the fabrics upward. He had to roll her over once, but the darkness hid her beautiful form from him. Finally, the fabric came away from her, and he pulled it down her arms. He could reach the hooks on her side with no trouble. Completing that, he knew she was naked on the bed. He wanted badly to feel her skin, her curves, her everything, but instead, he gently lifted her to her side of the bed and pillow.
He disrobed himself, completely and slid next to her, pulling the covers over them. Little by little he slipped his arm under her neck and moved so their bodies were touching. Instinctively, he laid one leg over her and placed his hand on her stomach. He closed his eyes and let his fantasies soar.
“You are true gentlemen,” he heard whispered in the dark.
“When did you wake up?” John asked.
“I woke up missing you about a half hour ago.”
“So you were awake during all my strategic planning, doing it as I thought you would want, mind you – not what I wanted?”
“I was. I must admit it was difficult.” Margaret replied.
“It was much more enjoyable than difficult.”
“I didn’t mean that for you; I meant it for me.”
“Did I worry you, Margaret?” John asked as he leant in and kissed her sensually.
“How could I ever worry about myself in your care? I just didn’t want you to know I was awake. You might have stopped. I had to keep the smile hidden.”
“Everyday, I know I cannot possibly love you more than I do. There is no room left in my heart, but somehow you manage to squeeze just a bit more in, unexpectedly. My heart is about to burst, I love you, Margaret, with everything I am.”
“I feel that. Our visitor is back,” she giggled.
“He’s back looking for his home,” said a romantic John.
“Oh God,” John moaned, as Margaret reached for him. He buried his face in her neck. “I didn’t expect that. Oh, dear God, how I’ve waited for your touch.” John kissed her fervently.
Margaret surprised herself but the moment moved her, and she reacted. Hearing his words inspired her to continue. She wasn’t sure what to do with it, but she just reacted as he reacted. It soon became all too apparent and all too easy what he liked.
“It’s so hard,” she expressed in wonder. “How . . . John, I love how you react to my touch. I feel very womanly, suddenly. I think I’ve brought you to your knees.”
John reluctantly pulled her hand away. “You’re going to bring more than you expected, so you need to stop stroking me.”
“It that what it’s called, what I was doing?”
“Among many other terms. I think we need to sleep. Your brother is here, too.”
“Does it always get that big?” Margaret seemed to have many questions, now that her naiveté had been breached.
“Margaret, you are making me laugh. Please, let’s do this in the daylight so I can see that innocent look of yours.”
“All right, but I have a lot of questions. I am new at this, you know.”
Smiling broadly in the dark, John responded, “Yes, I know, my love. They will all be answered, no matter what you want to know.”
Margaret rolled towards him, ready to settle in for the night. She permitted his leg over her, his hand on her hip and he permitted her to hold him, but not stroke. John lay awake for a long time until her hand fell away.
Margaret woke, hearing the clock somewhere, striking eight in the morning. John was missing from their bed. She had to wonder what type of inner clock he had. It must come from years of working and having to be somewhere at a certain time.
She pulled back the covers and rolled out of bed. Seeing that a second bowl and pitcher had been installed, she went to it. She must have them buy a privacy screen, at least for her. What if John walked in and saw her washing her ooh-ooh.
Finished with her morning freshening, she thought about dressing herself. She would leave off the rib corset today and see how she made out. Finding clean bloomers, she sat on the bed and got that far. She saw the long slip that John had discarded in the night with her dressed all bunched together. She put them on with a modest amount of discomfort when she raised her arms. Later today, she would bath and find a clean dress. She looked for her soft shoes and couldn’t see them; they must be under the dining table, she assumed.
She started down the stairs and could hear her brother talking with John. Stopping to listen before she was discovered, they were not talking about anything secret.
Margaret strolled into the parlor, surprising John.
“Good morning, love. Again, I am being a bad husband. I should have checked on you.”
“Good morning, husband, and brother,” she said taking her place at the chair John had pulled out for her. “I have to try and do for myself. I’m getting there.” Margaret knew their whole day. John must not know that voice carries from his study to their bedchamber through the heat vents in the floor. She suspected they were never closed off. Her big day was before her as theirs was, too, and everyone was trying to act natural.
“I have plans today, John. I did not think you would mind if I travel over to the hotel to see my cousin. She and I want some woman-talk before she leaves.”
John set his fork down, “Are you sure you feel up to such a trip? I could go with you, although I have a couple of meetings today.”
“John, if I find the ride too uncomfortable, I will have Branson turn around. Do you need him today?”
Frederick looked at John for his answer, knowing the use of the carriage and Branson were in their plans.
“I think I can do without it, Margaret.” For Frederick’s benefit, he added, “I have Nicholas’s buggy or either one of my horses.”
Margaret noticed Frederick’s marginal relaxing posture.
“I think I will take the carriage this morning. Frederick and I want to talk with Boyle and see if there anything new to be told.”
“How long do you think this will go on,” Margaret asked.
“The last we heard yesterday, they thought they knew where he was.”
Margaret didn’t particularly care about acting dumb through this strain they were all under.
“Do you think he killed that old man?”
John kept his composure, and Frederick fidgeted.
“What makes you ask that, Margaret?”
Frederick looked on with interest at his ever-surprising sister.
“You left here in a hurry yesterday. I gave that a lot of thought of why, a hurry. I came to only one conclusion, and by the look on your face I would say I am correct.”
Frederick looked over at John.
“Margaret, I can honestly say, we do not know for sure, who strangled old Tom. I think Boyle and the ones that love you, think it’s a possibility. You would not have noticed, but there are a lot of policemen in work clothes around the mill yard. We are not taking any chances. I told you I would protect you at any cost.”
“John, I think the at any cost is new.”
John had no rebuttal, so Frederick took the opportunity to intercede.
“Sis, you need to stop haranguing your husband. He’s worried sick for you, can’t you see that?”
“That works both ways, you know?” Margaret spat back, now showing her temper.
“Margaret, Hartford is not after the men in your life, at least, not me anymore. If it does prove to be that he strangled the old man, and I don’t know how they can prove that, it means he’s here in Milton.”
John was afraid Frederick was going too far, but he knew Frederick’s love for his sister would find the line that was drawn in letting Margaret know their plans.
“So Frederick, you are saying that if he is in Milton, then he must be seeking me, is that right?”
“But why? Why now?”
“Sis, how can you be so smart about some things and dumb when it comes to this?”
John sat back and folded his arms.
“I guess you’ll have to tell me, brother.”
“Bloody hell! He does not want your money any longer, he wants your silence.” Frederick replied as he pounded his fist on the table, causing Margaret to jump.
“So, he wants to kill me? Is that what you both have been trying not to tell me? Is that the reason for all these secret meetings, and private talks in the study and trips to the police station?
“Yes, sister. We have been scurrying around to ensure you are protected and to alert Boyle should we see Hartford. That’s why we have been updated daily on how the police have been tracking him.” Frederick looked at John and saw relief.
“Look, it’s simple. Give me a pistol. Show me how to use it and let him come for me.” Margaret said in a serious tone.
Frederick laughed out loud. “Margaret, you are a woman and are naive in the ways of men and warfare and pride, for that matter.
Margaret looked at John. “Is my husband not coming to my defence in this argument?”
“Actually, you are holding your own pretty fair. Besides, I’m on your brother’s side. We are ALL coming to your defence, don’t you see that yet?”
Trying to soothe her own feathers, Margaret responded, “I guess we just don’t see this the same way.”
“No, we don’t,” admitted John. “You take it too damn lightly.” John threw his napkin on the table and walked out of the house.
“Sis, you don’t know what you’re doing to the man.”
“I guess I do, now.”
“You can’t see how obsessed he is with you, can you? He’s way past loving you. That walking out just now is costing him emotional pain.
“Oh, Fred. What have I done?”
“You’ve slapped him in his face, essentially. In effect, you are taking his whole world and telling him he’s an idiot to care that much.”
“I’ll fix it. I have to.”
Frederick walked away from the table to follow John.
The room was silent. Margaret picked up her fork and went back to eating. “Yes, bring on the day,” she said to herself. “This has to be over, now.”
Margaret went to the window when she heard the carriage rolling out. No doubt, John and Frederick were on their way to the police station. Margaret went upstairs and lay on the bed, crying for what she did to John. She was really doing it for his own good so he wouldn’t suspect what she was up to, but it went all wrong. She had taken it too far. Today, she would redeem herself and save him because she loved him as much as he loved her. She would lay down her life, to save his.
John dropped Frederick off near the Princeton area. He would start his scouting then and meet up with the rest, if he could, at four. Otherwise, they would all meet at John’s office at eight that night.
John continued on to the hotel. He would find the Captain and Adam somewhere there at this time of the morning. The three would sit in the dining room, and John would let them know the final plans and times. The three would then go to the police station for any final words from overnight. All they wanted to know was that Hartford had not been discovered and captured. If the day held true to yesterday, their plan would not have to change with the exception of Branson driving the coach.
John rearranged the travel. Adam and Frederick would take Nicholas’ small two-man cab, and John and the Captain would ride the other two horses that were not pulling John’s coach. It could also work out that Branson would have returned Margaret from the hotel before dark. Either way, Branson would not need to be in on the final end, but just drive.
Branson sat in on the meetings in the hotel and heard their plans; he made his own. Somehow, he would have to make Hartford look like he was drunk and passed out rather than dead. The group had to think they were the first there; otherwise, he and the Ma’am might both be dismissed. He knew what this meant to his master, but his duty was to save his master, and that was the only reason he conceded to Mrs. Thornton’s demands on his protection for her. He felt like a savior and a traitor to his Guv. Down deep, his master would have wanted him to protect Mrs. Thornton, if he could not persuade her otherwise. And that’s what he was preparing to do.
Pulling herself out of her depression, Margaret asked for the tub to be filled with warm water. She had to ask Jane to wash her hair. She dressed in the dress she arrived in. Hartford might remember it. The dress had been cleaned and repaired. She put on a lot of powder and creams to cover her yellowing black eye.
Midday meal rolled around, and John had returned to his office, alone, but never came to the house for anything to eat. Margaret could not stand this separation. She had a plate fixed for him and carried it across to the office.
When she walked in John and Nicholas were talking about some work detail.
“I’m sorry, Nicholas, I didn’t know you were here. I was just bringing John something to eat. Can I get you anything?”
“No, thank you, Margaret. I was just on my way to have lunch with my daughter.”
“I will be glad to meet her soon.”
“I’m sure that will happen. I’ll leave you two to your meal.” Higgins could feel the rift between them by John’s earlier attitude. They were married now. Nicholas knew he could not intrude with questions like he once did.
“Good day, Nicholas,” John said. He went back to the papers on his desk.
Margaret walked over and sat the plate in front of him. He politely set it off to the side, seemingly uninterested. “Thank you,” he said.
“John, I’m sorry.”
“We weren’t supposed to say that anymore, remember?”
“Yes, you’re right. You’re always right. I was wrong. I’m doing a horrible job of trying to save you while you save me. I am half crazed with fear more for you than myself. I promise to make it up to you.”
“If you will excuse me, I have work to do. I will see you when you return from visiting your cousin.”
Margaret turned away and quietly walked out of the room.
John rose from his chair and watched her negotiate the steps. He realized she had on the same dress that she had arrived in, with blood coming from her mouth. He slammed his fist against the window, breaking it, as she disappeared into their door at the house. Hopefully, they could begin a new life; something with a firm foundation. He was punishing her right now, and he hated himself, but other forces were ruling him that she did not know about.
The hours went by like days. Finally, Margaret was ready to do her best to save her husband. She’d been over her speech all afternoon. She walked outside to check with Branson. He was ready. She asked for the arsenic, and he handed her the tin can. She took it inside and heaped a bunch into a shallow whisky bottle and shook it until it looked clear. She needed to return the arsenic tin to the stable on her way out, or John could be suspicious if he came home unexpectedly.
The sun was starting to set. Twilight was an hour away. She was shaking, but the thought of saving John from a noose lifted her through the scare.
Returning the arsenic, she said to Branson, “I’m ready. Are you?”
“I want to ride up there with you. I need to talk some more about our approach.”
Margaret realized quickly that she should have worn her rib corset today. What was the matter with her? She knew what it was.
“Go.” She said to Branson.
“Walk on,” were the last words said as they left the grounds.
John spent the night thinking and packing. He had been thinking so long, he had to unpack things he hadn’t meant to pack. He was going to get a marriage license first thing that morning, before his meeting. He had determined to marry Margaret and save her first. He had no idea what she would think of that, but Bell had given him the barest of hopes.
He was encouraged that Adam Bell had a post office number that could be watched until Frederick arrived at it. John felt sure that this Hartford man would know Bell, but his lads who might be watching for Frederick would not know him on site. John decided that the first part of the plan was for Bell to write Frederick and tell him of the situation. They would decide on a new city to meet in and finalize Frederick’s safe exit from France. Somewhere in there he would find Margaret and steel her away to marry her.
John was having his early breakfast when a weak knock was heard. He shouted to Jane, his housekeeper, that he would get it. No one was expected this early, but the others probably couldn’t sleep either.
He opened the door, and his breath left him as he saw a frail Margaret, bent in pain with a swollen face and the burgeoning colors of a black eye.
“Oh God, Margaret.” He didn’t ask her anything. He stepped out, picked her up in his arms, and shouted for one of the yard men to get a doctor.
His eyes filled with tears as he carried her upstairs. Looking into her face, he saw his little angel was broken. If he hadn’t needed to tend to her, he would go and end the man’s life. It would happen, but just not right now.
Margaret looked at John through exhaustion.
“Margaret, I have never stopped loving you. I would have done anything to have prevented this.”
“I know you love me. I know I have loved you since first, we met. John, I killed him. I have killed my brother.” Margaret said as she collapsed.
John held her in his arms until Donaldson arrived. After her statement, she closed her eyes, and they had not opened since.
Donaldson opened the outside door and shouted up.
“Up here,” John said, as he carried her to his guest room.
Donaldson took one look at her and wanted to take her to his clinic immediately. “John, get one of your nightshirts, will you?”
“I want you to examine her here, first. I want to know what we are dealing with. Disturbing news, of her being coerced into a marriage, came to me late last night. I am to have a meeting in about an hour and want to know what’s happened to her, and I mean everything.” John looked at Donaldson sternly.
“John, I will be a while. Get the tea brewing.”
John first ran across to the office as he’d heard Nicholas’s coach. He asked him if he would go find Bell at the hotel and bring him here. They had an emergency on their hands, now. He went for Branson, himself, returning as quickly as he could.
He had Cook prepare a tea pot and told her to keep them coming for the next several hours. John, also, mentioned that Margaret was here, in the guestroom.
Cook smiled but saw that her Master was completely overcome with worry.
As the men gathered, they all began telling John that she was out of danger now. He needed to calm down, but John knew they hadn’t seen her.
Donaldson called John into Margaret’s room. John walked in, closing the door behind him. Donaldson didn’t like what he was about to tell him.
“John, she’s alive. She will live, but she’s been badly and repeatedly beaten. It appears it’s been going on for some time. She has a newly fractured rib, and I will have to look closer at her cheek. I think she has internal bleeding. There are signs that this man forced her to perform fellatio. Do you understand that word?”
“Yes.” John began to let the tears fall as he folded himself onto the foot of her bed. He looked at her unconscious body.
“She has not been raped.” Donaldson continued. “She appears to have about six large areas of bruising from, I would think, a fist, in various stages of mending. There are some small signs that there have been more, but they are healing. Whoever this was, took great care to beat her where it would not show. Tell me the story on the way to the clinic.”
The men heard the door open and stood.
“Branson, get the coach.”
“It’s ready out front, sir.”
All the men witnessed John’s tears dropping onto the lifeless form he was carrying in his arms.
Branson rushed ahead, while the other two walked to John.
“Is she . . . ?” Nicholas started to ask.
“You two talk and I’ll send Branson back. I’ll be awhile.”
“John, take care of her.”
Mr. Bell was quite near tears himself. Beside her swollen face, he noticed a bit of blood oozing from her mouth and saw John lick that from her face. He broke down at the sight.
“I should have known,” Bell berated himself. “She never told me she was being mistreated only that she was being forced to marry in order to secure her brother’s safety.”
Bell felt a nudge on his shoulder, and looking up, saw a glass of scotch. He was glad to see it. “This is better than tea after what I just saw.”
“What did you see that I didn’t? I saw John’s face. I’ve never seen that face in all my years. I saw glassy eyes when his mother passed, but nothing like just now,” said Nicholas.
“Nicholas, Margaret had blood running from the corner of her mouth, and John licked it off of her face. That’s when I broke down.”
“I am sure I would have too, had I seen that.
“As bad as this situation is, it just got worse,” said Nicholas. “John will not be denied his revenge, but that still doesn’t mean that Frederick is out of the woods. Have you given this, much thought?”
“Much thought? That seems that’s all I’ve done for weeks. I finally sought out John for help. Margaret did not know I was coming here, but she found her way here under some horrific circumstances. I think we know she has finally figured out where her love lies. You know, Nicholas, it was the love of her brother and the love of John that kept them apart all this time. She felt she couldn’t tell John and break her promise to the family. John felt she was hiding something from him. He’d seen them embrace at the station as Frederick left after his mother passed away. John, I believe, was devastated seeing that. He lost hope. What a mess this has been keeping this secret for her, but I had promised. I watched both of their hearts break.”
“Adam, you need another scotch. I need another whiskey. This tale is one for the books. It seems that literature is writing its story in front of us. All the elements are here, and I know we have not seen nearly the end of this. John is going to be a handful, and I am not so sure I want to talk him out of it. I think it’s one of those rare times in a man’s life when nothing matters but revenge. He can’t be the man he is and let this pass no matter how much you, I or Margaret try to reason with him. He has seen the devil’s work today.”
“I hope he can keep his head enough and not destroy what he and Margaret have waited a long time to begin. If he destroys himself, he destroys her.”
Branson came up the stairs, shaking his head. “The Guv is in a bad way. I waited for a while with him until he felt embarrassed and sent me home. He went from kneeling on the floor trying not to weep to pacing the room like a bull. I don’t know how bad Miss Hale is, but it must be bad for him to show those emotions to me. I’m to pick him up in an hour and if he isn’t there, they’ll be at the hospital.
Edith finally decided to inquire why Margaret was sleeping so late and went to her door. Knocking she received no answer. “Margaret!” Still no answer. “I’m coming in.” She looked about the room to find Margaret missing; the bed hadn’t been slept in, and a few drawers were left open. Edith cheerfully skipped down the stairs to her mother.
“Mother, I think Margaret and Grant have eloped. It looks like she left last night and took a few clothes with her. I wouldn’t have thought Margaret would have done such a thing, but if she’s happy . . .” Edith began to remember how unhappy Margaret had seemed of late.
“I see that look on your face, Edith. My thoughts, too. She hasn’t been the example of a bride-to-be as we would have expected. I don’t like this. Can you get a hold of Maxwell? I think we need to contact Captain Hartford.
“Yes, Mother. I’ll take the buggy to the fort.”
Captain Grant Hartford didn’t know which hurt more: his loss of Margaret or the loss of skin. “Bloody hell,” he shouted from the confines of his leather chair, unable to walk around easily. He and his driver had waited several hours for Margaret to appear at her home. She had no money as her reticule lay on the couch and she wouldn’t have brought money in any case. If she walked home, it could have taken over an hour in good daylight. He didn’t know what to think she could be doing. Was she at the authorities, calling his bluff or had she come to her senses in regards to her brother’s life. Either way, she would marry him, but he just may not see her until the wedding. He did have the one ace up his sleeve. He did know where her brother was. He was in Paris.
“Sir, a Captain Lenox, and his fiancé are here to see you.”
“Did you tell them I was indisposed?” Grant asked, relieved to hear it wasn’t his Commander.
“Yes, Captain, but they said it was urgent.”
“Give me a moment and let them in.” Grant grabbed a small blanket and threw it over his lap. Just as they were being let into his study, he noticed Margaret’s reticule on the sofa, but not very prominently displayed. He wouldn’t ask them to sit down. Due to women’s large full frocks, they usually sought the sofa.
“Do excuse me for not rising. I am a bit ill. Maxwell, to what do I owe the honor of your presence?”
“I’m sorry to interrupt your morning. I am sorry you are feeling unwell.”
“It’s nothing that a few days rest will not cure. How can I help you?”
“We have a concern for Miss Hale. It seems she did not sleep in her bed last night, and she is missing this morning.”
“Missing?” Grant said with great surprise.
“I was wondering if you could remember the circumstances of taking her home last evening.”
“Why, yes. Missing you say? Let me think. We had dinner here. After, we talked about our wedding and other things for about an hour, when she asked to go home. She seemed to have something on her mind, but would not permit me to help. I believe I left her at her door around 10:00 p.m. What is being done to locate her, Maxwell? I am quite disturbed by this as you can well imagine.”
“It has just come to our attention when she did not come down to breakfast only a short time ago. We were hoping that she may have said something to you of plans she might have had at the last minute. Could I ask if you two had any kind of quarrel?”
“It seems I have been caught out. I was hoping to convince her to move the wedding up, and we may have had a few unpleasant words, but nothing that I could ever feel would cause her to flee. Leaving it, as it had been planned, was the final word, and she seemed relieved that I had given up for an earlier nuptial.” Grant saw Miss Shaw’s eyes start to wander around the room.
“Miss Shaw, she gave you nothing to concern yourself about?”
“No, but we have all been in agreement lately that she has seemed quiet and reserved; not the spirited, independent Margaret we love. I guess it is just pre-marital nerves. Those are always common, never really any worry in them.”
“If that were the case, my conversation last night could have brought more pressure to bear than I had thought it would. I hope she’s not gone somewhere to think about changing her mind. It would not have seemed so last night. My cook made a special meal for her. She seemed to enjoy that. Maxwell, keep me informed. Let me know immediately of any new developments.”
“I will, Grant. Sorry for interrupting so early in the morning. I hope you are fit in a day or two. We will see ourselves out. You shall be kept informed. Good day.”
“Good day to you both and I certainly hope it is a good day. I will worry now.”
Edith and Maxwell turned to leave the room. Out of the corner of her eye, Edith noticed Margaret’s reticule. She almost stopped to say something, however, refrained, wanting to tell Maxwell first.
As soon as they were out of the house, Grant hobbled over and collected Margaret’s small bag and threw it in his desk drawer.
As the carriage pulled away, Edith told Maxwell what she had seen.
“Are you sure? Are you positive it was Margaret’s?”
“I’ve borrowed it enough times to be sure. Maxwell, she would never leave without that. Wherever she is right now, she doesn’t have it with her. Do you think he acted overly friendly?”
“Yes, I do. Margaret’s bag was left on his couch. He was sitting with a blanket over part of his lap. Hmm …”
“Maxwell, what are you thinking?”
“I know I would have been out of that chair if someone had brought the same news to me about you. His less than enthusiastic concern bothers me. I don’t like what I am thinking, and I’d rather not say at the moment.”
“But you can’t hide things now. Could he have harmed her? He could not have her hidden away, could he?”
“No. If he had her, you would not see signs at the house that she left. My guess is he was too forward with her, and she ran if you must know.”
“In what way? He’s an officer.” Edith thought about Maxwell noting the small lap blanket. She couldn’t believe such a thing could have happened. “Even if he was that vulgar, why would Margaret run away?” Edith asked, letting Maxwell know she knew what he was thinking. She would have come home, even if she walked.
“I find it hard to believe what we are supposing, but still, Margaret is missing, whether voluntary or not, I don’t know.”
“Maybe we should contact Mr. Bell. They are close friends. She could be hiding over there until she can sort things through in her mind.”
John called Branson and Nicholas to the house that evening and gave them a brief summary of what Bell had told him and hoped to enlist their help. John was assured of Branson, as he was always first in line for dangerous or clandestine actions. John was thankful that there had been few in his life, but Branson was his second in command in situations just as this. Nicholas was always there for him but John knew he had a wife and children, and John would never think any less if he ever declined. If he was in that position, he would think twice, himself. To John’s reckoning, there didn’t seem to be any physical danger in this unless Bell spoke of other things tomorrow. Both men agreed immediately, but John asked Nicholas to talk it over with his wife, as this could take two weeks or more away from home.
John was starting to come alive again as he felt his emotions resurrecting from the dead. He would sacrifice all he had to stop this marriage, bringing everything to bear that he could. He began to form a last plan of attack if all else failed. He would hope to convince Margaret to marry him ahead of her planned marriage, therefore creating an impediment. He would offer an annulment to her when he felt she and her brother were safe. If he couldn’t save both, at least, he would save her. He prayed that she still held him in some regard after all her time spent in London and could see the merit in his offer, at least for safety measures. He would tell her that he did not expect their vows to be consummated. John didn’t feel the others should know. As much as he would want that for himself, being selfish of her love, that still didn’t settle his worry for her brother. He gave little thought to what it could do to his Magistrate position. That was worth nothing to him where she was concerned.
Captain Grant Hartford had come to the acquaintance of Maxwell Lenox quite by accident, or so it was thought. As their friendship began to grow, Maxwell had begun to think of Grant as a possible suitor of Miss Hale. He knew Edith was concerned that they would go out for the evening, always leaving Margaret home. Maxwell had no knowledge that he had been used as a pawn in this game of blackmail that Grant was bringing to bear. Grant felt confident that Margaret would never stop at anything to save her brother’s life, so he had free reign over her. How he had marveled at the hints, from a friend of his, who worked in the law office where Bell had recently divested his holdings. Grant paid dearly for the information of the net worth that Miss Hale would bring to him. Between his pay as a Captain and her money, life would be good. Mr. Brimstock from the law office would be handsomely paid when everything came to fruition. Grant had also enlisted young Lieutenant Gathers should other work be needed which he could not do himself: delivering notes, picking up packages and the like. Lt. Gathers was not privy to the dark side of the work being done but wanted to impress his Captain if he were needed.
Margaret had completed her exhausting day which began the long process of fitting a bolt of cloth to the curves of her body. The day seemed endless due to the fact that she did not want this wedding, the dress, or the man paying for it. While standing on the small platform for the seamstresses, she wondered how she ever came to meet with Grant at the beginning, but it was eventually all too clear it was with the urging of her cousin and her fiancé at a group setting. She liked Maxwell and never doubted that Edith was a happy bride-to-be. Margaret couldn’t conceive that Maxwell would have had any knowledge of what Grant was doing. She was sure Maxwell had been told of the family history with Frederick, which no one seemed ashamed of and Margaret didn’t even think he would turn him in if found.
There was no pretense anymore between her and Grant. He would heap upon her affection and the most admirable politeness and compliments, but when they were alone, he became a different man.
Margaret readied herself for another evening out with Grant. There would be little conversation unless there were people about that knew Grant. Margaret made every attempt not to be alone with him, but tonight she would take advantage of the coach ride to inquire about her brother. She was not completely set in her mind that he was telling the truth. Where was Adam Bell when she needed him most? He could write to Frederick and warn him of the impending dangers. Since he now knew of her situation, she was sure he would help all he could. Margaret wondered if his absence could have something to do with Fred. Mr. Bell had taken the news quite badly when she finally broke down and told him of her plight. He did what he could to assuage her but never spoke of any action he could take. Surely, he would write to him, even if the marriage had to go on.
Captain Grant Hartford was at the door when the knock came. Edith and Maxwell had already begun their evening of dinner and the theater. Margaret was fortunate to only have a dinner planned, as far as she knew. Wherever their dinner engagement was this evening, it was not at one of the nearby restaurants.
“What are you surprising me with this evening, Grant?”
“A place you have never been Margaret. We are going to dine at my home. The cook has worked all day to prepare you a fine meal.”
To Margaret’s recollection, Grant did not have a home but stayed with his men in a barracks, although, he had private quarters.
“I am very surprised at that. I thought you stayed on post,” she said, beginning to feel very uneasy.
“I’ve always had a home, Margaret. I rarely stay there. A small staff tends to the manor during the day, and I try to alert them when I will be spending time there. They hire more staff for my holiday. I sent a note as soon as you accepted my invitation.” Grant cheerfully acknowledged.
Margaret grew more uneasy. He was too overtly cheerful for her comfort.
“Margaret, you appear quiet this evening. Is anything wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong, Grant. I was hoping to discuss my brother this evening that was all. It seems we will have the time alone to permit that. There are staff in the house, are there not? It would be quite improper without them, you know. Even though you have me bound to you, I do expect the proprieties and conduct of a gentleman.”
“Margaret, you do worry too much. In a few weeks time, we will be man and wife. I will be glad to relieve you of that feminine burden you have carried all of your life.”
“Grant, I wish not to hear such vulgar talk.”
“Margaret, you should know by now, that I don’t care what you think,” he said with a smile.
She felt like jumping from the carriage. Margaret knew she would be defenseless against him. Certainly, the driver would be on the premises to take her home if the other staff left for the night. Would he hear her if she screamed? Would he come to her aid if he did? Margaret thought about slipping a knife from the table in her reticule.
The evening began in his parlor with his subtle hints to ply her with wine. Margaret drank slow and would only drank water at the dinner table.
“Margaret, what is it that you have on your mind that we have not covered repeatedly? Surely, you know the fate of your brother’s life is squarely in your hands. You control his destiny.”
“Grant, is it merely the money that I am to inherit driving you to this act of insanity? You can have it all but without me. What would your senior officer say should he hear a hint of this? You could find yourself in a great deal of trouble. I could tell them that this business about you knowing my brother’s whereabouts is a trick to blackmail me when even I do not know where he is.”
Margaret never saw the blow coming. She felt the air in her lungs gush out as she tumbled to the floor from the sofa. She lost her focus as the room swirled, causing her to bend forward and fall. Quickly she thought this was the end of her life. She was unable to inhale as it was too painful. She hoped she would not survive the attack, this time. Her body could not take these hits anymore, and her mind seemed to want to bring it on, causing a final assault by Grant. In the blink of an eye, she thought of Frederick and then John. Every time he attacked her, John came firmly into her delirium. In the distance, she could hear a voice, speaking to her.
“Margaret, you will be all right.”
She felt him dab the blood which she had coughed up. He had to have broken a rib this time. Grant pulled her back to a sitting position and began his soothing talk about her silliness, once again.
“Margaret, I have been trained in interrogation tactics. I could do this to you all night, and you wouldn’t die. I will not even break a bone. When are you going to learn?”
Margaret had little air to speak. All she could do was try to fill her lungs. Gasp after gasp came upon her. She thought of shouting out. Perhaps, the cook would know what her master was doing. She tried but failed.
“I would not shout if I were you, Margaret, my love. You haven’t begun to see my wrath, my dear. There, there. See you are feeling much better, are you not?”
“I need a doctor,” Margaret whispered.
“You just think you do, dear. I believe our meal is being laid on the table. Come.”
Grant helped her to stand, but Margaret was definitely leaning to her left. The pain was intense on that side. She acknowledged to herself that if she married this man, she would be dead within a month. She had to write Bell and get him to change his will so that Grant would not inherit at her death. She had to endure this until Bell could write to Frederick and have him move on and watch for followers.
Margaret was seated at the table but couldn’t eat. Grant enjoyed his meal and did not bother her much about her not eating. He liked hearing himself talk.
“Margaret, I hope this is the last time that you force me to do this. I do not particularly like beating a woman, especially one who is as beautiful as you and will soon be my wife. You should taste this food. The cook will be disappointed if you do not.”
Margaret decided it was best to try a bit so that her eating utensils were scattered and he would not miss the knife amongst the other dirty pieces.
“Grant, I am sorry. I wish you would just kill me and get it over with. You are driving me to the point where I am ready to do it myself. I will just have to call your bluff; that is all that you are leaving me.”
Margaret saw the swift backhand coming to her face, and she could not get out of its way. She was able to remain in her seat, but he had made a big mistake hitting her where it was visible. What would be his next move? He would probably throw her from the coach on the way home regretting the unforeseen door closure that the driver had not fastened properly. The longer she sat there, the more she plotted. She would just have to disappear when she arrived home tonight.
They finally adjourned their dinner back to the parlor. Grant handed her a brandy. Margaret took it, feeling she had to gird herself for what might follow. The far away dim noises of plates and pans being washed had died away. She wondered if they were alone.
“Grant, I feel it is time for me to be home if you don’t mind.”
“Oh, but I do, my love. The evening is young, and you need your fiancé to love before this night comes to an end. I need my sweet woman to pleasure me.”
“Grant, you told me that you would not take me until we were married. You did swear that if you have any decency at all.”
“I really don’t have any decency whatsoever, Margaret. But I did not lie to you. You do not have to lose your virtue in order to please me,” Grant said, moving towards her.
Margaret almost vomited on the spot. The thought of him touching her was too ghastly to think about.
“So now, you are resorting to rape and torture? What kind of a man are you?”
“Margaret, my dear, I am not going to rape you. What kind of officer and gentleman would I be?”
That statement gave Margaret no solace. She knew there were other hideous acts that could be done to an unwilling woman. She felt for the knife in her sleeve as he moved closer to her on the sofa.
“Don’t look so afraid, my pet. It won’t take long. I just want you to touch me, that is all. There is no pain for you, but there will be pleasure for me. You have been my bride-to-be for several months now, and I have not asked for anything from you except a kiss now and then. A man cannot live on kisses alone, and I have been faithful to you. You shall know this soon enough.”
“You mean you want me to touch you? Touch you there?” Margaret wished she could faint. A refusal would mean another blow possibly knocking her out entirely. She would be totally at his mercy if that happened.”
As she saw Grant begin to unbutton his trousers, he said to her, “Margaret, you can give me the knife before we start. I know it’s in your sleeve, and you might be tempted to injure me. When this is over, I will take you home. You can think about that while you pleasure me. This ordeal will finally come to an end for you.”
Margaret handed over the knife in defeat. She turned her head as Grant continued his partial disrobing until she felt him grab the back of her neck.
“Just close your eyes, dear, and touch me with your mouth,” he said, pulling her face to his groin.”
Margaret struggled vehemently, but he was too strong. He rubbed his manhood across her face as she pushed against the sofa to be away from him. She waited for the punch but instead he pinched her mouth open and proceeded to place himself in her mouth. She started to wretch and choke, and all she heard was his laughter. He tried to grab her hand, encouraging her to stroke him but he finally gave that up and stroked himself. Margaret was beating his thighs with her fists, but that only seemed to inflame his excitement. She only had once choice left, and as his moans of lust increased, she took both her hands, ripped his trousers, and bit down on his manhood as hard as she could. Margaret jumped to her feet, forgetting her injury and flew to her escape while his pain lasted. She ran out into the dark and started looking for lighted streets. She ran as far and as fast as she was able. Eventually, she would see his coach patrolling the streets as she hid in the darkness of the night. If she could only get a few more streets over, she would find a cabby to . . . what . . . she wondered. What could she do now? Going home was not an answer, but she would get close to home. With any luck, Aunt Shaw would be abed, and Edith would not be home yet. She could sneak in the cellar coal door and up into the house. She knew where her aunt kept spare money, and she would take that and a small satchel of a few needed accessories. The train. She would head for the train.
Margaret checked the streets carefully before she stepped out to hail a cabby. One stopped for her quickly and saw the distress she was in.
“Miss, How can I help you? You look a fright.”
Margaret asked if he would drop her off one street over from her home, ride around the block once or twice and come back to pick her up. He seemed very amiable to come to her rescue and understood she could not pay him until she came back.
Margaret slipped in and out of the Shaw residence with little problem. She made her way back to the street behind their home, and her cabby was just coming down the cobblestoned road. She thought she saw the Captain’s coach turning the corner and spoke to the driver.
“Sir here is your money. I may have to leave in a hurry. There is a coach behind you, and it may be the man that has tried to force his attentions on me tonight. I ran away. I want to go to the train station eventually but not if we are being followed. Could you get away from that coach if you had to?”
“Yes, Miss. In the city, that is no problem. Out where his two horses could have their head, I could not. I can turn corners faster, and I know all the back streets. I can pull into dark areas while they pass. Do not worry, Miss. They will never suspect you in this carriage, and if they try to gain on me, I will lose them. Rest yourself. Do you have a time for the train station?”
“No, I don’t even know where I will go, but I have to get away. I fear he is dangerous. You should know that he is a military man and quite proficient at tactics.”
“He does not have the skill of a London cabby, Miss. Do not worry.”
Margaret held her breath as the cabby took his time, as he normally would. It was either a false alarm or they had given up on this cabby, but eventually, there was no one behind them.
To insure it, the driver made some instinctive moves that Margaret thought were very intelligent, in case they were being watched. He stopped the coach once, in front of a house of a friend, and went to the door and knocked as if he were picking up a passenger. Margaret finally felt safe, but her next concern was would Grant have men at the station. What story could he have told his troops as to why they were to collect her if they found her?
Thanking the driver profusely, they arrived at the station, and he pulled into the darker recesses of the trees to let her out. Margaret handed him an extra tip, but he refused.
“No tip, Miss. I was glad to help. Would you like me to wait until your train departs?”
“I think I’ll be well if I stay away from the gas lights. Thank you so very much. You may have saved my life tonight. What is your name, sir?”
“My name is Bennington, but I am just called Ben.”
“Thank you, Ben. I hope to see you again.”
“I wish you the best, Miss. Goodnight.”
Ben reined his single horse cab away from the station when he saw her take cover under the trees.
Margaret slowly worked her way around to the platform side of the station and looked for red coats. There did not seem to be any. It would not be unlike Grant to have friends who did not wear red coats.
She slipped up to the platform ticket door.
“Where to, Miss?”
“Milton,” she said before realizing it.