It had started innocently enough. The first bitter winter of the war was over and the winds of spring were in the air. Mrs. Patmore had opened the kitchen door saying that the place needed a good airing out. As the fresh breeze traveled into the servants' hall everyone brightened, then clamored to get up and enjoy it for themselves.
Her arm had brushed his as she left her seat. That in itself wasn't unusual. The chairs were close together and he was a big man. He often had to contort himself slightly to avoid knocking into her as he rose or sat. But something was different today. There was the tiniest measure of extra pressure which made him take notice. He would have thought nothing of it, but when he looked up from his book he noticed a bit of a twinkle in her eye. Had she brushed against him on purpose?
It didn't happen again for a few days. His Lordship was at home for a brief stay and they had met on the way back to the servants' stairs after having finished getting everyone dressed for breakfast. She reached out to take his small bundle of laundry to add to her own, as was her habit. This time, however, when he held it out to her he felt her little finger hook under his for the briefest instant as she took it from his hands. She didn't say anything, and he would have written it off as an accident if he hadn't caught that same little twinkle again.
The third time he was certain he hadn't imagined it. He was reading after supper the next night when she breezed into the room. She took her usual seat next to him and gestured toward his newspaper. "What do you suppose will come of that?" she asked.
She shifted closer then, and he felt the tip of her shoe come to rest against his boot. She pointed at an article about troop movement in Belgium. "That."
He must have answered her, though if questioned later he would have to confess to having no idea what he had said. His mind was preoccupied at the feel of her touching him. Did she know she was doing it? Had she done it intentionally? Why wasn't she moving away?
He finished speaking and she nodded gravely before pushing back and declaring she needed a cup of tea. He watched her as she left and noticed that bit of mischief in her countenance once more. What was she up to?
She had just been looking to cheer him up. It had been such a cold, cruel winter. The war raged on and it had become depressingly clear that it would not be over by Christmas, nor anytime soon after that. She knew that he was not at peace with the fact that he hadn't gone, hadn't been able to go. He had lost some of his spirit and she longed to make it better.
She thought if she could just get him to have a little fun maybe his smile would come back. Much as he dodged and demurred, she knew he was attracted to her. He wasn't nearly as good as he thought he was at averting his gaze before she noticed him, and when he entered a room she could count on him finding his way to her side at the first available opportunity. He had been a breath away from kissing her last summer, before this awful cloud had settled upon everyone. She wanted to find out the extent of his interest. If she teased him enough, could she get him to break?
She couldn't fix the bigger problems looming over them—the war, his wife, his shame over his past—but that didn't mean they weren't entitled to enjoy the present. She only hoped he would catch on and be willing to play.
The hall was crowded for supper. Lady Grantham was entertaining several guests overnight and the accompanying ladies' maids, valets, and footmen required adding six extra seats to the already full dining table.
"Sorry," she had said as she slid in next to him, her face looking anything but. "It looks like we'll all have to squeeze in a bit tonight."
His reply caught in his throat as she shifted toward him, her left leg now directly against his right. It took him by surprise and it occurred to him that it had been a very long time since he had been touched by another person. As surrounded as they were by people, a servant's life was actually quite isolated. There was always the need to give way and maintain a proper distance. He didn't remember missing the feeling of contact before Anna, but now every trace of connection with her made his skin burn and the warmth lingered for hours.
He sat stiffly while they ate, not daring to move a muscle. He wasn't sure if it was from his jitters or because he feared if he moved she would pull away. Adding fuel to the fire, he counted seven times their arms and hands had accidentally brushed or collided as they ate their meal.
Finally she was finished and put down her spoon. "Well," she announced, "that was one of the better meals I've had in a while."
"Really?" he questioned. It was the same soup and bread they had at least three times a week.
"I enjoyed myself quite a bit," she replied with an impish grin. She rose and walked back toward the kitchen, but not before quickly skimming her hand across his shoulders.
He was sure now. She was definitely trifling with him. But why?
What was she trying to accomplish?
Her next chance didn't present itself until the following Sunday. They attended church as usual, and afterward everyone milled around in the yard, chatting and catching up. Anna stood alone by the gate, enjoying the sun and a moment of peace.
"Anna," Mr. Carson's voice interrupted her. "Have you seen Mr. Bates?"
"Not since services ended."
"If you do see him, will you tell him I need to speak to him straight away?"
"Yes, Mr. Carson."
Anna felt a smidgen of remorse for lying in church, or outside of church, rather, but she wasn't about to turn down an excuse to speak to him. She knew exactly where he was—he was hanging back around the side of the building, no doubt enjoying a taste of fresh air and solitude of his own.
With a smile playing on her lips, she walked over to where he was. Without warning she laid her hand on his upper arm and leaned in toward his ear. "Mr. Carson is looking for you. He says he needs to speak to you at once." Fast as she had arrived, she moved away.
He stood, rooted to his spot. He could think of nothing but the feel of her breath in his ear, the way her lips had just slightly grazed him as she spoke, and the how she had so possessively touched his arm. He realized there had been absolutely no need to whisper—he was away from the crowd and there was nothing scandalous about her message. Was she really so audacious as to choose this time and place to toy with him? Was it horribly irreverent that he found it thrilling?
The following Tuesday found them together again. Now that his Lordship was spending the bulk of his time in London, Mr. Bates didn't have the same day to day responsibilities he once had. With the loss of the young men, everyone's duties had to be rearranged to cover the load. He couldn't wait at table so he pitched in on the cleaning and polishing to help free up those who could. He had a forest of cutlery in front of him this particular afternoon and was steadily working through the tedious task.
Anna had a pile of mending to occupy her afternoon and he was grateful for her company in the hall. They chatted amiably while they worked and he found himself feeling more content than he had in a long while. He still felt the disappointment of his situation, but no longer so keenly. Though he would be loath to admit it for fear of sounding unpatriotic, he found himself glad that he hadn't had to leave her.
His thoughts were interrupted by a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye. Suddenly she was directly in front of him, stretching across his place at the table to get the crock of milk for her tea.
His head went muzzy at the scent of her—something sweet and flowery and unmistakably feminine. She had been so close than if he had leaned forward just a fraction of an inch his lips could have met her neck. If he had looked down…
Clearing his throat, he said "I could have gotten that for you."
"Oh no—your hands are all full of polish, and you looked so absorbed in your work. I didn't want to distract you." She put just enough lilt in that statement to convince him that distracting him had been her exact aim. He wondered if she had any idea how well she had succeeded.
Four long days had passed since her last gambit and he owned to being a bit disappointed. He caught himself holding his breath whenever she got near him, anxiously awaiting her next move and feeling unaccountably let down when it didn't come. He wasn't sure when it had happened, but he had started looking forward to her cheeky liberties. He still didn't know why she had started or what she wanted from him, but he found himself unable to let the matter drop.
He finally decided on an experiment. The dressing gong had been rung and they were the last two left to go up. He hung back as they approached the stairs and let her precede him, as he usually did. He had developed that habit entirely because he didn't want to slow her progress and not at all because he enjoyed watching her ascent.
This night, however, he let his hand dangle at his side as she passed him, and edged it out just enough so that her knuckles drew across his as she overtook him. Her head snapped back at the contact and he met her eyes, curious as to what her reaction would be. Her surprise faded as she returned his gaze, then a slow smile spread across her lips. She turned and headed up the stairs, the sway of her hips just a little more pronounced than usual. Understanding dawned and he couldn't fight his own smile as he started up after her.
Two could play at this game…