Will this marriage survive? A few misunderstandings are to be expected in a new marriage, and one can only hope that love is strengthened by their resolution. John begins by contemplating a journey to Le Havre, and ends by finally tackling the problem of Margaret’s need for meaningful duties. If you need to start at the beginning, click here to go to Chapter 1.
Chapter 12 – Becoming Mrs. Thornton
copyright Jill Hughey 2014
“Why must you go?” Margaret said as she snuggled closer into John’s side on their new, comfortable sofa.
“I must buy the right quality of cotton at the right price. There is not an agent in England or France I trust to do that for me.”
“But it is winter. Won’t the crossing be dangerous?”
His fingers played with the locks of her hair they had just finished unpinning. “I will be perfectly safe, and kept warm by the knowledge that you are here, waiting for me.”
“A week or more, you said! It is an eternity.” She peered up at him. “Can’t I come with you?” The days of his absence gaped in front of her like a deep, dark cave.
“You do know how to tempt me, love.” He kissed the tip of her nose. “Not this time. I cannot be away from here long, which means I will be travelling hard. My overseer is a good man, but he misses the details that keep the mill running efficiently enough so that I can soon begin to pay back my debt to you. ”
She shifted to put her cheek against his shoulder again. “Is the debt what drives you to work from before dawn until after dusk?”
“I have always worked long hours, despite the unions’ claims otherwise.” After a few moments of silence, he pressed, “What is it, Margaret? I can tell you are unhappy with my answer, even if you hide your face.”
When she shook her head, he put his hands on her shoulders to lift her away from him. “I need your honesty, love. Please. Do not hide from me.”
She stared at him, so very in love yet so very, very lonely. “I think that I am a missed detail, most days.”
His brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
“You are never here.”
“That is not true.”
A small groan escaped him when she walked to the fireplace, needing some distance to be able to give voice to thoughts that would make him unhappy. “You are gone all day. We sit together for a short time each evening, then we are…we are intimate, and then we sleep. Soon you will leave on your trip, for a week or more.”
“I make this journey and I work long hours so that we will have a comfortable living,” he retorted automatically, the echo of his days as a poor draper’s assistant lurking in the reply.
She cocked her head. “I do not covet the comforts of money above time with you. You saw my parents’ home in Crampton. You’ve visited Helstone. You know I was not raised in luxury, nor did I ever seek it.”
“It is not only for your comfort,” he argued. “The money itself — your money — is still at risk. I must see the debt to you repaid.”
“I do not care about that,” she said. She could not think of anything she cared about more than having the bright light of his presence, even for the few waking hours they shared each day.
“You say that now, but if it were gone….”
She pursed her lips. She’d never heard her parents in a conversation like this. Was it normal? Should she curb her thoughts to match his?
Of course, he immediately sensed her hesitation. “Honesty, Margaret,” he demanded.
“You say you want me to be honest, then when I tell you how I feel you tell me where I am wrong,” she retorted.
His mouth opened and closed. He looked down at his hands and turned the wide gold band on his finger. “Very well, then, Margaret. Tell me exactly how you feel and I will endeavor to listen instead of correct.”
A shiver passed through her. As much as he begged for the truth from her, he had not always received it well, just as he wasn’t now. Speaking of this could not be wise tonight, when she felt so useless and adrift, with no worthwhile activities to fill her days, with no friends except those who labored at the mill where she was unwelcome. “It is nothing,” she whispered.
He stopped twisting his wedding band. “Have your feelings for me changed so materially that you can no longer speak of them?” he asked.
The injustice of his words pushed her shoulders back. “My feelings for you? Nothing has changed about my feelings for you.” She paced a few steps in front of the fire before facing him again. “Every other part of my existence is unrecognizable to me except for my love for you. Can you claim the same?”
“Obviously not. I know you have been uprooted, as all new brides are. What would you have us do? Move to Helstone, or London, perhaps?”
“Where we live is not the point.”
“Then what is the point?” He raked his hand through his thick hair, pushing the locks into disarray.
“The point is that your concern for Marlborough Mills overrides everything else.”
“The mill requires most of my time, Margaret, but that does not mean it is where my affections lie. I work to protect our future and the inheritance you entrusted to me!”
She blinked against the prickle of threatening tears. “I believe you give Miss Margaret Hale’s fortune more import than you give Mrs. John Thornton’s affections.”
His eyes flashed up at her as his face went pale. He did not speak, his jaw as rigid as it had been on the day of the riot in the yard. His brow furrowed as he turned his head away.
She had said more than she had wanted to say, more than she’d even realized she felt.
Only two choices presented themselves. She could go to him or she could leave the room. She could not bear to stand there as a muscle clenched and unclenched in his cheek.
John struggled to keep his temper in check. The only times he had loosed it on Margaret, the result had been a complete misunderstanding of one another. His legs twitched with the instinct to burst off the settee. Only by tapping his toes inside his shoes could he force his indignation into submission.
As his guts churned in a froth of anger and fear, she slipped away to close the door of his dark bedroom behind her. Her accusation remained in the room, an unwelcome visitor on a frigid night.
He jerked his head forward again to stare at the fire while he struggled to grasp the unfair words echoing inside his skull. He gave more import to her money than her? Is that what she had said? He could not swallow the suggestion. The injustice of it stuck in his craw. He would like nothing better than to fritter his hours away with her in this room or in his bed, but there was work to be done. And, thinking of his bed, why had she gone in that room just now?
He rose to lean on the mantle. Of course he would spend entire days alone with her if he could. Wouldn’t he? He frowned.
He tried to imagine such a day, the rumbling of the mill and the smoke from the engine room flowing outside the house while he sat ignorant of the workings, here, with his wife. The very thought agitated him.
But certainly, if they took an afternoon away, or stole a few days London, he would be content with only Margaret’s company. Honesty, he said to himself, recognizing the lie. In those months when Margaret had given him her heart but still lived in London, he’d felt divided. A piece of him was always at the mill, and a piece of him was always with Margaret. Only when those two pieces were as one, both in Milton, both under his direct care, did he feel whole. Whole, except for the damnable debt like a velvet noose around his neck.
He rubbed his hand over his forehead. God help him, Margaret might be right.
Margaret pulled the coverlet up to her nose. She had shed her gown and slipped into bed in her underclothes without stoking the fire. The mattress stretched wide and cold without John’s weight beside her.
She feared she had said too much even if he had demanded her honesty. She did not doubt his love and would never willingly give him cause to doubt her love for him. She only wondered what she was supposed to do with their marriage.
When a floorboard creaked in the sitting room she looked hopefully at the door, then nearly called his name as his footsteps retreated, downstairs. She had, indeed, said too much, she thought, as their conversation repeated in her head like a blaring symphony played out of tune. Her fingers worried a loose thread on the hem of the sheet for a long time.
The bedroom door abruptly opened. The glare of a candle hovered before John’s stark face.
She sat up so he would know she was awake.
“It is freezing in here,” he chided as he leaned down to revive the fire. He lit a candle on her side of the bed then sat his own next to it. After wrapping the robe that was always draped at the foot of the bed around her chilled shoulders, he drew up a chair so he could sit down and face her. “You are right, to a point,” he said, as if three quarters of an hour hadn’t passed since she’d last spoken to him. “I do not fixate on debt as much as you think, but I do despise it. My father’s inability to manage debt, or perhaps his unwillingness to cope with it, killed him. That deep wound has shaped the whole of my life.”
His perspective shamed Margaret. She’d thought only of her loneliness and not the trials John had endured. Her hand curled around his in a feeble attempt to convey emotions that refused to form into words.
“I have always been driven,” he continued. “I cannot blame it entirely on your loan because I have acted no differently when free of debt. The work is part of me just as you are part of me. I do not know how to split any piece away. I can only promise that you are first, here, in my heart.” He pulled their joined hands to his chest.
She nodded, still speechless.
“I also understand that where I fill my days with labor, you have been brought, as my wife, into rather empty daylight hours.” As she stuttered a denial, he lifted a finger to her lips. “Hush. I am not completely blind and I have seen this, even before tonight. My mistake has been in hesitating to help resolve the problem. The good news is that I have an idea,” he added. “I wonder if I might schedule an appointment with you for tomorrow at ten o’clock to discuss a business proposition?”
“Of course,” she said, willing but unsure of what he could possibly want from her.
“At my office, then, ten o’clock sharp.”
He glanced at her face with an unusual tentativeness, and she suspected, despite the confidence of his words, he might be as unsettled as she by their argument.
She flattened her palm over his heart and leaned forward to capture his lips in a kiss that quickly burned hot.
“I love you,” she whispered, her relief at their reconciliation prompting her to repeat it again and again as he lavished reassuring kisses over her face and neck. “I love you, and nothing will ever change that fact.”
Her tugging insistence settled him over her when he was barely disrobed. He swept her hair back from her face as he looked down at her. His eyes glittered in the wavering light. “I am clay in your hands, beloved Margaret. Never doubt my love or my devotion to you above all things. Promise me you will never doubt it.”
* * *
Next week, Margaret has her ten o’clock meeting and John’s trip to Le Havre looms on the horizon. Chapter 13 will be posted here on April 23. Click here to find it!
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