"Miss Hale, you must know it is very late. Please allow me to escort you home," spoke a familiar voice from behind her, low and solemn, as gloved fingers brushed her elbow in entreaty. The intensity and concern lurking beneath his voice and actions couldn't be missed.
She looked up at her brother's face, his attention centered fully on the gentleman behind her. Were it not for the use of her name, her brother might have expressed his displeasure, ready to defend her from the gentleman's presumption. In this case, however, Frederick's eyes mirrored the fear and pending doom she felt herself. Dreading what she would find in Mr. Thornton's eyes, she hesitantly turned around, her head lowered as she reminded herself what was at risk in exposing her brother and his stealthy mission to the magistrate standing before her.
"Mr. Thornton, thank you for your kind offer." Lifting her gaze, she met blue eyes, unusually wild and clearly questioning. "I was just seeing off my..."
"Your..." he prompted through clenched teeth, his posture rigid as his eyes flicked between her and Frederick.
She swiveled her head toward her brother. Not knowing whether it was best to tell the truth or lie, she searched his face, hoping for some hint of what to do. However, his lack of response made it abundantly clear he was deferring to her familiarity with what could only be described as a stranger to him, despite their previous conversation regarding Mr. Thornton. Back and forth she went, knowing either way, one of the men she loved – love Mr. Thornton? – would be hurt.
Before she could utter a single word in response, she heard an inquiring, "Hale?"
Three heads turned in the direction of a ragged man emerging from the shadows of the depot office, a finger pointed accusingly at her brother. "It is you!" he exclaimed, satisfied.
Frederick began backing up, in an effort to avoid the man's drunken approach, words seemingly failing him, though the same could not be said for Mr. Thornton, who stepped into the path of the beleaguered man. Margaret admired the composed demeanor he exhibited, his confidence and authority now on full display.
"You there, leave us or I will have the constable summoned," he said forcefully.
"Aye, perhaps you should," the man sneered, nodding toward Frederick. "Hale here is a wanted man, and I mean to collect the reward."
Mr. Thornton's head snapped to Margaret, his jaw slack in surprise, just as the train shrilly whistled in preparation for departure. Before anyone could intervene, Frederick spun around and jumped onto the train through a door only a short distance behind Margaret. The stranger sprang forward to follow, but a conductor with impeccable timing stepped into the doorway and blocked him, likely ready to disembark.
The conductor's nose wrinkled as he took a reflexive step back from the unmistakable fumes emanating from the stranger. "I cannot allow you onboard, sir. Sober up and come back later."
The man cursed and spun unsteadily on his heel toward the depot office, whether to seek out someone to override the conductor or request help, Margaret did not know. She did not care either, as long as her brother made it out of Milton without further incident.
"Last call for the south bound," called the conductor as he leaned out of the train's door. Spinning away from the silently questioning Mr. Thornton, Margaret hurried over to the open window where Frederick stood on the opposite side, warily watching the two men he had the misfortune of meeting that night. As another whistle rang out and the train began to move, he shifted his attention back to Margaret and hastily reached for her through the open window.
"Goodbye, Margaret!" his voice cracked. "God be with you."
With no way of knowing whether she would ever see him again, she clasped his hand tightly and moved alongside the train, hanging on to what could be the last moments with her beloved brother. With all her heart she hoped they would meet again, but who could say where their lives would lead them, especially under the looming risks and constraints of self-imposed exile he lived under?
"Goodbye, Frederick," her voice trembled. Eyes locked to his, her heart breaking, she held on to him until she could no longer keep up, her lips forming 'I love you' without the accompaniment of sound.
As soon as she let go, she became aware of the trail of tears on her cheeks. So much had happened in a short time – leaving Helstone and all the changes that came with it, the riot and rejected proposal, the deaths of her best friend and her mother, her father's despondency – and now this. It was just too much for one person to endure alone, even for one as strong as she had always considered herself to be.
She wanted to sink to the ground and sob, her sorrow was so great. Were it not for the tender clasping of her arm as Mr. Thornton guided her away from the edge of the platform and to a bench nearby, she might have done just that, embarrassing herself and her companion in the process.
"Miss Hale," he paused. "I assume this Mr. Hale is a relative?" His voice, hesitant and filled with hope, was much softer than before, and Margaret basked in its warmth and gentleness, for it was the only thing keeping her from falling apart. When had he become so dear to her?
"Yes. He is my brother, Frederick."
"I was unaware you had any siblings. Why did your father never tell me?"
"We do not speak of him. It is too painful and much too dangerous," as an afterthought she added, "as you can very well see."
Mr. Thornton nodded his head thoughtfully as he let his eyes wander and absently take in their surroundings. They sat in silence for a few minutes as Margaret collected herself. When her tears were finally staunched and collected by Mr. Thornton's handkerchief, they rose from the bench together and left the train station, her arm wrapped through his at his silent offering.
Upon reaching the street, Mr. Thornton hailed a hackney carriage waiting nearby and moved to assist her inside.
She hesitated. "Mr. Thornton, perhaps we should walk? The night air would do me well."
Shaking his head adamantly, he said, "No. I will explain inside."
Margaret wanted to argue the notion, but decided against it. Too many times, she had argued with the man in haste, only to regret it later. Nodding, she took his offered hand to enter the vehicle, the full moon shining through the window the only source of illumination inside.
After giving brief directions to the driver, Mr. Thornton followed her into the carriage and sat across from her. Looking out the window, he seemed contemplative, almost troubled, his hands grasping the edge of the seat so tightly, Margaret was sure his knuckles were turning white under the pressure. Though he eventually turned away from the night, he did not meet her eyes, staring instead at the floor of the carriage.
"Miss Hale, I fear tonight's events may have placed your reputation at risk. Anyone at the station could have recognized you, and not knowing of your familial connection to the man you were with, they might assume something more...scandalous." Momentarily raising what appeared to be guilt filled eyes to hers, he returned them back down to the floor before continuing. "Without exposing your brother to whatever trouble he is trying to avoid, I am afraid of what may be said, and I have no desire to continue placing your reputation in peril by walking at this hour."
Having not considered how she and Frederick would appear to those around her, she had done nothing to conceal her identity, nor did she align her emotions and actions to those required of a lady in the company of a man unrelated to her. Even her presence in the very vehicle she occupied alone with Mr. Thornton in the middle of the night could endanger her reputation – and his!
It was no wonder he had rejected her suggestion of a walk. At least the protection of the carriage offered some concealment. The recklessness of her actions troubled her greatly, so much so that she was unable to do anything but bob her head in acknowledgement, her reddened cheeks concealed by the obscurity of the carriage.
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Reputations - A North and South FanfictionFanfiction
Reputations, like the delicate petals of a Helstone rose, are fragile things indeed... Upon discovering Margaret in the arms of an unknown man, John intervenes. How will their story end when reputations are questioned? **This is a North and South fa...