A/N: This is a follow-up to my previously published story "The Game" and it probably won't make much sense if you haven't read that. It doesn't so much continue along the same vein as explore what I think might have happened as things progressed. The eagle-eyed will notice I've taken a wee legal liberty, but does anyone really want to wait another six months?
Notice: I've placed this under T for now so that those who read the original story can catch it, if desired, but it will be moving to M for the final chapter.
Disclaimer: The characters and items quoted are not mine. Which is too bad, because I let them yell and then smooch.
The score was 87 to 23 on the day the letter arrived. He had proved to be a very poor opponent, though he didn't think that she minded. He certainly didn't.
His first victory had come easily, just one day after hers. He had been toying with the lace at the neckline of her dress while she attempted to choose a book in Lord Grantham's library when she suddenly wheeled around on him, grabbed his jacket, and pulled him into her with a surprising amount of force.
His second victory had been much harder to achieve. She had wrung seven concessions out of him before they had locked into a stalemate which had dragged on for nine days. He was determined not to give in—he had to maintain some sense of dignity, after all. He was sure they both knew how effortlessly she had conquered him, but he had to keep up appearances.
He had begun to question his resolve by the end of that ninth night. Now that he had gotten used to her touch, he craved her constantly and going without simply to prove a point was starting to seem silly. They had met in the yard after supper like they often did at the end of long days, especially when they hadn't seen much of each other. It offered them just a moment to reconnect.
He had abandoned pretense, taking her hand and clutching it tightly within his. She responded by dropping her head against his arm. It was a perfect evening—the air had cooled, the sky was clear, and there was nothing to disturb their peace. The words came without his intending, but they were welcome just the same. "I love you," he had breathed into her hair.
She raised her head and looked solemnly into his eyes before touching her lips to his. It was the sweetest, softest kiss they had shared yet. All of the others were born of tension, need, and passion, but this one was a conversation, an intimate declaration of how they felt despite their constraints. Still, he decided, it counted.
It had been an entire afternoon of torture. The addition of new staff at the house had required a shifting of schedules and for the first time Anna and John had their half day set on the same day. They'd shared a look of delight as this news was announced, but now he wondered if it hadn't been a mercy that they'd rarely been left with hours at liberty together.
It was the dress that was his undoing. He hadn't seen that one before, and the neckline was so much lower than her uniforms. Nothing scandalous, of course, but the first button lay right at the base of her throat and it had teased him mercilessly, shifting up and down as she walked and breathed, revealing a tantalizing hollow before coyly covering it back up again. Her collarbone was just visible and he wondered what it would taste like as he held himself over her.
Stopping himself firmly from continuing with that line of thought, he tugged at his own collar, desperate for any relief. Summer had arrived in earnest and the day was sunny and warm. He decided the heat had to be to blame for his increasing distraction.
Anna noticed his focus drifting as they walked toward the village and smiled to herself. She had hoped she would get a reaction to her new dress with it being much more daring than her usual wardrobe. It had been Sybil's from a few seasons ago and when it was set aside to be cleared out Anna snatched it up. She knew it would be perfect for her with a few alterations, and so far it appeared that her find was paying off.
He held the door for her as they arrived at the first shop she wanted to visit, and she slid in past him, certain, as always, to brush against him. She'd done it dozens of times by then, but it never got old and in that moment it did absolutely nothing to help him regain his composure. She wore the same little triumphant smirk she always did, and as usual it filled him with a mixture of affection and the wish to teach her a lesson.
They toyed with each other the whole time they were in the village. She had leaned against him at the bookstore, pretending to be fascinated with anything he picked up. He insisted she try out various scarves at another shop, wrapping them around her and slowly drawing them off. She bought little cakes from the baker and plagued him first by holding hers up for him to try, and then with the incredibly enticing bit of sugar that lingered on her bottom lip until she licked it off. He brought his hand to her back to steer her around divots in the road, and she complimented him on his keen eyesight for noticing so many that she did not.
As they set out on the walk home he was no calmer than when they started. She had held her right hand at her side, and so every few steps it would brush against his left as they walked. The little bits of contact were doing nothing to turn his thoughts in a more respectable direction. They slowed as they entered the gate, neither one wanting the outing to end. He suggested they continue walking around the grounds, and she readily agreed. As they passed by the outbuildings, a cooling breeze picked up. She removed her hat and closed her eyes as it washed over her. When she opened them again she found him staring at her, eyes dark and hungry. She smiled, tilted her head, and won another victory from him. How she managed that, he had no idea as he grasped her hand and scanned around for where to take her, but oftentimes the littlest gesture left him eager to surrender. Suddenly remembering that Branson had driven the ladies to the dower house for the day, he pulled her toward the garage where they could have a bit of privacy.
The move from bright sunlight into the cool darkness blinded her for a moment, so she couldn't see him as he pressed her into the wall and settled himself against her, but he invaded all of her other senses. His mouth was firm and hot over hers, his hand strong and possessive at her waist. He smelled like sunshine, sweat, and that same shaving soap that always drove her mad. She heard him inhale deeply and thrilled that he didn't seem to be intending to break away anytime soon.
She slid her hands up to his shoulders and pushed at his jacket. He released her a moment to shrug it off, letting it fall unnoticed to the floor. She then clutched at his back, raking her fingernails down over him and squeezing at the muscles. Completely caught up in the moment, she moved her hands lower and pulled him into her. His arousal was plain and her body instinctively responded to it, arching up and pressing her hips into him.
He was completely lost now. The feeling of her hands on him so brazenly and her response to his desire eliminated any control he might have had left. He dragged his mouth away from hers and fused his lips to her neck, running his lips, teeth, and tongue over her delicate skin while his fingers busied themselves with the buttons that had been trying him all day. Once they were opened, he moved his attention down, fitting his mouth right to that seductive spot and drowning himself in it. Her moans and cries were completely unchecked and did nothing but provoke him further.
His hand began to move then, boldly cupping her through her dress. He dropped his cane and brought his other hand up to stroke the soft flesh, squeezing, caressing, and running his thumbs over the tight peaks begging for his attention. He undid the rest of her buttons and slid his hands inside, her thin shift the only thing between him and her bare skin.
She brought her leg up to wrap around his good leg, still pulling him against her while she tried to align with him. His hips snapped forward with force and she groaned heavily at the feel of him against her. She looked down, watching him touch her, and was overcome with wanting him. She wanted him so very badly and realized it would only take a few shifts and a slight adjustment to fabric for her to have him, right there alone in the garage.
A different sensation, panic, began to well up inside her. She struggled against him, pushing him back and ignoring the bewildered look on his face as she got herself free. She hastily did her buttons back up and adjusted her skirts. "We can't do this!" she cried and bolted back toward the house.
It hit him square in the chest and he rested his head against the wall, trying to breathe. She had just been under him and now they couldn't do this? He knew he had taken some liberties, but she was right there with him, making demands of her own. She was obviously upset, and he was sorry for that, but did she really mean to cast him aside?
She didn't come to supper that night, but he found her out in the yard afterward and approached warily. She gave him a soft smile and indicated the spot next to her on the crate. He sat down, relieved he was still welcome.
"Anna, I hope you know that I would never push you, or try to lead you into something you didn't want."
"No, John. I'm the one who owes you an apology. I didn't mean anything like that. It's not you I need protecting from."
He stirred at her words, and filed that thought away to contemplate later at length. He cleared his throat. "Do you want to stop?"
"No. I've been happier these past months than I think I've been in my whole life. I don't want to lose that, or you, but I'm afraid things are getting out of hand and we can't, John. We just can't. You're still married, and my God, what if I got…" her voice faded, not even able to breathe the terrible thought aloud.
"We need some rules."
"Yes," she sighed, grateful he understood. "What do you suggest?"
He cleared his throat again. "I think we should refrain from succumbing away from the house."
"That makes sense. It's probably best if we always have to be mindful of being interrupted. I also think we need to agree to not opening or removing clothing."
"I suppose you're right. One thing does tend to lead to another. " He thought a moment. "Much as it pains me to say it, I don't think we should touch each other intimately again either."
She dipped her head. "I'm sorry about that."
He took her hand. "I'm not saying it was an unpleasant experience. I did plenty as well," he said with a twist of his lips. "It just makes it very hard to control myself."
"Me too." She was quiet for a moment. "I liked it, though," she whispered hesitantly. "It felt good to be so close to you."
"Anna, the things you do to me…" He closed his eyes and took a very deep breath. "I liked it too. I think I will remember this afternoon for a very long time. Someday…" he trailed off, not exactly sure what he was promising her.
"Someday," she agreed and squeezed his hand.
Fortunately they had been able to settle back into things and still find plenty of ways to enjoy each other. He particularly cherished a memory from the beginning of autumn. His Lordship was home on a brief leave and a shooting party was being hosted in his honor. They were sipping the last of their tea before dinner was to begin when she stood up next to him.
"As long as you're here, I could use your help." She picked up her lace apron and slid it over her front. Straightening the ties, she turned her back to him. "This used to be Gwen's job, and since she left my apron has never been right."
"What am I to do?" he asked, admiring the way the ties accentuated her slim waist and the gentle flare of her hips as she wrapped them around herself. She looped the shoulder straps through in some complicated array that would have made any navy man proud. Finally she fixed it all into a tight knot.
"There," she said. "Put your finger on the knot and hold it down."
He must have been especially good recently for the fates to favor him with this treat. He put his index finger where she indicated and let the rest of his hand press against the small of her back. His thumb dragged up and down slowly. He saw her hands falter a bit as the arranged the rest of the tie into a bow and pulled it taut over his finger.
"Well now I'm trapped. Am I meant to follow you like this all night? I would have no objections about that, by the way."
"Silly man. You can let up now, gently. "
He worked himself loose and she gave the bow one final tug. "Thank you –that's how it's supposed to be."
"Glad to be of service."
She turned to head toward the dining room. "I wouldn't have had any complaints either, John," she replied, tossing a mischievous smile over her shoulder.
The letter would have made him extremely angry, if it hadn't ended with such good news. In typical fashion, Vera had been aware of his attempts to contact her over the last two years, but hadn't seen fit to respond until it benefitted her interests. Fortunately for him, her interest was strong now.
Apparently she had taken up with a new man who had managed to do quite well for himself in what sounded an awful lot like wartime profiteering to John. He had just purchased himself a shiny new title and was keen to add the accessory of a wife. As such, Vera needed to be liberated from the minor inconvenience that was him. Her intended supposedly had some influence to expedite the process, so she informed him that if he would write her solicitor and request the divorce based on her infidelity they could arrange a court date within a month. He would need to travel to London to appear in person, but if he would cooperate the matter could be settled with very little cost or bother for him.
He couldn't quite believe his fortune. Wasn't yet willing to believe it, actually. Vera hadn't exactly been the most reliable of characters during their acquaintance. Still, if there was even the barest chance he could be freed he would pursue it wholeheartedly. He considered it at length, but eventually decided not to tell Anna about the letter or the possibility. The idea of her disappointment were this not to work out was too painful to contemplate. He would tell her everything as soon as he got back from London. By then he should have useful information to share, whatever the outcome.
He had a hard time keeping it to himself. He could tell she desperately wanted an explanation when he told her he'd be taking his fortnight to go to London for personal business. Ultimately, however, she trusted him and kept her questions to herself, which ironically filled him with so much love that it was even harder not to crumble and confess everything.
The morning he was to leave he snuck her outside and out of view for a moment.
"Will you miss me?" he asked, with cheek and not a little hope.
Mercifully, she was a much better person than he was. She had given him a fond smile before stretching up on her tiptoes to quickly press her lips to his, sliding her palms inside his jacket and flat against his chest to balance herself. "Hurry home," she had whispered.
He didn't find until later that night that she done more than hold herself steady. He found a small scrap of paper tucked in the watch pocket of his waistcoat.
Come slowly, Eden!
Lips unused to thee,
Bashful, sip thy jasmines,
As the fainting bee,
Reaching late his flower,
Round her chamber hums,
Counts his nectars—enters,
And is lost in balms!
He smiled at the same time he felt his body quicken. It was the very reaction she always provoked in him, an addictive combination of deep love and intense desire. He'd never had both before, never had the former at all, he recognized. He hadn't even known what that was before her.
He adored her for finishing the volume of poetry he'd lent her so long ago, and for obviously reading it with him on her mind, just as he had thought of her. They had gone slowly, taken the time to bashfully learn each other, and savored what they found. He could only hope that soon he would be free to lose himself in her, any time she would permit him.
It was done.
He had sat in the solicitor's office, sat in the courtroom, sat at the clerk's desk, and was now a free man. According to the papers he was the injured party, betrayed by a faithless wife, but he honestly found he held no ill will. He barely recognized her anymore, hidden under layers of finery befitting her new conquest. The man had been about what John had expected and he couldn't muster anything more than bemusement at the two of them—they seemed to deserve each other. He was too happy with his current life, and the future that was now open to him, to be bitter.
Their business concluded, he saw no reason to stay in London for the rest of his fortnight. While he was enjoying the break from work, that wasn't nearly enough incentive to be away from her any longer than required. He visited his mother one last time, made a few necessary purchases, and returned to Grantham House, where his Lordship had been so gracious as to let him lodge. He gave word to the butler that he'd prepare his Lordship in the morning, and at eight o'clock the next day he let himself into the dressing room.
"Bates? What the devil are you doing? You're here on leave, you don't need to be working."
"I'll be heading back to Downton today, my Lord. Thought I'd let Mr. Edgar get a bit of rest this morning." It was just as well Lord Grantham was rarely at Grantham House. Most of the staff had gone during the first years of the war, either to volunteer or take factory jobs. They'd been able to retain Mr. Edgar, who was rather past retirement age, and he usually dressed his Lordship when he was in residence.
"Can't say I'm too disappointed. Mr. Edgar is a good man, and we're very grateful he's stayed on, but he certainly can bend an ear."
John grimaced as he set to sorting out his Lordship's uniform. "As it happens, Sir, I've come to bend your ear a bit myself, I'm afraid."
Lord Grantham turned and looked at him speculatively. It was unusual for Bates to initiate conversation or offer up anything personal. "Well, whatever it is, I'm sure it will be a fair sight more interesting than the subject of trains. I never knew how fascinating they could be," he finished wryly.
John fumbled for words. "I'd like to propose, your Lordship."
"I'm flattered, Bates, but I doubt my wife would approve." They didn't often engage in the banter of two old soldiers, and when his normally stoic valet turned bright red Robert relented with a chuckle. "Were you intending to stay at Downton?"
"Yes, if that is agreeable for you," John answered, only somewhat recovered. "I was wondering if there was a situation where that might be possible."
"I don't see why not. It will have to be discussed with her Ladyship and Mr. Carson, but there is a set of married quarters or there are the workers' cottages."
"You would not object if I married and stayed in your service?"
"No. You've served admirably and I have no doubt you'll continue to do so. Especially in times like these, we need all the happiness we can get. You've chosen quite well."
"Come now, Bates. I haven't gone blind just yet. I know perfectly well that I'm losing a housemaid. I wish you both the best." He smiled sincerely at his old comrade.
John returned the smile. "Thank you. I appreciate your kindness." He inspected Lord Grantham's jacket one last time to ensure it was properly fitted and brushed before stepping back. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"Thank you, no. That will be all."
"Good day, Sir. I'll look forward to seeing you at the estate for Christmas."
With that last matter settled, John felt lighter than he had in years. He returned to his room, hastily packed, and caught the very next train for home.
He hoped she would be willing to play for keeps.