Nowhere But North

I have been deeply buried into my Pride and Prejudice lately, hoping to finish up a (very long) variation soon. My typical m.o. has always been to alternate stories whenever a scene sticks in my mind, keeping everything fresh, but I have been like a parent forcing their child to just finish their plate. “You took it, you eat it,” that’s the rule, right? Ahem, but I digress.

I have been loving my time with Darcy and Elizabeth, but I have also been missing John and Margaret. Right about a year ago, I started a new N&S variation which was inspired by the blog tour for Northern Rain. Many of those blog posts were vignettes that I wrote to accompany the story, but were not in it. Many of them reflected back on John Thornton’s early years and some of the key events which shaped him.

I was having so much fun with the project that when Rita Deodato suggested that I write a prequel to N&S, such as I did with Edward Gardiner, I couldn’t resist. However, what is N&S without John and Margaret together? I had to find a way to make that happen as well.

These Dreams, the Pride and Prejudice variation, is nearing the homestretch, and I am doing my best to ride just one horse all the way to the wire. However, I know I’m not the only one missing John and Margaret these days. And so, without further ado, I give you the first chapter of Nowhere But North.


 

“I now pronounce you man and wife.”

John Thornton’s throat constricted and his chest hammered. Those words had sealed his future- words he had once desperately longed to hear spoken over himself and this woman who stood at his side, but words which seemed unwelcome to her ears. She had not desired his hand.

His limbs quivered with apprehension as he turned to face the woman who was now his wife. Her gaze was cast down as she, likewise, performed the scripted manoeuvre. The white veil frosted over her face heightened the pallor of her bloodless cheeks, and set startlingly against the black of her mourning dress. She tipped up her chin dutifully, waiting for him to complete the required motions.

Swallowing hard, his eyes full of regret, he reached to lift her veil. His fingers brushed only the filmy gauze concealing her face, careful not to touch her more than was necessary. He would ask nothing more of her after this one public intimacy, but the proper forms and customs must be observed. He dropped the lace behind her back as her eyes, wide with alarm, at last found his. He drew a reckless breath, girding up his courage, and then bent to inaugurate their union with a quick brush of his lips against hers. There was no feeling exchanged, no sweet promise of hope and love shared. It was simply done. For better or worse, Margaret Thornton was his problem now.

Four Days Earlier:

“May I please speak with Miss Hale?” John Thornton shifted his hat nervously between his hands as he dared to confront the Hales’ disapproving maid. Dixon glared up at him, her eyes swollen and red, but her manner no less vigilant over her mistress than it had ever been. In fact, he might say that now it was a good deal more so.

Dixon’s mouth worked sulkily. She, like he, seemed to know that there was no other recourse, but she did not like letting him to her young lady just now. “This way,” she finally grumbled, not caring in the least that her manners were less than exemplary.

Thornton followed her up the stairs. To his surprise, Dixon led him past the small sitting room on the second floor, and up to Mr Hale’s old study. She stopped before the door, crossing her arms. “You’ll take care of her, Mr Thornton,” she demanded bluntly. It was not a question.

His eyes, which had drifted to the closed door, snapped back to the woman. “I shall try,” he vowed.

This seemed to satisfy her. With a grunt and a lurch, she worked her way past him to lumber back down the stairs, leaving him alone. He turned back to the door, clenching his fist. His task was before him, and he would not shrink from it.

Since three mornings before, when his old friend had failed to awaken, Margaret had been without a protector. No concerned family had descended upon the little Crampton house, no benevolent godfather came to offer aid, and no valiant suitor had arrived to carry her away from her grief. Her only comfort had been the bitter maid and the grizzled old weaver who had first brought him the news of Mr Hale’s passing. She had nowhere else to turn.

Slowly, he eased the door open. He did not see her at first, scanning, as he was, the chair and the desk which had belonged to his friend. The room was dim, lit only by the low afternoon sun filtering through the curtains. At last, his searching gaze settled on her forlorn figure.

She looked to have fallen into her father’s worn settee before a dying fire, her beautiful head draped over a small end table where a stack of Mr Hale’s books formed a pillow of sorts. Her eyes were closed, but her lashes shimmered with sorrow in the glow of the fire’s embers. Pity tugged at his heart.

How he yearned to cast himself at her feet and pull her into his loving arms! Would that she had longed for his comfort, and waited only for his voice to release her anguish into his strong embrace! Moisture pricked his own eyes. It could not be so, but at least he could offer her some measure of protection. He owed his friend that much.

John stepped softly into the room, afraid to disturb her repose, but knowing that he must. He stopped before her, his fingers twitching uncomfortably when she did not seem to hear his approach. “Miss Hale?” he spoke gently.

Her head jerked up, her eyes blinking rapidly as she tried to see him clearly through unshed tears. She straightened wordlessly. Apparently she had been expecting him, for her face held no questions- only what appeared to be resignation.

Pressing his lips together, he drew one step closer to her, then cautiously lowered himself to his knees before her chair. She dropped her gaze modestly.

Now that it was time, and he was all but assured of her acceptance, he could not form the words. He had spoken them once before, and that memory choked his throat and caused his pulse to drum with uncertainty. He knew she did not care for him, and likely loved another. It was no virtue of his own which would require her to accept him, and there would be no affection he could expect once she had. They had little to offer one another, apart from respectability and security. It seemed a paltry consolation.

During his hesitation, Margaret’s eyes had begun to travel up once more. Her voice was trembling and scarcely audible when she spoke. “You have been to the funeral,” she observed quietly.

He glanced down at the black arm band he wore, sorry that its presence might cause her additional pain. “Yes,” he answered simply. His mouth went dry. Get it over with, man! he chided himself. There was no sense in drawing things out.

“Miss Hale, will you do me the honour of becoming my wife?” he blurted, his voice quavering with hope.

Her stricken eyes finally met his. She held him for a long, suspense-filled pause, before answering. “Yes,” she whispered.

He hissed out the tense breath he had been restraining. At least she had determined to be sensible about all of this, even if she were not happy. It would spare him the distress of arguing with a woman in mourning for her lost father. He ought rightly to be overjoyed in this moment, having secured the promise of the woman who delighted his heart, but he could not. He had just asked her to commit to a life with a man she did not love, and she simply had no other choice but to accept. Rather than pleasure at her answer, he felt only remorse for her sacrifice.

He gave a firm nod, indicating that he had heard her hushed reply, and that their deal was struck. “I shall make the necessary arrangements. Do you…” he hesitated in distaste for the indelicacy of the questions he must ask. “You will wish to marry without delay? A simple ceremony?”

She looked down, her gaze hovering somewhere near the centre of his waistcoat as her eyes fluttered once more. There was no possible solution which would not require some breach of propriety. They could not hold a traditional ceremony with the bride in deep mourning, nor could they decently wait the prescribed period of time without some chaperoned living situation for her. The best answer was a quiet ceremony by the minister’s leave, granting her his name and honour- for there was none other to offer it.
She was silent for a moment, causing him to stir in some discomfort. At last, another whispered “yes” reached his ears.

“I will speak to the minister directly. Perhaps I will ask my mother to assist you?”

Her bodice was trembling with short, shallow breaths. “I think… I think that is not necessary, sir. There will be little for me to do until….” She bit her lip, her eyes refusing to lift again to his.

She was correct, of course. The silk mourning gown she wore would suffice for their simple marriage ceremony, and her belongings would not need to be moved until she came to his home. There could be no cause to disrupt the little Crampton household until then.

“I dislike leaving you alone here,” he murmured. “Are you certain you will be well until other arrangements can be made?”

“I have Dixon,” was the short answer.

He sighed. “Of course.” He began to rise to his feet. She did not follow his movements, and he turned reluctantly away. Within seconds, however, he appeared once more at her side. She looked up in swift surprise.

“I will take care of you!” he promised hoarsely. “You need have no fear, Miss Hale.”

Her mouth twitched into a bare approximation of a smile, but it did not travel to her eyes. “I know, Mr Thornton.”

~

Marlborough Mills

Margaret Thornton- for that was her name, now- stood in the centre of the spacious chamber. She clutched a small bag of personal items as she took in the opulently decorated room which was to be hers. Her new mother-in-law had offered a brisk tour, then had taken her leave. It was likely a relief to them both to quickly part company.

Her marriage that morning had passed with little recognition. There had been no wedding breakfast out of consideration for her state of mourning, and there would be no wedding tour. It was just as well, for she scarcely knew what she would say to her new husband if they were required to spend days alone together. She swallowed.

It had been noble of him to offer marriage. She certainly did not deserve such consideration from him, but she expected that he was only rendering this one final homage to her father. Oh, Papa! The tears flooded her eyes before she could restrain them.

Her breast heaved with the effort of controlling herself. She could not fall apart now! Not when her new life and duties spread before her. She could not disappoint her father’s memory! She choked on the lump in her throat. It was for her father’s sake that Mr Thornton had overcome his disenchantment with her to offer a future. She could do no less than to respond with dignity. She would honour the man who was her husband, regardless of his lost respect. Perhaps, one day, she might find a way to earn it back.

“Do you find the room to your liking?” The low, even tones startled her. She would have to become accustomed to a man’s voice in her chambers!

Margaret turned. Mr Thornton stood in the doorway, apparently uncertain of his welcome. She made an effort to smile. “Yes,” she replied softly. “It is a lovely room.”

He entered hesitantly, his eyes scanning the walls. The room which had seemed much too large a moment ago shrank before his towering presence, and she felt stifled for breath. “I am afraid the décor may not be to your taste,” he reflected quietly. “We will repaper it whenever you wish. I expect you would prefer your own furnishings as well? I shall have a few articles brought directly. Your own writing desk and vanity, and perhaps the settee to start?”

She was watching his feet as he walked toward her. “There is no need to go to such trouble.”

“Margaret,” he voiced her name softly, haltingly. She glanced up. It was the first time he had spoken thus. “This is to be your home, and I wish for you to be comfortable. Will you not tell me how I can help you to settle in?”

“You have already been more than generous, sir,” she breathed. It had not escaped her that she was now a married woman, and the man who held claim over her stood not three feet away in her bedroom. She could not know what he might ask of her, nor when he would do so. She only understood that she belonged to him now, just as surely as did everything else in this room.

His lips thinned. “Margaret…” he paused, waiting for her to meet his eyes. “I would have you know that I am sorry. I know this is not what you desired, nor what I would have wished for you. I hope that one day you might be content here with me.”

She blinked rapidly again. “Thank you… John.”

He took a tremulous step nearer, his eyes soft. “I have already sent Williams with a few men for your most immediate belongings. Dixon has agreed to remain at the house to supervise the disposition of the larger items, but I imagine that once you feel able, you will wish to take part in that process. There is no hurry- I will keep the rent on the house for as long as you need.”

She thanked him again, recognizing the full kindness of his gesture. She was required to stay here with him, but he would not rip her maidenly home from her just yet. How much was it all going to cost him?

“Well…” he stood a moment more, as if unsure what his bounds were. “I have some work to do. Mother is here, should you require anything for your comfort, and her maid Jane or one of the other girls will assist you until Dixon is installed here permanently.”

She remained still and silent as he left her, closing the door carefully behind himself. Somehow, she had never pictured herself abandoned in a strange house while her husband went back to work on their wedding day. She had certainly never imagined this day would be marked by only Dixon and a tired old weaver and his daughter to pay their respects in her honour.

Margaret forced herself to move methodically toward the bed to begin unpacking the few things she had brought with her. She would not cry. John Thornton had plucked her from poverty and solitude to offer a home, unwelcome though she felt. Her own family- what was left of them- could not have done more. She was grateful- truly, she was. And those were not tears cupping in the corners of her eyes.

~

Helstone, April 1837

“Margaret, why are you crying?”

Frederick Hale, a gangly youth at twelve, playfully scooped his little sister down from her nest in the wood shed. One scruffy kitten clung wildly to her dress, its eyes staring in fright as Margaret fumbled to clutch it safely to her middle.

“Fred!” she cried, “Helen is falling!” She pushed indignantly away from her brother with her free hand once she had gained the relative safety of the shed floor, then bent to croon to the terrified cat.

Fred muttered a colourful phrase he had heard from one of the local farmers- one which his father had sternly forbidden. “What a ridiculous name for a cat!” he rolled his eyes. He softened some when a few more tears slid down his little sister’s face. “Tell me, sweetheart, what is the matter?”

Margaret was cradling the kitten to her face to wipe the tears away. “Mama s-says I can-not take Hel- Helen to London!” she sniffled. “She s-says Aunt does not l-like animals!”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” he grumbled. “She will be here when we return! We are only going for a month.”

“But she will not remember me!” wailed the plaintive little voice. “She will be all grown almost, and she will forget all about me.”

He sighed. “Look, Margaret, cats care little enough for people as it is. They only like being fed. I daresay Helen likes the back door of the house as well as the front. Bring her some milk when you get back, I suppose, and she will remember you well enough.”

A pair of scandalized green eyes met his dismissal, and her lip began to quiver. “Helen is my f-friend!” she blubbered.

“Oh, come, Margaret, we do not leave for three more days yet. Why all of this fuss?”

She scrunched the limp, pliant little creature to her face once more. “Edith’s nurse won’t let her play with me,” she murmured into the cat’s fur. “She says I am a hoo- a hool….” Another little sob shuddered the small child.

“A hooligan!” Frederick doubled over, bellowing with laughter. “Dearest little sister, now I see!” Fred chuckled. “Edith’s nurse is pretty strict. Perhaps if you stayed in one room, instead of wandering and frightening her!”

“She doesn’t like me at all,” pouted the quivering little mouth. “I don’t want to go, Fred!” she began to snivel.

“Oh, Margaret! You do take it to heart so. Last time was quite a bore, I confess. Perhaps if we are very polite, we may go back to the park, like we did last year. Do you remember the fountain?”

Sanguine eyes looked up to him once more. Silently, she nodded. “Will the geese still be there?”

He laughed. “I think so, but you had best not chase them this year. Do you remember how angry Uncle was?”

“I did not chase them. I was only watching the babies.” Her little face fell gloomily. The cat, at last weary of being held against its will, spun about in her grip, and in no uncertain terms exerted its independence. Margaret released it readily, for she had already encountered unpleasant scratches from this particular feline. When it had gone, however, she stood grumpy and dejected, watching the crooked tail as the adolescent cat stalked from the woodshed.

Frederick could not help a little chuckle. “Come, Margaret, cheer up. Let us think of something fun we may do before we leave for London.”

Her innocent face gazed up to him, and his boyish frame warmed with affection. She was adorable, his little sister. Dark, wayward curls sprang for expression beneath her prim little bonnet. Clear, intense eyes surveyed him gravely, and soft, pure cheeks rounded down to a purposeful little chin. It was Edith who always claimed the beauty when the two cousins were together, but if a twelve-year-old boy could have an opinion on the subject, he much preferred his own sister’s vibrant personality and the way it shone forth so markedly, even at four years of age.

That determined character sparkled now with renewed inspiration. “What can we do, Fred?” she asked hopefully.

He made a show of deep thought, chewing the sides of his cheek and holding her in a playful, suspenseful stare. “I know!” he declared at last. “Let us go peek into the parish charity basket. Do you suppose that ugly green dress is still there? I wager no one has taken it yet.”

Her cheek dimpled in dismay. “I know it is. I saw it yesterday,” she informed him. That was not an interesting idea at all!

“Hmm.” He tapped his finger to his lips, as if deliberating a great plot. “What do you think we could do with it? Make a straw man and dress it? We could stand it up in front of the house and frighten Dixon!”

Margaret did not immediately leap at the idea, as he thought she might. She turned pensively away, gazing over the yard toward their mother’s rose garden. Frederick nearly chuckled again. She could be so serious for such a small girl!

A moment later, however, it became obvious to him that Margaret’s eyes and ears had been sharper than his own. Beneath the prickly bushes rooted a brown nose. Old Dane, Farmer Grady’s greying hound, emerged soon after. Spotting the children, he wagged his tail and made his friendly way toward them. Children, as any dog knows, are always good for a little petting, and the two Hale children were no exception.

A wicked thought struck the boy, and he laughed aloud. “Margaret, would it not be funny to put the dress on Dane here? Oh, only think of him running through the church yard tomorrow!” He dissolved into hoots of laughter, imagining the scene. He would never do it, of course, but the shocked faces of the assembled parishioners would almost make up for the punishment he would be sure to receive later.

Margaret had gone very still, her eyes bright and wide. She stared up to him in mute astonishment, and if he had to conjecture, he might have feared that she would carry out his suggestion. He almost thought to warn her off, but just then they heard their mother’s voice from the house.

He sighed. “Well, come along, Margaret. I suppose it is time for tea.”

~

Marlborough Mills, 

The evening meal had been a silent affair. Thornton had taken his customary place at the head of the table, but at the foot now was the new mistress of his home. It was not without some tense disquiet that he had observed his mother starting for her old place, then thinking better of it. Margaret had glanced between them with a look of regret as she had taken the seat which was now hers, but whether it was related to sorrow over her new circumstances or remorse for his mother’s discomfort, he could not say.

His mother had been firmly set against this course. He fingered his silverware as his gaze flitted between the two women at his table. Margaret kept her head bowed and scarcely touched her food, unable to help being troubled by her mother-in-law’s frosty reception. His mother, seated halfway between them, looked only straight ahead with a serene hardness to her countenance.

He sighed. He would have to speak with her again. He had offered Margaret a home, and he would not see it become a place of misery for her. Perhaps he would have done better to have asked his mother to stay with Fanny some days while Margaret became accustomed to her new surroundings, but to do so at this juncture would cause even more discomfort for all.

At last the uncomfortable proceedings were ended, and the Thornton family- all three of them, now- retired to the drawing room for a quiet evening. John found his paper, but his eyes were ever lifted over the top edge of it as he watched his new wife in the firelight. Heavens, but she took his breath away! Even now, in full mourning as she was, there was a peaceful grace about her figure which cried out to him, drawing him to her in a way he was helpless to deny.

She held a book in her hands, but it seemed her mind would not exert itself this evening, for it slanted listlessly away from her as she gazed vacantly into the fire. The flames glowed softly over her ivory features, stony and expressionless as her thoughts wandered. He would have given a great deal to know what lay on her heart this night, and with what measure of optimism she looked to the future. Perhaps she, like he, was not entirely without hope.

How long, he wondered to himself, will I be able to bear it? To have Margaret in his home every day, carrying his name and presiding over his household, was simply too tempting. He was well aware that only a thin door would stand between his room and hers, and… well, dash it all, it was his right!

But there, she had sworn only her life and her future. Her heart was not his, nor could he force it to become so. To ask what he wished of her, when she would respond only out of obligation… he shuddered in revulsion. It was in every way abhorrent to him.

His hands had begun to tremble as they gripped the edges of his paper. Swallowing hard, he bade himself to look away from the haunting vision which was his legally wedded wife. If he did not, he would not be able to vouch for his state of mind!

He stared unseeingly at the headlines scripted out before him, his jaw clenched. Somewhere to his right, he heard his mother at last setting her needlework aside, and he nearly shuddered in relief. Finally, the uncomfortable evening was drawing to a close!

Margaret had noted the change as well, and was looking curiously to Hannah Thornton. He shifted his paper and caught her eye. “Margaret, it is Mother’s custom to lead the household in prayers every night before we retire,” he explained. “I hope you will feel inclined to join us.”

“Oh,” she murmured softly. She dipped her head in deference to her mother-in-law. “Of course, Mrs Thornton.”

Hannah lifted a cool brow as she surveyed the younger Thornton lady. It seemed they would have to come to some agreement about what they were to call one another, but she was content for now to keep Margaret in her place as an outsider. Her son, however, was scowling very faintly in her direction.

The household had gathered, the evening devotional completed, and at length John rose from his seat. He extended a shaking arm to his wife. “Margaret, may I see you upstairs?”
Her eyes wide, her lips pale, she accepted. Her small fingers dug painfully into the flesh of his inner arm as she conveyed to him far more tension than she likely realised. Her unease abated only slightly as they left his mother behind and her concentration was required to mount the stairs with her thick skirts.

His heart twisted in sympathy. There seemed nothing he could say or do to alleviate her suffering. He could but grant her space and see to her every want, and perhaps in time, she might grow to be more at home. Drawing up at her door, he moved his arm slightly and her hand slid away.

“Have you everything you need?” he queried gently. He could see her throat working as she gulped nervously and nodded. She was looking at his feet again.

“Jane should be in shortly to help you. I…” he stopped, his brow furrowed. It seemed unjust to tell her how his soul leapt for joy that she had come into his life, regardless of the circumstances, but churlish somehow to leave her without some assurances of his felicity in their new relationship. He reached hesitantly for her hand. “I wish you a pleasant evening,” was all he could manage.

She lifted curious eyes to him. Round, and softly dilated, those eyes studied him for a breathless second. “You… you will wish to…” she paused and took a gasping breath. “You will knock later?”

His stomach pitted. So, he had not made his intentions clear enough. He released a taut sigh. “Let us speak in privacy,” he suggested, tipping his head toward her door.

Her nervous hands fumbled with the perfectly smooth doorknob, and then they stood together in the dusky room. “Listen, Margaret,” he began, his tense finger kneading his brow. “It is only right,” he offered weakly. “After all, you are in mourning, and… and you know, it has surely been a trying day for you….”

She gazed at him in complete silence, no emotion flickering across her vivid features.

“After all, there can be no need,” he grit out, his teeth biting down on his tongue and his left fist clenching. He must escape this room soon, or he would make a liar of himself! Her skin looked so soft, and she smelled of roses…. He began to groan in self-pity, but covered the sound swiftly by clearing his throat.

“I see.” That was it. No change in expression, no movement to step away from the door and release him from the confrontation. Her nostrils fluttered very slightly, the only symptom to betray her angst.

“I thought you would be relieved,” he furnished. He rubbed his palms surreptitiously along his trousers. They were positively aching with his need to reach for her!

She blinked. “I can see that you are.”

His mouth fell open. “I only think of you!”

He watched her cheek muscles tighten and her eyes harden. “Mr Thornton, we both know that I brought nothing to this marriage but myself. I wonder, sir, why you took the trouble if you do not intend to…” she stopped and squeezed a sudden tear from her eye.

“Margaret!” he objected. “You cannot think that I-”

“Please hear me out, sir!” she interrupted.

He swallowed his protests and waited for her to compose herself.

She seemed to be choking, exerting every shed of her remaining strength to bite out the words before her shattered tones betrayed her. “I am the interloper here, Mr Thornton,” she quavered at last. “Your mother does not welcome me, your staff no doubt wonder what you are about, and my support must have come at a very dear price just now. I pledged my obedience to you, sir, but if you do not intend to treat me as a wife, I beg you would reconsider before it is too late!”

He stared, absolutely flabbergasted. Of all the complaints he might have expected from her, to be attacked over his consideration for her lack of affection was the last thing he would have imagined!

“What would you prefer?” he snapped at last. “That I force you? That I demand your compliance without regard for your own feelings? A fine proof that would be, that I truly am the monster you have always believed!”

“I neither believed nor implied any such thing!” she lashed back. “But I am not such a fool as to fail to acknowledge the reality of our circumstances. It is your duty, and your right….” Here, her voice at last failed her, and her features pinched, as she clenched her eyes and covered her mouth with a gasp.

“A duty, you say?” he snarled bitterly. “I should say my duty now is to care for my wife! You speak of rights, as though I had hired your services! I know well enough that I am no more than a tradesman, capable of thinking only in terms of buying and selling, but I shall never intrude where I am not welcome. Rights, indeed! You may be pleased to consider yourself the martyr- the noble wife who silently bears all manner of humiliation in the name of feminine dignity- but I would be no better than a beast who takes a woman against her will. I am sorry, Margaret, but you have judged me wrongly if you thought me capable of that!”

Her body was heaving now with restrained sobs, the cords in her neck raised as she sniffled and strove valiantly to remain on her feet to meet his heated gaze. “You would shame me, then?” she choked.

He turned away with a furious hiss, raking his sweating hands through his hair. There was no pleasing the woman! He thrust his fists to his hips and began to pace away from her, taking care to give a wide berth to both the woman and the largest piece of furniture in the room, lest he should sweep her to it and kiss her until he could think clearly!

“You and I both know that it would be noticed,” she continued through growing tears. “Your mother has a poor enough opinion of me!”

He stopped, narrowing his eyes in tight scrutiny. “Is that what this is about? You fear that my mother will make things harder for you if she assumes that you have refused me?”

She made no immediate answer but the continued working of her jaw. He almost turned away in finality, but a desperate whisper called him back. “There are worse things for her to think!”

He jerked his head round, staring at her pale face. He had not considered this! He began to breathe again, deliberating. He would tolerate neither disgrace to be attached to his wife- and she was correct in assuming his mother knew intimately all of the workings of the house. He nodded, sighing in resignation. “Very well.”

She flinched as he started toward her again, but froze in wonder when he did not come to her, but to the writing desk. He searched the top drawer until he found the pen knife, then rolled up his sleeve. “Sir?” she questioned anxiously.

He glanced back to her, pressing his lips tightly, then drew the blade lightly across the hard muscle of his forearm.

“John!” she cried in dismay. “What have you done?”

“Pull back the counterpane,” he commanded brusquely.

Her brow furrowed, she did as he directed. He pinched the shallow wound until a respectable pool of blood had formed, then quickly bent to create a gory smear across the sheet. Grimacing at the vulgarity of it all, he straightened.

Margaret looked as though she were about to faint. He started in concern. “You are not troubled by the sight of blood?”

She shook her head, dazed. “No, but… I had not expected you to….” Her hands gestured vaguely in the direction of his wounded arm.

He clenched his jaw and began to roll his sleeve down once more. The slight cut was already closing up, but he did not wish to distress her further by making her look upon it.

“I cannot ask it of you yet,” he rasped at length, his eyes still on his sleeve. He completed the task of buttoning it, and looked back to her. Some of the colour had returned to her cheeks.

He drew near and held out his hand. Hesitantly, she received it. “I am pleased that you are here, Margaret. It is not my wish that you should feel unwelcome in any way. My mother… it will take time, Margaret. For all of us. Do you understand?”

She swallowed and nodded blankly. His expression softened. “I will bid you a good night, then.” A flicker of hope shone in his eyes as he gingerly lifted her fingers to his lips.

She allowed the intimacy without comment. Only after he had returned her hand did she offer a quiet, “Good night, John.”

He retreated to his own room via the hallway, rather than through the shared door. There was no need to emphasise to her so early that he would be little more than thirty feet away as she slept… nor did he think he could walk across her room again without somehow stumbling and humiliating himself.

He felt like a gangling youth again with her in his house! The intent way she scrutinised his every move, as if weighing him against the ideal gentleman she had not married, wholly unnerved him. Fool that he was, however, he could not help thrilling in the fact that her attention was fixated on him alone, and none but he had access to her bedroom. His hands trembled as he fumbled with his own door latch- in much the same way Margaret had struggled with hers.

He stripped down until his chest was bare, then found the mirror at his washbasin. The only possible relief he would find this night was cold water, and for a mercy, there was plenty of it. He splashed raucously, heedless of the mess he created on the floor and the aching protests of his chilled muscles. If he could not seek divine blessing in the arms of the enticing woman in the next room, he would chastise his own flesh until it yielded in humbled submission! He almost succeeded.

His head finally beginning to clear somewhat, he reached for a hand towel to dry his face. It was in the mirror that his eyes caught the unfamiliar flash of candlelight pouring from beneath the shared door, and the faint shadow dimming it as a figure moved within the room. Without the noise of splashing water to distract him, he could hear each sound clearly… bare feet… a sigh… the counterpane as it rustled… the groaning of the bed frame.

The towel was shaking in his hands. He stared at it, clumsy and awkward once more as his fingers stumbled to make sense of the damp cloth. Something dulled his vision- perhaps it was the memory of how her sheets had felt against his skin, or the warmth of her mouth still lingering on his lips from that one kiss they had shared all of those hours ago.

Numbly, he reached to hang up his towel, but like the novice he suddenly felt himself to be, he missed the hook entirely. He jerked his hand in correction, but his body had quite simply forgotten the mature grace it had known only yesterday. He reached to halt the swing of the towel and the arch of his elbow, but was too late- the pitcher, now mercifully emptied of water, crashed to the floor and shattered into a hopeless pile of shards.

~

Milton-Northern, 1835

“Did you break something, John? What in thunder are you doing up here?” The voice made its way up the hall and into the room long before its owner did.

Twelve-year-old John glanced up shamefacedly from the odd-shaped contraption in his hands. “I was trying to make it work, Father.”

George Thornton lowered himself easily to the nearest chair. He was a tall, squarely-built man of five and thirty, with keen dark eyes and a ready smile. “May I?” He held out his hand, and his son passed him the apparatus which had befuddled him.

“Oh, yes!” the father enthused when he recognised it. “Is it not Barlow’s wheel that I brought home from London? My partner wished me to show this next week to a group of investors. But why is it not working? Was this the crash I just heard?”

John reddened as his father returned it. “I dropped it. I am sorry, Father. Now it is misaligned, and I lost some of the mercury.”

Thornton fixed his son with a serious expression. “That is rather wasteful, my son. This was quite costly. You will have to find some way to repair it.”

Young John straightened. “I have some money set aside. I will go tomorrow to purchase more mercury, Father, and I am quite certain I will have it good as new by tomorrow!”

The elder Thornton returned the wheel to his son with a cheerful grin. “See that you do. I ought to discipline you- what will Wright say if he hears the model was destroyed before the investors even see it! However,” he eyed his boy with a look that made him squirm, “I doubt you will make that same mistake again. Have you thought how to repair the frame?”

John turned it about in his hands, then pointed to a particular weak point in the design. “If I heat it here, I think I can bend it to allow the wheel to spin easily again without compromising the strength of the metal.”

Thornton nodded in curt satisfaction. “That should work. It is a remarkable discovery, is it not?” he gestured to the machine.

The boy’s eyes lit. “Father, only think what technology like this can achieve! If it were large enough, we could power anything! We would not need horses to pull our carriages, and perhaps even the steam engine itself will be replaced!”

“That will be a long way off, John, if it ever happens! I think nothing else could ever produce so much power.”

John looked back to the marvel in his hands, unconvinced by his father’s scepticism. “I should like to see it tried,” he maintained stubbornly.

George Thornton shrugged with an easy grin. “Perhaps someday it will be. Wright, my partner, seems to think as you do. Now, set that aside. I have something of rather great import to discuss with you. Tell me, John, how have you been getting on with your studies?”

The boy shuffled uncomfortably in his chair, suddenly looking anywhere but at his father. “Well enough,” he mumbled unwillingly.

“Would you still claim that, if you knew that I had spoken with your master?” Thornton queried, his expression searching and hard. Jovial though he could be, his temper was not to be tried, and his son knew it.

The lad dared to meet his father’s eyes. His father was a kind man, and even a good-humoured man when times were plentiful, but he seemed to place an inordinate emphasis on dusty old books! “I expect that I should not, Father,” he admitted.

Thornton’s face revealed nothing; waiting, as he was, for his son to confess all.

“I did not complete my report on Constantine,” John continued sulkily. “And I did not memorize the third declension irregular verbs as I should have.”

“Yet your master claims that you are the ablest boy in his schoolroom. Your scores in mathematics are perfect, and the master says that even with half the effort applied by the other boys, you typically excel in your Latin and Greek. Why is it, John, that my son should not be giving his very best, when he is capable of far more than he achieves?”

John stared at the floor, swallowing. He had already grown ashamed of himself, but it needed the convicting humiliation of his father’s discovery to truly galvanize his resolve to improve himself. “I shall do better, Father!” he promised.

“John,” George leaned back in his chair, “I know you would rather be building machines like this,” he gestured to the wheel, “or working like some other boys already do, but I would see you take the opportunity to improve yourself while you are yet young. It is a chance few have had, and I confess, I am quite envious of you.”

A reluctant sigh rose from the lad. “Yes, Father.”

“John…” Thornton hesitated, glancing at his son’s downturned face, and continued. “I have decided to send you to London for school.”

The boy’s face jerked up in horror. “Father, I promise I will do better!”

“It is more than that, John. I speak of your future advantages. I am afraid it will not be a prestigious school, but Mr Wright’s family in Bentinck Street has offered to sponsor you, along with their own boys. I think with them, you will learn a great deal more than you can here. Many things are within Wright’s reach which are beyond mine, and you may even establish some connections which will be useful in your future.”

John forced himself to look up from the floor, his incredulous gaze seeking his father’s. “Will Mother be very unhappy that I am to go?”

Thornton gave a short, wry laugh. “It has taken me two years to persuade her to it! I wanted to send you to Rugby, but she was firmly set against it- even could I have afforded it. At least with the Wrights, she has the comfort that you will be looked after by someone she knows and people of or own class.”

Regret dimmed the boy’s usually bright features. “I will be sorry to leave her, though, Father.”

“Your mother is quite occupied with Fanny at present. She is not strong, you know, and your mother fears….” The man’s voice trailed off as his cheek flinched in pain.

“She fears losing Fanny as she did Sara,” John finished in a hushed tone. “Father, if… if the worst happens, may I return so that she may have some comfort?”

Thornton smiled at his son. “I expect your mother will insist upon it. She will miss you a great deal, John, but I am convinced this is for the best.”

The boy lowered his head, then with a firm jaw and a determined glint in his eyes, met his father’s gaze once more. “I will not disappoint you, Father.”

George Thornton stood, and his son followed. He placed a strong, work-hardened hand on his boy’s shoulder. “I know you will not, John. I am already more proud of you than you can know- although, I do have hopes that your new physical education lessons in London will help you at last become master of this lanky frame of yours! I cannot afford for you to keep dropping my models.”

A sheepish smile grew on the adolescent face. “I am sorry, Father. I know I ought not to have touched it, but….”

“But you found it too intriguing to ignore? That’s the Thornton blood, John. We cannot help but dream of the future! Industry needs men like us. Perhaps someday you will turn this mechanical fascination of yours into something truly remarkable. You might even grow to be one of the greatest men in Milton, with a fine house and a business of your own.”

Young John turned adoring eyes to his father. None understood his ambitions quite so well! “Perhaps, Father,” he grinned.

“Come,” Thornton ruffled his son’s hair. “I expect your mother is waiting for us to join her at breakfast.”


 

Well, what do you think? I hope you are as eager as I am to spend time with these two again. They will command all my attention very soon.

-Nicole

 

 

 

 

 

Anything New?

If there is one thing I have learned in my 2 1/2 years of writing, it is that the pastime is highly addicting! How addicting, you ask? So much so that I become irrationally cross when a day rolls by without allowing me an opportunity for some quiet time with my laptop.

Naturally, I have a couple of works in progress (because just one at a time is… boring). Both of these are going to be longer novels, which means I have a road yet to travel with them. I would, however, like to share with you the opening scene from the Pride and Prejudice variation I’m working on. It will be a couple more months before this one is polished and ready for the shelf, but here is a first taste.

Enjoy!

These Dreams
August 18, 1813

Fitzwilliam Darcy exited the disgraceful hovel in one of London’s worst districts, tugging self-consciously at his hat. He sighed at last in relief. He was assured now that George Wickham would make his appearance at the church in the morning, for the man could not afford to vanish. For better or worse, a few more hours would see that cad and wild Lydia Bennet shackled to one another for life.

He paced quickly to a side street, not wishing even to be seen loitering in these parts. There was only one possible reason a wealthy man would dally here, and though it would only be winked at, he abhorred the association. A block away, he paused to collect his thoughts. It was well that he had discovered the youngest Bennet girl when he had. It was too late for her virtue, but not so disastrous that she was beyond all hope of recovery. It was a mercy that her uncle was a man of great sense and less pride, for even now that good man and his lady wife were exerting themselves to redeem Lydia Bennet’s morales somewhat before her wedding. With such a man as Edward Gardiner for her public defender and himself as her guardian angel, it was yet possible that the girl could regain some measure of respectability… and her sisters- Elizabeth-might freely mingle in society once more.

Some secret part of him longed to ride to her door the very moment the ceremony was completed. He would seek her out on one of her scandalous solo walks, fall on his knees, and declare to her all that love of her had wrought in him. How grateful she would be to him for saving her sister! How pretty her tears and words of contrition, and how sweet her rosy cheeks and embarrassed teases when she recovered from her first shock? The tenuous threads which had begun to twine them together during her stay in Derbyshire might weave ever stronger, binding her heart and winning him her hand at last. Delicious as that particular fantasy might seem, it could never be!

Since his world had shattered at Hunsford, and he had faced the reality of life without Elizabeth Bennet, he had overcome his objections to her connections. Those feelings dispatched, it had been an effortless journey from baffling passion to overpowering devotion- of the kind which sought only her happiness, at the expense of his own and in the face of scandal. His long carriage ride from Pemberley had provided ample opportunity for him to sort his feelings. He would do for her what no other could, and he would do all in secrecy so that no shadow of obligation should haunt her. If he could ever have won her love by fair means, he might have counted himself the most blessed man in the kingdom. Now, however, his confession of involvement in her sister’s affairs could only bring her shame. No, far better that he leave her in peace, for his company had ever been distressing to her and could only be more so now.

Perhaps, if she were in no hurry to marry another, he might one day meet with her as common- but not so indifferent- acquaintances. He had good reason to believe that Bingley would understand the meaning of his cryptic note the day before, encouraging the fellow to stop once more at Netherfield for the fall shooting. If that hint were not strong enough, he would speak more pointedly on the subject when next they met. If Elizabeth had been right, Bingley might find a warm welcome and untold joy upon his return to Hertfordshire. It was possible that he might then, after some time had passed, dare to begin again with Elizabeth. What he would give to bring her home with him! She was not a woman to wander in indecision, and if she had begun to think better of him, no protracted courtship would be necessary. Might he even win her affections early enough that he would not spend another winter alone? Could it be possible?

His heart burned, convincing himself that the prospect might yet blossom before him, but then constricted once more. It was alternately possible that one day she would waltz into the arms of another man, and as a friend of her future brother, he would be forced to look on in silence.

Bah! He shook his head, banishing the twisting of his stomach and the panic rising in his heart. All of this was yet pointless dread, for until the morrow’s ceremony, her family was still at risk and any romantic hopes blighted. He would carry out the one detail he could control, and hope that someday she might find him worthy of her friendship and regard. Such warm sentiments might eventually flourish into love- pure, unselfish love, such as that he held for her. Should it prove impossible, his heart owed her nothing less than a complete withdrawal. He clenched his eyes as he walked, swallowing the shooting pain arcing through his chest. Elizabeth….

Footsteps behind him snapped him back to awareness. It had been a grave risk, facing these streets night after night and alone in his search for Wickham. A man dressed as he drew attention, and his face was one easily recognised by any who cared to notice such things. Not for the first time, he doubted the wisdom of his decision to go out without the benefit of at least a footman to watch his back, but secrecy had been of the utmost importance. His fine and imposing appearance, though marking him to prospective thieves, had served a purpose as well- all the better to impress his will upon a recalcitrant landlady and an unrepentant pair of reprobates. Still, he could not afford to be found deaf and blind to his surroundings! Woolgathering over his lost love could cost him dearly.

The steps were light and quick- a child, perhaps, or a small woman. As they drew daringly close, he clamped his hand over the coin purse in his pocket, preparing either to shield it from less threatening pickpockets, or fling it away from himself at greater need. Counting two more steps, he whirled. “Why do you follow me?” he demanded.

A young girl, no more than fifteen and dressed in rags, shrank back from him. She cowered behind her raised arm, wincing at the harshness of his tones. “I dinna’ mean no ‘arm, suh!” she protested.

He relaxed, dropping his hand. “You should not be alone on the streets, Miss.”

“Lawd, ain’t yew ‘igh an’ mighty! ’Tis me work. I ‘ave ter eat, suh.” The little waif crossed her arms indignantly, then her eyes widened when his hand hesitantly moved once more toward his pocket. “I’ll give yew a right good one! I’ve a room ‘round da corner.”

“Certainly not!” His hand moved quickly away once more, his face pinching in disgust. This refuse of society was nearly the same age as George Wickham’s latest quarry- the one he had just laboured to save. What difference was there between the two but the circumstances of their birth and upbringing? There was less he could do for this stranger, perhaps, but his own innate charity would not permit him to simply turn his back. It appeared, however, that his vehement rejection of her services brought about a sudden melancholy, for she began to pout and whimper. Whether genuine disappointment or a practiced art, he could not say. He only knew that he could not leave her thus.

“When did you last take a proper meal?” he asked more gently.

Her hanging head jerked upward in astonishment. “’Proper meal,’ ‘e says! Lawd, suh, I ‘ave ter fend fer meself. Where is a girl like me supposed ter find tea an’ crumpets? Eatin’ like Prinny, I s’pose yew mean?”

He grimaced, then reached into his pocket. He weighed the purse before withdrawing it, then stepped near. “Hold out your hand,” he instructed. When she hesitantly did so, he poured the entire contents into her outstretched palm. “There is a boarding house, second block over, number six. The proprietress is a Mrs Younge.”

She nodded. “I know the ‘ouse. She’ll frow me aaaht quick as yew please! She never lets me stay wiv me fellas.”

He frowned, barraged by a series of images he would much rather have done without. “Indeed. Show her one of these coins and tell her that the gentleman who was just there gave them to you. She will not dare to defy my instructions. You are to ask her for a week’s board and a clean set of clothing, and then for work. Stay off the streets, and look well to your appearance and manners. I believe she is in need of a new chamber maid, if the state of the establishment is any indication. I hope you may find honourable employment, Miss.”

She gaped for the space of a heartbeat, then her fist tightened around the coins he had given her, as if she were afraid he might change his mind. Like a flash, she spun and was gone. He lingered only a few seconds more himself- long enough to see that, indeed, she had taken the direction to Mrs Younge’s abode.

His conscience now lightened a precious little, he sighed and began to turn away. I think, he mused silently, that Elizabeth would approve, if I ever dare to tell her. That happy thought warmed and stirred his heart, quickening his steps toward his own home. It was the last notion to pass through his mind before a noiseless, earth-shattering blow to his head. In a flash of light, his breath heaved from his lungs and he crumpled, senseless, to the ground.

Northern Rain Audiobook Winners

Thank you everyone who has so enthusiastically supported this book! I am thrilled and honored by all of the kind things said and shared in the past several months. I hope Northern Rain will continue to be enjoyed by North and South fans for many years to come.

Today I get to announce the winners of the audiobooks! I have two to give away, and I will be sending a separate email to the winners.

Sandra Fillmer

Susanne Barrett

Thank you ladies for all of your support, and Merry Christmas!

Northern Rain Vignette #6: A New Day

The following is a vignette written for the Northern Rain blog tour. It first appeared on Janet Taylor’s blog More Agreeably Engaged. It is also published on Goodreads, in celebration of the release of the audiobook produced by Stevie Zimmerman. This will be the last of the republished vignettes, and a drawing for the final audiobook giveaway will be held on December 7. Be sure to comment!

This honeymoon vignette picks up where the main story of Northern Rain leaves off, on the first morning after John and Margaret’s marriage. I hope you enjoy this peek into their married life. – NC

 

A New Day

The black nothingness of sleep vanished in an instant as John Thornton snapped to alertness. His vision blurred for only a second until his eyes focused on the unfamiliar surroundings. Some inner sense, even in the very depths of his slumber, had kept him aware, but now he awoke to a new impression of disorientation.
Within half a heartbeat, he was searching to his right. His arm flexed and his wild, dizzy hope was rewarded. For the first time in his one-and-thirty years, he had not wakened alone.

His entire being wished to cry out in transports of joy. It was too glorious a thing for him, that the truthful light of morning unveiled not the mechanized tasks of his solitary day, but the beautiful communion of one to share in his life. She curled trustingly into the crook of his arm, her lashes brushing the flesh of his shoulder in her dreams. She had melded to him so completely in a precious few hours, without reserve or fear, or- God forbid- shame! The prior night’s tender congress had united them in body and spirit, introducing them both to wholehearted vulnerability such as neither had ever imagined.

Now, as his spellbound gaze traveled slowly over the sleeping form of his wife, he knew her in strange, intimate new ways. He had always been a keen observer of every aspect of this woman, but in the gentle afterglow of their nuptials, he drank in the minute details which he had never before been privileged to witness. That little flicker of her eyes within their softly closed veils; the scarce trembling of her nose as some powerful feeling passed through her dreams; the delectable little freckle he had discovered just at the base of her collarbone…. Each new detail, each little whiff of her soft breath stirring through the sensitive hairs on his chest- all was his alone to cherish. Even in quiet repose, her graceful presence bestowed upon him riches beyond compare.

He longed to rouse her, to be the one to witness that moment when she shifted from dreams to wakefulness, but it was too delicious to bask in her peaceful warmth. Sweet, clinging arms draped over his chest, binding him to remain as her comfort in slumber. He began seriously to contemplate how many days a man could live without taking the trouble of leaving his bed. Wedded life, he decided with a grin, held more infinitely delights than he had yet dreamt of exploring!

His perfect euphoria battled with his growing urgency to partake of her loving eyes, and smiles meant only for him. He craved the reassurance that she would be pleased to find herself in his arms, in the luminous revelation of their first morning together. Wishing to draw out his efforts to wake her, he began gently- so softly that he thought she might not even perceive him.

He turned his face somewhat, so that his breath might send warm draughts through her loosened hair. He delighted in watching the prickling flesh of her arm across his chest, proudly reveling in his ability to unnerve her. It was only fair, after all- he had been discomposed and off his balance since their very first meeting! It had been an awakening of sorts for him- the staggering realization that she held him in such power as he had never known, and that there was no place he more desired to be.

Daring more now, he rocked closer to her, nuzzling down her neck with whisper-soft kisses. A sharp intake of her breath was the signal he awaited. He drew back, aching to be the first sight of the day which drew her focus. Her lashes fluttered, and a luxuriating sigh cleansed away the last traces of sleep before she fully left behind the perfect serenity of dreams. A subtle curve lifted the corner of her mouth, and slowly, as if intentionally tormenting him, her languorous eyes opened to him.

He could not contain the guileless pleasure beaming over his entire face. “Good morning, my wife,” he murmured, yet his smile was so intense that he could scarcely command his lips to form the words. How long had he desired to utter that very phrase to her? That such a privilege should be his was still incomprehensible to him. Margaret Thornton’s cheeks warmed, and with a hint of shyness, she nestled her face contentedly into the hollow of his shoulder. “Good morning, John,” came the muffled answer.

He traced the soft tips of his fingers over the luscious form beneath the counterpane, tickling sensitive new places. With some delight, he felt her tense beside him as she fought back a wave of bashful giggles. Smiling more deeply now, he broadened his explorations and waited for some more forceful reaction from her. Perhaps he had been expecting her to at last cry out in protest, or to grasp his hand to compel him to stop. In that, he had underestimated his bride.

Her hand moved unexpectedly to torment his side, seizing him with the irrational desire to bark out in sudden laughter and leap away from her. “Why, John, whatever is the matter?” she asked in false innocence. “I only return your affections!”

“I shall take more care in the future,” he returned gruffly, stilling her devilish little fingers by pressing them tightly to his chest. “I would prefer your attentions to be of quite a different sort.”

With a demure smile, Margaret shifted her posture and retreated to her pillow. She reclined invitingly, a teasing curve to her brow and a modest flutter to her lashes. “I give you leave to try a different approach, sir,” she sighed.

Accepting the challenge, he rolled close until he hovered above her. His delight shone clearly in that lopsided smile she adored, and he dropped to brush tender lips over her forehead. “Good morning, Margaret,” he whispered reverently, his tones growing husky and raw with desire.

Her hands caressed over his shoulders, and he slid his body down the length of hers until he could comfortably kiss those shapely lips. He lingered there, drinking in the intoxicating bouquet of her natural scent without the enhancement of soaps or perfumes. She was quite positively breathtaking in this native state- authentic and strong, yet beguiling and oh, so sweet, all at once!

His tender ribs were protesting more loudly the longer he remained thus. At length he was obliged to make a reluctant withdrawal, but not without wrapping himself about her so that she tumbled toward him as he went. Margaret tucked her face up beneath his chin, laughing softly and kissing his throat as she fell back into his embrace. A little frisson of sheer longing shivered up the back of his neck and pulsed through his body, driving the breath from his lungs. As on that very first day he had ever beheld her, she stole all of his rational thought and left him bereft of his powers of speech. No longer, thought he with a grin, was that a lamentable state of affairs. There were a great many means of communication which did not require words, and they were all permissible to him now!

With an eagerness he could scarcely contain, his hands began reacquainting themselves with each dip and curve of her glorious form, unfettered now by the trappings of polite femininity. His mouth he occupied in teasing the sensitive cleft below her jaw, slowly and torturously feathering light kisses up to the base of her ear. An unbidden groan of pleasure met his amorous assault, but then she seemed to collect herself. Her responses to his ardour cooled markedly, and she received his attentions with modest reserve.

Disappointed, and with mounting alarm, he drew back. She could not mean to go on so, responding to him only with diffidence! He infinitely preferred the woman he had held all night, whose throaty approval of his hopeful passion still rang in his ears and had echoed in his dreams. His troubled gaze swept over her beloved face, and then stopped. There, glimmering in her curved lips and faintly smiling eyes, he identified a spark of mischief. Some of the dread began to slip from him once more, as he braced himself for whatever frippery she was about to unleash upon him.

She cleared her throat. Though trapped beneath him once more in a shocking state of undress, she effortlessly assumed the airs of grace and deportment he had been treated to at their first meeting. “This is a very fine city, I hear. I am to understand the beaches are quite pleasant, and Lord Street is said to boast a number of notable dwellings. What did you wish to do today, my husband?”

“I am doing it, or at least I was,” came the pointed retort. He tightened his arms about her for emphasis. “I made a conscientious search, you may be sure, and I have ascertained that the most diverting entertainment to be had in all of Southport resides right here in my bed. I thought we should take our meals here for the rest of the week.”

Her mouth quirked. “In such a state of dress! You shall have the whole inn staff walking out in protest.”

His brow wrinkled speculatively. “All the more private, I should say. The notion has merit.”

She shook her head, chuckling. “I believe it would be somewhat… conspicuous… should we never emerge today.”

“I know that I should most certainly take note of that fact,” he grinned roguishly. “You must learn something of a businessman’s ways, Margaret. When important matters are at hand, one must apply all diligence, completely eschewing other pleasures, to see everything to a satisfactory conclusion.”

“And you intend to accomplish this feat today?” she inquired with all credulity.

“A number of times, I hope.”

“John! You are incorrigible!” She blushed crimson, and he indulged his feasting eyes for the first time in watching the heat traveling up to her face from savoury parts below.

“I shall continue to be so, as long as I am rewarded with such an exquisite reaction, Love!” he laughed. “It is high time I that I am able to discomfit you, as you always have me.” His eyes trailed suggestively down to where her shape pressed against his, and soon his hands made the journey as well. She drew a quick breath of fresh surprise at his touch, then her body sighed with pleasure against his as she relaxed. He kissed those pert lips, finding this a far more suitable conversation for the moment, until she pressed him away with a subtle nudge of her mouth.

“John,” she nibbled her lip coyly, raising her gaze to his through lowered lashes. “I think I shall go quite distracted if I am to be denied the pleasure of sea bathing. Whatever shall I tell Edith once she finds I have come all this way, only to skip such a famous attraction?”

A devious light came to his eyes, and his right cheek pulled into that dazzling, troublesome smile of his. “You shall be able to tell her that you enjoyed quite a different sort of bathing, for which you were never bothered to leave your room, nor obliged to engage in the activity alone.”

Southport, with its convenient location and charming amenities, remains a frequent vacation spot of Mr and Mrs Thornton of Milton. The couple are known to retreat thither at least twice per year for a week-end, with claims that Mrs Thornton finds the clean salt air refreshing to her spirits. It is perhaps curious, however, that when asked by those of their acquaintance for recommendations on favourite activities in the area, the only locale ever mentioned is a small, out of the way inn near the shore.

Northern Rain Vignette #5: Words of Love

This vignette was originally written as part of the

blog tour for Northern Rain. It is a series of love letters, penned back and forth between John and Margaret in the early months of their marriage. The vignette was first published on Sophie’s blog, Laughing With Lizzie.

The same vignette can also be found in the Goodreads Creative Writing section. It is republished in celebration of the recent release of the audiobook narrated by Stevie Zimmerman. I have one Audible code left to give away, so be sure to comment for a chance to win!

 

My Dearest Love,

Would that it were my arms you found on your pillow for your comfort tonight, rather than this simple note. How I shall miss you, my darling! I had promised myself that we should never spend a day apart, but I suppose that was a selfish notion. I much prefer to know that you are safe at home, my love, and resting as you should be. I have commissioned both Mother and Dixon to ensure that you do, in fact, rest a little!

My Margaret, I scarcely know how I shall face these few days apart from you. You have brought so much wonder to my life, Love, that I cannot comprehend how I survived so long in my cold, colorless world. I am loath to return to it, but now I have the assurance that very soon, I shall come again to your loving embrace and your delicious kisses. I shall sleep well tonight, Love, knowing that this brief sojourn will only serve to sweeten the reunion when I take you in my arms again on Saturday.

All of my heart,
John

 

Darling John,

As I write this, you are even now making your preparations for your trip. Should you find any smudges on the paper, you may be assured that they are not tears of sorrow, but of deepest joy. That is what I shall tell myself! It was not so very long ago that I had begun to think I would never know the contentment of love, or the pride that I feel in you. My husband, you have taught me the truest meaning of the word, for it is not in any merit of my own, but in my fine, loving husband and his affections that I boast.

I am so proud of you, my darling; of your devotion, your honor, your cleverness, and the sacrifice you make in leaving us for these interminable few days. I understand the value of your efforts, and I feel the full measure of your faithfulness to the mill and to us. I think there is no more blessed wife in the kingdom than I! I quite rival your mother now in her pride for you. I shall try to conduct myself in a worthy manner while I wait for you to return to me, but I cannot quite promise that I shall bear up as bravely as I should like. I fear that I am not always myself of late!

I must close this now, for I hear you coming up the stairs to kiss me goodbye before your train. I am privately wondering how long it will take you to find this note which I secrete in your bag, so do be certain to write tomorrow and tell me.

I remain entirely yours,
Margaret

 

My Dearest Margaret,

I was still at the rail office when I began searching for the note you so cleverly tucked into my bag. I treasured it for the duration of the ride to London, and it kept me company in the small hours of the night. Did you rest well, Love?

I expect you will have passed two nights by the time you receive this. I am immeasurably grateful to your cousin for her hospitality. Not only am I assured that you already have the address, and I may soon expect the comfort of word from you, but her library is more than adequate. I spent a good many hours in it last night, so you may be certain that I know that of which I speak.

Mrs Lennox is faring quite well, but I expect that her confinement draws very near, if I may speak so indelicately. I look with some jealous sympathy on the Captain as he hovers over his wife, and I almost wish that I had stayed elsewhere at such a momentous time for their family. Your cousin, however, would not hear any objections. She received me very warmly on your account, and questioned me for a long while last night- and such plain questions she had for me! I think I was quite blushing when her husband at last drew her away.

It is nearing dawn now, my love, and I am reminded of that first morning I awoke in your arms. I believe I know now why a woman’s hair is said to be her crowning glory. It is because the man blessed to hold such a laurel close to his heart may rightly feel himself a king. I still think myself quite unworthy of such a gift as your love, and wonder at heaven’s mercy in imparting your heart to me, but I shall never cease to grateful. It is because of you that I can look boldly to the future and laugh at what troubles may come our way.

I must now put down my pen, Love. I dislike doing so, for in writing you, it seems we are not so far apart. However, if I am to make myself at all useful when I meet with Mr Colthurst and his associates today, it would behoove me to seek out a cup or three of hot coffee.

Yours forevermore,
John

 

My Husband,

I would ask how you passed your first night in Edith’s home, but I expect I know the answer- despite your first note’s assurances to the contrary. I fared little better, I am afraid. It seems that I had come to lean against you a great deal as I slept, and being deprived of your support, I found your pillow wholly inadequate to my wants. It seems that I can no longer balance myself in my sleep, and the babe protested quite violently no matter what I tried!

John, I am so longing to see our child! Are we to expect a boy or a girl? Will I look down into the eyes of my husband, and see that spark of his that I adore shining anew in our child? I now begin to understand your mother a little better, for in anticipating our babe, the fiercest thoughts come to my mind! I never thought myself capable of such feelings, but I would turn over the world, John, to spare our son- or daughter- the faintest measure of grief. I know that is a foolish notion, and a vain one, for life has shaped you into the man I love, and it will do no less for our children.

Dr Donaldson came by this evening to discuss some hospital business, and told me that new medicines and supplies are arriving daily. I am glad of that. If it is all I can do to improve my own little corner of the world, I shall continue to aid his efforts. It may seem small, but I do hope some good will come of it. I feel I owe our children- yes, I hope for more!- a better world than the one we found. I thank you for your indulgence and understanding in allowing me to spend much of my time so employed. I blame your influence entirely, John, for your ambitions have rubbed off on me.

I do hope your meetings with Mr Colthurst are productive. I know you felt yourself undeserving of the honour to be chosen as Milton’s representative in these affairs, but I do not. None understand the legislation, or its impacts on the industry, better than you do, my husband. I have every confidence that you will carry out your duty faithfully and with distinction, and that at the end of it you will return to find me

Ever yours,
Margaret

P.S. I think I ought to inquire which of the staff has the keys to my room and my writing desk. Someone has been gaining access when I am away. I discovered the pilfering because each day, they are carelessly leaving a rose behind with my ink jars. I am determined to solve the mystery! -M

 

My precious wife,

Have I mentioned lately how delicious that word tastes when I speak it? It looks just as well on paper. I, a married man! A year ago, I never could have dreamt that I might call you my own. Before I met you, my Margaret, I am convinced that the desire was not even in me. Whether you planted it there, or merely awakened what I had long forgotten, I shall not trouble myself to determine. I know only that our marriage has brought a richness to my life that I had never dared believe in for myself.

I am sorry to read of your troubles in sleeping comfortably. You may be assured that I will hurry back to your arms as quickly as possible. I cannot have the mother of my child in distress! Ah, there was another word I had failed to appreciate until just now. The entire phrase sounds purely exquisite! There is such a sense of belonging, of oneness with the woman I love, to think that even now she carries our future within her. I have not the words to express my heart, but to simply say that it is nothing short of miraculous. I, too, wonder if I shall see my love’s likeness as our child grows. I hope, my Margaret, that if we should be blessed with a daughter, she will look just like her beautiful mother. I would count it a privilege to watch you grow up all over again before my very eyes.

It would be unfair of me not to report the progress we have made here, for I know that you are curious. Mr Colthurst has proven an agreeable, intelligent fellow. I believe he may be reasoned with, and has shown himself willing to consider new perspectives. I have great hopes that our efforts may result in a more thoughtful draught of the bill at hand, which will mutually benefit all.

Henry Lennox was here to dinner last evening, and we two spent a long while over drinks in the study. I cannot fathom why you did not marry him, Margaret, for he is quite an inoffensive chap. It seems you have missed your opportunity, for he has recently made the acquaintance of the daughter of one of his law partners. He spoke very little out of sensitivity for the lady, but it sounds a promising attachment. I am afraid you shall have to continue to make do with your humble manufacturer!

I expect that this is the last letter I shall be writing on this trip, for on the day after tomorrow I intend to board a train bound for the north, and home. The words I would wish to express on paper, I shall preserve in my heart to whisper into your ear. You will be glad to know, however, that I am at last comfortably installed in my room and finding it much to my liking. I believe it was just after your cousin informed me that it had once been yours that I discovered what an agreeable room it truly was. I shall again rest my head on your old pillow tonight, and think on my sweet Margaret who dreamt her girlhood dreams as she lay under that very coverlet. On second thought, perhaps sleep may be more difficult than ever now!

Your sleepless and fervently devoted husband,
John

P.S. We have never yet had a dishonest housemaid. Are you certain that you are seeing correctly, Love? I should hate to unjustly accuse any of the staff. Perhaps your lack of rest has made you delusional. -J

 

My John,

I do hope this letter reaches you before you leave London. Should you board a train before receiving this, however, I do not think I shall complain.

Father has been nearly insufferable of late. He does not confess as much, but I think he misses you, John. He comes out of his rooms, sits by the fire but a few moments, and then returns. He offers no excuse for his strange behavior, only making some comments that he had thought of something of a sudden, and that it will keep for another time. It is amusing, I think, but your mother finds it all most disturbing!

She bears up rather the best of us in your absence. John, I really rather like your mother. Fancy that! She has been a great deal more conversant of late. I know she only tries to comfort me while you are away, for it is not at all her nature, but only this morning she suggested that we ask Nicholas and Mary to tea! I nearly dropped my pretty rose pot in shock!

Please do hurry home to us, my love. I miss the way you tease me when I try to be serious, and the way you clasp my hand under the table when you think no one is watching. I miss hearing you snore when you have had a particularly taxing day, and how silently you try to rise in the morning, thinking that I am still asleep as you dress. I miss the look in your eyes when you come to me, and how during those exquisite moments, all the world vanishes and there is only you. I am aching to kiss you and to drink in every delicious, unique detail which makes you my John. Can you really marvel that I chose you over Henry Lennox? I must take care to whisper in your ear all of the reasons why when you return to me.

Your loving
Margaret

p.s. Just as I was sealing this letter, the door to my room opened very silently. I believed for a moment that I had caught my burglar! Alas, it was only your mother, claiming she had mislaid something. How very odd, that she would not show me what was in her far hand.

 

Love,

If my instructions have been carried out, you are just now sitting down to your vanity to arrange your beautiful hair. There should be a bower of roses blocking the view of your mirror, and this sealed little missive should have been nestled in the blossoms. Perhaps by now, you will have discovered the identity of my accomplice!

Today, I come home to you, my darling. I write this several days before you read it, and so the ache of missing you has yet to grow to its fullest measure. I have no doubt that this week will have been torment for me of the most glorious sort, such as that of a starving man who only waits to return home to a feast. Do keep these letters, my love, as I do not anticipate having many opportunities to write more.

I trust you have nothing important planned for a few days, for I intend to entirely monopolize your schedule. I do hope you have all of the locks secured again.

Your impatient and immeasurably blessed husband,
John

Northern Rain Vignette #4: The Lost Scene

The following is a vignette originally written for the Northern Rain blog tour. This was the first vignette which appeared on the tour, and was originally published on Janet’s blog, More Agreeably Engaged. As a fun coincidence, the vignette was first posted to appear on Father’s Day.

The vignette is republished here in celebration of the recently released audiobook, narrated by Stevie Zimmerman. I have been unfortunately away from my blog with traveling and moving lately, but I still have one more audiobook to give away, so if you would like a chance to win, please leave a comment!

~

The reason we enjoy variations is because we have come to love the characters deeply, and in our hearts we begin to wonder how their story might have turned out if but one or two circumstances had played out differently.

In Northern Rain, I wanted to experiment with the characters trying to strike up some sort of amicable relationship after John’s disastrous proposal and Margaret’s humiliating falsehood about Frederick. Thornton thinks highly of Mr Hale, and Margaret wishes for her father not to lose his friend after he has already lost his wife and son. There seems to be good enough incentive for both to learn to be in the same room together. Might matters settle better for Mr Hale? What might happen afterward…?

I think the relationships in Victorian times were fascinating. In some respects, events moved at a plodding pace compared to today’s society. In others, they could move with breathtaking dispatch. One of the things I truly respect is the expectation that if a man paid enough attention to a woman to cultivate any sort of interest, it was understood that he was serious. Courtship may have been a choreographed process- not at all like the relaxed dating style of our world- but once the nature of the relationship was declared, the couple moved quickly to marriage. It seems difficult in this society to cultivate a more platonic friendship, particularly when the parties in question do not harbor such comfortable feelings for one another. It was an enjoyable prospect to explore.

There are so many rich personalities in Gaskell’s work who are worth examining. Besides the relationship between John and Margaret, the family ties are absolutely remarkable. The most “functional” looking family at first appears to be the Hales, until one delves beneath the layers. The Hale family are fraught with their own relational challenges.

Upon reflection, I think that the most profound and likely the healthiest respect is instead displayed between Mrs Thornton and her son. The following is a scene which has long fascinated me- a depiction of life at Marlborough Mills in the months immediately following John and Margaret’s marriage. I am of the school which sees a softer side to Hannah Thornton. In Gaskell’s original work, Hannah speaks grudgingly of Margaret’s admirable traits. One gets the sense that she might have heartily approved of the penniless southern girl, had Margaret not broken her son’s heart. I tend to believe that once assured that her son was happy in his marriage to a woman who returned his affections equally, Hannah might come to truly appreciate her daughter-in-law.

Margaret is not of the same mold as many other women of Hannah’s acquaintance, and is not easily swayed by public opinion. Surely she would often find herself the subject of idle talk, and I like to fancy Hannah as someone who would have no patience for such vanity. It is amusing to think of Hannah acting as guardian over Margaret when she finds herself in a delicate condition. This scene does not appear in Northern Rain, but is intended to flow with that story. I hope you enjoy it ~ NC

 

The Lost Scene

“Mrs Hamper, Mrs Slickson, how do you do today?” Hannah Thornton received her guests with no small degree of surprise. It was not typical for either of them to call on her, and even more unusual that they should do so in tandem.

“Good morning, Mrs Thornton,” replied Dolores Hamper, primping a drooping frill from her hat as she took a seat.

Catherine Slickson smiled and nodded primly as she also seated herself. “We are quite well, thank you Mrs Thornton. We thought to ask after you and…” her face clouded slightly as she realized the awkwardness of what she was about to say, “Mrs Thornton.”

Hannah’s cheek twitched in mild, but almost invisible amusement. “We are well. I am afraid my daughter-in-law is unable to join us at present, but I shall convey your regards.”

Jane arrived presently with tea, and Hannah watched them with growing entertainment. Mrs Hamper’s eyes widened and she cast a knowing smirk to her companion as they took in the delicate rose-spray pattern from Margaret’s favourite set. It was all very surreptitious, but she could fairly imagine what would be said between them after they took their leave.

“How does Mrs Watson?” asked Mrs Slickson with all innocence.

“She is as well as she was yesterday, I expect,” Hannah commented impassively. “I believe you were also at her dinner party last evening?”

Mrs Hamper cleared her throat. “I believe you meant to ask after the new hospital, was that not right, Catherine?”

“Of course! Oh, do forgive me, Mrs Thornton, I quite forgot! I had heard,” she glanced nervously at her friend, “that your daughter-in-law has become quite invested in the project.”

“Indeed, she has.”

The pair exchanged sly looks once more. “It seems a rather unladylike pursuit, do you not agree?”

“I do not. What can be more worthy of a woman’s efforts than caring for the infirm?”

The pair blinked in shock, their tea cups clattering on their saucers. “I… suppose nothing at all,” replied Mrs Slickson.

“We only worried,” Mrs Hamper covered for her smoothly, “that the young Mrs Thornton might exhaust herself, that is all. She looked rather pale last evening, and we noticed that she left quite early. I do hope, Mrs Thornton, that she will not become one of the hospital’s first patients!”

Hannah’s mouth twitched. At last they had confessed their true curiosity! “My daughter-in-law’s health is quite sound, I assure you.”

“Oh, that is well, Mrs Tho-” Mrs Slickson’s uncomfortable enthusiasm was cut short by the slamming of a door from the outer hall. Hurried footsteps followed, and a moment later, John Thornton burst into his mother’s sitting room.

He took little notice of the two visitors beyond a curt nod of his head. Instead, his anxious gaze sought his mother, who was rolling her eyes and trying to refrain from snapping at him for his untimely interruption. “Margaret?” he gasped breathlessly.
Hannah set her jaw grimly and motioned toward the outer hall with her eyes. She rose and graciously excused herself. “Will you ladies pardon me for just a moment, please?”

John met his mother in the hall and scarcely waited for the sitting room door to thump to a close before he made his demand. “Where is Margaret?” he hissed under his breath.

“She is in her room, John, but you must not go to her now.”

“I saw Donaldson walking to the house! He never comes at this hour for hospital business. Is she ill?”

Hannah hesitated. “Not precisely, John.”

His towering figure froze in place. His face aglow, he shuddered in a choking laugh, a nearly silent cry of joy. “Can she be…? Is it possible, Mother?”

“You should be talking to Margaret about that, John!” she scoffed uneasily. It was not her place, after all, to be the one to convey such news to him. “Stay, John, I did not mean just now!” she called in alarm as he hurriedly started for the stairs. “You must leave her be for a little while longer. Go back to the mill!”

“The mill!” he objected. “While Margaret is… no, it is unthinkable! I must see her! She should not be alone-”

Gritting her teeth in a dogged scowl, she clutched his arm- just painfully enough to draw his full attention. “Dixon is with her, and I have guests!” she reminded him pointedly. “At least go back to your study, John!”

His expression vacant, his thoughts all focused on whatever was taking place upstairs without him, he nodded at last in compliance. At least from his own study, he would be able to hear the doctor’s departure and could go to his wife the sooner.

Hannah sighed in exasperation. There would be no possible way now to downplay Margaret’s indisposition to her guests. She returned to the sitting room, apparently interrupting a whispered conversation between the pair. She resumed her seat with as much poise as she could summon. “I apologize, ladies. My son had… something rather important to discuss with his wife.”

Mrs Slickson nodded sweetly. “Quite all right, Mrs Thornton. I do think young couples are so enchanting! They have been married only a month, is that not correct?”

“Three,” Hannah corrected her drily, her brow arched.

“Oh, yes, do forgive me.” Mrs Slickson sighed, almost in disappointment that today’s morsel of gossip would not be as juicy as she had momentarily hoped.

Mrs Hamper was trying to smother a meaningful smile, but failing utterly. “Well, Mrs Thornton, I am afraid we must be going. You said you might give your daughter-in-law our respects?”

“Naturally,” Hannah assured her. “It was good of you both to call.” They took their time about their departure, fumbling with shawls and teacups for an inordinately long while. It seemed likely that they hoped to cross paths with the doctor on their way out, but Donaldson had slipped away only moments earlier.

What they did see, and what properly shocked them both, was John Thornton rushing up the stairs and encountering his wife half-way. Mrs Thornton tried to usher her guests to the front door as though nothing at all were amiss, but she met with little success. The couple were blissfully unaware of the visitors’ presence, but Mrs Hamper and Mrs Slickson went away with sufficient intelligence to keep themselves and their friends amused for weeks.

Northern Rain Vignettes: #3

This vignette was originally written for the Northern Rain blog tour. It was first featured on Rita’s blog From Pemberley To Milton. It is republished here in celebration of the new Audiobook release of Northern Rain, narrated by Stevie Zimmerman. This same vignette can also be found on Goodreads under Creative Writing.

Interview With A Mill Master

RD: Pardon me, Mr Thornton, sir?

JT: Yes? What can I do for you?

RD: Forgive my intrusion, sir. I am from the Times, and I was hoping to speak to some of Milton’s mill owners on the outlook of the cotton trade.

JT: By all means, my good man, although I have only a few moments. I had another appointment which had to be rescheduled, and I am to depart again shortly.

RD: Of course, sir, I will try not to take too much of your time. I only wished to be able to quote an experienced master such as yourself. If I may, how do the mills fare at present?

JT: Excellently, sir. I think there is no stronger export just now, particularly with war looming in the Baltic, and our increased presence in India. Cotton is certainly a utilitarian material in both cases.

RD: Yes, I would expect as much. Now, there was a rather bad strike last year affecting a number of mills. How did that affect your business, and do you expect future difficulties?

JT: Naturally, any disruption to the flow of commerce is an unfavourable circumstance. It is unfortunate, but the mills and laborers involved have since come to a working agreement. I do not expect it shall be the last strike we will see, but at present, I see no immediate cause for concern.

RD: So the Union is presently content with your terms?

JT: (Laughing) The Union is rarely content, but their grievances are not serious enough at this juncture to cause any real trouble. I pay my men better than others, sir, and Marlborough Mills is equipped with many new innovations to make the work safer and more comfortable. Of course, I would pay good men more if such an expense were justified, because I have an interest in keeping the best working for me. As profitable as cotton is, however, even I have my limits.

RD: Quite so. Mr Thornton, I am very glad to speak with you, in particular, because I have been told something of how you came to your position here. You are rather unique among Milton’s masters, in that your father did-

JT: My father had nothing to do with it, sir. I can account for my success purely by tireless diligence and careful planning.

RD: You do not find any circumstances in your past to be the work of fortune?

JT: Not at all. If you will forgive me, sir, I am afraid I must make my appointment. Had you still some questions?

RD: Indeed, sir, I should like to speak with you further. May I wait on you later this afternoon?

JT: That would be agreeable. I shall return by three o’ clock. Will that suit?

RD: Quite.

4:30

JT: Do forgive my tardiness, sir.

RD: Not to worry, Mr Thornton, your overseer has given me a most enlightening tour.

JT: Tour? Oh, yes, that is well.

RD: Sir… do forgive me, sir, but you look as though you have had some bad news. I hope that is not the case!

JT: Bad news? No! Nothing of the kind. A gentleman has just moved to Milton to become a Classics teacher, and he was referred to me by a mutual friend for assistance in settling. He… and his daughter… were having some difficulty in securing lodgings.

RD: I am glad it was nothing serious, sir. Now, we were speaking of how you got your start here at Marlborough Mills.

JT: ….

RD: Sir?

JT: Pardon me, what was that?

RD: Ahem. I was wondering, sir, how a man like you starts from nothing, and then finds himself confidently the master of the finest mill in the city.

JT: Confidently? Nothing is certain in this industry, sir.

RD: Mr Thornton, I have heard nothing but that your peers admire and respect your opinions. I should say you have every reason for confidence.

JT: I have, then, do I? Tell me, sir, have you ever covered any story relating to the labour unions?

RD: Er… Well, no, Mr Thornton. I know little of them.

JT: They can be fickle, like a woman. One moment, a man might fancy himself the master, and the next… and the next… he finds himself quite humbled.

RD: That is an interesting analogy. You are not married, are you Mr Thornton? I wonder that you should think of such a comparison.

JT: Half of the people in this country are women, sir. I encounter their kind daily… though I do not wish to sound a churl, for most of them are gentle enough.

RD: Forgive me, Mr Thornton, but you are looking rather unwell. Might you wish to call off the remainder of the interview?

JT: I am quite well, sir. Now, then, you were asking how I got my start in the mill?

RD: Let us return to that in a moment. You have made me think of something else. Are you not the only mill master in the city who is presently unmarried, Mr Thornton?

JT: That is rather a personal question, sir!

RD: Not necessarily. A married man is seen as stable, where an unmarried man might be prone to take greater risks in his business.

JT: I have my mother and sister, sir. You cannot think I would act rashly with them in my care!

RD: I did not mean to imply that you would, sir. Only that a family man has greater incentive toward stability. There is a vast difference between having a mother who keeps house for you and a having wife and children of your own.

JT: A… a wife?

RD: I say, Mr Thornton, have you taken a chill?

JT: No! I only… Sir, are you married?

RD: (Laughing) No, sir, but I am well familiar with the power a woman might hold over a man. My grandfather still gets a look on his face very much like yours when my grandmother chooses to contradict him!

JT: Your grandmother must be a rather provoking woman. I wonder that your grandfather does not put some stop to it!

RD: My grandfather counts himself the most fortunate of men, I assure you. Were I heir to the estate, I should do exactly as he did- find a sharp-tongued, clever woman such as my grandmother, and marry her regardless of circumstance. It will be a number of years before I have earned the security which would permit such a marriage, but… well, a man in your position, on the other hand….

JT: Did you not come here to ask questions about the mill?

RD: I believe I have what I need for my article, Mr Thornton. Perhaps I may call for another interview should the occasion arise?

JT: What? Oh, yes, certainly. Forgive me, sir, but I do not think we were properly introduced.

RD: That was intentional, sir. I beg your pardon. I am but a humble reporter, wishing to succeed on my own merits, but it becomes rather awkward when I tell people my last name. Richard Darcy, at your service. I hope, sir, that… er… your new friend and his family find Milton to their satisfaction. Good day, sir.

Northern Rain Vignettes: #2

The following is a very nascent idea which popped up in the initial story development of Northern Rain. It did not survive long- it is fanciful and not at all plausible, but it was a fun, romantic concept to return to for the afternoon.

This vignette was originally written for the Northern Rain blog tour. It was first featured on Maria’s blog Fly High It is republished here in celebration of the new Audiobook release of Northern Rain, narrated by Stevie Zimmerman. This same vignette can also be found on Goodreads under Creative Writing.

In North & South, both Thornton and Margaret pay visits to Helstone, but at different parts of the story. This short vignette explores the very unlikely possibility that their visits might have coincided. We find Margaret just as she learns she is to be an heiress, and John as he is pining for the woman he never expects to see again. One wonders if they would even need words, after so unexpectedly happening upon one another in such a remarkable setting. – NC

The Rejected Scene

“Margaret, my dear, are you well?”

The young woman’s eyes had become somewhat glazed, and she appeared quite out of breath as she sat sedately by the old man’s side. She gasped, still in shock. “You cannot leave me everything, Mr Bell! Surely, there is some other, someone who might know what to do with it all!”

Thomas Bell laughed softly and patted Margaret’s hand as they sat together on their makeshift bench. “No, Margaret, there is not. You and Frederick are all I have left, and he is quite well taken care of. My wish, my dear, is that you will make better use than I did of everything I leave to you. I have no doubt that you shall bestow your goodness on those- or perhaps on one at least- who is deserving of your care.”

She shook her head, still dazed. “But it is so much,” she objected humbly. “Surely, there can be no need for you to sign it all over now. What about you?”

“Never fear, my child.” Bell allowed his gaze to drift over the simple stone cottage which had once been his old friend’s parsonage. Even the picturesque little Helstone home lacked the serenity of former days, and, like his dear friend Hale, Bell had found that the world no longer had a place for him. He sighed, blinking, then looked back to Margaret.

She was sobbing quietly, understanding his meaning. “Oh, now, come, my dear!” he interrupted her. “Do not carry on so. Look here, I brought a new book along, and I should like to retire to the inn to enjoy it. It is much too fine a day for you to remain cooped up with me- why do you not go visit the school house as you proposed earlier?”

Margaret was eventually persuaded to agree to his plan. Feeling guilty, she left him to his comforts and set out upon her own path. It was a pleasure to return to Helstone once more, but it was not the home she remembered. Nothing remained the same. Old faces had gone. Of those she still knew, some had changed, some had remained the same; always she found it to be to the worse. She tried to enjoy her visit to the schoolhouse, but the pleasure was hollow. Feeling lonely and out of place, she at last took her leave.

By the time she had done so, dark clouds had rolled over the landscape she knew so well. Rain would soon fall, if she knew Hampshire’s weather at all, but Margaret made no attempts to hurry her path. She wandered, lost in thought. It had occurred to her that Mr Bell’s assets remained mostly in Milton, the city she thought never to see again. Chief among her new belongings would be… oh, dear. What would he think when he heard she was to be his landlady? Naturally, an executor would manage the properties for her. She would not see him, even if she wanted to….

A few sparse droplets sprinkled over her skirts now. Margaret nibbled her lip. She did want to see John Thornton. Had he not despised her so, she never would have left Milton in the first place, but his just scorn made the very walls of her own home close stiflingly about her. She simply had to go!

Mr Bell had just unlocked the door to him again, but she would fear humiliating him with her new possessions- and that was before she even began to consider what he must still think of her! Immodest and capricious, that was what he thought her to be. Dishonourable, too, lest she forget that accusation! No, she could not go to him, even with something so simple as a business relationship… could she? Could his opinion of her sink any lower?

The corners of her mouth tugged upward and she began to blink rapidly in elation. No, it could not! She turned her eyes up to the skies, allowing them to shower refreshingly over her face. She would think of some way to see him, and perhaps if he were generous, she might survive the encounter without wishing for the floor to swallow her up. Joy bubbled from her throat, and she longed to do what she had not done since childhood. Gathering her skirts, she began to run in the falling rain.

She had not gone far before she began to think she ought to seek some other shelter. The rain was falling heavily now, and her inn was a long way off yet. There was old Gibson’s home, was there not? She had been told that he had died and his house now stood abandoned. Surely she could pause there for a short while until the rain passed. She changed her course, turning up a lane and then cutting through a tall hedgerow of roses. Thorns tugged at her skirts, detaining her, but once she had freed herself, she looked up and, with a gasp, lurched to a halt once more.

John Thornton turned at the sound of the brush scraping through fabric. In his hand, he still held the rose he had just sentimentally plucked, but the vision which drew his eye froze him. Margaret? His Margaret, here and glowing with fresh radiance as she smiled up to him? It had to be a dream! He took a step toward her, experimentally offering the rose he held, but afraid to speak lest he shatter this heavenly reverie.

Reality blossomed when her warm, damp hand met his. She looked openly into his face, her eyes smiling her relief at his welcome. They stared at one another for several seconds, neither turning loose of their rose as the rain pooled inside its petals. Margaret had at first seemed hesitant, but the longer he gazed down at her, searching for the loving words he wished to declare, the more confident she grew. At last, her fingers closed fully around his. “Come,” she beckoned, a lively warmth glowing upon her cheeks. “There is a house this way!”

He followed her willingly, clutching her small hand as though she were a phantom, and taking care that the thorns of their shared rose should bite into his own palm and not hers. A brief gust swept over them, and his hat sailed forever beyond his reach. He glanced at it as it went, but not for the whole world would he relinquish the treasure he held.

After only a moment, she led him to a low thatched hut. He looked about disbelievingly. This solitary place could surely not be her destination! Why would she bring him here? And alone? His breath quickened. It could not be real! Only in his most vivid imaginings would she make herself so vulnerable, placing her trust so wholly in his honour.

She released his hand and hesitated expectantly. Dream or no, it was only proper that he should open the door. He struggled with the decayed latch for only a moment, and then he was gesturing for her to enter the rustic little abode before him. Her cheeks pink, she did.

John bolted the door against the rain once more, then turned back to her. Margaret’s face lit with inscrutable pleasure- could it be he who had inspired such an expression? He studied her clear, bright eyes, the warm blush, and those full, delicately turned lips. A few rain drops had pooled into one on her cheek, and begun the slow descent down to her jaw. Entranced, his body responded.

He caught the drop with his forefinger, so lightly that he scarcely touched her skin. He could feel the heat radiating from her breath, brushing over the back of his fingers. He no longer cared if he were hallucinating.

His heart hammering in his throat, he fairly lunged for her. His hands found her shoulders, hungrily sliding down her back as he drew her to his chest. Ducking his face under the brim of her hat, he sought to taste his dream. She was sweet, and soft, and warm… and very real.

He drew back, panting with wide eyes. “Margaret!” he whispered at last. His lips were still misted from the touch of hers, and he licked them self-consciously. Her gaze was turned down now, looking on the arms he had wrapped possessively around her. Guiltily, he started to withdraw, but then she looked up. She was smiling- almost laughing, even.

There was so much he longed to say to her, so much he would ask, but her eyes gave him the answer to the most important question of all. He had yearned for her so long, and here by some awesome wonder she seemed content in his embrace! He could not bear another moment without claiming her for his own. Those brilliant eyes still shone up to him, and her mouth tipped lusciously in shy acceptance.

John had not spent countless hours in church staring at her back without making a careful study of the pin holding her hat in place. So many times he had envisioned slipping it from her thickly coiled hair, then sweeping that final barrier to her lovely face out of his way. Without even asking, and sensing somehow that she would not object, he now fulfilled that fantasy.

Her eyes steadily held his, her face flushed with maidenly innocence, and he felt, of a certainty, that she had longed for this reunion as fervently as he. Could it be? He rightly ought to speak to her, but had never employed his words to any great effect where she had been concerned. Never before had she granted him such tenderness, and this without speaking a word! What matter if his proposal came in the form of a more unmistakable eloquence?

The hat dropped from his hand, rolling to rest somewhere behind her. His gaze scanned over her mouth, then raised back to hers in an unspoken question. The corners of her eyes softened, and she offered the barest lift of her chin. It was enough.

His face dipped to hers once more, trembling with the new reality of her closeness. Before, he had doubted his senses, but he did so no longer. Fear mingled with elation as he drew near. She was waiting for him, her lashes fallen over her cheeks and her lips slightly parted. A soft moan escaped him as he closed the remaining breath between them.

At his glad sigh, Margaret had also moved in unrestrained reciprocation. It happened that their noses bumped uncomfortably, but John was not deterred. Her eyes flashed up again, and she had opened her mouth to apologize, but he swept down to cover it with his own. Unpracticed in the art though they both might be, he was determined to learn her- each exquisite detail. With every gentle brush of his mouth, he explored the pouting little ridge outlining her lower lip, savouring the velvety softness of its curve, and sipping of the succulent dew just inside the rim.

Margaret almost forgot breathe, so wholly absorbed was she with his caresses. After some seconds, she at last remembered to take a great, trembling draught of air, causing her to part her lips even further. With a throaty groan, John took advantage of her shift in posture to draw her even more intimately to himself. The abandoned little dwelling was silent but for the sound of their synchronized breaths, punctuated by the soft friction of their kisses.

Margaret’s eyes fluttered open. She wanted to see him! It was so strange to be this close, to examine for herself every misted drop of rain on his face, the lines of care creasing his forehead, and each dark hair of his lashes and brows. The taste of him on her lips was somehow fresh and delicious, and so sensually revealing of his bitter longings. With profound humility, she recognized the licence and privilege he extended to her. It could be hers to wash away his sorrow, and to light his darkened way- if she would only accept him. She continued to respond to the tender strokes of his mouth, but her eyes traced lovingly over his strong, square face bent in submission to her. Hesitantly, she reached up to touch the short, masculine hairs curling down the edge of his jawline.

Blue eyes startled open, but he did not draw away. She felt him smile, heard another little shudder of joy escape him, and his gentle expression held hers as he tugged her body closer. His upper lip, rough from his long day, teased and tickled the inner parts of her mouth in a way she had never imagined. Discomfited by such near eye contact, but unwilling to relinquish the awakening tenderness growing between them, both began to chuckle very softly. Their amusement stole the dexterity from their caresses, the pleasure shining in both faces overpowering the heady play of their lips.

Margaret, beginning to lose the last threads of her composure, lifted her chin still more and nestled her smiling mouth at the deepening line below his cheek, where a broad expression of euphoria pulled at his face. He nuzzled her faintly in sympathy, a low luxuriating breath whispering over her skin. “Margaret,” his well-remembered tones caressed her name as he pronounced it. “What are you doing here?”

She pulled back to meet his eyes again, her fingers still threading through the hairs of his jaw. “I am visiting with Mr Bell. I never thought to see you here!”

One side of his mouth creased. “You are not sorry to see me?”

She began to blink, her lips quivering into the flourishing radiance of everything she felt in that moment. All of the pent-up trepidation and regret dissipated now in the face of his gladness at their reunion. “I have missed you,” she whispered. “I thought it would be you who might not wish to see me!”

He groaned, tightening his grip around her still more. “I want you with me from hereafter, my love. Would you…” he placed another soft kiss on her lips, then drew back, his eyes full of apprehension, “would you come back to Milton with me?”

The glow in her eyes was so immediate, and so articulate, that he wanted no other answer. He shook in relief, lifting her up and sweeping her long skirts in a circle about his feet. “Margaret!” he cried jubilantly. “Are you certain?” he paused, setting her down once more. His brow furrowed in sudden disappointment and frustration. “I may have to ask you to wait some while. I… I do not know where I stand at present.”

Her small hands, both clutching the front of his dampened waistcoat now, flexed tightly. “I believe I might have some encouraging news for you, then. Would your standing be improved by full ownership of Marlborough Mills?”

He stared, aghast. “Full… do you mean that Mr Bell has…?”

She nodded. “It is so very good of him! Now I think I know what he meant when he tried to tell me what he wished. Oh, but there is more I must tell you!” She quivered in tense anxiety, alarmed at the painful subject which she must justly broach.

He stilled her with an assertive press of his lips to hers- his right and honour, now, in the most glorious shift of circumstance his life had ever known. “I know of your brother,” he murmured. “Forgive me, love, for speaking so harshly. I was unjust. May we put it behind us?”

Precious air rushed into her lungs and she trembled in joyous relief. “Yes, John.”

A wide grin split his face, the brilliance of his contentment emanating from his flawless smile in their small shelter. There was still so much to be said, many paths which must be crossed before he might bring her to his home in the exultant triumph of a groom, favoured with a woman’s devotion. He refused to think on that now. She was in his arms- the woman he had so long ached to love, and despaired of ever pleasing. Tipping his head playfully toward the door, he asked with sparkling eyes, “How long do you expect before the rain lightens and we may return to your Mr Bell?”

A mischievous twinkle lit Margaret’s expression. “It could be hours yet,” she laughed.

Northern Rain Vignettes: #1

This humorous vignette was originally written as part of the blog tour for my book Northern Rain, published in July of 2016. This vignette is a fanciful imagining of John Thornton being dressed down by an aging but spry Elizabeth Bennet. It first appeared on Tamara Austen’s blog, My Kids Led Me Back to Pride & Prejudice.

It is republished here in celebration of the new Audiobook release of Northern Rain, narrated by Stevie Zimmerman. This same vignette can also be found on Goodreads under Creative Writing.

I offer no justification for the following frivolity, other than I wrote it purely for my own amusement. -NC

Timely Advice

“John, I received a note yesterday that some very old acquaintances wish to call this morning.” Mrs Thornton’s distress shone plainly in the lines about her mouth and the deepening furrow between her eyes.

“Why should that seem to trouble you, Mother? I am glad that you have yet the comfort of callers, even with things standing as they are for us.”

“It is precisely that which worries me, John. I have not seen these ladies in many years, and just now, as you have determined to give up the mill, seems hardly the time to renew the acquaintance. I should rather have told them I was indisposed, but the notice was too short. I am surprised that they should call so abruptly!”

“They cannot be disagreeable, can they?”

Mrs Thornton’s teeth set. “They are gentry,” she almost spat. “I only ever had a passing familiarity with them as it is, but their husbands found some business in Milton, and these ladies seem of a peculiar enough sort to travel with them. I think perhaps they cannot know of our affairs, or they should not have sent by their note. I never knew any such ladies to trouble themselves….”

She left hanging the unspoken phrase “with a failed manufacturing family.” She did not need to utter what was so plainly written across her face.

Her son set aside the pen with which he had been madly scribbling in his ledger. “Mother, if they unsettle you, you need not feel obliged to receive them. What care have we for some bare acquaintance that you shall probably never have cause to see again?”

Mrs Thornton blew out a frustrated huff. “I should do precisely that, but Mrs Bingley was ever kind to me. I cannot send her away.”

John’s ears pricked up. “Bingley? Would that be the wife of a Mr Charles Bingley, of Northrup Woolen Mills?”

“The very one. You might remember her, John. Your father used to do a deal of business with them, and they had us to picnic days once or twice when you were a boy.”

“I remember. Father owed him over two hundred pounds. I settled the debt with Mr Bingley’s agent, however, as the Bingleys were on the Continent for several years. I wonder, Mother, why you refer to them as gentry? They are nothing of the kind, as I recall.”

“Mrs Bingley was a gentleman farmer’s daughter, but her sister- the other lady- married a very well-to-do land owner indeed. They are quite of the proudest class of people.” She scowled, pouting a little at such an admission of the other woman’s superior status.

John’s brow furrowed. “Oh, yes, I remember. Darcy, wasn’t it? I was very young… Mother, what on earth are such elderly ladies doing traveling about on business tours? Why, they must be well into their sixties or better! They cannot find such travels to be very agreeable.”

Mrs Thornton snorted. “If it were only Mrs Bingley, I might be inclined to agree with you. I have no doubt, however, that it is truly Mrs Darcy who insisted upon them both traveling. She has not been known to remain quietly at home under any circumstances.”

John chuckled lightly. “Perhaps their visit is well-timed, Mother. I think you could do with a pleasant morning, and it sounds as though these little old ladies might be quite entertaining for you. Perhaps I might make an excuse to pay my respects.”

Mrs Thornton shot him a warning glare. “Do not repeat that phrase in their hearing! Mrs Darcy would have you for breakfast.”

The august visitors came duly at their requested time. Mrs Bingley was everything that Hannah remembered her to be from all of those years ago. Polite nearly to a fault, with silver hair, guileless blue eyes, and apple cheeks, even one as reserved as Hannah Thornton could not help but warm to her. Mrs Darcy, too, had changed but little.

Hannah observed the younger of the two sisters with an arched brow. She was crowned with bold salt-and-pepper locks, and her dark eyes still flashed with merriment at every turn. How such a candid, frolicsome woman had survived with her respectability intact in London society, Hannah could not fathom. She could only surmise that Mrs Darcy had been abetted by her husband’s rather substantial consequence and her own capricious wit. Hannah eyed her dubiously. One never knew what the spritely old bird might say next!

Mrs Thornton kept politely to the weather, assisted by Mrs Bingley, but Mrs Darcy at last looked her directly in the eye. “Mrs Thornton, we hear much of Milton’s recent hardships. I believe my husband is even now speaking to one of your local bankers, regarding some investments he had here which have turned out poorly. How do you and Mr Thornton stand?”

Mrs Thornton gasped in utter shock. Apparently, Mrs Darcy’s advancing age and naturally outspoken personality had manifested themselves in quite improper freedoms. She fumbled, completely at a loss for a demure response.

“Lizzy!” whispered Mrs Bingley in sympathetic horror. Mrs Darcy only flicked a cool glance at her sister.

No further comment was made, because it was then that John knocked respectfully at the door of the room. “I hope I am not interrupting?”

Spry little Mrs Darcy was the first to her feet. “John Thornton, how you have grown! I declare, you must have been still in short pants when I saw you last!”

John coloured and reached uncomfortably to straighten his cravat. “It has been a long time, Mrs Darcy,” he agreed. “Mrs Bingley, I hope you and your husband are well.”

Mrs Bingley answered in the affirmative. John’s eyes shifted between the two ladies in unspoken curiosity for a long, awkward moment.

“May I ask what troubles you, young man?” queried Mrs Darcy.

John started and cleared his throat. “It is nothing… only… you both remind me of someone, that is all. It is your manner of speaking, I think. Forgive my rudeness. I only wished to welcome you both to Milton.” He darted an uncomfortable look to his mother. “Please excuse me, Mrs Darcy, Mrs Bingley.” Straightening his jacket as though he were beginning to sweat, John made a hasty retreat from the domain of femininity.

Mrs Darcy turned a penetrating gaze on Hannah. “Rather singular, I declare. Mrs Thornton, your son has grown to a fine man. I am sorry to see that things are not well with your mill.”

Hannah Thornton’s eyes blazed. She retorted as indignantly as she dared, “By what means do you reach such a conclusion, Mrs Darcy?”

The elderly mischief-maker twinkled a knowing look back to her. “I have gazed into eyes very like your son’s these forty-two years, Mrs Thornton- whenever Mr Darcy is troubled, or he believes me to be vexed with him. Tell me, who is the young lady who broke your son’s heart?”

Lizzy!” hissed her scandalized sister.

Hannah nearly gagged on the tea which she had forgotten to swallow. She coughed, requiring a napkin. Mrs Bingley was quite literally hanging her head in shame, her little gloved hand shielding her face. One would expect, Hannah thought testily, that Mrs Bingley would be used to her sister’s tart comments by now! She sputtered unhappily and tried to contrive a way to avoid the woman’s blunt line of questioning, but it seemed that she had more than met her match. Elizabeth Darcy was not to be gainsaid.

“She was from Hertfordshire, I take it?” prodded the little busybody.

Stunned, Hannah only shook her head numbly. “Hampshire.”

“Ah. And a gentlewoman, of course. Your son has quite a discerning eye, Mrs Thornton, and I should not wonder that she felt her family circumstance to be above his own?”

The blood drained from the loyal mother’s face. “Mrs Darcy,” she whispered in ghastly awe, “how did you hear of my son’s affairs?”

Mrs Darcy laughed, the bubbling, joyful laugh of a girl. “You might be surprised to discover what I know of matters such as your son faces! I have been in a similar position, Mrs Thornton, and it shows plainly that he is in great need of encouragement. Now, please do not fear- I know I am a frank old woman and I have no business to pry, but I think I like your son. How might I be of help?”

Hannah was shaking her head. “I would implore you- do not try to encourage him, Mrs Darcy. It is the last thing he wants! What he must do tomorrow….” Instantly, she regretted that last plea.

Mrs Darcy’s eyes brightened. “Ah, does he have an excuse to see her again?”

Hannah clenched her teeth. “He intends to give up the lease on Marlborough Mills, and the property has recently passed into her name. She is quite an heiress now… please, Mrs Darcy, I must implore you to say nothing to make this more difficult for my son!”

The woman’s face softened in understanding. “Of course not, Mrs Thornton. I bore six children of my own, and I know a mother’s cares. Dear me, my eldest granddaughter is to wed next month!”

Hannah was still pale and trembling. “Mrs Darcy, I must insist that my son be left alone so that he may at last put it all behind him.”

A crafty twinkle appeared in that pert old face. “Lizzy,” warned Mrs Bingley under her breath. The stern utterance went entirely unheeded.

“Mrs Thornton,” Mrs Darcy smiled sweetly. “I fancy that I may be able to offer some assistance with Marlborough Mills. My husband has provided me with so much pin money over the years that I have never touched, and I have been thinking recently of investing it, do you see. I know it is most irregular, but would you mind terribly if I inquired of Mr Thornton what possibilities there might be?”

Hannah narrowed her eyes. Mrs Darcy gazed back at her with perfect innocence. “Sarah,” she summoned reluctantly. The maid promptly appeared. “Please show Mrs Darcy to my son’s study,” she instructed. The pair departed, and Hannah nearly gasped aloud in consternation and dread until she remembered that silent Mrs Bingley still remained, sedately stirring her tea.

“She has no intentions of speaking about business matters, Mrs Thornton,” whispered the wise eldest sister.

Hannah tried not to bite her own lip in two. “I know, Mrs Bingley.”
John looked up swiftly from the business letter he had been writing when the door to his study opened without ceremony. “They have gone alrea- Oh! Mrs Darcy!” he shot to his feet. “Do forgive me, I expected my mother.” He surveyed her in some confusion as she strode boldly into his study, her eyes briefly grazing the bookshelves.

“What is her name, young man?” The fine lady’s eyebrows quirked playfully as she approached, a roguish smile playing at her mouth.

He gaped. “Mrs Darcy? I do not understand.”

She came near and brazenly tapped a knowing finger on his chest. “The young lady I put you in mind of. She is quite lovely, I expect?” she batted her lashes.

“What… Mrs Darcy!”

“Did her father desire for her to marry better? What was the objection?”

John blanched, his mouth opening and closing helplessly. Mrs Darcy tilted him a patient smile, waiting expectantly. “Her… her father was my friend,” he managed at last.

Her brows arched. “Was? Oh, dear. Has she other family?”

He sighed. “That is something of a quandary, Mrs Darcy.”

“Oh!” she clapped her hands together. “You are in her confidence in some matter! Better and better, young man. I expect you were able to offer some assistance?”

John narrowed his eyes. “Mrs Darcy, may I ask the nature of your interest in my affairs?”

A sage grin lit her merry, lined face. “Mr Thornton, do you think Mr Darcy suffered no difficulties in proposing to me?”

He gulped, sensing himself on dangerous ground. “I cannot imagine any gentleman not surmounting whatever obstacles he was required to face,” he mumbled gallantly.

She laughed heartily. “Clever boy! It is a pity that William was not so chivalrous to begin with. If you only heard how pompous he was! Oh, how I despised him after that!”

His face fell in shock. “You… you refused Mr Darcy, Madam?”

“With a vengeance, young man. The caprices of fortune, and a hearty measure of humility on both of our parts wrought a most agreeable change in the end. I would counsel you, Mr Thornton, if you love this woman, do not give up hope so easily.”

“Mrs Darcy,” his voice cracked, “with all due respect, matters between us are quite irreparable. After tomorrow, I shall never see her again, and I think she would be glad of it.”

“Tell me, Mr Thornton, what was the last word you had of her?” she tilted her head, those dark eyes sparkling as irrepressibly as they had when she had been a girl.

He swallowed, his hands trembling. “She left Milton when her father died. She sent me one of his books by her maid- that was the last direct contact I had with her.”

Those brows lifted again. “And did she include a note? May I see it?”

Like a dutiful schoolboy, and still suffering in some dismay at the lady’s casual intrusion into his affairs, he retrieved the note- which somehow she knew that he would have preserved all of these months. Mrs Darcy scanned it quickly, and a cunning smile grew on her face. She held the note aloft as a victory flag. “The woman loves you, young man!”

His chest seized. “Mrs Darcy, you cannot-”

“Hush!” she held up a commanding finger. Once she had his full astonished attention, she read the note again, as if to confirm it for herself. Satisfied, she looked up with a firm nod. “If she had hated you, Mr Thornton, she would not have applied so much effort at indifference. Why, one can practically read a novel between those lines! A woman who dislikes a gentleman does not include a note at all, even if the gift is one of duty. Was Plato a particular favourite of her father’s?”

He nodded, breathless. “Yes,” he wheezed.

“Ah. There you have it. You must try again, Mr Thornton, and this time, try to keep your pride out of the room when you propose.”

Stars were dancing before his dazed eyes. “Mrs Darcy!” he objected, “My business will primarily be with her attorney. I shall scarcely even have an opportunity to see her!”

She peered at him with her sharp gaze. “Then you must make one, Mr Thornton, and if she asks you to wait an hour, stay for two. It might seem presumptuous to take a ring with you, but you must offer a flower or something- it sounds as though an apology might also go a long way to smooth matters.”

“I doubt,” he murmured softly, “that she will be willing to hear me, Mrs Darcy.”

Mrs Darcy canted her head to the side, and for a moment, he could picture the impish southern country girl who had long ago captured the imposing and prestigious northern gentleman. She studied him gravely, then pursed her lips in decision. “Yes, she will. A man such as yourself does not give his heart away lightly, nor in vain. I have some experience in these matters. Do not lose sight of the treasure you seek, nor let yourself be drawn off on futile disagreements. Discover the meaning of grace, for it covers a multitude of wrongs, young man.”

“I am not practiced in expressing words of love,” he sighed. “My one attempt met with such scorn, that I dare not try again.”

“Dear me, you are a good deal too much like my husband! Forget the poetry, for I have always found it to kill young love stone dead. Speak simple truth in humility, young man, and that will be sufficient.”

He began to blink rapidly, imagining perhaps a dozen different possible outcomes to such a vulnerable display from him. “What am I to do if words fail me?” he rasped.

That sparkling face grinned mischievously up to him. “I am an impatient old woman, Mr Thornton, and therefore perhaps my advice is not as proper as it once was.”

He lifted a brow, curious. “What do you recommend?”

“Just kiss the girl, young man. And do send me a wedding invitation, for I should dearly love to meet her.”