The woman at reception was obviously bone tired. She had a black armband on, and clearly didn't care about what was going on in her inn.
That didn't make Sybil feel any better about deceiving her.
"Mr and Mrs Byrne," Tom said confidently. "We'll just be staying the one night."
The poor woman nodded her head, not even glancing at Sybil. This was probably a good thing, seeing as Sybil could feel herself biting her lip nervously. She tried to stop it.
It wasn't that she was unsure about what she was doing. She was utterly sure about Tom, and about leaving Downton to find a more meaningful life. It was just that… Anna would find her note tomorrow morning, and from there it would go to Carson and Mrs Hughes, and then to Papa, and Mama, and then it would be read out to Mary and Edith… She could see their faces, and she really did feel terrible about hurting them so.
But it was the only way, she told herself. They would never just let her leave if she told them she was going.
She jumped as a hand was placed gently on her back, but it was only Tom.
"Come on, love," he murmured in her ear, and she couldn't help smiling. Yes, she was his love.
She let him guide her up the stairs to a room, one of three, she noticed. Were the others occupied by real married couples? Was anyone else here at all?
Tom set down her case, which he had insisted on carrying, on the table at the end of the bed. There was nothing much in it—neither of them had spared time to pack once Sybil had given her answer—but it felt oddly domestic. And awkward. Why, she had undergarments in that case!
But it was Tom. And somehow that made it alright.
"Are you alright with only having the one room?" he asked.
"Yes, of course," she said, quickly.
He touched her face, and she looked up at him.
"Really?" he pressed.
She smiled. "I trust you."
He smiled back. "I'll sleep on the chair," he said, and was he really so composed as he sounded? Did he mind? Was he hoping she would say no, he could…
"Thank you," she said, and because she could, she leaned forward to kiss him again. It felt different here, different anywhere other than their garage where everything had happened. There, her feelings were contained, his too. There, everything existed only in those moments when they were together, alone. Here, there was nothing stopping them, nothing containing them. It was terrifying, and thrilling.
And when she sighed and stepped back, there was no guide as to what happened next.
But he knew her, and he smirked a little bit in that confident way he had, and then he moved over to the chair to unlace his boots. For a second she marvelled at this intimate gesture, but then she remembered that she had just kissed him, and it wasn't intimate at all, but perfectly normal.
With that thought firmly in mind, she sat down on the bed and undid her own shoes. She set them neatly by the post, and then paused. She knew she would be entirely unable to sleep in her corset, but she certainly couldn't remove that. Instead, she removed the earrings which she'd rather forgotten she was still wearing and realised that she had to unpin her hair. How exactly had Anna done it today? She couldn't quite remember. Tentatively, she reached up to investigate.
"Would you like a hand?"
She turned to him, gratefully. "If you would."
It was funny, but she hadn't quite realised that he would sit down on the bed behind her to start pulling out pins and taking down curls. Of course, Anna never did, but then Anna was a maid and not a chauffeur. Anna was a friend and not a fiancé.
Oh, a fiancé. Such a silly word, a word that made Sybil think of balls and seasons and suitable gentlemen who might be placed next to her at dinner. Tom wasn't like that. Tom was real.
So real that she could feel the heat of his body as he sat close to her. So real that his hands on her scalp made her shiver, and not just from the moments when his unpractised fingers caught on a secured lock of hair and pulled a little.
"How did you manage in the hospital?" he asked, and his voice was so soft because he was right behind her, inches away.
"In the hospital I did my own hair, and it wasn't half as complicated as this," she informed him. She hoped her voice was steady.
"I suppose not," he said. They continued like that for a while, and then he carried on, "You know, most men would think me mad for saying it, but…"
"But what?" she probed.
He ran her fingers through her hair. "Well, I can't wait for you to get used to this. I want you to feel like this is normal, being with me, like this. And you'll start bossing me about a bit again, and…"
"I do not boss you about," she protested.
"There you are. Back to normal already."
She giggled a little. "I suppose I do." She gave her head a little shake and a pin clattered down. "You missed one."
"That I did." But it was his lips that pressed into her hair. She couldn't hold in her happy sigh.
"I do love you, you know," she commented, and even she was struck by how natural that sounded, how offhand and casual.
"I'm glad you do," he said cheekily. "That might have made the wedding a little awkward."
Her heart clenched in happiness at the thought of a wedding. Yes, she was utterly sure about what she was doing.
She turned her head back to him and kissed his cheek. He put his arms around her waist, and oh, she had never hated her corset more than at that moment.
"What will we do?" she asked, distracting herself. "After we're married. Where will we go?"
He pulled her back against him. "I'd like to show you Ireland. My Ireland, full of green fields and strong voices. We could do some good there, you and me."
"Yes," Sybil agreed. "And I would love to see where you grew up. It seems that you know everything of my life, but I know so little of yours."
"I wish my parents were still alive to meet you," he whispered. "My ma would've loved you."
She didn't quite know what to say to that. He'd not really talked about his family much, not for a long time. There was always so much else to talk about, and personal news from Ireland was infrequent and often littered with tales of bloodshed.
She felt more than heard his sigh as it brushed past her hair. "We should get some sleep. We'll need an early start tomorrow."
"Yes, we will," she smiled. "I imagine Edith would drive faster than you do."
He snorted, shifting to stand up again. "Your sister drives like a maniac. She terrifies me, and that's the truth of it."
"Edith, a maniac," Sybil said fondly, now picking up the discarded ribbon to tie her hair back simply from her face. "I sometimes think she's never done a mad thing in her life."
"Mad like running off with an Irish chauffeur whilst your family's at dinner?" he asked wryly, now moving to pick up the blanket from the car that he'd brought in with them.
She tied a neat bow in the ribbon, and shook her head. "No, that's just sensible."
He chuckled. "Oh, entirely sensible."
As he settled himself in the chair, she turned to pull back the sheets on the bed and slip underneath them. It felt odd and not a little uncomfortable to lie down in her corset, but she could hardly do something about that. Instead, she tugged the pillow from the other side of the bed across to better support her neck.
"You better not do that when we're married," murmured Tom.
"I shan't be wearing a corset in bed when we're married," she reminded him archly.
He grinned. Really, that was the only word for it. "No, I don't suppose you will," he agreed.
She blushed, and to cover that, reached over to turn out the lamp. But the light from the hallway crept under the door and illuminated them sufficiently that she was sure that he could see how the blood had rushed to her cheeks.
But he didn't tease her, and thank goodness he didn't question her. His voice turned softer, and he said, "Shall we sleep now?"
"Let's," she said.
For a while, she lay awkwardly staring up at the ceiling. The light was enough that she could almost make out its imperfections.
"Sybil?" Tom whispered.
She turned her head towards him. "Yes?"
In this half-light, she could see his smile bright as day. "I'm so glad you made up your mind."
"So am I," she whispered back, and she felt her own lips curve up in an irrepressible smile to match his.
Outside, someone dimmed the lamp a little, and Sybil could no longer see any imperfections.