Chapter 8 - Most Pleased to Receive You

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Margaret swept into the room with her hands clasped before her, the graceful sweep of her skirts enthralling him as his eyes captured the sway of her hips. She was a paragon of gentility; her bearing regal, yet open, her smile warm and genuine. The dress she wore, a grayish-blue reminiscent of storm clouds, complemented her impassioned eyes and dark brown hair. He felt his heart quiver and his stomach flutter at the very sight of her. Under her bewitching gaze, he was spellbound.

Her head tilted in curiosity, a mischievous curl to her lips. "Mr. Thornton, I am surprised by your visit. Surely you have much more important matters to attend at present?" She gestured toward a settee as she took the seat across from it.

He nodded once in acknowledgement, his body slackening in relief as he sat down. Apparently, she was aware of rumors and, if her smile was any indication, skeptical of the accusations. He wanted to believe, more than anything, she had developed at least a fair understanding of his moral fiber by now.

"Am I to hope you find me innocent of the accusations?"

A becoming blush colored her cheeks as she ducked her head and kept her eyes averted. "I am ashamed to admit that circumstances did seem, at first, questionable. After all, did you not have a motive after the night's events to exact silence from the unscrupulous man? And an opportunity, if gossip is to be believed about you being seen walking last night?"

She shook her head before returning her gaze to his, her expression intense in its directness. "But upon further examination of what I have come to know of your character, as well as the generosity and care you have so often bestowed upon me and my family, I could not believe you capable of such a monstrous thing." Giving a curt nod that seemed to settle the matter, she added, "No, Mr. Thornton, I cannot believe you to be anything but a gentleman in both name and deed."

Knowing Margaret was averse to spouting false praise, he took her response for what it unquestionably was – the truth as she saw it. It was a compliment of the highest order, a gift he felt unworthy of receiving but powerless to reject. John felt himself sitting up straighter under the regard of the woman across from him, his confidence and dignity restored regardless of what the rest of the world might think of him. John never would have guessed her approval and defense of his character could make his heart soar to such new and exciting heights!

"Thank you, Miss Hale. As you have been most honest with me concerning your scruples surrounding the matter, I must return the favor in the same spirit it was given." Pausing for a few moments, he gathered his thoughts, his brows furrowed in reflection.

"When I first observed you at the train station, I found myself jumping to the conclusion that you were a willing participant in a most improper display, one which I confess enflamed my jealousy and censure, and for that, I must beg your forgiveness. Where you examined the matter of my culpability thoroughly before coming to a conclusion, I failed to do the same." As he turned his attention to his intertwined fingers, he added with a soft smile, "You cannot imagine how relieved I was to find out the man was your brother and not a suitor."

Long seconds of silence passed, though each one felt like minutes. John's cheeks warmed under Margaret's scrutiny, and he hesitated to look up, fearing what he would find there. She had been kinder in her assessment of him than he had been in hers, and once again, he felt ashamed. But before John could castigate himself further, her voice broke through his thoughts.

"Mr. Thornton, I cannot fault you for how it must have appeared. Think no more of it."

His eyes flew up, meeting hers. There was a softness within their depths she frequently bestowed upon those she loved, especially her father, once garnering such an unreasonable envy within him as an observer that it would take his breath away. It was in those times that he would think, why can't she look at me that way? And now, as a recipient, he was lost forever to her in a way he had never experienced.

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