Before meeting Margaret Hale, John Thornton experienced a rather colorless life. At the time, however, he would not have noticed. The death of his father forced him onto one straight path in life: take up his father’s position as master of Marlborough Mills and work for his mother and sister. He relied on his logic and a stern schedule to raise the mill back into fortune to aid his family, not caring a whit for other pleasures in life. He did not have the time nor desire to think about women, until she arrived.
Meeting Margaret Hale was like seeing radiant color all at once, overwhelming and maddening. She emerged through puffs of white cotton to yell at him, with no apparent care that he was a prestigious master of a mill. Unlike the other ladies of Milton, who blindly nodded and smiled with whatever he said, Margaret fiercely voiced her disagreement with his thoughts and opinions as he tried to speak with her at her father’s home, always looking and moving like a magnificent queen glaring down at one of her subjects. It rattled him with both annoyance and allurement.
Somewhere along the way, he fell for her, although it took her arms around his neck and a blow to her head until it all came crashing down on him. That he cherished her above all things and would spend every moment of his days devoted to her, He did not know that such a feeling could consume him. Suddenly, his life felt richer, warmer, and he knew in that moment, he would never love another as much as he loved her.
He could not have known what lay before him after that day. The heartbreak, the jealousy, the anger. But even if there was a way to go back and warn himself of what was to come, he would not. As he looks down at his sleeping Margaret, buried deep in their bed sheets and snuggled close to him, he knows all of it led him to this moment. He would not change anything for the world.
Margaret shifts in her sleep and moves closer to him. He laughs quietly at the sight, then sighs knowing he needs to go to the mill soon.
He leans down, kissing her brow and brushing his hand gently through her hair. A couple days ago, much to his delight, she insisted that he wake her up before he left for work. The goal, of course, was that it would be good practice for her to become an early riser like a true Thornton. So far, it was not a great success.
“No,” he hears a soft murmur in her sleep and she buries herself deeper into the covers with a grunt. In his secret moments in the past, he always daydreamed of how Margaret would wake up in his bed. It amused him to no end that, instead of a graceful queenly awakening like the rest of her day’s activities, she wakes up like a sulky child.
“Margaret…” He smiles again as an eye opens to glare at him. He watches as her hand reaches up to her forehead and massages the skin near her scar, a gesture that confuses him. He chooses to not comment on it, turning back to her face as she sighs in annoyance.
“Before you say anything, John, yes I’m aware I’m the one who asked you to wake me up. I never said I would enjoy getting used to it.”
He only smiles bigger. She really does bring out the joy in him.
“I was not going to say that,” he says, watching her softly as she begins to push herself up.
“It’s a sin that you must leave this early,” she mumbles, positioning her back against the headboard.
“You get used to it,” he murmurs, distracted by the vision in front of him. Wild curls fall over her shoulders onto her pale skin, allowing him to see just how dark and rich her hair is. There is a sense of peace that embodies her now, ever since she married him. He will never grow accustomed to it.
“Are you to always look at me like that?” She laughs lightly, tilting her head in such a way as to allow more hair to topple forward.
“Yes,” he breathes, not caring how affected he sounds.
He must be staring too long, for Margaret lifts a delicate brow and a dark look of desire crosses her eyes.
“You could leave…or maybe we could stay here just a little longer?” Now she’s the one smiling in amusement at him.
That seems to pull him out of whatever trance he fell into.
He clears his throat. “Oh, no I really do have to leave. Higgins is supposed to be waiting for me this morning.”
“Are you certain…you don’t look so certain.”
He inhales sharply when she leans forward, deliberately dropping a shoulder, so the nightgown sleeve loosely falls. How she manages to seduce him while still appearing the ever-quaint lady, he can’t explain.
“I don’t think the mill shall combust if you’re…say ten minutes late?” Now her lips are hovering over his, a light smirk giving away her intention of keeping him right where she wants him. He can feel his body responding to her, can feel his skin ache to feel her against him.
He tries one last time. “Margaret, I- ”
She kisses him. Placing her hands on his cheeks, she brings his mouth to his and her tongue tentatively swipes his bottom lip before daring to kiss him deeper with it, and oh…oh she’s never done that before.
He groans deeply, all other thoughts gone. How could she be so innocent and alluring all at once? He pushes her down onto the bed, ignoring her grin of victory, and uses those ten minutes wisely.
He walks into his office late, Higgins sitting in the chair facing his desk. He’s rushing to finish tying his cravat as Higgins turns to assess him and he clenches his jaw as the observant man stifles to hold back a grin.
“Not a word, Higgins!” He snaps sharply, knowing his tone won’t push away any humor.
“’Course, master,” Higgins smirks.
With Margaret’s gift and Higgin’s commitment to finding workers, Marlborough Mills is once again close to prosperous. An energetic atmosphere now exists within the mill, something that never seemed to exist there before. While a part of it was thanks to the changes he had made to his mill over time, he knew it was mostly due to the man he was now.
He spoke more with his workers. When work in his office came to an end, he would come down and spend more time over-seeing their work and speaking with them over food. He knew more of them by name and they approached him more often.
At one point, he overheard two female workers speaking to each other in hushed tones about his transformation.
“I always liked that Margaret! She’s made him into the cheeriest master in all of England! Well, perhaps cheery is not an accurate word for him, but that smile!”
“Who would have thought that John Thornton had teeth to show,” the second girl giggled, and he quickly made his escape, lightly chuckling at their assessment, fully knowing they were right.
Close to noon, John heads towards his office, anticipating Margaret to come lunch with him soon. He adores this new tradition of hers. When he had asked about her desire to see him at lunch every day, trying to ease her need to care for him, she blushed.
“I missed you so much, John…in London. I think I’m trying to make up for lost time.”
He smiles for the hundredth time at the memory, pushing open the door to find a nervous-looking Mary Higgins before him.
She shifts slightly, wringing her hands together in a nervous gesture.
“Beggin’ your pardon, master…” She pauses, taking a hesitant look at him before pulling together her bravery. “I…I gone home to feed the children and Margaret was there to help. I’m not sure what happened exactly, but I came into the room to find her fainted. I waited till she awoke and then ran her to tell you. I told her to stay there until you come.”
A vision of Margaret rubbing her head achingly that morning runs through his mind and he curses himself for not commenting on it.
“It was good of you to come to me, Mary,” grabbing his coat and swiftly pulling it on. “Tell Higgins to keep an eye on things…I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Yes, master,” Mary says, then hesitantly adds, “And sir, just to warn you, Margaret was displeased that I told her to remain there until you arrive. I don’t think she wanted a fuss.”
“That sounds like Margaret,” he murmurs, nodding at her and quickly taking his leave.
To his surprise and relief, he finds Margaret within the Higgins’ home, reading a book aloud to the children at the table.
At the sound of his entrance, Margaret pauses to stand and walk towards him, taking his hand reassuringly, a determined look on her face.
“I’m fine, John. No matter what Mary told you, it’s really nothing.”
He scoffs, his eyes sweeping over her in intense inspection. “Are you sure you did not injure yourself? What happened?”
One of the young boys, Thomas, pipes up. “Margaret’s head hurt. She kept rubbing it and then when she stood up, she fainted.”
As he finishes the story, Margaret’s flushes and tilts her head up, appearing every inch the queenly haughty woman of their earlier acquaintance. He once believed her proud and disagreeable when she did this, but he knows better now.
He brings his hand up to lightly touch her head. “This bothered you this morning. I’m assuming it only got worse today.”
“John, it’s fine,” she repeats, a little more sternly and loudly.
“No, it’s not,” meeting her tone of voice. His eyes drift towards the table of children, looking on in trepidation of the argument stirring before them.
“Let’s go home,” he says sternly and does not miss the flash of anger in Margaret’s eyes.
They walk in chilled silence until they near the mill.
“You don’t have to treat me like a sick child,” Margaret’s says, noting the way John has shortened his stride to force a slower pace.
“I’m not, I’m treating you like my wife who has recently fainted,” he chides back, growing increasingly frustrated at her attempts to decrease the urgency of her pain.
“It’s happened before, I know how to deal with it.”
“And that is supposed to ease my nerves?” They make their way up the stairs and into his office. When he shuts the door and turns to her, his anxiety and worry must be clear on his face, for she sighs and takes a seat, her anger evaporating.
“It’s not common. After the strike…” She brings a hand to the scar. “…this healed, but if I was ever extremely tired or stressed, I could feel a fainting spell come on. Most of the time, I know when to sit or lie down so it would pass. When Frederick came and I protected him from everyone…and protecting my parents from the knowledge of my conduct…it was fairly bad then.”
He cannot stop the painful guilt of his judgement and desertion of her during that time. He stays silent, trying to not let that guilt interrupt her as she continues.
“This morning was unusual. I know I should have remained home, but…but John, I refuse to be that wife who must always keep to bed because fatigue wears her down or anything stressful puts her out. I could not bear it and I cannot bear to look weak.”
With a clearer understanding, he walks over and kneels to her level, placing a hand on her own and his other on her scar.
“I’m deeply sorry that this has caused you more pain. I’m also deeply sorry that you had no one to turn to during those days. I regret that immensely,” he softly runs his finger over the scar, knowing that this conversation has been said before, but its presence is needed in this moment.
“Margaret, I need you hear that I’m here to share your burdens. I’m your husband and it’s my duty and honor to care for you. Why should you suffer alone, when you have me to help you?”
She turns to him, something still clearly bothering her.
“But you have always said you admired my strength and tenacity. Would you not lose that admiration should you see how I suffer? I don’t care what others would think of my weaknesses…but you must know I deeply care about your opinion.”
His love for her moves him to kiss her, lightly but with deep feeling. When he pulls away, he keeps his eyes on hers, imploring her to listen.
“I knew a long time ago, Margaret Thornton, that I loved you above all else. Your strengths and weaknesses. Your attributes and your faults…they were all equally dear to me. We will find a remedy for this, to help you feel at ease with your injury, but never fear my loss of respect or love because of this.”
She smiles, the sight of tears in her eyes and puts her arms around his neck to embrace him. He feels her breath against his ear, as she responds, “I know this injury has caused much pain, but I also want you to know, that should a stone ever be in your path again, I would still throw myself in its way to protect you.”
It’s enough to keep them there until work calls them back to reality.