DA Fanfic: A Long Needed Holiday

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Title: A Long Needed Holiday
Category: TV Shows » Downton Abbey
Author: DowagerInTraining
Language: English
Rating: Rated: M
Genre: Romance/Hurt/Comfort
Published: 08-14-15, Updated: 08-19-15
Chapters: 20, Words: 29,571
M (Mature) Rating. Includes Adult themes (Explicit sex, violence, mental illness, rape)
Trigger Warnings: PTSD, Rape/Abuse, Recovery from Sexual Assault


Chapter 1: Chapter 1


As the winter melted away into spring, Anna’s health finally began to return. She recovered the weight she had lost, and with it some of her bloom. John was relieved to see her looking more like her old self again.

Their return to a truly married life had been slow and halting. Extremely cautious on his part, hesitant on hers. But John was a patient man, with everything in the world to wait for. He had seen that, when he returned at Christmas to take his wife in his arms once more. There had been, for want of a better term, a second courtship. Long evenings sat in quiet companionship by the fire, learning to hold hands again, to hold each other and be near one another. Touches, kisses, and eventually caresses and an eventual return to love making had followed in their own good time.

Their cottage became a haven once more. A safe space for them, alone. They entertained no guests, and wanted none. The problem wasn’t their home. The problem was Downton Abbey.

John first saw it after Anna returned from a week away in London with Mary. When she came back, she was bright faced, affectionate, looking younger in spirit and years. But within a couple of days, the strain was back in her face. She jumped when taken by surprise, held her spine straight to the point of strain. Eventually, John noticed that she never went into the boot room alone.

Downton Abbey had become the problem. Filled with the worst memories Anna was ever likely to endure, alongside the people she loved and owed her loyalty to. The conflict of emotions was driving her to the brink of breaking. Something had to be done.

If only he could get her away from Downton for a while. But where could they go? John’s mother’s house was let, they had no family to go to, and their savings were becoming increasingly precious as they hoped and prayed to start a family. But as John had once heard said, anxiety was the enemy of pregnancy. He had no doubt that the strain was weighing on them both physically as well as mentally.

“Penny for ’em Mr Bates? You look miles away…”

Daisy bustled in with the tea pot, filling up the mugs for break time.

“Wishful thinking Daisy, that’s all.”

John intended to let the conversation lapse there, but a few minutes later he was aware of Daisy hovering, slowing down her tasks, occasionally looking up at him. He met the kitchen assistant’s eyes.

“Mr Bates…?”

“Yes Daisy?”

“Is Mrs Bates alright?”

Alarm bells started ringing in John’s head.

“What makes you ask Daisy?”

“It’s just…”

Daisy stepped closer and lowered her voice.

“Sometimes… I see her when she passes through downstairs and her eyes look all red. Like she’s been crying or summat. And she looks really tired sometimes. As though she ain’t slept a wink.”

Daisy suddenly clammed up, and bit her lip.

“Is there something else Daisy?”

“Well… I know we shouldn’t gossip Mr Bates, and I try not to gossip, but sometimes people forget I’m there and they say things…”

“What sort of things?”

“About what happened to Mrs Bates. With Mr Green.”

John could feel his face setting into a mask, as his features always did when someone mentioned that name in his hearing.

“And… I don’t mean to upset anything really I don’t, but Mrs Bates has always been nice to me, and it’s horrible to see her so upset, and if there’s anything any of us can do, you know we would, don’t you Mr Bates?”

John was touched to the heart by Daisy’s outburst, along with her quivering lip and damp eyes.

“I know Daisy. We both know. She is tired, and I think she does get sad, being in a place where something horrible happened to her.”

“Sounds like she needs to get away.”

“It’s funny that’s just what I was thinking, when you asked me earlier. But there isn’t really anywhere we could go. So we shall just have to do the best we can and hope that she starts to feel better soon.”

John smiled with a brightness which did not reach down to his heart. Daisy looked thoughtful and nodded.

“DAISY! These Yorkshire puddings aren’t going to make themselves, you know, stir your stumps lass!”

Mrs Patmore’s dulcet tones thundered through the downstairs rooms like a freight train. Jumping out of her reverie, Daisy gasped and hurried away, calling “Sorry Mrs Patmore!” as she scurried off.

John sighed to himself as he sipped his tea and the servant’s hall started to fill up. It would be really lovely if he could take Anna away, but it was unlikely to happen any time soon.


Chapter 2: Chapter 2


“Mr Bates!”

A few days later, John was sat with his mending for Lord Grantham in the servants’ hall when Daisy’s bright face peeped around the door at him.

“Yes Daisy?”

She scooted in, holding a letter.

“I were thinking about what you said, about having nowhere to go. And I wished there was summat I could do, and then I realised – I had somewhere you could go. So… I hope you don’t mind or think it cheeky or owt, but I wrote to Mr Mason. William’s Dad, who has the farm. And he’s written back! And, well…”

“DAISY!”

“I don’t have time to tell you, y’d best read yourself…”

Daisy stuffed the letter into John’s hand and raced back off down the corridor.

“Sorry Mrs Patmore…!”

Stunned and taken aback, John read the short letter.

Dear Daisy

It’s a joy to hear from you pet, I’m glad to hear you’re keeping well. I got your letter, as you can see, and I’ll come right to the point.

Of course they can come.

William always spoke well of Mr Bates, right nice feller he sounded, and you’ve been singing the praises of Anna since you started coming here. It sounds like they’ve had a rough time and you did right asking if I could help, and of course I will. They’re welcome here, as friends of yours, as they will be when the place is yours one day. I’d be glad of a bit of company, but the place does keep me busy, so they’d have time to themselves without me bearing down on them. There’s plenty going on if they want stuff to be doing, and places to go besides if they don’t.

You know the train they need to catch, so you just write and tell me if they want to come and I’ll meet them with the trap. But Daisy, don’t take it too bad if they say no. I know this place is heaven on earth to me and you, but it might not look that way to everyone. I’ve no doubt that Mr Bates will know what’s best.

Love to you sweetheart, and come see me yourself one of these days.

Mr Mason.

John fumbled for a handkerchief and wiped away the treacherous tear which threatened to escape. What a kind and generous man, to open his house to two people he had never met, on the word of his long dead son and his daughter in law, and his trust in her judgement. There were not enough people like Mr Mason in the world.

He folded the letter and resolved to speak to Lord Robert about some time off. But first, he would talk to Anna. She might be cross that so much had been planned without even mentioning it to her first, but she knew Daisy and her impulsive behaviour better than most.

Hopefully, she would agree that it was a good idea.


Chapter 3: Chapter 3


Anna’s fingertips covered her lips and her eyes streamed upon reading the letter.

“What a generous offer…”

“I thought so.”

John took the letter and passed his wife a clean handkerchief.

“Thanks…”

“Love, why didn’t you tell me that things were so difficult for you?”

“Truth be told, I didn’t know. Not until I was away with Lady Mary again this time. I missed you, of course I did. But being somewhere new, not seeing memories around every corner… I didn’t realise how heavy it all was until I came back and it was there waiting for me.”

John gathered his wife into his arms as she cried, patting her back and rocking her like a child.

“Shhhh, it’s alright.”

“I wish it were. But I’m not sure it will ever be right here again, and I can’t bear it John…”

“Come on love, it’s alright. Listen,” he moved to look at her, cupping her face in his big gentle hands, wiping away her tears. “Shall we go? Shall I talk to Lord Grantham and see if he can spare the two of us for a little while?”

Anna looked up at him, smiling her first real smile in months.

“Yes please.”


Chapter 4: Chapter 4


John discovered, upon talking to Lord Grantham, that Anna’s worsening condition had not gone unnoticed upstairs. Just that morning, Lady Mary had been to see him about Anna’s worsening health, wondering if Dr Clarkson should be sent for.

“My dear fellow, we had no idea she had been so unhappy here.”

“I don’t think she realised either M’lord. Not until she had been away for a while.”

“But do you really think a break will be what she needs to sort it out?”

“I hope so, M’lord. At any rate it will give us some time to discuss our options and find ways to help her back to herself.”

“Don’t say another word, it’s rare that the two of you take any leave allowance, you’re both overdue for it.”

“Then you can spare us for a weekend, M’lord?”

“A weekend? You insult me, dear fellow. Take the whole week.”

John felt the smile spread across his face, as what was left of his professional decorum shattered.

“Tha…thank you very much M’lord.”

“It’s quite alright Bates. Thomas can see to me and I’m sure Baxter will take care of Mary as well as Cora for a little while. Edith’s in London so much, she scarcely needs looking after here any more. We shall hold the fort until you return. And I hope you shall.”

“So do I M’lord. So do I.”


Chapter 5: Chapter 5


“Now, are you sure you have everything you need?”

John had once thought himself a patient man.

He would have sworn it to be one of his redeeming qualities while he was languishing in York jail, longing for justice. He hoped he had proven it again when he did his best to aid Anna in her recovery from her various ordeals. But right now, he was scraping the bottom of the barrel of his long-held limitless supply.

Her smiled and reminded himself that in a matter of minutes, they would be gone, away from Downton, together and finally alone.

“Perfectly sure, thank you Mrs Hughes.”

“Because if you need a packed lunch for the train, I’m sure that Mrs Patmore…”

At that precise moment the cook herself appeared, cap askew and spectacles steaming from luncheon preparation.

“Don’t bother asking them Mrs Hughes, the only way to give these two food is to just give it ’em.”

She winked broadly at John, passing over a sizable wicker basket, filled with brown paper parcels.

“That’s very kind of you, Mrs Patmore.”

“Daisy packed one or two things in for Mr Mason as well, she’s labelled them. And the basket is his, he sent it with her last time.”

“We will make sure that he receives everything.”

He ached to be gone. He longed for Anna to be finished with Lady Mary so that they could be away for the 2 o’clock train. He had left ample time for them to walk to the station in their planning, but things were cutting a little fine now.

“Sorry I’m late…”

John heard two sets of footsteps hurrying down the stairs, the first belonging to Anna. He was so caught up in her beaming smile, spread across the bright face under her Sunday best hat, that it took him an extra half second to realise the other staff had sprung to their feet at the sight of Lady Mary behind her, hatted and gloved and clearly on her way out.

“Bates, I’m so sorry, I’m such a brute to keep you waiting for her. You’ll barely make the train if you walk, but Parks is bringing the car around now, we’ll drop you at the station before he takes me into York.”

Ordinarily John would have protested, but relief took precedence.

“That’s very gracious of you Lady Mary, thank you.”

Anna slipped her hand into his. With a gentle squeeze, John released her, only to pick up the battered carryall, while she gathered up the picnic basket. He still wasn’t used to having Anna reach out for him again, after such a long period of physical withdrawal, but he knew with absolute certainty that he would never take it for granted again.

“Right! Chop, chop the pair of you, and we’ll see you for supper next Sunday evening once you’re back.”

“‘Ave a lovely time!”

“Give my love to Mr Mason, won’t yer Mrs Bates?”

“We certainly will Daisy, and thank you, so much.”

Feeling like a circus master herding a team of cats, John finally managed to get his wife, baggage and himself out of the door, into the car and on the road.

At the station, Parks unloaded the carryall and basket as Anna and John climbed out. Ten minutes until the train, perfect timing.

“Thankyou very much for the lift, M’lady,” John reminded himself of the need for gratitude even in a hurry.

“Don’t mention it Bates,” Lady Mary laid a hand on his arm and leaned closer, dropping her voice a little. “Just make sure she gets better.”

“I will do my best m’lady.”

“I know you will.”

Lady Mary had to have the last word.

As she waved them off into the station, Parks opened the door for her.

“On to York, M’lady?”

“No Parks, back to Downton Abbey.”

Parks looked puzzled. “Of course, M’lady.”

Lady Mary gave him a knowing wink.

“They never would have accepted the lift otherwise”

Closing the door behind her, Parks smiled to himself. She wasn’t such a bad old stick afterall.

“Right you are, M’lady.”


Chapter 6: Chapter 6


They didn’t talk much on the train. For a while they sat grinning at each other, hands clenched together in gleeful silence.

Later, they shared out the food. Mrs Patmore had not stinted them, and while John would have refused her offer if left to his own choice, they were both grateful for the treats she had provided. Wedges of pork pie, with a dollop of pickle screwed up in a piece of brown paper. Hard boiled eggs, thick slices of bread and butter and two miniature apple pies, along with a bottle of milk.

“You have a moustache…”

John leaned over to gingerly wipe the milk from his wife’s top lip. Anna giggled.

“Don’t expect it looks good on me.”

“It looks delicious,” he smiled, leaning in for a kiss.

“Careful Mr Bates, we’re in a public place!” She gently swatted his arm with her little handbag, last year’s Christmas present from Lady Mary.

“True, Mrs Bates. I shall have to show restraint. For now.”

Her eyes glowed at the hint in his last words. John felt his stomach turn over inside at the sight of her smile. She did still desire him, underneath all of the trauma she had endured. And with every mile from Downton Abbey, her eyes grew lighter and the frowning wrinkles around her eyes were easing away into laughter lines.

“How will we recognise Mr Mason?”

John dug out the letter from his pocket, a note enclosed with Mr Mason’s last missive to Daisy.

The station’s just got the one platform, come down toward the lane and I’ll be waiting with the trap. Chestnut mare, ribbons on the side.

“Apparently, we are to look for his horse,” John smiled, amused at the country manner.

“That’ll be right,” Anna chuckled. “Farmer’s give more thought to their animals than what they see in the mirror in the morning. If they even get so far as a mirror.”

“I’ve never stayed on a farm before.”

“Get away! Have you not?”

“Well, why would I? City boy, born and bred. The first time I left London was to go to war in South Africa. Until I came to Downton I’d never really lived in the countryside.”

“I hope you won’t find it … too discomforting.”

“Why would I?”

“Well, not to put too fine a point on things John, but the smell takes a bit of getting used to.”

“It surely can’t be any worse than a military camp.”

“And the noise.”

“Farms are noisy? I thought the countryside was quiet. Downton is quiet.”

“You want to try visiting the farmyards at this time of year. You’d be besieged by ducks, hens, pigs, cattle, not to mention the farmhands shouting back and too.”

“I’m sure I’ll get used to it.”

“I’m sure you will.”

Anna slipped her arm through his and settled against his shoulder. The rumbling of the train soon sent her drifting off to sleep. John watched the telegraph poles, hedges and fields of livestock rumble past the window, treasuring the sweet weight of his wife, held fast asleep against his shoulder.

Dusk was falling by the time they got to the station where they were to meet Mr Mason. The nights were drawing out, but the breeze still nipped around them when they alighted at the little station. Anna blinked sleepily, having been woken by John just a few minutes earlier when the guard called out the stop.

“You shouldn’t have let me sleep,” she grumbled.

“I still have a bruise from the last time I tried to prevent you napping, dearest one,” John teased her, his arm around her waist to hold her in against him. “Do you feel better for it?”

“I rarely do when I wake up, but it might be for the be…”

“You must be the Bates!”

A low, rumbly voice, thick with Yorkshire accent, sounded from across the lane. There was the trap, a handsome chestnut brown horse standing before it, and jumping down was Mr Mason.

While serving in the army, John had learned to size people up very quickly and judge whether or not they deserved his time of day. Mr Mason struck him immediately as a good friend, just waiting for the introduction to be made. A firm handshake and twinkling blue eye, accompanied by a friendly greeting and compliment to his wife, sealed the deal.

“Knew you as soon as you stepped out of the doorway, William described you so many times. Mr Bates, good to meet you at last. And hello there lovely lass, you must be Mrs Bates. I’m Mr Mason, as you’d expect, but please, do call me Bill.”

“A pleasure Bill, and please call me John…”

“…and I’m Anna.”

“Now isn’t that grand, old friends in the making, the lot of us. Right, let’s get this up and get on home, there’s supper waiting, for Marigold as well as for us.”

Bill fussed the horse, patting down her mane and sneaking her a sugar lump in reward for her patience, as Anna helped John to climb up into the trap and passed him his cane. John immediately approved of Bill for not mentioning his cane or limp, and also for having the tact to wait rather than diving in with an offer of help. Here was a man who understood the value of pride.

“How far is it to the farm, Mr Mason?”

“Bill, please Anna, we don’t stand on ceremony on this farm, we’re too busy for Misters and Missus. We’ll be there shortly, it’s no more than a couple o’ miles.”

“It’s so kind of you to come and fetch us.”

“Not at all lass. I know you all walk miles up at Downton, Daisy’s forever telling me off for meeting the train when she visits, says she can walk just fine, but I like to take the time for a natter. How is my Daisy doing, is she well?”

The rest of the journey passed with a sprinkling of gossip. Mr Mason approved of Daisy’s efforts to improve herself with her studies.

“She might not take to that maths right away, but it will come in handy for her if she agrees to take this place on.”

“What sort of farm do you have, Bill?”

“Mixed, m’love, bit of arable farming, some pastoral.”

John looked silently at Anna, the words sliding over his head like arabic. Anna leaned closer to whisper “some crops, some animals.”

John nodded, pride salved. “What animals do you keep?” he asked, keen to be involved.

“Cows, mainly. They supply the dairy, which brings in a fair bit of trade. We’ve got pigs too, and a few sheep, but a smaller flock than I used to keep. And the usual hens and ducks, so mind yer feet in the yard, they roam free so they do make a bit o’mess. No need to tell you any more about it now though, here we are!”

And so they were. The gate was open, ready for them. A stable boy hastened to shut it once the trap was through. Drawing up outside the farmhouse, Bill helped Anna down before turning to get the luggage, leaving her to offer a steadying hand to John. Once again, John approved of his tact.

“Right Ned,” Bill called to the stable boy. “Take her through and rub her down. Don’t worry too much about the trap, it’s going straight out in the morning. Just make sure Marigold is settled for the night.”

“Yes Mr Mason!”

“Come on in, the pair of yer. I s’pect y’d like to get washed up before supper, so I’ll show you up to your room.”

The farmhouse kitchen was a delight. Huge, filled with delicious smells of cooking and baking, mingled with herbs drying out among the rafters, it was warm and filled with comfort. A big window ledge was stuffed with cushions along one side of the table, with wooden chairs at either end and a long bench to the other side. John was strongly reminded of Mrs Patmore’s domain back at Downton, noting the same ration of green paint, the large hanging copper pots and pans and the good smells emanating from the range. Their shoes made a pleasant clatter across the scrubbed flagstones.

“Stairs go up here, through the back of the kitchen. I’ll show you the rest of the downstairs later,” Bill was already clumping upstairs carrying their bag. They followed as swiftly as possible to see him turn off through a white painted wooden door.

The room was large, sparsely furnished but filled with a sense of tranquility. There was no wardrobe, but a series of hooks lined one wall to serve in its stead. The bed was large, a big double one with a brass head and foot rail, covered in a white padded counterpane with big thick pillows. On either side stood two mismatched small tables, each with a candle and some matches. To one side under the window, fringed with blue and white striped curtains, stood a cupboard and above it a big blue and white china bowl with a large jug inside it. Two blue towels were folded next to it.

“Next door down is the bathroom, with a hot water geyser.” said Bill, placing their baggage on a small bench next to the cupboard. “Y’can fill the jug and bring it through if you prefer to wash up in here, private like. There’s a lav a bit further on, brown wooden door on the left. I’m the other side of the farmhouse, so you won’t see me much.”

“Thank you very much Bill.”

“Don’t mention it John. I’ll leave you to settle in for a bit, supper can go on the table when you’re ready.”

“Mr Ma…”

“Anna, please.”

She smiled at him, catching her mistake.

“Bill, I left the basket downstairs. Daisy packed something in there for you.”

Bill’s face broke into a huge smile.

“Well, knowing my girl, we might have jam with our cake for pudding tonight then!”

And with that he was gone, closing the door behind them.

John turned and took Anna in his arms. They were tired, weary beyond measure. Not just with the journey but everything that had brought them to needing this holiday.

“It’s perfect,” she whispered. “And so is he.”

“I agree,” John leaned down and kissed his wife, gently, chaste as possible.

“John?”

“Yes, dear?”

“I hope you haven’t brought me on holiday to just kiss me like that.”

There was that stomach flip all over again.

“Anna, if I start now, we won’t make it to supper at all.”

“Well then,” she collected the jug and turned back to throw him a smile as she opened the door. “I’d better get us some water to wash up. The sooner we can go down to supper, and then up to bed, the better.”

She was gone, leaving John weak at the knees, hoping that Bill hadn’t prepared a five course meal.


Chapter 7: Chapter 7


It had all been going so well, John thought as he looked back on the evening.

Bill had been a marvellous host. Genial, generous and good natured. The food was superb; a thick juicy lamb stew, with warm brown bread and farm butter. Big wedges of heavy cake, spread liberally with Daisy’s bramble jam. Wholemeal biscuits, with a good Wensleydale cheese. All washed down with copious cups of strong brown tea. Towards the end of the meal, Mr Mason produced a bottle of cherry brandy and did not blink when John refused in favour of another cup of tea.

“Ah well, it doesn’t always agree with folk. But if you fancy a drop, it’s in the sideboard there. Now, shall we go and be more comfortable?”

Bill showed them into a nook just off the kitchen, with two battered old armchairs and a wide sofa, grouped around a large low table, scattered with farming magazines and the day’s paper. The fire burned bright in the grate.

“This is me snug,” Bill explained. “There is a parlour, just the other side of the hall through that there door, but I ain’t had much call to use it since the wife died. Don’t get as many visitors now, she were the social one of us all. But it’s aired and cleaned up if you want somewhere private to sit without me falling over you. People are in and out of here all day as you might expect.”

As he spoke, Bill had settled himself into what was clearly his habitual chair. A small stool stood to one side, upon which sat his pipe and baccy tin and current copy of Farmer’s Weekly. He re-stuffed the pipe, struck a match and companionably puffed away.

Anna was enchanted.

“You’ve such a lovely home Bill.”

“Ah well,” Bill glowed quietly at the compliment. “It’s perhaps not so fine as the likes of Downton Abbey, but it does me grand. I only wish I could persuade Daisy to come and live here and help me run the place.”

“Do you have many workers here Bill?”

“A fair few, more than usual at this time of year. Sheep dipping happens on Thursday, so that’ll be a busy day. You’re welcome to stay and watch, I’d say pitch in but it’s a nasty and dirty business.”

“Sheep dipping?”

“Aye. Couple of times a year we bring the flock in and get them to swim down a trough of antiseptic. Keeps their fleece clean, no lice or bugs in their wool. It’s needed, even legally mind, but the sheep don’t like it one bit, and the stuff does make a stink.”

“Sounds like hard work.”

“It is John, it is. But I think farming’s a bit like being in service. Only we serve our animals instead.”

Bill grinned at Anna.

“I bet there’s times you take care of that fine lady of yours and you have to persuade her to do stuff she doesn’t want to, just because it’s best for her, right?”

Anna pealed with laughter and John coughed into his handkerchief.

Bill grinned, placing the brandy glass off to one side.

“Right. It’s past my bedtime. Early rise for me.”

“What time should we be up?”

Bill guffawed. “John, yer here for an ‘oliday, not to work. Don’t try to match me for getting up, I see the dawn from the seat of me tractor. Hetty, the daily kitchen maid, will sort you our with a spot of breakfast when you’re ready. She’s in here most days, she knows you’re coming.”

With no further ado, Bill heaved himself to his feet, gave them a jovial nod and a swift goodnight and took himself off up the front stairs.

“Bedtime?”

Anna’s eyes were bright.

John took her hand.

“I think so.”

Yes. It had all been going so well.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologise.”

“But I must…”

“You must do nothing of the sort.”

John sat very still on the little bench, pulled up to Anna’s side of the bed. She was hunched up, her knees drawn up to her chin, a rug wrapped around her shaking shoulders.

“You do not need to apologise for this Anna, none of it is your fault.”

Her tears started again.

“Anna?”

She nodded.

“Anna, I’m going to take hold of your hand. Nothing more.”

She nodded again, shaking like a leaf. John reached out and took her icy, stiff fingers in his.

He bitterly regretted how this had come about. Getting ready for bed, emboldened by her earlier flirting, he had stepped behind her to plant a kiss on her neck. Unfortunately, Anna had not heard him move behind her, and her reaction had been extreme.

After ten patient minutes trying to coax her out of the corner of the room, John had managed to get her into bed, and she was now able to hear him and speak to him.

“I ruined everything.”

His heart lurched. If anything, it was him who had ruined the evening.

“Anna, you have ruined nothing. So we need to slow down, and take our first night in an unfamiliar place more slowly. That’s all. Now just sit and be calm, I am here and I will hold your hand until you’re ready for me to let go.”

Anna gave enormous shuddering breaths and slowly, her shoulders began to lower.

“That’s it darling, just keep breathing. I’m right here.”

John fumbled in his pocket for a handkerchief.

“Here.”

One elephantine blow later, Anna was looking a little more like herself. Only with red eyes and a wet face.

“I’m so…”

“Don’t.” John smiled, placing a slow and careful finger to her lips. She relaxed at the touch. This was John, she was safe with him.

“I look such a mess.”

“You look beautiful. Always.”

“I should wash my face.”

Helping her up on her unsteady feet, John guided her over to the basin and poured some cool water into the bowl. Anna freshened up and retied her hair.

“Now. Back to bed Mrs Bates. You need to sleep.”

Settling her in, tucking the covers around her, John leaned down to stroke her hair and drop a gentle kiss on her forehead.

“Are you not coming to bed?”

“I will. But I could do with some water. And a few minutes walk about to ease my knee.”

Crouching on the floor, coaxing her out from her corner, had done him no good. But John also needed a few private minutes to deal with the cold flood of disappointment in himself which he dared not show to his wife.

Anna was already dropping asleep.

“Wake me when you come to bed?”

He knew what she meant. She just wanted to know it was him, so that she didn’t wake in a panic.

“Of course. Now go to sleep. And find lovely dreams.”

Ever so quietly, John closed the door and went back downstairs.

The fire was dying down, but a rummage with the poker and a fresh hunk of wood brought it back to life. There was no need for a candle. Pulling his dressing gown around him, John sat with his mug of water before him and quietly put his face in his hands.

How was he ever going to help her get past this?

He heard footsteps in the room and turned expecting to see Anna.

“John, tell me if I’m in the way, and I’ll leave you be, but would you like to reconsider that drop of cherry brandy?”

Bill stood in the doorway of the snug, an oddly comical figure with his old fashioned bed cap and long striped gown.

“Oh Bill, I am sorry, did we wake you?”

“Doesn’t take much to wake me lad, slightest whinny of distress from the stables and I’m on my feet.”

That’s exactly how Anna must have sounded, thought John. Like a mare in distress, kicking out and whining to be left alone. Bill fetched two small glasses and the bottle and sat opposite John, slowly pouring the drinks.

“Now,” he spoke calmly, measured and gently. John was reminded of his own tone of voice to Anna just a few minutes earlier.

“Perhaps it’s none of my business, but would you like to tell me what happened?”

The sip of hot, sweet cherry warmed John’s throat and loosened the knot in his stomach. This wasn’t the Irish flame he had grown to need and crave during his dark hours. It was sweeter, cleaner and far more pure.

“I did something that frightened Anna.”

“But you didn’t mean to?”

“No, I would never…”

“I didn’t think you did. What I meant was, you tried to do something nice, and it turned into something dark for her.”

John nodded.

“And by my reckoning, this happens more than it should.”

John met Bill’s eyes.

“Did Daisy tell you?”

“Not a word. She said Mrs Bates were awful tired, and you stretched to breaking point trying to hold her up. But I saw in the paper about a Mrs Bates being arrested for the murder of a rotter called Green… but she were released…”

John’s face and shoulders clamped up.

Bill suddenly drained his glass and reached for the bottle.

“So it was you two. And that’s what he did.”

“Yes, that’s what he did.”

“And now when you reach for her, she thinks…”

“It doesn’t always happen.”

“But you can’t tell when it will.”

John’s face crumpled and for the first time since Anna had confessed to him what had happened to her, he began to cry.

“Let it out John. The more you hold it in too, the longer it will take for both of you to get rid of it all.”

Bill sat peacefully with John while the big man cried for the cracks and chasms in his marriage.

“It’s alright John.”

“That’s funny,” he gulped. “That’s what I say to her when she cries. But it isn’t alright at all.”

“P’raps not now. But it will be. You’ve still got her, and she’s got you. And your love for each other is like sun from dark clouds.”

“Sometimes all I can see are the dark clouds.”

“Mebbe it feels like that. But behind all that, the sun’s still there.”

John wiped his eyes and face, hearing rather than seeing Bill move beside him, water splashing in the background.

“Here.”

Bill handed John a damp cloth.

John took it gratefully.

Bill placed a hand on John’s shoulder.

“You just take yer time lad. You let her take hers, you take yours too. Lord knows that no man can be expected to accept that happening to his Missus without feeling summat down to his core. It makes you human son. Makes you not like him.”

“But I have to be strong for her.”

“And you will be. You have been. But we all need time to put down our weights. Old Marigold out there can pull carts of turnips around all day with no complaints, but if I don’t let her rest now and then she’d soon go lame and be no use for anyone. Not even herself.”

Bill’s calm and measured voice, the good sense he spoke and the cherry brandy had done their work. John was starting to unwind.

“Now. Why don’t you take yourself back to bed? Just speak gently and she’ll know it’s you, even in her sleep. And if you need to talk further while you’re here, I’m willing to listen. Goodnight lad.”

John watched Bill go back to bed, drained the rest of his water, and went back to his and Anna’s room.

“Anna sweetheart, it’s only me,” he said softly, climbing into bed.

“John?” she murmured sleepily.

“That’s right dear.”

Half asleep, Anna turned over, snuggled into his arms. Holding her close, John marvelled at her beauty for perhaps the millionth time since he had known her, and knew that there was a way through this. They just had to find it together.


Chapter 8: Chapter 8


 

John woke early the next morning, to a cacophony of unfamiliar sounds. A brief peep out of the window revealed a slew of ducks and hens about their business, while horses clopped to and fro and men called about their business.

“I told you farming was noisy…”

he turned to see Anna, fresh woken, propped up on one elbow.

“Good morning,” she smiled.

“Good morning. I hope it is a good one.”

John moved to sit beside her, gathering up her hand.

“If I try to say sorry again, you’ll tell me off, won’t you?”

“You know me so well. So don’t even try it.”

Anna’s eyes were sad.

“It’s not what I wanted for our first night here.”

“Shhhh,” John leaned in and kissed her softly. “It’s our first day here now. Let’s make a new start.”

Anna brightened at the prospect of a fresh clean slate. She wriggled to sit up in bed, reaching out to stroke her husband’s face.

“So what shall we do with our first morning, dear one?”

“Well… I think we should have a discussion about that,” her hand slipped lower, down over his shoulders, to stroke his arm.

“A discussion? Is that what this is?” he teased her gently.

“Well, if that’s what you want to call it…” Pulling him closer, Anna kissed him, starting gently, tasting his lips, inviting him closer.

John’s blood flared at her touch, and the taste and scent of her. God she tasted so good, but he had to know for sure.

“Are you sure this is what you…?”

“Yes. Oh yes.” Anna’s eyes mirrored is own internal fire.

That settled the question.

John’s hand cupped her face, his fingers tracing around her neck, tilting her chin up to kiss her properly. The sensation of her tongue running over his lips, her fingertips curling through the hair at the nape of his neck, was enough to give him shivers.

“Come back to bed…” she said softly.

Within seconds, John’s robe lay on the floor and he scooped his wife into his strong arms for a long and fulfilling kiss, which began softly and ended with Anna making soft moans of desire, her arms locked around him, pressed up against his chest.

“So this discussion we were having,” John muttered against her skin, his kisses, slipping down her neck towards the base of her throat.

“Yes?” Anna’s voice was barely a gasp.

“We could go out for the day? Find somewhere pretty and take a picnic?” His hand slid down her waist to the hem of her robe, fingers dipping under to run his hand up the outside of her leg.

“Uhhh…”

“Or, we could stay here… sit in the parlour, be decorous and read books, sipping tea…”

His hand found her waist, his thumb tracing circles around her hipbone as her nibbled and teased around her throat.

“Or…” he slid his hand around the top of her thigh, inching his thumb down between her legs. “We could stay here…right here in bed… ”

Anna’s eyes closed, her head tipping back, as her legs parted slightly.

“You like that plan, I see?”

“Oh yes…”

Brushing the pad of his thumb against the outside of his wife’s sex, John relished her mewl of pleasure, feeling her writhe under his touch.

“And if I were to touch you here, like this, would that please you too?”

With one fingertip, he gently parted the folds of her sex, stroking against her entrance, knowing that she wanted him from the dampness of her flesh. Anna’s arm locked around him, her other hand tangled in her own hair as she moaned incoherently.

“And this?”

With aching slowness, he slid a finger inside her, feeling her hips move instinctively. God she was so beautiful. The flush across her face, her lips parted as her breath rose and fell in time with his movements.

“God, John, I want you…”

He moved above her, wriggled free from his sleepwear.

“Now?”

“Yes, God yes, right now.”

He slid into her, sighing into the curve of her neck, feeling her close around him, the most warm and intimate embrace.

Relishing his wife’s legs wrapped around his waist, and the feel of her kisses against him as her rocked with her,John held himself up above her, looking down at her, seeing the rush of pleasure chase across her face, until eventually she moaned and writhed, loud and harder.

“Oh yes, John, yes!”

“Anna!”

It was all over. Swiftly, but ended with pleasure and with love. Her eyes met his and she was there with him, wanting him, riding the wave of heat and love back down to earth to join him.

Moving away from her, John turned onto his back, pulling her above him to nestle onto his chest.

“John?”

“Hmmm?”

“If we stay here, no-one will mind will they?”

“Not in the slightest.”

She smiled down at him, leaning in for a kiss.

“Good.”

A couple of hours later, after chatting, dozing and snuggling into each other, hunger played its part and woke them fully.

“I can’t remember the last time I slept until I could wake up naturally,” yawned Anna, reaching for her own robe. “What about you?”

“It was probably when I worked in Kirkbymoorside. When I was working in the pub. Sometimes I had a morning off. But I never slept that well.”

“No?”

“No…” John reached out to stroke Anna’s face. “You weren’t there.”

Pink about the cheeks with his compliment, Anna took the jug to go and find warm water to wash up before getting dressed.

John lay back and thought over the events of the morning. This was what he had longed to give her last night. And why he had found it so frustrating when the evening had turned sour and black. It was so hard to predict Anna’s changes of mood. But he knew that she found it worse, not being in control of her own mind at times.

But there was no point in brooding. Bill had been right, there was so much sunlight in their relationship, when they were able to stop and find it. One pattern he had noticed was that Anna was more highly strung when she was tired, or feeling ill. Belatedly John realised that she had been ill and tired on the night of the concert. Perhaps that was a connection.

“Still in bed?”

A few drops of warm water landed on his nose and face.

“You little minx,” he grinned at Anna, who put the jug down and turned to close the door.

“Come on you, the whole farm’s awake. Time to go see about some breakfast.”

Despite her commands, John couldn’t help himself just sitting and watching for a few more minutes as Anna disrobed before him and washed using a damp cloth. She was so un-self-conscious about her body, he had always loved that. She was not affected in the slightest and that gave her movements such grace. Was this woman really his?

“John, do I have to tip this water over you to get you out of bed?”

John heeded the warning, and began looking out fresh clothes.


Chapter 9: Chapter 9


“Mornin’!”

A cheery female voice greeted them as they came downstairs.

“You must be Mr and Mrs Bates, I’m Hetty.”

Just for a moment, John wondered if Mrs Patmore had a twin sister. Hetty was a homely, plump middle aged Yorkshire woman, with waving whisps of red hair escaping from her cap. She was obviously in sole charge of this large kitchen.

“Good morning to you Hetty, are we too late for any breakfast?”

Hetty stopped in her pastry prep, lifting one finger as she collected a cloth and swerved around towards the range. “Just a mo… tea’s in the pot, help yourselves to a mug, I’ve left you space o’nt far end of the table…”

No sooner had John poured tea for himself and Anna than Hetty was back, bearing two plates clutched in either end of the tea towel.

“Mind yerselves, these are a bit hot! Let me know if you want a slice of toast, and there’s red sauce and brown sauce on the dresser behind yer, if you want either.”

The plates sizzled, with sausages, bacon, black pudding, mushrooms and a fried egg each. John turned to reach for the brown sauce and noticed that the cherry brandy, in prominent position last night, was gone. He smiled quietly to himself. Bill was a wise man who knew to guard his drink from a man who might be tempted to self medicate after taking a given dose. His heart filled with love for his good host and hoped for a quiet talk with him later on.

“Bill thought you might be worn out after your journey yesterday, so I kept some bits hot for y’both.”

“Thank you Hetty that’s so kind.”

“Not a problem dear, not at all, but please don’t mind me if I get on with this while you eat, or there’ll be no pie for tea tonight.”

Half expecting to see her whirl round to summon Daisy, John smiled into his cup of tea. Anna was already tucking in, tired out by yesterday’s journey, the events of last night and their morning in bed together.

“Is there anything we can do to help, Hetty?”

“Bless you duck, but there’s no need. Plates’ll go on to soak when you’re done. You want to get yourselves out for a bit while it’s dry, air smells like it might rain later.”

Anna turned to John. “What do you think? Are you feeling alright for a walk?”

“It would be nice to go out and see the area around here. It might get harder to walk further when it’s muddy,” John nodded down to his cane, propped next to him at the table.

“Let’s do that then.”

“When you come back,” Hetty’s fingers flew over the top of the pie, fluting the edges carefully with a teaspoon handle. “Let me know if you want a bit o’ cake with a cup of tea. Bill might be in around 4 o’clock for a break, but said not to wait around for him, he’ll see you for supper around 8 o’clock.”

Demolishing the last bits of his black pudding, John felt like a new man.

Beside him Anna jumped.

He spun around, eyes wide, searching for her attacker.

Where’s the threat? What’s happened?

“Oooh! Hello there!”

A black and white collie had slipped in the back door and plonked its head into Anna’s lap. Soon over her initial shock, Anna bent down to coo at the little face and fuss its ears.

“Where did you come from? Are you suppose to be in here?”

It’s alright. It’s just a dog. Just a dog.

“Skipper!”

Hetty marched over, shooing the dog out.

“You know you’re not to be in here when baking’s on, yer daft dog.”

Her tough tone was belied by the fuss she gave the dog and the small scrap of pastry she tossed up for it to catch, before it trotted back out into the yard.

It’s alright. Just a dog. Anna’s safe. It was a dog, and the dog’s gone anyway.

“Daft animal,” Hetty smiled. “He’s meant to be a sheep dog, but he’s part deaf. Bill ain’t got the heart to get rid of him though. Sometimes he sneaks in here or follows one of us around the place. Don’t be surprised if he trots after you for a walk. Blimey, Mr Bates, are you alright, you’ve gone white as a sheet…”

Anna turned to find John gripping the edge of the bench, his face pale, beads of sweat standing out on his forehead.

“Yes… I’m fine. The dog just made me jump. That was all.”

Anna’s frown crept back a little between her eyes.

“Come on John,” she took his hand. “Let’s go find our coats.”

Gripping her hand, John forced himself to breathe out.

“Yes. Alright. Let’s.”

“See you later Hetty.”

“Right you are, lovie. ‘Ave a good walk. Fresh air’ll be grand for yer both.”

Anna quietly ushered John out to find their coats and they headed out to walk down the lane without exchanging another word.

Hetty was right about Skipper. The dog spotted them heading for a walk and decided to invite himself along.

Much as he longed to be alone with Anna, and was annoyed with himself for his ridiculous reaction in the kitchen, John found the presence of the animal soothing. He’d never spent much time around dogs. Lord Grantham’s labradors were lovely animals, but were rarely allowed in the upstairs rooms, so he didn’t often see them during his time with Lord Robert. There had been one or two regulars at the pub in Kirkbymoorside with dogs, but they were old and sleepy and mostly slumbered under the table while their owners chatted over a pint.

The dog seemed to prefer Anna. Perhaps because she loosened up around him, cheerfully patting his head when he licked her fingers and picking up sticks to throw for him, telling him he was a good dog and a clever dog when he brought them back for her, before barking and chasing his tail.

They walked out down to lane towards the river, following the sound of the water. Eventually the lane crossed over the river. From the bridge there was a path giving access down some steep steps to a field alongside the water’s edge, lined with huge old trees.

“Shall we go down toward the water?”

It was the first comment Anna had addressed to John since they left the farmhouse.

“If you like.”

They walked down among the trees, finally loitering next to a giant oak, watching the water flow past them.

“Do you want to tell me what happened?”

“It was nothing.”

“It didn’t look like nothing.”

“It just seems silly now, is all.”

“I’m becoming an expert on thinking reactions are silly, John.”

He turned to look at her. Her eyes were wide with fear, with concern. This would not do.

“The dog took me by surprise. When you jumped, I thought someone was bothering you. I was worried for you.”

“Even though we were in the farm house kitchen? Who on earth would have attacked me?”

John paused. How could he make her understand that it wasn’t about the place, or the dog, or Hetty, or even her? Then it dawned on him that this must be how she felt, when she was experiencing those attacks and didn’t know who he was, or where she was.

“I told you it would sound silly. But even though I knew where we were, I felt for a moment like you weren’t safe and that, that upset me.”

A light of comprehension dawned in Anna’s face.

“You knew where you were, but you forgot, all at the same time?”

“That’s what happens to you, isn’t it?”

She bit her lip.

“We can not talk about it, if you prefer.”

“It’s not talking about it which is the problem though. We never have time to talk about it. And when we do we’re so tired and worn out and worried, that it all comes out wrong.”

John was taken aback. Anna had never spoken at such length about her ordeals or the troubles that she had endured as a result of her attack.

“We have time now. If you’d like.”

“Can we walk on to the village? Perhaps find somewhere to sit?”

“Certainly.”

They rejoined the lane, ready to walk on. Skipper had had enough though. He licked at Anna’s hand once more, turning and trotting back down the lane towards the farm.

“I suppose he knows the way home.”

“No doubt he does. We might see him later.”

They walked on for a short while, both deep in concentration. John realised that they were both looking for the same words.

“I’m sorry we haven’t made the time to talk about this before, if it was what you needed.”

“It’s not just about me John. I think we both needed it.”

“I’m here to listen now.”

“I know. Look, here’s the village pub we passed last night. The White Hart. Perhaps we could sit outside, have a glass of cider or something?”

“If you like.”

John kept the table, while Anna went to buy two halves of cider. He felt he should have gone, but would not have been able to carry two glasses while managing his cane. She returned soon though, perhaps the bar had been quiet.

“Feels a little wicked, drinking in the middle of the day.”

“I’m not sure cider really counts. It’s just apple juice with a kick. Now…” Taking a sip, John reached out to take her hand. “You were saying?”

Anna took a deep breath, her eyes on the table.

“I know that… what happens to me, like what happened last night, it upsets you.”

“Of course it upsets me, because I hate to see you hurt and unhappy.”

“And I hate that I react that way towards you. Because I know it’s you with me, and I’m safe with you, but something inside doesn’t feel safe.”

“Is there anything I can do to make you feel safer?”

“I don’t know. Every time is different. That’s the problem. Just like you knew you were in the kitchen and there was no attacker, I know I’m safe, but I don’t FEEL safe. Just like you FELT like there was danger somewhere.”

John nodded. For perhaps the first time, he genuinely understood, and now began to feel like he wasn’t the problem.

“What I find… difficult, to understand, is that sometimes it’s alright. When I reach for you. When I touch you. And sometimes it’s not. And I wish I knew how or when to make it alright for you. To make it so that you didn’t feel unsafe.”

“Oh John…”

“I keep thinking, there must be a pattern. There must be something I’m missing, or something I do, which upsets you. Which makes you think of…” John paused, unwilling to even say Green’s name.

“…him.” Anna felt the same. She would not let that creature intrude on her life by choice, even saying his name.

“I don’t want you to think of him when you look at me.”

“I don’t.”

“But sometimes you do.”

“No, it’s not like that.”

“Then what is it like?”

“John please…”

“I’m not… I’m not angry, Anna. Truly, I’m not. But I’m just trying to understand. So that I can help you.”

Anna sat for a while, her hand lay quiet, covered by John’s big one.

“There are sometimes things which, for some reason, make me feel like it’s all happening again. Like I’m back there, with him, and he’s… like it’s all about to happen again.”

“Can you tell me what any of these things are?”

“I can tell you some things. But… ”

“But what?”

“I’m worried that they might upset you. I’ve told you so little. Partly because I didn’t want to tell you anything at first. And then it got easier to say nothing after a while. But it’s not nothing in my head.”

She sat quietly for a while longer, her cider untouched.

“Anna… love … I know these things might upset me. I can’t promise to not be upset. But I have to know what they are, if it will help me to be with you, without making you feel like that again.”

“I know.”

She took a sip and turned her hand over, to link her fingers in his.

“Now that I’ve calmed down, I know what it was last night, that set me off.”

“Was it when I came up behind you?”

“Yes.”

“Because you didn’t hear me walk up to you?”

“Partly. You made me jump, which … sort of shocks me. It’s like my heart and blood start going at a hundred miles an hour. Like when you touch something hot unexpectedly. That sort of jolt.”

“Was there something else?” John spoke gently but had to know more.

Anna’s reply was so soft that he couldn’t even stoop to catch it.

“What was that my love?”

She looked up into his face, her features white and strained, clearly in pain from even thinking about the memory.

“He was stood behind me. When he…” she bit her lip and paused. Shook her head and took another drink, starting again. “He was stood behind me. When he took me. That’s how he did it. How he ripped my dress. His hands were around my front and when I struggled, he ripped my dress.”

“So when I walked up behind you, and you felt me standing there…”

“I know it was you John. I know it wasn’t him. But in my head everything just went wrong and I…”

Tears slid down Anna’s cheeks, her eyes screwed up.

“it’s alright love. Look at me. Please, Anna, look at me.”

Opening her eyes, Anna met his. Red, streaming, but awake and with him.

“It’s alright. You’ve told me now. And I won’t ever do that again.”

Her shoulders heaved. John gripped her hand, longing to take her in his arms, but fearful of drawing further attention to her. He reached across with his left hand, stroking her face softly, wiping away her tears.

With a huge shaking breath, Anna managed to re-compose herself. She tugged her hand away to rummage in her bag for a clean hankie.

John took a mouthful of his own drink, staying studiously calm. Lucky for Green that he was already dead. If he weren’t, he would be soon after such an admission from Anna.

“Are you angry with me?”

“Whatever for?”

“You look angry.”

“My love, I would be angry with anyone who ever hurt you. Whether they were alive or dead. But… he has had his comeuppance. He’s gone. Forever. And now you are my only concern.”

Anna dug deep and found a smile.

“Do I look dreadful?”

“You look beautiful. You look like my brave, beautiful, wonderful wife.”

Anna reached back across the table, taking his hand again. Some of the strain around her shoulders and eyes had gone. Perhaps she was right, John thought. It would be better to talk some of this out, to get it all out before it ate them away to shreds.

“This morning was different though.”

John snapped out of his reverie.

“Hmm?”

“This morning,” Anna smiled at him. “That was lovely.”

The memory of his wife’s sweetness and her happy response to his touch was a tender one for John.

“Perhaps… you could tell me what I did right?”

Anna bit her lip, a becoming blush staining her cheeks.

“I knew it was you.” She said simply.

“How?”

“I could hear your voice. I could see you.”

“Those things help?”

“Yes…” Anna giggled softly, dimpling a little. “Sorry, I just can’t believe we’re having this conversation in public.”

John smiled, glanced around. They were the only people sat outside of the pub. No-one else was around to listen.

“I doubt anyone other than me would be interested in your thoughts on this topic.”

Anna wrinkled her nose at him, finishing her drink. She looked much better now

“Anna, I know there will be more things to talk about in all of this. I don’t doubt that. But … I won’t ask. You tell me what you can, when you can. I can’t promise to be perfectly calm. But I will listen. And I will promise never to blame you. You are not responsible for any of this. Agreed?”

“Agreed.”

“Now, would you like another drink?”

“No, or you’ll be carrying me home.”

“I wouldn’t mind that.”

Another smile.

“Let’s go back, John.”

“Come on, then.”


Chapter 10: Chapter 10


The rain Hetty had predicted caught up with them at the bridge. There was no way to run without slipping in the mud, so they plodded on getting steadily wetter.

By the time they reached the porch, they were soaked through.

“Do you think Bill would mind if we drew a bath?” Anna wrung her hair out as much as she could as John opened the door.

“Bill won’t mind at all!”

A deep chuckle came from the kitchen. They turned to see Bill himself sat at the end of the table, a plate in front of him with the remnants of a slice of cake and an empty tea mug.

“Y’poor devils, I thought you might get caught in that. Good walk though?”

“Great walk, right up until the first raindrop” John tipped the water from his hat out of the door, closing it behind him.

“Water’s hot, and there’s plenty of it. Bath’s upstairs, you can fill it from the geysers, no need for lugging pans up and down.”

Bill heaved himself to his feet and knocked his pipe remnants out into a big clay ashtray.

“You’re not going back out in that?”

“Aye, lots to do lad, I’ll be in the sheds for the worst of it though.”

“Has Hetty gone?”

“Aye, but she’s left you a tray for tea.” Bill motioned to a covered tray over beside the range. “Tell you what, make up a pot and take it up with you. Mug o’ tea, bit of cake and a bath will do you both good. Have a nap to if you want. I’ll see you at 8 for dinner.”

Dusting himself off, Bill shrugged into his great coat and reached for an old sou’wester as Anna bustled to fill the teapot from the kettle on the range. On his way out the door, Bill stopped close to John and dropped his voice.

“Sleep alright last night?”

“Perfectly, thank you Bill.”

“And… no cherry cravings?”

John understood his meaning.

“I noticed it was gone. And it’s best gone. But I won’t go looking for it.”

“I’m sure you won’t. You needed to unwind last night, but that’s done now,” Bill grinned toothily.

“Right… these horses won’t groom themselves. I’ll see you both later.”

Anna swirled the water in the pot and spooned in some tea.

“Do you want the first bath or second?” asked John.

Anna grinned widely at him.

“Who said anything about taking turns?”

Taking up the tray, she walked upstairs, swaying her hips just so to turn John’s stomach and make his heart thump faster beneath his damp shirt.

“Don’t forget your towel Mr Bates,” she threw back over her shoulder.

Loosening his tie, John followed behind her with much haste.


Chapter 11: Chapter 11


 

By the time John entered the bathroom in his robe, complete with towels, Anna was perched on the wooden chair beside the enormous copper bath, wrapped in her own robe, nibbling a slice of fruit cake. Her damp hair was piled up on her hair and tied loosely, some waves of it escaping down over her shoulders.

Mouth filled with cake, she pointed down to the floor, where two large mugs of tea and another slice of cake, along with some chocolate coated biscuits, waited.

The geysers were gushing into the bath, which was filling at an impressive rate.

John settled on the floor and helped himself to a biscuit.

“Do you think we can convince Lord Robert to get one of these for the attics, to save the maids hauling up buckets of water from the kitchen for their baths?”

“Mrs Patmore would have a fit.”

“Oh I don’t know, if it got people out of her kitchen, she might embrace it!”

“Mrs Patmore, embrace the future? Never. And I can’t see Mr Carson approving.”

“You never know,” Anna brushed the crumbs off her lips and leaned forward to check the water temperature. As she did, her robe fell open slightly, allowing John a glimpse of a gently sloping breast.

Sweet heat seeped into his veins, his stomach churning with desire. Despite sharing their cottage for a while, he and Anna had never taken a bath together. For one thing, their old tin bath was too small and heating the water took an age, which rather stripped the romance out of the idea.

But here… with privacy, an enormous bath, time and hot water a plenty… John shivered with delight at the idea of what awaited him.

The bath was about two thirds full.

“Better stop there, or we’ll flood the place!” Anna reached for the taps and turned to face John.

“So.”

“So?”

“How do you want to do this?”

John wrestled with an idea. Prior to their conversation this afternoon, he would have suggested that she lay back against his chest, but that didn’t seem like such a good idea any longer. The last thing he wanted was to make her feel uncomfortable.

“Perhaps, we should sit facing each other?”

Anna smiled at him, loving him all the more for his understanding.

“Let’s give it a try. You get in first, so you don’t slip trying to take the weight off your knee.”

Settling back into the warm water, John relaxed and watched Anna disrobe, her back to him. He groaned inwardly as she reached up to unclasp her hair, the perfect line of her back and neck a beautiful sight to him. He longed to reach out and touch her, but knew that he mustn’t. She turned to face him, her hair spilling over her shoulders.

“God you are so beautiful…”

Anna dimpled as his compliment.

John reached out a hand to steady her as she stepped into the water, looking like a Goddess from some ancient painting.

“Oooh, it’s lovely. I’ve never had a bath so hot before.”

As she settled in opposite him, with a little fidgeting, they managed to sit comfortably.

Anna sighed with relief.

John reached over the edge for his cup of tea.

“This has to be the height of luxury. Afternoon tea in the bath.”

Anna giggled, snagging a biscuit.

“We must remember this for our days off.”

“What a charming idea.”

The chocolate biscuit melted in the steaming heat above the water. Anna crunched it up, licking the chocolate from her thumb.

“May I?”

Relieved of his tea cup and feeling wicked, John reached out for her hand, gently sucking the chocolate from her fingertips.

Anna’s eyes widened.

John’s blood stirred, the warm water and his wife’s naked proximity, working a spell upon him.

“Why Mr Bates… ”

“Yes dear?”

“I do believe you are hoping to get lucky in this bath?”

“Now wouldn’t that be a new addition to the height of luxury?”

Anna giggled sweetly, gently splashing him with water.

Bates growled softly at her. “Now don’t start that game, or we will flood Bill’s bathroom…”

He splashed her in return, reaching over to tap her nose as she gave a happy shriek.

“John?”

“Yes dear?”

“I’m getting cramp in my legs. Could I turn around and lean against you?”

“Are you sure you will be alright?”

“Yes. Because it’s my decision. Not a surprise.”

Nodding, John understood a little more. A lot of Anna’s issues came down to her control over the situation. It was all about choices.

Helping her to stand and turn around, he sat up, giving her more room. Slowly, she settled back against him, his arm around her waist, her head pillowed against his shoulder.

“Is that nice?”

“Mmmmm…”

He leaned around to kiss her cheek.

“You have gone pink in the face, darling.”

“I wonder what could have caused that?” she teased, stroking a hand down his thigh. John gasped, the sensation of his wife’s nimble fingers stroking against his leg in the hot water suddenly intensely erotic.

“Do YOU like that?”

“Oh yes… very much so…”

Snuggling back against him, Anna twisted to look up at him.

“You little minx…”

“Am I being wicked?”

“Oh yes…”

“Should I stop?”

“No…”

John was almost beyond words, as Anna’s hand played up and down his leg, the sensation of her naked body moving against his was exquisite.

His own hand started to play around her waist. She gasped.

“Is that nice?”

“Yes…”

“Remember, if you want me to stop…”

“I know John. But I don’t…”

Gently, John slid his hand down to tease against her thigh. Anna wriggled, burrowing back against him. As his fingers slid around to the delicate skin inside her legs she moaned softly.

“Is that alright?”

“Yes… it’s… intense…”

“Should I stop?”

“No…”

Slowly, rippling the water to enhance the sensation, John played his fingertips up the inside of her leg, stroking, gently tickling. She giggled and gasped as he played against her. His other arm propped her up, under her arm, holding her safely in the water. She linked her fingers with hers.

“Oh John…”

His fingers brushed against the entrance to her sex. Already warm and swollen from the water, her folds admitted his touch easily, willingly.

Another soft moan felt from Anna’s lips. Her head tipped back against his shoulder, pressing back against him, rubbing the whole of her body against him.

“Do you want more, my darling?”

“Yes… Oh God yes…”

Rather than sliding a finger further into her, John stroked a fingertip against the little bud of nerves just above the entrance to her sex. The effect upon Anna was spectacular.

“Oh… Oh John… what are you… oh…”

Stroking two fingers against her, one on either side, John found just the right rhythm as Anna strained back against him, her breath rising hotter which each groan. Her hand clutched at his thigh, kneading.

“Ah…!”

With a final gasp as John’s fingertips squeezed gently at the core of her sex, Anna climaxed, her body stiffening back against him. John held her tight, willing his own blood to calm down, to stop racing with need of her. This was her turn. He could wait.

“Did you like that my darling?”

“You… you weren’t even inside me… How did you…?”

“Shhhh… It’s alright love.”

Anna turned to face him. “That was amazing. I didn’t know that it could feel like that, without you being inside me.”

John smiled down at her.

“Neither did I, to be honest. But your reaction spoke for itself.”

“Well… make sure you remember that one!”

John would. And did. This holiday had been exactly what they had needed, he thought. Perhaps this was what most couples found about each other when they had honeymoons. One night in a guest room at Downton Abbey had been lovely, but hadn’t really given them much time to find out what each other liked in their intimacy together.

He was glad to know that he could bring Anna such pleasure and joy with such a delicate touch. Early on in their second courtship, Anna had shown a great distaste for sex. The act of having someone else become part of her was too invasive. Too intense to cope with. This had lead to a long wait before they were able to re-consummate their relationship.

If only he’d known there were other ways. But perhaps this would have been too intimate for her too. It didn’t matter though. They had found each other now.

Anna shifted away. John groaned in protest.

“The water’s beginning to cool. We’ll be all wrinkly.”

“Somehow, I don’t care.”

“You rest a bit longer then…” she climbed out gently, wrapping herself in a soft towel.

John gazed at her wistfully.

“You are you know…”

“Am what?”

“Beautiful.”


Chapter 12: Chapter 12


 

“And then he turns to me and says – ‘Bill, why do you look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards?'”

The laughter rang around the table and echoed off the walls. Anna wiped her eyes with mirth and longed to stay at this friendly place forever so that Bill could make her laugh herself well.

John finally admitted defeat over the remains his second piece of chicken and ham pie. He’d already eaten his way through a mountain of new potatoes, peas, carrots and a delicious cream and wine sauce, and there were scones over on the cooling rack with a jug of whipped cream standing next to them which promised to make an appearance on the table any time soon.

“So… have you thought of any plans for tomorrow? Sun might come out a bit, although the lane’s fairly muddy, but the worst of the rain has passed.”

Anna looked to John. They hadn’t really discussed any further plans.

“Bit stumped?”

“You could say that,” John gave a wry smile. “It’s … more difficult for me to go walking in muddy conditions.”

Bill smiled and said nothing.

“Well … there’s the parlour here, if you’d like to have a day indoors instead? I’m not much of a reader, but me wife was, and all her books are still there. I always hoped William would take after her for book learning, but he wanted to be out with the horses all the time.”

John’s face brightened at the prospect of a new library to explore as Bill carried on talking.”

“…or we can always arrange a riding lesson, if you’d like something more active.”

“Oh!”

Anna’s face had brightened immediately. John was surprised.

“I didn’t know you could ride.”

“I can’t. I mean, that is, I haven’t. Not since I was a tiny thing, and I don’t think sitting on the back of a shire horse counts.”

Bill chuckled as he stood up to fetch the scones and cream.

“Aye lass, not so much riding as sitting on a great sofa that moves about.”

“But I always wanted chance to have a go.”

Anna met John’s eyes.

“Would you mind?”

His face softened. Much as he would miss his wife’s company, he loved to see her enjoy herself. This would be no different to watching her dance.

“You could always bring a book and sit out if you like John, there’s rugs and an old chair or two in the stables, and the paddock is right behind them. I’ll have a word with young Ned if you like Anna, he can saddle up little Merrylegs, she’s a steady little dappled grey. He’ll lead you round on a rope, get you used to it.”

“Well,” John reached for his wife’s hand with a smile. “That’s settled then.”

When John woke the next morning, Anna was already up and rummaging through her packed clothes.

“What are you doing love?”

“I’m not sure any of this is going to work.”

“Work for what?”

“Riding… all my skirts are a bit narrow. I don’t want to rip them.”

Anna didn’t have many fine dresses, and like any woman she’d packed her best to come on holiday. She looked so disappointed that John’s next suggestion was voiced before he could think twice about it.

“You could wear something of mine.”

Anna’s expression was scandalised.

“What… wear trousers?”

“Why not?”

“Well! It’s not exactly ladylike, John!”

“But practical. And comfortable. And far more ladylike than ripping your skirt open.”

“I’m not sure I’d have the nerve.”

“Lady Sybil did once, remember?”

“That’s true…”

Anna remembered helping the bold young woman dress herself in the long, Arabian style trousers for dinner one night, eagerly anticipating the stir they would cause among the family.

“How did you know about that? You didn’t see her…”

“No…” John smiled to himself. “But I assisted Lord Grantham getting ready for bed that night and it was all he could talk about. ‘Scandalous… Preposterous…Why wasn’t he consulted…'”

His impression of Lord Grantham made Anna giggle.

“And anyway, some women do wear trousers. There was a picture in Harper’s Bazaar of that designer wearing trousers, Coco something or other…”

“Coco Chanel?”

“The very one.”

“I didn’t know you had been stealing my copies of Harper’s Bazaar, Mr Bates!” Lady Mary was good enough to pass them on to Anna once she had read them to death. Being a few months behind fashion didn’t bother Anna, as her clothes mostly came second hand from Lady Mary anyway. John was right, there had been a feature about Coco wearing trousers, for riding no less. Anna smiled, becoming more at ease with the idea.

“Well, I have to keep up with my gorgeous fashion conscious wife somehow.”

“Get away, y’daft begger. Alright. If I did wear them, how would I keep them up?”

“I’m sure Bill or Hetty has some string lying around that we can tie them up with.”

Anna pealed with laughter at the thought.

“What on earth would Lady Mary think if she saw me dressed like that?”

Bates leaned over out of bed to steal a kiss from his lovely wife.

“Here, let me get dressed first, and I will go and investigate.”

Hetty looked twice, but only twice, when Anna eventually emerged for breakfast. She had guessed something was up when Mr Bates had asked her for some strong string and Bill had already mentioned that Anna was going out for a lesson with young Ned.

“Well, Mrs Bates, look at you! All set for riding, and rightly so, why any woman wants to be ripping fine skirts to shreds on the back of a horse makes no sense to me.”

“Morning Hetty.”

“There’s sausages and bacon in the warming dish, toast coming right up!”

“It feels ever so strange wearing this John.”

Dressed in John’s tweeds, Anna did look a little strange. The waist was gathered and secured with string, the legs rolled up to account for John’s far greater height. Wearing a sturdy cotton blouse and cardigan the colour of summer wheat, she looked the picture of a healthy country girl.

“You look beautiful, as always. And I shall look forward to seeing you ride.”

“I might fall off.”

“Oh, don’t you worry about that lovie,” Hetty bustled over with the toast rack and a fresh pot of tea. “Ned’s a good lad, he’ll make little Merrylegs go slowly for you. And anyways, worst that happens is you dust off and get back on straight away. No sense letting an upset stop you getting on with the things you want in life.”

As she returned to peeling her potatoes, John and Anna shared a secret smile across the table. Hetty spoke more truly than she would ever know

The day was bright, as Bill had promised. John made himself at home in a folding chair, to one side of the paddock, along side the wicker basket full of sandwiches that Hetty had made up for them. His book, a copy of The Three Musketeers purloined from Bill’s parlour, lay almost untouched in his lap. There was more than enough happening to occupy his attention.

“Tha’s it Mrs Bates, you’ve got it!”

Anna had proved to be as much a natural at horse riding as dancing. In a short time she had mastered the art of holding herself in the saddle and now Ned was showing her how to trot, as he stood in the paddock with Merrylegs tethered to a long rope, guiding her around in a circle.

Merrylegs was a lovely little horse. Small, stocky, with a silvery dappled grey coat, her temperament was delightful, obedient and responsive with just a pinch of naughty charm. Anna laughed as the little beast tossed its head, wanting to go faster. A perfect match for her rider.

John loved to watch his wife laugh. Even the sound of her voice, filled with joy and free of care, was a tonic for him. It made him realise how scarce her laughter had become during recent years at Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey. It was like a ghost hanging over their shoulders. The knowledge that they had to go back at the weekend. He and Anna had not even attempted a discussion about their employment and home and the affect it was currently having on her health. Perhaps tomorrow, if they could have some time alone…

“Book not holding your attention, John?”

John turned to see Bill standing behind the gate, leaning on a pitchfork, straw hat askew.

“I haven’t read this for years. Not since I was a boy.”

“But there’s someone more charming that Milady to hold yer attention now, eh?” Bill grinned, looking away to watch Anna, still riding in circles.

“You could say that.”

“How is she? She looks better than when you arrived.”

Bill didn’t beat about the bush.

“She is better. Since she’s been here. When we have time to be together and make things right between us.”

“Are you worried about going back?”

John wondered whether Bill was a clairvoyant. A son of the earth, who could read the clouds and the patterns of the wind in his crops and judge the temperament of his animals from twenty paces, it would not have surprised him at all if Bill could read the minds of his fellow humans as well.

“It has crossed my mind that going back may bring her back into shadows.”

“Hmmmm.”

“I haven’t seen her laugh like this in years.”

“That’s years too long, lad. Far too long. This Downton, it’s a sound place and your employers sound like good people from what you’ve said, and what Daisy and William told me in the past. But it has a way of keeping people, long after its done with them.”

John wondered if that was true. It was difficult for people to break away from Downton. Looking at Thomas, and Branson. Both of whom had left and returned. Not to mention his own patchy history of leaving and returning.

“Was Downton always the long term plan for yer both?”

“It was… until we met and found each other.”

“And then?”

Bill came through the gate and crouched next to John.

“We had talked of a different future. Of buying a hotel, or maybe a guest house. Something we could run together, when we… when we wanted to start a family.”

“Got a bit of cash spare for it?”

“My mother left me a house, in London.”

“Hooo, right! That’ll raise a fair bit to buy a place up here, London prices are always higher than the north,” Bill slapped his leg as he guffawed.

“John, I try not to poke me nose in too much, but I do a fair bit o’ plain speaking when need arises. And I will say this. If you both have a plan where you can be together, and happy, and where she can be free o’whatever stops her laughing like this, with roses in her cheeks… you might want to ask yerselves, when are you going to put that plan into action?”

Bill’s china blue eyes felt as though they were boring right into the back of John’s mind. John realised he had been carrying the question around with him all morning, and now it had been couched in Bill’s own plain words.

“Jes’ something to think about. Right, I’d best get on. I’ll see you at supper,” Bill stood, dusting off his trousers, recollecting his pitch fork. “That’s enough Ned!” he called. “First lessons should be kept short.”

Merrylegs drew to a reluctant halt, Anna’s own face echoed her disappointment.

“Trust me lass, you’ll be stiff tomorrow if you ride for much longer. ”

Anna knew Bill spoke the truth and reluctantly climbed down from her saddle. She smiled over at John, with eyes so bright they could have rivalled the sun in his own.

“You look comfortable.”

“I am. And you looked like you were having fun.”

“I was. And now I am again,” Anna reached for John’s hand and leaned down for a kiss.

“Would you care to join me for our picnic lunch?”

Anna brushed back her hair from her face, her cheeks glowing with fresh air and exercise.

“Alright then. I’ll just go and find a chair.”

John watched her go, marveling at how athletic and simply gorgeous she looked in his ridiculous trousers. She might well set the fashion for women yet…


Chapter 13: Chapter 13


“Don’t you want to go back to Downton?”

“That’s not really the question my dear. The question is, do you?”

They sat in companionable silence for a while. Their sandwiches were finished, the grease proof paper folded neatly in the basket, ready to take back inside for Hetty.

“I’d not really thought about it.”

“Not once?”

“Well not since…” Anna’s voice trailed off.

“Not since what?”

“Not since you and I talked about buying the hotel. All those years ago.”

John fell silent. He and Anna hadn’t talked about that plan since that one conversation in the servants’ hall. The night when he had asked her to marry him. The night Vera had arrived and blackmailed him to go away.

“You haven’t talked about it since.”

“Well neither have you.”

Which was true.

“It felt… a little like bad luck. After everything that happened that night. What with you leaving.” Anna bit her lip, aware of how long this conversation had hung in the back of her memory. She remembered the incredible happiness that had infused her during that conversation, when John had mentioned his plan for the hotel, wanting to have a family with her, to raise their children together. But the memories had been soured with the events which had followed the next day, when he had left her.

“Do you still like the idea?”

Anna looked up suddenly.

“Like the idea? John, I’d LOVE the idea…”

“Then why didn’t you say?”

“Well, why didn’t YOU? It was your idea in the first place. I thought what had changed your mind.”

Anna looked as though she had been suffused with hope.

“Well,” John said gently. “I’m saying it now.”

“Could we do it?”

“It would take some planning. And we’d need to sell the house in London, release the capital. Then we could start looking for somewhere to buy.”

“Would you want to go back to London?”

“After getting used to villages like Downton, and places like this?” John smiled, gesturing about their surroundings. “Besides, you’re a real country girl. You like your trips up to London, but you’re at home here, really, aren’t you?”

Anna smiled, her cheeks pink and glowing, the strain visibly fallen away from her face.

“I do like this life. I thought sometimes…”

“You thought what?”

“Well,” Anna settled back, reaching for his hand. “I thought… if we did get our own place in the future, that it might be nice for us to keep some of our own hens. Have our own eggs, perhaps. Maybe even grow some vegetables. Or fruit…”

John was charmed that she had put so much thought into the idea.

“We could put it up on the sign. Fresh local produce for breakfast…”

“Oh my darling…”

“You like the idea?”

“I love the idea. But I love the fact that you love it even more. You look so… alive.”

“Have I not been alive?”

“Not like this. Not since…”

“…him.”

“But now he’s gone,” John said firmly, swatting away the dark clouds that threatened to gather over their sunny conversation.

Anna’s eyes grew far away for a second.

“How quickly could we do it?”

“Hard to say. We could make a beginning as soon as you like. I’ll walk to the village tomorrow, book a telephone call at the post office to the bank and see how our accounts stand. I’d have to go up to London to see about putting the house on the market, but I would write to a couple of estate agents this week, make some inquiries…”

“Do you think we’d have trouble selling?”

“Unlikely. A house that size, in good condition. We could sell it furnished, there’s not much in the house I’d want to keep. Unless you’d…?”

Anna shook her head.

“We’d… we’d have to go back, in the mean time.”

“I think… it would be better. If I knew we were planning to leave.”

“You mean that? You’re not just saying that?”

“No… I’m not. I think… part of what’s been so … difficult about all this has been the idea that we’d be stuck there. Forever. Neither of us had mentioned the idea of the hotel for so long. I thought you’d given up on it. And … I knew we were unlikely to get another position together, not as Valet and Lady’s Maid.”

John fell quiet, on instinct.

Anna continued, almost speaking to herself as much as to John.

“I love Downton Abbey. I really do. It’s been my home since I left Mum. It’s given me everything. A job. A home.” She met John’s eyes and squeezed his hand. “Even you. I never thought I’d be married. I thought I’d be in service. Maybe become a housekeeper somewhere one day.”

“You still could be. If you wanted to.”

“But I don’t. That’s the thing. Meeting you changed all the colour of my life. Showed me what love could be. I never thought… I never thought I’d find someone who made me happy. Who wanted all the same things in life as me. Downton gave me all that. It seemed selfish to want to turn away from it. From Mrs Hughes, who’s been so kind. From Lady Mary. Even from Lord Grantham, who’s been so kind to you.”

“You felt you owed them?”

“Yes. In a way. I think I did.”

Her eyes clouded over.

“But, it took so much from me…”

“Oh my darling…”

“I thought it would always be safe. And then it wasn’t.”

“Come here…”

John wrapped her into his arms, as she cried gently.

“I’m so tired of crying…”

“You’ve been strong for so long my darling, it’s alright. Take your time.”

A minute or two later, she raised her head.

“Would you mind about leaving Downton?”

“I’ve left it for worse reasons.”

“Truly?”

“Truly. Downton has given me a lot too. A second chance. A fresh start. A place to finally be free of my past. Rebuild myself into the sort of man I wanted to be. A man half way to being worthy of you.” He kissed the back of her hand, stroked a finger over her wedding ring.

“But I would be taking the best part of Downton with me.”

“Come now. You don’t mean that.”

“I mean every word. You were my first friend here. My best friend here. And if you’re coming with me, there’s nothing else I fear to leave behind.”

“But Lord Grantham…”

“…has been a gracious and kind employer. I would miss working for him. But I would rather work with you. For us. For our family, should we be blessed with one.”

“When we are blessed with one.”

Anna’s face radiated kindness and strength. She looked so much like the brave and sparky little housemaid he had first met when he came to Downton, that all at once John was overcome with the need to kiss her. Leaning closer, his fingers gently slipped behind her head, pulling her closer, relishing the feel of her soft sigh as their lips met.

“So it’s settled then? Tomorrow you’ll book the phone call, set everything in motion.”

“If you like.”

“Oh, I like. I like very much.”

“Would you like to come with me?”

“Alright then. Perhaps we could ask Hetty for a picnic, go for a walk once you’ve finished the call and find somewhere pretty to sit and eat.” Her hand rested on his good knee, and her eyes flared with mischief. “Somewhere private…”

John’s blood soared at the look in her eyes. Was she really suggesting…?

“Anna May Bates, you naughty girl…!”

She winked at him, her nose wrinking in such a cute fashion that he had to kiss her again.

“Ahhh, young love!”

Bill’s voice sounded behind them, they jumped apart like naughty teenagers discovered together.

“Don’t mind me, the pair of you, does me good to see you both happy.”

“We are Bill. Very much so.”

“I’m headed in for a brew, if you’d like to come in for one? Time for a break.”

“Why not?”

Gathering up their chairs and baskets, they headed inside, listening to Bill chat about the morning’s work. Overhead, the clouds parted, and the sun truly began to shine.


Chapter 14: Chapter 14


 

 

The sun was beating down hard, a stark contrast to the rainstorm of their first day. English springtime had gifted them with a day stolen from early summer. Anna was grateful for the shade provided by her straw hat, protecting her eyes from the glare.

She sat on the small bench outside the post office, waiting for John to return. She hoped he would be able to book a call to London while they were here. It was so much easier to have these discussions and make their plans when they had time to relax and be together. Their spare time at Downton was so rare as to be discounted, as they were often so tired and worn out once those days arrived that they were fit for nothing serious.

The bell clinked as the door opened and Anna turned to see John smiling at her.

He looked so much better dressed for the country, in a casual brown suit, with no waistcoat and a handkerchief knotted around his neck in lieu of a tie. His face had colour in it, and the dark shadows of exhaustion and strain under his eyes had faded away.

“All booked,” he said, retrieving his wife’s hand and tucking it into his arm, a beaming smile beautifying his face. “For Friday morning.”

“Oh thank goodness. I was so afraid we’d have to wait until we got home. Which calls did you book?”

“Two. One to the bank, one to the letting agent who is taking care of the house. They will be able to let us know how things stand. And,” he rummaged inside his coat, “I got us this.” He waved a copy of The Yorkshire Post. “The post office woman said this was the place to check listings for properties for sale.”

His thoughtfulness and foresight was rewarded with a warm and loving kiss.

“So, shall we go?”

Gathering up their basket and folded blanket, they set off for the bus stop to catch the local service out into the surrounding area.

The perfect picnic spot was just as Bill had described to John. A sheltered knook, away from the road, down towards one of the little streams. Surrounded by weeping willows, they were quite screened from view and unlikely to encounter any passers by.

Spreading out the blanket, Anna knelt down and began to unpack the basket. A thermos of tea, a small bottle of milk and two mugs and a wide array of delicious farm made picnic food.

“Mrs Patmore will be jealous if we let on how well we have been looked after,” John sank his teeth into a delicious wedge of pork pie.

Anna nodded, brushing the crumbs of her cheese and pickle sandwich from her lips. “I suggest we don’t tell her. Just to be on the safe side.”

“We should learn how to make some of this ourselves. Unless you’d rather we hire a cook?”

“I’m not much of a cook myself,” Anna admitted. “I can manage stew, and simple things like sausages. But I can’t imagine making my own pies and cakes and what not.”

“I used to be good at pastry,” John admitted. “Thought I must admit, I feel it would be bad luck to make any of it after Vera’s little schemes. I was used to peeling vegetables. Especially potatoes. But you’d expect that growing up in an Irish household.”

“Perhaps we should look for a cook. For the sake of our guests. Do you think Daisy might take the job?”

“I think she’s saving up to bring a stake here, to join Bill.”

“Shame. It would have been nice to work with a friend.”

“We’ll make new friends.”

Anna beamed. It was so good to hear John say such things. She knew he could be quite content in his own world, with just her for company, but she knew she would miss the more social elements of a big house like Downton Abbey if they moved on.

When they moved on. Things were in motion now.

John finished the last of his chocolate cake and lay back on the blanket, his hat tipped over his eyes.

“Don’t you dare go to sleep, you…” Anna prodded him, making him jump. “We get few enough dates, I’m not letting you sleep through one.”

Tilting his hat to look up at her, John gave her a wicked grin. “And how are you planning to keep me awake?”

“With salacious conversation for starters…”

Intrigued, John rolled over, propped up on one elbow. “That sounds interesting…”

“Well I’ve been thinking,” said Anna, nibbling at one corner of her lip, suddenly shy, but aware that she had started this conversation. “This holiday… it’s been the first time we’ve found out much about each other in terms of what we like… intimate, like.”

John’s eyes narrowed in pleasure as his grin widened. This was exactly the sort of conversation that would keep him wide awake.

“Go on…”

“And so I was thinking… whether there was anything else you wanted to try. Something that you’d thought of, and maybe not wanted to say about. While I was… well, while I was ill.”

John’s heart thumped in his chest. There was many things he longed to try with his wife. As a young man in London, and then in the army in the company of some rather randy soldiers with a penchant for drink, he’d heard of many things which caught his attention and fired his imagination. But he wasn’t at all sure that Anna would be interested in them.

Not least because he was afraid to upset her. To do something which would unsettle her, lead to one of her attacks of nerves, or set her back in her recovery.

“I think… my dear… it’s better if you tell me whether you had anything in mind, yourself.”

“I don’t know…” Anna’s face blushed crimson. “I feel … so uneducated about all this.”

“Why?”

“Well … take the other day. In the bath.”

John’s colour rose around the neck of his shirt even thinking about that experience.

“It were wonderful. Really… really wonderful. I love how you make me feel. But… you seem to know more about my body than I do. I’ve no idea what makes me feel nice or not, what to suggest. What to try. I didn’t know I could feel like that, just from a touch.”

“All of this is about learning together, Anna.”

“I know. I know. But sometimes I feel like you’ve got a head start on me. And that must play on your imagination more than mine. And everything you do feels so nice… it makes me wonder what else you think of.”

Despite his efforts to remain calm, John’s imagination ran riot. Stories he had heard of wild women, and women driven wild, and all the things they could do together…But would his suggestion upset her?

“John?”

Anna’s cheeks were scarlet with nerves and embarrassment. Bless her, she was being so brave. He owed her the same courtesy and honesty.

“There are one or two things. Things I’ve never done before, but heard about, found interesting. But… I fear to mention them.”

“Why?”

“Because … taken in the wrong way, they could upset you.”

“How?”

John thought rapidly and chose his words with extreme care. It was so important that he got his phrasing and explanation right here. Otherwise he risked ruining what was turning into a very pleasant day.

“I have heard that when… that when a woman can’t see what her husband is doing to her, if her eyes are covered, it can increase her pleasure. Make the feelings more intense for her. And the same vice versa.”

Already Anna’s face was closing over, memories of another night where she could not see and was not in control rising up like ghosts in the mist.

“But we don’t have to do that, if you don’t want to. I don’t want to make you feel unsafe.”

Anna turned aside for a moment, before looking back, her eyes clear.

“If we did that…”

Oh my God.

“…would I be able to hear you? Would you talk to me, tell me it was you, before you did anything?”

“Of course…”

“You promise?”

“Yes, with all my heart.”

“What else did you have in mind?”

God this woman was so brave. So open minded. How could he have found such a willing partner? In everything they did together.

“Anna, you know how sometimes, waiting for something and the act of wanting it and not being able to have it can make the realisation even better?”

“Yes…?”

“And… you know how, when we’re together, when I’m… giving you pleasure, you want to touch me, and sometimes you distract me when you do?”

Anna smiled shyly.

“It’s not my fault John, I can’t keep my hands off you.”

“I know. It’s just … what if I were to make you keep your hands off me? Make you wait to touch me. If your hands were bound…not too tightly, just… enough to hold them still?”

Anna’s eyes widened and her breath turned sharper.

“I don’t know…”

That’s not a No.

“Like I said, we don’t have to…”

“No … I think I would like to try that.”

John’s legs turned weak, he was mightily relieved to be lying flat.

“Really?”

Anna smiled, nervous, but so obviously aroused that his throat turned dry.

“Yes… I think so.”

“Well… when?”

“Now?”

Oh Christ.

“Come here…”

John held out his arms for her to come and settle beside him on the rug, his heart pounding in his chest. Was this really happening? Was he about to wake up?

“There’s no rush Anna… slow and steady remember?”

“I know…”

“And the minute you say the word ‘Stop’, I will.”

Leaning over her, John’s lips met hers, gentle at first, but so eagerly welcomed that the embrace soon turned passionate. Anna’s fingers curled into the front of his shirt as his arms bound her close to him.

Trailing kisses down to her neck, left tantalizingly bare by her up-swept hair, John murmured against her skin.

“Which shall we try?”

“My eyes…?”

“Alright…”

Loosening the large neckerchief, John folded it, placing it around Anna’s eyes as though they were about to play blind man’s buff. Laying her down on the ground, he spoke softly into her ear.

“How do you feel?”

“Alright… I think…”

Gently, John stroked one hand over the curve of her breast, down across her stomach.

“What about when I do this?”

“That’s nice…”

His fingertips played around her hips.

“Perhaps I haven’t mentioned this before, Mrs Bates, but you have a beautiful figure…”

Anna gasped slightly as his fingers trailed back up over her ribcage to trace along the neckline of her dress.

“So beautiful… that even when we’re at work, when you’re in your uniform, and we’re busy about our tasks, that I can’t stop thinking of you, of running my hands over you, like this…”

John lightly drew his fingertips down over the sides of her body, feeling Anna shiver beneath his touch.

“Did you always think about me?”

“Always…”

“Even when we first met…?”

Being blindfolded had made Anna brave; brave enough to ask all the questions that had played on her mind for years. Her inhibitions were falling away. John’s hands shook with excitement.

“Oh love, I thought about you all the time… I tried not to, tried not to do you the disservice of being taken for misused by my imagination… but there were times when I couldn’t help it…”

“What did you imagine?”

“I imagined getting you alone somewhere, hidden from view…” his hands drew up over her body to the front of her pretty green dress, to the inviting little buttons which fastened it all the way down the front.

“…then slowly, kissing you…” John stole a quick kiss from her lips, just enough to tease her “and taking you in my arms… unbuttoning your dress, that lovely demure little maid’s uniform you used to wear…”

Slowly, with trembling fingers, John began to unbutton Anna’s dress. She gasped as his fingers stroked across the front of her breasts, over the silky little chemise she wore beneath it.

No corset. Had she planned for something like this? Even the thought of it make John burn with desire.

“I thought of how wonderful it would be, to be able to kiss you, not just your lips, but all over your body…”

Gently, John littered hot, gentle kisses around the neckline of her chemise, teasing down beneath the material with his tongue to find her nipples. Anna mewed with pleasure, twisting under his touch. Her hands reached for him.

“Ah no, my sweetheart…” With the greatest care and gentleness, he captured her hands. “Not this time, remember?”

“Then you must bind them John, I can’t keep myself away from you…”

Reaching into his pocket, John brought out his discarded tie. Pinning Anna’s hands above her head, her tied her wrists together, not too tight, but firmly, lifting her head a little to rest on her wrist.

“You just lay back…” a wicked finger traced down from her breast to her hips, further down to her thighs and her long legs, exposed beneath the short silky skirt. “…and enjoy everything I plan to do to you.”

Anna moaned softly as his hand came into contact with her exposed legs.

“What else did you think of?”

“Oh Anna… I burned for you…”

His hands grew stronger, sliding up her thighs beneath her chemise towards her hips and waist. Her hips bucked slightly under his touch as she bit her lip to keep from crying out.

“I longed for you… thought that I would never be able to touch you, but I couldn’t stop thinking about you…”

His fingertips tugged gently at the waistband of her underwear, easing it down over her hips, along her legs, off at her ankles. Sliding back up, his hands cupped around her waist to her bare bottom, stroking against her skin. Anna wriggled with pleasure under his touch.

“Go on…”

John’s imagination flared, taking him back to those days of rigidly imposed self denial, setting free all of his long suppressed thoughts and imaginings.

“I wondered how it would feel, to hold you… to stroke your skin… feel the warmth of you next to me. When you held my hand, my fingers burned for you. The first time I almost kissed you, your scent was intoxicating. I had to know how you tasted…”

Bending his head down between her legs, John ran his tongue up the inside of Anna’s thigh.

She cried out before he reached halfway.

“Oh…!”

“I was sure you would be delicious,” he said softly, teasing kisses and little nips against the soft flesh of her inner thighs, gently parting her legs to see the core of her.

“And now I can find out…”

Sliding his tongue against the little bud of nerves, John felt Anna writhe beneath his touch, heard the inarticulate cries fall from her lips. This was heavenly, to have her under his hands, beneath his lips and tongue, helpless with pleasure and at the mercy of his touch. Stroking his tongue against her with long slow licks, he felt Anna strain against him, heard her call out to him…

“Oh John, oh yes, yes…”

She stiffened, went rigid with pleasure, then slack under his hands. Gently, he pulled back, stroking his hands down over her hips. Looking up at her, he was transfixed by her beauty, her parted lips, the tousled hair, the rise and fall of her chest under her hard breathing.

“Did you like that, my darling…?”

“Oh yes…”

“Do you want more?”

“More?”

Wrestling loose his trousers, John pushed them and his underwear down to his knees. He leaned over his wife, settling between her legs, teasing against the entrance to her sex.

Anna gasped.

“More like this?”

“Oh yes, yes..”

As slowly as he could bear, John slid into his wife, feeling her body writhe beneath him. He leaned closer to her, treasuring the feel of her against him as he whispered, hot and heavy into her ear.

“I wanted you, with every fibre of my being, of my soul… I wanted you like this, as my lover, my wife, as part of my soul… Oh Anna… I want you, just as much now as then…”

His voice failed him, the aching in his throat and longing for release unbearable.

Anna cried out, her legs curling around his, her head thrown back, voice freed from inhibition.

In a crescendo of passion, that reached their heights of pleasure together. Panting, aching with delicious pleasure, John reached down with one hand to removed her blindfold. Her eyes met his, blinking, wide and beautiful.

“Oh God… John… that was incredible…”

“I know, my darling. I know.”


Chapter 15: Chapter 15


 

On the Thursday, they woke to an horrendous noise outside in the farm yard. Groggy and stumbling towards the window, John peeped through the curtain and struggled to make sense of what he saw. The yard was covered with what looked like fluffy snow.

“What the…?”

Anna, wrapped in the blanket, peered around him through the gap in the curtains.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, laughing at their confusion. “It’s the sheep! Remember, Bill said they were being dipped today.”

John grunted, still half asleep.

“I thought sheep were quiet.”

Anna spluttered a chuckle.

“That’s only because you see them far away. Up close they’re noisy things. Messy too.”

John turned to clamber back into bed only to realise that his wife was wearing the covers.

“Never mind the sheep, come here you, I’m freezing…”

“Make me.” Anna poked her tongue out cheekily.

“Oh I will…”

With a shriek, Anna tried to evade John as he lunged for her, not quite making it, ending up splayed across the bed in a tangle of arms and sheets.

It was some time before they made it downstairs for breakfast.

When they did emerge, they found Hetty had left them a note.

“Bacon and eggs in the covered dish, tea in the pot! Gone to feed the shepherd and his lads, back soon!”

“I guess everyone is going to be more busy today,” said John, buttering a slice of toast.

“Mmmm,” Anna leaned over to sneak a bite.

“Oh, you, get your own toast!”

“What’s yours is mine, husband dear,” Anna was already tucking into her bacon.

John watched her for a second, marvelling at the recovery of her naughtiness and humour in just a few short days.

“So what do you want to do today?”

“Shall we stay and watch?”

“Aye we could… City boy like you should learn a bit more about how farms work.”

“It’s interesting. Far more so than a city life.”

“Eat up then! They’ll be starting soon.”

Up close the sheep were even more noisy, having been herded into makeshift pens. The animals had the sense that something unpleasant was coming. The only time they were kept in close quarters like this was to be sheared or dipped and they liked neither. Mother ewes bleated piteously for their lambs, who were kept in a separate enclosure. Hearing their parents call, the lambs echoed them.

“Do the little ones get dipped Bill?”

“No, lass, they’ll be alright until the next dipping. They’re too little for such a long swim in the antiseptic.”

The stuff smelt horrendous. A long trough had been filled with the potent liquid and was now being stirred by the two young lads who assisted the shepherd.

“All set for the first one Bill!”

The shepherd looked like an older, craggier, more weather beaten version of Bill.

“Right you are, Davis…”

And they were off.

Sheep after sheep was herded down the gangway into the trough and swam in such a comical fashion down the trough that John almost forgot to feel sorry for them.

“What’s this in aid of Bill? Why do they have to do this?”

“Warm weather’s coming. All sorts of bugs and nasty lice make nests in the sheep’s wool. In order to keep ’em in good health, we dip ’em, make ’em swim through the antiseptic to kill all the bugs before the warm weather makes ’em breed.”

“Will they go back to the field today?”

“They’ll ‘ave to stand a drip for a bit. Wouldn’t do to get that muck all over the grass. Good for ’em to swim through, not so good for ’em to eat.”

“They don’t seem to like it much.”

“Daft buggers sheep, they never like what’s good for ’em.”

“Bill, just mind out there, that fence round the lambs is looking a bit…”

Before Davis could even finish his words, Bill, John and Anna all turned to see one determined and bulky little lamb headbutt against a less secure panel of the lamb enclosure. The fence collapsed and suddenly, a whole host of panicked, wriggling lambs had escaped from their prison.

Pandemonium ruled.

“Quick!” yelled Bill, wading towards the fence and repairing the damage as fast as possible. “Catch ‘old of ’em… get ’em rounded up before we lose ’em! John, give me a hand here, lean against this so I can get it back together.”

Bearing his weight against the fence, John struggled to hold in his laughter, watching his little wife and the shepherd boys run hither and thither around the place trying to catch hold of the wriggling lambs. The fence finally mended, Bill hastened to join in the chase, while John guarded the guilty panel and made sure it didn’t break.

Anna was in her element. She had fed dozens of lambs in her time on the farm as a child and knew just how to catch hold of them, firm but gentle, depositing them back into their pen.

Bill counted them up.

“Twenty eight, twenty night… aw, heck we’re missing one! Everybody spread out, look under the hedges, she’s gotta be here somewhere…”

“Look!”

A shepherd boy pointed over toward the lane. The back end of a lamb could be seen wriggling through the hedge.

Sprinting off, the lad dived towards the lamb, catching hold of its feet.

“Help!” a muffled yell came. “I’m stuck, I daresn’t let go of ‘er…”

Bill and Davis hauled him out of the hedge, still clutching the wriggling lamb. Proud as punch, the lad brought her back to the pen, depositing her back among her cousins.

“Well done lad! Well spotted. If she’d gotten into the lane, that would have been it, she’s not even branded yet.”

Bill was beaming with pride, exchanging grins with Davis. John smiled, pleased to see good work rewarded with praise and recognition, reminded oddly of Mr Carson for a moment.

“Aye, he’s a good ‘un,” Davis agreed, wholeheartedly. “I’ve got two good apprentices this year, let’s hope I make shepherds out of ’em both.”

“What’s your name son?”

“Green, sir. Rick Green.”

Green.

No, dear God no.

Any name but Green.

Where’s Anna?

In slow motion, John sensed Bill turn to look at him, just as his own face drained of life and desperately sought Anna.

She had heard the name. Turning white, and rapidly grey, she turned and fled, clattering into a pail and almost falling, but too bent on her escape to stop.

“Anna… Anna!”

John turned in anguish to look at Bill, willing his limbs to move out of their shock.

“Go. Just go. Now.”

At the sound of an order, John’s military training jump started and he obeyed. As swiftly as possible, he set off after his wife.

“John, what on earth…?”

“Where did she go?”

“Straight upstairs, but whatever’s the matt…?”

John didn’t even stay to hear Hetty’s question. He could already hear her sobs from the room upstairs. He heard Bill come in behind him, speaking to Hetty, but he didn’t even register the words as he hurried as quickly as possibly up the stairs.

He knocked on the door.

“Anna!”

Her sobs behind the door wrenched his stomach. He opened the door.

“Stay away! Stay AWAY!”

Anna was shrieking, curled into the corner of the room.

“Anna… Anna it’s John.”

He tried once to approach her and saw her lash out.

“STAY AWAY. GET OFF ME, LEAVE ME ALONE!”

He backed away. So she was this far gone. He hadn’t seen her this bad since the very early days, after she had returned to the cottage. She would wake from nightmares, screaming, fleeing from bed, huddled into a corner, unaware of where she was.

“Anna. It’s John. I’m not going to touch you. I’m going to sit here.”

How many times had he done this?

“It’s alright. You’re safe. You’re with me.”

“He’s here…” she sobbed wildly, her knees drawn up, arms clenched around herself, shaking wildly. She must have been freezing, but he didn’t dare approach her.

“Anna. He’s gone. He’s dead. He’s not here. It’s just a boy, another boy with a bad name. I’m here, and you’re safe. You’re safe Anna.”

“He’s found me…”

“He’s dead, Anna. I’m with you. It’s me, John.”

For a while she just cried. Not even responding to his voice. Slowly and patiently, John kept up his mantra.

“It’s alright Anna. It’s alright. You’re safe. I’m here with you.”

Her sobs quietened. Her breathing slowed.

Quietly, John got up and picked up the empty wash bowl, placing it down on the floor near her.

“Anna, it’s me. John.”

“…John?”

She finally raised her head. Her eyes were bloodshot, her face streaked and pale to near transparency, her hair matted with sweat and tears.

“That’s right, sweetheart, it’s me, John.” Cautiously he sat down on the floor next to her.

“Oh God… John… I’m going to be sick…”

John sat by his wife, stroking her back and holding back her hair while she threw up her breakfast and a distressing amount of bile into the bowl.

Eventually, he managed to get her to sit up. With a dampened corner of the towel, he cleaned her face, helped her to pull back her hair from her face.

“I’m sor…”

“Don’t you dare. Just sit here. There’s no need to talk.”

She was exhausted.

“Come on…”

John got to his feet, motioned for her to stand. She wobbled over towards the bed.

“Back to bed for you, sweetheart.”

“You won’t leave me, will you?”

“Not for a second, I’ll be here with you, until you sleep.”

Like a mother with a sick child, John gently undressed her, helped her back into her nightdress and pushed back the covers to help her into bed. Pulling the little bench over to the side of the bed, he sat beside her, holding her hand.

Slowly, her breathing evened, deepened and her eyes fluttered shut.

“Rest, darling. Just rest. I’ll get rid of the mess, and let Bill know you’re alright. Just rest now.”

She was already fast asleep.


Chapter 16: Chapter 16


John disposed of the mess in the bowl, cleaned it out, but left it in the bathroom rather than going back in to disturb Anna.

Quietly and with a heavy heart, he went back downstairs.

Hetty and Bill were sat in the kitchen, their faces white and drawn with worry. Hetty looked at John with new sympathy. He guessed Bill must have filled her in on some of the details.

“How is the poor dear?”

“Exhausted. She’s asleep for now. I’m sorry if we frightened you.”

“Don’t you worry about me duck, you just look after that poor lamb. Never seen anyone so frightened.”

“I’m right sorry John,” Bill spoke for the first time.

“Bill it wasn’t your…”

“I had no idea of the lad’s name. I realised soon as it left his mouth what might come…”

“It’s not your fault Bill. Any more than it’s his. Or hers.”

“Or yours.”

The silence grew heavy as John battled against his own turmoil of emotions.

“Hetty lass, any chance of a brew?”

Bill laid a warm comforting hand on John’s shoulder.

“Come on lad…”

“But your sheep…”

“Davis has it all in hand, he’s forgotten more than I know about sheep. Come on now. Come on.”

With a calm, firm step, Bill guided John to sit in the snug. Hetty brought over a tray with the tea pot and mugs.

“Thanks lass.”

With a pointed look, Bill sent Hetty back to work. Hetty’s pursed lips betrayed her displeasure, but she did as she was told.

Bill poured the tea, added sugar and milk, stirred the mug thoroughly. The calm, smooth, routine actions were a balm to John’s shattered nerves.

“It wasn’t, you know.”

“Wasn’t what?”

“Your fault.”

“You don’t know that Bill.”

“Then tell me what I don’t know.”

Haltingly between sips of hot tea, John told the whole story, piece by piece. Bill sat, listened, and never said one word.

“So you blame yourself because you didn’t go downstairs with her?”

“That’s about the sum of it.”

“Ah John. You had no way of knowing.”

“But I should have!”

“How?”

“Because something was wrong for her. How could she endure that and I not know? She’s my wife, I should have protected her!”

Bill sat quietly and let John’s outburst run its course.

“John… you’ve protected her every day since. Stood by her. Dried her tears. Held her hand. Told lies against your own character to get her out of that hell hole of a jail. You brought her here. You’ve done everything you could have done.”

“But I wasn’t there.”

“It’s what you do after a tragedy that’s more important.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

Bill reached for his pipe.

“Did William ever tell you much about us? His family?”

“He rarely spoke of home.”

“Aye. That’ll be right. He did keep things to ‘imself.”

“Was he an only child?”

“Of a sort.”

John looked up at the odd response.

“We had several children John. All but William were dead when they were born.”

The sadness in Bill’s eyes was palpable.

“Oh Bill… I’m sorry…”

“Not your worry lad, I brought it up. My timing, my story,” he lit his pipe and puffed away for a few seconds.

“The last one before William… I did everything I could to try and help Allie through her pregnancy. That were my wife, Allie. Oh, she were a bonny lass John y’d’ve liked her. Sense of humour as filthy as that mudpile out there, and a way about her that could draw yer thoughts, no matter what you were doing.” He gave John a sly grin. “All in the hips. I’m sure you know what ah mean.”

John smiled, despite himself, thinking of the way Anna walked.

“I couldn’t have done more for her. I made her rest, put her feet up. That were when Hetty first came to work for us, scrap of a kitchen maid she were, did all the rough. Bit like young Daisy. But when it all came to it, it were for no’wt. Babe were dead before she could draw ‘er first breath.

“Oh, I broke me ‘eart John. It went to my soul that did. I carried that around wi’ me for days. I’d tried so hard to save that poor mite. Allie were getting on and we didn’t think she’d catch again.

“One day, I were standing out there, and suddenly it were all too much. Allie came and found me and I were wailing, lost. How could I ‘ave let her down, put her through that, got ‘er with child and there were no babe at the end of it. Again.”

Bill blew out a long cloud of smoke, slow and steady, like a miniature steam train.

“And you know what she said to me?”

John shook his head.

“Aye, Bill. Because this is all about YOU isn’t it?”

Bill gave a rough chuckle and shot John a look sharp as Hetty’s knives.

“This sort of thing, the tragedies that women go through, it ain’t about us John. It ain’t at all.”

John bridled.

“Now don’t you go fighting back against me lad, you just sit and listen. This, everything that’s happenin’ with Anna, it’s not about you. It’s about her. Did it occur to you, that even if you had gone down with ‘er, he’d have found another way?”

John felt cold on the inside.

“‘Ow often were his lordship, that what’s ‘is name, Gilling?”

“Gillingham.”

“Gillingham, aye. How often did ‘e visit Downton? Pretty frequent for what you said. Didn’t Lady Mary ask ‘im to get rid of Green, because ‘e were visitin’ so often?”

“You’re saying… it was inevitable?”

John felt angry even at the thought of his own dear Anna being destined for suffering.

“No. I’m sayin’ … it weren’t your fault. I’m sayin’ that this bastard of a man – and I make no apology for me language there – ‘e were to blame. It were ‘is fault, this tragedy of ‘is making, and you were not even part of it. And the more you berate and blame yourself for Anna’s suffering, the less you see what she’s actually going through. She fears to tell you about any of it, knowin’ it’ll cause you pain. She bottles it up and it explodes out of ‘er like this, like a mortar shell, ’cause she can’t keep it in any more. She knows you’re hurting for your own failure as much as for her hurts, moreso I think sometimes.

“Don’t forget what the tragedy really is here John. And it weren’t your failure. It were Anna’s foul and despicable luck to ‘ave caught the attention of that bastard of a man. There were plenty of men there responsible for protecting Anna, John. Her boss, that Mr Carson. Lord Grantham, her employer, master of the very house where it ‘appened. You all ‘ad a responsibility to Anna, and every other woman under that roof, and ‘e foxed all of you. Right fox in a coop, that’s about it. Rodent.”

John sat quietly, his senses reeling.

“Now… ah’ve said my piece. You jes’ sit and think, drink yer tea, and when you’re feeling a bit more collected and ready to listen to her, rather than apologising again, you take up a bit of tea and toast for her. Don’t let her sleep too long, she won’t sleep tonight, and she won’t be able for much else until dinner time.”

Bill hauled to his feet, gave John a nod and went back out to work.

John sat for a while, quiet and thoughtful. After a while, he got to his feet, and took all of Bill’s excellent advice.


Chapter 17: Chapter 17


 

“Knock knock?”

John called softly as he opened the door. Anna was awake, sat up against her pillows with a shawl around her shoulders.

“Do you need a hand?”

“No, you stay there,” John backed through the door carrying a tray of tea and toast, along with some ginger biscuits that Hetty had sneaked onto a plate. A little juggling and the tray landed safely on the bedside table.

“How are you feeling now?” John reached for Anna’s hand.

“Worn out,” she said sadly. “Stupid. Foolish. Angry…”

“Come now, there’s no need to be angry.”

“I have every right to feel angry.”

“Why?”

“Because I thought I was past this.”

Her tears welled up in her eyes. Having expected this, John was prepared and passed her a clean hankie. She dabbed at her eyes.

“I’ve said it before, but I’m so sick of crying. Really sick of it. I’d like to get through one week without hankies on the line.”

“I know how that feels.”

“You hardly ever cry.”

John was silent. He cried more often than Anna knew.

“I was doing so well…”

“You are doing well, love.”

“… I mean, this week. I know there was that wobble when we arrived and I was all tired and upset on the first night, but since then…” her eyes were still stained pink, her face washed out, devoid of colour.

“Being with you, making our plans, just being together… it’s all felt so right. And the things we’ve done together…”

A faint colour painted her cheeks at the memory.

“I thought I was recovered. I thought… being able to do those things with you, being able to enjoy them, I was sure I was free of it all…”

She looked him straight in the face.

“I never thought that I would take pleasure in you binding my hands John. Not after what happened. But… when you suggested it, I wanted it. I actually wanted it. And I loved it! How could I love that and then have something as silly as a name bring me back down to this…”

It’s all my fault…

No. It isn’t. Remember what Bill said. This is not about you.

“Anna, sweetheart. Six months ago, even a month ago, the idea of what we did yesterday would have broken you. Let alone an attempt. Or a fruition. I wouldn’t have dared say the words.”

Very gently, John reached out to smooth his wife’s hair, stroke her face.

“Why can’t I be shed of this John…? I just want to be better, to go back to how things were before all of this happened. I want the person I used to be.”

A week ago, John would have rushed in with assurances that she was still that person; that she would get well, be free of it someday, whole and recovered. But now he realised the dangers of such a statement. The old enemy of false hope. He looked down at his knee, and the cane lying next to him.

“John?”

He looked up at her, rescued from his own thoughts by her smile.

“Sweetheart, if I say something, will you promise to listen, until I get to the end?”

“I’ll try.”

“That’s my girl.” He kissed the back of her hand.

“Do you remember when I first came to Downton? How determined I was, to do my job, in spite of this?” He motioned to the cane. Anna nodded.

“I wanted this gone. I tried to make it gone. Especially after I met you. I longed to be the man I was before, to be free of this limp. I … I tried a cure.”

“What kind of cure?”

“A limp corrector.”

“What’s a…?”

“It’s… a device. You put it around your leg, to straighten it, stop you favouring it. It’s supposed to make you stronger.”

“What happened?”

“It failed.”

John was acutely aware that even a few months ago, his response would have been ‘I failed.’ But now he knew better.

“Did you keep it?”

He smiled to himself, pleased to be able to find some dark humour in one of his less pleasant memories.

“Mrs Hughes made me get rid of it. She…” he chuckled. “She made me throw it in the lake.”

Anna’s eyes widened in shock and despite herself she began to giggle.

“Get away… really? So the thing is…”

“…at the bottom of Lord Grantham’s lake. Yes.”

Encouraged by her rallying smile, John poured some tea and offered her a slice of toast. Anna was starving.

“I tried it because I wanted to be free of this. To go back to before it ever happened, be the man that I had been. But some wounds, well… they don’t fully heal. You learn to live with them. Live around them.”

“So you’re saying… I can’t be free of this.”

“That’s not quite what I’m saying. What happened to you… it was horrific. Like any injury in a war. An enemy made you vulnerable. Hurt you. Injured you. But you survived. You live. And in living you win.”

Confident that he had found the right track, John continued to speak, hoping that Anna would understand.

“He … Green … tried to dominate you. Tried to control you. Possess you. But he couldn’t. He thought you were weak. He had never ever been so wrong in his life, I will wager that.”

“But I couldn’t stop him…”

“But he didn’t win. Look at us. Here we are. Together. Planning our future, married, wanting a family. We are together, and strong, and so in love it makes my chest feel like it could burst with my love for you. My heart sings when you look at me. Anna…”

John cupped her face in his hands.

“You live. You embrace all of life, and you refuse to be afraid. You… you try new things. You’re willing to take on everything.”

“But then this happens…”

“And it still doesn’t stop you.”

“Doesn’t it?”

“Not at all.” John’s smile was genuine. “You haven’t stopped being my wife. Loving me. You’ve continued in your work, your loyalty to the Crawley family. We’re going to buy a hotel. Start a new business, just us together, have a new family… raise our children… Now, I don’t deny, there will be black times. I have them too. Days when my leg aches beyond sense and reason, when I feel so angry with the war, with that injury, for ruining my life. But it hasn’t ruined it at all.

“Would I have come to Downton without that injury? Would I have met you, fallen in love, finally been free of Vera? I doubt it.

“And if you hadn’t endured all that you have … Would we be here? Would we have had that conversation about the hotel, come back to our dream, with calls booked tomorrow to decide our future? Or would we still be living in our cottage, nestled into a small life, devoted to the Crawleys until we are no longer fit to serve? For all its pain and heartache, I know which life I would prefer.”

“Oh John…”

John gathered Anna into his arms, tears streaming down her face.

“What did I ever do to deserve you in my life? I love you so much John, I love you…”

“Shhhh… I love you Anna. Always.”

“How is she?”

Bill was sat downstairs in the kitchen, polishing off a huge slice of fruit cake.

“Better,” John came down the stairs carefully balancing the empty tray on one hand. “Much better. She’ll be down for dinner.”

“Did you talk?”

“Yes, we did.”

“Good.” Bill spoke with the assured manner of someone who is pleased that their good advice has been heeded. “So what happens next?”

“Well… more than anything, this has shown me that we need to leave Downton.”

“This’d be your hotel plan then.”

“That’s right. I’ve got calls booked from the post office tomorrow to see how our finances stand. The next thing is to start looking for a place.”

“Any idea on where?”

“Still Yorkshire, we think. We had a look through the paper and found a couple, once Anna had calmed down and eaten a bit of toast.”

“‘Ave you ‘ad anything to eat today John?”

“Not since breakfast.” As he spoke John was aware of a groaning emptiness in his stomach.

“Well, you jes’ sit, and pull that paper out. Let’s ‘ave a look at those hotels you found.”

Bill pottered about, assembling what looked, to John, like enough food to feed a regiment. His mouth began to water when he saw the delicate slices of rosy ham, plump tomatoes and sweet yellow apples that Bill was gathering up.

“Where abouts did you look?”

“There was one in Scarborough, and one in Whitby.”

“Nice places, both of ’em. Not short o’ visitors. My Allie’s sister lives in Whitby, married to a fisherman. Close enough to a farmer to keep ‘er Dad ‘appy.”

“The Scarborough hotel is bigger… but it’s not in very good shape from the looks of it.”

“Hmmmm…”

Bill set the platter down and John fell to it like a ravenous beast.

“Le’s ‘ave a look…”

Bill peered at the advertisments that John had circled in pencil.

“Are y’plannin’ to tek on many staff?”

“We’re not sure. I think Anna would prefer us to do it ourselves.”

“I think y’d be wise to if you can. Just get yerselves a cook general, and an ‘ouse maid, and see to the rest,” he set the paper down suddenly and his eyes bored into John’s. “No sense in adding more strangers to your dream if the whole point is to give ‘er a new fresh start, now is there?”

“I quite agree Bill.”

John and Bill turned to see Anna coming downstairs.

“Anna…! You said you weren’t getting up until dinner…”

“No, YOU said I wasn’t getting up until dinner. I got bored.” Dropping a kiss on her husband’s cheek, Anna came around the table to give Bill a hug.

“Not very proper I know Bill, but I feel I should say sorry. Were Rick and Davis alright, I didn’t frighten them?”

“Don’t you fret lass. I told Davis you’d been spooked by something and weren’t feeling well. He’s wise enough not to ask when it comes to women. Rick’s back to work and more interested in the shilling bonus Davis gave ‘im for grabbin’ that lamb, and the sheep are on their way back to pasture now. Now, John’s been showin’ me your hotels…”

Anna pealed with laughter. “Hotels? Oh Bill, if only we could afford two, what a scream…”

“Well, there’s no need for two. This little guest house in Whitby is a fine place, very fine. And a good price. You’d have a livin’ out of that. Y’d never be wealthy, but y’d never want.”

Anna’s eyes met John’s. Had they really found the right place?

“I were sayin’ to John, y’d need a couple of lasses. Hard working maid, an’ a cook general. Although, don’t you go thinking you can steal my Daisy!” He winked, as John and Anna caught each other’s eyes, thinking about their conversation beneath the willows the previous day.

“Right…” Bill drained his cup of tea. “Best get back. Wouldn’t do for the place to figure out it can do without me.”

With his customary swiftness, he was gone, leaving John and Anna to dream and plan for their future, which had seemed so impossible just a matter of hours earlier.


Chapter 18: Chapter 18


 

“Well?”

Anna had sat and fidgeted outside the post office for the best part of half an hour. John had taken what felt like an age on the phone. They had planned to squeeze into the booth together but the lack of space thwarted this plan.

He was beaming at her, walking over. His eyes delighted.

“Well?”

“It’s all good news.”

“Well I can see that much!”

“Can we go and talk somewhere? There’s lots to say.”

“Do you want to walk back to the farm? Or shall we got to the pub?”

“The pub. They might have some snacks or something.”

A few minutes later they were settled in, with some nuts and crisps and a half pint of cider a piece.

“So go on. Tell me.”

“First, I rang the agent. He said the house is currently let to a family. Nice people, the father works in the warehouse district.”

“John, I don’t care where he works…”

“Well, you should. Because it’s important.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s had promotion from shift manager to general manager. And he wants to buy the house.”

Anna sat stunned. No need to advertise. No estate agents, no extra fees, and a quick guaranteed sale…

“Oh John!”

“I know. It’s better than we dared to dream. The company had agreed to back him for a low interest mortgage, they want him to stay and he wants to keep his family settled. The agent is going to call him today and set things in motion.”

“Did he say how much we’re likely to be able to ask?”

“He’ll arrange for a valuation. But he did say that because it’s a private sale, the value would be substantially more than market value. The tenant is very keen to avoid a bidding war.”

Anna’s hands clenched together, her fingers white beneath her gloves.

“So… what about the second call?”

John took a sip of his drink, ate a few nuts. He so rarely had good news for his wife, that it was all he could do to relish the moment.

“How do our accounts stand?”

“Very healthy. Very healthy indeed…”

Anna squeaked with delight.

“How so?”

“Our investor is a good man. He’s made good use of the money I inherited from mother. Truth be told, he’s dismayed I want to pull out the capital, but once I explained why he accepted the decision. Bricks and mortar are another good investment. Properly maintained, it can only accumulate.”

“So where do we stand? In real terms…”

“Well… that all comes down to the third phone call.”

“John! You told me you’d only booked two!”

“Well… this was a local call, within Yorkshire, so the post mistress was able to fit me in.” John pulled the folded piece of newspaper from his pocket, containing the advertisement for the hotel in Whitby.

“You never…”

“I called them, to discuss an asking price. The owner is keen to sell quickly. His wife is ailing, they can’t manage the place much longer.”

“And?”

“And he wants us to go and see them. Tomorrow.”

Tomorrow!

Could they do it?

“Oh John…”

“Don’t get too excited. It’s a first meeting. The house has to be sold, the price agreed, and then the paperwork on this sort of thing can take an age. But … do you want to go? To see the place? I don’t feel right buying it it we haven’t had chance for a look.”

“How would we go?”

“We could take the train, there and back in a day. It’s not too far away. Not compared to London, and we’ve done there and back in a day, with Lord Grantham and Lady Mary.”

John covered her hand and spoke low, earnest and serious.

“I think… if we like the place, we’ll be in a good position to put in an offer. The money from our investments can put down a deposit, and still leave plenty spare. Then, once the house is sold, we can complete the payments, and start looking for staff.”

“Is this real? Is this happening…?”

“It is my darling. At long last, and all of a sudden, it is.”

They kissed across the table of the little pub, not caring who heard or saw.

“Tomorrow? I don’t see why not,” Bill beamed at them across the table. “What time’s the train, ‘ave you looked it up?”

There’s one a little after 9 in the morning. We can get there, spend the morning meeting the owners, have something to eat and look around the town…”

“What time would yer be back?”

“The afternoon train gets in around four o’clock.”

“Marvellous! Time for you to get sorted for Sunday and we can ‘ave a right nice celebration together. I’ll get Hetty to make us something specially nice for dinner.”

John thought that what they were eating now was already specially nice. Big juicy sausages, slightly peppery with herbs from the kitchen garden, fried with onions in a savoury cider gravy, with mounds of mashed potatoes and fresh peas and broad beans. He was sure his trousers were becoming a little less slack at the waist every day since they had arrived.

Anna had also put on a smidgen of weight. It looked beautiful on her. Her curves had filled out, her cheeks had colour, even her hair seemed more golden and full than the pale straw it had become in recent months. She wore it loose, or tucked into a woven plait down her back, rather than bound back in a severe bun as she did at Downton.

She was chatting animatedly with Bill about the sheep, who had recovered from their ordeal in the dipping trough.

“You wouldn’t know they were the same creatures as yesterday, daft beggars. And it does do ’em good. There’s more life in ’em now, more energy.”

“Do you know… Bill…” Anna reached for John’s hand. “I feel like I was dipped yesterday. Over this holiday in fact.”

“Oh aye?”

John returned his full attention to the conversation at hand.

“None of this… talking about what’s happened to me, getting through it, making plans… none of it is what I wanted for this holiday. I wanted… to not think. And it wasn’t what I need at all.”

She looked up at John’s face, smiling. He felt as though he had been blessed by a sudden ray of sunshine, straight down from heaven.

“We’ve stripped out all the things that were eatin’ at me. At both of us. Like your poor old sheep. And it were horrible, to go through. I didn’t like it at all. But now…”

“You’ve got more life in yer again lass.” Bill nodded, quite understanding.

“And I know…” she squeezed John’s hand. “There might be times when we need to strip more out. In future, like. Just like you dip your sheep again and again. But it’ll help. It’s our way forward. Our way living round things.”

If Bill hadn’t been in the kitchen, John would have swept her into his arms there and then, and what was on the table would have been damned to the floor.

He settled for returning the grip on his hand and smiling fit to burst his cheeks.

“Well, I’m right glad to hear you got things sorted out. The pair of you.” Bill gave John a knowing look as he cleared the plates away, bringing over the cake tin and a fresh pot. “Makes my heart glad to know that, it really does.”

“We couldn’t have done it without you and this place Bill.”

“Aw, don’t be so daft, of course yer would. Might have taken a bit longer, but you would have.”

Anna and John caught each other’s eye in mutual disagreement.

Bill wielded his knife above Hetty’s pristine carrot cake.

“Now then… tell me ‘ow big y’d like your slices…”


Chapter 19: Chapter 19


 

The smell of the salt hit them in the face as soon as they came out of the station. It was fresh, new and filled with life. The call of the gulls crying above them was like music to their ears.

Whitby was at its best. The harbour bustled, boats docking with the tide and doing good business. Shop owners, kitchen managers and housewives bartered and haggled for the best prices over the harvest of the sea.

“Oh John, look at the abbey…!”

Anna gasped to see Whitby Abbey loom above them on the cliffs, impressive as a monument, dominating the skyline.

“Well…” mused John. “We might be leaving one Abbey… but this will make up for it.”

Consulting his notes, they walked up from the harbour towards the row of guest houses where their future dream waited for them, a little white guesthouse called The Gull’s Nest.

Mr Rawlins was a gentleman, Anna decided immediately. And his frail little wife was charming. She sat in a tall backed armchair in their best parlour, neatly and daintily turned out, down to the Whitby jet broach at her collar.

“I’m so pleased you could come see us, both of you,” Mr Rawlins passed over their cups of tea, with dainty little sugar biscuits balanced on the saucers. “We hate to give up the hotel, but it has to be done.”

“I just can’t manage the stairs any more, not at my age” chirped Mrs Rawlins, with a touch of sadness. “It’s been our home for more than 30 years, but all good things must come to an end.”

“How did you come to buy the place?”

“Well, we worked hard, didn’t we dear? We saved up everything we earned. We were walking out for a long time, you know. I was a cook general in another guest house, down in the town. And this were a gentleman’s residence at the time.”

John wasn’t surprised to hear this. The whole place had the look of Crawley House, where Mr Matthew had lived with his mother, Mrs Crawley.

“Alfred worked here, didn’t you love? He were a right important man in the house. Started as Valet to Mr Cumberland, who lived here. Then after Mr Cumberland married, he were promoted, to Butler.”

Her pride in her husband shone through every single wrinkle on her face. Anna’s heart warmed to them.

“How did the place come to be put on the market?”

“Well, Mr Cumberland, he were the bank manager, here at Whitby. He did well, looked after the place right and proper. So well that he were offered another job, at the big bank in York! Well, that were too far away to travel every day, and his wife didn’t like the idea to stay here while he worked away. So they put the house on the market, and Alfred and I had enough saved up for a deposit. Mr Cumberland offered to help us out with a mortgage for the rest, ‘im having connections and all.”

John smiled to himself. Their story was so similar to theirs. All the same elements, just in a different order.

“Would you like to see round the place?”

Mr Rawlins got to his feet.

Yes they would. Yes indeed.

. . .

Afterwards, John began to wonder if it had been destiny. It was all so perfect.

The guest house was ready for them. Mr Rawlins included all the furniture, linens, fixtures and fittings in the offer. He and his wife were going to live with their son and daughter in law, and other than a few bits and pieces there was not much they would be taking with them.

It would do. For now. Until the found the things they wanted.

John promised to be in touch once all the financial details had been sorted out. Mr Rawlins gave his word not to entertain another other until he’d spoken to the Bates about a final decision. His firm handshake was all the agreement that John needed.

They walked down the now quiet harbour, the tide slipping out gradually. It would return in the evening, with the next catch, and the whole place would come to life again. A few shops were open, doing business with the springtime visitors.

“I just want to go…?”

“Do you mind if I…?”

They spoke at the same time, laughing together. With a kiss, they separated to go about their shopping, agreeing to meet at a small tea house on the front.

John arrived first, securing a table and ordering tea for two. He hastily placed the small package he carried in his coat pocket. Soon he saw her, walking down the harbour road, beautiful in her rich green coat and hat.

“You were quick…” she settled opposite him, taking off her coat and gloves.

“It didn’t take long to find what I wanted. What about you?”

“Only one of two shops.”

“Well? What did you buy?”

Anna had that expression, like a naughty squirrel who can’t help giving clues to where its stash of winter nuts is buried.

“Close your eyes.”

When John opened them again, he found a small box in his hands. A small leather box.

“Anna…”

“Open it. Please.”

Inside, there were cufflinks, and a tie pin. Sturdy. Made from sterling silver, solid and plain, but with circles of Whitby jet pressed into the round links and a strip along the tie pin.

“For the new manager of The Gull’s Nest.”

John felt the lump rise his throat, forcing down all his inadequate words.

“Do you like them?”

He nodded.

“Really?”

“Anna… if I try to say how much, I will embarrass us both by weeping here at this table.”

The waitress appeared with the tray. Recognising an intimate moment, she was mercifully brief and tactful. Anna reached to stir the pot.

“Wait… you haven’t had your turn yet. Let me do that. This is for you.”

John rummaged in his pocket for a package of brown paper. Inside, Anna found another box. A velvet one.

Her eyes met his, shining with joy. She wanted to tell him off for spoiling her, but didn’t dare after her own gift.

“Open it.”

Inside lay a brooch. Shaped like a heart, its edge was formed of delicate twists, which curled and looped back on themselves. Anna had seen patterns like it before in the old graveyard at Downton Church. Celtic, the vicar had called them. At the centre was a solid heart of Whitby jet, polished and gleaming.

“Oh John…”

“For the new manageress of The Gull’s Nest.”

“It’s perfect.”

“As is your gift.”

For a few minutes, they stared at each other, lost in their joy at each other’s happiness.

“Come on, your tea’s going cold. I got some thing for Daisy and something for Bill too.”

“Oh good, I was going to say shall we look for something.”

“For Daisy I got this.”

Another box, smaller and simpler. Inside was a little necklace of jet, simple beads strung together. Plain and understated, but both of them knew it would be cherished.

“Oh it’s perfect,” cooed Anna, “She’ll love it. Just right for her. Not too flash, not so expensive that she’d worry about losing it. What did you find for Bill?”

“This.”

John was proud of this one. A small lacquered wooden box, inlaid with jet across the lid in the pattern of an oak leaf. Perfect for Bill’s tobacco.

“I thought we’d pick some up on the way for the train. Just to start him off. I thought about a new pipe, but I think he’s devoted to his.”

“I think he is, he’ll smoke that until the day he dies.”

“I hope that you will wear this, until the day you die, too…”

There was one more box in John’s hand.

“The brooch is for you to have when we move in, when it’s all settled. But this is for now.”

Anna was speechless. The box was a ring box. She’d seen them before, in Lady Mary’s room.

“John what did you…”

“Please, just listen. Years ago, when I told you I was going to divorce Vera, I cheated you out of your proposal, as it should have been done. I was in a rush, I panicked, and you guessed what was happening before I asked you properly. And then when we married, you made all the running, talked me into something that I should have been running towards, not running away from. You were right, then, and you’re right now. I love you, Anna. More with each day, and so, this is for you…”

John opened the box.

Inside there was a ring. A gold one. With one shining emerald, set into the middle of it.

“John, what did you…”

“Please, please…” he covered her hand with his free one.

Anna fell silent at the look of devotion on his face.

“Anna I love you. I know you’re my wife, but this is the proposal you should have had years ago. At the beginning of a new chapter of our lives together, I wanted to ask you, will you go on being my wife? Be my love, my partner, my salvation, in everything we do together?”

Anna’s eyes widened. She was stunned into silence, beyond speech, beyond words.

Had this been a real proposal John would have started to get nervous.

“You don’t want me to get down on my good knee, do you?” he said gently, hoping to break the spell.

“Oh John… yes! Yes I will always be your wife, always…”

Anna stretched out her hand, allowing John to slip the delicate little ring over her wedding finger, to nestle above the band she’d worn every day since their vows in Ripon register office. It sparkled on her finger, catching the light.

“There now…”

He stroked her face, as she raised her other hand to capture his.

“That’s my girl.”


Chapter 20: Chapter 20 and Epilogue


 

It had all been and gone far too quickly.

The train home chuntered past the same stations as the one they had caught from Downton just one week ago.

How had it been just one week? John could scarcely believe it. But then, he could scarcely believe in the different in the little woman sat next to him, wide awake and glowing with health, reading her book.

Their last evening on the farm had been riotous with laughter, filled with good food beyond even Hetty’s usually high standards. The carved roast of pork, nestled in a bed of roast potatoes and crisping slices of sweet apples, was a joy to behold, as was the large jug of gravy, thick with cider.

“Bill, we must have put on pounds this week alone, Hetty is a fabulous cook…”

“Ah well, she’s spoilt yer both rotten. She’ll ‘ave me on short rations, bread and drippin’ for a week after you’ve gone back!” He gave a lazy wink to Anna over his glass of cider, an unusual evening indulgence for him, but quite fitting for what he called his ‘goodbye party’.

They were sorry to leave, but eager to move forward. Bill had driven them to the station in the trap once more.

“Well here we are again, and weren’t I right… old friends in the making, all three of us turned out to be. ”

Bill turned to offer a squeeze to Anna.

“Goodbye darling Bill.”

“Bye bye my handsome. Get that man to take good care of you, precious… And you sir…”

He turned to clasp John’s hand, with a deep look.

“No cherry cravings?”

“None whatsoever.”

“All excess weight gone?”

“We’re in the process of a good clear out.”

“That’s my lad,” Bill clapped him on the arm with a final shake. “You look after her, you hear. It’s what you do from now forward that matters most.”

For the first time, John felt like he could believe him.

With shouts and goodbyes as the train pulled out, they promised to give their love to Daisy, to pass on the basket from their lunch and to ask her to visit as soon as possible.

Bill leaned against the station platform wall, puffing away on his pipe as the train pulled out. Lovely couple, those two. He had no doubt they’d work it out alright in the end.

“What will we say when we get back?”

“Nothing at first. Leave it to me. I have given the agents the number for Downton Abbey if they need to confirm any urgent details, or they can write to us via the cottage. There is no need to telling anyone anything yet.”

Anna ran her finger over the sparkling emerald, hidden safe and snug beneath her glove.

“But when we know?”

“When we know, I will speak to Lord Grantham. Put him in the picture, give him as much notice as possible. Then we can decide what to do.”

“I hope it won’t be long.”

“Me too. Will you be alright returning to Downton?”

“I think so… things feel, different now. Somehow.”

John knew what she meant. It was as though a veil of unspoken distance had been drawn back between them. Anna could now tell John more of what was upsetting to her, and John could ask and not feel crushed into the ground by guilt and failure. Even if things were rough when they got back, they would be able to tackle them together. Truly together.

The car was there to meet them at Downton, a kind indulgence of Lord Gratham. Parks was in good form, chatting away about the gossip in the servant’s hall, and the comings and goings upstairs. Apparently they had just missed a visit from Mr Napier, and Lady Rosamund had been in town to visit Edith.

“Sounds like you’ve been busy. I hope our absence didn’t cause a problem.”

“You were missed, both of you. But we managed. I think Mr Carson will be right glad to see you back though, Mr Bates. And Lady Mary will be pleased to have her own maid again, Mrs Bates.”

The car drew through the gate up the long driveway toward the house.

Downton Abbey. They were back.

Anna squeezed John’s hand, turning to meet him with a face full of light.

“Don’t worry,” she said softly. “It will be different this time.”

He hoped so, patting her hand.

God he hoped so.

EPILOGUE – 2 months later

The telephone call came eventually. All of the offers were accepted, the process was underway. The paperwork, as John had predicted, would take an age. But they were going to have the guesthouse.

Anna sat at the cottage, knitting. John would be home soon. The Abbey was filled with guests tonight. Lady Mary had retired early, pleading a headache, but actually just longing for some respite from the suitors who followed her around from dawn to dusk. She had sent Anna home.

“You look tired out yourself. I hope you’ve not been overdoing things.”

“No Milady, just a little tired is all.”

“Well, mind you take care of yourself. Take yourself off home, if you like. I’ll let Bates know, he can catch you up when he’s done. Papa’s likely to be a while.”

Gratefully, Anna did as suggested. The walk home gave her time to think.

Sat now in the cottage, she looked around wistfully. She would miss this place, her first home, but it was time to go. She hoped that John would find a moment to speak to Lord Grantham soon, she didn’t like keeping secrets from Lady Mary. Although, there was one secret she had right now which gave her immense joy.

She heard his footsteps coming down the path.

“Good evening, darling wife.”

His dear face was so tired, so weary but so bright with affection for her. Stretching up from her chair, she accepted the kiss he gave her willingly.

“Still sat up? I thought you were going to bed.”

“I thought I’d wait for you.”

“You didn’t have to.”

“I wanted to. Come sit with me for a few minutes.”

John did so happily, pleased to take the weight off his leg.

“I had a letter from Mr Mason.”

“How is he doing?”

“Getting on well. Daisy’s going to visit him next week.”

“We should write and tell him about our news. It’s been a bit of a big day, hasn’t it?”

“It has…” Anna reached for his hand. “And it’s about to be a bit bigger.”

“What are you up to wife?” John smiled at her.

Anna’s face shone in the firelight. Beneath her tiredness, there was something about her that glowed. All in a second, before she even said a word, John knew exactly what she was about to tell him.

“John… we’re going to have a baby.”

And in that moment, as he folded his wife into the gentlest and fullest embrace of love, John realised that Bill Mason had been absolutely right. It was what you did with your future that counted most, not what you had endured in the past.