When I look into your eyes
It’s like watching the night sky
Or a beautiful sunrise
Well there’s so much they hold.
He was in trouble.
Tom Branson had never had much trouble with women, his lifestyle did not allow for the time to get into that sort of difficulty. He worked, he slept, he sent his paycheck home to his family. That was it. His life under a microscope would hardly have merited a second look by a scientist. Women, and woman trouble, was for those who could afford it. Not for a poor Irishman with little formal education and fewer prospects. Sometimes he reflected on what could have been had his father not died so young, forcing him to leave school and find work, but then he would shrug and move on. It was what it was, and his nature did not allow for melancholy or self-pity.
It wasn’t that he did not attract the notice of women. Oh, no, that was definitely not the problem. In his last job, the mistress had made no secret of the fact that she found him attractive, that she might have welcomed a liaison with her young chauffeur. It was most likely the reason she had hired him.
She was twenty years his senior, a still attractive woman for whom life had provided all the material comforts and none of the excitement and romance found in the novels with which she wiled away her existence. She had given him the looks collected from those novels, the sultry, practiced sidelong seductive glances that had always worked for the heroines she aspired to emulate.
She had attempted to begin flirtatious conversations while he drove her to balls and formal dinners, something they both knew to be prohibited in their world. Nothing worked; he knew his place and in any case was not tempted. Lately she had begun to threaten him delicately, asking him about his family, reminding him that she could change his life in a moment if she did not get what she wanted. It was time to move on.
And now he found himself at Downton Abbey, out of the frying pan and right into the inferno. Why, again, he asked himself, had he thought it wise to join the staff of the most colossal English manor he had ever seen? He was pretty certain that his reasoning had been sound at the time, and the job was much better, that he could not deny. Lord Grantham was a decent employer, as far as English lords went…better than decent in some ways.
On his first day he had been offered the use of the earl’s enormous library as long as he signed the ledger as did everyone else, even the family. The garage held three magnificent cars, one of them the latest Renault; he itched to get it out on the road and see if he could get the darling up to thirty kilometers per hour—maybe more? The best part was the cottage. His own space right next to the garage, with a tiny bedroom, a stove, a barely used desk, and a bookshelf.
The staff was huge…he supposed that a place this size needed the myriad maids, footmen, and cook’s helpers…and most seemed friendly. The butler was the best of his sort he had come across; you always knew where you stood with Carson. Mrs. Hughes was severe but kind, and he sensed a genuine approval of the new chauffeur under her tough exterior. The housemaid Anna was a sweetheart, in love with Lord Grantham’s valet but hiding some personal sorrow. He had learned early that the secret to eating well was to butter up the cook, and so Mrs Patmore saved the best of the servants’ fare for him.
His efforts to be friendly with his new colleagues hit a brick wall with O’Brien, Lady Grantham’s maid, and with Thomas Barrow the under butler, however. Those two seemed to be members of a secret society bent on the destruction of humankind, and woe to the man who came up against them. He was determined not to be that man.
Lord and Lady Grantham had three daughters. Lady Mary, the oldest and self-appointed heir to the kingdom, barely noticed his existence as she was driven to Ripon or to York, her fine nose slightly elevated, and that was fine with him. Lady Edith, the middle daughter, seemed to be afraid of her older sister and at war with her at the same time, using whining as her weapon and meekness as her defense. To them, he was merely a fixture. For all they knew the motor drove itself, and they would have been shocked to learn that it had a driver who had a voice, a brain, opinions. And then there was the youngest, Lady Sybil…
Lady Sybil simply refused to be put into a category. She was different from the others, that was for sure. All of the sisters were attractive; Lady Mary would be considerexd beautiful by her posh society friends, and Lady Edith hid a pretty face behind her sour expression. But Lady Sybil was lovely from the inside out. She had long dark hair that tended to escape its pins and curl around her expressive face with its huge blue eyes in which a man could get lost, and a mouth that…well, never mind.
Her appeal went beyond her looks. She had a sharp mind, she thought about things, she spoke to him. She was infinitely curious. She asked him questions and listened to his answers. She wanted to be useful, believed in women’s rights and in the idea of real work. And she was so very young, barely sixteen. She was a child, he told himself, a child finding herself in the world in which she was destined to exist, a world of which he had absolutely no knowledge and even less interest. A baby. He was mesmerizedl
Oh, yes, Tom Branson was in trouble. He would have to be careful, remember his place. She had no idea about the feelings she stirred in him; she could never know.
She was in love.
Lady Sybil Crawley, youngest daughter of the Earl of Grantham, was in love at the age of sixteen. It was a delicious feeling, an irresistible waremth that enveloped her like a blanket every time she was in his presence. He was the only man who cared what she thought; the only man who valued her as a person and understood her deepest desires, the only man who mattered. To be honest, he was the only man besides Cousin Matthew that she really knew.
She would meet others, of course. Her season was two years away; she would dance with lords and dukes, sons of whosits and cousins of whatsits, all perfectly charming and some perhaps even nice, but none of them him. None of them would care about the vote for women, or her desire to do something with her life someday. She looked upon the season as a necessary rite of passage to be gotten through, a ridiculous ritual that she might somewhat enjoy and then put away forever. She would not meet anyone who matched him. He was all she wanted, all she would ever need, and even more provocative because she could never have him.
He was her family’s chauffeur, a member of the staff, off limits. A servant was not permitted even to maintain eye contact with a daughter of the aristocracy. But Branson was not like other servants. Right from the beginning he had seemed to understand her need for more than her proper, rigid, and rather stifling upbringing provided. He knew things, cared passionately about the country of his birth, and seemed relieved to be free to speak about his own dreams for the future and privileged to listen to hers.
While properly deferential when others were about, it was different when they were alone in the motor. He challenged her, shared his opinions and his ambitions, his hopes for his native Ireland. Once he had told her, “I won’t always be a chauffeur,” and when he said it with such determination, she believed him. He argued with her, supported her passion for women’s rights, and comforted her when her family ignored and dismissed her ideas as childish and absurd.
There came a day, as she leaned forward chin in hand, listening to his lovely Irish lilt while admiring his handsome, animated face with its dimpled smile and sparkling blue eyes, that she realized he was more than a companion…he was her best friend, and he had no idea. He could never know.