Mr. Thornton stood alone in the late morning light in the Hale's drawing-room. Clutching a bouquet of white roses, he anxiously looked to the stairs where he had directed the maid to send for Margaret.
A door closed and a flurry of steps sounded above before he heard the patter of creaking boards as she made her way quickly down the stairs. She was dressed simply in a dark skirt and white blouse, but her hair was freshly swept up on her head and her face shone radiantly. He had never seen her look lovelier.
"John," she exclaimed with unhidden joy as she bounded toward him, her skirts rustling in her haste.
He opened his arms instinctively to receive her, and by some miracle of heaven, she rushed into them. He held her close, careful not to crush her, his muscles quivering in his desire to bind her tightly against him.
He could not move or speak, so precious was this moment to him. Her utterance of his name resounded through him like a balm, reaching every recess of his wounded soul, banishing the aching loneliness of the years with a single call from her lips.
After some time, she stepped back. "Are these for me?" she asked with a demure smile as she gazed upon the roses in his hand.
"They are," he acknowledged, transfixed by the warm glow of her face. "There are no words to tell you how happy I am," he endeavored to explain, his deep voice quavering with emotion.
As she dipped her head to hide a bashful smile, a sudden movement by the stairs caught her attention.
"Mary," Margaret called out to the taciturn girl who had silently descended the stairs. "Will you please find a vase for these flowers?" she asked gently, handing her the profusion of velvet blossoms.
"Yes, miss," Mary dutifully answered, flashing her eyes respectfully at Margaret while her face reddened to steadfastly avoid looking at the Master.
The young servant scurried away, her heart racing with a rush of guilt to have intruded upon such an intimate scene. She had seen the Master's face as he had released Miss Margaret from his embrace. Everything of love and happiness that she had ever heard of or seen had not compared to the look that shone from his eyes. She had witnessed something transcendent - almost holy - and she would never be able to think of the Master again as a man bent entirely upon the cold calculations of business and profit.
Upon Mary's departure, Margaret returned her attention to the man beside her. "Should you not be at the mill?" she inquired pointedly, although her eyes sparkled in teasing delight.
He smiled broadly at her unspoken reproach. "I've come to give you the guest list, which has just this morning been completed," he answered, arching an eyebrow in defense of his abnegation of usual duties.
"Oh, that is wonderful! Mother will be pleased," she declared, all playfulness vanishing as she looked expectantly at him.
"Will you not pay me for my messenger's service?" he requested with a mischievous grin, a glimmer of desire heating his steady gaze.
A faint blush stained her porcelain skin as she averted her eyes a moment before taking a step forward to answer his demand, raising her face to his.