Chapter 7 - Clouds Lifted

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Resting upon her bed, wrapped in her mother's shawl, Margaret turned listless eyes toward the window. It was a rare occurrence for the sun's golden rays to break through the perpetually suspended haze over Milton and into her room through the glass. On any other day, the warmth and illumination would have brought a smile to her face, but today, she felt nothing but disoriented, her thoughts muddled and altogether consuming. The feeling was a familiar one – one she had felt after being pelted on the day of the riot.

It was this bewilderment and overwhelming preoccupation with the morning's news on top of last night's events that made her attempt at a nap anything but restful. Dixon had insisted upon said 'nap' in response to her charge's unusually staid silence during chores, and for once, Margaret had made no argument with the faithful servant, moving past the woman toward her room in a resigned acquiescence so rare it left Dixon frozen at the base of the stairs, her mouth slack in wonder.

Swinging her legs over the side of the bed to resume her day, Margaret longed to take a mind-clearing walk, perhaps even visit the graves of her mother and Bessy Higgins, but knowing Mr. Thornton might still fulfill his promise to call kept her soundly rooted at home.

He had yet to visit, which surprised her immensely, considering the questions he must certainly have regarding her brother. Then again, if rumors of his involvement in a man's death had spread far and wide, he might be dealing with much bigger issues than hers.

She had many questions of her own, one of which seemed to hang over her head like a dark and ominous storm cloud. Would he kill a man? It's seemed so unlikely and in conflict with everything she knew of Mr. Thornton. Yes, he had a temper as quick and fiery as hers, but that made him no more capable of murder than it did her.

Only a few years ago, a gentleman might have thought it necessary to confront the offending man out a desire to gain satisfaction, challenging him to a duel for inflicting harm upon those he loved. And Mr. Thornton did love her. She was never more convinced of his devotion and genuine care for her than she was now. But would he go to extremes to silence a man in order to protect her and her brother?

Bound as he was by duty and responsibility to the mill, his family, and even the town of Milton, she couldn't see him going to such lengths. Without a doubt, he had much to lose by acting rashly. He was a magistrate, for goodness sake! If anyone should know the consequences of committing such a crime, it would be him.

She shook her head as she looked vacantly out her window and down into the street. No, he would never kill a man. All things considered, it was unreasonable and outside of his very nature to execute a murder. Though it had taken her many months and numerous misunderstandings between them, she felt assured she had the true measure of the man.

Why it had taken her all day to admit what her heart already knew, she couldn't say, but she felt a wave of shame wash over her all the same for her doubt. He had been good to her – tolerant and tender, generous and forgiving – even when she had railed against him and given him every reason to abhor her.

Had he ever questioned her character as she had questioned his? If he had, it was only fair and much deserved. Her pride and insensitivity had done nothing to endear her to him, and yet, he had remained true in his sentiments toward her, the spark of admiration and fervency in his eyes never dimming.

Hearing a muffled knock downstairs, Margaret spun on her heel toward her bedroom door. Leaning her ear against it, she hoped to hear the resonant voice of Mr. Thornton below.

-----

The door swung open, revealing a scowling Dixon, her chin raised defiantly. After a brief but disapproving once-over, she stepped aside to allow him entrance. Upon crossing the threshold, he took off his hat, handing it to her in silence and forcing a placid expression, despite his annoyance.

"Mr. Hale is not seeing students today," she said, bobbing her head toward the staircase, her voice clipped.

"Thank you, Dixon," he replied, drawing up to his full height and looking down at her. "But it is Miss Hale I must speak with this evening. I trust I am not interrupting supper?"

"No sir, you are not," answered Dixon. "Have a seat in the drawing room and I will fetch Miss Margaret."

Acknowledging the grudgingly provided instructions with a curt nod, Mr. Thornton made his way to the same drawing room he had first taken tea in with the Hales those many months ago. He smiled briefly in remembrance of his fingers brushing Margaret's that night, her touch sending a jolt of exhilaration through him. And those silly bracelets! Oh, how he had found himself fascinated by the sly little things as they slipped down her skin!

Shaking the heat provoking thoughts from his mind despite the pleasure they brought him, he prepared himself for the coming conversation with Margaret. There was so much that needed to be said, and he had no idea where to begin.

Between today's investigation into Leondards' death and the events at Outwood Station, there was a plethora of information that needed to be discussed. The last thing he wanted her to believe was that he had killed a man! Everyone else seemed to think so.

He had spent several hours with Mason, going over the same questions repeatedly until his head ached. They had visited the morgue where, to his surprise, he once again encountered the face of the man who had accosted the Hales, his pallor ghostly and his body lifeless. After revealing his carriage ride with Margaret, Mason had released him for the time being, deeming it necessary to find and interview the hackney driver, as well as the Thornton servants.

Despite the day's stress, John just wanted to be in the presence of his Margaret – to bask in the brightness of her smile, to sink into the endless depths of her eyes. Before last night, he had not spoken to her for some time, and he had missed her dearly. Before his rejected proposal, he had only recently become aware of a new and most welcome understanding between them – an unspoken but mutual accord of tentative friendship, something he had eagerly grasped onto. Abruptly severed as it was when she turned down his offer of marriage, he had found himself thirsting for the uplifting contentment he had so often found in just being in her company.

Now, he found himself hoping to at least return to the understanding they once had. If friendship was all she could offer him, he would take it most willingly. Anything was better than the desert he had found himself living in, deprived of life sustaining hope.

Hearing her soft footsteps as they descended down the stairs, he rose from where he had been sitting, eager to see her face, to hear her voice. Had he found his hope again? Despite himself, he prayed so.


**Thank you for sticking with the story so far! I'm hoping you are enjoying the progression.

On this chapter, I struggled a bit with Margaret's POV. I know it's a bit OOC, but I wanted her to have a similar struggle as John did (refer back to chapter 1 and 2). Just as John doubted Margaret's innocence by what he saw, I wanted her to have the same opportunity to doubt him based on what she heard (based on the circumstantial evidence presented, it could be conceivably concluded he was involved; he had a motive and an opportunity, right?).

In John's case, the words flowed so easily for me tonight, and perhaps that is fitting, since Margaret is debating, and John is more reflective.

Alright, my writing monster is very very hungry after this chapter! Your comments go a long way in feeding it, believe me!!  ;)**

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