Now for the treat I mentioned...Nicole Clarkston is working on a new North & South variation. It should be released sometime later this year. I'm so excited about this news and am thrilled that Ms. Clarkston has given me permission to post the opening of her new book here at More Agreeably Engaged! Enjoy!
Oh, I almost forgot, if you leave a comment below, it will double your chances of winning the eBook, No Such Thing as Luck. Don't forget to leave a comment on my review posting, too.
Beloved Husband and Father
May 6, 1798 - October 17, 1837
A lone figure stood before the graven stone, head bowed and hat doffed. A few had passed by, but if any remarked on the novelty of the sight, they did so from a distance and at a whisper. It was an annual pilgrimage; one the man before the headstone made with religious precision at half past three of the appointed day, every single October, and always alone.
John Thornton, one of the most powerful men in the prominent industrial city, was not a man to be ruled by emotion. His life- for the past seventeen years and four minutes to be exact- had been one of machine-like drive and unswerving purpose. The work of his life had been allotted him at an exceedingly young age, and he had accepted it like a man.
Ensuring his family’s welfare had been his first duty. Restoring its honour had been his second. Everything after that had been another step in the logical progression of his life, as the ambitious young man had risen up the ranks in business. The man who stood today before the cold slab of granite was a man who held his head high among his peers, and at whose command hundreds sought their livelihood. He was a man often applied to for his perceptive advice and infallibly fair judgement; one who by all appearances could have no causes for regret and called the world at his feet.
He squeezed his eyes shut. No causes for regret… except one. It was nothing, really. Not something that should have had any lasting importance. After all, he could not be the first man who had been rejected by a woman. As far as he knew, the consequence was not fatal. There were times, though, when he felt like it ought to be.
Was it the natural state of affairs that he should still, several times a day, fail to remember to breathe? How long had it been? His mind calculated the answer before he was aware it had asked the question. Three months, twelve days, and four hours. Just over a quarter of a year since his heart had found the courage to beat once more, and then had been promptly crushed for its audacity.
He turned his hat awkwardly in his hands, unconsciously brushing the nap smooth as he did so. His eyes blurred. Why was he still standing there? He had paid his tribute, made his annual salute to the man who had sired him and set him upon this course. Nothing else was owed his sense of justice. For the first time in many years, however, he wished he could have asked that man one single question.
The natural question- Why?- had long since been canvassed to exhaustion. Nothing remained there but heartache and misery. No, the question he would have asked today was far less profound, but a great deal more practical-and it was one he felt sure the man in that cold ground might have once had the answer for. What is a man to do with a broken heart? Yes, surely George Thornton would have known, for Hannah Stewart had not been the first woman to catch his father’s eye. That first, a London heiress, had been far above the humble reach of George Thornton- even more so than his own remarkable mother.
Perhaps that was the answer. Margaret Hale was not the only woman on earth. His father had found another to admire, and even love, had he not? Though George Thornton’s final act had been the ultimate betrayal, he remained convinced that his father’s heart had at one time been healed, and at the hands of a woman.
He himself had never paid any heed to women, obsessed as he had always been with the all-consuming demands of his life. Never once had he felt the lack- or at least it had not been such a nagging torment that he had not been able to overlook it in favour of his ambition.
Then, something rather extraordinary had occurred. A fire had sparked out of nowhere, a flicker of that aspect of manhood long neglected. Man, after all, was not made only to labour, to produce, and then to expire. He was shaped for life, to search beyond himself and to seek his peace in relationship. He was made to find an answer to his masculine singularity in the form of a complement to himself- an opposite, yet in the greatest paradox known to humanity, a perfect match. Love.
The word flashed through his consciousness, triggering an agonized shudder in his soul. I admit it! He grit his teeth, refusing to allow his emotions to display over his features for the world to see. Aye, I confess. Yes, I loved her! No, that would not do, not if he were fully honest. I love her still. There was no recourse but to clench his eyes shut again.
The insignificant spark had blazed to a raging inferno in the blink of an eye. He had been wholly unprepared for the awesome ferocity of that emotion. How had he even been capable of it? Rigid control had been the order of his life. One glance from a haughty young woman and all had ruptured. Despite himself, he could not help feeling that the heavens were laughing at him. Fool that he was, he had thought he had the world in his palm, when in truth he barely clung to his pathetic self-discipline.
His father had certainly had the right of it in this one point. There were other women on the planet- women who would receive him. Others would not fling his heart back in his face as though it were the vilest of refuse! There must be yet a woman out there who would not despise him… whose very presence would ignite the long-dead embers of his soul. Surely there was… there had to be another whose every word would inspire him... whose every touch had the power to scorch him to his very marrow. There… there must be another woman somewhere the equal of Margaret Hale. And perhaps there was, but never for him.
His eyes were by now blinking rather rapidly. John Thornton never wept. Never. Not even when his father’s body had been lowered forever out of sight and his broken mother had turned the boy for all that the man had lacked. Never did sorrow dim his eyes. Right now, however, he was grateful for the soft drops of rain just beginning to fall. It would spare any awkward explanations as to why the Master of Marlborough Mills suddenly required a handkerchief for his face.
Margaret Hale shifted her pitifully small bundle of letters under the crook of her arm as she manipulated her father’s heavy umbrella. He had insisted that she take it today, citing his fears for a coming storm. She had complied more out of a desire to cheer and comfort him than any actual fear of the weather. Of course it would rain. It was Milton! It rained nine months of the year here, though not always heavily enough to justify an umbrella. Most of the town’s residents did without one of the ungainly contraptions unless the rain picked up some real vehemence, which it just might do today.
Most of the poorer residents, she corrected herself. The more well-to-do tradesmen’s wives and daughters who did not possess carriages nearly always kept one near, but Margaret had developed something of a sense of independent competence. She was proud of her newfound ability to cope nearly as well as those who did not possess her resources. The weather was of little concern to her these days.
Of great concern, however, was one particular letter in her clutch. She had been waiting anxiously for many days, calculating and recalculating the amount of time it ought to take before it could arrive. Her heart had leapt into her throat when she had claimed that day’s mail at the office, and she had promptly beaten a direct trail out of the city so she might have the privacy she required to read it.
Glancing about, she made her way to a small bench along the path where she could separate out the much coveted correspondence and break the seal. Her eager gaze flew over the opening script, slowing in sorrowful denial as it continued, and halting in abject mourning at its close. She dropped the missive to her lap.
So, that was it. There would be no reprieve, no pardon which would allow her brother to return to his homeland in safety once more. He was in Spain to stay. She bit her lip, refusing to cry. Her poor father! How he had counted on that hope, that one chance that his son might return! An unbidden sob pierced her and she felt convicted of her guilt. It was she who had planted that false hope there. Her father had told her it was a futile exercise before she had begun, but naively she had pressed onward, insisting that the world must bend to her wishes.
Her hand stretched out, her fingers curled into a tense little vise to snatch up the letter and crumple it along with her broken dreams. Clenching her fist, she stopped herself. Frederick’s letters were now to become all the more precious, as they were apparently the only contact she would ever have with him again. Heartbreaking as this particular specimen was, it would take its place of honour in her mother’s old box of memories.
Oh, Mother! She swallowed hard, that shooting pain returning to her heart. At least Maria Hale had seen her son that one last time, and would nevermore mourn his absence. Her father, on the other hand- bruised and jaded from the loss of his wife- still lingered half his days in a dreamy stupour. Once or twice even of late she had heard him speaking as if her mother still sat across the table from him. Perhaps, she mused, it would be best not to share with him the contents of this recent letter right away.
Margaret had, in the last months, grown startlingly adept at burying her own sorrows. She could not afford to show them, not at home. It was only here, far away from all humanity, where she could slowly piece out her troubles; giving them full examination as was their due, and then carefully packing them away again for perusal at a later date. Her father… no, he should not hear of this just yet. He was not yet strong enough to learn that he would never see his son again. Let him cherish that hope a little longer, if it gave him pleasure.
The other letters in her stack- two of them, to be exact- were meaningless by comparison. One was from Edith and the other was from Mr Bell. Both would be admired and savoured in their proper time, but the dry comfort of her father’s study would do for their examination. Tucking the paper stack into a fold of her cloak, she gathered the umbrella once more and began her return home. The few sparse droplets which had begun to sprinkle down as she read Frederick’s letter had multiplied in number and in force. Adjusting her umbrella to account for the wind blowing the water back into her face, she set out with long strides for home once more.
There was scarcely a soul about, as she had chosen the rather melancholy route of her walk specifically for the privacy it offered. Thus it was with no little surprise that she made out a tall black figure as she crested a small knoll. The man was standing stock still, only about twenty paces from the path on which she walked. His back was turned, but there was no possible way anyone in Milton- least of all she- could fail to recognize his towering figure. She froze. Mr Thornton. He was the last person whose notice she wished to attract just now.
He gave no indication that he had heard her approach, standing as he was with his bare head lowered. Perhaps if she moved to the sparse grass off the path and stepped very softly, she might hurry out of sight before he could turn from whatever held his interest. What was it?
Curiosity took her, and she craned her neck momentarily to see what had captivated him. He was not the kind of man to waste time in one attitude. It must be something of some marked distinction to command his attention so.
An abrupt chill washed over her when she realized what it had to be. She suddenly did not need or even wish to see the actual object, standing silently just beyond him. There was only one possible explanation for Mr Thornton to pause so reverently in a graveyard, hatless in a pouring rain. Catching her breath, she redoubled her wish to escape as quickly and discreetly as possible. No man would desire a witness to his grief….
That last thought arrested her even as she gathered herself to move away. It had little occurred to her that the enigmatic, powerful man who held sway over half of Milton might yet grieve the father he had lost as a child. For her, the loss of a parent was still raw and fresh. His sorrow could hardly compare, seasoned as it had been with the passing of time. And yet, if that were the case, what would compel him now to bear such a pitiable sentinel? He stood in only his suit coat, as if the cold rain threatened little further distress for him as he rendered his duty. Intrigued by this notion, she forgot her attempts at escape. Instead she merely stood as silently as he, watching and marveling and wondering what he could be about.
She was still rooted thus when, a moment later, he slowly turned, his eyes down until they encountered her feet on the path. His head jerked up as if he had been shocked. He said not a word, merely stared, dumbfounded, as she gazed quizzically back. Her open, honest expression searched his, and shame filtered into her conscience. The man before her was a man broken and heartsore, and one who no doubt had felt assured of solitude as he explored his pain.
She pressed her mouth firmly, dropping her eyes from his and swallowing. For the first time, she began to feel a trickle of compassion for him. Almost the first time.
Slowly, and not quite knowing what she intended, she took a deep breath and a bold step in his direction. He drew himself back slightly, almost like a frightened animal, and she stopped, watching him uncertainly. At her hesitation, he visibly forced himself to a more easy posture. Blinking, she took another step, and then another.
There, this was not so bad. Another step, and then a few more. She was within arm’s reach now, and with great trepidation, she turned her face up to his. Still, neither had spoken.
Propriety insisted that he ought to greet her by name, and that she should respond in kind, but what would be the point? It was useless to claim they had not acknowledged one another. Indeed, the shock of her sudden appearance and the memory of all that had passed between them reflected in every fiber of his being.
What more could they say to wipe out the misery of their past several encounters? Nothing, Margaret concluded. All she could offer him was basic human civility; what she would offer and what was owed to any other creature.
With that resolve, she deliberately extended the umbrella to him, her manner gently insistent. Surprise flashing in his eyes, he responded in the only way he could. He took it. He stared rudely in mute amazement, no doubt appalled at her lack of deference for his privacy. She took another long, trembling breath. It was too late to withdraw gracefully now.
All at once, the carefully ingrained manners of a gentleman reasserted themselves. He replaced his hat, shifted the umbrella and offered his arm, silently inviting her to share in its shelter. With a miniscule nod, she nervously accepted. Her gloved fingers hovered over his drenched coat sleeve until she gingerly touched them down, sealing their uneasy truce.
She found herself standing uncomfortably close to the most bewildering man she had ever encountered. What on earth have I just done? She closed her eyes, clenching her teeth. Given him another reason to doubt my modesty, that is what I have just done!
She blinked the drops from her briefly exposed lashes and discovered that she was looking directly at his chest, where a very soggy handkerchief dangled uselessly from his breast pocket. Bravely she raised her eyes to meet his face, which was also thoroughly drenched from the rain. He, too, was blinking rather rapidly as more droplets trickled in stubborn rivulets down from his hair.
Still without a word, she held out her own handkerchief to him. It seemed only the right thing to do, she reasoned. No matter how tempestuous their relationship had been, she could not simply walk away from another person whose pain was so obviously raw.
She dropped her gaze again discreetly as he hesitantly accepted the article from her, and so she was not able to witness with what feeling he received it. She was the intruder upon his solitude, and though she found it within her power to offer some simple comfort, she would never betray his vulnerability or seek to encroach more deeply where she was not welcomed.
“Thank you, Miss Hale.” At last the first words were uttered. Succinct, but sufficient.
She dipped her head in acknowledgement. “You are welcome, Mr Thornton,” she murmured softly.
Thank you, Nicole Clarkston, for sharing the opening of your WIP with me and my readers. I am honored. My, that was such a touching scene at the graveyard. Then the tender moment shared by Mr. Thornton and Margaret left me wanting for more. I can hardly wait until this work-in-progress is finished and ready for us to read in full. Thank you again for allowing me to give a 'taste' of your new novel to my readers. I look forward to your visit when your book is released, so happy writing! :)
Now to the giveaway, as with the review, please leave your contact info in your comments. Let me know what you think of this opening. The giveaway will end at 11:59 PM on the 7th of February. Leaving comments here and on the review will double your chances of winning the eBook, No Such Thing as Luck. The giveaway is international! Good luck to all and thanks for dropping in. I welcome your 'share in the conversation'. (Ms. Clarkston may not be able to respond to your comments immediately but will as she is able.)