Chapter 22 - Friends or Foes

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Having fulfilled his obligation to greet Miss Latimer, much to his displeasure, John now stood with Slickson, equally annoyed. As host of the evening's gathering, he had a duty to perform, despite whatever irritation it may entail. And it certainly demanded much of him, as evidenced by the perpetually shrill complaints of the man standing before him.

Paying only scant attention to the conversation at hand, John kept the door within his sight out of the corner of his eye, knowing Margaret would enter at any moment. Though it had been his desire to greet and escort her upstairs, together they had agreed ahead of time that this was the best course. So, John had grudgingly left the honors to his mother.

With a sudden but fleeting pang of guilt, John realized his preoccupation must be obvious to Slickson – perhaps even to all of his guests. Indeed, the searching look on the man's face confirmed he was aware of John's distraction, curious as it may be. However, Slickson did not comment on it, opting instead to continue his soliloquy, receiving only a gratuitous nod from John as needed.

The minutes dragged on painfully, so much so that John thought he might combust from the seemingly endless wait. When the door finally swung open, revealing first his mother and then the trio from Crampton following behind, he couldn't hold back a most pleased smile.

His grin was short lived, however, when his guests collectively quieted. A few gasps pierced the sudden silence, along with a round of hushed whispers. John felt his face harden in disappointment at the response to his beloved's entry. How could anyone react in such a way to the most compassionate person of his acquaintance?

But before he could greet her and come to whatever defense she may require, he halted mid-step with Slickson's slimy words as they were murmured. "Ah, the little wanton has arrived! Perhaps she would oblige me at Outwood as well, ey Thornton?"

John's frozen immobilization melted away into a blazing fury so white-hot he could taste it, overcoming all of his logic of proper behavior. He could feel the blood boiling within, pulsing through his body with the speed of a raging wild fire. He was ready for a fight – more than ready. Balling his fists, he prepared to give the man a sound thrashing.

To John's surprise, however, a delicate hand stayed his raised arm. In his bewilderment, all he could do was gaze upon it, the small diamond he had selected long ago twinkling up at him so innocently. Moving his gaze up slowly toward Margaret's face, his ire instantly died down to that of a smoldering ember, the understanding and love dwelling there capable of completely smothering the fire of his anger – if he let it.

Instead, John found himself grasping on to that last bit of heat, eager to dispel the ridiculous notions of scandal and misdeed surrounding his fiancé once and for all. "Ladies and gentleman, it is my greatest pleasure to announce my engagement to Miss Margaret Hale." Once again, a series of gasps and whispers spread through the room.

Tearing his eyes from Margaret, he turned them upon the room, meeting those of each of his guests, some of which he had known his entire life. "Let me assure you any slight upon her reputation is most unwarranted. Indeed, Miss Hale is the epitome of modesty and goodness, bestowing kindness to those within her care and the people of this city most selflessly. She deserves none of your censure but all of your goodwill. Any insult to her is an insult to me, and I would not wish to lose your friendship over something so trifling as gossip."

A glance at his future wife made him aware of her spreading blush as she ducked her head in avoidance of their notice. She didn't seem upset over his words, but rather self-conscious. Once again he smiled at his good fortune in having such a woman to occupy his future. He took her hand and squeezed it gently before announcing, "Now, let us dine in celebration of our love and future happiness."

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