Chapter 3 - A Breath of Fresh Air

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The remainder of their short journey was spent in a pensive silence so consuming it sent John's stomach rolling, the turmoil of the evening rendering him incapable of further speech.

What had so recently been the shattered remains of his heart were now conclusively swept up and miraculously mended, perhaps more soundly than before. How could he have doubted her, a woman who had always demonstrated goodness and honesty? Never once had she dishonored him with anything but the truth, despite the hurt it might have engendered in him.

Ashamed of his previous censure and anger, he found himself determined to protect and defend her against whatever may come from society's inflexible measuring stick of morality. She was the woman he loved, and he would see her through whatever may come.

He cleared his throat of the emotion bubbling up from his chest, and her head turned toward him from the carriage window that had occupied her attention most of the ride.

"Miss Hale, as curious as I am about your brother and how he came to be in the...predicament he now finds himself, I will not burden you with relaying the details tonight." Receiving a relief filled half-smile in response, he pressed forward. "I will call on you tomorrow, however."

She toyed with the bracelets on her wrist, an action that captured his rapt attention. "And will you be calling as magistrate or friend?" she asked.

His lips curved slightly upward in amusement. "A friend, of course, though my duty as magistrate is an honor I am sworn to uphold. Indeed, I find myself in a difficult position, but I will do my best to fulfill both roles to the best of my ability."

"Of course."

Abruptly, the carriage pulled to a stop, signaling the end of their journey. First, John alighted from the vehicle, looking in both directions for observers. Seeing none, he proffered his hand to help Margaret alight from the carriage. Offering his arm, they walked up the stairs together to the door of her home, where John's firm knock brought forth Dixon, her quick response indicative of the concern she had borne over the absence of her charge.

"Miss Margaret," huffed Dixon breathlessly.

"Dixon!" exclaimed Margaret in an exasperated whisper. "It was not necessary for you to wait up."

Dixon scoffed, shaking her head, equally vexed. "What else was I to do, miss, when you refuse my escort? I was worried."

Offering a gentle smile to Dixon, Margaret removed her arm from John's, and consequently the comfort it had brought him, before stepping across the threshold and turning to address him. "Thank you, Mr. Thornton, for your assistance. I find myself unequal to the task of expressing just how much I am in your debt."

Sensing the sincere relief and gratitude in her voice, he stepped forward and took her hand in his, bringing it up to his lips for a kiss that lingered perhaps longer than propriety would recommend. "Until tomorrow, Miss Hale."

Receiving an acknowledging nod, he retreated from the Hale residence and stepped back into the carriage for the solitary ride home.

---

Having left the confines of the hired carriage about halfway to Marlborough Mills for the mind-clearing walk that Margaret herself had so desired earlier, John made it back much later than anticipated, entering through the servant's entrance and climbing the stairs to his room, cognizant of every noise he made. Though he loved his mother, he had no desire to wake her and receive a thorough reprimand for the late hour; nor did he feel up to an interrogation over his evening's whereabouts. A fit of pique from his mother at this hour would mean the unfortunate demise of what had turned out to be night of hope.

He untied his cravat and yanked it from his neck, reflecting on what a change just a few hours had wrought on his emotions. Moving from the initial resignation of disappointed hopes through a whiplash of cascading shock, anger, determination, and relief had thoroughly exhausted him. But it was being pulled from the pit of despair, which he had found himself despondently trapped in since the day of Margaret's rejection, that made the day, and all the days since the riot, one of redemption.

True, she had given him no encouragement or even a hint of altered sentiments, but there was something – something indefinable – that had occurred between them; a spark of understanding or acceptance, perhaps, though he couldn't be sure. Somehow, she had opened up to him as never before, leaning on him for comfort in her sorrow, not to mention accepting his counsel on matters of her welfare.

Before, she would have argued the matter, but now, it was like she saw things differently – saw him differently. She had so rarely given him a chance to reveal his true nature to her, basing her opinion of him on his occupation, affluence, and the opinions of his mill workers. Much like the hovering smog over Milton, their entire acquaintance had been polluted by misunderstanding and prejudice. But now, there seemed to be an opportunity for clarity, a chance to take a refreshing breath and start again.

Shaking his head, he thought even now he might be looking into the events of the past couple of hours with too much hope and not enough lucidity. He was exhausted, after all, and the revelations of the evening had been shocking, to say the least. Whatever the case, he loved her, and like the morning sun that would soon dawn on him, he was determined to remain optimistic. Anything else only meant his continued agony.

The subtle swish of his mother's skirt behind him brought him out of his ruminations with a jerk. How had he not heard the door open? He spun toward her.

"Is there a reason why you avoided the front door, John?"

"Mother! Why are you not in bed at this hour? Are you unwell?"

"No, I drifted to sleep as I waited for you. A noise awakened me." She eyed him speculatively as though she could obtain all the answers she so desired by just a look. Maybe she could. She was his mother, after all, and she knew him better than anyone. "Where have you been?"

Feeling nostalgically like a chastised boy again, he understood her tone, which brooked no argument or deception. The thought made him smile, though he was sure it looked more like a grimace.

"I had to take the last train out of London. A potential investor invited me to dine with his family, so I accepted and stayed much later than planned to discuss the mill." He unbuttoned the top button of his shirt, feeling as though it tightened with every word of his story, much like a hangman's noose around his neck. The question was, how long would he have to anxiously wait on the gallows for his mother's reprieve? Why did her interrogations always have to be so intimidating?

She nodded her head slowly, but her narrowed eyes missed nothing, somehow recognizing there were still gaping holes in his tale. After several quiet – and painfully tense – moments, she gave a last, curt nod.

He did his best to mask the surprise he felt over how quickly she relented.

"You have only two, maybe three hours to rest before the mill opens. See that you do, John."

Standing up, he crossed the room to place a kiss on her cheek. "Of course, mother. Take your rest as well."

As she turned and left the room, he realized that lack of sleep was the last thing he would have time to worry about in just a few short hours. Gossip, if there was to be any, would start pouring in as soon as the workers did, and he would have to keep his ears carefully tuned to it for Margaret's sake.

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