If you haven’t read any of my free sequel to North and South, you may want to start with Chapter 1 here. Links at the end of each post should guide you to the next. I will upload a new chapter each week.
Mr. Thornton was stupendously tall in the top hat the butler handed him. Margaret proudly took his arm, aware of the other pedestrians on the sidewalk parting for his gracious yet imposing stature like he was the prow of a fine ship cutting through the ocean. For the rest of my life I will have the right to walk at his side, first in his affections. Perhaps. “Your mother will be unhappy,” she said.
His brow furrowed. He patted her hand where it rested on his arm. “She might, at first, but I think she will come ‘round. Do you really wish to marry at Milton?”
“I believe I do. Do you?”
“Yes. It would please me a great deal, and Mother also, I am sure.”
“Then it is settled.”
They walked for half a block, finally gaining the shady border of the park though they had to continue along the street to the entrance. “Should I write to your brother for his blessing?”
“Oh! Frederick!” she said. They had never spoken of him before, and her failure to do so had caused the most demeaning misunderstanding between them. “No. That is to say, he would appreciate the courtesy but I do not believe I need his blessing. I will write first — this very night — and perhaps your letter can follow in a few days?”
“As you wish.”
They turned on to the park path. “How much have you learned about Frederick?” she asked, barely turning her head as she looked at him from the corner of her eye.
“Hmm. I learned of his existence long ago from Mr. Bell, but only a few months have passed since Higgins revealed his secret visit.”
She moved toward a bench, wishing to see his face in full when she was finally able to make the admission that had eaten at her for so long. “The lie I told, and the indiscretion that both you and Mrs. Thornton believed of me, have tortured me. I asked Mr. Bell to relate the truth of Frederick’s circumstances to you, so that you would know the man you saw me with that day at the station was not a suitor, but my brother. I suspect he never had the opportunity to speak to you about it.”
He took her hand in a gentle clasp. “I should not have jumped to such an impertinent conclusion. If I had known you as I claimed to, I would have understood what you tried to allude to on several occasions.”
“I wish I’d told you the truth right away,” she said fervently. “At the time, Father and I were too afraid for Frederick’s safety to speak of him to anyone. Once the truth had been withheld, how would I have begun a conversation on such a topic, with you of all people?”
He watched her eyes fill with tears and his expression betrayed the shared pain of wasted months. “Would that we were not in such a public place, love, or you could cry on my coat.”
“I would like that,” she said, clinging to his hand with a white-knuckled grip.
He offered her his handkerchief. “This will have to do.”
She smiled up at him as she dabbed the wetness from her cheeks. “Forgive me. It is just such a relief that you know.”
“I know only that your brother exists and that he returned once to England. Are his circumstances really so dire?”
Margaret explained the details of the mutiny Frederick had joined against a tyrannical captain. “He has been safe in Spain for years, and has even married well there. He is happy, and vows never to set foot in England again. Henry and I tried to help him clear his name but there seems to be no hope.”
“Mr. Lennox has been of great assistance to you,” he observed, chafing at her familiarity with the gentleman who had had his own designs on her.
“He has. I have been quite lost with trying to help Frederick, and then inheriting Mr. Bell’s fortune. I have had a great deal to learn about business matters and, as you probably discerned today, I am still mostly ignorant.”
“I disagree. I signed your papers, after all, without a word of negotiation. In fact, I signed on for a bride as well, a bit more than you expected in the deal. And then there is the matter of your getting the wedding moved from London to Milton.” His eyes sparkled with uncharacteristic merriment. “You have represented your interests well, Miss Hale.”
She blushed prettily. “Thank you, Mr. Thornton. From a respected manufacturer like you, that is a true compliment.”
“I will still claim, however, that I have won the greatest prize,” he said in a low voice that sent a tingle to her toes.
* * *
Chapter 4 will be uploaded next week!