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Northern Rain Vignettes: #3

This vignette was originally written for the Northern Rain blog tour. It was first featured on Rita’s blog From Pemberley To Milton. It is republished here in celebration of the new Audiobook release of Northern Rain, narrated by Stevie Zimmerman. This same vignette can also be found on Goodreads under Creative Writing.

Interview With A Mill Master

RD: Pardon me, Mr Thornton, sir?

JT: Yes? What can I do for you?

RD: Forgive my intrusion, sir. I am from the Times, and I was hoping to speak to some of Milton’s mill owners on the outlook of the cotton trade.

JT: By all means, my good man, although I have only a few moments. I had another appointment which had to be rescheduled, and I am to depart again shortly.

RD: Of course, sir, I will try not to take too much of your time. I only wished to be able to quote an experienced master such as yourself. If I may, how do the mills fare at present?

JT: Excellently, sir. I think there is no stronger export just now, particularly with war looming in the Baltic, and our increased presence in India. Cotton is certainly a utilitarian material in both cases.

RD: Yes, I would expect as much. Now, there was a rather bad strike last year affecting a number of mills. How did that affect your business, and do you expect future difficulties?

JT: Naturally, any disruption to the flow of commerce is an unfavourable circumstance. It is unfortunate, but the mills and laborers involved have since come to a working agreement. I do not expect it shall be the last strike we will see, but at present, I see no immediate cause for concern.

RD: So the Union is presently content with your terms?

JT: (Laughing) The Union is rarely content, but their grievances are not serious enough at this juncture to cause any real trouble. I pay my men better than others, sir, and Marlborough Mills is equipped with many new innovations to make the work safer and more comfortable. Of course, I would pay good men more if such an expense were justified, because I have an interest in keeping the best working for me. As profitable as cotton is, however, even I have my limits.

RD: Quite so. Mr Thornton, I am very glad to speak with you, in particular, because I have been told something of how you came to your position here. You are rather unique among Milton’s masters, in that your father did-

JT: My father had nothing to do with it, sir. I can account for my success purely by tireless diligence and careful planning.

RD: You do not find any circumstances in your past to be the work of fortune?

JT: Not at all. If you will forgive me, sir, I am afraid I must make my appointment. Had you still some questions?

RD: Indeed, sir, I should like to speak with you further. May I wait on you later this afternoon?

JT: That would be agreeable. I shall return by three o’ clock. Will that suit?

RD: Quite.


JT: Do forgive my tardiness, sir.

RD: Not to worry, Mr Thornton, your overseer has given me a most enlightening tour.

JT: Tour? Oh, yes, that is well.

RD: Sir… do forgive me, sir, but you look as though you have had some bad news. I hope that is not the case!

JT: Bad news? No! Nothing of the kind. A gentleman has just moved to Milton to become a Classics teacher, and he was referred to me by a mutual friend for assistance in settling. He… and his daughter… were having some difficulty in securing lodgings.

RD: I am glad it was nothing serious, sir. Now, we were speaking of how you got your start here at Marlborough Mills.

JT: ….

RD: Sir?

JT: Pardon me, what was that?

RD: Ahem. I was wondering, sir, how a man like you starts from nothing, and then finds himself confidently the master of the finest mill in the city.

JT: Confidently? Nothing is certain in this industry, sir.

RD: Mr Thornton, I have heard nothing but that your peers admire and respect your opinions. I should say you have every reason for confidence.

JT: I have, then, do I? Tell me, sir, have you ever covered any story relating to the labour unions?

RD: Er… Well, no, Mr Thornton. I know little of them.

JT: They can be fickle, like a woman. One moment, a man might fancy himself the master, and the next… and the next… he finds himself quite humbled.

RD: That is an interesting analogy. You are not married, are you Mr Thornton? I wonder that you should think of such a comparison.

JT: Half of the people in this country are women, sir. I encounter their kind daily… though I do not wish to sound a churl, for most of them are gentle enough.

RD: Forgive me, Mr Thornton, but you are looking rather unwell. Might you wish to call off the remainder of the interview?

JT: I am quite well, sir. Now, then, you were asking how I got my start in the mill?

RD: Let us return to that in a moment. You have made me think of something else. Are you not the only mill master in the city who is presently unmarried, Mr Thornton?

JT: That is rather a personal question, sir!

RD: Not necessarily. A married man is seen as stable, where an unmarried man might be prone to take greater risks in his business.

JT: I have my mother and sister, sir. You cannot think I would act rashly with them in my care!

RD: I did not mean to imply that you would, sir. Only that a family man has greater incentive toward stability. There is a vast difference between having a mother who keeps house for you and a having wife and children of your own.

JT: A… a wife?

RD: I say, Mr Thornton, have you taken a chill?

JT: No! I only… Sir, are you married?

RD: (Laughing) No, sir, but I am well familiar with the power a woman might hold over a man. My grandfather still gets a look on his face very much like yours when my grandmother chooses to contradict him!

JT: Your grandmother must be a rather provoking woman. I wonder that your grandfather does not put some stop to it!

RD: My grandfather counts himself the most fortunate of men, I assure you. Were I heir to the estate, I should do exactly as he did- find a sharp-tongued, clever woman such as my grandmother, and marry her regardless of circumstance. It will be a number of years before I have earned the security which would permit such a marriage, but… well, a man in your position, on the other hand….

JT: Did you not come here to ask questions about the mill?

RD: I believe I have what I need for my article, Mr Thornton. Perhaps I may call for another interview should the occasion arise?

JT: What? Oh, yes, certainly. Forgive me, sir, but I do not think we were properly introduced.

RD: That was intentional, sir. I beg your pardon. I am but a humble reporter, wishing to succeed on my own merits, but it becomes rather awkward when I tell people my last name. Richard Darcy, at your service. I hope, sir, that… er… your new friend and his family find Milton to their satisfaction. Good day, sir.

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Northern Rain Vignettes: #2

The following is a very nascent idea which popped up in the initial story development of Northern Rain. It did not survive long- it is fanciful and not at all plausible, but it was a fun, romantic concept to return to for the afternoon.

This vignette was originally written for the Northern Rain blog tour. It was first featured on Maria’s blog Fly High It is republished here in celebration of the new Audiobook release of Northern Rain, narrated by Stevie Zimmerman. This same vignette can also be found on Goodreads under Creative Writing.

In North & South, both Thornton and Margaret pay visits to Helstone, but at different parts of the story. This short vignette explores the very unlikely possibility that their visits might have coincided. We find Margaret just as she learns she is to be an heiress, and John as he is pining for the woman he never expects to see again. One wonders if they would even need words, after so unexpectedly happening upon one another in such a remarkable setting. – NC

The Rejected Scene

“Margaret, my dear, are you well?”

The young woman’s eyes had become somewhat glazed, and she appeared quite out of breath as she sat sedately by the old man’s side. She gasped, still in shock. “You cannot leave me everything, Mr Bell! Surely, there is some other, someone who might know what to do with it all!”

Thomas Bell laughed softly and patted Margaret’s hand as they sat together on their makeshift bench. “No, Margaret, there is not. You and Frederick are all I have left, and he is quite well taken care of. My wish, my dear, is that you will make better use than I did of everything I leave to you. I have no doubt that you shall bestow your goodness on those- or perhaps on one at least- who is deserving of your care.”

She shook her head, still dazed. “But it is so much,” she objected humbly. “Surely, there can be no need for you to sign it all over now. What about you?”

“Never fear, my child.” Bell allowed his gaze to drift over the simple stone cottage which had once been his old friend’s parsonage. Even the picturesque little Helstone home lacked the serenity of former days, and, like his dear friend Hale, Bell had found that the world no longer had a place for him. He sighed, blinking, then looked back to Margaret.

She was sobbing quietly, understanding his meaning. “Oh, now, come, my dear!” he interrupted her. “Do not carry on so. Look here, I brought a new book along, and I should like to retire to the inn to enjoy it. It is much too fine a day for you to remain cooped up with me- why do you not go visit the school house as you proposed earlier?”

Margaret was eventually persuaded to agree to his plan. Feeling guilty, she left him to his comforts and set out upon her own path. It was a pleasure to return to Helstone once more, but it was not the home she remembered. Nothing remained the same. Old faces had gone. Of those she still knew, some had changed, some had remained the same; always she found it to be to the worse. She tried to enjoy her visit to the schoolhouse, but the pleasure was hollow. Feeling lonely and out of place, she at last took her leave.

By the time she had done so, dark clouds had rolled over the landscape she knew so well. Rain would soon fall, if she knew Hampshire’s weather at all, but Margaret made no attempts to hurry her path. She wandered, lost in thought. It had occurred to her that Mr Bell’s assets remained mostly in Milton, the city she thought never to see again. Chief among her new belongings would be… oh, dear. What would he think when he heard she was to be his landlady? Naturally, an executor would manage the properties for her. She would not see him, even if she wanted to….

A few sparse droplets sprinkled over her skirts now. Margaret nibbled her lip. She did want to see John Thornton. Had he not despised her so, she never would have left Milton in the first place, but his just scorn made the very walls of her own home close stiflingly about her. She simply had to go!

Mr Bell had just unlocked the door to him again, but she would fear humiliating him with her new possessions- and that was before she even began to consider what he must still think of her! Immodest and capricious, that was what he thought her to be. Dishonourable, too, lest she forget that accusation! No, she could not go to him, even with something so simple as a business relationship… could she? Could his opinion of her sink any lower?

The corners of her mouth tugged upward and she began to blink rapidly in elation. No, it could not! She turned her eyes up to the skies, allowing them to shower refreshingly over her face. She would think of some way to see him, and perhaps if he were generous, she might survive the encounter without wishing for the floor to swallow her up. Joy bubbled from her throat, and she longed to do what she had not done since childhood. Gathering her skirts, she began to run in the falling rain.

She had not gone far before she began to think she ought to seek some other shelter. The rain was falling heavily now, and her inn was a long way off yet. There was old Gibson’s home, was there not? She had been told that he had died and his house now stood abandoned. Surely she could pause there for a short while until the rain passed. She changed her course, turning up a lane and then cutting through a tall hedgerow of roses. Thorns tugged at her skirts, detaining her, but once she had freed herself, she looked up and, with a gasp, lurched to a halt once more.

John Thornton turned at the sound of the brush scraping through fabric. In his hand, he still held the rose he had just sentimentally plucked, but the vision which drew his eye froze him. Margaret? His Margaret, here and glowing with fresh radiance as she smiled up to him? It had to be a dream! He took a step toward her, experimentally offering the rose he held, but afraid to speak lest he shatter this heavenly reverie.

Reality blossomed when her warm, damp hand met his. She looked openly into his face, her eyes smiling her relief at his welcome. They stared at one another for several seconds, neither turning loose of their rose as the rain pooled inside its petals. Margaret had at first seemed hesitant, but the longer he gazed down at her, searching for the loving words he wished to declare, the more confident she grew. At last, her fingers closed fully around his. “Come,” she beckoned, a lively warmth glowing upon her cheeks. “There is a house this way!”

He followed her willingly, clutching her small hand as though she were a phantom, and taking care that the thorns of their shared rose should bite into his own palm and not hers. A brief gust swept over them, and his hat sailed forever beyond his reach. He glanced at it as it went, but not for the whole world would he relinquish the treasure he held.

After only a moment, she led him to a low thatched hut. He looked about disbelievingly. This solitary place could surely not be her destination! Why would she bring him here? And alone? His breath quickened. It could not be real! Only in his most vivid imaginings would she make herself so vulnerable, placing her trust so wholly in his honour.

She released his hand and hesitated expectantly. Dream or no, it was only proper that he should open the door. He struggled with the decayed latch for only a moment, and then he was gesturing for her to enter the rustic little abode before him. Her cheeks pink, she did.

John bolted the door against the rain once more, then turned back to her. Margaret’s face lit with inscrutable pleasure- could it be he who had inspired such an expression? He studied her clear, bright eyes, the warm blush, and those full, delicately turned lips. A few rain drops had pooled into one on her cheek, and begun the slow descent down to her jaw. Entranced, his body responded.

He caught the drop with his forefinger, so lightly that he scarcely touched her skin. He could feel the heat radiating from her breath, brushing over the back of his fingers. He no longer cared if he were hallucinating.

His heart hammering in his throat, he fairly lunged for her. His hands found her shoulders, hungrily sliding down her back as he drew her to his chest. Ducking his face under the brim of her hat, he sought to taste his dream. She was sweet, and soft, and warm… and very real.

He drew back, panting with wide eyes. “Margaret!” he whispered at last. His lips were still misted from the touch of hers, and he licked them self-consciously. Her gaze was turned down now, looking on the arms he had wrapped possessively around her. Guiltily, he started to withdraw, but then she looked up. She was smiling- almost laughing, even.

There was so much he longed to say to her, so much he would ask, but her eyes gave him the answer to the most important question of all. He had yearned for her so long, and here by some awesome wonder she seemed content in his embrace! He could not bear another moment without claiming her for his own. Those brilliant eyes still shone up to him, and her mouth tipped lusciously in shy acceptance.

John had not spent countless hours in church staring at her back without making a careful study of the pin holding her hat in place. So many times he had envisioned slipping it from her thickly coiled hair, then sweeping that final barrier to her lovely face out of his way. Without even asking, and sensing somehow that she would not object, he now fulfilled that fantasy.

Her eyes steadily held his, her face flushed with maidenly innocence, and he felt, of a certainty, that she had longed for this reunion as fervently as he. Could it be? He rightly ought to speak to her, but had never employed his words to any great effect where she had been concerned. Never before had she granted him such tenderness, and this without speaking a word! What matter if his proposal came in the form of a more unmistakable eloquence?

The hat dropped from his hand, rolling to rest somewhere behind her. His gaze scanned over her mouth, then raised back to hers in an unspoken question. The corners of her eyes softened, and she offered the barest lift of her chin. It was enough.

His face dipped to hers once more, trembling with the new reality of her closeness. Before, he had doubted his senses, but he did so no longer. Fear mingled with elation as he drew near. She was waiting for him, her lashes fallen over her cheeks and her lips slightly parted. A soft moan escaped him as he closed the remaining breath between them.

At his glad sigh, Margaret had also moved in unrestrained reciprocation. It happened that their noses bumped uncomfortably, but John was not deterred. Her eyes flashed up again, and she had opened her mouth to apologize, but he swept down to cover it with his own. Unpracticed in the art though they both might be, he was determined to learn her- each exquisite detail. With every gentle brush of his mouth, he explored the pouting little ridge outlining her lower lip, savouring the velvety softness of its curve, and sipping of the succulent dew just inside the rim.

Margaret almost forgot breathe, so wholly absorbed was she with his caresses. After some seconds, she at last remembered to take a great, trembling draught of air, causing her to part her lips even further. With a throaty groan, John took advantage of her shift in posture to draw her even more intimately to himself. The abandoned little dwelling was silent but for the sound of their synchronized breaths, punctuated by the soft friction of their kisses.

Margaret’s eyes fluttered open. She wanted to see him! It was so strange to be this close, to examine for herself every misted drop of rain on his face, the lines of care creasing his forehead, and each dark hair of his lashes and brows. The taste of him on her lips was somehow fresh and delicious, and so sensually revealing of his bitter longings. With profound humility, she recognized the licence and privilege he extended to her. It could be hers to wash away his sorrow, and to light his darkened way- if she would only accept him. She continued to respond to the tender strokes of his mouth, but her eyes traced lovingly over his strong, square face bent in submission to her. Hesitantly, she reached up to touch the short, masculine hairs curling down the edge of his jawline.

Blue eyes startled open, but he did not draw away. She felt him smile, heard another little shudder of joy escape him, and his gentle expression held hers as he tugged her body closer. His upper lip, rough from his long day, teased and tickled the inner parts of her mouth in a way she had never imagined. Discomfited by such near eye contact, but unwilling to relinquish the awakening tenderness growing between them, both began to chuckle very softly. Their amusement stole the dexterity from their caresses, the pleasure shining in both faces overpowering the heady play of their lips.

Margaret, beginning to lose the last threads of her composure, lifted her chin still more and nestled her smiling mouth at the deepening line below his cheek, where a broad expression of euphoria pulled at his face. He nuzzled her faintly in sympathy, a low luxuriating breath whispering over her skin. “Margaret,” his well-remembered tones caressed her name as he pronounced it. “What are you doing here?”

She pulled back to meet his eyes again, her fingers still threading through the hairs of his jaw. “I am visiting with Mr Bell. I never thought to see you here!”

One side of his mouth creased. “You are not sorry to see me?”

She began to blink, her lips quivering into the flourishing radiance of everything she felt in that moment. All of the pent-up trepidation and regret dissipated now in the face of his gladness at their reunion. “I have missed you,” she whispered. “I thought it would be you who might not wish to see me!”

He groaned, tightening his grip around her still more. “I want you with me from hereafter, my love. Would you…” he placed another soft kiss on her lips, then drew back, his eyes full of apprehension, “would you come back to Milton with me?”

The glow in her eyes was so immediate, and so articulate, that he wanted no other answer. He shook in relief, lifting her up and sweeping her long skirts in a circle about his feet. “Margaret!” he cried jubilantly. “Are you certain?” he paused, setting her down once more. His brow furrowed in sudden disappointment and frustration. “I may have to ask you to wait some while. I… I do not know where I stand at present.”

Her small hands, both clutching the front of his dampened waistcoat now, flexed tightly. “I believe I might have some encouraging news for you, then. Would your standing be improved by full ownership of Marlborough Mills?”

He stared, aghast. “Full… do you mean that Mr Bell has…?”

She nodded. “It is so very good of him! Now I think I know what he meant when he tried to tell me what he wished. Oh, but there is more I must tell you!” She quivered in tense anxiety, alarmed at the painful subject which she must justly broach.

He stilled her with an assertive press of his lips to hers- his right and honour, now, in the most glorious shift of circumstance his life had ever known. “I know of your brother,” he murmured. “Forgive me, love, for speaking so harshly. I was unjust. May we put it behind us?”

Precious air rushed into her lungs and she trembled in joyous relief. “Yes, John.”

A wide grin split his face, the brilliance of his contentment emanating from his flawless smile in their small shelter. There was still so much to be said, many paths which must be crossed before he might bring her to his home in the exultant triumph of a groom, favoured with a woman’s devotion. He refused to think on that now. She was in his arms- the woman he had so long ached to love, and despaired of ever pleasing. Tipping his head playfully toward the door, he asked with sparkling eyes, “How long do you expect before the rain lightens and we may return to your Mr Bell?”

A mischievous twinkle lit Margaret’s expression. “It could be hours yet,” she laughed.

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Northern Rain Vignettes: #1

This humorous vignette was originally written as part of the blog tour for my book Northern Rain, published in July of 2016. This vignette is a fanciful imagining of John Thornton being dressed down by an aging but spry Elizabeth Bennet. It first appeared on Tamara Austen’s blog, My Kids Led Me Back to Pride & Prejudice.

It is republished here in celebration of the new Audiobook release of Northern Rain, narrated by Stevie Zimmerman. This same vignette can also be found on Goodreads under Creative Writing.

I offer no justification for the following frivolity, other than I wrote it purely for my own amusement. -NC

Timely Advice

“John, I received a note yesterday that some very old acquaintances wish to call this morning.” Mrs Thornton’s distress shone plainly in the lines about her mouth and the deepening furrow between her eyes.

“Why should that seem to trouble you, Mother? I am glad that you have yet the comfort of callers, even with things standing as they are for us.”

“It is precisely that which worries me, John. I have not seen these ladies in many years, and just now, as you have determined to give up the mill, seems hardly the time to renew the acquaintance. I should rather have told them I was indisposed, but the notice was too short. I am surprised that they should call so abruptly!”

“They cannot be disagreeable, can they?”

Mrs Thornton’s teeth set. “They are gentry,” she almost spat. “I only ever had a passing familiarity with them as it is, but their husbands found some business in Milton, and these ladies seem of a peculiar enough sort to travel with them. I think perhaps they cannot know of our affairs, or they should not have sent by their note. I never knew any such ladies to trouble themselves….”

She left hanging the unspoken phrase “with a failed manufacturing family.” She did not need to utter what was so plainly written across her face.

Her son set aside the pen with which he had been madly scribbling in his ledger. “Mother, if they unsettle you, you need not feel obliged to receive them. What care have we for some bare acquaintance that you shall probably never have cause to see again?”

Mrs Thornton blew out a frustrated huff. “I should do precisely that, but Mrs Bingley was ever kind to me. I cannot send her away.”

John’s ears pricked up. “Bingley? Would that be the wife of a Mr Charles Bingley, of Northrup Woolen Mills?”

“The very one. You might remember her, John. Your father used to do a deal of business with them, and they had us to picnic days once or twice when you were a boy.”

“I remember. Father owed him over two hundred pounds. I settled the debt with Mr Bingley’s agent, however, as the Bingleys were on the Continent for several years. I wonder, Mother, why you refer to them as gentry? They are nothing of the kind, as I recall.”

“Mrs Bingley was a gentleman farmer’s daughter, but her sister- the other lady- married a very well-to-do land owner indeed. They are quite of the proudest class of people.” She scowled, pouting a little at such an admission of the other woman’s superior status.

John’s brow furrowed. “Oh, yes, I remember. Darcy, wasn’t it? I was very young… Mother, what on earth are such elderly ladies doing traveling about on business tours? Why, they must be well into their sixties or better! They cannot find such travels to be very agreeable.”

Mrs Thornton snorted. “If it were only Mrs Bingley, I might be inclined to agree with you. I have no doubt, however, that it is truly Mrs Darcy who insisted upon them both traveling. She has not been known to remain quietly at home under any circumstances.”

John chuckled lightly. “Perhaps their visit is well-timed, Mother. I think you could do with a pleasant morning, and it sounds as though these little old ladies might be quite entertaining for you. Perhaps I might make an excuse to pay my respects.”

Mrs Thornton shot him a warning glare. “Do not repeat that phrase in their hearing! Mrs Darcy would have you for breakfast.”

The august visitors came duly at their requested time. Mrs Bingley was everything that Hannah remembered her to be from all of those years ago. Polite nearly to a fault, with silver hair, guileless blue eyes, and apple cheeks, even one as reserved as Hannah Thornton could not help but warm to her. Mrs Darcy, too, had changed but little.

Hannah observed the younger of the two sisters with an arched brow. She was crowned with bold salt-and-pepper locks, and her dark eyes still flashed with merriment at every turn. How such a candid, frolicsome woman had survived with her respectability intact in London society, Hannah could not fathom. She could only surmise that Mrs Darcy had been abetted by her husband’s rather substantial consequence and her own capricious wit. Hannah eyed her dubiously. One never knew what the spritely old bird might say next!

Mrs Thornton kept politely to the weather, assisted by Mrs Bingley, but Mrs Darcy at last looked her directly in the eye. “Mrs Thornton, we hear much of Milton’s recent hardships. I believe my husband is even now speaking to one of your local bankers, regarding some investments he had here which have turned out poorly. How do you and Mr Thornton stand?”

Mrs Thornton gasped in utter shock. Apparently, Mrs Darcy’s advancing age and naturally outspoken personality had manifested themselves in quite improper freedoms. She fumbled, completely at a loss for a demure response.

“Lizzy!” whispered Mrs Bingley in sympathetic horror. Mrs Darcy only flicked a cool glance at her sister.

No further comment was made, because it was then that John knocked respectfully at the door of the room. “I hope I am not interrupting?”

Spry little Mrs Darcy was the first to her feet. “John Thornton, how you have grown! I declare, you must have been still in short pants when I saw you last!”

John coloured and reached uncomfortably to straighten his cravat. “It has been a long time, Mrs Darcy,” he agreed. “Mrs Bingley, I hope you and your husband are well.”

Mrs Bingley answered in the affirmative. John’s eyes shifted between the two ladies in unspoken curiosity for a long, awkward moment.

“May I ask what troubles you, young man?” queried Mrs Darcy.

John started and cleared his throat. “It is nothing… only… you both remind me of someone, that is all. It is your manner of speaking, I think. Forgive my rudeness. I only wished to welcome you both to Milton.” He darted an uncomfortable look to his mother. “Please excuse me, Mrs Darcy, Mrs Bingley.” Straightening his jacket as though he were beginning to sweat, John made a hasty retreat from the domain of femininity.

Mrs Darcy turned a penetrating gaze on Hannah. “Rather singular, I declare. Mrs Thornton, your son has grown to a fine man. I am sorry to see that things are not well with your mill.”

Hannah Thornton’s eyes blazed. She retorted as indignantly as she dared, “By what means do you reach such a conclusion, Mrs Darcy?”

The elderly mischief-maker twinkled a knowing look back to her. “I have gazed into eyes very like your son’s these forty-two years, Mrs Thornton- whenever Mr Darcy is troubled, or he believes me to be vexed with him. Tell me, who is the young lady who broke your son’s heart?”

Lizzy!” hissed her scandalized sister.

Hannah nearly gagged on the tea which she had forgotten to swallow. She coughed, requiring a napkin. Mrs Bingley was quite literally hanging her head in shame, her little gloved hand shielding her face. One would expect, Hannah thought testily, that Mrs Bingley would be used to her sister’s tart comments by now! She sputtered unhappily and tried to contrive a way to avoid the woman’s blunt line of questioning, but it seemed that she had more than met her match. Elizabeth Darcy was not to be gainsaid.

“She was from Hertfordshire, I take it?” prodded the little busybody.

Stunned, Hannah only shook her head numbly. “Hampshire.”

“Ah. And a gentlewoman, of course. Your son has quite a discerning eye, Mrs Thornton, and I should not wonder that she felt her family circumstance to be above his own?”

The blood drained from the loyal mother’s face. “Mrs Darcy,” she whispered in ghastly awe, “how did you hear of my son’s affairs?”

Mrs Darcy laughed, the bubbling, joyful laugh of a girl. “You might be surprised to discover what I know of matters such as your son faces! I have been in a similar position, Mrs Thornton, and it shows plainly that he is in great need of encouragement. Now, please do not fear- I know I am a frank old woman and I have no business to pry, but I think I like your son. How might I be of help?”

Hannah was shaking her head. “I would implore you- do not try to encourage him, Mrs Darcy. It is the last thing he wants! What he must do tomorrow….” Instantly, she regretted that last plea.

Mrs Darcy’s eyes brightened. “Ah, does he have an excuse to see her again?”

Hannah clenched her teeth. “He intends to give up the lease on Marlborough Mills, and the property has recently passed into her name. She is quite an heiress now… please, Mrs Darcy, I must implore you to say nothing to make this more difficult for my son!”

The woman’s face softened in understanding. “Of course not, Mrs Thornton. I bore six children of my own, and I know a mother’s cares. Dear me, my eldest granddaughter is to wed next month!”

Hannah was still pale and trembling. “Mrs Darcy, I must insist that my son be left alone so that he may at last put it all behind him.”

A crafty twinkle appeared in that pert old face. “Lizzy,” warned Mrs Bingley under her breath. The stern utterance went entirely unheeded.

“Mrs Thornton,” Mrs Darcy smiled sweetly. “I fancy that I may be able to offer some assistance with Marlborough Mills. My husband has provided me with so much pin money over the years that I have never touched, and I have been thinking recently of investing it, do you see. I know it is most irregular, but would you mind terribly if I inquired of Mr Thornton what possibilities there might be?”

Hannah narrowed her eyes. Mrs Darcy gazed back at her with perfect innocence. “Sarah,” she summoned reluctantly. The maid promptly appeared. “Please show Mrs Darcy to my son’s study,” she instructed. The pair departed, and Hannah nearly gasped aloud in consternation and dread until she remembered that silent Mrs Bingley still remained, sedately stirring her tea.

“She has no intentions of speaking about business matters, Mrs Thornton,” whispered the wise eldest sister.

Hannah tried not to bite her own lip in two. “I know, Mrs Bingley.”
John looked up swiftly from the business letter he had been writing when the door to his study opened without ceremony. “They have gone alrea- Oh! Mrs Darcy!” he shot to his feet. “Do forgive me, I expected my mother.” He surveyed her in some confusion as she strode boldly into his study, her eyes briefly grazing the bookshelves.

“What is her name, young man?” The fine lady’s eyebrows quirked playfully as she approached, a roguish smile playing at her mouth.

He gaped. “Mrs Darcy? I do not understand.”

She came near and brazenly tapped a knowing finger on his chest. “The young lady I put you in mind of. She is quite lovely, I expect?” she batted her lashes.

“What… Mrs Darcy!”

“Did her father desire for her to marry better? What was the objection?”

John blanched, his mouth opening and closing helplessly. Mrs Darcy tilted him a patient smile, waiting expectantly. “Her… her father was my friend,” he managed at last.

Her brows arched. “Was? Oh, dear. Has she other family?”

He sighed. “That is something of a quandary, Mrs Darcy.”

“Oh!” she clapped her hands together. “You are in her confidence in some matter! Better and better, young man. I expect you were able to offer some assistance?”

John narrowed his eyes. “Mrs Darcy, may I ask the nature of your interest in my affairs?”

A sage grin lit her merry, lined face. “Mr Thornton, do you think Mr Darcy suffered no difficulties in proposing to me?”

He gulped, sensing himself on dangerous ground. “I cannot imagine any gentleman not surmounting whatever obstacles he was required to face,” he mumbled gallantly.

She laughed heartily. “Clever boy! It is a pity that William was not so chivalrous to begin with. If you only heard how pompous he was! Oh, how I despised him after that!”

His face fell in shock. “You… you refused Mr Darcy, Madam?”

“With a vengeance, young man. The caprices of fortune, and a hearty measure of humility on both of our parts wrought a most agreeable change in the end. I would counsel you, Mr Thornton, if you love this woman, do not give up hope so easily.”

“Mrs Darcy,” his voice cracked, “with all due respect, matters between us are quite irreparable. After tomorrow, I shall never see her again, and I think she would be glad of it.”

“Tell me, Mr Thornton, what was the last word you had of her?” she tilted her head, those dark eyes sparkling as irrepressibly as they had when she had been a girl.

He swallowed, his hands trembling. “She left Milton when her father died. She sent me one of his books by her maid- that was the last direct contact I had with her.”

Those brows lifted again. “And did she include a note? May I see it?”

Like a dutiful schoolboy, and still suffering in some dismay at the lady’s casual intrusion into his affairs, he retrieved the note- which somehow she knew that he would have preserved all of these months. Mrs Darcy scanned it quickly, and a cunning smile grew on her face. She held the note aloft as a victory flag. “The woman loves you, young man!”

His chest seized. “Mrs Darcy, you cannot-”

“Hush!” she held up a commanding finger. Once she had his full astonished attention, she read the note again, as if to confirm it for herself. Satisfied, she looked up with a firm nod. “If she had hated you, Mr Thornton, she would not have applied so much effort at indifference. Why, one can practically read a novel between those lines! A woman who dislikes a gentleman does not include a note at all, even if the gift is one of duty. Was Plato a particular favourite of her father’s?”

He nodded, breathless. “Yes,” he wheezed.

“Ah. There you have it. You must try again, Mr Thornton, and this time, try to keep your pride out of the room when you propose.”

Stars were dancing before his dazed eyes. “Mrs Darcy!” he objected, “My business will primarily be with her attorney. I shall scarcely even have an opportunity to see her!”

She peered at him with her sharp gaze. “Then you must make one, Mr Thornton, and if she asks you to wait an hour, stay for two. It might seem presumptuous to take a ring with you, but you must offer a flower or something- it sounds as though an apology might also go a long way to smooth matters.”

“I doubt,” he murmured softly, “that she will be willing to hear me, Mrs Darcy.”

Mrs Darcy canted her head to the side, and for a moment, he could picture the impish southern country girl who had long ago captured the imposing and prestigious northern gentleman. She studied him gravely, then pursed her lips in decision. “Yes, she will. A man such as yourself does not give his heart away lightly, nor in vain. I have some experience in these matters. Do not lose sight of the treasure you seek, nor let yourself be drawn off on futile disagreements. Discover the meaning of grace, for it covers a multitude of wrongs, young man.”

“I am not practiced in expressing words of love,” he sighed. “My one attempt met with such scorn, that I dare not try again.”

“Dear me, you are a good deal too much like my husband! Forget the poetry, for I have always found it to kill young love stone dead. Speak simple truth in humility, young man, and that will be sufficient.”

He began to blink rapidly, imagining perhaps a dozen different possible outcomes to such a vulnerable display from him. “What am I to do if words fail me?” he rasped.

That sparkling face grinned mischievously up to him. “I am an impatient old woman, Mr Thornton, and therefore perhaps my advice is not as proper as it once was.”

He lifted a brow, curious. “What do you recommend?”

“Just kiss the girl, young man. And do send me a wedding invitation, for I should dearly love to meet her.”