Gulp, here we are. I must confess I'm a little sentimental about letting this one go. I would like to express my sincere gratitude to everyone who read, and especially those who took the time to review. It means a lot and makes the whole process fun. I'd like to offer special thanks to the faithful crew who took the whole ride with me-you rock!
Finally, I couldn't post this without acknowledging the contributions of FirstDraft, an invaluable consulting therapist without whose creative solutions to my writing "problems" and endless tolerance for whinging this story would probably still be languishing on my hard drive.
Same warning as last time...happily married...
"Mama, when will Papa be home?"
Anna sighed. It was the fourth time Lily had asked this in the last hour alone. She hadn't left her perch by the parlor window since after breakfast. She really was her father's daughter. These separations were hard on her.
She checked on Henry, playing on the rug with his new toy train, and was grateful he was finally distracted. She had caught him three times that morning sticking his fingers into his birthday cake. Turning four, it was the first year he really understood that the fuss was all about him and he was eager for the party to start. She silently thanked John's mother for sending the train and hoped she wouldn't mind that Anna had resorted to giving it to him early in the hopes of keeping him occupied and out of mischief.
A gust of cool air rushed through the room and Anna went to adjust the window. Fall was definitely on its way and she found herself glad of it. It had been a very hectic summer at Downton, brought about by all of the changes in recent years. Two more weddings had followed John and Anna's in relatively quick succession. Lady Edith had been introduced to some of her father's colleagues on their visit to London during the war and had begun a correspondence with one of the officers. He had proposed when he was discharged and she had happily accepted. They were now established just outside of London.
The war had forced Lady Mary to grow up a fair measure while simultaneously softening Matthew Crawley a bit. After his return they managed to put their past behind them and realize that they were still very well suited. Their wedding had come about a year after Lady Edith's and they settled into Crawley House together.
After her sisters were married Lady Sybil convinced her parents to let her make an extended visit to America to stay with her Ladyship's family. She had been expected back after a year but had shocked everyone by asking to remain in order to pursue studies at Radcliffe College. She was still there now, and Anna doubted she'd be returning anytime soon.
As such, the great house had become rather empty. Lord and Lady Grantham still entertained, but there wasn't as much call for it with their daughters off on their own pursuits. At the same time, Mr. and Mrs. Crawley were enjoying the fruitful abundance of their marital felicity. Three sons and a daughter had arrived in the last six years and another was on the way. Crawley House was bursting at the seams.
The solution was obvious, if a daunting prospect. Her Ladyship had taken some convincing to warm up to the idea as she wasn't terribly keen to leave the comforts of the estate, but in the end she was a doting grandmother and remembered the joys her own girls had experienced growing up at Downton. She secured a promise from His Lordship that she could redecorate Crawley House to her tastes and agreed to the plan.
The matter decided, preparations for the great reshuffling began. Mr. Carson elected to follow Lord and Lady Grantham as the position would be much less demanding now that he was nearing his retirement. Surprising everyone, and yet no one, really, he and Mrs. Hughes announced their intention to marry when he left. She would accompany him to Crawley House. Having tended to him for most of the last 15 years, Mr. Molesley would be retained as valet to Mr. Crawley and would be moving with him to the estate. Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Bird would remain in their respective posts for the time being.
At both Mr. Carson's and Lord Grantham's recommendation, Mr. Bates was proposed to assume the position of butler at Downton. Though she respected their opinions greatly, Lady Mary initially had trouble putting aside the lessons of her upbringing. A butler represented a home—surely they couldn't have a man with such an infirmity in that position? Mr. Crawley, however, would hear none of it. He had never been a slave to convention or appearances and after his experiences in the war he refused to discount a man for the wounds he had sustained. That discussion was ended promptly and firmly and the offer was made.
John was flattered and interested in position, but he and Anna did not want to leave Graham cottage. This was a point of discussion, but eventually they reasoned that the Molesleys were willing to return to the married quarters at Downton and it would only take the hall boy a few minutes to run down to the cottage if John were needed, so it would be acceptable for him to stay. With that sorted, John happily accepted the post. He would miss spending his days with Lord Grantham, but he felt honored to help maintain and preserve the estate that was so dear to his Lordship.
With everything else in place, a new housekeeper was engaged and the great move was set for July. One afternoon Anna left the children with their neighbor for a few hours to come help John settle in to his pantry. While they were working she happened to look up and notice that the housekeeper's parlor was unoccupied. Mrs. Hughes had already vacated the space and Anna remembered that Mrs. Burton, her replacement, would not be arriving for another few days.
Unable to ignore the opportunity, she put down the ledgers she was boxing up and took John's hand. She led him across the hall without a word and dragged him inside. He was confused at first, but as she reached around him to lock the door he realized what she was thinking of and his heart began to race. Knowing they didn't dare take too long, he quickly laid her on the settee and they acted out an old "what if?" to their great satisfaction. Afterwards he insisted they find a chance to do the same in his pantry so that he would always have the memory of her in there with him.
Even after the transition was complete it had taken some time for everyone to adjust to their new roles. Mr. Molesley stepped in when there were large parties and the footmen weren't sufficient to attend all the guests, however due to his father's age and ill health he preferred not to travel very often. Therefore, Bates usually traveled with Mr. Crawley while Molesley managed things in his absence. It was, perhaps, an unorthodox arrangement, but one that was working well for all parties involved. All parties, that is, except Lily. She hated it when her father had to travel and impatiently awaited his return.
Lily had come into the world quietly, a relief to both of them, but especially John, who had gotten very anxious as her time approached. He had begun to sleep fitfully and in the small hours of one particularly bad night Anna finally managed to coax out of him that he was afraid that everything was too good to be true; that certainly he couldn't deserve all of the happiness that had been given to him and something must be coming along to take it all away. She was taken aback at the resurrection of his old fears—he had been quite steady and content since their marriage. She couldn't make him promises, but she did reassure him that Dr. Clarkson always said she was healthy and strong. In the end she agreed, at his insistence, to go to the hospital in Harrogate to have the baby, a new option only just available.
It turned out to be a rather routine birth. Anna wouldn't have exactly called it easy, but there had been no complications or surprises. Lily had Anna's large eyes, and was born with a shock of dark hair like her father. When John had finally been allowed to come to them they sat in near silence for over an hour, simply marveling at what they had created.
Three years later Henry had come along, arriving with a loud squall that predicated the noise and energy that would follow him from then on. He had light coloring like his mother but Anna and John had both been mystified at the wild curls that formed after his first birthday given that no one they knew in either of their families had that kind of hair. Mrs. Bates eventually solved that puzzle, showing them an old tintype of her husband as young man with the same curly mop. John had always known his father to have closely cropped his hair and therefore he hadn't remembered.
Anna would confess to being a little surprised at how well John had taken to fatherhood. She had known that he would be a good parent and would love his children wholeheartedly, but she hadn't realized how active he'd intended to be in their lives. Where most of the men she knew left their offspring over to their wives or a nurse, he was somewhat unique.
A few weeks after Lily was born she had reached her limit. She was still recovering from her labor, hadn't slept properly in days, and couldn't seem to stop Lily's crying. John had arrived home for tea to find both of them sobbing in the kitchen. Instead of being disappointed with his wife for being unable to manage one tiny infant, he had gotten her up and led her to bed, insisting that she take a break while he tended to Lily. They had found that afternoon that his limp made for the perfect rhythm to soothe a fussy baby. He had spent hours over the next several months, and again with Henry, pacing the floor of the cottage, lulling them into slumber.
As they had grown he still spent much of his free time with them. With his new responsibilities John wasn't able to get home every afternoon, but he stole an hour here or there when he could, plus he now had one evening off per week and a half day each Sunday. He read to them, taught them how to build and fix things, and never lost patience with their endless questions. They had saved enough to go to the seashore during his fortnight earlier in the summer. He showed Lily and Henry how to fly kites and skip rocks and slipped them sweets when Anna wasn't looking. It was no wonder that his children were deeply attached to him and not inclined to tolerate his absences well.
"Mama? Did you hear me? When will Papa come?"
"It shouldn't be too much longer, dear. Why don't you go look at your books?" Lily had started at the village school the previous year and it rapidly became apparent she would share John's voracious appetite for the printed word.
"No, I'll stay here. That way I can see him first."
Anna smiled and went back into the kitchen. Satisfied the stew was still simmering, the cake was undisturbed, and the table was ready, there was little left to do but wait. She understood Lily's disquiet. Truth be told, she didn't enjoy John's departures much herself. She missed lying next to him at night, missed his laugh, just missed him.
"He's here! He's here! " Lily's enthusiasm likely ensured that even the neighbors were aware of John's homecoming. She heard the door unlatch and made it to the parlor just in time to see her run outside and throw herself at him. Wherever Lily went Henry was bound to follow, and so he was right behind.
"Papa! It's my birthday!
John laughed. "Right you are." He took a parcel out from under his arm. "And what do you suppose I've got here?"
"A present!" Henry cried, jumping up and down.
"Go put it by your plate and wash for dinner."
"Yes, Papa." He ran off back into the house.
He gazed down at his daughter, who had wrapped her arms around his waist and attached herself to his side. "You're awfully quiet, Lily-pad."
"I'm just happy you're home. I wish you didn't have to go."
"We all have our duties. But I do miss you too." He bent down to drop a kiss on her head. "Go wash for dinner and see that your brother does a proper job of it too."
She squeezed him once more and went back inside. He shifted his attention to Anna, who had waited for him in the doorway.
"Alone at last," he said with a mischievous grin. It had become something of a private joke between them over the years, and every time he said it her heart skipped a beat, just as it had the first time.
"Almost," she answered, her own grin full of possibilities for later.
Making no attempt to avoid brushing against her, he came in and shut the door. He kissed her then, slowly and deeply, his hands wandering over her possessively. Later, indeed.
He pulled back just as Henry came bounding into the room. "Look, Papa! Granny sent me a train!"
"I was desperate," she said to John's quizzical expression. "You have no idea what this morning was like."
He nodded in sympathy and then addressed Henry. "That seems like a fine train. You'll have to show it to me after dinner. Go set it down now and come to the table."
He followed Anna into the kitchen, shrugging off his jacket and removing his tie and collar. "That's a pretty dress. I don't think I've seen that one before."
"Thank you. Your mother sent it along with Henry's train. It was so kind of her. It's nice to have something new without big panels in the front."
"I wouldn't get rid of all of those just yet," he replied with a wink.
A cheeky reply died on her tongue as she was interrupted by Lily. "Why would you have a dress with big panels in the front?"
Ignoring John's chuckle, she turned to her. "To fit you under, poppet, while you were growing in my belly," she answered, pinching Lily's nose affectionately. "You'll have to show Papa your new dress from Granny later on."
"It's so pretty! Just like Mama's."
Everyone took their place at the table and they had a pleasant dinner together. Henry proudly showed his father where had sampled his cake, but John didn't have the heart to scold him for it. He excitedly opened his presents, receiving a football from his parents, a tin of crayons and drawing paper from Anna's mother, and sweets from her sister. Finally he opened the parcel that his father gave him.
"A storybook! Read it?"
John glanced over at Anna, who nodded and stood to begin clearing the dishes. "I certainly will. Let's all go into the parlor."
He sat down in his chair. Lily clamored in with him, though she was nearly too big anymore. Henry perched on the ottoman, making room for himself next to his father's feet. John opened the book and Anna listened to his soft Irish burr as he read to them:
Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump , on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is some other way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.
Lily giggled at this. With a warm smile, he continued:
And then he feels that perhaps there isn't. Anyhow, here he is at the bottom, and ready to be introduced to you. Winnie-the-Pooh.
She looked up from her mending half an hour later as his voice trailed off. "Anna," he called softly. She got up and came around the side of his chair to see that both of the children were fast asleep, no doubt worn out by the commotion of the day. She reached over and lifted Lily from him while he rose, taking care to gently ease his leg out from where Henry's head had come to rest on it. She then placed her back down on the chair. Lily stirred a bit, shifted, and stilled again. Anna went to the basket in the corner and returned with blankets. She covered them both, letting her hand linger in Henry's curls. They would have to be cut soon—John had been hinting at it for weeks—but she wasn't looking forward to the day when he wouldn't look like her baby anymore.
Satisfied they were warm and comfortable, she smiled at John and was not at all surprised to see the twinkle in his eye. "Well, "she said, forcing her voice to stay impassive, "those dinner dishes aren't just going to wash themselves." She only got a half step away when his arm darted out and caught her around the waist. He silenced her surprised squeak with his lips.
"The washing up can wait," he murmured into her ear. "I don't know that I can say the same for myself." She trembled against him.
"What did you have in mind?" she asked coyly.
Too preoccupied to answer her back, he urged her down to their room, quietly closing the door behind them. She locked her arms around his neck as he crushed her to him
"John," she gasped when he began nipping at her throat, "you've only been gone three days."
"Three days too long" he rumbled against her skin while pressing tightly against her. She could hardly argue with that. After getting rid of his waistcoat she pushed his braces down and began unbuttoning his shirt, but he pulled away and impatiently yanked it over his head, tossing it on the floor and setting himself to work on her dress. In a flash it was gone and his practiced hands were unhooking her corset and removing the rest of her layers with a desperate efficiency.
She drew him over to the bed and unfastened his trousers, slipping her hands inside to tease him before laying back and reaching out in invitation. He sat down on the edge and hurriedly kicked off the last of his clothing. Turning to move over her, he stopped suddenly. The sight of her, aroused and welcoming, made his chest tighten. "God, I missed you," he sighed.
She knew they didn't have time to linger—the children could wake up at any moment—but she couldn't help taking just a minute to savor him. She sat up and clutched tightly at the broad shoulders and strong chest she loved so much. He held on to her just as securely, resting his cheek on her hair and breathing her in. She maneuvered herself into his lap and the evidence of his desire instantly brought her back to their previous fervor.
She pushed him all the way on to the bed and then down, setting herself above him and relishing the hunger in his dark, dark eyes. "I missed you too," she whispered huskily in his ear, biting gently at the lobe and smiling at his groan. She knew how much he loved it when she took control. She had been shy that first time in their little room in Scarborough when he coaxed her atop him and showed her how, but his obvious enjoyment and the amazing sensations easily helped her past her nerves. It had become a great favorite of theirs, especially when his leg was playing up or they were short on time.
He ran his hands up her legs and over her hips before pausing to span her waist, perhaps no longer quite so narrow but still admirable for a mother of two who was nearing 40 more quickly than she cared to acknowledge. He leaned her forward and let his touch roam over her heatedly, making sure to visit all of her favorite spots as she ground against him. Unable to wait an instant longer she rose and took him inside her, shuddering at the feeling of completion that always came when they were joined. She had no capacity left for finesse and moved frenetically above him, pausing only briefly to capture his cry in her mouth before picking up again, intent on reaching her own release. It was not far off—his fingertips grazed her center and moments later she arched back and let out a low moan. She fell against him and they shared a long kiss, intimately replaying what their bodies had just done.
She slid over to his side and he gently traced patterns on her shoulder until his breathing slowed and evened out. Anna lay contentedly for several minutes until she heard noise coming from the parlor. He dragged his eyes open but she placed a hand on his chest, stilling him. "I'll go," she whispered, brushing a kiss across his lips. "Get some rest. I'll wake you for supper."
She dressed hastily and headed back down the hall. Henry was still out but she found Lily awake, sitting up in John's chair.
"Where is Papa?" she asked, yawning.
"He's having a nap, darling." At this, Lily rolled over and settled back down, not yet done with hers either.
Watching them, Anna couldn't help being struck by how rich her life really was. She considered their cozy little cottage, with Henry's train abandoned on the floor, John and Lily's books piled up on the shelves, and her mending in a heap on the rocking chair. She could still feel her loving husband on her skin, could see their beautiful, healthy children in front of her, and for a moment she was nearly overcome.
She thought about how easily this might never have happened. What if she hadn't been able make him understand? What if they had lost faith or couldn't endure those long years apart? It had been a slow, sometimes difficult road, and at some points she had nothing more than hope to cling to, but as she basked now in the warmth of their happy family she knew with complete certainty that it had all been worth the wait.