I understand there's a paper bag available for authors posting their first M to put over their head? I think I'd like to avail myself of that.

Not that this was ever a terribly serious story, but the ending is largely fluffy smut. Or smutty fluff. Take your pick, but don't say I didn't warn you...


He turned down his blanket, eager to lay his weary body down and get some rest after a long day of travel. His train had been delayed and most of the house had gone to sleep by the time he arrived. Running into Branson on the way back had been a fortunate coincidence or he might have had a fuss getting in. He couldn't wait to surprise her in the morning; she wouldn't be expecting him back for a few more days.

As he sat down on the bed, something odd caught his eye. Was that lace? He'd made his bed the morning he left and didn't recall finding anything out of place among his sheets. He picked the item up and realized it was a handkerchief. He wondered how something like that could have found its way into his linens and then noticed the embroidered initials in the corner. It was hers. He thought that even stranger until a memory struck him.

He had been teasing her that morning, trying to get her to give in. He would be leaving for London the next day and had no idea how he was going to manage two weeks without her. Under the guise of "helping" he had shamelessly followed her into Lady Sybil's room. He suspected he was more underfoot than indispensible, but couldn't make himself get back to his own work just yet.

She was gathering linens from the wardrobe when he moved in behind her. "You seem awfully distracted, darling," he murmured into her ear.

"Do I?" she asked innocently, turning and slowly raking her gaze up and down his body.

"Yes. In fact I think you have something on your mind."

"Hmm… I can't imagine what." She bent to retrieve an item on one of the lower shelves, bumping against him.

He cleared his throat. "One could even say you've been making overtures."

"Have I, now?" She'd been at him mercilessly all through breakfast, rubbing her knee against his under the table, turning toward him so that his arm brushed across her chest when he reached for his teacup, and actually making him whimper aloud as she met his eye and licked a bit of jam from her finger. That had been a mistake—the noise caught O'Brien's attention and he was forced to cover with a violent cough, which had only led to Anna rubbing her hand across his back until he could fumble for his water glass and insist he was fine.

"You've done everything but drop your handkerchief at my feet."

"And why would I be doing that?"

He was all set to offer a suggestion when they heard the unmistakable jangle of Mrs. Hughes' keys approaching. He quickly stepped back and made for the door, thanking Anna loudly for her assistance and nodding to the housekeeper as he left.

Heat pooled in his veins. She'd done it. She'd been here. She had somehow gotten into his room and had put it in his bed for him to find. He lay down, picturing her there. The handkerchief held her scent—that sweet, flowery note combined with the very essence of her—and now his entire bed had taken it on.

She was obviously still employed. Branson would have mentioned news that shocking, so evidently she knew how to get in and out of his room without being detected. When had she come? In the morning when everyone was busy? At night when the house was silent?

More importantly, could he convince her to come again?

xXx

After a less than relaxing night alone with his runaway thoughts, he was relieved to finally hear the hall boy's knock on his door announcing it was time to get up. He dressed as quickly as he could and rushed through his morning duties, determined to beat her to the hall for breakfast.

Anna's night hadn't been terribly restful either. She had known it would be difficult to bear his absence, but she hadn't been prepared for just how keenly she missed him. She scolded herself firmly for that, knowing that thousands of women had sent their men into harm's way with no idea of when they'd come back and she was only being asked to endure two weeks with him in London. Still, each day left her a bit more glum.

She shuffled down the stairs and plodded through her early chores before dragging herself to the hall for their morning meal. Her discouragement quickly turned to disbelief, and then amazement, when she spotted him in his usual place, looking straight at her with a twinkle in his eye. "John?" she gasped, afraid he was just a mirage. His grin widened even as she clapped her hand over her mouth, realizing how inappropriate her greeting was. Luckily the few others who were in the hall were too bleary-eyed to pay them much attention.

She quickly sat down beside him. "I thought you weren't arriving until Sunday," she said, confused but excited.

"I finished my business early and found I was anxious to get home," he answered, looking at her tenderly.

"I'm so glad you're back," she said, voice barely above a whisper. He responded by taking her hand under the table and squeezing it.

The rest of the staff filtered in, interrupting them, but they passed breakfast contentedly, her leg pressed fully against his, just appreciating being together. After their meal she reluctantly parted from him but spent the morning in a cheerful haze. She was so caught up in her daydreams that she didn't notice him hanging back by the servants' staircase until he reached out and caught her wrist, dragging her around the corner with him.

"I have an article of yours I need to return."

"Oh?" She tried to feign nonchalance, but the huskiness in his voice made her quiver.

"Yes, I did find something rather unusual in my bed. I can't imagine how it got there. Though believe me, I tried," he added with a devilish wink.

She stifled a giggle. "You'll never know," she teased.

"Can you get away for a bit this afternoon?"

"I can try to slip out after tea."

"Meet me down by the pond?"

She nodded and glanced out to the hallway to make sure it was still clear. She brushed quick kiss across his startled lips and dashed away, anticipation bubbling inside her.

xXx

Thankfully, the fates conspired with them and they were both able to duck out unnoticed. Winter was definitely on the way, but the chill was more bracing than bitter and the landscape was serene. He looked a bit nervous, she noticed, when she found him waiting for her and she wondered if it had to do with his mysterious departure. She hoped he'd finally be willing to tell her what was going on.

She gave him a full smile as she approached. "I understand you have an item to return to me?" He mustered a small grin, still looking somewhat ill at ease, and brought out her handkerchief.

"You can keep it, if you like," she offered hesitantly. They hadn't really exchanged any tokens of affection, but she enjoyed the idea of him having a least a little something of hers.

"I've found I rather like carrying it around," he admitted with a shy smile of his own, tucking it back inside his jacket.

"I'm glad," she whispered.

"I've something else that belongs to you," he told her softly.

She looked at him quizzically, trying to remember anything she might have lent him or left with him, but before she could ask the question he pulled her in, snug and flush against his body in a way he rarely dared, and took her mouth with his.

Distracted by his lips on hers, it took a minute to register him fumbling with her hand and removing her glove. She felt something cool slide over her and broke their kiss to see what he was doing. She nearly fainted when she saw a pretty garnet on glittering band resting proudly on her finger. She looked up at him, dumbfounded.

He clutched her hand and met her gaze, eyes dark and serious. "Marry me, Anna. Make me the happiest man in the world."

"Yes, of course! But how?"

Her explanation would have to wait because he captured her again, kissing her so fiercely it made her sway on her feet.

"It's over, Anna," he said as he released her. "I'm free. Or, more accurately, I'm yours."

"Was that what you were doing in London?"

He nodded. "Vera finally contacted me. She wanted to get married again and her new man was able to quickly arrange a divorce. I had to appear for the court hearing, but it's done and final. I'm sorry I didn't tell you right away, but I was worried that she would change her mind, or that it wouldn't go through. She's not always been as steady as one would hope."

Anna imagined that was something of an understatement. She supposed, if she tried very hard, she could find it in herself to chide him for keeping her in the dark, but she was just too happy to make the effort. Instead she wrapped her arms around him, laying her head against his chest. "I can't quite believe it," she confessed with a slight quaver.

"Neither can I," he replied, a little shaky himself. He held her close, his fingers laced together and resting on the small of her back.

She held her hand up to admire how the deep red stone sparked even in the fading light. "This is beautiful, John."

"It was my mother's. My father gave it to her for their 25th anniversary."

She smiled wistfully. "He must have loved her a great deal."

"He did. I was working with him at the docks back then, before I joined the army. He saved up for the whole year to buy it. He wouldn't drink more than one at the pub on payday, took odd jobs, and even stopped smoking his pipe. He had me hold on to the money until he could get it. He was so proud that day," John recalled fondly.

"It was awfully kind of her to give it to you. Are you sure she doesn't miss having it?"

"She's been trying to pass it off to me for a while, actually. She brought it out the first time I saw her after your visit and told me to 'give it to that girl of yours'."

"And you didn't take it?" she asked, laughing at his spot-on imitation of his mother's Irish warble.

"I think I was afraid I'd use it, long before I knew whether I could live up to that promise." That earned him another enthusiastic kiss.

Realizing they didn't dare linger too long, they walked back to the house in companionable silence, content in their long-awaited happiness. As they approached the gate a thought occurred to her. "Can I wear this in? Shall I take it off until we're ready for everyone to know?"

"If you'd like to take some time before we make it known I can wait, but we don't have to. I've already gotten his Lordship's leave. I can speak to Mr. Carson as soon as we get back."

"I don't want to wait a second longer than we have to," she responded, quite decidedly. He laughed a bit at that, understanding her impatience, and set off to find the butler as soon as they got inside.

She watched him walk away, letting herself indulge in admiring him. She felt a frission deep in her belly when she realized that soon all of him—the breadth of his shoulders, his quiet strength, and that spark of mischief about him—would be hers to enjoy whenever she could.

She wondered if she could wrest one more victory from him.

xXx

He should have known.

She had been positively demure for the last few weeks, restricting her improprieties to longing glances, gentle brushes, and just a few stolen kisses. He assumed that she was simply being careful about maintaining a professional appearance now that their engagement was announced, knowing that they would be subject to additional scrutiny by the other staff. She had lulled him to such an extent that he didn't think of anything beyond teasing her when he mentioned he needed to retrieve some of his Lordship's clothing from the attic and she quickly volunteered to accompany him to begin gathering the girls' holiday dresses. She had tossed a smirk at him when he joked about saving her from the ghouls and goblins and quietly followed him up the stairs.

His suspicions were first raised when she closed the door behind them and kicked a large bundle in front of it. He looked at her curiously and she shrugged. "It was in the way."

He allowed himself a small smile. If she wanted to have a bit of fun in the attic he certainly couldn't see any harm in that. Shrugging his jacket off, he hung it on a nail near the door and advanced toward her slowly. "What exactly am I protecting you from up here?" he asked, his voice dropping low.

"I'll let you know when I see it," she replied coyly, coming to meet him.

He grabbed her and turned her around, pulling her against him firmly and making her squeal with delight. His large hand roamed over her stomach, drawing up and down and skimming along her sides. "This attic truly is haunted for me," he rumbled in her ear. "I can't come up here without remembering you like this. There were so many things I wanted to do." She turned her head and raised her lips in invitation. He brought himself down to her, taking her bottom lip between his and luring it into his mouth. She melted and opened herself to him unabashedly.

They rarely got more than a stolen moment or two, so it was a luxury to have time to hold her close and to kiss her more than once. With that being the case, he didn't normally have to worry about embarrassing himself with her. They were usually forced apart right as it began to become an issue, and so he wasn't entirely sure what to do in that moment as his body responded to her. She hadn't shied away that afternoon in the garage, and their wedding was right around the corner, but he didn't want to make her feel pressured or nervous.

He needn't have worried. She was his Anna through and through and he felt a little foolish for his disquiet when she arched against him and began to shift, ever so subtly, against the intriguing presence at her hip. Without warning she turned and fit herself tightly against him, stretching up to resume their kiss. She kept gently moving and her hands boldly roamed all over him, soon edging dangerously close.

When she finally brushed against him he jumped, but she pressed her lips harder against his and reached for him again more fully, no question as to her intent. She was fascinated by what she felt under her fingertips. There'd been no mistaking him that afternoon they got carried away, and she'd felt that same curious sensation a few times since before he quickly moved himself away, but this was the first chance she'd gotten to explore on her own terms.

She ran her hand along his rigid length and then curled her fingers around him. He moaned against her lips and she squeezed gently, trying to figure out how to best please him. She didn't get much of a reaction to that but when she slid her hand forward another needy sound escaped him. She moved her hand back and then forward again slowly, thrilled to hear his response once again and feel him push to meet her. She settled into a slow rhythm then, drawing her hand back and forth and increasing her pace as his hips urged her on and his hands clutched at her waist.

He abruptly broke their kiss. "Anna," he pleaded, his breath heavy and rough, "you know you're making it very hard for me."

She looked up and raised an amused eyebrow at him, not slowing a bit.

"To stop!" he exclaimed. "You're making it very hard for me to stop," he clarified, flustered and exasperated.

"Maybe I don't want to stop," she confessed breathily. "Have you considered that?"

That was when the pieces finally clicked into place. She wasn't just aiming for a heated clinch. His heart began to pound.

He stilled his hand over hers so he could focus. "Here? Anyone could walk in."

"Miss O'Brien is away with her Ladyship. Mrs. Hughes will be reviewing the household accounts with Mr. Carson for hours yet. No one else has any call to be in the attic. We're quite safe."

"What about consequences, love? We're not quite married yet."

"The wedding is in six days. No one can account that closely."

"Are you sure about this? Will you regret not waiting?"

"I've been waiting almost four years!"

John pretended to struggle with the decision, grimacing and sighing dramatically while drawing out the moment. He didn't have doubts. He had seen the validity of her arguments very quickly, his decision-making process expedited by the fact that most of his resources were being diverted at the moment. It was only that he loved to see the gleam of triumph in her eyes when she thought she had won.

"I'm begging you, Anna. Please don't tease me. Not now."

He was rewarded with that victorious smile he adored. "I'm not," she purred, and took his hand. "Come here." She led him over to a large bureau against the far wall and left him speechless when she hopped up atop it. "I think this might be just about perfect," she whispered in his ear, smiling as he shuddered.

"How long have you been planning this?" he asked when he recovered the power of speech. Without waiting for her response, he rested his cane against the bureau and began running his lips and tongue over her neck, making her writhe against him.

"Are you certain you want to hear the answer to that question, John?"

"Yes!" he answered, before busying himself with her neck again. "Many times. " He moved to the other side. "In great detail."

He undid the column of buttons running down her back, but as he drew her bodice off he looked up at her in confusion. Her lips quirked. "We ladies are doing things a bit differently now."

"I see."

She took pity on him. "Here," she said, bunching the flimsy cotton in her fingers. "You can pull my camisole off of me." She lifted her arms and he got it off, discarding the garment and forgetting it immediately as her pale skin came into view. Her breasts were hidden by a band of some kind of feminine fabric and something covered her waist and disappeared below her skirts, but there was plenty revealed to explore and admire.

"No more corsets?" She nodded. He had no idea how he was going to get anything done ever again, knowing that that impregnable fortress was no longer under her dress. Every time he touched her from then on he would only be kept apart from her skin by little wisps of fabric, not a stiff, reinforced barricade.

"This comes off too," she whispered, reaching behind her. She might have said something after that, but all he could hear as the item fell away and her breasts were revealed was his own pulse thundering in his ears. They were more beautiful than he had ever dreamed. He'd tried on many feverish nights to envision them based on his memories of her under his hands that afternoon, but even his most ardent efforts fell short.

They were soft, pert, and fit perfectly in his palms as he tentatively reached for her. He bent to kiss their rosy tips and she murmured her approval. He continued on, gently drawing his fingertips over her and using his lips and tongue to make her moan. She threaded her fingers through his hair and held him to her, arching her back and drawing her leg up his.

She craved the feel of his skin against hers. She knew she didn't have the patience to wrangle his tie and collar off, but she undid his waistcoat and began yanking up his shirt until she could get her hands under it. She pushed his shirt up and leaned forward. The warmth of his rough, hairy chest against her smooth, sensitive skin was rather thrilling and it seemed to affect him too; when she looked up at him she saw he had tilted his head back and squeezed his eyes shut. His hands stroked her back and urged her in tighter.

Eager to be closer to her, he began raising her skirts. She quickly came to help and showed him how to unfasten the stays on her stockings. Together they got her girdle up. He looked to her for confirmation as he got hold of her knickers and she nodded, leaning back on her elbows so he could get them off. The sight of her reclined on the bureau, skirts at her waist, chest bare, and eyes dark with desire, was the most intensely erotic thing he'd ever seen. For the thousandth time since he met her, he was simply awed by his blessings. He couldn't believe that this amazing woman picked him, loved him, and was not only willing to share herself with him in this way, but seemed to eagerly want it. He moved in close and gave her a slow, deep kiss while letting his hands lazily run over her skin. "You are an incredibly beautiful woman," he rasped, meeting her eyes.

"Make love to me," she whispered back. He let his fingers trail over her legs as he hooked them around his hips. She gasped as he caressed the impossibly silky skin of her inner thighs and sighed as he closed his hand over her center. She was slick and swollen and the evidence of her excitement resonated through his body, leaving him straining and aching. He spent several minutes exploring her, learning what she liked and trying fervently to ignore her urging him on. He knew that he would be lost as soon as he entered her heat and wanted to make sure he'd done everything he possibly could to make it as enjoyable for her as he knew it would be for him.

Finally, though, he could hold back no longer. He reached for the fastenings on his trousers at the same time he eased her forward to meet him. As he got close, though, he realized he wasn't at all aligned with her. When he pressed forward he met the unyielding face of the bureau instead of her body's welcome. He tried raising himself up, but it didn't really help and he wasn't steady on his feet. He pulled her out further but still couldn't get where he needed to be, and noticed her wince as the edge of the bureau bit into her back.

"Blast! You're just a tiny bit too high." He scanned the attic, searching frantically for somewhere else. Much as he wanted her, he couldn't abide the idea of laying her on the dusty floor and everything else seemed to be a collection of boxes and bundles—nothing that would be stable or comfortable, for either of them. He wished for his younger days, when he would have been able to take her right up against the wall, circumstances be dammed. That thought, however, contained a kernel of an idea. Would she agree? Would he offend her? What he had in mind certainly wasn't anything the vicar would approve of, but he thought he knew her well enough.

"Do you trust me?" he whispered in her ear.

"Of course," came her quick reply.

"Would you possibly be willing to try something a little… different?"

She shivered against him, and couldn't even begin to guess what he had in mind. "I just seduced you in the attic. I don't think I'm going to be a blushing bride."

He helped her down so she was standing in front of him and guided her to turn around. "Put your hands on the bureau," he directed gently. She complied and he grasped her hips, pulling her back. Suddenly he was directly up against her, his arousal right where it needed to be. "Yes," he ground out. "This would work perfectly. I promise you, our wedding night will be slow and tender and in a proper bed, but do you think just this once we could do this? Like this? I need you so badly."

"Yes, John! I need you too."

"God, Anna, I love you." The response he got from her was something between a whine and a cry and she nudged back against him. He began gathering her skirts around her waist again, revealing the creamy expanse of skin he'd already uncovered. He drew his fingertips over her, causing her to tremble, and dipped them between her legs. She was still as deliciously wet as she was before, and he slipped his fingers inside her, testing her, readying her. She ground against him with a feral wail and he knew better than to make her wait any longer.

He withdrew his hand and the only sound she could hear was their labored breathing, then the snick of the fastening on his trousers and the rustling of fabric as he freed himself. He was back then and her knees nearly buckled at the sensation of his heated skin against her and his hardness sliding along her folds. She whimpered and he began to work himself inside her. He stretched her slowly, carefully pushing past the slight impediment he felt until he was enveloped completely in her.

The hiss that escaped her as he joined them together filtered though the haze in his mind enough for him to hold himself still for a minute, curling over her back to let both of them adjust to the incredible sensation. She was so lush and tight that he knew he was at great danger of losing himself very quickly. Hoping he could help her meet him, he found his balance and used his left hand to brace himself against the bureau. His right hand snaked around her middle and down. Long past feeling shy, she guided him where she needed him and he caressed her gently. She keened at the contact and clenched around him, making him groan.

"John," she panted as he continued touching her, "don't stop. Please don't stop." He wanted desperately to move, but he wouldn't dream of denying her anything she asked, especially as she was bare and breathless against him. He didn't stop his attentions to her, but did allow himself to begin rocking his hips. She couldn't hold back the sounds of her pleasure, and he was glad they were hidden far away in the attic. He picked up his pace a bit, his grunts providing a masculine counterpoint to her shrieks, and she began to grind against him. Her breath became more and more frantic until finally she let out a wild scream and grabbed his hand, stopping his movements. He gave silent thanks to whatever deity had smiled on him and moved his hand to her hip, holding her steady while he began to thrust in earnest. She continued to cry out as her body thrummed, and it only took a few moments for him to join her with a low, heavy moan.

His right hand came to clutch the bureau as he collapsed against her, placing kisses on her neck before dropping his forehead between her shoulder blades. He struggled to catch his breath and was moved that she seemed as overwhelmed as he was. She wobbled beneath him and he stepped back, disentangling them and grabbing his cane to steady himself.

"Anna," he sighed.

"I know," she replied, eyes shining.

She straightened and her skirts fell down. She shivered a bit. "Are you cold?" he asked.

"No, no, I'm just…" she gestured helplessly, unable to explain.

He leaned against the bureau and pulled her against his chest, dropping his cane again and wrapping her up in both arms. She buried her face in his neck and he held her protectively until she stopped shaking.

"It was nothing like what I expected."

She felt him tense and hastened to explain. "You never hear many happy stories about wedding nights. At best it sounds like something to be endured. I knew it wasn't going to be like the horror stories between us, but I never thought it would be so good so soon."

He relaxed at that and she nuzzled against him. "I also didn't expect to lose my head like I did. I'm a little embarrassed to think about myself now, but in the moment it felt completely right, because it was us."

"That's exactly how it should be. And I'm a very lucky man."

She beamed at him and gave him another soft kiss before stepping out of his arms. She began collecting their discarded clothing and they dressed themselves, all the while sneaking looks at each other and sharing giddy grins.

They gathered up the items they were supposed to be collecting and took one last look around the attic and at themselves, verifying that nothing seemed amiss. Their excited flushes couldn't be helped, but they hoped to be able to get to their quarters to change for the evening without attracting undue attention. He motioned toward the door and she nodded, moving the bundle back where it belonged and reaching for the latch. As she readied to leave, she turned back to him.

"Once we're married, are we going to keep doing this? While I'm still working, that is?"

He stopped in his tracks. His mind began to race as he realized all the new possibilities they would have as husband and wife, but getting caught would mean instant dismissal and letting down people they respected and cared about deeply. He knew they couldn't make a habit of this.

"We're going to need some new rules," he groaned.