Margaret was content to listen to the lilting music of the quadrille band as she watched the company of elegantly dressed men and ladies dance several polkas and a Schottische. Her mother-in-law joined her before long, taking the seat next to her.
“The ball is well attended,” the Mrs. Thornton commented. “I am certain Fanny will be pleased,” she added.
“Yes, it seems to be a great success,” Margaret responded. “Everything is beautiful and the people are very kind,” she remarked magnanimously.
Mrs. Thornton nodded her agreement, pleased that her son’s wife appreciated the city’s grand affair.
The music faded and the dancers dispersed before the next set was called.
Mr. Thornton approached his wife and mother with a broad smile.
“Are you free for a time, Mr. Thornton?” his wife inquired, teasing him for being so often on the dance floor.
“I am. However, I came to seek another dance partner,” he answered with a mischievous gleam in his eye. “May I have the honor of the next dance, Mrs. Thornton?” he asked his mother.
Mrs. Thornton startled, her eyes darting to her son’s face and then quickly falling to her lap. “Don’t be ridiculous, John. I’m sure there are many young ladies who may need a partner,” she reasoned in her discomfort to be called to dance.
“There may be; however the two ladies whom I most prefer and admire are before me. Am I to be denied the privilege of dancing with either?” he asked earnestly.
Mrs. Thornton took a deep breath. “Very well, if you insist,” she relented as the corners of her mouth edged upward and she stood to take his proffered arm.
Margaret’s face glowed with admiration for the man she had married as she watched him lead his mother around the ballroom in an elegantly spirited polka. Her heart warmed in delight to witness mother and son enjoying themselves, a beaming smile enlivening her mother-in-law’s usually staid countenance.
When the dance finished, her husband and his mother were swallowed up in the surrounding company, and Mrs. Thornton was persuaded to join in the quadrille that soon formed. Margaret’s lips twisted in slight irritation to see her husband paired once more with Miss Latimer, whose smiles seemed a hint too charming. Mr. Thornton cast a warm glance at his wife before the music began, and Margaret returned it with a knowing smile. She would not give Miss Latimer a second thought.
“There you are!” Mr. Bell declared as he walked over to where Margaret was sitting. “I have come to say good night. I feel my endurance for social pleasantries coming to a rapid end,” he explained with a wry smile.
“We will see you tomorrow, then, at dinner,” she reminded him as she stood to walk with him.
“Yes, of course. I look forward to it,” he responded. “I am pleased to see you looking so content. Yours must be a happy home,” he added with fond attention for her well-being.
“Yes it is. I…we are very happy,” she confirmed, as a sense of deep gratitude welled up inside her, misting her eyes.
“Good. I am glad I have lived to see you so well settled. Your father would be very pleased indeed,” he affirmed with conviction.
The tears that had begun to form fell unbidden from her eyes at his words.
“Oh, dear! I see I have caused you to spring a leak,” Mr. Bell joked in his consternation to have made her cry.
A quick puff of air escaped her lips as she laughed in spite of herself, embarrassed to have become so emotional.
“Come, come. Let us find some fresh air,” he insisted as he handed her his handkerchief and began to lead her away from the ballroom.
Mr. Thornton caught sight of his wife’s hurried departure and was at once unsettled to note that she was dabbing her eyes in some distress.
Mr. Bell escorted his goddaughter to a darkened room away from the grand hall and stood awkwardly by her, uncertain how to aid her recovery. Margaret took several deep breaths and assured him that she was fine.
It was not long before Mr. Thornton appeared in the doorway and briskly made his way toward them.
“Ah, Thornton!” Mr. Bell called out in relief. “I’m afraid I’m not any good with women’s tears. I will say good-bye to you both and leave you to tend to your bride,” he said, rapidly extricating himself from the situation.
Mr. Thornton politely nodded his acknowledgement before turning his entire attention to his wife. “Margaret, was is it?” he asked gently, his brow creased in concern.
“It is silly, really,” she said apologetically, smiling as she blinked away all remnants of her tears.
He waited patiently for her to explain, his countenance still bearing a serious expression.
“Mr. Bell reminded me of how happy I am,” she offered, looking to him to see confusion still cloud his face. “And then he mentioned father….” she added, unable to continue.
Mr. Thornton let out his breath as his face softened in understanding. “You loved your father dearly,” he said softly.
She nodded her head and moved closer to be gathered into his comforting arms, sobbing again as she remembered poignantly how her father had admired her husband.
“Although we know not how, perhaps your father knows of us and is happy,” he whispered near her ear, gently gliding his gloved hand along her back as his chin nestled in her hair.
She nodded and stepped back to compose herself.
Mr. Thornton moved his thumb across her cheek, tenderly wiping away a glistening tear. The distant strains of a gentle waltz filled the silence. “Come, dance with me,” he invited soothingly, placing his hand at the small of her back and holding his hand up for her acceptance.
Her somber features brightened a little as she lifted her eyes to his. She hesitated a moment, looking toward the door to ensure they were alone.
“Just for moment,” he gently coaxed her and smiled as she slowly placed one hand on his shoulder and the other in his waiting hand.
They moved in seamless harmony around the shadowed room, the rhythm of the music flowing through them to make limbs and feet the scribe of a force beyond themselves – expressing something astonishingly beautiful with an inherent ease. Captivated by the joyous exhilaration of their synchronized motions, the world around them was a blur – nothing else existed. They beheld in each other’s eyes for a moment the sublime reason for being alive – a love that set everything in motion and transformed their earthly existence into a symphony of joy.
Reluctantly, they came to a stop as the final chord dissolved into silence.
They remained transfixed for a moment longer, staring into each other’s eyes, unwilling to relinquish their close contact until Margaret bowed her head and took a step back upon hearing voices in the hall. “We should return to the ball,” she suggested quietly.
As they neared the brilliant lights of the grand hall, a man of distinction who seemed to be followed by a small gathering, greeted Mr. Thornton. “Mr. Thornton, how is business faring this year?” the gentleman asked with confident ease.
“It seems it will take longer to recover from the strike than I had hoped,” Mr. Thornton answered somewhat elusively. “Allow me to introduce my wife, who has only recently moved to Milton from Hampshire,” he cordially offered with a telling smile as Margaret nodded her greeting. “Margaret, this is Mr. Edward Wilkinson, our local member of Parliament,” Mr. Thornton informed her.
“I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Thornton. And how do you find Milton?” Mr. Wilkinson asked curiously.
“I have found the pace of life here quite invigorating and am hopeful that such an industrious spirit can forward much progress. There is opportunity for improvement almost everywhere one looks,” she answered forthrightly, at once capturing the attention of all those hovering near the politician.
Mr. Thornton observed in bemused admiration as Margaret continued to discuss with Mr. Wilkinson what might be done to improve the plight of the poor working class.
From a more distant location, Albert Slickson noticed with some surprise the animated conversation that seemed to be taking place between the enchanting Mrs. Thornton and Milton’s Member of Parliament. His eyes lingered upon the scene until he was called back into the discussion in which he was supposedly engaged.
As the evening grew closer to an end, Margaret once again sat with her mother-in-law to watch the dancers take advantage of the final set of dances. As she observed another young lady smile with barely veiled adoration in her husband’s arms, she considered the truth of what Hannah had bragged of long ago – that John was sought out by all the girls of Milton. Margaret had seen the glances her husband received as he made the rounds of the hall, and she had felt herself the subject of uncomfortable study by various women all evening.
She was not in any way disturbed, however. She felt secure in his affections, and could only rejoice in wonder that she had been the one to win him.
Mr. Thornton hastily pulled off his gloves and lit the lamp just inside the door, ushering both his wife and his mother through the darkened house and upstairs to their rooms. He escorted his mother to her bedchamber and returned to open the door of his room for his wife to enter, only too glad that Dixon had been dismissed for the night.
“I believe that went well,” Margaret stated, taking a deep breath of relief that the evening was over.
“Yes,” Mr. Thornton answered as he set the lamp on the dressing table and moved to his wife’s side. He had watched her from afar all night. Arrayed prettily among the others, she had stood out to him as a paragon of beauty and grace. No one could compare with her.
“Fanny should be pleased, it was a grand event,” she added as her husband tugged at her long gloves, helping her slip them off.
“Um-hmm” he murmured distractedly as he brushed his hands lightly over her neck and into her hair, removing the pins and watching the tresses tumble free. He remembered how enthralled he had been by her beauty when she had first appeared to him in a similar gown – at his mother’s dinner party the summer before. How eminently touchable she had appeared and how unattainable she had been! His body ached to claim her now.
“I believe you know the entire city,” she chattered, as he continued to remove every pin from her hair. “I hope I passed muster as your wife,” she continued on, her pulse quickening at his quiet determination.
“You more than passed muster,” he replied in a low voice as he lightly brushed his lips over her temple as the last tendril of auburn hair fell to her shoulders. Indeed, he had seen the eyes of many men linger upon his wife. It had been an exquisite pleasure to introduce her as his, affirming aloud to every acquaintance throughout the evening that she belonged to him.
He gently turned her around and swept aside her long tresses to unfasten her dress. Letting his hands travel the length of her arms, he coaxed the dress off of her, causing Margaret to shiver from the rapturous feel of his touch. He bent to kiss her neck as his fingers moved dexterously to loosen her corset.
Margaret closed her eyes in anticipation of his continued seduction, and gasped as his hands slid slowly over her shoulders and trailed downward to capture the fullness of her soft flesh, cupping and exploring the contours of her feminine form as she sighed in pleasure.
“There are too many layers of a woman’s attire,” he whispered huskily in her ear, eager to have the whole of her revealed to him.
Unable to speak, she nodded in agreement and reached her hands behind her to aid in undressing herself.
He helped her out of her dress and burdensome crinoline before beginning to remove his own clothing, piece by piece.
They met at last in the bed as he drew her to him, kissing her with deep and longing kisses, marveling that it should be he and he alone that she would allow into the secret chambers of her heart and body.
The lamplight cast shadows over the darkened room and the sheets rustled as they commenced their lovers’ dance.
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