It was a heady thing, the idea that his attentions might be welcome. He turned it over and over in his mind, sleep not coming easily that night. He knew himself well enough to know that if he joined in with her they would be playing with fire. He wanted her. Very badly. She had once professed to love him, but that had been long ago and too much had happened in the intervening years for him to be certain of her feelings anymore. He hadn't dared to broach the topic. What was there to say? He had tried, but he hadn't had any success thus far in locating his wife. He was as trapped now as he was then, but all the more in love with her. To be invited to touch her, tease her, and allow her to do the same for him—he had no idea how long he would be able to control himself.
Until recently, she had never tried to revisit their situation either. If he were being honest, he probably wouldn't have been ready for her. It had been a bleak autumn and dreadful winter, especially as he had prepared his Lordship to go to war without him. Slowly, though, he was coming to acceptance. He had served. He had given up more than many realized to do his duty. Now he was tasked with helping to hold his dear friend's home and family together. His Lordship always expressed his appreciation when he came home, and Bates began to understand. He would have been beside himself to leave Anna behind, and it would have helped to have someone he trusted looking after her. He was glad he could offer Lord Grantham at least that comfort. It wasn't the utility he imagined for himself, but it was a respectable service nonetheless.
Each day news came of terrible losses. If there was one lesson that war taught it was that nothing was certain. It was true he wasn't yet free to claim her, marry her, or make love to her, but he could at least appreciate her now and let her know how much he cared. If they had a bit of fun in the process, he couldn't see regretting that. He was still worried about getting carried away, but she had proven herself to be a sensible, responsible woman. He would have to trust her. She would tell him if it went too far.
He settled back in bed, his mind full of ideas.
He was just coming in from the village as she was rushing outside, arms full of washing to be taken to the laundry maids. Slowing his pace, he managed to catch her in the doorway. He turned to his side and let his left hand catch her hip as he brushed past her in the narrow space.
"Sorry," he offered with an unrepentant smirk. "I didn't mean to crowd you."
The next afternoon he couldn't resist trying again. She was washing her cup in the kitchen sink when he came in behind her, reaching over her head to get a glass for himself and pressing into her quickly. She turned to him and raised an amused eyebrow.
"I didn't want to bother you when your hands were full," he replied with a shrug.
Later that very same night the impulse came over him once more. This time he dropped his hand between them at the dining table and let it come to rest on the corner of her chair. He drew the back of his fingers over the side of her knee, making her giggle. She quickly covered it with a cough and he pulled his hand back, biting his own cheek to suppress a grin.
He had no idea how she had managed to wait two and three days between strikes. He could manufacture hundreds of excuses to touch her and was keen use them all. He had imagined that they would be a combustible pair, but he hadn't accounted for how strong his desire would be once he gave in to it.
In all her time at Downton she had never had this much fun. It seemed that not only was he content to join in, but he meant to be an active participant. It was so nice to see him smile and laugh once more. She couldn't help feeling flattered at his enthusiasm. It was gratifying to see him delight in the game as much as she had.
They took turns for the next several days. The tone was changing—what had started out as innocent was quickly becoming daring as they both fueled the need they stoked in each other. How long would it be before the sparks caught fire?
She hated the attic. It was dark, dusty, and felt vaguely sinister with its cobwebs and blind corners. She tried to avoid going there whenever possible, but with the change of seasons there was no way to put off the trip any further. She had to retrieve the girls' summer clothes so she could begin mending and preparing them.
She reached the top of the stairs and tried to will herself to open the door. Finally she screwed up her courage and grabbed the latch. The instant her hand made contact she heard a scrape and thump. She screamed and turned to flee, running into something solid blocking her path. Panic raced within her as she struggled to free herself.
"Anna," came his soft voice. "Anna, what is the matter?" He had come up to begin bringing his Lordship's lighter suits down and had been surprised as he reached the top of the stairs to hear her cry out and jump as if she'd seen a ghost.
She relaxed, realizing it had just been him that she had heard, and tried to steady her breath.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine. Sorry. I don't like it up here and I think my imagination got the better of me. I know that must sound ridiculous."
"Not at all. It is a bit unpleasant, isn't it?"
"Well, I'm definitely glad you're here. I'll say that much."
"Shall we go in?"
She nodded and reached for the latch again. She opened the door and stepped in only to be greeted with a loud rumble.
She was pulled back just in time for a large bundle to fall directly where she had been standing. Her nerves were still jangled from before, and this new assault left her trembling.
He had been acting on instinct when he heard the noise and his hand had come around her midsection, yanking her back against him. Feeling her shiver now, he absently began to rub his hand up and down, attempting to soothe her.
It was hardly a lover's caress. There had to be at least five layers of cloth between his hand and her skin, but it felt intimate alone with him in the attic. Recovering from her fright and realizing her fortune, she allowed herself a hum of contentment and leaned back against him.
"I think it's safe to go on now. It just looks like an old bag of linens fell down."
"I'm not quite settled yet," she answered, looking up at him playfully. "I may need another minute."
"Very well," he replied with a slight laugh. "We wouldn't want to suffer your nerves by making you go before you're ready."
"Precisely," she said, bringing her hand up to trace his fingers.
He closed his eyes and relished the feel of her so close to him. Her fingers stroked up and down his nearly driving him mad. He was beginning to worry about embarrassing himself, but she kept to her word and released him quickly. She gathered her first set of clothes and moved back toward the stairs.
Before she began her descent she turned back to him. "Thank you for looking after me, Mr. Bates. Perhaps the attic isn't so bad after all."
Another afternoon brought another pile of clothes to work on. She sewed while he wrote a letter, both of them content to enjoy the quiet together.
"Anna, Lady Mary wishes to go riding."
"Yes, Mrs. Hughes." She gathered up her mending and started to rise.
He carefully slid his right foot just behind hers. She caught on him as she got up, pitching backward with a shriek. Knowing what was coming, he was ready to catch her, his large hands splaying across her ribcage, thumbs a mere inch from total impropriety. A damnable inch, Anna thought.
There was no hope of concealing the flush that came over her cheeks as he righted her. However she was quick enough to take advantage of an opportunity when it presented itself. Under the guise of regaining her footing she put her hands on his shoulders and gently slipped the tip of her index finger under his starched collar, stroking his neck and making him fight for breath.
"Really, Anna, watch where you're going. We don't need you laid up in bed with a broken leg." Mrs. Hughes' admonishment broke the spell and they both drew back, Anna leaving quickly. She hoped her blush would fade before Lady Mary asked any questions she wasn't ready to answer.
She had hardly seen him over the next two days. His Lordship was at home along with some fellow officers and that kept the house occupied from daybreak to midnight. They finally found each other in the hall after the family had finally retired for the evening.
"That's a new one, right?" She nodded toward his book.
"Yes. His Lordship only recently acquired it himself."
"What is it?"
"It's a volume of poetry by Emily Dickinson."
"What do you think so far?"
"It's quite good. I'm actually just finished. Perhaps you'd like to read it before I return it to the library?"
"That would be very nice. Thank you."
He looked at her a moment, considering, then quickly marked a page before passing the book to her.
"Well, I think I'll turn in."
"Good night, Mr. Bates."
"Sleep well, Anna."
She waited until she was sure he had reached the men's hall before racing upstairs herself. Grateful that Louise, Gwen's replacement, hadn't come up yet, she lit the candles and sat on her bed, turning immediately to the page he had indicated. Her breath left her as she devoured the words.
Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Futile the winds
To a heart in port,
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.
Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!
Her cheeks burned. She snapped the book shut as Louise entered, and spent a rather fitful night in her bed, wondering if the visions the poem conjured in her mind were anything like those in his.
She caught him on the way down to breakfast the next morning. "Mr. Bates! Thank you for the loan of the book. I couldn't help starting in on it right away."
"And how do you like it?"
"There was a poem I particularly enjoyed."
"Oh?" She was not fooled for a second by his studied indifference.
"It was most inspiring. Seafaring always did sound like it would be rather fun in the right company."
His step faltered. "Well," he said, his voice thick. "I hope you get the chance to try it out someday."
"Me too," she answered with an impertinent grin, leaving him frozen on the stairs.
She stood at the sideboard in the empty hall, fingers trembling as she attempted to thread her needle. He was directly behind her. To any casual passerby it would look like he was simply waiting for her to fix a button on one of his coats, but she knew differently. He was so close she could feel the heat of his body, and the musky scent of his shaving soap swirled around her, leaving her light-headed. She finally got the needle on the third try, and began sewing as quickly as she could. She needed to get some fresh air before she completely lost herself.
He knew he had her off-balance. Her fingers were always steady and sure when she worked. Checking that no one was nearby, he decided to risk upping the ante. He slid his hand between them and began tracing the column of buttons running up the back of her morning dress. She betrayed no reaction, so he carefully hooked his finger in the top one, releasing it. He brushed his thumb over the small bit of skin exposed and felt her begin to shake.
She turned and clumsily thrust the jacket at him. "Here you are, all done," she sang with a forced cheerfulness, unable to meet his eye.
"Thank you for the button," he replied. He couldn't suppress a small chuckle as she nodded and bolted toward the kitchen door. He hoped he hadn't gone too far. After all, he supposed he had technically begun disrobing her right in the servants' hall. He wasn't too worried, though. While it had been a very long time since he'd carried on with a woman, he thought he remembered enough to know when she was interested. Unless he missed his guess, Anna might be rattled but she certainly didn't seem offended.
How far was she prepared to go?
Anna stumbled out the door and gulped air. She had no idea her game would go this far, or that he would join in so boldly. She had never felt anything like this before. She remembered her clumsy first kiss with Freddy, the son of one of the other farmers in her village. They had promised to write when she left for Downton and their last conversation ended with him pressing his lips to the side of her mouth and then running before her mother caught them.
Their affection lasted as long as one would expect for two teenagers settled hours apart. Over the course of her fourteen years at the estate there had been fleeting attractions to a footman or groom, but nothing much had ever come of it and she had never really been vexed. She hadn't understood what all the fuss was about then, but had a much better idea now. It wasn't until the moment that a man walked into her life that she realized boys held no appeal for her.
She quivered again at the memory of him deftly undoing her button and reached up to refasten it. Even though it had only revealed a half an inch of her neck, it was the most erotic experience she'd ever had. She wondered if he was as close to the edge as she was. What it might take to push him over?
The next morning Anna noticed him in the upstairs corridor as she came to do the girls' bedrooms. He appeared to have been heading back toward the stairs when he was stopped by Mr. Carson. The two men began to speak and Anna held her spot in the doorway, watching them.
Mr. Carson turned away to thumb through a ledger he was carrying, and Anna stepped out into the hall, catching his eye over the butler's shoulder. She lolled back against the wall and, keeping her gaze locked on his, let every heated dream, lascivious thought, and indecent impulse she'd ever had run through her mind. Her lips parted and she moistened them, watching his dark eyes flicker to follow the movement.
He nearly jumped when Mr. Carson began speaking again. He gave the man a hasty reply and breathed a sigh of relief as he moved on in the opposite direction.
Finally free, Bates started toward her with purpose in his stride. However, in his distracted state he forgot to navigate around the heating grate and caught his cane, causing it to fall to the floor. He began to lean forward to pick it up but she was in front of him in a flash. She dipped to retrieve it and handed it to him. She stood then, drawing herself along his body as she rose, her palms raking over him intimately.
Every man has his breaking point, and that last touch pushed Bates right past his. Dropping his cane once more, he grabbed her upper arms and moved her back against the wall behind the drape, letting his body follow. He pinned her from shoulder to thigh and captured her mouth with his own, foregoing any gentle introduction. Her tongue came to meet his straight away, stroking, teasing, and dueling with him. He was not at all surprised by her enthusiastic response. She may have been inexperienced, but she was by no means innocent.
"What kind of game are you playing, Anna?" he growled into her ear after breaking the kiss, his breath heavy and hot on her cheek.
"A game I just won, Mr. Bates," she answered, not giving an inch. She arched brazenly against him.
He drew back to look at her. He couldn't stop the wave of affection he felt at her triumphant smile, and he answered it with a much more devilish one of his own.
"I'm a competitive sort, my dear. I can't stand for defeat. Now that I understand the rules, I think you owe me another go."
"I suppose that's only fair, though I think we'll both find it more enjoyable if you learn to capitulate much more quickly."
"I'll happily accept your surrender whenever you are ready to offer it."
"You're on," she replied, eyes bright. "You don't know from naughty, John."
He gasped, both at the implication and at hearing his name in her husky whisper. It was exactly like it had sounded in all of his feverish imaginings, only somehow more. Taking advantage of his incapacity, she slipped away from him and continued down the hallway, taking care to drag one of her fingernails across his chest as she left.
He shuddered at the contact. She was going to be the death of him, but he could think of worse ways to go.