“How are you feeling this afternoon, Margaret?”
“Much better, father. My neck is stiff to turn it, but most of the pain is gone. I don’t believe I will need any medication anymore. Adam isn’t visiting today, is he? I can’t take another day like yesterday.”
“Quite honestly, I can’t either. I’ve really let you down, Margaret. I am sorry for that. I just didn’t know how to broach the subject, and I should have. I guess I assumed your mother had covered that with you.”
“Father, don’t be sorry. Mother covered what she should have, and that was about me and my pubescent body, but she said nothing about men. Perhaps, she didn’t know much herself. And with you, as a devoted, loving husband gave her no reason for more knowledge.”
“It would embarrass you for me to go into that part of our life, but we were a happy couple.”
“I’ve always known that. I hope I am as fortunate to have one man love me all my life.”
“Do you think it may be Mr. Thornton?”
“I don’t know. He mainly apologized for the dinner and expressed wanting to know me better. I am fortunate to have that.”
“Margaret, he was quite adamant about seeing you yesterday. There is more behind that apology, I am sure of it.”
“Where is Fred?”
“He’s taken Max out for exercise. I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t pass by a particular young lady’s home while he’s riding.”
“Mr. Thornton asked if he could come by today, and I said yes. I don’t know what time, though.”
“Do you feel up to having company?”
“I feel up to seeing him,” Margaret shyly smiled.
“I know the principles that you were raised with, and I trust you to do what is right for you. I do not worry about proper society rules. As you know, your mother went against those herself, and I believe she never regretted it. Do what makes you happy but do keep in mind potential consequences to your actions.”
“Thank you for telling me that, father.”
“I do believe I will hold off on my nap until John gets here.”
“I do believe he is here now,” Margaret mimicked. She went to the window, and Branson had his door open.”
“Dixon, I’ll get the door,” Margaret shouted.
“I believe I will retire before he comes in. Richard remarked.”
“See you at dinner, father.”
Margaret opened the door to John Thornton.
“Good afternoon, Miss Hale. Is there an ambush lying in wait for me inside? I would like to apologize, first.”
Margaret laughed, which brought a small frown. “Only me. Do, I count?”
“The answer to that could be misinterpreted, so I will decline. You are alone?”
“Fred is out, and my father just went to rest. Please come in.”
“How is your injury, puppet?” He smiled.
“I think one more day with this collar should suffice. May I get you any refreshment?”
“I was wondering if you felt you could take a brief ride on a good road. I would like to take you into town for lunch. But I can easily wait until you are stronger.”
“If I wear my collar while riding, I should be fine. If you can wait, I will tell Dixon.”
Margaret was gone a few minutes, and John stood in the sitting room twirling his hat. He was reminded of the scene he had made there, only yesterday. He, no doubt, had those other apologies to make.
Margaret was back with her bonnet and neck collar. John noticed she had dimples.
“Margaret, with those little dimples, you do remind me of a puppet,” John grinned.
“With this stiff collar, I feel like the Queen of Scotland just before they removed her head. I believe they wore those wretched stiff ruffled collars about that time.”
“I’ve never had any reference to the clothing of that era. Perhaps, a day at the London museum?”
“I’m sorry. Is that a question?”
“It’s an invitation if you would like a day out as such.”
“I believe we need more conversation before I can agree to anything as lovely as that.”
“And I believe I have much to say in these conversations. Shall we go?”
John handed her in the coach, spoke with Branson, and then entered as well. He pitched his hat on the opposite bench, settling beside Margaret.
“I am grateful to have this private time with you,” John said. “I have questions that I hope you will feel free to answer. I know this is your business, your life, but still, you leave a mystery in your wake.”
“Should I worry? I was looking forward to lunch with you. Will you spoil it?”
“You have been looking forward to coming out to lunch? Did I not take you to the canteen at the mill? You didn’t seem all that enthused then. I am reminded you made notice of something there, but I digress.”
“Are you teasing me?” Margaret frowned looking at him.
John broke out in a smile looking at that face. “Dimples and frowns and stares. I fear I am not strong enough for your beguiling moods.”
“You are teasing me.”
“Have you never done that yourself? Can you say you never teased me?”
Margaret looked out the window. “How far is the luncheon café?”
John laughed as quietly as he could, but Margaret heard him and laughed, too.
“Well? Asked John.
“I think I would like to table that question until other, more important, issues are known to me.”
“Branson seems to be slowing down. Are we here?”
Margaret began to untie the neck collar. Whether it was her nerves or done purposely, the strings became knotted.
Branson was waiting through the open door, looking in. John made no offer to help her. He kept a straight face while he heard small exasperating gushes of air as she wrestled with it. Since she couldn’t see it, he knew she would fail. He waited to be asked, glancing at Branson.
John couldn’t help it. When Branson started whistling while they waited, John laughed out loud.
“Oof . . .” He heard Margaret utter.
“Margaret, may I be of some assistance?”
“I think you know you can. You waited for me to ask, didn’t you?”
“Margaret Hale, we know very little about each other. By offering my help immediately, you may assume that I didn’t have faith that you could do it yourself.”
“What kind of an answer is that?”
“Poor, I’m afraid. So you do or do not need the benefit of my help?”
“I do. Please.”
“All you had to do was ask. For what’s it’s worth, I am fairly well known for coming to the aid of damsels in distress. You may remember several instances at the Lyceum, for example. And you weren’t even aware that I had to carry you into your house because you were in your cups.”
“Are you done, yet?” Margaret mockingly sounded stern. They were almost nose to nose. Margaret didn’t think his eyesight was that bad that he had to get that close to the knot to see it. “Is the light bad?”
“I’m getting it,” John said, purposely staring into her eyes. She didn’t know that it had been unknotted for several moments. He heard Branson cough.
“There we go. I don’t mind taking you to lunch while you are wearing your collar. If you feel you need it, let’s return it.”
“I don’t think I will have any missteps from here to the door.”
“Not if you take my arm.”
“But doesn’t your own arm bother you?”
“And why would you think that?” He asked, handing her out of the coach.
“You’ve been patting yourself on your back quite long now.”
John heard Branson snort from holding in laughter.
“Branson, that will be enough of that.” John hadn’t laughed like this since he couldn’t remember when.
John and Margaret were seated in a secluded part of the café. There were many round tables and chairs and booths around the edge of the big room. Several of them had a bit of privacy to them.
“Will this do, Mr. Thornton?”
“Yes, this is fine. Could you bring us a bottle of your house wine while we read your menu?”
“Coming right up, sir.”
Once Margaret was settled he sat opposite her. “What do you think of this nice little café?”
“It does look very nice. It appears to be somewhere between the pub cafes and the fine restaurants. I’m not sure I would call it small. Does this booth have your name carved in it somewhere? No, wait . . . I bet if I look closely, you have inscribed the names of each of the women you have brought here, is that not so?”
“Actually, this is my booth. I have paid the establishment for my own private use. Yes, I bought it.”
Margaret flopped back against the high wood backrest, staring at John with her mouth open. She bumped her head when she did that, showing John her grimace face.”
“Margaret, are you alright?”
“I’m not sure, but my neck is fine. Your booth? Do patrons vote on the different women you bring to this booth? “Oh, she’s a stunner. “That one’s a little too skinny for me. This trip they must know I am only a fill-in. Is there a ballot box somewhere?”
John withdrew a bit of paper and a pencil from his vest pocket. In large letters, he wrote the word gullible.
“Gullible? You mean me?” Margaret recalled the meat on her plate at the ball.
John just stared at her with a smile.
“Oof . . .” She said and looked away from his smile.
The small platters with meatloaf, boiled potatoes, and carrots were served.
“I love this meal,” Margaret announced.
“As do I. None of the other women order it when I bring them here,” he teased.
“Are you ready, Mr. Thornton? You may fire as you bear.”
“As I bear?”
“I’m sorry. I’ve heard my brother say that. If the navy is maneuvering to fire their cannons at another ship, he would tell his men to ‘fire as you bear,’ meaning for them to fire when their bearing was in a good position for an attack.”
“Thank you for such a complete understanding of that word. I did know what you meant. I didn’t think you would.”
“You have underestimated me recently, have you not?”
“That is rather an understatement in itself. That’s where many of my questions lie. But first, there is something more important than your attempts to draw my attention to you.”
“And that would be . . . ?”
“Is that important to you?”
“Most emphatically,” John replied.
“Why?” Asked Margaret.
Margaret set down her fork, looked up into John’s face and said, “I think I love you.”
John reached for her hand across the table. “I thought it would take months to hear you say those words to me. I had come to hope that you did. I have spent a lot of hours thinking about you and how I missed seeing you. I am certain that was by design. Surprisingly, resourceful. I …”
Margaret interrupted. “It’s not right for a woman to say those words first.” Margaret frowned. “l am sure you hear that often, and my declaration doesn’t sound any different than the next female.”
“Oh, you’re so wrong about that.”
“That’s not what my brother tells me. He’s been coaching me about men and what to expect and how to act. Fred’s been telling me what I should and shouldn’t do. What some men expect from women. Adam helped me with ignoring you. I didn’t think of that on my own. I’ve ruined it all.” Margaret started crying.
John stepped around to her side of the bench and placed his arm around her, hugging her to him.
“Stop . . . stop . . . stop this. You haven’t ruined anything. This very minute you changed my life.”
“I what?” Margaret said, glassy-eyed.
“I know I love you.
“You what?” Margaret said, slurring her words. “You can’t know that. After everything I’ve done to you, what is wrong with you that you can say those words? I’ve insulted you, I’ve ignored you, I’ve chastised your pride when you said you carried me around the dance floor. You can’t love someone if that’s all you know about them.”
“Let me see. You forgot embarrassed me, stared at me, shamed me, and now I find out I’ve been ambushed by the family. I’ve been tricked, hoodwinked, victimized and mislead. I love you more than I ever thought it was possible to do. Don’t you understand?”
“I’d have to have my head examined if I did. How did I embarrass you?”
“You pee’d in your shoes at the Lyceum, didn’t you? You didn’t think I knew about that.”
“Oh my, God.” Margaret hung her head between her hands with her elbows resting on the table. She then pushed her plate to the side and laid her head down.
“I never told anyone. This isn’t exactly like I had planned,” John laughed, “but we sure arrived at the important answers rather quickly. Instead of weeks or months for each of us to speak of love, it happened in minutes over meatloaf. You should be in my arms right now, I would be kissing your neck, loving the feel of your sweet skin on my lips. We’ve missed so much getting to this point.”
Margaret sat up hearing those words. “You can’t say those words to me. They make me feel odd inside. I think I know that means something. I’ll have to ask Fred, again.”
“Never mind, Fred. You now ask me, since I am the one that is causing that to happen to you. You are doing the same thing to me.”
“Does that mean what I think it means?”
John sucked air through his smile. “With you, it’s hard to say.” He smiled lovingly at her. This was the happiest time of his life.
“See here, John. I’ve been working on these growing feelings for you in excess of two weeks. You have only been thinking about me for two days. It’s impossible for you to know how you really feel.”
“Yes, Fred says men have desires all the time. Love isn’t known until one gets to know the other.”
“And your brother has been in love, has he?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then how does he know about all men? He’s a naval officer. He was at sea a long time. His mind may have worked differently since companionship wasn’t readily available to him.”
“Why do you think you love me?”
“Because I have never been where I am right now. I want to explode. I’m barely keeping myself together at this moment. I want to fly apart with joy and happiness. I know, at this hour, my whole life is turning a major corner. I believe you crept into my heart at the Lyceum. Watching you, marveling at you, filled me with emotions I didn’t recognize then. My thoughts of love began to solidify at the ball and were engraved on my heart by the dinner. As I felt myself falling in love with you, I spent an entire night going over everything I had heard or seen you do. I thought there may be some interest in me, but then you started acting strangely at the ball. Finally, it was the tear at the dinner table where the pieces began to fit. As much as this is going to hinder my path to you, I do like that you are cautious with your heart and . . . nevermind. Being the innocent that you are, I’m not sure what you feel for me is real love. You’re new at these emotions and . . . odd feelings.”
“Your words sound sincere. I am not to be fooled by them? You’re not just a man in gentleman’s clothing, are you?”
“At the very least I hope I am that. I am a normal male with more than my share of . . . ladies. I’ve tried to live my life as a gentleman in the highest traditions of honor. I believe I have succeeded in that, both professionally and personally. Who do you think you’re in love with? Could it be my appearance, my wealth, my standing? Why did you fall in love with me? Perhaps, I’m the one who should be questioning the motives of a puppet.”
The tears started to form again. John was beside himself. This was definitely uncharted waters, but he vowed that nothing was going to alter her feelings for him. He slid closer, taking her hand in his. He leaned in and kissed her tears.
Margaret turned to him when he did that. She looked into his eyes and then at his mouth where she lingered.
“Do you know you are giving me a signal, Margaret?”
“A signal? Fred didn’t talk about signals. Oh, wait. Yes, he did. He said I was seducing you with my eyes.”
“What am I doing now?”
“You are asking me to kiss you.”
“You did puppet. If I wasn’t the gentleman that you think you love, I would have kissed you, here and now. I had better move back to my side of the table. You don’t know what you’re doing, and I am helpless against you.”
“We’ve confessed our most important thoughts, unhindered and untimely. I am bearing my soul as you are. The words you have said to me are overwhelming that I can’t even take them in. I should be rejoicing, but I am swimming in the path we took to get here. John, do you fancy me?”
“More than anyone in my life and fancy isn’t strong enough.” John was holding her hands across the table.
“Do you seek my favors?”
“All of them. I will seek and know them all. I want you in my life for the rest of our days.”
“I desperately want to believe you and you to believe me. You have the experience with such matters, and I do not.”
“Margaret, I have never been in love. Ever. I hope you can believe that. There have been many rumors about my personal life, most of them are not true. Yes, it will take time for you to trust that I am telling you the truth. I can wait. I will be constant.”
“Our food is cold.”
“I see we have come to the end of our confessions. ‘Tis sad, that. My heart has yearned to speak these words all my life.”
“Someone has been reading Shakespeare.”
They both laughed.
Seeing Margaret finally smile was almost heartbreakingly wonderful.
“John, as stoic and prideful as you always appear, there may be a romantic inside of you.”
“I foresee one has just awakened. It is incongruous to me how different I feel compared to any other time I have lived. My past never felt hope for any particular woman, and now a mist clears and you are standing before me.”