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Title: Sick of Shadows
Rating: this chapter PG, overall NC-17 for explicit sex
Length: this chapter 7 K, overall probably 110 K. 80 K written so far
Characters: Margaret Hale/John Thornton
Summary: Margaret and Mr. Thornton gradually get to know each other better. With conversation, balls, politics, and Fanny.
A/N: Sooooo much thanks to [personal profile] hl, who made this fic better than it was.

Constructive criticism is welcome.

Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9? | Chapter 10? | Chapter 11? | Chapter 12?

Chapter Seven

The next morning, she for once arose before Mr Thornton. This was a little embarrassing, as it meant if she were to dress, she must do so with him in the room. But dressing for her had never been a large production, and she had the screen. After she finished, she slipped downstairs.

He came down shortly after she and joined her in the breakfast room. They were alone, as they had still arisen at least an hour before the rest of the household probably would. Margaret remembered the quiet breakfasts she had already grown used to at Marlborough Mills, and was pleased to get back to it.

“Did you sleep well?” Mr Thornton asked, as if to recreate the pattern of it.

She had never seen him look quite so pleased. There was a lightness to him that seemed to speak of youth, as if he had slept off years, and his smile was readier than she ever thought it could be to his sharp hard features. “Tolerably,” she said. As she went over to the tea service, he seated himself. “It seems that you have slept well.”

“Tolerably,” he said.

She brought him tea, since he had foolishly seated himself with nothing before him. From the times he had visited her father, and a few times in the evenings at Marlborough Mills, she knew how he liked it, so she added the cream and sugar for him at the table. For a moment while she did this for him he looked up at her, but then he looked back down. He gazed with such intensity at her hands and wrists that she wondered if there was something wrong with them.

After she had brought bread and fruit, she seated herself and tended to her own tea. He did not seem inclined to eat, and instead watched her ready her own tea as well. “Where did you get that bracelet?” he asked suddenly.

She thought it was an odd question. “From my father,” she told him. “Papa gave it to me when I was a girl. Why do you ask?”

“I have always noticed it.”

Surprised, she looked down at it. “I never think of it.”

“Do not stop wearing it,” he said, with sudden urgency.

She gave him an arch smile. “Mr Thornton, do you begin to think you can dictate what I might wear?”

He was about to take a sip of tea, but he stopped with it midway to his lips. He looked at her with an expression she could not read, then replaced the tea and abruptly changed the subject. “The ball Mr Watson’s friends the Blakelys have invited us to is this evening.”

Margaret was startled. She had forgotten all about Mr Watson’s ball.

“Do you wish to attend?” he asked.

“Fanny wishes it.”

“Will you?”

Margaret opened her mouth to say that she had attended many balls in London, and never found them interesting. Realizing that this might sound blasé, she shut it again. She thought instead of how this one might be different, considering the people she knew now. She did not think that it would be, but . . . but neither Aunt Shaw nor Edith had ever asked her whether she wanted to go to balls before; they had always assumed she would. “I wish to go if you are going,” she said.

He gave her a surprised smile. After a moment he seemed to realize he was staring, and he looked back at his tea. “Mr Watson will not be joining us today,” he went on, after a moment. “We will not see him until the ball tonight.”

“Good,” said Margaret.

He raised his brows.

“Without Mr Watson, I will stay with you when we go to the Exhibition. Near the machinery. I wish to see more of it.”

He smiled, but said, “I still think your concerns regarding persons in the company of Mr Watson are unnecessary.”

“I do not think so.”

He shrugged, and they talked about the exhibits for a while, both of them marvelling over the electric telegraph. He was most interested in it, and she could see his interest, which as before, she admired. But what she had not seen before was this aura of contentment around him. She had thought before that he looked comfortable in his element: in the mill, or speaking to investors. But here was that same ease, which gave her to realize that though he was confident enough in his own home, around her in particular there had been a sort of edge.

She wondered what had taken it off. Perhaps it was last night, and the way he had spoken to her. She thought that he had no one to talk to. Though he no doubt confided in his mother, there was no way he could talk to her in that way about his father. Margaret had often felt, since moving to Milton, she had no one to talk to as well, no one but Bessy. She had lost one of the only friends in Milton with whom she felt a relationship built out of mutual respect.

But Margaret and Mr Thornton had been building such a relationship. They were interested in the same things, and it was so easy for them to speak on equal terms. Perhaps, if nothing else, this was what they could be to each other: people in whom to confide. And how she wanted a confidante! To have that in another person was something she wanted more than almost anything she could think of at the moment.

“You look as though you are thinking about something pleasant,” Mr Thornton said, “but somehow I suspect it is no longer telegraphs.”

Margaret smiled lazily, realizing she felt rather more relaxed around Mr Thornton than she ever had before. “It is not telegraphs.”

“Is it loom brakes?”

She inclined her head. “It is not brakes.”

“I knew it was not brakes. I feel certain that it is barometers.”

“It is not barometers.”

“But you have given me the impression that these things fascinate you.”

An ironic brow rose. “So they do.”

“I do not think it is industry.” He did not have an excessively playful tone; in fact it bordered on grave. But she thought he meant to test that everything was friendly between them. “You still have reservations about market enterprise.”

“At least the manner in which some of it is conducted,” she said. “But if you wish to know the source of my pleasure, Mr Thornton, it is the thought of endlessly debating such a topic with you, even if I know we disagree.”

When he smiled, she caught her breath. His hand reached towards hers across the table.

Then the others came in for breakfast. Colonel Carter groused about early rising; Fanny was crushed that Mr Watson was not coming; Ann looked relieved; and Mrs Carter looked from Margaret to Mr Thornton and wickedly implied that they had all interrupted something very untoward. Margaret felt shame course through her, then wondered if she should be ashamed of her not so very untoward behaviour with her own husband. Mr Thornton looked unabashedly pleased.

*

For the most part of that day at the Crystal Palace, Margaret was able to stay close to Mr Thornton, as she had promised. This was interesting, for as they strolled through the exhibits in that area, a varied assortment of people stopped to speak to her husband.

Watching him, Margaret understood what Mr Thornton had meant, about feeling like something at the zoo. Though they could not help listening, many of the London men shook off what Mr Thornton said afterwards, like wet dogs after swimming in a pond. But she thought that he rather more profoundly interested others than he sometimes noticed, and there were some who walked away with pensive, perplexed looks.

They were not always kind, either, and Margaret’s heart went out to Mr Thornton. For all his proud confidence, he was in some ways modest. There were plenty of businessmen and other mill owners who so obviously admired him, but Mr Thornton did not seem to notice. He only accepted that they gave way to him, perhaps because they did so naturally. He did not take advantage of it, or gloat over it, or do anything in particular to remark upon it. He seemed to only notice the defeats. Though they did not bring him low, or change his aura of confidence, she thought that they made him weary.

After a while, Margaret realized that she liked to watch Mr Thornton talk business. She liked the way his presence commanded other men, the way that anyone who heard him speak felt strangely compelled by him, even when it was obviously against their wills. She loved what she had noticed before—the way they seemed to orient themselves around him.

He was not golden, as he had described his father. He was not enchanting; this was not a magical spell cast over a crowd. This was the raw power of John, the hoarse strength of his voice, the tenacity of his reason and the substance of his ideas. She thought that it was fascinating, and a little intoxicating, the way all that leashed fortitude seemed to lash out, and around, and draw you in. It made her feel hot and glad inside. It made her want to be near him; it made her want to listen.

Although she still did not agree with the idea of businessmen using profit as their sole driving force, she agreed with much of what he said. For one thing, he did not speak of selfish gain. He seemed to truly believe in the juggernaut of progress—that it would come, whether they willed it or no. What he argued for was for it to come neatly, and peacefully, in the most efficient way possible for all.

While Margaret was fascinated by all of these theories, Fanny was bored to tears.

Fanny did not want to stay looking at machines all day, and would much rather be looking at all the exotic things from foreign lands. Someone who remained nameless appeared to have started a rumour that there were to be seen marmosets from Mozambique, and somehow this had come to Fanny’s ears. Fanny did not know what a marmoset was. Nevertheless, she was devastated at the thought that she might not see one.

Margaret thought Fanny was missing Mr Watson’s presence, much in the same way as she dreaded to miss the marmosets. Margaret herself had never seen what was so particularly fascinating about Mr Watson, and yet she had begun to think that there was real affection on Fanny’s part. Others might have said they had nothing in common; Mr Watson spoke only of the Taj Mahal while Fanny spoke only of the Alhambra. But Margaret suspected that Mr Watson and Fanny might not realize that these were actually different places, or that either place was very different from London. Or Mozambique. Margaret thought Mr Watson would be sad to miss the marmosets.

At lunch time, Mr Latimer and Mr Thornton stayed behind to talk to their business associates, while Colonel Carter escorted the ladies to the White Horse to dine. This was partially to appease Fanny, so Margaret went as well, thinking she might help soothe Fanny’s nerves.

Outside the Crystal Palace, vendors hawked wares and had even sometimes set up stands. Peelers had occasionally driven the vendors away, but they always came back. Margaret stopped to buy a ribbon, because the girl selling them was dirty and poor and looked hungry.

Fanny bought twelve ribbons from six such girls, because they matched her gown.

Self-interest proved more charitable than compassion, Margaret thought, and smiled to think that Mr Thornton could use this in an argument against her. She must remember to tell him.

After lunch, Mrs Carter and Fanny wanted to walk a little along Knightsbridge to shop. Margaret was not much interested in this, until she spied a bookshop along the way, and began to wonder what sorts of books Mr Thornton liked to read. He never had volunteered whenever she and Fanny spoke of it, though he had volunteered he did not like the sorts of things Fanny read. Of course Margaret knew that Mr Thornton liked Plato, and the other classics, but she thought that he appreciated them in an academic sort of way. She wondered if he ever read more for pleasure’s sake. Perhaps he did not have time.

Taken by a sudden idea, Margaret told the party, “I will be but a moment,” and split from them.

After she had moved away, Margaret realized Fanny had followed. “You do not have to come with me,” she told her sister-in-law. The rest were just stepping into yet another milliner or haberdasher.

“That shop is boring,” Fanny said.

“Are you sure?” Margaret smiled teasingly. “What if a print of calico should escape you?”

“I have seen it,” said Fanny, and kept walking.

Margaret struggled to catch up. “What do you mean?”

Fanny tossed her head. “I have seen enough of that sort of shop. I do not care if I ever see one again.”

Margaret glanced back again at the shop. It was a draper’s.

Fanny immediately changed the subject. “You know Sir Walter Scott.”

“Yes,” Margaret said.

“I must read Ivanhoe.” Fanny paused. Then: “Do you know Mr Watson has read all of Mr Irving? And Mr Prescott, too. And he likes the Fairy Tales.” She said this as though they had finally all established last night that the Fairy Tales were the apex of the literary tradition. “He has yet to read Mr Poe, but he promised me he will.”

Margaret hid her smile. “Did you promise Ivanhoe?”

“I did not declare my intention to do so. It is best to leave them in hope, you know. I had always planned to read it anyway.”

Repressing laughter, Margaret stepped into the store.

The book she found did not exactly match her intention. She had hoped to find something one might enjoy for leisure’s sake, so she started by looking at novels, thinking that something by Swift or Defoe might suit. The book she found instead was not a novel—nor, she thought, very leisurely. But the idea of it made her laugh, and she realized that that, more than anything, was what she wanted. The thought of giving it to Mr Thornton made her feel very playful, and she recalled her thought that perhaps Mr Thornton had not had very many opportunities to laugh. She thought that laughter might suit him very well.

Margaret bought her book, and Fanny brought three. The bookseller wrapped them and said he would have them sent to Tavistock Square, and Margaret and Fanny rejoined the rest of the party.

When they got back to the Exhibition, Margaret planned on spending her time observing Mr Thornton more. Having no fortune, and without the outward appearance with which most men fell easily in love, Margaret had spent much time in society watching rather than actively participating. As London society so often bored her, this had always suited her fine. It suited her perfectly now, as she thought the things she was observing far more interesting than before.

She resolved to be as objective as possible. Instead of attempting to make any judgement, she would merely observe. Should questions arise as to Mr Thornton's ways of doing things, she would ask him about them. It made her light hearted, to think they might discuss their old disagreements without their old animosity, that they might share the openness they had the night before.

So absorbed did she become by her observations, it seemed inevitable that she should be interrupted. These interruptions happened more frequently than it had when she was with Fanny, Mr Watson, and Ann. Due to her proximity to Mr Thornton, many of the visitors learned her identity, which caused them to be interested in talking to her. It seemed that Mr Thornton was well enough known that his wife was an object of interest—particularly because many could tell, even before she revealed it with her accent, that she was not of the North.

The London gentlemen in particular were patronizing, assuming a Southern miss knew nothing of these manufacturing matters, and talking down to her as a matter of course. Margaret, never one to demur, could not help expressing her own opinions on these subjects. She told them exactly what she thought of industry.

She also told them exactly what she thought of them: that they could live off the riches produced by these Northern machines, but that meanwhile the North was progressing, and the South was not; children in the North were dying, and London did not notice; strikes seemed inevitable, but they were not, and London gentlemen only dabbled, when dabbling would not save the world.

At one point, one of these gentlemen gave a hearty laugh. “You have very decided opinions, miss!”

“I am Mrs Thornton,” she told him coldly. “Thank you.”

He ambled off, only to return twenty minutes later with several other gentlemen and several ladies in tow. “Never mind that fiery-eyed mill owner,” he was telling them, “just listen to this lady!” He chuckled. She found out much later that this was Lord Washbourne, an Earl, who had only come to the Crystal Palace at all to shake his head, and wonder what the world had come to.

Margaret stared him down. “I am not used to being made a spectacle.”

“We want to hear about the children,” one fine young lady said.

Initially Margaret resisted, but the soft grey eyes of the young lady looked so concerned, she soon gave in.

It was not until she had been talking a little while that Margaret realized she could draw up crowds around her too. She had told Lord Washbourne the truth: she would not be made a spectacle, and now she felt hot with shame. And yet, the sense of power was as intoxicating as she had felt when watching Mr Thornton. He had said that people would not listen, but here people were. If only they could influence them! She thought the world could be a better place.

Later, when she was talking to another group, she saw that Mr Thornton for once did not have a fan of people spread out around him. Rather, he stood off to the side, watching her. She could easily interpret his look, for she had seen it in his own mother, and she had felt to too: pride.

For some reason, that made her heart swell. She thought that any other man she might have known would have been ashamed of his wife being in the middle of all this, of having an interest in business, of talking to men on equal terms. But instead, he stood there looking on with admiration, utterly oblivious to the fact that she had taken some of his thunder, or at least shared in it.

She felt like she was soaring, and yet the feeling was so earthly, too, welling up and hot. She lost the thread of what she was saying. Having to catch her breath, she turned back to one of the interested old ladies before her, who was bedecked in jewels and extremely touched by all the things Margaret told her of the conditions of workers in Milton. Despite addressing the lady’s interest, out of the corner of her eye, Margaret kept Mr Thornton in view. She felt as though he stood right there beside her.

She saw Lord Washbourne approach John, speaking to him. They were both looking at Margaret. Lord Washbourne said something that made Mr Thornton incline his head. Then Mr Thornton turned to Washbourne, saying something low and decisive which made the old lord laugh. Then they both looked at Margaret. Mr Thornton was smirking.

Such a smirk it was! She did not think that Mr Thornton had made a joke at her expense. She thought that she knew him too well by now to suspect him of that; she knew that he respected her. That smile was one of utter pride—and possessiveness.

It ruffled her. She did not want to be possessed, and he had said that he would not possess her. And yet the smugness in that smile—the arrogance of it, as if she belonged to him!—made something hot coil deep in her belly, something she rather liked against her own will, something she wanted.

Perhaps it was merely that she had never known he could look so—well, wicked. Frederick had a diabolical smile. She quite missed it, actually, for she liked mischief, as long as it was at no one else’s expense. But Frederick’s smiles were playful—impish, rather than nasty—so completely innocent, compared to this.

In this smile was all the darkness she had always noticed before in Mr Thornton, curled into something dangerous. Wolfish, she thought, and it was hers.

She should walk right up to him and demand he wipe it off his face, but she could not. She wanted him to look at her that way. What was more, she wanted everyone to see it. She wanted everyone to know that she was his.

It was not until a little while later that Margaret could reconcile herself to these strange, shameful feelings. She must, because the crowd had dispersed around her, and another tight little circle had formed around Mr Thornton. She must reconcile herself, because though she could never look as rakish, she knew that the same dangerous gleam was in her own eye when she looked at him. She knew what shone in her eyes: possession.

He was hers as much as she was his. She had not chosen it, and perhaps he had not either, but he was her husband. He belonged to her, and there was nothing anyone else could do about it. And even if in another lifetime, she might have chosen differently, in this moment, she was glad that it was him. She was proud that it was him, this man who was intelligent and strong and whom she respected. There was much to admire about him.

Love seemed another kind of consideration, albeit connected. She thought there was more to love than this feeling of power. But she realized that she would permit him to possess her, if it meant that she could possess him as well. She was equal to that; she was ready. The realization made her proud somehow, and happy—but it was more than that. She felt almost giddy with the pleasure of it. They were not objects to put on each others’ shelves in ownership.

They were partners.

*

That evening when they returned to Tavistock Square, the women went to their rooms to tend to their toilet for the ball that evening. The men, claiming they did not need as much time, stayed downstairs.

Going up to her own room, Margaret thought that Henry was right: the London air had done her good. For these few days at least, she had not had to witness the immediacy of her mother’s suffering. She had not had to witness the immediacy of Milton’s suffering, either; nor had she been confronted on every corner with Bessy’s absence. Margaret still felt all of these things; they were a heaviness in her heart. But for this short time, she felt more able to bear their weight.

Recalling her feelings in the Crystal Palace, she again felt light, almost as though she had drunk wine. She could not think of when she had enjoyed herself so much. In fact she looked forward to the ball, if it meant there would be such interesting people there. In this group called “interesting people”, she included those with whom she would attend.

She even took a chagrined pleasure in her dress in spite of herself. This was the dress which had been made up recently, which she had not yet found occasion to wear. It was not one she would have had made for herself. It was not one she would wear, either, for many occasions. But it was a London ball, and people practically masqueraded at London balls. She did not think that Milton balls could possibly be quite so extravagant and silly. Therefore, though the dress itself seemed extravagant and silly, Margaret put it on.

There was fine lace trim above the neckline, with only skin beneath it, and the neck was low and down on the shoulders, so that it created an interesting effect. The bodice had panels that met in a point where the skirt flared out, emphasizing the waist—rather too much, Margaret thought. It was light shades of blue, with pearl and cream accents, so that Margaret’s old fan she had never had a use for suited it perfectly.

She pulled up her hair in firm heavy coils, rather more stylized than she was wont to use, though still more plain and severe than most women now wore it. But Margaret, despite her liberty with the dress, would not let anything too extravagant or silly to be done to her hair. It was thick and long enough that too much decoration was excessive.

Margaret was just placing the last coil when there was a knock at the door. She glanced in the mirror, and laughed. Having spent such a happy day, there was none of her old dread in going to balls, and a great deal of the playfulness she used to feel with her father when dressing up. She felt very nearly as silly as she had costumed herself. Remembering those old days of playing pretend, Margaret came to the door a little breathless, still half-smiling, and rather pinker in the cheeks than usual. She swung it open.

Mr Thornton stood there. He did not move.

“Do not hover in the doorway,” she said, pulling him in.

He came in. He did not stop staring.

“This is a new dress. Do you like it?”

Mr Thornton opened his mouth, then shut it. He had to swallow. “Yes,” was all he said.

Laughing, she twirled in a circle in front of him.

Hastily he added, “It is very nice.”

“Nice!” Margaret laughed again. “I feel as though I should be acting a part. Hello, fine gentleman!” She made an obeisance that brought her into a very low curtsy, pooling the frothy skirt around her. Making over-reverent gestures with her arms, she stood up again. “I am Lady Margaret from the Marlborough estate!”

Mr Thornton watched her warily.

“Remember, now,” she admonished. “We must never speak of anything serious. I abhor anything serious! We must only ever speak of pleasant things, such as the weather.” Margaret moved about on tip-toe, making the petticoats underneath swish. She came up to him, hands on his chest to keep her balance, and placed her lips right by his ear. She whispered, “But if it rains, then we may not talk at all!”

“You—that is . . .” He seemed to be groping for the proper response, not seeming able to believe that she would tease him, or behave so playfully. She did not think she had seen him before at such a loss, but that was difficult to remember. When she had first met him, she had thought him almost bumbling, so awkward had he seemed around her.

He had been eager to please, but off-balance at Crampton. Whether it was because their casual, homey drawing-room was so unlike his grand, expensive house, or because their softer Southern sensibilities discomfited his harsher Northern ones, or even because he had a rather large figure and all their quarters were quite close, she did not know. She only knew that after the dinner party at his home, she had never thought of him again as clumsy. She always saw him now as she had seen him at Marlborough Mills, both the mill and home: powerful, self-assured, and in control.

Margaret remembered the power she had felt earlier that day, and felt another dose of it, that she could reduce him so. “Come now, Mr Fine Gentleman,” she said. “You must speak to me, in order to convince me you are polite.”

“I—how do you do?” He bumbled miserably.

She put her fan in front of her face, coy. “How do I do what?”

“You—Margaret,” he protested.

She laughed. “It is only in fun.”

“I—I cannot speak of nothing.” He looked as though he was too hot. She thought that it served him right; he was always doing that to her. She would not give him her fan. “In such cases, I just say nothing. My lady.”

“A poor joke, Mr Fine Gentleman.” She rapped him with the handle of her fan. “You are not treating me at all properly. Do you not know you must ask a lady to dance?”

His mouth fell open. He look lost.

“This way,” she said, letting her fan slip on its cord about her wrist. She thrust out her hands, crossed at the wrists.

He took them willingly. He looked like he would follow her anywhere.

“Now we bound,” she told him, and pulled him across the floor in the most ridiculous set of hops. He tried to follow, not protesting her ludicrous jumps and the twirl put in, until she was breathless with laughter and he was breathing hard into her ear. “Completely inappropriate, Mr Fine Gentleman!” She laughed. “Do you not know a husband must never dance with his wife? What will they think of us downstairs? That deserves another rap.”

“I think not,” he said, and took the fan away.

She beamed at him.

One of his hands was at her waist, now, where his arm had slipped when she had doubled over to catch her breath. The other held the fan. He was not quite smiling, though his mouth had a soft look, as though it might. He looked as though he could not quite believe she laughed back up at him, like a man who had come into sudden fortune and did not know what to do with it.

“My father and I,” she explained. “Whenever I used to get dressed up in silly costumes, we would play-act. Mother hated it. I think because she secretly wished to go to balls, but there were none at Helstone. Papa danced with me. We danced and danced; it was some of the most fun we ever had. Particularly because Papa cannot dance.”

Mr Thornton looked down at her bright eyes, her smiling mouth, her breathless face. “I cannot imagine Mr Hale dancing.” He sounded as though he was thinking something else entirely, and could not think of anything else to say.

“Well, I cannot dance with you, even if you were not my husband. You are not dressed! And that does deserve a rap.” Before he could prevent it, she grabbed her fan back and rapped him with it.

She danced away, and he came toward her. “No!” she announced, and pointed her fan at him, pretending to look severe. “Now I have an important errand. Meanwhile, you must make yourself look presentable. Do you think you can manage?”

His eyebrows rose. “I do not know if it is worth the effort,” he said after a moment. “I will not be able to look as well as you.”

The pink in her cheeks deepened quite suddenly. “You see how I have to fish for compliments!” She tossed her head.

“You do not have to fish.” His answer was immediate.

“Now you lay it on too thick.” Her dancing, teasing tone grew thin. “How will I believe it?”

“Believe it.”

His gaze seemed hot enough to require her fan, either to hit him again or cool her face with it. “Well. At least try to look decent,” she told him, and floated out.

Downstairs she found Brown, who was able to give her the books the seller had sent over. They were still wrapped in paper. She told him the others were for Fanny, and took her own back upstairs.

She wanted to knock at her own door. He had done it, after all, so she should get to too. But he had the privilege of two rooms, and she had not. That meant that of course he would be using the one exclusively his own—and yet he had not, the night she had opened her eyes and seen him.

Without knocking, she opened the door, wondering if secretly she wanted to see that part of him bared again.

He was not there. Margaret waited, and she waited. She waited some more—this was about three minutes all told—and then went to go knock at the dressing room door. When the door swung in, he was still in shirtsleeves, his cravat half tied about his neck.

“I said that you should be ready,” she said, smiling up at him.

“And I told you how much work it would take merely to be seen as adequate to playing your humble servant.” He seemed more composed than before.

Holding out the book, she said, “I got this for you.”

He frowned in surprise. “For me?”

“Open it.”

“Why?”

“Because it is in paper, silly.”

“Why did you—”

She clicked her tongue at him. “It was when we left for dinner today, and you and Mr Latimer stayed behind. I saw a bookshop—that is what it is, by the way, a book. You would know if you would open it—and I thought that . . . I thought . . . well, you are always poring over Plato, and I told you, Fanny is right. He is an old bore.”

Mr Thornton held the book with one hand; the other traced its edges. The movement was gentle, as though to affirm the book’s existence. He was not going to read it that way, she thought sardonically. His fingers were long, and strong; she knew that they were rough, but he made it look as though they could touch elegantly, delicately, as if what he held was something precious, something fragile.

If he would only open it, he would see it was just a book.

But he did not open it, and instead was arch and teasing. She frowned, thinking that she preferred him to seem as confused as he had when he had first come into the room. “You must not keep insulting Plato,” he said. “We will never get along.”

“Plato is fine. I much prefer Homer. Or the Romans. Virgil is better.”

He glanced down. “Is this Virgil?”

He was still stroking it. She should have gotten him a kitten. He would like a kitten. He kept going on about how lonely his life had been. She believed it had been; it was sad; he should have a kitten.

“No,” she said. “You did not let me finish my story. I saw the bookshop, and thought that you must not always be reading Plato. So I wondered what you might like to read instead, but I did not know—for you have never told me, Mr Thornton—even though Fanny and I have often spoken of books; you only sit in the corner writing in your ledgers—”

“Working.” At least he had stopped petting the book.

“Yes, I know, but you are also listening, and you never join us, and that is why I did not know what you might like to read. So I thought, ‘what does Mr Thornton remind me of? What would he most enjoy?’ And this came to mind.”

“Then I am interested to see what you think I might like.” He started to pull back the paper.

He did look very interested, so interested that Margaret thought of the way he had touched it, and covered his hand with hers. “I—it is not completely serious. It is kind of a joke,” she said.

He looked at her in puzzlement, and pulled the rest of the paper away. “An Inquiry Into The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” he read on the cover. “By Adam Smith.” He stared at it for a moment. Then, “Mrs Thornton, you have made a grave error.”

Anxiety struck. As business was the biggest point they had always argued over, she did not want him to think she was making fun of him. And she did still disagree with him, so she did not want to make too light of it either. But she had thought that if they could accept each other’s integrity, they might argue on more useful grounds. “What?” she asked.

He smiled. “You have not bought a book that I would like. This one is for you.”

“Oh, no. This is for you to see how I am accepting of capitalism. I have no particular interest in Mr Smith at all.”

“This is what you think of me.” He shook his head, feigning disappointment. “That I only read dry philosophy about the distribution of wealth.”

“Well, I did not see any kittens. I would have bought you one of those as well.”

“What?”

“Let me tie your cravat.”

“. . . What?”

She took the book from him, put it on the table, and came back to him. He was watching her with that doubtful, wary look. “Here.” She untied what he had started, because she could never start in the middle. As she began to make the knots, she became aware that he held very still. He held so still she thought he might not be breathing.

She was very aware that the knots she tied covered up the spot on his throat she had longed to see when he swallowed. She might touch it now, an accidental brush of her hand, but she knew that it would not be an accident. He would think it was, so she did not do it.

She had never noticed before the slight shadow of a beard on his face. It was always there, his hair was so dark, but he must shave very close for her to not have noticed. She wondered whether his throat would feel soft or rough, how his cheek would feel against hers.

She remembered him smirking at her earlier that day, how she had felt that he possessed her, and she him.

“You are too tall,” she said. “Come here with me.”

She did not know why she went into his dressing room. She only knew that she wanted to.

It was no different than any other dressing room, particularly as it was not even his. Inside she made him sit on one of the footrests, so she could kneel between his knees and tie the cravat properly. There she could more easily see his eyes. They watched her so intently, he seemed to think that if he looked away, she could disappear.

“In case you are wondering,” she said, “I learned this when I was a girl.” She had actually learned from Frederick, but she did not say that. Instead, she finished the final knot.

“You tied Mr Hale’s?” His voice sounded almost choked.

“Is it too tight?”

Looking down at her, he seemed to be gauging the tightness of the cravat. “You could retie it,” he said.

She looked at him suspiciously, untied it all, and began again. “Anyway, no. Papa never let me tie his. I am awful at it.”

“Thank you for telling me.” He still sounded choked.

“You are welcome.”

As she applied herself to the knots, she became aware of the silence in the room. Mr Thornton still held so still. All she could hear was the tick-tock of the clock, and it sounded loud. After too many of them passed, she realized that the knots were hard to tie because her hands were trembling ever so slightly.

She was so close to Mr Thornton; his knees were on either side of her and she had nowhere to go. She felt suddenly trapped, stifled; it was too hot. Feeling the blush starting high in her cheeks, staining down her exposed neck, she wanted to hurry with the knots. She also wanted them to be perfect.

“There,” she said finally.

The cravat looked well enough. Mr Thornton, however, looked flushed. This somehow made Margaret feel better, and she stood up. “Now we are matched,” she said.

“Margaret.” His voice croaked.

“Do not pretend it is too tight again, or we shall waste even more time,” she said, moving away.

“I was not.”

“At any rate, I suppose that now you are presentable.” Her eyes drifted down, and noticed that his feet were bare. She pointed at them. “Except for those. I will wait downstairs.”

(no subject)

Date: 2011-05-06 10:26 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I am checking back all the time to catch the new chapters and am love-love-loving every line. This is the first time I have ever felt compelled to comment on a fanfic. I think you are so talented.

The things I am really loving include the drawing in of their family backgrounds (Fanny and his father for JT and Fred and her father for MH). Also am loving the sly wickedness of Mrs. Carter, picking up on all that lovely sexual tension.

Overall, too, the characterizations of JT and MH are so much fun to read and also make so much glorious sense. JT is so unhappy, and quick to get angry and take offense in the first chapters (reminding me of Richard Armitage's sexy hissy fits). And, now, he is so careful and quiet, watching her as she starts to move closer to him.

With MH, I really like how you are letting her gradually come to terms with her feelings of shame about her sexuality. I loved the earlier scene when she sees his naked back and blames her arousal on the fact that he is not "a gentleman." also, all of her blushes are fabulously described: (I remember reading someone on Jane Austen who described Darcy's blushes as "erections of the head"). I also read an autobiographical piece by a Victorian clergyman who said that he and his wife agreed to postpone "marital congress" for a few weeks after their marriage until she could get used to him physically. There is so much stress in the novel on Margaret's 'proud maidenhood' that it does make you wonder how she would manage this. So I am loving your approach.

Finally, cudos on the Exhibition scene here. The fact of their both watching each other and feeling excited about each other intellectually is another wonderful,unusual layer in their relationship. In particular, Margaret's realization of JT's pride in and possessiveness of her--especially her intelligence, her passion, and her social conscience--is fantastic.

Can't wait to see where you take it from here. I am in your hands.

I love this fic!

Date: 2011-05-13 04:40 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Can't wait for the next chapter :D

Pls post soon

Date: 2011-06-26 07:06 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Hello, I have read the whole 7 chapters in one sitting. This is a well crafted story and ...you are teasing us just as Margaret is teasiing John. Pls post soon and I hope John and Margaret finally realise in the next chapter how much they both love each other.

Eyregirl

Date: 2015-07-08 01:09 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
The loveliest scene ever! This is wonderful and it is such a delight to read this fanfiction. I just LOVE IT with all my heart. Thank you so much

(no subject)

Date: 2015-07-13 06:38 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I'm re-reading this fantastic fic for like the fifth time. Even though I know the likelihood of you continuing this fic is slim it is still so satisfying reading it. There are so few North & South fics out there that it is always such a pleasure revisiting this one.

Hopefully one day you will continue this fic, but if not it is still so great having what you have given us already. Thank you so much for this!

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