Richard was talking about the state of English cricket and although he endeavoured to attend to what his friend was telling him, John found his thoughts straying inexorably to Margaret. Where was she? Surely it didn’t take this long to put on a few clothes? Question after question spun through his mind with increasing intensity, even as he politely smiled at a comment Richard made about the current position regarding England’s somewhat inspired bowling which was helping their cause immeasurably, before making some response of equal enthusiasm in return.
Even in conversation, his ears strained to hear the muted patter of Margaret’s footsteps on the stairs. With a very brief and almost imperceptible turn of the head John glanced surreptitiously towards the doorway, hoping that, by some miracle, she’d suddenly appear there if he willed her hard enough to do so. He was impatient to see her, to read what her eyes would reveal. She had looked so enchanting, so vulnerable, so utterly exquisite, standing up there on the landing with her wide eyes and long drenched hair clinging around her startled face, her lithe, barely shrouded body encompassed by an invisible cloud of perfume that reminded him of a garden filled with flowers. She had taken his breath away so utterly and completely that it had been a wonder that he’d even managed to form the necessary words to speak when she’d asked him why he’d been upstairs in the first place, barely able to constrain the sharp tug of desire that had shifted his feet in her direction. Only the sudden look of uncertainty that had leapt into her eyes had stopped him from throwing all sense aside and reaching for her…
Never in his life had he been so captivated by a woman. She was such a crazy concoction of contradictions: one minute so self-possessed and opinionated, so fired up and ready to condemn him for every injustice she felt him capable; and yet in the next so demure and endearingly diffident, as though she would fall prey to one barbed comment. The effect was cumulatively intriguing, if not a little exasperating. Up there on the landing it had taken every shred of restraint he possessed not to march straight up to her and take her in his arms – and God knows he wasn’t a man generally given to acting rashly. The persona he had spent the majority of his life carefully cultivating had certainly never courted impetuosity, much less sought the inclination to do so. Every time he saw Margaret, however, it was like a lightening bolt surging through him, sending shockwaves through every bone and muscle, every nerve and fibre, igniting his innards with a fire that seemed to show no sign of abating.
“Goodness, Margaret! There you are!” Maria cried in what appeared to be quite evident relief at the sight of her daughter coming silently and unobtrusively into the room to join them.
“We were just thinking about sending out a search party for you,” her father teased affectionately, pausing in his conversation as he looked over at Margaret briefly from where he stood by the bookshelf with John towering over him like a gentle but formidable giant.
It was immediate, the feeling of John’s eyes coming to rest upon her. She didn’t need to look at him to know that his gaze was trained directly upon her, watching her every move, tracking the fluid motion of her body, now hidden snugly beneath a simple red T.shirt and pair of jeans, as she made her way to the sofa to sit down beside her mother, smiling in mute apology for having taken her time in making her appearance. She felt the heat of his look and glanced towards him, drawn by pure instinct to do so, only to regret it immediately when she saw that his intent gaze was aflame with that same consuming appreciation, but mingled now too with a wistfulness she didn’t altogether understand.
“What have you been doing up there?” her mother chided, drawing her attention and effectively reducing her to feeling like a five year old in the presence of their guest.
Margaret felt herself writhe beneath the chastisement in her mother’s tone, her eyes dipping towards the floor as she tried to quell the fierce flash of crimson that lapped like a wave over her skin. She gave what she hoped would appear a nonchalant shrug and sighed. “Oh, I was just doing something and forgot the time,” she said.
She certainly wasn’t going to say that she’d spent the last twenty minutes sitting on her bed trying to work out just what the expression on John Thornton’s face had meant when she had found herself face to face with him on the landing and that, with the dawning awareness of her own feelings, she had been trying to delay coming downstairs until the last possible moment. The powerful realisation of finding herself actually thawing towards him had left her mind reeling like a dervish.
“Hello Margaret.” In an instant he had stepped fractionally forward, as she somehow knew he would, his attention riveted upon her, she his only focus. She felt that invasive warmth again lick her face like a sultry caress, summoned into being simply by the sound of his voice. The courtesy of his greeting, the soft lilt in his tone, made her entire body tremble. It was as if he had physically reached out and run his fingers, feather light, down the length of her spine.
Trying desperately to disconnect herself from the feelings crashing so potently through her she forced herself to smile at him before seeking refuge in the mundane and turning to ask her mother whether she needed any help with dinner. Not that she had any appetite for food. She was far too alert to John’s close proximity to even think about actually eating. Just sitting at the dinner table with him was going to be hard enough.
“No, it’s all right, Margaret, I can manage. I’ll get the food out in a minute and we can all eat,” Maria said, glancing down at her watch, looking slightly anxious despite assuring her daughter otherwise.
Margaret inclined her head, settling back into the sofa, quietly turning her attention to the other conversation that had begun again. Her father and John had resumed their previous discussion, which had tapered off the second she’d entered the room, about cricket. It was a subject her father relished, she knew that, and any ally he might find with an equal enthusiasm for the sport was a pleasure to him. Her father was a keen follower and had been for much of his life; and had played in his younger days for the local village team. Nowadays, however, he contented himself with deriding England’s poor performances and acclaiming their victories from the comfort of his armchair, futilely endeavouring to try and get her mother and herself as interested in the game as he himself was.
“I suppose you’ve been to Lords,” she heard John ask, his attention now completely focussed upon her father.
“A couple of times in the past, yes,” her father concurred. “Although not as often as I’d like.”
“Perhaps we could travel down together and take in a game at some stage?”
“Now that,” replied Richard with marked delight. “is an excellent idea!”
Margaret felt herself staring at the pair of them, her mind beginning to race at the prospect of her father and John socialising together in such a way. She had, up until now, merely accepted their friendship as a mutually respectful but casual thing. The fact that they seemed to be mooting a visit to Lords felt to her suddenly whirling mind as though John were insidiously becoming a part of their lives, encroaching upon it more and more, thrust by her ever-solicitous father into their midst like a missile launched without any degree of warning.
The two men presently returned to the armchairs standing at left and right angles to the sofa, John sitting down in the one closest to her mother. He leaned back against the cushions, stretching out his long legs in front of him, chatting to her parents with convivial respect, easily and without any sort of false pretence, but all the time Margaret was aware of the covert glances he shot in her direction, as though he were checking to make sure she was still there and hadn’t suddenly disappeared. Oh, if only she could just vanish into thin air! If only she could run away! It had been so much simpler to dislike the man! It was certainly difficult to equate the John Thornton sitting in the room with them now with the monster she’d encountered in the stillroom with Steven. She had thought her attitude towards him to be resolutely fixed with no hope of redemption and yet now she wrestled with the possibility that this was not actually the case.
“The house looks very comfortable,” John said, addressing Maria as he allowed his eyes to dart around the room in which they sat, lingering upon the photographs that had so captured his attention on his previous visit to the house. “You’ve certainly made it into the home I’ve always thought it should be.”
The compliment was not lost on Maria who was, by her very nature, a natural homemaker. She had never aspired to be anything other than a housewife, tending to her home and family with as much duty and care as other women bestowed upon their careers. She’d done wonders with the house in a very short space of time, making sure that everything was as pristine and homely as the house they’d left behind in Helstone had been.
“Do you rent many properties?” Maria asked politely, having resolved that she would do everything she could to make John feel at ease in their home for her husband’s sake, if not her own.
“I have three, including this one,” John replied. “This house actually used to belong to my grandparents when they were alive.”
Maria appeared slightly taken aback by his comment, although she made the most of trying to cover her surprise. “You must know the house well then?”
“I spent a lot of my childhood here, being looked after by my grandmother while my parents built up the hotel.” He glanced briefly in Margaret’s direction to see her reaction, but found that she was looking down rather than at him as if she were deep in private thought.
“I had no idea that this was actually one of your family’s homes!” Richard exclaimed, sitting forward in his chair attentively. “I’m surprised you let it out at all, particularly to complete strangers such as us.”
“It was always my intention to rent it to a family because it’s always been a family home,” John said simply. “It was probably the one criteria I insisted upon.”
“Well, we’re all very pleased you felt that way,” Richard replied, having no hesitation in extending his gratitude. “We’ve settled in very happily I can assure you. Haven’t we, Margaret?”
With this summons Margaret’s head jerked up, her eyes swivelling towards her father. “Yes, yes we have,” she answered mechanically, a smile transfusing her lips.
“I’m glad to hear it,” John replied, addressing Margaret herself rather than her parents. His voice was soft and rich, like a brush of velvet against her flesh. She looked at him, forcing her eyes to draw level with his, remembering their recent rather animated conversation in Blues. “It’s nice to know that you’re happy here in Milton.”
“I am,” Margaret responded, her thoughts spilling from her lips without thought. “It was the right decision to come here.”
His dark brows arched curiously. “Oh?”
“I was ready for a change of scene, that’s all,” she replied quickly, having no wish to elaborate on what she’d said. “Doesn’t everybody feel that way from time to time?”
“They certainly do, Margaret, my dear,” her father said, nodding sagely. “They certainly do.”
She’d hardly met his eye all night. When she’d first entered the lounge she’d only glanced at him long enough so as not to appear rude in the presence of her parents. Now she sat opposite him across the immaculate white expanse of the dining table, her lovely eyes trained rigidly upon her plate, her fork questing her food as though searching for inspiration. She’d hardly eaten anything, he noticed, much less drunk any of her wine that had sat completely untouched for the duration of the meal, abandoned in preference for simple tap water.
“Would you like some more salad?”
Automatically his attention turned to Maria who was proffering him a wooden bowl filled to brimming with salad. Without hesitation he took it from her and politely scooped up the mixture of leaves and cucumber with the servers, depositing it on his plate beside the remains of his lasagne, even as Richard began asking about the Mill Owners Dinner to be held at the hotel.
“I read that the textile industry was very prevalent in this area in the nineteenth century and that entire communities were involved in it in one way or another,” Richard said, eager to further fuel his interest on the subject. “I know that Milton was one of those areas heavily involved in the industry at that time.”
“We have about five or six mills dotted around the area which are all museums now and managed by a local Charity dedicated to the preservation of them,” John said.
“The Dinner is one of the occasions the Charity hosts. Investors, local councillors and people from various branches of the tourist trade are invited. It’s a means of alerting people to the heritage of the area.”
“And you attend it yourself?” Richard asked.
“I do,” John replied, casting his attention briefly towards Margaret who had, without him being aware of it, raised her downcast eyes and was listening intently to what he was saying. As their eyes finally met he felt that incredible yet increasingly familiar spark pass like an electric charge between them, igniting ever cell in his body with a fierce incandescence. She immediately dipped her head as a rosy sheen bloomed beneath her skin. Had she felt it too, he wondered? Did she realise that although he sat here discussing the Annual Dinner that his thoughts were so completely consumed by her that he could hardly think clearly? “At the end of the day it’s an excellent PR opportunity,” he said.
“Are you all right, Margaret? You’ve hardly touched your food,” Maria said, suddenly realising that her daughter wasn’t eating, let alone contributing to a conversation that would ordinarily have interested her.
“I’m fine, mum,” Margaret said. “Just not as hungry as I thought.”
“We’re actually planning to take a look at one of the mills at some stage,” Richard said to John. “Margaret and I have quite a passion for history, don’t we Margaret?” His genial attentions came to rest upon his daughter and John saw, with a twinge of jealousy, the flash of mutual understanding that passed between father and daughter, indicative of the close relationship they so obviously shared.
After they’d eaten Maria and Richard cleared the table, leaving John and Margaret alone for the first time since they’d come across each other so unexpectedly on the landing. Margaret moved to the sofa, only to find John sitting down beside her, casually stretching one arm flush across the back of the sofa as he did so. It was a deliberate gesture on his part to gauge her reaction and it had the effect of making Margaret shift herself forward a little so that there could be no chance of them inadvertently touching.
They sat in silence for a while, neither one knowing where to begin, immersed in an awkwardness that seemed to be amplified by the closeness of their proximity to each other. Her head bent, Margaret clasped her hands together in her lap, examining her nails, feeling inexplicably nervous in his presence.
“I’m sorry about giving you a fright earlier,” John said eventually, his voice very low even though both Maria and Richard were in the kitchen. He could hear the indistinct flow of their conversation, the clinking of china.
Margaret kept her eyes down, unable to look at him, embarrassment clawing at her insides. “It’s all right. I just didn’t expect to see anyone standing there, that’s all.”
“No, I don’t suppose you did,” he replied. “Even though I run a hotel, I have never found any of my guests draped in little more than a towel in any of the corridors.” Margaret blushed and he instantly regretted his words. He couldn’t make out whether she was being overly sensitive or if he was being too insensitive by trying to make light of it. There really didn’t appear to be any hope of them reaching any sort of clear understanding! His thoughts ranged about, trying to find a subject bland enough not to be offensive. “Your father tells me that you’re temping at the moment. How are you liking it?”
“It’ll do until I find something more permanent,” Margaret replied noncholantly, wondering what else her father had mentioned about her.
“Tell me, Margaret. Would you consider shift work?”
She frowned, not quite understanding why he was asking such a question. “I don’t think there’s any call for that in solicitors’ offices.”
“Not in solicitors’ offices, no,” John said. “However, there is a call for it in hotel work.”
Her frown deepened. “I don’t understand.”
He met her eyes, his own questing hers with a thoroughness that made her heart jump skittishly in her chest. “I was wondering whether you would like to come and work at the hotel? As a receptionist, that is?”
His offer left her utterly speechless. Her lively heart arrested completely for several seconds before beginning to throb to a more erratic refrain. She was aware of the ground beginning to shift beneath her, the solidity of the earth crumbling away. She didn’t know what to say – or how to react.
Noticing her bewilderment, John strove to justify his reasons for asking her in the first place, his voice adopting a more business-like timbre. “One of my receptionists informed me today that she has been told by her doctor to start her maternity leave early. Her blood pressure has apparently gone up and she’s been told in no uncertain terms to rest. I knew from what your father intimated that you didn’t have a permanent job and so I thought I’d ask you before going to an agency.”
“But I don’t know what being a receptionist involves,” Margaret said, her heart pounding like a drum, its tattoo so loud that she wondered whether John could hear it. He was certainly sitting close enough to her!
“We could train you. That wouldn’t pose a problem.”
“I don’t know…” Given their disposition towards arguing at the slightest provocation and notwithstanding the emotions he had tonight managed to stir so violently inside her, she wondered whether she could actually work in the same building as him, let alone become one of his employees!
“You already know Bess and Nick.”
“And me,” he added with a heavy touch of irony.
She couldn’t help but smile at that, although she wondered if she would ever really know him, whether it was possible to cast away all the superficial layers he wore to find the true nature of his character beneath.
“I’m not the ogre you think I am, Margaret,” he went on, his blue eyes intent and earnest. “Far from it in fact.”
She shook her head, trying to think clearly through the haze of confusion that he’d blown like a dust cloud between them. “I don’t think it’s really a good idea.”
“Why not?” He seemed taken aback, his eyes narrowing as they regarded her. “It would allow you to work in one place for a fixed period of time rather than moving from office to office.”
“How do you know that that’s not what I’d rather do?” she demanded, suddenly irritated.
“Your father told me,” he replied.
Her mouth tightened in irritation as she wondered fleetingly whether her father had told him about Henry too.
“I’d like you to think about it,” John said, his very seriousness relaying to her that he meant every word.
She sighed lowly, shaking her head slightly in amazement that they could even be having this conversation. There were so many reasons why it would be a bad idea to agree to John’s proposition and yet…
“All right,” she conceded. “I’ll think about it.”
For the first time since she’d come into the room that evening she really looked at him, searching his face as though for answers to questions that remained unspoken and she really wasn’t sure whether to feel disappointed or grateful as her parents came bustling back into the room, armed with a tray of cups filled with boiling coffee.
“You’ve done what?” Hannah Thornton cried, her knife clattering against her plate, even as she gaped in astonishment at her son who sat so calmly drinking his coffee, the newspaper he always read at breakfast to one side of his plate of toast crumbs.
John eyed his mother above his coffee cup, knowing very well that she had heard every word he’d said. “It will save me that trouble of having to speak to an agency. That can only be a good thing as I have enough to do as it is.”
“I could have made the arrangements with the agency, John. All you had to do was ask me,” Hannah chided. “From what you’ve just told me this girl has absolutely no experience in the hotel industry, so what on earth possessed you to ask her?”
Because I want to be near her…
Because, despite the fact that she haunts my mind day and night, it isn’t enough anymore not to be close to her…
“Because I thought she’d appreciate a job that she could spend a set period of time in, rather than having to be sent to a new position each week,” he said, placing the cup on its saucer with a gentle clink. “And because I think she’s more than capable of doing the work that will be required of her.”
His mother surveyed his resolute expression, even as he began to scan the contents of the front page, and realised that any attempt that she might make to deter him on the matter would probably only serve to have the opposite effect on him. She sighed, unable to conceal her dubiety of his choice. “I hope you’re right, John,” she said. “Because we can’t afford to make a mistake when the hotel is at its busiest.”
“I can assure you that employing Margaret Hale will not prove to be a mistake. On the contrary, I think she’ll fit in very well.”
He placed his palms flush against the table and eased himself up from his chair, signifying an end to the discussion, in his own mind at least. “By the way, has Fran mentioned when she’s thinking of going home or has she decided to take up permanent residence with us again?”
“I was wondering that myself actually,” his mother said, as her thoughts were successfully diverted away from Margaret. “I shall try and have a word with her today about it. I can’t imagine that Steven is still decorating.”
John nodded. He was well aware that Fran wouldn’t thank him for alerting their mother to the fact that her visit had extended for rather longer than had been originally intended. Over the past few weeks he had been trying to needle Fran into offering him some sort of explanation about what was happening between her and Steven, but to no avail. She always stormed off in a blaze of temper and reverted to the spoilt child he could still remember her once being.
He tucked his chair under the table and whisked up his newspaper with a view to tackling the finance section in a quiet moment if one ever presented itself in the course of the day ahead.
“When have you asked this Miss Hale to let you know whether she’ll be accepting this job you’ve been so kind as to offer her?” his mother asked.
John was halfway to the door, but turned back to glance at his mother over his shoulder. She was regarding him sagely, as if she suspected his offer to be anything but an arbitrary gesture based purely on a desire to give Margaret more stable employment. He sought not to react to it, not wanting to alert his mother’s suspicions further. “I’ve asked her to let me know today. If she declines I’ll let you know so that you can talk to the agency,” he said.
“It’s very irregular not to give her any kind of formal interview,” Hannah said, obviously deciding that the matter was not closed, even as John had hoped it was. “How can you possibly tell if she’s up to it?”
John rolled his eyes to the ceiling at his mother’s negativity, sighing perceptibly. “Because I am a convinced she is,” he said simply and then threw her a smile of confidence before striding quickly from the room.