A/N: Since the writing demons are currently having their way with the next chapter of Home, I branched off to an idea that's been simmering for a while. It started with a tidbit I dropped in "The Stocking," one that I simply thought made for some different background material, at least as far as most period Sybil and Tom stories went. But Magfreak picked up on it, and then I couldn't get it out of my head, so I'll dedicate this to her! I also intended this to be short, but naturally that didn't happen (not even close). Fair warning, this occasionally dips into M territory but the remainder is quite tame. As always, thanks for reading.


THE MOST TERRIFIC FUN
St. Abbán's Lodge, Killiney, County Dublin
Friday June 7, 1919

"What are you thinking?"

Scratched with exhaustion, Sybil's voice came low and husky as dusk faded into night. She and Tom faced each other in the gloaming; both were naked, sated, and utterly content after their first hours of married solitude.

"Hmm?"

"I said…" She chuckled lightly against his lips, which she began to tease with her own. "What…are…you…thinking?"

Each little kiss lured Tom further from impending slumber. Not that he wanted to sleep when there were more intimate discoveries to be made, but he was most pleasantly spent.

Their wedding day had started in Dublin and ended here at St. Abbán's Lodge, perched on a isolated hillside overlooking the Irish Sea between Killiney and Dalkey. The accommodations were a gift from Mary and Edith who evidently thought he couldn't provide for his wife properly. Sybil – refusing to think so little of her sisters – told him to consider it an olive branch. And so it must have been, for that afternoon as the newlyweds were boarding the train south, Mary had pecked Tom on the check, taking him by surprise. The two of you deserve a few days just to yourselves. And now as he listened to the distant waves surrender to the approaching Dublin and South Eastern railway, whose tracks snaked along the cliff below the lodge, he realized it was the first time in six years they'd truly been alone.

Sybil kissed him from his drowsy reverie, her lips whispering over his mouth, cheeks, and fluttering eyes. Tom gave her that slow lop-sided smile that melted her heart and, as his hand settled on her hip, she snuggled closer.

He blinked lazily. "And just how do you know I'm thinking anything at all?"

"Because, Mr. Branson, a woman who's been married as long as I have, knows her husband!"

"Is that so?"

Sybil yelped when he gave her backside a playful tweak and responded with a few of her own, which roused more than just his senses. Once they'd laughed and kissed into an inelegant web of arms and legs, twining so close that each felt the other's chest rising with quickening breath, she brushed a lock of hair from his brow.

"Your mind is never idle, Tom Branson. So tell me…" She kissed him again, slowly this time, her tongue lingering against his. "What are you thinking?"

Smiling, he fell back against the pillow so he could look up at her, her puckish grin framed by the dark tresses that hung low and brushed his skin.

"I'm thinking a lot of things, really," he said. "About my father, how proud he would have been today. And how foolish your own father was not to come see his daughter married, whether he approved of me or not..."

They'd both largely avoided the subject until then, and he apologized immediately for ruining their reverie.

"I'm sorry."

She shook her head, gave a little shrug. "I wish he'd been here, certainly, but he made his choice, as did I, and it's his loss, darling, for choosing not to know such a wonderful man. But let's speak no more of that for now," she said, trailing a fingertip over his lips. "These next few days are only for us. Now, what else is going through that mind of yours?"

He smiled crookedly. "I was thinking how beautiful and confident you were earlier when…" As he ducked his chin, his face turned a fetching shade of crimson. "…and how unafraid you were, considering that it was a case of the blind leading the blind."

Idly toying with the patch of hair on his chest, she smiled at his reticence. It was as charming now as it was earlier, when he'd made his unexpected confession.

x~x~x

They'd disembarked the train at Killiney Station and hired a motor for the short drive north to St. Abbán's Lodge. Their driver was a heavyset man named Ryan, whose dark mustache danced over his babbling jowls. The car, an older open top model, struggled to climb from the station up to the Vico Road, but make it they did and from the roadway, now threatened by shadows from towering Killiney and Dalkey Hills on the west, came the most splendid view. The beach, the railway, and the meandering road were each stacked above the other in a staircase effect. Between them was a smattering of whitewashed homes, the retreats of wealthy Dubliners, according to Tom. To the north stood the rocky cliffs at Dalkey and eastward was the gleaming white Sorrento House on a promontory jutting out into the glimmering blue of the Irish Sea.

Sybil had worried, particularly given Tom's discomfiture with the gift, that they were being sent to some posh hotel in the guise of a humble lodge. But as the car chugged up yet another little hill and through an arched stone gate, she felt him relax beside her. At the end of a long garden, before the landscape transitioned to a thick wood that stretched up the hillside beyond, stood what she presumed was the lodge. Like the other homes along the bay, it gleamed white in the lingering sun, but was small and unembellished by comparison. On the garden end was a courtyard shaded by an ivy laden pergola, and the sweet smell of gardenia saturated the air.

Mr. Ryan pulled the brake. "There once was a villa there," he said, pointing to a set of ruins at the far end of the garden. "Monte Eagle it was. Owned by an Anglo banker named Harrington who lost his shirt speculating before the war. Mr. Duffy bought the lot of it and changed the name to something more…Irish." Opening the door, he chuckled with glee.

If Sybil had learned anything from her time in Ireland, it was that in the absence of total independence, the natives could find joy in most any little victory.

"And the lodge?" she asked.

"Couldn't stand his posh wife, so he built it for himself."

Sybil shot Tom a sideways glance. "Don't get any ideas."

"We couldn't afford it anyway!" he said, reaching for her hand.

The interior was marginally decorated, very much a man's space, with deeply-varnished paneled walls, and plastered ceilings crisscrossed by faux timbering. There was a dining room to one side, a sitting room to the other, each a cozy space with plain furnishings. It hadn't been electrified so the gas lamps gave everything an uneven light. But Sybil thought it perfect. So apparently did Tom, who squeezed her hand.

The owner, Mr. Duffy, was affable but not one for ceremony. He scribbled in the registry – Branson, eh? that's a sound Irish name – offered the key, and hoisted the luggage. As he left their room upstairs, he gave instructions for meals.

"Breakfast at eight, if you're up, if not we'll leave a tray by nine…" Sybil didn't miss his mischievous wink. "And dinner is at seven in the evening. Lunch is extra, but most go into Killiney or Dalkey. I can ring for a motor if you've need of it."

Tucked on the northeast corner, the room was cozy and bright, with a pair of windows overlooking the garden and a single window and door facing east. Sybil stepped onto the balcony which offered a sweeping view of the bay. To her left were the rocky cliffs she'd seen on the drive up, and to the south, the coast flattened with an inviting expanse of beach. Tom wandered up behind her. His warmth radiated against her back.

"Tom, isn't it lovely?"

"Would you like to go down?"

She turned, curious.

Taking her hand, he smiled. "It seems a shame to waste the light."

He seemed almost relieved when she agreed.

A narrow footpath wound toward the beach and, finding the tide low, they strode barefoot down the strand and back again, finding their familiar balance of laughter and conversation with no expectations beyond the next step in the sand. It was the permissible solitude she loved the most, the simplicity of his hand in hers and the occasional kiss, taken without the threat of prying eyes. She also relished the soothing timbre of his voice, coupled with the wavelets lapping their bare toes, as he talked about his childhood spent at the southernmost end of the bay.

"When we were still living in Bray, before Da died, he and Ma would bring us up here to explore amongst the rocks and the tide pools."

Sybil swung his hand beside her as she glanced upward toward the steep cliffs. "It reminds me of Naples, the way the hills dive straight down to the shore, and the villas seemingly perched in midair."

"I imagine the locals did as well. Did you notice all the names? Vico Road, Monte Vista, San Elmo…Sorrento Point."

She glanced out to sea, thought of how far her family had traveled for wild beauty and here it was, just a ferry ride away.

"There's a park up at the top of Killiney Hill," Tom said, pointing the opposite direction, "if you'd like to go there tomorrow."

"Perhaps, if we can't find anything more exciting to do." They'd stopped and she simmered with a slow smile before falling into his arms, embracing his warm solidity. Leaning up on tiptoe to kiss him, she whispered, "Shall we go back?"

"Are you sure?"

She lofted an amused brow. "If you're asking if I'm ready to make love to my husband, the answer is yes."

Blushing, he tucked a loosened tuft of hair behind her ear. "I so want our time here to be enjoyable…all of it, and if you'd rather wait…"

"Is that what you'd prefer?"

"No! It's just…"

"Tom, darling, I'm not naive about what tonight will bring, physically speaking, if that's what you're worried about, nor have I got grand ideas of perfection either, given my lack of experience…"

"And mine."

His confession came so quietly, she wondered if he'd spoken at all. Watching him blush furiously, his eyes darting out to sea and back again, realization struck. The winds twisted dark sandy locks across his brow, gave him an air of innocence she'd never seen.

"Oh." She hadn't meant to sound surprised and, if possible, he reddened even more. "Never?"

"No."

She would inquire later, knew they would find time to talk about any number of private matters, but for now she simply smiled. "Then we will truly begin our marriage on equal footing."

He kissed her again, bolder and probing, much to her approval. She pressed her hands against his chest, shaking with uneven breath. "Let's go back."

x~x~x

They begged a light dinner from Mr. Duffy, but neither could do more than nibble at their plate. They were on the verge of escaping when the old man wandered in to set dessert and grumbled at the wasted food.

Then he grinned, knowingly. "You'll have a heavy breakfast waiting in the morning. Get on with ya."

The room felt smaller than when they'd arrived. Now, the little lodge sat in the shadowed lee of the hill and light was receding from the windows. But the sun had not fully set and tailings of light sparkled out on the bay. As Tom ducked into the washroom across the hall, Sybil rummaged in her suitcase, shoved the impractical lacy number Mary and Edith had gifted her to the bottom.

She'd no need of such things.

When she returned from her own ablutions, Tom was perched on the edge of the bed. His jacket and waistcoat were folded over a chair, his shoes tucked neatly beneath. His braces hung loose at his side. As she removed her jewelry and the pins from her hair, she caught his smile reflecting in the dressing table mirror. He reached for the lamp, which cast a cream colored glow over the room.

"I can turn it down if you wish."

"No. For now, it's probably best we see what we're doing, don't you think?"

Watching her, he looked at once both eager and terribly unsure of himself. Equally unusual were his idle hands, which he twisted awkwardly in his lap.

This simply won't do, she thought.

She stood in front of him, pulled her hair aside. "Can you help me?"

He'd never given much thought to the complexity of ladies clothes, other than hearing the ridiculous conversations over his shoulder about fittings and designers and changing umpteen times a day, but now, with his fingers struggling downward, it struck him as absurd that dresses fastened in the back.

In a moment of frustration, he chuckled. "No wonder you required a maid!"

"At least I changed before we left – Mary and Edith had a devil of a time getting me out of it."

Tom whispered against her shoulder where the dress had fallen away. "It was beautiful, though, as were you today."

He hadn't expected the sudden bout of nerves when they'd entered the room, nor the rapidity with which it passed once she turned in his arms. It was the equality of it that put him most at ease, the survival of social condemnation, the shared vulnerability, or maybe it was the simple contentment being alone with someone he'd grown to utterly adore.

He bent to kiss her, groaned at the warm velvet of her tongue.

And, God help him, he couldn't stop. Not that Sybil seemed eager to let him.

Clothes tangled at their feet and they fell off-balance, laughing, onto the bed. Later, Tom would recall only moments, such as when she brought his mouth to her breast and he suckled gently, earning an approval that hummed in her throat. And the way her own caresses crept lower, curious and exploring. Feeling the weight of him in her palm, she traced the textures with studious fingers. She grinned, fascinated, as his arousal grew.

Instinct was a generous master that night, though not one without a sense of humor. He fumbled slipping into her – his damned nerves picked that exact moment to flare – and she'd been the one to guide him. She made a small sound, as did he, both stilling, adjusting, stilling again, each smothering blushes under hands and mouths. He'd barely started to move when he felt a swelling in his groin, like the sucking of the tide before a wave crashes ashore. He stiffened, dropped his face to her neck and grunted softly against the strain.

"What's the matter?"

"Jesus, love, you feel good."

"Well, that's reassuring."

Their laughter shook them with little jolts of pleasure. He gasped and stiffened again. Unmoving, Sybil held him until his breath evened.

"We've all night," she whispered.

Such an odd thing, he mused when he rose above her, to be so natural with someone like this. Her smile, first radiant and playful, faded into something different, lustful almost as she lifted her knees to take him deeper. Thrusting easily and again, he found a gentle rhythm that they both seemed to enjoy. For him, the sensations were so raw and unrefined, so overwhelming in the brevity of it all, that the sudden pulse of release took him by surprise.

Kissing away his apologies, she smiled, guided his fingers between them to a warm bulb of skin.

"Just there, darling."

As his own orgasm faded, he felt hers build, then flutter and burst around his softening erection. Eyes closed, she arched against him, her mouth slightly parted when she whimpered his name.

It was, he thought as she trembled in his arms, the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.

x~x~x

Sybil wasn't ignorant, not by any stretch. Her first day of training in York had introduced her somewhat abruptly to the male anatomy. Old nurse Rankin, a veteran of the Boer Wars, had whipped back the sheet of one young soldier who, thanks to a heavy dose of morphine, was blissfully unaware of having his bits on display. She'd lifted and prodded with such detached detail that the young trainees were too shocked to giggle.

Sybil too remained entirely clinical about it all, had even shocked her sisters when they pried her away for tea not long before her courses were completed. She'd been describing her expected duties at the Downton Hospital when Edith, who'd gone unusually pale, asked, "You give them baths?"

"What did you expect?"

"Don't they have male orderlies for that?"

"Edith, honestly, there's no need to be prudish about such things. Believe me, compared to the burns, stumps, and bloodied wounds that require constant attention, one hardly has time to notice testicles."

It was the last time Mary and Edith inquired about her work.

Anatomy was simple. Piecing together the lovemaking puzzle was another matter entirely.

What she knew came from rumor, innuendos giggled by colleagues on tea break. And before she left for Dublin with Tom, her mother had imparted what she felt was "practical information on what to expect." It was nothing beyond what Sybil already knew, but with Mama still recovering from a combination of the flu and the shock of a daughter absconding with the family chauffeur, she had thought it best not to press her luck.

It was Isobel who addressed Sybil's curiosity and even presented her a copy of Mrs. Stopes new book, "Married Love," considered obscenity in certain circles.

"I don't agree with all of her advice," Isobel had told her. "I still believe it proper for husbands and wives to share a bed even when they aren't getting cozy, but Mrs. Stopes rightly emphasizes that a satisfying partnership is one based on equality and mutual pleasure."

In those days before her departure for Ireland, between her reading and questions and stolen moments with Tom, her dreams surrendered to bits of imagery: his hands, his arms, his mouth and cheeky smile, the rare unbuttoned collar. Unguarded, her mind assembled the known and unknown, until one night she awoke to the sensation of his embrace and kisses, and an altogether different, and decidedly pleasant, sensation between her legs. It left her more curious than unsettled, and also with the determination that her desire for Tom warranted no shame.

Beside her on that first night, as she lay listening to a flock of seagulls squawking by, Tom fought sleep with a cheeky smile. Sybil could understand why – lovemaking was rather exhausting! Earlier, they'd bumped and fumbled and apologized more than a crowd on market day. It was more trial and error, but in the aftermath, as they clung together, their bodies trembling in a whirlwind of sensation, she considered how perfectly imperfect it had all been. Moreover, the sheer novelty of it, the intimate touches, the solidity of his body moving against hers, had flamed that desire first ignited in her dreams.

Like the first time she ever saw the sea, she found herself drawn to it.

To him.

What did Mrs. Stopes call it…the fundamental pulse?

He could sleep later.

"Tom, darling?"

"Hmm?"

"What are you thinking?"

x~x~x

"I wouldn't say we were blind, exactly," Sybil told him with a little shrug. "Just inexperienced."

"I for one felt like I was grubbing away in the dark," Tom mumbled.

She palmed his cheek. "We'd both enough knowledge of nature that all we needed was a little instinct."

"Well, your instincts served you well, I must say," he chuckled. Trailing a finger over her breast, as he had last night, its peak came to life. Maybe she was right.

A stirring in his groin chipped away at his exhaustion and he wondered if twice this evening might be too much for her. His hand slipped lower, found the soft thatch between her thighs.

"Are you sure you're…"

"If you ask me again if I'm alright, I'm going to get really annoyed with you," she said. "As I told you, a little discomfort at first, nothing more."

"Sorry. It's just that I've heard..."

"Honestly, Tom, it's a penis, not a tire iron!"

He burst out laughing and snuggled in for a kiss. "I'm not sure how to respond to that."

"Sorry. I didn't mean to be crude."

He grinned smugly. "And just when did you learn about tire irons?"

It was her turn to laugh and she lofted a brow. "Did I ever tell you about our chauffeur? Cheeky fellow he was, but aces with motors."

"Allow me this, then," he hedged. "Was it what you expected?"

Sybil chewed her lip thoughtfully. "Mama said when you love someone, it can be the most terrific fun."

"And was it?"

"I thought so, yes. And you?"

His grin went crooked and he nodded. "Although not being used to it and all, it was hard to not…you know…too soon." Blushing in the lamplight, he brushed his knuckles to her cheek. "I wish it had been longer."

"Tom…" Crawling onto his chest, she probed her tongue against his. "My darling, as a nurse… I can assure you….you're perfectly…normal…"

"What? No! I mean when we…" When she erupted with giggles, he narrowed an eye, flipped her over. "Are you going to make a habit of sassing your husband?"

"Most likely." With a satisfied hum, she stretched her arms above her head. Her nipples nudged up against his chest.

Twinkling with mischief, his eyes followed their rise, and he dipped to suckle each in turn. Then he reached to turn down the lamp.

"What are you doing?"

"We've no need of it."

Settling into her arms, Tom reached for a knee and then the other, slowly drawing each around his waist. In the darkness, she felt his breath hot against her mouth, his arousal quickening between her legs, and down the length of his chest, his soft mat of hair brushed her skin. This time, they came together easily, no discomfort or reticence, only the fullness of his body in hers, rocking gently as the distant waves crashed ashore.

x~x~x

Like Sybil, Tom was well-educated in the facts, but for him, inexperience had not been foisted on him by propriety, but was a matter of choice.

While the Church and Irish mothers demanded discretion of their sons, the Dublin of Tom's youth offered a buffet of irresistible sins. Seek and ye shall find, one worldly neighborhood boy used to say. But Tom's path, at least in sexual matters, diverged from that of his chums. After one failed dalliance left him bitter, politics became his mistress, the printed word his lover. Not that he didn't fight impulse or temptation, or the morning sting of mother nature, he most certainly did. And if the latter didn't resolve itself, well...that's what confession was for. At least according to Father Paul.

Father Paul had been a man of the flesh before taking orders and had guided the fatherless Tom through much of his youth. He saw something different in Tom, the way he cared for people, not by bringing them bits of bread, but internalizing their plight. One day after mass, not long before Tom left for England, the priest had even taken him aside and asked, "Tommy, m'lad, have you ever considered the church?"

"Despite our own conversations, Father Paul, my patience with God wears thin when it comes to inequality. Its best we keep our ends the same and means apart," he said, and then gave an easy grin. "Besides, I think marriage to a woman would suit me best. Someone of her own mind, but who shares the same passions for justice in a better world."

"You'd find it easier becoming a priest."

Before Sybil, Tom wondered if there wasn't a kernel of truth in the advice. But once he arrived at Downton, the earl's youngest daughter had stirred his blood from the start, and she challenged every ounce of will power he'd forged back home. Patience became his greatest ally, especially when some pretty young kitchen maid inched in his space. He couldn't help though but flirt and sass, though, even with old Mrs. Hughes. It kept him human when he tired of hibernating in the garage.

And then she'd saunter in.

With Sybil, Tom found equality in hope, made love to her in debate. He didn't feel innocent when they'd finish; in fact, she could strip him to his very soul. It left him begging for more, imagining the day when conversation happened in bed and they could talk well into the night.

Among other things.

And there he was less sure of himself. Of how to please her, beyond the basic act.

Father Paul was always reliable when Tom needed him most. With his own father gone, and close relations scattered about (except for his mother and Kieran, neither of whom he was inclined to ask any delicate questions), two days before his wedding when delay was no longer an option, Tom slipped into the old priest's office for guidance.

Father Paul seemed amused, which was rather annoying considering Tom knew damn well he wasn't the first here to ask such things.

"So you'd seek guidance from a man who hasn't seen the naked body of a woman in nearly thirty years?"

Tom squirmed. "You've more experience than I do."

"Experience is a dangerous word, Tommy," he said, eyes dark with warning. "I've never known the love of a woman or loved her back. I've only known sin and carnal lust." Leaning back in his chair, he sighed. "Do you love her?"

"Very much."

"Do you love God?"

"I'd be obliged to if he'd quit diddling around and give me the advice I came for."

Father Paul crossed himself, laughing heartily. "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, did you spend the last six years in England or in hell?"

Tom grinned cheekily. "A good Irishman would say both."

"And a good Irishman would also tell you that when a man first takes his bride to their bed he should trust in God and take two shots of whiskey."

Tom chuckled. "And what would you say?"

Fishing a bottle and glasses from his desk, the old priest smiled. "I'd say, Tommy m'lad, there's a bit more to it than that."

Staring at the ceiling late that first night, with Sybil draped across him and snoring softly in his ear, Tom grinned stupidly at how easy it had been in the end. He didn't need God, or the two shots of whiskey, just Sybil and faith in himself.

And a little advice from a priest.

x~x~x

On Saturday morning, consciousness crept over Tom slowly, like a thick velvet curtain lifting from a stage. He lay face down, his arms, legs, everything a dead weight and refusing to budge. He yawned, squinted at the sunlight that pricked his eyelids. God, he hadn't slept like that in ages, and for a moment he wondered if it was exhaustion or relief or both. Either way, he woke feeling reborn and smiled lazily into the pillow as his mind replayed the previous night.

Despite every little rebellion at Downton – her dresses and nursing, the political quips that curled her father's hair – Sybil was always anchored by expectation. But last night, eager and unafraid, she'd cast off the chainmail of propriety and set herself free. Tom had also found himself rather adept at pleasing her, had taken to lovemaking like a duck to water, or at least she seemed to think so. Thoughts of her writhing beneath him, her thighs against his hips urging him on, had an immediate effect and suddenly the mattress became uncomfortable.

"Good morning."

Her voice, accompanied by the stout whiff of bacon, came chipper from the far side of the room. When he rolled over, he found her nibbling – no, scarfing – from the breakfast tray promised by Mr. Duffy.

He chuckled. "Hungry?"

"Famished."

"I can't imagine why."

She slurped jam from her fingers. "None for you then."

"Is that my robe?"

"Hmm," she murmured over her teacup. "You weren't using it."

"And just what am I supposed to wear?"

She lofted a brow.

"I can't eat naked!"

"And why not?"

"Crumbs, of course," he grinned, sitting up. "They might…get places. Or did you forget you married a commoner?"

"Hardly common, I should say." Her eyes drifted down as the sheet fell away. "I see our agenda is set for the rest of the morning."

He covered quickly. "Sorry."

"Don't be. Whether its love or lust, I'm glad I have that effect on you."

"I assure you, my darling, it's a little bit of both."

"It's a shame we can't do this at home."

"What? A naked breakfast?" His stomach rumbled. "Can you bring me some bacon?"

"Why, because I'm the woman?"

"No, because there's not much left!"

He sat on the edge of the bed, the sheet as his loincloth, ankles crossed and pouting. Honestly! She smirked, snatched an empty plate.

"To answer your first question – in her book, Mrs. Stopes suggests that women should be more…modest around their husbands."

Assembling his repast, Sybil stood, let his robe slip from her shoulders and pool at her feet.

"Is that so?"

She turned her back to the window and reached, rather provocatively in Tom's opinion, across the table for a piece of toast. He'd seen her in the lamplight last night, of course, had caressed the soft curves and valleys, but here in the morning sun, he felt a bit woozy.

"She says that man still has the ancient hunter in his blood and that if the woman domesticates herself too willingly to her husband, is too docile to his demands, I believe is the way she phrased it, that she will snuff out the thrill of the chase."

"I'm not sure I like Mrs. Stopes, suffragist or not."

"Hmm. She also says that lovemaking should be a judicious act, a few times over the course of a few days, and then a few weeks in between."

"What?" His heart plummeted.

"She's determined that men are best satisfied, and their vitality renewed, after a fortnight of abstinence."

He simply wanted to cry.

Wandering over with his plate, she gestured at his waist. "It makes it easier for the man to…you know."

"I don't know where Mrs. Stopes got her information, but I assure you that things…" It was his turn to gesture. "…sometimes behave unilaterally. And more often than that!"

Sybil laughed so hard that he nearly wept in relief. When he flopped back on the pillow, he decided he didn't care that the sheet pulled away, rather enjoyed the rays upon his skin. He reached for a piece of bacon, munched greedily and stretched.

In her heart, Sybil knew she should let him eat, indeed tried to distract herself tidying the table, but instinct kept drawing her gaze to the bed where his body, all of it, momentarily docile and rested, was blanketed by the morning sun. He must have noticed, for when there were no more crumbs left for her to chase, he dropped the last bit of bacon and held out his hand.

"Come here."

His tongue was flavored with salt and, once she'd settled onto his lap, laved it slowly across each breast. She clutched at his skin, hummed small noises of need, as did he when she shifted her hips. She did it again, felt him gasp against her shoulder. His erection hardened against her thigh.

She wondered...

Pushing him back into the pillow, she mouthed his cheeks, neck, made him groan when she nibbled his earlobe – a new little discovery she made eager use of – until he gasped and tried to roll them over.

"No darling…"

"Sybil, I'm…"

Smiling wickedly, she wiggled back to straddle his hips.

Sybil had a sensuality about her, emboldened with an intoxicating mixture of curiosity and confidence that roused his blood all the more, and Tom nearly came right then, feeling her moist warmth brush his erection and again when she took him in. Exposed in the morning sun, he could see everything, from where they joined, to her hips and breasts, their peaks teasing through the tresses of fallen hair. Brushing it aside, he took them in hand, teasing each under his thumbs. She was still learning her way and, faced screwed with concentration, discovered what worked through need and the occasional question to him - Darling, how is this? Not that he could answer with anything resembling words. She'd smile at whatever sound rumbled in his chest and would simply do it again.

"Are you alright?"

She slowed to a rhythmic grind that left him squirming.

"Jesus, love," he breathed, "don't stop."

"I thought you'd had a heart attack."

"If you don't keep going, I just might!"

Sybil laughed at that, reset her pace and gripped his hands. Sweat stung his eyes and somewhere deep inside him he felt it welling up. He was learning to refine it, the art of release, still recognizing her internal flutter that signaled she was near. When she came that morning, it was almost a vise and the strength of it pulled him over.

She collapsed to his chest, both of them trembling and panting through waves of pleasant tremors. She nuzzled a trail of kisses up his neck, finally settling on his mouth. Lazily, tongues teased and dipped.

Eyes glistening, he tipped her chin. "My darling," he whispered, "are you really mine?"

x~x~x

As much as both wanted to spend the day discovering the novelties of married life, they were also keen to enjoy the coastal landscape. So, after securing a sacked lunch from Mr. Duffy, they began their explorations in the rear garden, which offered easy access to a trail stretching from Dalkey to Victoria Hill Park.

"Although everyone here – the Anglos excluded know it as Killiney Hill," Tom explained as they hiked hand-in-hand along the trail. He had a spring in his step that left her struggling to keep up. "It wasn't until the Queen's Diamond Jubilee that it was named in her honor."

"Did you come here as a boy too?"

"I did! I always loved the obelisk atop the hill – if it's open, we'll take in the view."

For Sybil, her short time in Ireland had opened a window into his past. At Downton he'd told her of his early interest in politics, his cousin who was caught in the crossfire of the Rising, and the years he and Kieran spent refining their mechanical skills. He'd spoken little of his youth. But here on a quiet hillside in his homeland, her hand tucked safely in his, any previous reticence ebbed away. He peeled back the layers, trusting her with stories of his past, of losing his father, of watching his mother's heart break, of feeling her fear when they'd lost their income and were forced into Dublin.

"He'd a small pension, of course, having worked for the railroad," Tom told her as they wandered on. "But it wasn't enough, even combined with what she managed to collect from taking in sewing or washing, to keep the house. It was a grand little cottage, too, with a view of the sea. We weren't middle-class by any means, but we didn't have to worry about where the next meal would come from, or having the train fare to journey up here for a day. We were comfortable, which is more than many could claim."

"How old were you when he passed?"

"Five. And Kieran was ten. We'd a sister between us – did I ever tell you that? – but she died as a baby."

Through the forest, the narrow path was bedded with larch needles and framed by a blanket of ivy covering the slope to one side and a sea of emerald moss on boulders and fallen trees to the other. Above them lay a high canopy of oak, sycamore, horse chestnut, and birch and, combined with the vegetation to either side, made for a tunnel of such lush grandeur that it muffled the distant crash of the waves and the squawking gulls overhead. It also made his voice, always so crisp with confidence, softer somehow, or maybe it was simply the lingering residue of vulnerability.

"Ma wanted to stay in Bray," he went on, helping her navigate over a snarl of bulging roots. "She had a brother and sister nearby, and both were kind enough to help us out as much as possible, but they had their own families to care for. So, she found a job as a seamstress at Arnott's, and we moved to Dublin."

"Eventually becoming the head seamstress," Sybil said, knowing the rest of the story. "The Branson work ethic runs deep."

"I'm glad she decided to retire, though. She's worked hard, and deserves a rest. And she's always wanted to return to Bray."

Mrs. Branson was moving south that very weekend to take up residence with her widowed sister. Her announcement came a few weeks ago, once she seemed convinced Sybil was unlikely to bolt back to England. I don't know what I'm to do with the cottage, Tommy, she'd dropped one night at supper. But Tom was onto her ploy and ignored the increasingly obvious hints until she appeared one day with a deed. That only led to a shouting match worthy of Parliament until his mother finally relented to accept a pittance in rent.

"Did she ever consider remarrying?" Sybil asked.

"There was a man in the neighborhood who'd lost his own wife and also worked at Arnott's. He would bring us sweets when he came to tea, but they were just friends, or so she always claimed. I once asked her if they would marry, and she said, No Tommy, to give my heart to someone else, it would have to be whole again. I couldn't give less than that." He stopped at a spot along the path where the vegetation opened to window facing south along the beach. With the sun warm against his back, he bent to kiss her.

"That's another family trait I've come to admire," she said, brushing his cheek.

"What's that?"

"Being a romantic."

He laughed, kissed her again. "Well, I'm not sure how romantic my feet are going to feel after today!" Pointing to an object perched on a seemingly distant rise, he said, "It's a lot farther to the top than I remember!"

Eventually, the lushness of the forest gave way to open space and the gorse-covered rocky slope leading onward toward the top of the hill. A breeze swirled in off the sea, bringing with it a whiff of salinity and the faint strains of laughter from those on the beach so far below. The path turned to hardpan and pebbles and, more than once, Sybil had to stop to dislodge one from her shoe. But she didn't care, not with his hand snug in hers and a blanket of yellow gorse reflecting brilliantly against the sun. In fact, she remarked, the whole cliffside seemed alive with it.

"The Irish word for it is aiteann, although most people call it furze."

"Such an odd name for something so beautiful!"

"It blooms all the time, did you know that?"

"No."

He snapped a sprig and tucked it in her hair.

"Out we strolled again, 'twas bright summer weather;
Straggling o'er the moor, fondly linked together;
Ah, she cried, look John! what flowers the beams flash on,
When furze is out of bloom, kissing's out of fashion
."

"Well," she smiled, "bloom or not, I plan for it never to be out of fashion at our house!"

She giggled when he lifted her for a kiss, and felt that novel urge stir deep within her, growing more potent once he pinned her against a nearby boulder. Taking his face in her hands, she whimpered a bit as his tongue slid softly over hers. They only stopped when another hiker, rounding the bend, hastily cleared his throat. The older man, with well-worn staff tapping loudly, grumbled by, muttering about public indecency. Both snickered and braved a few more playful nips to give the old goat a head start on them.

"I've heard you quote John Stuart Mill plenty, but when did you become a poet?"

"You can thank Ma for that. She read everything to us, made us memorize lines of literature. I took to it more than Kieran, of course, although I wasn't so keen on the poetry." He glanced up the path, and satisfied they had enough buffer for privacy, he took her hand. "Not much further, Mrs. Branson. Let's go see the best of Ireland!"

The trail meandered more roughly now, wound by cragged rocks and clumps of gorse, but despite the cramping threatening her calves, she pressed on without complaint. The breeze blew harder, snapped her skirt against her legs, and both she and Tom were out of breath when the summit finally came into view and revealed the gleaming white obelisk crowning the top. Turning round at Tom's urging, and taking in the expanse of the Irish Sea, she determined it was well worth the climb.

"It's beautiful!"

"Can you manage a bit more?" he asked, pointing toward the obelisk.

"Of course!" But not much, her legs begged as he led her on.

The obelisk was seated on a high foundation of stone, three sides of which contained arched recesses and the fourth side, a door. Above was the observation platform and reaching skyward was the conical spire itself. According to a plaque adorning the front, it had been constructed in June 1742.

Last year being hard on the poor,
the wall around these hills and this were erected by John Mapas Esq.

"There was a famine in the early 1740s," explained Tom. "And a particularly bad winter made things even worse. There were food riots and, according to some, icebergs floated in the Liffey. The wealthy would fund construction projects, follies and the like, to provide work relief for the poor."

"I'm sure the poor didn't think of them as follies, then."

"No, not when there was no other option to put food on the table, that's for sure."

Tom waited for the crowd of tourists to pour out of the doorway and ushered Sybil inside. The stone-encased stairwell echoed their footsteps all the way to the platform above where she was struck breathless at the panoramic view of the coast. The view from below had been nothing compared to this! She felt, quite literally, as if she were standing atop the world.

She leaned forward against the iron railing, Tom warm at her back and an arm around her waist. With the other, he pointed to the distant landmarks. To the north, over the peak at Dalkey Hill, was the promontory at Howth. And Dublin's buildings, each indistinct in their own right, collectively formed a busy pattern, denser in the distance near the Liffey, and becoming less so at its southern suburbs. Closer in were the docks at Kingstown, where they'd disembarked six weeks previous. Further down was Dalkey Island and an outcropping of rocks capped with a red and white beacon.

"It's called The Muglins," he said, and she laughed at the name.

He went on describing the entirety of their view, all the way south to the end of the bay at Bray Head and two distinctive peaks, one larger than the other, that dominated the horizon.

"That's the Great Sugar Loaf on the Little Sugar Loaf," he explained, pointing to each. Then he directed her eyes to the town laying in their shadow. "And that's Bray."

"Oh Tom," she breathed, scanning it all again. "It's magnificent."

When she glanced back at him, the wind twisting strands of hair across her face, he whispered, "I'm glad you think so," and pressed a soft kiss to her mouth.

Being one of the more popular sights of the park, the platform filled and emptied with rapid succession and, not wanting to monopolize such a grand treat for others, they squirrelled their way back down to the lawn. Tom gestured to an expanse of rock, which stretched invitingly under the beaming sun.

They lunched on Mr. Duffy's corned beef sandwiches and a bottle of ale Tom had tucked in his jacket. It was warm and bitter and Sybil coughed at first, but it offered the only relief from the dry hike.

"I should have been a better footman," he teased.

"When in Rome," she toasted, and took the last swig.

He stuffed the bottle into the empty bag, hummed happily as she crept over and settled against his upturned knee, laying her head against his shoulder. For a while they said nothing, simply watching the visitors come and go from the obelisk and children racing each other across the grass.

"Tom, can I ask you something?"

"Of course."

"Yesterday, when you told me that you'd never…well, before, I'd assumed you had since…"

"Since I'm a man?"

"One overhears a lot as a wartime nurse, it wouldn't be uncommon. Men certainly aren't held to the same standards as we are."

"And the consequences are different as well. My mother was a bloodhound for sin and believed in stressing the evils that come of it, and reminding me of my cousin Finnoula whose illegitimate child was raised as her younger sister."

"As honorable as you are, darling, when it comes to equality of the sexes," she prodded, "I can't imagine that was your only reason..."

Tom had learned enough in his six years of parrying politics that Sybil's curiosity was as true as her heart. She never feared of asking why, wouldn't accept things as they appeared. He should have known any revelation on his part would be excavated to its bare bones and he couldn't help but smile.

"There was also Father Paul, the very same that married us today. He was once a man of the world – ensnared by the devil, he would tell us boys – before he took orders. And he knew better than most that the threat of eternal damnation had little effect on young men." Tom's mouth curled into a grin. "He used to tell us a certain appendage would shrivel up and fall off if we were careless. He'd say Tommy m'lad, its best to surrender to self-indulgence on occasion than get your finger trapped in the wrong honey pot…"

Sybil laughed at his accent, a perfect imitation of the man who performed the ceremony today. "Well, I've certainly seen cases where men would have been better served by discretion, or at least the proper use of contraceptives."

He took a lock of her hair, twirled it around his finger thoughtfully. "Not that I wasn't tempted, or given the opportunity..."

She gave him a devilish grin. "Opportunity…hmm…sounds as if your charms might have led someone astray..."

"Sybil!"

"Though I couldn't blame her. You're frightfully handsome. Now tell me."

"I'd rather not."

"Why?"

"Because it was mortifying!"

She lofted a brow. "Tom Branson, considering that we have successfully managed to do – several times, I might add – what neither of us had ever done before last night…"

"Oh very well," he sighed and rolled his eyes at her oozing, clinical curiosity. "I was sixteen and girls being the complete mystery that they were…and are," he threw in with a pinch to her arm. "…when Annie McDonald suggested in front of my friends that we…you know…" He gestured awkwardly much to Sybil's amusement. "…what was I supposed to say?"

"That was rather bold."

"She had rather a bold reputation, one which my friends were quite willing to vouch for."

"So what happened?"

"One Sunday afternoon a group of us came down to Dalkey and once the others had paired off we were left alone…stop grinning! After a while, she was bare from the waist up and of course I was too busy staring at her breasts to undress myself. One minute I'm sitting next to a beautiful half-naked girl and the next her hand is in my trousers." He squinted at the sun. "It was…a bit much."

"And then what?"

He flushed miserably. "And that was it." When she furrowed her brows, he gave her a pointed look.

She threw a hand to her mouth. "Oh!"

"Abstinence is a cruel mistress to young men, love," he sighed, then huffed a laugh. "She stormed off, saying she wanted nothing to do with a man who had a hair trigger."

"What a wretched thing to say!"

"I was convinced something was wrong with me! And there's nothing like an embarrassing jolt of feminine rejection to readjust a man's priorities. And after that," he smiled, "well, I transferred my passions elsewhere."

Pulling him down for a reassuring kiss, she said, "I think we've proven there is nothing wrong with you. Quite the opposite, in fact!"

"Mmmm," he hummed against her tongue, and then pulled back, a playful glint in his eyes. "I could use some more convincing."

Taking his hands, Sybil tugged him to his feet. She was all too happy to oblige.

x~x~x

Between the hike and a playful round of lovemaking heated by the late afternoon sun, both Sybil and Tom drowsed heavily until the alarm clock (his suggestion) nagged them awake for dinner. Neither wanted to move, but the previous twenty-four hours had taught them that love and hunger went hand-in-hand.

They ate under the ivy-laden pergola in the east-facing courtyard and listened to the distant waves crashing up against the rocky shore. A storm was moving in, Mr. Duffy had told them, and Tom recognized from his childhood the stiffening breeze infused with the faint scent of rain. But for now, the air was alive with honeysuckle and lavender, and a series of copper lanterns ringing the pergola flickered gaily in the waning light. It was a perfectly tranquil evening, spiced by teasing and laughter, conversation unmoored from propriety. Their newfound freedom to simply talk was, in Sybil's opinion, a rather unexpected aphrodisiac.

Behind them, a middle-aged couple - Anglo, Tom whispered across the table after noting their muted Irish brogue – babbled on about little Johnny's latest run-in at prep and Emily's curious interest in "that Drummond boy."

Once the couple had exhausted the latest neighborhood gossip – "it was quite going to the dogs" – they turned their ears to Tom and Sybil's private exchange regarding items needed for the cottage.

"New house?" the woman probed.

"Yes," replied Sybil momentarily.

"How lovely!" She smiled. "We're here on our second honeymoon. Fifteen years."

"Our first," Sybil smiled back. "Twenty-four hours."

The couple lofted matching expressive brows.

Tom flushed a guilty shade of red.

Turning her chair round, effectively butting into their dessert, the woman rattled off a litany of questions: How did you meet? Chauffeur you say? Golly, that must have been a show. And now a journalist? My, how enterprising! And you a nurse? Amos, aren't they the most darling pair?

With her patience wearing thin at the Dowager-like inquisition, Sybil was progressively economical with her replies and, once the raspberry tarts were hastily consumed, nudged Tom's shin.

Later, as she sat at the dressing table removing her earrings, Sybil rolled her eyes. "Well, she was rather nosy."

Tom toed off his shoes. "She was rather tipsy. Or didn't you notice the two empty bottles on the table?" He wandered over, dropped a kiss to her head and glanced up at their reflection.

A heat surged through her, pooled in the pit of her stomach, snaked down and between her thighs as his hands deftly unclasped her dress. In an unwelcome moment of disquiet, she wondered if fifteen years from now, would it be the same? She was still unnerved by such sudden arousal, the little flames set ablaze by a simple touch or the lilting timbre of his voice, not to mention her near impatience to feel him inside. Shrugging off the loosening dress, she stood into his waiting arms.

She hugged him fiercely. "Promise me it will always be like this."

His deep laughter rumbled against her cheek. "And not turn into a pair of busybodies?"

"Wanting each other so."

Tipping her chin, he smiled. "What is it they say? The older the violin, the sweeter the music."

"Take me to bed?"

He didn't need to be asked twice.

x~x~x

Sybil woke later to a swirling burst of air that left her shivering into Tom's chest. They'd left the balcony door ajar – both had enjoyed the rhythmic roll of the storm as they made love. Rain splat-splat-splatted through the threshold and the room lit with a flash, followed much later by a harmless rumble of thunder. When she shivered, Tom hurried over to close the door. Unrolling a heavy blanket from the foot of the bed, he fell back in beside her, tucking them up in a cozy cocoon as rain pelted the windows.

Snuggled in his arms, she tucked her head beneath his chin. Tom's fingers drifted up her back, twirled at the base of her neck and down again. Hers sifted through the hair on his chest, and she felt his heartbeat thrum against her cheek. Night was falling on them much as it had twenty-four hours earlier – sated and smiling, though now they touched with such tender ease that Sybil marveled at the change.

Listening to the storm, they yawned and murmured about what they might do on the morrow (other than the obvious). They began to drowse when a distinct sound filtered through the ebbing thunder. It sounded like a moan…and a crotchety door? Or maybe, thought Sybil, as it worried her awake, it was the memory of crawling into Edith's bed on stormy nights, when her irritated sister would try to scare her out of the room with some fiendish tale. Edith was viciously animated with her imagination.

She furrowed her brows. "What do you think it is?"

Tom chuckled sleepily.

She propped up. "Tom?"

"I think our fellow travelers are getting a rather late start of it."

"Oh!" Sybil snatched the blanket over her head, her voice wobbling with laughter. "Surely we don't sound like that!"

He burrowed down with her, finding her lips in the darkness. "With the way…you carry on…ouch! Watch where you pinch!"

By then, they were awake, drawn to one another with a sort of playful enthusiasm, like children on Christmas morning, wide-eyed and eager to make a go of new toys. Except this was unlike any trinket she'd ever known. They rolled and tussled, found new ways to tease, such as when Sybil, tangled in the bedsheet, nearly wound up in the floor. Tom caught her from behind, nibbled at the base of her neck.

"Stop – that tickles!"

Before long she was snorting laughter and pummeling his shins with her heels.

His kisses slowed, whispered softly behind her ear. One hand found a breast, the other the warm valley between her thighs.

"God, Sybil, I love you so."

They rolled again, both shoving furiously at the twisted sheet.

Later, they lay in a tangled mess limbs, brows touching as fatigue set in.

"With a little more practice," she mumbled through a yawn, "I think we're going to be rather good at this."

Tom chuckled, and drifted off thinking she was probably right.

x~x~x

By Sunday dawn, Sybil was starting to suspect her husband was rather a morning person. Not that he wanted to get out of bed, quite the opposite in fact. He yawned himself awake, unfurled from her body and groaned with a mighty stretch. When Sybil rolled towards him and the sheet snagged over his hips, she noticed he wasn't the only thing stretching. She giggled.

He reddened, then relaxed, tipping her mouth to his. "That happens."

"A lot?"

Again, that boundless curiosity.

"Well, I'm hoping now that it will get regular exercise, it won't happen quite as often! I know it must seem a rather fun thing to happen, but waking at half-mast isn't always a treat!"

Sybil darted a glance below his waist where things had tamed down. "It was more than half-mast a moment ago, darling. Besides, it's not as if I haven't seen…"

"Stop," he said, palm over her mouth. "No more about your patients during the war." He rolled to his back again. "Thank God you're on the maternity floor at the Rotunda. At least you won't be comparing me to them!"

"So you won't mind if I talk about dilation or placentas or…"

This time, he pounced playfully and silenced her with his mouth. Settled into their cozy embrace, he roused quickly and thrust in.

His breath curled softly in her ear. "Is this what it takes?"

"Oh, God, darling," she groaned as he set an easy rhythm. "I thought you'd never ask."

x~x~x

Between yesterday's hike and the ample fun they'd been having, Sybil was quite sore when they woke before lunch. A warm bath loosened things a bit, but once Tom splashed in behind her, they were soon scampering back to bed.

Honestly, he's insatiable!

Well, they both were, Sybil had to admit, but she wasn't ashamed. Later, as they lay breathless and sheened in sweat, she whimpered at the stiffness in her legs.

Feeling the strain in his own back, Tom groaned as he sat up. "Shall we go into Dalkey for lunch? Mr. Duffy said Killiney doesn't offer much." He tried nursing her leg, but seemed to have more fun nibbling his way up her thigh.

"Ouch!"

"Does that hurt?"

"A massage would be preferred."

"Sorry." He rubbed her calves slowly, which was marginally less distracting. "You didn't answer my question."

"How far is it?"

"It's a stretch."

Again, Sybil whimpered, but conceded that whining on their last full day was no fun for anyone. She'd been a nurse during the worst of it at Downton, long days and even longer nights fighting sore feet and an aching back. Surely, she could manage a walk.

x~x~x

She didn't discover the blisters until halfway into town and managed to hide them until a limp betrayed her. She bit back a groan.

"Are you alright?"

"Mm-hmm."

Tom rolled his eyes. "Do I need to carry you?"

"Don't be ridiculous. We'll have lunch and go straight back. Besides," Sybil went on, squeezing his hand. "I won't need my feet the rest of the day."

"I'm glad to hear it."

They settled for a pub on the outskirts of town. The Blind Pig had the barest selection, but offered tables on a balcony facing south along the bay. They'd been fortunate with the weather, to be sure, and last night's storm had cleansed the air with a spring-like brilliance, fresh and crisp. The sun gleamed bright against the nearby buildings and in the distance, at the base of the cliff, the tide was ebbing out. As Sybil finished her fish and chips, she kept glancing down, finally begging one last walk along the strand.

"Are you sure?"

"I may have to take you up on your offer to carry me back, but yes. Not enjoying one last trip to the sea before we return is criminal, don't you think?"

Before heading down, she suggested souvenirs – peace offerings, to be precise – for her family. They browsed a series of storefront windows, and in one of the first, an amulet caught her eye. Dangling from a strip of emerald ribbon, it was a sea-worn shell shaped like Ireland and painted to match. Then she saw the price, frowned, and wandered on. Other stores featured engraved spoons, snow domes and salt and pepper sets, patches, buttons and paperweights. She finally settled on postcards for her mother and sister, a cookbook for Isobel, and politically neutral tie pins for Matthew and Papa. At the last window, she laughed and Tom came over to inspect. It was a crocheted blob of white, except for a prominent beak and button eyes.

"It's a chicken."

"Actually, it's a tea cozy."

"Do we really need one of those?"

"Hardly. We received two as gifts, but can you imagine the look on Granny's face when she opens it?"

A bell tinkled when she opened the door. "Are you coming?"

"I'll wait here," he smiled. "Plausible deniability, milady!"

Later, loot in hand, they headed for the shore on the narrow, rocky path that wound down the cliff. The beach here was uninviting for bare feet but offered a trove of ocean-borne treasures. Sybil collected stones of every color, each having been smoothed over by the sea. She found each more irresistible than the next.

"We've that clear vase your cousin gave us," she told him. "Wouldn't these look lovely in it?"

At present they were collecting in Tom's pockets and stretching the limits of his braces. "Here, I'll put the cozy in my coat – use the bag," he said when she reached for more. "I'm going to lose my trousers!"

She giggled. "There are worse things that could happen!"

"Why such fascination with rocks?"

She retrieved a pair for his observation. One crimson, one black, they glimmered like polished gemstones in the afternoon sun. "Time made them that way, buffering out the imperfections," she said. "Some things are worth the wait, wouldn't you agree?"

He smiled slowly. "I would."

Then he brandished an object from his inside pocket.

"Oh Tom," she breathed, taking it in her hands. "But it was too much…"

"Hush. And turn round so I can put it on."

It was the little amulet, its face delicately painted with the green of her new homeland and bordered by a bright blue sea. And across the landscape, stretching from the little dots marking Cork in the south to Belfast in the north, was scripted Éirinn go Brách.

"What does it mean?"

"Ireland forever." When she glanced up, he smiled, brushed her a soft kiss. "Just like us."

x~x~x

They'd returned to the lodge and grudgingly began the chore of organizing clothes and travel items. Tom made a few jabs about the bag of rocks going in his suitcase (apparently his had more space) and settled them next to his pajamas, which he then smugly noted were just where he'd packed them.

"Maybe you'll need them tonight," Sybil replied, throwing him an arched brow.

He looked as if someone sat on his puppy.

Packing would simply have to wait until the morning, she thought, nibbling a roguish grin.

They met in a frantic kiss near his side of the bed, laughing and fighting at buttons. Clothes were strewn aside in a comical shake of arms and hips, and once they tumbled into the pillows, they'd both nearly laughed themselves out of breath.

"I was worried, you know," he said, turning his head to face her. "About this weekend, about how it would be with us."

"You doubted us?"

"Not doubt, really, more curious."

"And now?"

Settling over her, feeling the heat of her against his arousal, Tom smiled. "And now I can't seem to get enough of you."

"Well, there's no harm in trying."

Much later, Sybil lay on her stomach, feet idling in the air as she drowsed away the aftershocks prickling her skin. Feeling Tom's body shuffle beside her, she opened a sleepy eye. Propped up on elbows with his backside bare in the afternoon sun, he whispered kisses across her back, charting a trail to the low valley between her hips where he made a loud smacking noise that made her laugh. It was early days yet, but still, Sybil could never have imagined how different each time could feel. Different, yet increasingly familiar. Like going home.

When she found enough strength to think about getting out of bed, she inched a foot over the side. Tom objected, of course, and seized her waist.

"Darling, we've not long before Mr. Duffy will give up on our dinner."

"I'm not hungry for anything that can't be found right here…"

"Honestly, I feel like Dr. Frankenstein," she giggled, as he nipped at her neck. "I've created a monster!"

That earned her a harmless growl.

Another, more ominous growl, rumbled up from his stomach.

"You were saying?"

"Oh very well," he muttered, rolling swiftly to his feet.

Sybil propped on an elbow, keen to take in the view. There was something about his maleness she found rather intoxicating, and not just the most obvious bits. He was at once so cocksure and bashful, offering a plentiful view as he bent to retrieve his trousers, then turning away slightly as he tucked himself in. His chest was sturdy yet soft around the edges, a perfect fit for her arms, and as her eyes followed the dark trail of hair where it disappeared at his trousers, her stomach gave a happy flutter.

Buttoning his shirt, Tom grinned.

"I'm glad you're enjoying the show."

"Does it bother you?"

"Of course not, although I expect you to return the favor later tonight!"

"Do you mind if I'm a few minutes?" she asked. "We're off in the morning and I'd like to write Mama a letter before we leave."

He stood by the mirror and finished his tie. "Can't you do it then?"

"Given how things have gone, I suspect we'll get distracted."

Tom grinned at that. "It's only a matter of who distracts who first," he said, leaning down to kiss her. His hand brushed over her breast, exposed above the sheet. The nipple tightened under his palm and he teased it between his lips.

Sybil bit back a whimper.

"I'll go down for a pint and be back in half an hour."

His absence left a palpable void. Over the past few days, she'd grown accustomed to the sound of his voice in the room, his ambling about, and those rare moments when they weren't curled up in bed and he'd crane back in a chair on the balcony, his nose dug in a newspaper.

Sybil slipped from the sheets, grumbled a bit as the shadows lengthened on her last night here, but she wouldn't think about that now. They would rob every ounce of time before their morning train. She dressed and did what she could with her hair, left in a wretched tangle after their afternoon bed sport. Combing out a snarl, she determined that once she had the chance back in Dublin, one of the new stylish bobs – simple and easily managed – might be just the thing for her.

As dusk settled over the room, she considered lighting the fire, but opted instead for Tom's flannel robe. In the warm lamplight by the window, she dug a letterset from the desk.

St. Abbán's Lodge, Killiney, County Dublin
June 9, 1919

Dearest Mama,

Tom and I are set to return to Dublin tomorrow morning, but I couldn't leave without sending word of how lovely the last few days have been. To be honest, though, I'm not sure what all the fuss is about, at least as far as weddings are concerned. By the end of the planning (and the ceremony for that matter), I would have been perfectly satisfied to stand with only Tom and the priest, but I suppose these things are designed more for the audience than for the participants. I won't detail it all here, as I know Mary and Edith have already given their account. The important thing is that Tom and I are finally married and off to a grand start!

Mama, these past few weeks settling in with Tom (under his own mother's vigilant watch) have only reinforced my belief that we are truly suited for one another. Neither of us could ever give our hearts unwillingly nor attach ourselves to anyone we didn't consider an equal, in mind, in soul, or in spirit. We know we'll face hardship. Both of us are starting near the bottom of our respective professions and we've both faced prejudice on either side of the Irish Sea, but as trite as it may sound, I believe our love can (and has) overcome whatever fate throws our way.

Speaking of the Irish Sea, I've enclosed a postcard of our honeymoon view. Isn't it lovely? When Mary and Edith said they wanted to gift us a few days of solitude I expected the worst - some luxurious hotel that would have most certainly made Tom uncomfortable. But, they know me as true sisters should, and instead found a cozy spot here at St. Abbán's Lodge, overlooking the bay. Please let them know, as I'll not have time to write until later this week, that I couldn't have imagined a more perfect place to begin my life with Tom. We've spent much of these last few days in honest conversation, as husband and wife, as the dearest of friends.

Tom's voice called softly behind her. "Sybil, love, are you ready?"

"I'm almost finished, darling."

Smiling, he ambled out on the little balcony.

Tom's just come to collect me for dinner, but I promise to write more when I can. I'm back to work at the Rotunda in two days and settling into the cottage will consume much of our time. We've masses to do. Tom's mother only moved out this weekend, so there's not been much room to organize what little we've collected thus far. A bed, a chest, and a table make up most of the lot, so the linens and kitchenware you sent were very much appreciated!

"And surprisingly practical," she giggled to herself, and suspected Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore were conscientious advisors in the effort.

Give my love to Papa and Granny. Reassure them (as best you can) that I'm happily and freely embarking on a great adventure with a man of my own heart. I'm confident they will come round someday (as is Tom), but in the meantime, it would ease my mind to know that you, who understands me better than most, can accept my darling husband as a proper-son-in law. He's a truly wonderful man, Mama.

With all my love,
Sybil

Hurriedly, she addressed the envelope and when she glanced up, caught sight of Tom through the window. With elbows on the railing, and the breeze tousling his hair, he was staring out toward the sea, smiling contently in the waning light. That wave of desire rushed through her – she was still reeling from the intensity of it – and she reminded herself they'd still have tonight before life began unfolding tomorrow morning. Retrieving her pen, she grinned and hastened a postscript.

P.S. You were right – we've had the most terrific fun!


A/N 2: The lodge was my own creation, but the rest of the sights along the bay (the obelisk, etc.) are real and certainly worth a google. In fact, the cover photo is a postcard view from atop Killiney Hill. The poem quoted by Tom comes from Sighs, Smiles, and Sketches (1867), by J.G. Maxwell.