John had finished dressing in his eveningwear and walked into the dining room to begin to set his bar. Branson came to assist him since he would be serving. It was about 7:00 p.m. when he asked his mother if she needed any help. He was prepared and ready.
“John if you would look at the table and see if you know of anything missing.”
Thirteen places he counted. Was it an omen with Lenore being the last one added.
He felt a little guilty for not offering to pick her up, but she wasn’t his lady friend, yet he had invited her. With dinner being at 8:00 p.m., people could begin arriving at any time. The crystal, silver, and china were set, flowers and candleholders in the center. He really didn’t know what to call everything on the table, but he figured if it was there, it wasn’t missing. He just knew that where there was one, there should be twelve more. The large silver serving spoons were there, but he didn’t know how many of those were needed. It would have been a crushing blow to his mother if something wasn’t set right, which gave him a sense that the table was ready for the queen.
He caught sight of the place cards and began to walk around the table to ensure there were thirteen. He started at his mother’s end, counted around to himself, where Lenore was next to him. He was anxious to see who would sit next to her. He was stunned to see Miss Margaret Hale seated next to Lenore and then there was Adam Bell. So that’s who his guest was.
His mother came into the dining room. “Mother, you didn’t tell me Miss Hale would be here.”
“I heard you tell Adam to surprise you, so I have kept quiet about it.”
“I feel terrible. I didn’t offer to let her go home early to prepare as Nicholas and I did. God, I feel awkward. I saw her injure her neck on the way home, so I doubt she will be here.”
“I don’t know, John. That woman has a smart and independent spirit. How many young ladies have you met that became educated to support themselves, rather than be a ‘Lady of the Manor’?”
“I am sure I don’t know any,” He emphasized.
“She will need to find a man that will challenge her. An easy living does not seem to be her future, by choice.”
“I think we have had this conversation.”
“We had a nice talk about how she turned away from the social life that she could have had because she did not care for those people.”
“Is that so?” John asked softly as he stared off into the unknown thinking about his mother’s comments. The remarks felt appealing to him. Someone who preferred to be an uncommon commoner, he thought. He felt some anxiety in his chest.
Hearing his soft voice, Hannah took notice of her son. He was reacting to something. Hannah wondered if he was seeing Miss Hale differently. “John, what is it? Are you thinking of Miss Hale?”
“In a way.”
“What way would that be?”
“Time will tell.”
Hannah went about her business, smiling at her son and his thoughts. She liked Miss Hale, but her son had overlooked her, and he rarely overlooked anyone.
John slowly walked into the parlor and sat down. His mother saw he was distant, intent on some problem, it seemed.
“How did Miss Hale get injured, John?”
“I saw her brother hand her the reins. Suddenly the horse bolted, almost rearing, but didn’t move away. It could be Miss Hale doesn’t understand reinning yet. I tend to think the workers may have spooked the horse since he’s not used to a crowd. I saw her snap back into the buggy and then she fell forward, bending her upper body down on her lap. I went to them to see if I could help. She said her neck was uncomfortable, but that she was fine. I followed them home on my horse and saw her brother carry her into the house. I sent Donaldson over there.”
“Oh, that’s terrible. I’ve known that to happen to one of my friends. If she does happen to arrive, which I hope she won’t try, bring out your desk chair with the high back for her.”
“Yes, I will.”
“There’s the first knock at the door. Who do you suppose will arrive first?”
“My bet would be Fanny and Watson.”
“You may be right.”
It was getting late, but Margaret had on a collar which she would remove in the coach, and Dixon was gently working on her hair. She could not bend over to put on her shoes. In fact, her walk was very slow. She knew she could not get away from looking well because John had seen her in distress and even sent for a doctor.
Downstairs, Adam was worried about her. He went out to talk with his driver about a route that would be as smooth as possible. Adam would cradle her in his arms to support her neck during the drive. He asked Fred to get her a bed pillow, too.
Nicholas arrived first, and John was quick to ask Peggy how she was feeling. He mentioned he was sorry she had to miss the ball.
“Thank you, John. I’m still a bit weak, but a dinner here should not wear me out much. I doubt we will stay long.”
“I am glad to have you here for any time you can give us.”
It was after 8:00 p.m. and the evening was in full swing when Jane answered the door to the final couple, Adam, and Margaret.
Adam slowly assisted Margaret up to the stairs where they were welcomed into the room.
“Miss Hale, I really didn’t expect you, seeing you being injured today. Wait a moment while I get a different chair for you.”
Margaret was doing her best to smile. Adam had her arm through his to give her support. “How are you, Margaret?”
“I’m fine, Adam. Please bring my head home if it falls off.” Margaret began to laugh at her own joke and then frowned with a smile.
John was there with the chair and sat it in the drawing room for now.
“John, we tried to get her to stay home, but she wasn’t having any of it,” Adam explained.
“Here, Miss Hale. Sit here. I must apologize for not telling you to go home early. It wasn’t until a few moments ago that I knew you were going to be a guest.”
“Thank you, Mr. Thornton, please don’t make a fuss over me. I am fine.”
Hannah came over and sat on the edge of the couch and talked with Margaret.
John pulled Adam away and asked him if she was in much pain.
“Yes, she is. It will be worse tomorrow.”
“Did Donaldson make it over?”
“Didn’t he tell her to stay home?”
“He did that too; from what I understand. He’s given her some strong medication to make it through this evening. She would not be dissuaded from attending. Do you think she fears losing her job if she canceled at the last moment?”
“No, I don’t think it’s that, but I will make sure of it in the next day or so.”
Lenore appeared next to John wondering why that woman was drawing his attention away from his other guests. She didn’t feel she had any business asking about her.
John kept glancing at Margaret and watched how stiff she looked. Once in a while, he would catch a wince on her face. This was agony watching her in discomfort. Why? Why did she insist on attending in her painful condition?
“Adam, see if you can discover any information on why she felt she needed to be here. I don’t want her to fear me.”
“I will see if I can find out what you wish to know.”
Finally, a small bell was heard which signaled to come to the table. John went to Margaret and assisted her onto Adams’ arm and then picked up the chair.
“Mr. Thornton, you are going to too much fuss.”
“Let me be the judge of that.”
As Margaret peered around the table, she felt that the woman next to her must be John’s dinner companion. People were talking. John was paying little attention to the woman next to him if she was his guest. Margaret couldn’t turn her head but placed her hand on the lady’s arm, which brought her attention.
“How do you do? I am Margaret Hale. I had a slight injury today and am unable to turn my head. I hope you don’t mind if I converse with you this way.”
“Not at all, Miss Hale. My name is Lenore Smithers. Who is your dinner companion? He’s quite the handsome mature gentleman.”
Margaret tapped on Adams arm, who turned her way. “Adam Bell, I would you like you to meet Lenore Smithers.”
Adam reached over and politely shook her hand. “How do you do, Miss Smithers. Is it Miss or Mrs.?”
“It is Miss. Which one of you knows Mrs. Thornton or John?”
“I have known John for many years,” Adam responded. “Margaret here is a new employee of his. As of yesterday, I believe.”
“Oh, really? I knew John quite well in our formative teen years, about ten years ago. I have returned to see what care is needed for my aging father. My sister has been caring for him while I was abroad.”
“You do go back with John, perhaps longer than I. You wouldn’t have been one of his lady friends from back then?” Adam smiled.
Margaret wondered where Adam got the nerve to ask that.
“Quite so, Mr. Bell. I believe I was his first lady friend. He’s still single after all these years. I guess he’s never recovered from me stealing his virtue. I believe I may go down in the Thornton history book,” Lenore smirked.
Margaret was aghast at what she was stating. She felt Adam squeeze her hand.
Adam quickly pulled his dinner napkin and dabbed a small tear that was ready to roll down her cheek. “Margaret, did you take your medication before you left?”
“Yes, thank you, Adam.”
John turned in time to see Adam catch a tear, but he did not hear what Lenore had said. John felt her pain must be getting unbearable. He knew Adam would do what he had to do so he would not intercede.
Several maids appeared with platters and tureens and began serving each of the guests. Branson was standing by watching all the glasses on the table. John began talking with Lenore so he could watch Margaret at the same time.
It was a beautiful meal, Margaret thought. She wondered if Lenore would be in the battle of the finishing schools with Anne Latimer. Margaret was not going to participate. There was no more jealousy of Anne showing off, not when John had invited the first love of his life. Margaret watched on as both women ogled John through dinner. It seemed the fight for him would be relentless. She knew she didn’t have the weapons to compete. Slowly she closed her eyes for a moment and . . . gave him up.
Margaret didn’t eat much and only partook of the final tea and passed on the dessert. She tried to look at other people around the table and not watch the other two women battle over the last man on earth. Anne had become alerted to the fact that Lenore must be John’s guest although most couples were not seated next to each other. Mrs. Thornton seemed to be aware of what was transpiring at her table because she casually watched over them and John’s reaction. Margaret began to think he was oblivious, further proof of his ability to disregard such advances. John was a magnificent host, she thought. No wonder he had found his way to the top of this trade quickly.
Margaret had since stopped listening to the conversation. She was glad that Adam was part of the discussion. Lenore must have been listening because she leaned over to Margaret and said, “You know John’s a Magistrate.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that,” Margaret said. She gently turned her head toward John as he was making a point to Adam. He made contact with her eyes. Once again she stared back, trapped, and then she closed her eyes and turned her head away for the last time. It hurt too much. She hoped she could go home soon. Never having been to such a private formal dinner, she did not know what was expected after the meal finished.
“Adam, when is it proper to leave such a function?”
“If you feel bad, we can leave immediately. Otherwise, the earliest would be when people start rising from the table. Can I take you home now?”
“Yes, I feel like I need to lay down.”
Adam stood to speak. “Mrs. Thornton this has been another success in your annual dinners. Miss Hale and I are grateful to have been here. However, it seems that we must leave early this time. I bid all of you enjoy this excellent evening. Please forgive us.”
Hannah and John stood to see them out, as the others wandered into the sitting room.
Adam assisted her into the hall where John was getting her wrap.
“Miss Hale, I am honored you made an attempt this evening, thank you,” responded Hannah.
“Mrs. Thornton is was truly a delightful experience for me. I wish I felt better so I could visit longer.” Turning to John, Margaret said, “I am sorry, John. The doctor is permitting me no work until Monday.”
“Margaret, take all the time you need. Do not rush your recovery. I will be by to see you tomorrow if you don’t mind.”
“Please don’t bother yourself, Mr. Thornton. I know you are busy.”
“I will see you tomorrow. Good evening.” John went ahead of them down the steps to the door. He helped settle Margaret into Adam’s waiting arm with the pillow in it.”
“Goodnight, John and thank you,” Adam bid.
John stood there and watched the coach roll away until it was out of site.
Upstairs, Branson was pouring brandy for the remainder, but it looked as if the Higgins’ were leaving as well. John thanked them in the hall and wished Peggy Higgins a continued good recovery.
Watson and Slickson were already in a corner discussing something, leaving their ladies to fend on their own. Latimer kept Anne company, but it seemed as if Lenore wanted to become friends with his mother. John sought out Lenore to draw her attention away.
“How has your evening been going, Lenore?”
“Very nice. The food was very good.”
“Did you get to talk with anyone?”
“Miss Hale introduced herself, and I asked to be introduced to Mr. Bell. It seems you two have been friends for a long time. I told him how far back you and I went. I think I won.”
“You spoke about us back then, did you?”
“Yes. That was a long time ago, John. Who cares what happened back that far. Since he was a long time friend, I told him I thought I was your first ladyfriend. He said I had him beat.”
“Was there anything else?” John was worried now.
“I told him I took your virtue,” Lenore laughed.
“Could I see you in my den for a moment?”
“Do you want your way with me?” She coyly asked. “John, I’ve changed. I’m not like that anymore. I’m not easy.”
John finally grasped her by the upper arm and led her from the crowd. Once inside, he pushed her into a seat.
“Hey, don’t be so rough.”
“Do you have means, Lenore?”
“Why is that your business, John?”
“Well, I am thinking I might sue you for slander. I was wondering how well I might make out. Aside from your embarrassment, which is of great value to me, maybe there is coin to be gained.”
“You can’t sue me!”
“Why can’t I? Can you prove your claim? Even bringing suit against you and losing still holds you up to public ridicule.”
“You wouldn’t do that?”
“I wouldn’t? I will suffer nothing from it. Do you know that whether your claim is true or not, you embarrassed me to a very dear friend? I have to make amends to her somehow.”
“Is that the one who was crying?”
“Which one was that?”
“The one sitting next to me.”
“She was in pain from her injury.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then you admit you spoke to her with words slanderous to me that you cannot prove.”
“What do you want me to do, John? Apologize? Should I tell her we never spent some beautiful weeks laying naked beside each other? Is that what you want?”
“I want you out of my life. I want you to desist in spreading rumors, you think to be true, to my friends. That is not nearly as hard for me to live down as it would be to you, at least in Milton.”
“So, why aren’t you married. You have to have missed me? Missed our old times. I ruined you for anyone else, it seems.”
“My marriage status is none of your concern, but if you must know something – do know it has nothing to do with you. Do you have a coach?”
“Then go in there and thank my mother, and I will have Branson drive you home.”
“Are you sure you don’t want a refresher course in young love?”
John came around his desk in a flash. Lenore scurried for the door. John hadn’t gotten his anger under control when she rushed out of the room.
John opened the door. “Branson!”
“Take Miss Smithers home.”
“Are you alright, boss?”
“No, I am not. Go on!”
John had never felt such anger in his life. He stormed about his room, trying to calm down until he could leave with some dignity. Of course, he called her bluff, although he could have gone through with his suit if she repeated it. It wasn’t his virtue or the loss of it that made him angry. It was speaking such words to Miss Hale. He would see her tomorrow and explain. He pulled himself together and left the room with a smile on his face.
All eyes were on him as he exited. He began a new conversation with the closest person, and the room returned to normal, except for the look on his mother’s face.
Fred was just escorting Bessie to his coach when Adam and Margaret arrived. He waited and helped Adam assist her to her room. Dixon followed.
“I want to talk with you, Fred when you have time,” Adam said sternly.
“I’ll be a few minutes carrying Bessie home. Will you wait?”
“Yes. Take your time.”
“I believe I will.”
Richard Hale had gone to bed, Fred was out, so Adam helped himself to scotch. He sat on the couch collecting his thoughts.
At Margaret’s young age, Adam believed her to be in love with John Thornton. It was unreciprocated. Even though there was nothing between them more than a working relationship, Adam could see that Lenore’s words devastated her. Being a man, he understood that what Lenore said about John probably happened to most young men. There was no fault with John. It would be hard for Margaret to see it that way or any young woman in love. Adam only understood it as Margaret’s hopes had been high and then found them suddenly dashed upon the rocks. With her physical pain now compounded by her emotional pain, she had rough days ahead. Adam knew he could talk with Fred and leave Richard out of the worry.