Sincere thanks to all those who read and reviewed-you make this fun!
This chapter probably also qualifies for a strong T rating. It can end logically before the last section for those who prefer to skip such things.
"Don't, John. Please."
"Why? Is the idea so disagreeable that we can't even discuss it?"
"Why do we need to change anything? I didn't think you found this unpleasant."
"I want more. I've always wanted more and I think you know that. I've been willing to wait, but I'm never going to be satisfied with just this."
"What If I am?"
"Have you been happy when we've been together? Why do you think marrying me would make that any different?"
"I have a life here."
"Am I really not part of your life at all? Is this just a pleasant fortnightly diversion for you?" He sat up on the edge of the bed and began pulling his clothes on.
"Of course not. I do care for you, but I have a job and plans for the future."
"Do you love me, Anna? Or could you ever?"
"I told you—I'm not that girl anymore. I am not going to get carried away and lose myself. I can't do that again!"
"It's been a year! I am very sorry for the things I did back then. I have explained and apologized in every way you'd let me. Can you really tell me I've done nothing over all this time to redeem myself? "
She turned her head away, unable to answer, and walked toward the sitting room. He finished dressing and followed her.
"You have to let the past go. Trust me, I know that. I learned that lesson in the hardest way possible and it has cost me more dearly than I ever could have imagined. You were always the better of the two of us. Don't make the same mistakes I did. "
"I don't need you to tell me what to do."
His jaw tightened. "I'm not trying to tell you what to do. I'm trying to help. Back then I thought I was doing the right thing that would protect everyone, but I was miserable and so were you. I got scared and took a situation where there was a chance we could get hurt and made into one where we both definitely were. Please don't do that here. We could have so much. "
"I agreed to being friends, John."
"That ended the minute you took me to bed!"
"You kissed me!"
"I kissed you because I love you and couldn't go a second longer without doing something about it! Why do you kiss me?"
The question hung in the air between them. Seeing that he wasn't going to get an answer, he sighed and got his coat on. He opened the door, but turned back to her once more. "Do you want to keep doing this, Anna? If I'm not what you want there doesn't seem to be much point in continuing on."
Her eyes widened but she still made no response. Disappointed, there was nothing for him to do but leave. Once outside he took a deep breath, trying to slow his pounding heart. Proposing to her was nothing short of a suicide mission. He recognized that the second the words came out of his mouth, but he'd been unable to stop them. He wanted her. He wanted her so very badly and he wanted all of her, not just a bit of something on his days off. To some men that would probably be the answer to all of their prayers, but he wasn't one of them anymore.
He realized she hadn't actually said no at any point, or that she didn't love him. Was that going to be enough hope to cling to? How much more of this could he stand? He craved being with her, but each time she twisted away at his touch or tensed up when he made any hint as to his feelings another little piece of him died. He knew, though, that she had endured worse from him and he truly owed her nothing less than those two years he originally offered her. Unless she told him to stop he was going to keep that promise, even if it killed him, and tonight he felt it just might.
What had just happened? His visit had begun with him laying her out on her sofa and making her see stars and somehow ended with them shouting at each other over getting married. She sank down on the side of the bed, trying to make sense of everything crashing around in her mind.
As much as she'd tried, she couldn't deny that she loved him. She'd never quite stopped, which is why it had hurt so much and frightened her so thoroughly when he reappeared. It had been easier at first to push it back, then to pretend they could just be friends, and finally to assure herself that he was only interested in her as a lover than to face the prospect that she'd given her heart just as completely again, in a shockingly short amount of time.
It had been humiliating being so in love with him back then. She pursued him pathetically, finding him in out in the yard, slowing her step to match his so she could walk with him, and catching him for quiet bits of conversation in hallways, even though he almost never sought her out and rarely received her with anything more than polite acceptance-sometimes even less than that. Even that awful afternoon on the path hadn't been able to stop her. She'd stood there, listened to his gentle rejection, and still couldn't check herself.
Loving him hadn't been a joyful experience. It didn't make her feel good about herself; quite the opposite, in fact. He'd explained that he felt he had to maintain a mask of indifference toward her, despite his true feelings. He had no idea how well he'd succeeded. She couldn't quite believe his pursuit of her was sincere. How could he really want her now after he'd turned her down so many times? Why hadn't he loved her enough then?
But he had come for her. He had tracked down his wife, managed the seemingly impossible task of getting her to agree to a divorce, and bore the considerable expense and scandal of it. Then, well over a year after she'd ran, he came after her. It didn't seem like the actions of a man with a passing fancy. Once unencumbered he could have walked out with any willing woman—there certainly were plenty available with so many men gone—but he came directly to her the first moment he could. And he kept coming; sitting on that ridiculous bench when she wouldn't see him, dragging himself out when he was ill, and braving the cold, wet winter to get to her.
She knew she should count her blessings. It seemed every other week she was consoling one of her workers who had lost a sweetheart or a husband. She had a good man who loved her, who was safe at Downton during this horrible war, and she was choosing to push him off because she was scared. She wondered what those women would say if she explained her reasons for keeping John at arm's length. Would they think an old mistake he had tried his best to repair and worry about losing control of her life were worth giving up another day with him?
She had thought she could control it; that if she maintained rules and boundaries she could protect herself. But if she had succeeded so well, why did she feel so awful right now? She was hurting, and she knew she had hurt him too, which filled her with shame. Had she wanted to hurt him? To make him feel as she once had? She would never have thought herself so petty and spiteful before.
Maybe she wasn't as modern as she had thought. She liked working, liked having her own place, and enjoyed her freedom, but she also loved him. Much as she valued having her independence, she also wanted a home and family. The question, she supposed, was what did she want more?
That question was never far from her thoughts as the days passed. She walked back from the factory each night and it occurred to her that she would be very happy to see him when she got home. Her room, which she had once so fiercely protected as hers alone, now felt a bit empty when he wasn't there. It had changed in tiny ways to accommodate him. She'd put down a small rug next to the door for his boots, and a packet of ginger nuts, which she despised, sat on her sideboard. They were his favorite and she had bought them without even thinking about it. Even though he had never stayed a night with her, more often than not she woke up on her side of the bed.
She thought about what they had shared, even though they weren't married, and she realized she couldn't imagine making that same decision with another man. She hadn't simply wanted to make love, she had wanted to make love with him, and he had been willing to let her have that within the bounds she set, even though she knew it was not how he would have liked it.
He'd done that a lot over the last year, she acknowledged. He had let her set the pace between them, let her have what she wanted even when he probably would have preferred different, even when it caused him pain. She had wondered whether she could ever trust him again, but how could she not, after he had endured all of this? He had come to her faithfully, even when she rejected him outright, and hadn't quit when things were difficult. She had to wonder how long he'd be willing to keep that up, especially after she'd been so careless with his feelings. She'd eventually been driven to give up. It was only reasonable to think that he would too. Had he already?
That thought, more than any of the others, worried at her each day.
After spending two weeks stewing she still wasn't sure they could resolve things between them, but when their Sunday arrived she knew with complete certainty that there was no way she could go without talking to him, or even just being near him that day. She had been momentarily paralyzed when he asked her if he should keep coming. He sounded so defeated and the idea that he would disappear from her life again was terrifying. Did he take her silence as confirmation he should stop? Was he mad enough at her to stay behind?
She couldn't take that chance. As she lay in bed it occurred to her that if she waited to see if he came it would be too late to go after him if he didn't, so she got herself up, dressed quickly, and made her way to the depot. She would go to his station and if he didn't come to catch his train then she would find him. She would look around the village, even call on the estate if she had to, but she needed to see him.
She wondered what these journeys had been like for him as she fidgeted in her seat. She looked out the window and thought about what might have caught his eye as he rode this same route over and over. When she arrived at Downton Village it dawned that she hadn't entirely thought through her plan. It was only half ten; he would just be arriving at church. The train he usually took to visit her didn't leave until a little after one o'clock. She figured she'd get to see a bit more of the world through his eyes as she settled herself on a bench to wait for him.
When she finally saw him approach her heart leapt in her throat and for the first time since she met him she didn't try to tamp it down. She met his eyes bravely, watching the surprise register on his face.
"Anna? What are you doing here?"
"You came," she said.
"Of course I did."
"I wasn't sure if you would."
"You don't expect very much of me, do you?" he asked wearily, sitting down beside her.
She'd told herself that if things were ever going to be right between them that she would need to be honest and open with him, and she decided this was as good a time as any to start. "If I don't expect too much, I can't be disappointed. At least that's what I tried to tell myself."
"I don't want to disappoint you. I will do everything in my power never to let you down again."
"I believe you," she replied solemnly.
"Why did you come all this way?"
"You said you waited a year for me," she said, her voice low and unsure.
He shook his head slowly. "I don't want another year of this."
She cast her eyes down. Had she missed her chance? Had she been so stubborn and full of pride that she'd ruined everything?
He reached out and lifted her chin with his fingers.
"I want forever."
"Are you able to forgive me, Anna?"
He had ushered her on to the train back to Harrogate and so far they rode in silence. After they were seated she had reached between them to take his hand, shocking him even as the gesture filled him with hope. She clutched him tightly and he held on just as securely as the fields and farms and villages passed outside their window.
"I am. I'm tired of being unhappy and I'm ready to let it go." She hesitated a moment. "Do you think you'd be able to forgive me?"
He looked like he wanted to protest, but she shook her head and continued.
"There is plenty I need you to forgive me for. I wanted to protect myself and I injured you in the process. I'm very sorry for that."
"It's forgotten already. If anyone could understand, it's me," he replied, offering her a small smile and squeezing her hand.
The ride was quick and before she knew it they got off in Harrogate and started toward her place. She wasn't quite ready to go in, though. She didn't trust herself; she knew they needed to talk this out and the temptation of being alone with him felt a bit too strong, especially given that her emotions were running high. She directed them toward a bench and was very grateful when he joined her without question.
He was brave enough to speak first. "Where does this leave us? What I want hasn't changed."
She twisted her hands in her lap. "Marrying you would be wonderful; I just wish I could be more certain. I don't want to hurt you, John, or give you less than you deserve. If I could be married to you and still keep my independence, I'd do it in a heartbeat."
He laughed at that, surprising her and making her shrink back, afraid he was laughing at her. Seeing her reaction, he sobered and reached to take her hand again.
"Is that your objection to marrying me?"
"Yes," she answered quietly. "I suppose it is."
"Not that you don't love me or don't want to spend your life with me?"
"No, John." She brought her free hand up to stroke the side of his face and felt her stomach flutter in answer as his eyes darkened. "I do love you very much. And I haven't said no either. I just wish I could have both."
"Anna, darling, what makes you think that you can't?"
"I don't understand."
"I am not a young man anymore. I've seen enough and done enough to know that things don't have to work only one way. I don't just want a wife at home. I want you. I love you and I want you to be happy."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that our marriage could be whatever we agreed to. There are things I want, but we would work that out just between us."
"What do you want?"
"I'd like to have a family, if we could. I want that very much. I would also like to remain at Downton, if at all possible. I am indebted to his Lordship and feel that I should remain in his service as long as he wishes it. Do you think you could be happy living at the estate? In one of the cottages, maybe?"
She considered this. She understood his loyalty to Lord Grantham. His sense of duty and honor was one of things that made him the man she loved and she couldn't bear to make him give that up. It seemed like he was willing to bend a great deal for her; maybe she could do this for him.
"I think that might be all right, John. I don't want to go back into service, though."
"We won't have great means, but you wouldn't have to stay on anywhere after we were married. I wouldn't object if there was something you did want to do, though. What do you want, Anna?"
"I like my job. I know it won't last forever, but I hate the idea of leaving, especially right in the middle of things."
"Well," he said slowly, "it would be a bit unorthodox, but what if you stayed on, and we continued as we have been until the war is over?"
"You'd really be willing to do that?"
"It wouldn't be my first choice, if we're being honest. I will always want you with me as much as possible, but I do understand. You've accomplished so much there and made a real contribution. We certainly wouldn't be the only couple separated by the war."
"It would be good for us too, in the long run. I'd be able to add to my savings which would probably help a lot when we do have our family."
His smile turned wistful—she was talking about a future for them as if it might actually come to pass. "I would still want to get married soon as possible, though, even if we are going to remain apart for a time."
"So we'll marry straight away, I'll stay in Harrogate for the duration, and afterwards we'll find ourselves a little cottage near Downton and get right to work on that family?"
"Is that a yes, Anna?" He held his breath, and watched as a wide smile broke over her face.
"Yes!" she replied clasping his hands tightly, sure his silly grin was matched perfectly with her own. They stared at each other for a few moments, taking in the enormity of what they had just decided, before she stood, pulling him up with her. "Let's go home, John."
"Home?" he asked.
"It started out as mine, but it's not right without you anymore. It's time to make it ours."
He watched her begin to prepare tea and couldn't help but remember that rainy afternoon when he had tormented himself by imagining it as a simple, wifely gesture. He could hardly take in the fact that it seemed that dream had come true. Suddenly the few feet that separated them became too much distance to bear.
"Anna," he said softly as he came up behind her and wrapped his arm around her waist, thrilling that she didn't stiffen or duck away, but instead leaned back into him with a quiet hum, "about this family…"
"Yes, John?" she replied with a shiver.
He kissed the nape of her neck. "I know we won't be starting it just yet, but I'd hate for us to get rusty in the meantime."
"That's very thoughtful of you. We wouldn't want to get caught unprepared when the time comes," she replied, tilting her head to the side, inviting him to continue on.
"Exactly," he said against her skin, slipping the buttons running down her back and following the path with his lips.
He undid the whole row and pushed her dress down over her hips before taking her back to the bed. They'd made love so many times, but today it felt completely different. That tension, that caution that he'd felt her wrap around herself to hold him back, was totally and deliciously gone.
He swiftly uncovered her and rid himself of his own clothes, then tugged her down with him. His hands and lips were frantic as they moved over her, readying her to receive him. The urge to connect, to be part of her, was nearly overwhelming and he was never so grateful when she shifted under him and reached out. He quickly prepared himself and sank in deeply, groaning and dropping his head next to hers as she enveloped him. He couldn't get close enough to her, but he'd happily die trying.
Once inside her the urgency dropped away as some ancient need in him was satisfied. His movements became slow and deliberate as he raised his head to watch the delight play on her face.
"You're really going to marry me?"
"Yes, John," she dragged out through a moan. "You've forgotten already?"
"Tell me again."
She took his face in her hands and kissed him lovingly. She then hooked her leg around him and pushed at his chest, rolling them over. She moved against him, smiling as he closed his eyes and grasped her hips. He began guiding her and she let him, following his pace, knowing this time was about reassuring him and healing over some of the wounds she'd left.
"I love you," she whispered, her breath beginning to hitch. He groaned in response and began moving more forcefully under her.
"I'm going to be your wife," she meant to say, but it got mangled when he slid his hand to where their bodies were joined. He'd gotten quite proficient in their months together, painstakingly exploring her and experimenting until he learned exactly what she needed. It was a wonder, she thought dimly, that she'd never blurted out a proposal of her own in moments like this.
She was quickly overcome, and he followed right behind. She collapsed on top of him and he held her tightly for as long as he dared before moving to take care of things. He reached out for her again and felt himself tense. Before she'd always pulled away, turned over, or guarded her expression. To his immense relief, this time she came back eagerly. She draped herself over him, and when he opened his eyes he found her looking back at him, her gaze full of affection. She touched her lips gently to his and then laid her head against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders, finding comfort in the light weight against his body and the slow, steady rhythm of her breath.
"I was thinking," he said quietly, "maybe after the war is over I could work out a bit of a leave and we could do some of that traveling you've talked about."
"Oh John, that would be wonderful."
"I don't ever want you to feel like you've lost something by marrying me. I want you to have what you've dreamed about."
"I'm sorry that I've given you a reason to feel that way." She pushed herself up to look directly at him, wanting to make sure he understood her perfectly. "I'm not settling for you, or marrying you reluctantly because I have no better options. Being your wife is what I want, more than anything. Whatever else we can manage together will only be extra."
He flipped them over and took her mouth in a long, intimate kiss. "I choose you," she gasped when he released her lips and turned his attention to her neck. He wasn't perfect, and neither was she, but they were very good together. She knew she had chosen well.
His kisses trailed lower.
Very well indeed.