Margaret kept her cheek pressed firmly against John's chest as they embraced in silence for several minutes, lost in a strange combination of overwhelming relief and lurking distress. The last hour had proven itself to be the most terrifying of her life, feeling more like a nightmare than reality.
The rich tenor of John's voice broke through the silence. "Are you hurt?" He asked as he backed away just enough to look into her face, his eyes concerned and searching.
"No," she mumbled, shaking her head. Though the man had guided her through the streets of Milton by holding her upper arm, he had not gripped her tight enough to harm her. However, he had frightened her – but that had been his objective.
John exhaled a relieved sigh, his entire body seeming to relax all at once. "Thank goodness."
As he pulled her toward him once again, Margaret relished the feel of his hands as they slid around her waist. Anticipating his kiss, her eyes closed and head fell back as she waited for his lips to meet hers. And when they did, the fear from only moments before slipped away, replaced by a recently awakened ache that longed to be soothed. It was something she couldn't explain, but it intoxicated her all the same. When their lips parted, she felt adrift, the loss of her steady shore acute.
Margaret gave a sad smile before glancing around John at the man on the ground. Thankfully, she could see his chest rising and falling. At least John hadn't murdered the man! Receiving John's raw aggression, however, was something she would wish on no one. The sheer ferocity of each blow left no doubt of his protectiveness, but the motivation for such an unequal fight did little to dispel her abhorrence of the act.
Following her gaze, John looked over his shoulder at the man only to whip back in surprise – just as she expected. "Boucher?" he asked incredulously.
She nodded and gestured toward the man, but the words wouldn't come. For the first time in their short acquaintance, Margaret had feared John Boucher when first confronted outside the post office. After all, everyone had suspected him to be long dead since he had disappeared without a trace. Looking up into his eyes, she would have been blind not to see the seething resentment within their haunted depths.
In fact, everything about him seemed to proclaim his misfortune and bitterness. Grime covered his gaunt frame from head to toe, and his clothes were torn and soiled, too ragged to even be considered fit for the grisliest of labor. His fists were clinched at his sides, and his muscles taut, the firm line of his mouth implacable. Gone was the struggling working man once so torn between the needs of his family and the collective demands of the union. His life now revolved around one purpose – surviving the next moment.
Because of the unfortunate combination of her interference and his regrettable actions on the day of the riot, the strike had been broken. The workers returned to the mills, their demands unsatisfied. In their anger, the union had placed the blame squarely upon Boucher's shoulders, and he had essentially been pushed out of Milton, a pariah for his violent involvement.
In time, a man might have recovered his reputation from such an event, but it was likely the untimely death of his wife and the forfeit of his children to Nicholas Higgins that pushed Boucher over the edge of no return, leaving him hopeless. When he had spoken to her, his words were not the soft and courteous ones she had once associated with him. These had been menacing and laced with alcohol.
But it was his threatening demand for information on her brother that struck her the most. He wanted the reward. Whether it was Leonards or Mary Higgins who had revealed the information to Boucher, Margaret didn't know or care. Instead, she felt betrayed. Hadn't she regularly brought food and money to the Boucher family? Hadn't she helped Mrs. Boucher with the children on occasion? In spite of all her efforts to help him in the past, he had turned against her most grievously. Was all her kindness toward them forgotten simply out of revenge and desperation?
She shook off the hurt, ashamed. Wasn't it important to consider both sides of the situation?Margaret suspected that enough loss and disappointment could easily lure a person to take drastic and damaging measures, and guilt overwhelmed her for her part in his troubles. Taking pity on the man, she suggested, "We should get him to a doctor."
John's eyes mouth fell slack in disbelief. "Margaret, your goodness astounds me. Even after he attacks you again, you are still determined to help him."
"We cannot leave him here. He could be very hurt, and I don't want any trouble for you."
John nodded his head slowly. "You're right," he said on a weary exhale. "But neither of us will remain behind with him. It's too dangerous. We will go to Higgins directly, and he can fetch a doctor while we make our way out of Princeton."
Margaret agreed, and they moved through the streets toward the Higgins home, her arm wrapped through John's. The warmth and comfort of his presence beside her was so reassuring – like coming home and sitting before the fire after being caught in the rain. Would it always feel this way to be beside him? She certainly hoped so.
"Tell me what happened, Margaret."
She went on to describe how she ran into Boucher in her distraction, and his purpose in seeking her out, as well as his threats toward her if she did not cooperate.
"You know him much better than I do. Is he capable of following through?" asked John, his head ducked in concentration on the cobbled path.
Margaret shrugged half-heartedly. "I do not know. I've never seen him so wild in appearance or purpose."
"Perhaps you should speak to Mason. It would mean revealing your brother's secret, however. But at least the inspector could ensure Boucher never bothers you again." John murmured, "It's a good thing Frederick is no longer in the country."
Margaret's head snapped up in puzzlement. How could he possibly know that? Seeming to expect her question, John explained before she could even voice it. "I found your letter from a Henry Lennox while I searched for you on Charles Street."
She exhaled a breath she didn't realize she had been holding. "Oh how fortunate you found it! It would have been disastrous for someone else to read it."
"Indeed," he replied. Margaret noted John's distraction, and she couldn't shake the idea that he seemed preoccupied with something else. He spoke again before she had the opportunity to ask.
"I will leave it up to you whether you disclose any of this to Mason. It is your family, after all, that will have to live with the consequences, especially Frederick. But I need to speak to Mason about Leonards' death as soon as possible. I suspect I know who is responsible." He turned and looked at her, his expression grave. "If I am correct, his death did involve the reward for Frederick's capture." His nose crinkled in disgust as he spat, "With the purpose of ruining you."
**Ahhh!!! Well, what did you think of this turn of events? Boucher the desperate but in a different way.
Hope you enjoyed this chapter! Sorry it took so long to get it out to you. Thanks for all the comments and votes so far! I look forward to hearing what you have to say about this chapter.
FYI - For those of you who love Richard Armitage as much as I do, I plan to publish a BBC Robin Hood fanfiction here on Wattpad once "Reputations" is complete. If you haven't watched the series, you're seriously missing out. I've been able to catch it on Netflix and Hulu from time to time, and it's fun. You think RA in a cravat is smoldering...just wait until you see the man in black leather and brandishing a sword as bad boy Sir Guy of Gisborne! I'm new to using Wattpad, but I think if you are a follower of my profile, you will receive the notification when it's added. At the very least, I'll be sending a notification to my followers when I get ready to add it.**
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Reputations - A North and South FanfictionFanfiction
Reputations, like the delicate petals of a Helstone rose, are fragile things indeed... Upon discovering Margaret in the arms of an unknown man, John intervenes. How will their story end when reputations are questioned? **This is a North and South fa...