Chapter 15 - A Connection Most Sinister

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The quiet in the room was only broken by the stringent ticking of a clock. With each second that passed, John found himself more disgusted. What could he say to such an appalling scheme?

Even if Margaret had not come into his life, he had no affection for the banker's daughter. He never had. Ann Latimer's outward beauty could not disguise a want of inward beauty. She was vain and spoiled, considering her blatant advances toward him welcome and within the bounds of propriety. A shiver of revulsion crept down his spine. Willingly binding himself to Miss Latimer for life? He didn't even want to imagine it.

The idea was also immoral, at least in John's eyes. It felt like a transaction of some sort, to put a woman's fate up for sale as though she were a possession. He loved and respected the women in his life too much to judge an arrangement like this as anything but selfish and cruel.

"Mr. Latimer, I cannot accept your offer." John began rising from his seat, but the banker held up a placating hand, halting him mid-motion. It was the resolve in the man's eyes that convinced John to stay, knowing he would have to explain his reasons. Giving a curt nod, John resumed his seat.

"Might I ask why this proposal is so...detestable to you?"

"Miss Latimer is very charming. However, I find a bargain of this sort abhorrent. I cannot imagine your daughter wishes to be traded any more than I wish to be locked into a marriage of unequal affection."

John shook his head, allowing a smile to soften his face. "Besides, I am already happily engaged." The admittance of his good fortune was bolstering, especially considering the awkward position he now found himself in.

Mr. Latimer smirked. "Is it that Hale girl everyone is gossiping about?"

John felt the direct impact of the banker's words as if they were a punch to the gut, and his smile faltered. He replied in a low, almost dangerous voice, "Yes, Miss Margaret Hale, though the talk is unjust, I assure you."

Mr. Latimer leaned forward. "Break off the engagement, Thornton," he suggested earnestly. "Remember, you are a leading man in Milton. You cannot take just anyone as your wife."

John's frustration, though well masked, was full to bursting. "Mr. Latimer, Margaret is not just anyone – not to me. She is a lady above reproach, possessing everything I find admirable in a woman. And as a man of honor, I would never dream of reneging on a proposal I made, especially one offered out of love."

"But, you must have a means of living. It would be foolish to give up this opportunity."

His response was intense in its authenticity. "Not foolish, sir. Right."

-----

Finally making his way out of the bank, John kept his head lowered in absorption over the meeting with Mr. Latimer. The familiar hum of city activity filled his ears and an overpowering combination of spoilage and baked goods tickled his nose. The long strides he assumed in his preoccupation quickly sent him over the walkway and out to the edge of the street where he would cross.

Abruptly, he was brought to a halt by a carriage as it pulled up directly in front of him and stopped. Before he could walk around it, something odd caught John's eye, demanding a second look. One of the carriage doors bore evidence of a woefully attempted repair. The surface, which should have been flat and smooth, was rather dented and reflected the sun's light glaringly.

Glancing into the carriage to see who the owner might be, he met the simpering blue eyes of Miss Latimer as she smiled back at him. Having no desire to converse, he tipped his hat in deference. Continuing around the carriage to the front and glancing sideways under the cover of his hat brim, he noted the gray livery of the driver, a blood red handkerchief sticking out of a breast pocket. And despite his hope to the contrary, the servant wore an eye patch over one eye. Everything seemed to match Jane's description.

Resuming his pace as though nothing had captured his interest, John's mind spun in disbelief. The Latimers? They had employed Leonards? To what purpose? And why the need for secrecy? What could have possessed them to so brutally slam the man into the side of their carriage hard enough to leave a dent?

A shiver ran through him at the implication. Was it truly the Latimers that had contributed to Leonards' death? How was all this connected? John knew from Jane's account that Leonards had been frequenting the train station, likely to catch Frederick for the reward. If it was at the direction of the Latimers, were they planning to share the proceeds from the capture? Surely they didn't need an influx of funds. But what other reason could there be?

Realization made the blood drain from John's face as fear curdled the contents his stomach. Margaret. If his visit to the bank today had proven anything, it was that at least one of the Latimers was desperate enough to have him marry into their family. Enough to involve an exchange of money, possibly even the extra funds from collecting a reward. And the banker had seemed nervous when John – a magistrate – first arrived at his office.

The gears remained spinning in his head with incredible efficiency and speed, much like those at the mill when production was at its peak. If Frederick had been caught, not only would a reward be provided, but the Hale family would likely have been shunned or heckled due to their connection to the fugitive. And not many men – especially gentlemen of power and means – would continue an association with such a family. Had all of this been an effort to steer him away from Margaret or even push the Hales out of Milton?

Once out of view from the Latimer carriage, John hailed a hackney cab, giving the driver directions to Margaret's home in Crampton, asking for haste. If his suspicions were correct, he had to warn her – and soon.

-----

Margaret walked through Crampton late in the morning, hoping a letter would be waiting for her at the post. She wondered if Frederick had ever made it to a ship or if he had somehow been delayed in London. Glancing to both sides to check for carriages before crossing the street, she noticed a man watching her intently from the corner of a building she had passed only moments before. Though it surprised her, she turned away, trusting she had imagined the whole thing.

Having made her way across the street, Margaret entered the office where she could pick up the Hale family post. She sorted through the letters, coming across one from Henry. Eager to read it, she bustled back outside and began opening it as she walked, heedless of the pedestrians moving around her. However, her efforts were brought to a jarring stop when she ran into someone, sending her letter flying into the air.


** Happy New Year!

So, did any of you imagine this is where things would go??? Or is this a surprise??? I hope it was, though it wasn't for me! This is where I've been headed since the beginning. Let me know your thoughts, my readers. Has my plotting been successful at all??

Thank you for your continued interest! I hope you'll stick with me for the rest of this story.**

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