Chapter 21 - Shall We Begin?

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"Margaret should be arriving soon," reminded his mother quietly as she came up beside him.

John nodded almost imperceptibly. "Any moment."

They perused the room together from a most strategic corner of the room, where the entirety of their company could be observed. As a bonus, the adjacent window permitted mother and son a stealthy view of the mill yard and its slowing procession of carriages and arriving guests. Having greeted the majority of those present already, John had stepped over to this prime location once again in hopes of spotting Margaret as soon as she arrived.

With the collective chatter and laughter of his business associates and friends filling the room, so too did a fusion of perfumes and animated bodies. Servants milled about with refreshments, their black and white livery starched and spotless. Vases of fragrant and colorful blooms housed the normally empty surfaces and crevices of the room, while crystal and silver reflected the flickering candlelight, creating a romantic atmosphere more indicative of gratuitous embellishment than sentiment.

However, it was more than the ambiance that struck John. Indeed, there was a charged sense of curiosity about the room that was both exciting and dismaying. Eyes darted about from person to person as words were exchanged closely or behind fans. Men and women alike seemed to buzz about the room, a swarm of speculators eager to discern the evening's occasion.

His mother, having feared a collective snubbing due to the rumors, had suggested the invitations be sent out without any mention of John and Margaret's engagement, including only the most necessary details. At the time, the idea seemed sensible, but now, John questioned his mother's wisdom and his agreement.

To add to the mystery, it had been decided that Margaret would not arrive until closer to dinner, knowing to place them in company together too long would give away the surprise, their feelings for one another more than obvious now.

Glancing out the window in response to his mother's inquiry, John recognized his own carriage pulling back into the yard, having arrived with the most precious of cargoes. Knowing his Margaret was ensconced within, his worries seemed to vanish into nothingness. "They're here. Are you ready for this, mother?" John couldn't help the playful tone of his voice, nor the mischievous curl of his lips.

With an answering smile and softened eyes that surprised him, she replied, "Yes, John. If this is what will make you happy, then I am ready."

John felt his chest constrict with emotion, understanding the significance of the moment. She had been unusually amiable with Margaret in all their planning so far, giving in where she might once have stood firm. In his heart, he knew his mother finally recognized his feelings as authentic and unshakeable. Perhaps with time, she would recognize the same in his future wife. "Thank you, mother." As the words slipped out, inadequate as they were, he saw his mother's gaze shift reluctantly behind him.

Turning in response, he noted Mr. Latimer's leisurely approach and cringed inwardly. Unwelcome as it may be, the man was his banker, and it was in John's best interest to maintain some semblance of an affable connection. Besides, it would be unwise to give away any hint of his disgust of the man or what he suspected him capable of.

The man bowed to Mrs. Thornton before offering a hand to John, speaking in his usual sluggish drawl. "Thornton, you've managed to puzzle us all."

"Not for long. All will be revealed very soon, sir."

"If you'll excuse me, gentlemen, there is something I must see to," interjected Mrs. Thornton before she left them, eventually sweeping out of the room.

Mr. Latimer leaned toward John as though sharing some sort of confidence. "Have you thought anymore about our meeting?" he asked, nodding his head in the direction of his daughter, who stood chatting excitedly with Fanny.

Stretching to his full height, John forced a placid expression. "I was certain I made my position quite clear, Mr. Latimer."

Chuckling, the man shook his head. "You did, Thornton, but that doesn't mean it's the right one. Come, speak with Ann, and I'm sure you will see things differently."

The curtness of John's answer halted the banker's steps in Ann's direction. "Of course, it will be my great honor to welcome her as one of my guests. Anything more, I cannot do, sir. Now, if you will excuse me, I've said all I will say on the matter." Brushing the man's shoulder as he passed, John felt little regret in cutting the man with his razor-sharp words. That didn't mean, however, he was unconcerned about what the man was capable of when crossed. Mr. Latimer certainly couldn't take 'no' as an answer. And perhaps, Leonards lost his life for a similar response.

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Margaret and her father swept through the entry arm in arm, Mr. Bell at their heels, eager for the evening's gathering and subsequent announcement. With bright grins, they took in the adorned grandeur around them.

Dressed in her newest and most flattering gown, she could hear the gentle rustle of her dress as it swayed across the polished floor. Nervous but eager anticipation fueled an unusual need to fidget, and she had to force herself into a genteel composure she certainly didn't feel. In fact, it took almost all her concentration to keep from tugging at the pearls around her neck and the bracelets on her wrists.

Up the stairs they climbed, the hum of activity from above building with each step closer. Just as they reached the landing, Mrs. Thornton exited the evening's occupied space, releasing a lively burst of pooled conversation through the door before it closed behind her with a click. As Mrs. Thornton approached, Margaret could only admire the woman's proud bearing, for it was somehow reassuring under the circumstances. Though she was uncertain what reception she would receive tonight from Milton's elite, Margaret no longer had any doubt about Mrs. Thornton's support.

When her future mother-in-law unexpectedly reached out both hands to grasp hers, Margaret felt like weeping. Despite their differences, it seemed they finally found themselves united. Their common purpose – John – connected them in a way she had never experienced until that moment. And what a relief it was to be unburdened by their past interactions and the differences of their lives. Smiling, Margaret gave Mrs. Thornton's hands a gentle squeeze, communicating a message no words ever could.

As she released Margaret's hands, Mrs. Thornton turned toward the gentleman. "Your timing is perfect, really. Now that our most important guests have arrived, I would say it is time we begin." Gesturing toward the room with a grin, she asked, "Shall we?"


**So, so sorry this is late. I've had two sick kids and am preparing for an out of state move. Needless to say, it's been hectic around here. However, I will try my hardest to get this wrapped up before I will be on the road and unable to write. Thanks for sticking this out with me!

I hope you enjoyed the chapter. Let me know your thoughts. Hopefully I'll find you on the edge of your seat for the next one!

Thanks for all your support. My readers are so awesome!**


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