Chapter 20 - Reputation, Earned or Not

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"Yes, it was," she replied quietly, her eyes cast downward toward the letter as she rubbed it with her thumb. "Thank you for returning it to me."

Giving her one last scathing look that spoke more derision than words ever could, the inspector finally gave a perfunctory bow, concluding the interview. Toward the door, he strode forward before stopping to offer a resentful warning.

"I will say, Miss Hale, that any future visits from your brother may not end in his favor – or yours, for that matter – as this one did, and you would be wise to advise him against making any such attempt again."

With her silent acknowledgement, he spun on his heel and left the room, each thud of his retreating footsteps plucking at her nerves as though she was a stringed instrument straining under the manic composition of a fiendish musician.

Looking down at the letter, she braced herself for the contents, finding some measure of comfort in her brother's distinct script, the precision and clarity of each character a reflection of the writer.

Margaret, I made it safely to London and met briefly with Mr. Lennox as you suggested. Though he doesn't see much hope for my case, he has promised to investigate the matter fully. As I have said before, I have little expectation of ever receiving a pardon. It is only out of a desire to freely reunite with you and father that even makes the attempt worthy.

I feel a deep sense of regret that I could not stay for mother's funeral. And though I hate having to leave you both, I do look forward to seeing my Dolores again. Exile has brought me love, and for that, I cannot regret my choice to flee England. Were you and father to visit me, I think I would find myself most content with life.

Dear sister, please take care. I understand many of the burdens you bear should be my own, and it pains me to know you must shoulder them. If you need me, do not hesitate to write. Despite the risk, you can count on me to return if you but ask. I sail in only a few short hours at dawn. As always, my love for you both stretches far beyond the sea. Frederick

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"John, you realize we must host an engagement party. Such an event is unavoidable, and the sooner the better."

John had to silence an annoyed growl behind the firm line of his mouth. Social occasions were tiresome to a man of his disposition and schedule, and somehow he knew Margaret would be just as opposed to the idea. The occasion would likely be too excessive to her, especially when those less fortunate were struggling to feed their families.

However, as a Milton mill master steeped in business and all its social trappings, John would be expected to make the announcement with all the pageantry he could afford. And thanks to Mr. Bell's generous offer, he could soon afford much. Now that his mother was aware of his future windfall, there was little possibility of a modest showing.

"I suppose you're right, mother," he replied on a weary sigh. What he really wanted was for all the chaos around him to settle so he could focus on Margaret. Even waiting on the reading of the banns seemed too long a wait to be married.

His mother gave him a rare smile, her lips curling up in humor. "If we are to entertain, we will do it properly. And I will schedule it for the end of the week so our friends will hear of it before church on Sunday." As an afterthought, she added, "It would offend if they felt left out or uninformed."

He sensed his forehead creasing in exasperation, and his attempt at relaxing it failed. "Margaret will be here later this evening. We can discuss it then." John hated the shortness of his reply, but celebrating merely for the sake of earning favor or avoiding offense annoyed him to no end. It made more sense to him to have a smaller, more intimate dinner with genuine sentiment surrounding their forthcoming marriage.

"Very well, but do not let her talk you out of it, John," she exclaimed, stabbing her needle fiercely as she embroidered. "Your business associates expect such gatherings, and we will not disappoint."

Pushing himself out of the chair resignedly, he walked to the window to overlook the now quiet mill yard. "You will hear no argument from me, but be prepared to receive one from Margaret."

He could almost picture it now. Seated at the head of the table, sandwiched between the two women sitting at his left and right. Back and forth they would disagree over menus, decorations, guest list, and flowers, leaving his neck muscles straining from the repetitive back and forth action. As the conversation progressed, his head would begin to ache from the unmistakable friction and ceaseless disagreements, civil though they may be. And as much as John would want to resume his own work, he dare not leave the two women alone until they settled the arrangements.

John shuddered at the image and then cringed, remembering wedding planning was imminent, right along with the accompanying discord. If he had to mediate, John worried for his sanity.

"She should be content with a saved reputation and put up no argument," muttered his mother as she continued her jabbing assault on the fabric.

"Mother!" The fury evident in the low timber of his admonition must have surprised his mother, for her head shot up and her fingers stilled.

Though he was momentarily taken aback by his own brusqueness, he refused to allow her the notion that this union was based on anything but love. "I had no thought for Margaret's reputation when I asked her to marry me. I love her, and I will not tolerate any allusions to reputation or propriety – not in this house."

Thick silence hung between them for several moments as they glared at each other through narrowed eyes, neither willing to give up first and so alike in their natural stubbornness. John wondered if adding a third personality with equal – if not more – stubbornness would make their household a warzone. The notion almost made him laugh in irony. The battle of wills between mother and daughter-in-law may never give him another moment's peace.

He came crashing back to the present with his mother's response. "That may be, John, but you must know all of Milton questions your bride's character. Did she not throw herself into your arms for all to see? Was she not unescorted at Outwood Station late at night with two men? Did she not jump into a darkened carriage with you alone?" She shook her head. "I will speak no more of her reputation, earned or not, but it will not be the last you hear of it from Milton."


**Ok, folks. This is kind of a filler leading up to the big party, which will have some action and lead up to the end...I'm thinking about 2 or 3 more chapters left. I hope you enjoyed this chapter. Again, I'm sorry it's so late. Things are busy around my place, and I'll admit, I've run into a bit of writer's block.

For this chapter, it was important for Frederick to give away some of his thoughts but also leave his location vague (thank goodness). I also wanted to set up for what's coming - the engagement party. Can you imagine living in the same house as Hannah Thornton and Margaret Hale? Sheesh...I think I would go mad with two such strong opinioned women. Poor John.

Let me know your thoughts! Thanks for continuing with this story - see you next time!**

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