Chapter 12 - A Different Proposition

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As Margaret reentered the room, a tea tray in her hands, she immediately noticed an improvement in her father's mood. His face was more relaxed as he engaged in conversation with Mr. Thornton, and they looked at ease with one another, much as they always had. Listening in to their quiet conversation, Margaret smiled at the subject matter. They were in their element together. Such a closeness between her father and the man she loved was a gift she hoped never to spurn again, if indeed a second chance ever came around.

Unexpectedly, her father rose from his seat, bringing her back to the present. "It's been a long day, John. I think it best I make my way up to bed." As John began to rise from the chair, Mr. Hale gestured for his guest to remain seated. "Now, John, don't leave on account of me. Stay and have your tea before you go."

John reclaimed his seat hesitantly. "Thank you, Mr. Hale. If Margaret doesn't mind the company, I would indeed like to stay."

Both men looked to Margaret for a response. She felt a bloom of color spread over her cheeks as she considered the wildly chaotic thoughts flurrying about in her head, making her feel as though she were lost in a blinding snowstorm. Of course she wanted him to stay. Were it her choice, he would never leave her again, forsaking all others to be by her side. But at the same time, if her father had only convinced John to renew his offer out of a sense of duty, she wasn't sure her emotions could handle it. Perhaps the only way she could find out was to grant his request.

"Mr. Thornton, I can think of no better company to keep than yours. Please, stay."

The elated smile she received in return brought the swirling winds of her mind to an abrupt halt, thawing what remaining doubt she had as she recognized John wanted to remain just as much as she wanted him to stay. The realization sent a warmth through her that reached her very soul, giving her an invigorating sense of hope.

"Well, I'll be off then. Have a good night, John." Mr. Hale made his way over to Margaret, who gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Margaret."

"Good night, Papa."

"I'll leave the door open and have Dixon check on you."

Mr. Hale left the room, but not before glancing between his daughter and Mr. Thornton, a knowing smile gracing his face. It was the curious hint of sadness within it, however, that caught Margaret's notice and she wondered what it could mean.

However, with her father's departure, the brief but comfortable silence was soon swept away with John's words. "Miss Hale, I am pleased to have some time with you to myself. There is something I have been wanting to speak with you about."

Her heart beat erratically. "Yes, Mr. Thornton?"

His lips parted then closed abruptly. Rising swiftly, he moved to sit next to her on the settee and gently took her hand. His long fingers laced through hers, warm and slightly roughened by his work at the mill. Ducking his head, he kept his gaze on their joined hands, and Margaret found herself doing the same.

"I tried to tell you once before that my feelings for you were very strong."

His thumb brushing over her knuckles might have distracted her more were it not for his piercing blue eyes as they met hers. What he was looking for within their depths, she wasn't sure. All she knew in that moment was what he revealed in his.

"Though the words did not convey the depth of my feelings or the eloquence you deserved in a proposal, I meant them then as I do now. I have loved you and will always love you."

The corners of Mr. Thornton's lips curled up wistfully. "You and I...we have walked a long and bumpy road. And life will undoubtedly lead us down several more." He reached up to stroke her cheek with his unclasped fingers, the touch tender on her skin as he whispered, "But, Margaret, there's no one I would rather walk with than you."

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John watched a single tear making its way down her cheek. Professing himself was a mutually terrifying and relieving experience as he surrendered his heart at her feet, completely at her mercy. The remainder of his life revolved around this very moment, whether she marched over his heart or clutched it to her own. And though it was a vulnerable place to be, he would have it no other way.

"I came here this evening with the intention of asking to court you properly, as you so deserve. I will never consider myself worthy, but would you allow me that honor, Margaret?"

A pulsating silence enveloped them, almost foreboding in its intensity. He couldn't remember a time he had ever felt so nervous – not even his first proposal. Were she to turn his request down...well, he didn't want to consider what that would do to him.

"No, Mr. Thornton."

The words echoed in his head like a clashing symbol, loud and nauseating in their unrelenting reverberation. He wanted to cover his ears to block out the sound, but he found himself unable to move, locked in place by her flashing eyes. Confusion rushed through him. Was she angry, or worse, laughing at him? Before he could figure it out, she continued.

"You see, I have a different proposition in mind."


**Well, it's a bit shorter than usual, but this chapter contained what I thought it needed to forward the story.

Plus, it's Christmas Eve!!! Santa knows if you are sleeping, as you know, and that's what I should be doing  right now - sleeping! :)  I couldn't keep my faithful readers waiting, however, so here I am, likely about to meet Santa as he makes his way down the chimney and into my living room.

I hope the chapter lived up to what you were wanting, as far as declarations go. This is my first time to write the lovie dovie dialogue between characters: the kind of stuff that can go either way - over the top corny or lacking emotion. I have read enough declaration scenes to experience the disappointment when it tips too far in one direction. I hope I struck the right balance, but let me know your thoughts either way.

Here's to wishing you all a very Merry Christmas!!! May you and yours be surrounded by love as we celebrate the reason for the season!**

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