Chapter 4 - And So It Begins

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Margaret rubbed her eyes, simultaneously brushing off, at least to the best of her ability, the grogginess she felt. Her sleep had been anything but restful, consumed as she was by concern for Frederick and anxiety over whatever gossip would be circulated that day about her – and possibly even Mr. Thornton. Oh how she wished she had been more sensible of the risk in accompanying Frederick to the train station!

Of course, Margaret had not been in her usual frame of mind since her mother's death, and with her father's subsequent descent into despondency, the biggest concern she had before leaving last night was ensuring he was not left in the house alone. She didn't regret asking Dixon to stay with her father, but she did lament her lack of forethought and disguise. At the very least, she could have donned a hooded cloak to hide her identity, for goodness sake!

Shaking her head in frustration, her thoughts turned once again to Mr. Thornton. He had risked his reputation as well by intervening. Though she thought it very gallant of him to assist her at his own peril, especially considering her cruel rejection of his proposal, Margaret hoped he wouldn't come to regret his involvement in the matter. He had much to lose, perhaps more than she did.

She forced herself out of the bed and began preparing for the day ahead, which was sure to be anything but peaceful. Remembering Mr. Thornton's promised visit, she put on one of her best day dresses and donned a clean apron, knowing she would still have to help Dixon with the day's chores.

Making her way downstairs and into the heart of their home, a veil of sorrow seemed to descend upon her once again. Seeing the door of her father's study closed only saddened her more, knowing he had locked himself away in his grief. She knew he would not welcome her company this morning, otherwise he would have left the door open. Choking back her tears, she continued on her way and entered the kitchen, where Dixon was already hard at work, sweat beading her forehead.

"Have you seen father yet this morning?" asked Margaret as she sat down at the table.

Dixon nodded as she brought Margaret a plate of simple breakfast fare. "I did, Miss Margaret. He asked to take his breakfast in the study."

"And how is he?" She held her breath, hoping for news suggesting an improvement in his spirits, though it was unlikely if the closed door was any sign.

"Very quiet, miss. And no smile for me this morning, but I suppose that is to be expected." Dixon ducked her head thoughtfully, rubbing her damp hands on the apron she wore. "I might have been harsh in my opinions of the man, but I do know he loved your mother."

Margaret smiled nostalgically. "Yes, he did. Very much. We all did, didn't we Dixon?"

Dixon raised her eyes, brimming with tears, to those of her charge. "Oh yes, miss. She was everything to me."

Reaching for her loyal servant's hand, Margaret responded softly. "I know, Dixon."

A knock on the service door interrupted their exchange. Dixon went to open the door, and let in Mary Higgins, who bustled over to Margaret fretfully.

"Oh miss, I had to come see you as soon as I heard the rumors." Her eyes searched Margaret's.

A dry smile graced Margaret's face. "And what rumors are these, Mary?"

Glancing over at Dixon, who stood a few steps away from her, Mary hesitated. "Perhaps I shouldn't say anything. I can't imagine they are true."

"Please Mary, I would like to know what is being said, if it has anything to do with me."

"It does, Miss Margaret, but mostly it's about your Mr. Thornton." She shook her head vigorously and she wrung her hands. "Oh I can't see him capable of such a thing!"

"Of what?" Margaret's curiosity was certainly peaked, just like her eyebrows that jumped up in interest. What on earth could the distraught girl mean? Mr. Thornton had only shown gentlemanly concern for her at the train station, and the carriage ride should have concealed their journey back to her home.

"Murder!"

-----

His eyes fluttered opened to a room brightened by the sun shining through his window. John sat up abruptly, cursing under his breath. He had overslept for the first time in years, something that bothered him immensely. Why had his mother not thought to wake him, knowing he had so much work to catch up on?

He grudgingly hopped out of the bed and began dressing for what was sure to be a busy, and likely very tiresome, day. Just as he knew he would, he felt unrested from the long night before and clearly agitated by the irregular start to the morning. If the day only improved from here, he would be satisfied, but he didn't hold out hope for that. Not after the events of just a few hours ago.

Now fully dressed, he left his room and hurried down the stairs and through the house toward the front door. As he passed by the dining room, his mother's voice reached his ears, pulling him to an abrupt stop.

"John?"

Turning around and taking the few steps back, he met his mother's curious gaze as he paused in the doorway. "Good morning, mother."

"A late one, I see." A caustic smile momentarily curled her lips. "Will you not eat something before you go to the mill?" Looking over the rim of her tea cup, her eyes searched his.

John gritted his teeth in aggravation that she had been aware of his sleeping in and done nothing about it. "I wish I could join you, mother, but I am in a hurry to begin my work." The thought of explaining sent his stomach rolling.

Interrupting his thoughts, she said, "You may find more than work at the mill today, John. There has been some commotion this morning, which I have already taken the liberty of looking into."

John waited, his heart beat racing with the suspense. Had someone been injured? Was there broken machinery he had to deal with? Dreadful thoughts rolled through him one by one, ricocheting off each other until he could imagine only the worst. But then, they ground to a halt. Wouldn't his mother have awoken him if there had been some kind of disaster at the mill?

Then it dawned on him what it must be. "Well?" prompted John, his patience wearing thin.

"I think it best you sit down, John." The look she gave him brooked no opposition. You have time."

Giving his mother a curious look, he was unsure of what she meant by that. Nodding his acquiescence and walking into the room, he poured himself a cup of tea before sitting down at the head of the table. A few moments of anticipatory silence passed between them as he sipped his drink. John cleared his throat in readiness for an explanation.

His mother, satisfied, began with a knowing and curt nod. "It seems you had quite the evening, son...with a certain lady?"



**Thank you so much for your interest in this story and sticking with me so far! The words are just flowing, and I hope that's a good thing. Please, let me know your thoughts. I appreciate all feedback and thank you in advance for it!    beautiful_red_head**

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