Chapter 23 - Reputations Be Damned

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Poison!? The very idea overwhelmed Margaret, and suddenly, her headache was the last of her concerns. She couldn't fathom the dainty and demure Ann Latimer capable of such treachery, adding poison to another woman's drink. What reason could the flaxen-haired lady possibly have for doing such a thing? They had only met on a few occasions and for so brief a time that Margaret couldn't imagine the woman having anything against her. They had been perfectly civil with one another in their interactions, if not a little reticent. Was that any reason to poison someone? No. Somehow, she was missing something – obviously a very important something.

When John rose and cupped her elbow to help her rise from the settee, she went with him almost blindly, unable to focus on the ensuing chaos erupting around the room. Margaret's whole body seemed to tremble as her feet shuffled automatically beneath her. Upon reaching the study, John closed the door behind them and locked it, proceeding to wrap her in his arms. He was warm and comforting, offering silent reassurance where words just weren't enough.

After a time, she looked up at him, taking in the worry lines suddenly so prevalent upon his face. It was as if the incident had aged him, even if just for a time. She brushed her fingers across his cheek, his eyes meeting hers in return. The fear and relief residing within their watery depths seemed to mirror her own as his expression somewhat relaxed under her touch.

As much as she wished to block out the night's turn of events and the shock of it all, Margaret knew they couldn't stay secluded there. With a heavy sigh, she pushed gently against his chest to loosen their embrace. However, John refused to release her, even tightening his hold subtly.

"John, you know we must return to the party. We cannot afford any more gossip." Her next attempt at escaping his warmth was feeble at best. Were it up to her, Margaret would never leave the security of his arms ever again.

"I know, Margaret, but I could have lost you," he muttered. "Surely no one could find fault with me for consoling the one I love." Shaking his head angrily, his voice erupted in a low growl. "Damn those Latimers! I should have known...should have protected you better."

Margaret felt her brows rise in confusion. "It was Ann who offered the drink. Why do you say Latimers? And how could you have possibly known her to be capable of such a thing?" Margaret leaned her head on John's chest, delighting in its rise and fall. "No John, I don't blame you, and there was no way you could have protected me."

John released her and held her at arms' length, his scrutiny penetrating. What could his expression mean in a moment like this?

-----

Internally, John cringed with every word of Margaret's exoneration. Of course she had no idea what the Latimers were capable of – but he did. He had for some time. And yet, John had placed her within their reach – and at their mercy.

Of course, John had invited Mason and a fellow inspector to observe as guests, hoping an opportunity would arise for the man to find whatever shred of evidence he lacked to arrest Mr. Latimer. Little had John known it would be Ann who would give them away. That was an unexpected twist, though John had suspected she was aware of her father's perfidy.

John shook his head. Thank goodness Mr. Bell and Mason had both observed the crime and interjected in time. When he became aware of what was going on and saw Margaret raise the cup to her lips, John could have sworn time slowed down. Painfully so. Every step toward her was much too slow and each movement of her body too close to danger. Like the night at Outwood Station, his heart had lurched into his throat, fearing the loss of his dear Margaret eminent – and permanent.

"John?" Margaret's plaintive concern shook him from his contemplation.

"You're wrong Margaret. You see, I have long suspected Latimer as the culprit in Leonards' death." John gave a rueful chuckle, sick to his stomach. "He even tried to bribe me into marriage with Ann so I could pay off my debts. Had he and Leonards succeeded in capturing your brother, I suspect he would have applied the reward toward it, had I agreed." At her widened eyes, he added, "I would never, Margaret. No one else could ever take your place in my heart or home."

As she pulled him close once again, she asked with a muffled voice, "Why was Mr. Latimer not arrested until now if he is a suspect?"

John sighed. "I don't know, Margaret. Mason would only say there had not been enough evidence so far to do so. I disagreed, but because Mr. Latimer is such a prominent man in Milton, perhaps Mason needed more to secure an arrest and have solid charges."

"I can't imagine that's a problem now," murmured Margaret.

"No, I should think not. It seems apparent they were working together." Was it really over? Could he hope now for a life with Margaret free of scandal and danger? With his finances now in a promising position, the Latimers under arrest, Boucher pacified, and Frederick out of the country, John couldn't imagine anything else getting in the way of their wedding and future happiness. What else could possibly go wrong?

Perhaps only time could be considered the enemy now. Banns had to be read, the wedding planned, and the house prepared for his new bride. More than anything else, John longed to have the freedom to show his beloved the depth of his love and passion without concern for the unrelenting strictures of propriety and society.

-----

A shiver sailed through Margaret's body, raising gooseflesh in its wake. Ann had been willing to poison her to secure a connection with John. As much as Margaret loved her betrothed, she didn't think herself capable of something so sinister to secure him. Thankfully, she would never have to find out.

Poor Ann. Despite what the woman had done, Margaret's compassionate nature could not be suppressed, even under the circumstances. She felt a certain sadness over Ann's unrequited interest in John. Had Margaret herself not felt the overwhelming pain of lost hope after her refusal? Margaret could see where disappointment might lead to bitterness if a person let it. Unfortunately for Ann, it seemed resentment had overruled her conscience.

Drawing Margaret from her thoughts, John tenderly rubbed her back and arms, likely from the shiver that shook her body. Unable to resolve the chaos that was the world around them, she took strength from the solid hands soothing her, knowing she could count on him for the rest of her days. Thankfulness for the blessing of love she found in John overwhelmed her, and she wrapped her arms around his neck to initiate a searing kiss, surprising them both.

Letting go of her reserve, she released all of her fears and regrets into the moment, freely giving herself over to the emotions that had surrounded their relationship from the beginning. An answering hunger in John made the kiss one of long-denied yearning and frenzied intensity, blistering in its heady rhythm. As John's fingers continued to trace tantalizing patterns over her skin, Margaret heard footsteps approaching before a knock rattled the door.

"John? Margaret? Are you in there?" asked Mr. Bell, amusement tinging his voice.

John disengaged his lips from Margaret's, his aggravation evident as he bellowed, "Propriety be damned, remember? I'm kissing my future wife, Bell. Be gone with you, man, and make our excuses!"

Margaret heard an answering chuckle, faint though it was through the thick door, before the sound of receding footsteps. Alone again, John turned back as a laugh escaped her. He feigned a scowl before breaking into an equally cheery laugh.

"By the time I make it down the aisle, I'll have no reputation left to save. You still want to marry me, Mr. Thornton?" asked Margaret playfully, mischief dancing in her eyes.

John groaned and then whispered huskily, "Reputations be damned too," before capturing her lips once more.


**Well folks, this completes the story. I hope the ending was everything you hoped it would be. And, bonus, I completed it before the big move!!!

Let me know your thoughts and be sure not to miss my next fanfiction, coming soon! If you're a fan of BBC's Robin Hood, I'm hoping you'll find it a real treat!

Thank you all for your continued support of this story. All the comments, votes, and follows have been wonderful, and I can't be anything but pleased with the response. As I've said many times and will say again, I have the most awesome readers! Thanks again!**

**UPDATE 10/8/2017**  Just an FYI that I have just added "Compromises - A North and South Fanfiction" and the prologue is available for your reading pleasure. It will be based more on the book than the tv series, and I will update as often as I can. Thanks!

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