A Heart for Milton – Chapter 1 pt 2
Mr. Thornton saw the carriage outside and knew he had arrived in time to see her, if only to say good-bye. He hurried into the house, brushing the snow off his arms and shoulders, before removing his hat and gloves. As he silently came into the room, he overheard the sweet, low tones of Margaret’s voice. She was speaking to his mother, who warily glanced in his direction. Alerted to his presence behind her, Margaret turned to face him.
How beautiful she was, even in her distress, he thought. He noticed immediately how tired she looked, how pale and weakened. His heart contracted in silent longing. He wanted to reach out and hold her close against him to comfort her.
His eyes followed her as she glided towards him, her large sorrowful eyes mesmerizing him, pulling him deeper under her power. He was overcome by the intensity of feeling that swept over him. How he loved her! The thought of losing her forever sent a tremor of terror through him.
“So, you are going,” he heard himself say.
She bowed her head slightly to avoid the intensity of his gaze. “It would seem I’ve no choice,” she whispered.
Mr. Thornton’s eyes narrowed, his mind racing to grasp the meaning of what she had said. She did not want to leave? His breath quickened as a thrill of hope began to take hold of him.
“You would stay?” he asked incredulously.
She lifted her face to meet his steady gaze. “I…have grown fond of Milton,” she faltered, her eyes pleading for him to understand.
“Have you?” he hoarsely whispered, his eyebrows arching slightly in wonderment. His body was frozen in absolute astonishment at what he thought she was trying to say. Had she changed her mind? Did she care for him at last? But how could he know? He could not speak freely to her in this place. Panic gripped him. He must know her heart, before he could let her go.
He watched as she moved her arms to hold out a book to him. “I’ve brought you father’s Plato. I thought you might like it,” she offered warmly.
Touched that she should think to give him something of her father’s, he blinked and a soft smile lifted his serious expression. “I shall treasure it. Along with your father’s memory. He was a good friend to me,” he assured her.
It came to him suddenly what he should do. “If you will excuse me a moment, there is something I should like you to have,” he stated with inscrutable hospitality. Margaret nodded her assent.
Mr. Thornton strode from the room and hastily made his way to his study. He grabbed the quill from the mammoth oak desk and scrawled a quick note, not bothering to sit. Then he scanned the books standing on the corner of his desk and pulled out The Economy of Cotton. He picked up the note, folded it once, and placed it within the pages of the book as he returned to the drawing room.
“Something to remember Milton by,” he explained as he held the book out to her, searching her face with unhidden adoration.
“It is not necessary,” she politely protested.
“Please,” he begged, a sense of urgency escaping from him.
“Thank you.” She took the book, a hint of confusion crossing her face.
“I must get her home as soon as possible,” Aunt Shaw’s voice pierced the room with her abrupt announcement.
“Yes,” Hannah Thornton agreed wryly. “As soon as possible,” she repeated as she cast an exasperated glance at her son.
Mr. Thornton escorted the visitors to their carriage. The mill yard was covered in a blanket of white snow. The stillness was broken only by the sound of the muffled stamping of the horses, eager to be on their way.
Margaret stopped at the carriage door and turned to Mr. Thornton, her head bent demurely. They shook hands without a word. The exquisite pleasure of holding her gloved hand in his sent a surge of tender longing and desperation through him. He stared for a moment at their clasped hands. No one would know how much strength of will it took for him to release her hand and let her go.
Their eyes met briefly and he saw the pain and loneliness in her expression before she turned to go. His heart cried out in protest. He yearned to call out to her, to beg her not to leave him; he wanted to know if she could care for him at last. But he remained silent, clinging desperately to a tenuous, fevered hope that she would come back to him.
He remained motionless, standing in the falling snow, and watched the carriage disappear from view.
Margaret did not look back, although she wondered if he was still there, watching her depart. At the last moment, before she had left him, she had felt a fleeting urge to faint in pretense, so that he she could feel his strong arms around her. How unlike her to even think of such a thing! She must truly be exhausted from the strain of her grief.
She hoped she had relayed to him something of her regard for him. She thought that he had reacted positively to her admissions. He had seemed surprised to hear that she had come to like Milton. She felt certain that he had wanted to say something more to her, but was deterred by the company surrounding them.
She had been aware, too, of something strange about the manner in which he had left the room to retrieve her gift. It was quite unusual for a gentleman to give a young lady such a book. She glanced down at the book in her lap and began to open it to peruse its pages. As she did so, a piece of paper fell out and slid down the folds of her skirt. She quickly caught it in her gloved hand and opened it to discover its contents. It was a note written in a vaguely familiar handwriting:
If you have had a change of heart, give me but a sign.
My heart remains forever yours.
She was stunned to realize that he had written her a note. Her body froze, her hand was utterly still. Then she read it again and the realization of its import began to dawn upon her. He still loved her! He had not given her up after all!
“What is it, Margaret?” Aunt Shaw asked, noticing the curious reaction the note had caused her niece.
Margaret jerked her head up to stare at her aunt. “It…it’s a note in my father’s writing,” she stammered, wanting to dissuade her aunt’s interest. Aunt Shaw nodded in sympathetic comprehension.
Margaret folded the note and stuck it back in the book, the words of it already burned into her heart. She turned to look out the window to avoid her aunt’s attention. Her heart was racing. ‘Give me but a sign,’ he had said. What sign? What could she do? What had he wanted to know? “If you have had a change of heart.” He wanted to know if she cared for him!
She hardly knew what she felt. Overwhelmed by a deluge of emotions, she tried to comprehend what it all meant. And suddenly, as she recalled the glimmer of longing in his eyes at their parting, she knew. She knew it as if it had always been true, but was long hidden, like the sun bursting forth amid a clouded sky. She loved him!
A flood of joy overtook her as she basked in the light of this simple revelation. She loved him! And how amazing that he should still love her!
But how would she let him know? She could not ask to go back. A feeling of desperation and panic began to creep through her veins.
“Nicholas!” she said out loud at the sight of him and his daughter Mary hurrying along the street. “Stop!” she demanded the driver, and leapt from the compartment.
“Margaret!” Nicholas exclaimed in joyous relief at finding her. “We thought you had already gone.”
“I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to my friends,” she comforted, giving both Nicholas and Mary an affectionate hug and kiss.
Before she knew what she was doing, she addressed Nicholas again. “Nicholas, would you do me a favor?” she asked him, her eyes filled with wistful hope.
“Aye, you know I’d do anything for you,” he replied sincerely.
“Would you relay a message to Mr. Thornton for me?” she pleaded. Nicholas noted the serious tone of her voice and contained the smile he felt pulling on his face. “Would you tell him that…” she hesitated, searching for the right words. “Would you tell him that my heart belongs in Milton?” she asked anxiously, her pulse quickening.
Nicholas gave her a reassuring smile. “Aye, I’ll tell Thornton,” he promised.
Margaret returned his smile and gave him one last hug before returning to the coach.
“What have I done?” she asked herself as she was hurried away to the train station.
Paperback novel and e-book available at Amazon.com