Chapter 14 - Securing Wishes

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Early the next morning as John made his way to the bank, there was a pronounced spring in his step. His mother's cool reception of his engagement to Margaret had done little to curb his excitement.

Very few things could dampen his happiness – well, except perhaps the reason for today's appointment with Mr. Latimer. Despite his efforts, the mill's problems were not going away. Nor were his debts. He brushed off the reflection, not wanting to dwell on it more than he had to. There would be plenty of time for that later.

Instead, he brought Margaret to the forefront of his mind, remembering the feel of her in his arms and the way she had yielded to his touch. For so long he had hoped and longed for the relinquishment of her heart to him – there could be no greater gift. No one could be more beautiful in his eyes, no one more kindhearted. A refreshing contradiction of genteel restraint and candid openness, she left him continually guessing, never knowing her next move.

He sighed. Departure from the routine and dull predictability of his life so far was something he very much looked forward to in a future with Margaret. No day would ever be lonely or tedious again with her beside him.

With each step, John tried to maintain his long-worn mask of aloofness, but he failed miserably. It was as if his muscles refused to conform to any expression other than that of contentment, and John suspected the glowing warmth he had felt since last night must be radiating outwardly for all to see.

His fears were confirmed when, out of the corners of his eyes, he would periodically catch curious glances sent his way. By the time he reached his destination, John congratulated himself on not giving in to a bit of laughter over the puzzlement written on many faces of his neighbors and acquaintances.

He shook his head. The last thing he needed was to embarrass himself with such an outburst. He would have enough attention focused on him soon enough when the world – well, Milton at least – would know all about his good fortune. Why let it remain a mystery? If anyone asked, he would be thrilled to share the news of his forthcoming marriage.

Through the bank entrance, he strolled purposely toward Mr. Latimer's office. At his knock, John was admitted entrance and noticed immediately a marked change in the man's appearance, even his bearing. There were dark circles under Mr. Latimer's eyes, and the firm line of his mouth offered none of his usual civilities.

"Good day, Latimer. Is now still a good time for our meeting?"

The banker hesitated. "Yes, of course," he finally replied, gesturing to the chair across from him. "Make yourself comfortable."

"Thank you," replied John as he lowered himself into the offered seat. "How are you, sir?"

Mr. Latimer shifted uneasily, and John could hear the banker's foot tapping rapidly against the floor beneath his chair. He seemed nervous, but John couldn't imagine why that might be.

"I am well. What is it you wanted to see me about?" Mr. Latimer dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief he pulled from his pocket.

"The mill debts are coming due, and I would like to negotiate an extension. As you know, the strike has had some negative effects on production, and orders are not coming in as projected. Once things settle, I hope to see business pick back up."

Mr. Latimer visibly relaxed, exhaling a heavy breath. Immensely puzzled by the man's shift from uncharacteristic edginess to relief, John wanted to question him, but the opportunity vanished with the slow shake of the banker's head.

"I understand most of the mill's problems are not due to any negligence on your part, Thornton, but there is no real way of knowing when business will improve – or if it even will, for that matter. I just don't see an extension as a possibility right now."

John wanted to shrink back into his chair and curl up like a frightened child. He felt defeated and afraid for the future of the mill, his very living. How would he care for his family, not to mention the addition of a wife? Who else would be willing to hire him when the cotton industry was so volatile? Would Margaret insist on delaying marriage if he could not maintain his current standard of living? Questions raced through his mind at an alarming speed that left him more than a little frazzled. He had to find another way. Failure was no option.

"Do you have any suggestions where I can find investment?"

The banker leaned forward, placing his forearms on the table and stilling his foot. "Hmm...well, Watson is up to some scheme or other. Heard something about it at the club just last night. Promising a good return, so they say."

"Speculation?" John shook his head adamantly, his voice low and uncompromising. "No. That's not an option. I will not put my livelihood or those of my employees at risk."

An uncomfortable silence hung in the air between them. What would he do? There would be little investment opportunity in London, if any. John had already made that attempt with humiliating results. Not one person had agreed to invest. He could follow-up with his contacts once again, but for some reason, he felt certain it would only be a waste of his time.

The banker's voice pierced the silence, cutting through John's building anxiety like a knife. "I may have a possible solution for you. Personal, mind you."

John shifted forward in his chair, eager to hear whatever idea the man had conjured. He was desperate, after all. However, it was the abrupt and unsettling gleam in Mr. Latimer's eyes and the corresponding curl of his lips that vanquished any hope John might have had for a favorable offer.

"You know, my daughter is very fond of you." He chuckled. "For some time now, she has had her hopes pinned on becoming the next Mrs. Thornton."

With his next breath, he began listing her attributes, all the while counting each with a corresponding finger. "She has had the finest schooling, has managed my home, and aspires to become the leading lady of Milton society. I know she finds you handsome and charming – I certainly hear enough about it."

When John offered no response, Mr. Latimer continued. "She would be the ideal wife for an industry leader in Milton, and I would be inclined to pay off your debt as a wedding gift – an early one, mind. I would even throw in some extra for you to invest in the mill as you see fit."

Mr. Latimer leaned back in his chair and grabbed the lapels of his jacket. "What say you, Thornton? Will you marry my daughter to satisfy one of her fondest wishes while securing one of yours?"

**Ha! I did it! It took me a couple days, but I finally figured out where I wanted to take this chapter in order to get where I want to go. I hope you enjoyed it!

I just gotta say that all my readers are AMAZING! Thank you for taking the time to read my N&S fanfiction! And I certainly can't forget to thank you for voting, commenting, and adding "Reputations" to your reading lists! I have had the most wonderful time so far. Can you believe it? This story is approaching 550 reads! It blows my mind!

High fives all around! Thanks!**

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