Chapter 18 - Nothing to Forgive

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To say the rest of the day had been busy would have been an understatement. Between escorting Margaret back to her home, meeting with Mason at the police station, and returning to Princeton to check on Boucher, there had been no time left to himself for refreshment or to even consider the mill's lingering problems.

He sighed in relief. Margaret was safe, and that was all that truly mattered to him. Though she had refused to see Mason about Boucher out of concern for her brother, John and Nicholas had seen to the pitiful man's welfare while making it abundantly clear they would not tolerate any harm to Margaret or the Hale family. Somewhat sobered up and surrounded by his beloved children once again, Boucher seemed more apt to give up the scheme than to continue pursuing it.

The swaying movement of the hackney cab threatened to put John to sleep as it approached Crampton, especially with the comfort of warm, cushioned seats enveloping him. It was a rare extravagance for him to ride instead of walk, especially in these difficult times, but he had an appointment to keep. Besides, John was more than a little exhausted, having traipsed back and forth through Milton most of the day.

Having agreed to dine with the Hales was always a treat, as was any opportunity to visit with Margaret. After checking in at the mill and then freshening up at home, he had departed once more, determined to focus his attentions exclusively on the mill the next day after the night's indulgence. After all, its difficulties weren't going anywhere between now and then.

The cab came to a leisurely stop – also a rarity – and subtly roused him from his ruminations. Alighting from the vehicle, he paid the driver and somehow kept himself from vaulting up the steps in his eagerness to see his beloved.

Before he could even knock on the door, it swung open, revealing a smiling Margaret draped in midnight blue. The dress hugged her generous curves, the color shimmering like rippling water in the moonlight. Under threat of dropping propriety before all of Crampton, he swiftly stepped inside, mere inches from her, and shut the door behind him as quietly as possible.

A brief glance confirmed their seclusion, and John pulled Margaret against him, not hesitating to unite his lips with hers. Her answering fervor unraveled him, and he tightened his grip around her waist, dizzy from the sensations coursing through him. The countering brush of her trailing fingertips around his neck and through his hair shot a delightful bombardment of gooseflesh over his body. Hungry for more, he skimmed the fingers of one hand over the porcelain sweep of her exposed skin, unwilling to let go of her with the other.

The sudden clearing of a throat sent them flying apart, their heaving breaths, swollen lips, and corresponding blushes untamed by their attempts at control. An apology for his scandalous handling of Margaret sprang to mind, but before John could voice it, merry laughter prevented him. In surprise, he turned toward the sound only to find himself facing Mr. Bell, his twinkling eyes and smirking mouth a welcome relief. At least he wouldn't be explaining himself to Mr. Hale!

"Well, Thornton! I've never seen that color on you!" exclaimed Mr. Bell. Shifting his gaze to Margaret, he added, "And on you, Margaret. Just lovely."

Were it possible, they both might have blushed more, but their embarrassment could not have been worse. In an attempt to rectify the situation, John began, "You must forgive me, Mr. Bell..."

But his apology was cut off by the wave of Mr. Bell's hand. "Propriety be damned, I say. Are you not two people in love?" He shook his head before making his way toward them. "I congratulate you both on your engagement. I had an inkling you two would be perfect for each other, you know," he added, slapping John on the shoulder before reaching out for a handshake.

"Come, Dixon has dispatched me to announce supper, and I suspect you two must be famished after your exertions," said Mr. Bell, his lips curving mischievously as he spun on his heel and sauntered into the dining room.

John offered his arm to Margaret, who glanced sideways at him, her head still ducked in mortification. "Forgive me, Margaret, for my lack of restraint. I did not mean to embarrass you," he entreated.

Entering the dining room, she replied, "There is nothing to forgive, John." He felt a slight squeeze of the arm she held as she lifted her head and smiled up at him, all at once relieving him of guilt. Apparently, she had enjoyed the moment as much as he.

John pulled out her chair and whispered close to her ear, "You look beautiful tonight," before taking his seat across from her.

Their meal proceeded merrily, peppered with the occasional allusion from Mr. Bell regarding their encounter, to which Mr. Hale seemed repeatedly puzzled, much to everyone's relief.

"So, Mr. Bell, what brings you to Milton this trip?" asked John. Having only seen the man about once a year prior to the Hales' move from Helstone – usually at his mother's annual dinner party – he found it unusual to continue encountering him so often of late.

"Ah, well, I have heard rumblings of some speculation going on, and I have no desire to see my interests impacted negatively here in Milton. It turns out, my visit was quite fortuitous in that I am able to celebrate your engagement while I am here," he said, bestowing his jovial gaze on each person at the table.

"Speculation? What do you mean?" asked Margaret, her forehead furrowed in curiosity. She was leaning forward, drawn into the conversation with a keen interest that never failed to capture John's admiration. For all her education, she always sought more – a deeper understanding of the world around her.

Mr. Bell leaned back in his chair. "Watson – I believe you met him at Thornton's dinner – is rumored to be promoting some kind of "get rich" scheme or other. I am not too keen on the idea myself. These things so often fail."

John nodded his head in agreement, "Indeed. Just today I defended my position on the idea to Mr. Latimer when he suggested it. Too much risk, in my opinion."

"Do you find yourself in need of investment, Thornton?" asked Mr. Bell.

John dipped his head, somewhat discomfited. "Unfortunately, the strike and dwindling orders have hit Marlborough Mills hard. I have been seeking out investors in London for some time, to no avail." He didn't typically air his problems out in front of others, but the Hales were to be family and Mr. Bell was his landlord. Surely the man's other tenants were facing similar circumstances?

Taking a sip of wine, Mr. Bell seemed to consider the information. His eyes gleamed once more as he rotated the wineglass's stem between his fingers. "Then Margaret's forthcoming inheritance from me will be all the more welcome, I suppose."

**Ok, thoughts? I wanted to make Mr. Bell's contribution a wedding gift, but I've seen that done before. So, I decided to stick with the inheritance bit. I know some of you like the gushy stuff, so I added a moment for you - hoped you liked it. I loved the idea of Mr. Bell catching them in the act, since he's such a mischievous sort. Since John and Margaret both did not pursue charges against Boucher in the original, I didn't think it out of the realm of possibility to do so here as well. He was already beaten down for his behavior, and to me, I thought he should have some kind of happiness in the end.

So, I'm getting ready to wrap things up, and despite knowing pretty much how I wanted most things to go up until this point, I find myself lost for the first time. I will do my best not to disappoint, but keep in mind that I'll be proceeding blindly from here forward.

Thanks to all my fantastic readers! All the feedback has been so bolstering. Without it, I don't know that I would have been able to continue. Reputations is approaching 1000 reads, and I just can't believe it! Awesome, awesome!**

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