He opened the passenger door and went to hand her out and instead she pulled him in, so suddenly it made him gasp. The next moment his cap was on the floorboard, along with Sybil’s, and he was stretched full length on the seat. With her on top of him.
Well, said the tiny corner of his brain that was still calm enough to form a coherent thought, this is unexpected. Oh God, her mouth was so soft and sweet and hungry. He wanted to let himself sink, to give himself up to it, but something—fear, disbelief, what? made him wrench his face to one side. “Milady—“
She sputtered a laugh that sounded almost like a sob. “Don’t call me that.”
What am I to call you, then? He half wanted to demand it of her. He’d declared himself, laid his heart bare at the cost of his job and his reputation, for all he knew, and she’d as much as patted him on the head and told him to run along. And now, two weeks into her career as a proper VAD, she’d told him to pull over on the side of the road (a road she’d told him to take, hardly even a road really, more of a rutted farm track that was going to play hell on the Renault’s shocks) and attacked him. It was bloody confusing.
But her lips were on his throat now, and she was taking little nips of his flesh (Ohhhh) like she wanted to eat him up. She could probably feel through his skin the way his heart was pounding, the quick rasp of his breath. He didn’t know where he should put his hands. At first they’d gone unerringly to her hips, kneading through skirt and petticoat and—presumably—knickers, but then he’d thought about it and now they were suspended in the air. He brought them back down to rest tentatively on her skirt. “Lady Sybil,” he said, his breath catching as he felt a sucking kiss on his neck. “What are you—“
She’d started undoing his jacket. She lifted her head, her eyes soft blurred pools of darkness. “I’ve thought about what you asked me.” She was breathing rather quickly. “...and yes, I say yes.”
The word was like a shot of stimulant directly to his heart, which pounded all the harder. She began kissing him again, and he fought to catch his breath; he could hardly put two thoughts in a line. He wondered if it were possible to die of happiness. What a pity that would be.
And yet...such a sudden reversal made him dubious. Since she’d got back from York she had been pointedly silent on the main topic that haunted his dreams, and on nearly everything else as well. Her elation from before she’d gone, the thrill Tom himself remembered from being on the cusp of leaving home to make his way in the world, had given way to a grim stoicism that seemed more like shock than equanimity. Last night he’d had to remind her to take off her blood-smeared apron before she got into the car. The job must be truly terrible; the assembly line of war had been increasing its efficiency with dreadful competence. Of course she’d never admit to her family that it was anything less than glorious. For that, Tom admired her more than even he could have thought possible.
Still, no one knew better than him how few confidantes she had. He hadn’t pressed her to talk about what she dealt with beyond the hospital doors, but he tried to project a sympathetic ear, in what he said and did not say, in the way he arranged his expression when he handed her in and out of the car. And now, this. The possibility flitted through his mind that the grisliness of it all had driven her mad. That didn’t sound like Sybil, but these girls were raised like hothouse flowers, no breath of winter permitted to invade the environment. When they broke, they broke badly.
So he asked a question he’d never thought he would ask. “Why?”
“But not until the war is over,” she said, as though she hadn’t heard him. She’d finished with his jacket and moved on to his tie, unpicking the tight knot with fingers that had plenty of practice, having spent a good part of the recent days removing blood-stiffened uniforms. “And I honestly don’t know how long that will be, do you?”
“I don’t.” For two and a half years everyone had been saying Over by Christmas. It was starting to sound like a bad joke. “But Sybil…” he reached between them and grasped her fingers, busy at his waistcoat buttons. “I don’t know if we should…”
“Please,” she said, her voice rough, “please, I just want to feel something that’s not…” she trailed off, leaving him to wonder what it was she did not want to feel. The inexorable approach of death? The constriction of her role? His own role in this seemed clear now. She was just using him, like they all used people like him. It made him angry. Unfortunately, anger did nothing to dampen his ardor, and she’d fallen to kissing him again, which didn’t help matters.
Yet he forced himself to pull away. “Milady,” he said, “I am not your holiday.”
She went still. Then she sat up. Her eyes never left his, and she looked sad, so sad that he felt guilty for having had such thoughts. If she were like the rest of them, he wouldn’t be in love with her. “No,” she said. “No, you’re not. I’m sorry.”
She turned, reaching for the door handle, and a sudden burst of panic made him sit up and grasp her arm. “I didn’t mean that,” he said, and swallowed hard. “You know I’ll do anything you want.”
Her eyes were so wide and dark and serious. “I will marry you,” she said, “after the war is over. I promise you that. But here is where I’m needed now, and if—“
He knew and if. Marrying now, or even just informing her family of their plans (plans! They had plans! Or they would soon) would only get both of them tossed out of the Abbey. He wouldn’t mind it a bit, not if she were with him, but he knew now that she would. She would mind terribly.
He didn’t let her finish her sentence, but pulled her towards him and kissed her hard.
It was their first kiss he’d really been able to concentrate on. They started out upright and ended half reclined, Sybil lain back on the seat like a Victorian lady on a fainting couch. Somehow their fingers had become intertwined. With her free hand she cradled the back of his head, pulling him even closer. He tasted her lips again and again, luxuriating in their softness. The delicate scent of flowers from her hair just managed to break through the smell of the lye soap the nurses used on their hands.
Tom was not at all surprised by the surging up of his desire for her; what rather amazed him was that she seemed inflamed rather than unnerved by it. It was a pleasant shock to feel her tongue slip out so eagerly to meet his, a low moan rising from the back of her throat. She divested him of his waistcoat and started on his shirt, and even as his hands moved of their own accord to the row of buttons down the front of her dress, he wondered just how far she planned for this to go. Then she sucked his tongue into her mouth and he stopped worrying.
She lay back as soon as she had his shirt open, putting her cool palms on his bare chest to hold him back so she could look at him: shy at first, just as if she hadn’t seen dozens of male bodies in every state of undress and injury, then more boldly. But it was this look that let Tom know for sure that, for all her enthusiasm, she had little if any experience. That made him worried again. No matter what happened afterward, she would always remember this. He’d better make it good.
At the same time it was exciting to have her eyes on him, like a caress. To see them grow rounder as they moved down his chest to the waist of his trousers, flicking lower, then back up to his face. He wasn’t sure how much she could see in the dark, or how much she knew about what happened to men when they became aroused, but from the way she smiled it was clear that she could tell what he was feeling and she welcomed it.
He bent down and her arms went around him underneath his shirt, her hands growing warm against his skin. He shivered. Underneath the buttons he’d undone on her dress there was a froth of gathered linen, the top of her corset. He could see just a hint of the top curve of her breast, hardly more than would be visible in one of her evening gowns, and he put his lips to it softly, gently, feeling it rise as she took a shaky breath. So warm, so silky. No harsh disinfectant had ever touched that bit of skin. He nipped at it and she gasped; he went lower, letting his lips trace the shape of her nipple through the fabric, and she let out a low cry, her nails digging into his back. Panting, he tore at her corset-top until he could press her bare breasts into his hands, suck one of her nipples into his mouth. “Oh...oh, Branson,” she murmured, her eyes half shut.
“Say my name,” he begged, kissing her throat. “Call me by my name.”
Her eyes opened completely and her hand came up to stroke his hair, which he could feel escaping from the pomade. “Tom,” she said. “Yes, of course. Tom.”
He took a breath. “Sybil,” he said, feeling like his heart would burst apart with joy at the softening of her eyes as he spoke.
They fell to kissing again, slow and deep, until Tom was dizzy with desire. He would happily have stayed in that car kissing Sybil Crawley until the Day of Judgment, but he trembled with the effort of holding himself back. She was trembling too. He brought his hand up to touch her breast again and she shuddered, making him snatch his hand away as if her flesh was burning hot, but she caught it in hers and pressed it back.
That really lit his fuse. He swallowed her mouth with his, fumbling under her skirts with his free hand. She didn’t stop him. His fingers crawled up the soft skin of her thighs to the lace edging of her knickers, followed that to the warmth between her legs. She didn’t stop him. He touched her through the silk, his heart pounding into his throat, and she gasped. Again he snatched his hand away. “Forgive me, mila…I’m sorry.” He’d misjudged, gone too far. He’d ruined it.
But she said, “It’s all right,” and actually took his hand and moved it back. Dear God.
“Are you sure?”
She made a little impatient sound in her throat, reminding him that this was a woman not accustomed to having her word questioned. “Of course.” Then she spread her legs a little further apart.
Surely he would wake up soon. He was certain he’d dreamed this very scenario, in the moments before sleep if not during actual slumber. But at the same time it seemed like the inevitable conclusion. Of course she’d said yes; to marrying him, to everything. How could she say anything else? They were perfect for each other.
The silk of her knickers rasped against his fingertips. He moved it aside and groaned when he felt how wet she was, how ready. He sank a finger into her, making her gasp again and his heart almost stop; but clearly it was a sound of delight, not pain. The stuff about posh girls not liking it wasn’t true at all. He couldn’t look away from her face. She looked absolutely solemn, as though concentrating on something fascinating, but every so often her eyes would open and she’d give him a wondering half smile. She was so lovely. He wanted to be gentle, but as she got closer he couldn’t stop his caresses growing more desperate. He was whispering to her, he didn’t even know what: endearments, promises. He’d give her everything, he told her, everything he had, even if that amounted to nothing apart from his heart and mind and body. But in the flash of her bright eyes between her increasingly fevered moans he thought he saw that what he had would be enough for her.
Finally her breath came in pants and she bit her lip and cried, “Oh, Tom—Tom—“
He kissed her through it. Once her cries tailed off he took his hand out from under her skirt and lifted his head. Hers fell back on the seat, the hint of a smile curving her mouth. His heart beat wildly, with pride as well as lust: he’d promised her happiness, and so far it seemed as though he’d delivered.
At length she opened her eyes. She had a wild kind of smile on her face, as though she didn’t care what happened now. She pulled him on top of her again, opened his fly. Distant thoughts swirled, of virtue and duty and Mr. Carson, who would surely sack him without a character if this came to light, but then her hand plunged into his trousers and her touch was the only thing that mattered, the only thing.
Together they removed her knickers, hitched her skirts up far enough for him to nestle between her legs. He was nearly at the point of no return, and all he wanted was to be inside of her, but he was no animal. He knew what she was giving up. It wasn’t just some false idea of virtue; Sybil would always be virtuous, no matter what she might do with her body. It wasn’t just an advantageous marriage. It was respect, reputation, credibility. If this ever came out, no decent household would acknowledge her. “Are you sure?” he asked again. “Are you sure you want—“
“I am,” she said, and he needed no more encouragement.
She sucked in a breath when he first pushed in. “I’m sorry,” he said, but couldn’t have separated from her if Lord Grantham—or worse, Mr. Carson—had appeared at the car window at that very moment.
“No,” she said. “No, it doesn’t hurt in the least.” She sounded rather surprised. Had they told her it would? Had they told her it was a necessary evil, something wives did for their husbands? Not even for their husbands, but for the frowning queue of ancestors behind him, the ghost whispers like the wingbeats of chimney-dwelling birds, muttering that the line must not die out. Suddenly Tom felt almost as happy for Sybil as for himself, that they had somehow found each other, that they were to belong to each other. Duty she might feel, but it would not be her entire life. She would have love, she would have life—her own life. He would see to it.
“I...I love you,” he gasped brokenly, as he thrust into her again. “Mila...Oh, Sybil, I love you so much.” Again, and again, and he felt himself slipping, the current in him strengthening. “Oh...Oh, God.” Her hand caressed his lower back. She moved under him, her breasts against his bare chest unbearably soft, her breath wisped against his ear as she pressed her lips to his cheek, and he was pulled over the edge, drowning, gasping.
A moment later he shook himself as if out of sleep and moved to separate from her, but her arms held him to her, surprisingly strong for such a graceful girl. “I like this,” she said, lazily. “I wish we could stay like this, don’t you?”
“I do.” And he relaxed back into her embrace for a little longer.