"Richard, I'm going to take on a new housemaid."
His surprise at the remark needed no more context than the way they were lying between the sheets of her bed; their skin touching, her head tucked beneath his, her hand resting flat against his chest covering gently by his own longer fingers and their bodies still undulating slightly as their breathing finally returned to absolute normality from the height of their passion to be entirely justified.
Suspecting she had a particular reason to be making such a declaration now of all moments, though utterly unaware of what it was, he smiled down at her softly.
"That's nice, my darling," he told her sincerely, pausing for a second, before asking in gentle amusement, "Was there anything in particular that made you want to discuss your domestic arrangements with me at this moment?"
He felt her smile against his neck.
"I thought I ought to tell you," she replied, "I thought you mightn't think I was doing the right thing once you've heard more about it, and I wanted to explain to you now, so that I know you understand."
"My darling, there was no need for you to seduce me just to tell me that you're getting another servant," he told her playfully, "Welcome as the seduction was. If you feel like you need the extra help, then you must have it."
She looked up at him, half-smiling.
"You must let me finish first," she chided him patiently, "Or else I'll make no sense. Though I rather suspect at the moment that that's what you're trying to make me do."
"Sorry," he apologised.
"You probably know the girl I'm talking about," she went on quietly, "Her name is Ethel Parks. She used to be a servant up at the big house until-..."
"Was she the girl who...got into trouble?"
"Exactly. That's her."
There was a pause.
"What happened to her child?" he asked her, "Or are you to have a toddler at Crawley House too?" he wondered aloud, if he was honest not altogether set against the idea.
"Well, that's just it," Isobel replied, "There won't be a child here, sadly. She's let the boy go to his grandparents. For good. She'll never see him again. She had been working as a prostitute to support him," she paused for a moment, trying to gage whether or not he was shocked. Her Richard was a worldly man, but she really couldn't afford to assume anything.
"I couldn't let it go on. I didn't want her to give the boy up, but I couldn't let someone we knew go on with that kind of life. I almost feel as if I know what she's been through," she continued, "I mean, obviously I never have," she added quickly, sensing his shock at having taken her meaning to be literal, "But there was that time... when I thought Matthew was going to be taken from me. I'd have done anything- I mean anything, Richard- if it meant that I could keep him. In the end it's just chance, really; fate, whatever you want to call it, that it's her who has had her son taken from her and not me."
His other hand rested on the back of her shoulder, smoothing her hair as his eyes gently glanced in and out of hers, listening to her.
"She made me realise something too," she told him, "I told her she didn't have to give little Charlie up; that going to a famous school and university don't matter, there are more important things."
"What did she say?" he asked in reply.
"She said she could guess that Matthew went to a famous school and university," she answered, "And she was right. And it made me realise how well off I've really been. I've been able to live my life guided by nothing other than love. It feels as if it's broken my heart a fair few times but at least I've never been made to give up on the idea of love. Not like she has."
He planted a consoling kiss in her hair, hoping it wouldn't make her sadder.
"It's not fair," she whispered, "It's not fair in my favour, but it's still not fair that that girl has lost her son after she fought and fought to keep him."
"Some might not agree with you on that score," he told her warningly, "I'm not saying that I don't, but just that there are others who mightn't. Differences," he added tactfully, when she appeared not to understand, "Between your conduct and hers."
"What differences?" she asked.
"Well-..." he began awkwardly, thinking that it should have been obvious.
"No, really, what differences?" she asked, a little demanding in her tone, "She and I are not as different as we might seem at first. Please, Richard, know before I say this that I think you are, you are, the kindest, most considerate lover that I've ever known, that I could have imagined, and I've never felt that you take advantage of me in any way. I love you so much that I can't piece together the words to make you realise just how much I do. But aside from the character of our respective lovers, Ethel and I are not so different. We both... lie with men who are not our husbands, for our own preservation, for our means to a life. The only difference is that for Ethel preservation means money, and for me it means that the care you show me, the love I have for you keep me sane, and if I was not here, like this, with you I feel as if I might as well not be alive."
His hand was caressing her face by now, sensing her agitation. Leaning forwards, he kissed her soundly on the lips.
"Isobel, I love you, but you are far too hard on yourself," he whispered against her lips.
Their hands had reversed by now, his hand resting flat against the swell of her breast, her fingers curled sideways over the top of his. She looked full into his eyes, her fingers tightening a little.
"You've set me on the road to ruin, Richard Clarkson," she whispered, "I let you do it, but really you didn't give me much choice. You made me fall in love with you, you made me want you so much, you took my heart before I had the chance to even think of stopping you. You made me burn. And I'm so glad you did."
He leant in, kissing her ardently.
"I love you," he told her in reply, quietly but firmly, his voice low with passion "I love you, and I want you."
His eyes seemed to glint with fire as he pulled his arms more tightly around her, embracing her closely, drawing her to him. Her arms wrapped over his back, curling into his hair. His lips rested by her ear.
"Beautiful, beautiful woman," he whispered to her, "So very good and kind and beautiful. I want you."
She lay back softly as his body covered hers, his lips latching on to her ear, waiting impatiently for the bliss of him running her furiously down the road to ruin and back.
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