Valentine's Day, 1938
Tom Branson was out for an afternoon stroll. He had a purpose in mind, but there was a slight detour he had to make first. His feet led him down a path he hadn't been down in many years. It had stopped being comforting to visit her after a time so he had stopped making regular forays. And then he and Sybbie had moved to America and though he thought of her daily, he had never come back to the spot where she lay. But today he felt he must.
He passed the grave of his old friend and the grave of the Matriarch of the family that he had known for so long now. A family he considered to be his as much as his blood family. The family connected to him forever through the blood of his daughter. He stopped finally at the head stone he had come to see. He knelt down and let his fingers trace her name and begged the tears in his eyes not to spill over. He still missed her. It surprised even him how much.
“Hello my darling. I just wanted to stop by today to tell you something.” He spoke to the stone as he knelt down in front of it and took his hat off.
“I’ve met someone and I'm going to ask her to marry me. I think she'll say yes. I just wanted you to know, though I think you may have helped bring us together. I know you would like her. In fact, I know you did like her. And you inspired her to be what she is today, and what she is, is the reason we met.”
Tom was silent for awhile. His hand brushed over some fallen leaves, blown astray from the winter and not yet returned to the earth by the spring. He crumbled one of them in his fingers and watched the remnants of it blow away in the breeze. It was almost symbolic of his old life finally being let go, and a new life to await to blossom and grow.
A sob escaped his lips finally.
“I will always love you Sybil. More than the earth. But Sybbie is nearly grown and I don't want to be alone anymore. She needs a mother, and I know you are there with her in spirit, but she needs some guidance in the flesh.”
“Her name is Lily and I love her very much. She is kind, and strong, and smart. She reminds me of you in many ways, but she is herself too. Sensitive and shy when she wants to be. And more considerate than almost anyone I've ever met. And she adores Sybbie and Sybbie adores her. That is the most important thing.” He kept kneeling and the silence of the area, other than his voice, thrummed in his ears.
“I just wanted you to know. I will love both of you with all of my heart. I promise.”
He finally couldn't stand the silence anymore. He stood up and wiped the tears from his cheeks. It wasn’t a final good bye he was saying to his love, but more of a way of showing her respect. He was ready to move on, and feel love for another woman again. A woman that was worthy of his feelings and would never hurt him. And Tom was so sure that Lily was the one. He had known almost immediately that there was something special about her, but the circumstances that brought them together had not allowed him to act right away.
It had been weeks.
Tom chuckled to himself. Mary had stopped him after New Years and told him not to let time waste and scoop her up. He deserved to love again. He had done right by Sybil and Sybbie for seventeen years and no one wanted him to end up alone.
And now the beautiful creature that was his Lily had come into their lives. With her heart wide open. And the family loved her. Everyone loved her, but no one more than him.
He stepped back from her grave and as he did a small white flutter caught the corner of his eye. He watched the feather continue to drop majestically to the ground and he stooped down to pick it up. He recognized it as the feather of a white dove and wondered if it was a sign from Sybil that everything was okay. He wasn't leaving her, he would take her memories to his own grave, but rather he was continuing his story. He tucked the feather in his pocket and went back the way he had come.
He stopped and looked back at the graves and made a note in his head not be so sad anymore. There was happiness in his future. He was sure of it. As long as Lily agreed to be a part of it.
He walked down a lane where he knew a shop was located that was one of his destinations. He entered through the wooden door and the bell ringing above his head announced his presence.
“Hello Mr. Branson! And where is our lovely Lily today?” The old baker looked around the shop for the woman who was often Tom's companion lately.
“I'm on my way to meet her. I was just hoping that you had one of those cherry cakes left. The ones that Lily loves so much?” Tom looked hopeful.
“Aye. I do. Let me go wrap it up for you.” The baker winked at him.
Tom felt in his jacket pocket for the ring that was hidden in there. Good. He hadn't lost it.
The baker came back and handed him a box wrapped in a pink bow. Tom paid him for it, thanked him and left the shop quickly before the baker could draw him into a long conversation about the world, which he often did. Tom, Lily and the old man had many heated conversations in the shop and all three of them loved it. It was one of Lily's favourite places and it had become Tom's in the last months as well.
He walked the rest of the way to Lily's small house with a smile on his face and opened the gate to her front garden. He knocked on the door and waited nervously for her to greet him with that beautiful smile that he had fallen so hard for. But she never came. He knocked again. No answer.
He wondered where she could be. She had told him to come at four, she would be ready, and she was never late. It was the nurse in her. As punctual as the hours of the day. So where was she? Maybe she suspected something and no longer wanted to be involved with an old widower with a high maintenance daughter. His head raced with thoughts. He knocked once more.
He heard a crash come from inside and heard her yell something to someone. Panicked, he turned the door handle and the door popped open. He went inside, through the small entrance and ran into the kitchen in the back of the house and stopped in his tracks. It was chaos.
He looked at her, and she looked at him completely shocked.
“Oh my God Tom! Is it four already?” She suddenly looked like she was about to cry. He set the small box he carried on the flour-covered table and reached out to her. He wrapped his arms around her and she put her forehead on his shoulder and started to cry.
“What is going on in here?” He rubbed her back and eventually she looked up at him with her tear-swollen blue eyes.
“I was trying to cook a perfect dinner and I've messed it up completely. I was so nervous.” She told him apologetically and he hugged her close once more.
“Why were you so nervous Sweetheart?” He looked at her sympathetically. Whatever she had been trying to do had clearly not gone well by the state of her kitchen. She had made him dinner before and it had been lovely.
“Because I've never had a Valentine before, and I wanted it to be perfect. The only thing that turned out was the chicken, and my stupid cat ate most of it while I was in the pantry.” She pointed to the destroyed carcass of a roast chicken on the counter. He couldn’t help himself and he started to laugh.
She looked mad at him at first, to be laughing at her misfortune, but eventually she joined in. She brushed some of her floury hair out of her face and he leaned down to kiss her. That seemed to remove the last vestiges of her bad mood.
“I'm sorry Tom. I really am. You know I've been nervous about accepting the job at Downton.” She turned her back to him and went to the table to attempt to clear some of the mess so he could at least sit down.
“About that... I don't want you to take that position.” He reached into his pocket.
She turned to look at him in shock. “What do you mean? I thought you said it was a wonderful idea. And you said it was my decision.” Just a touch of defiance crossed her lips.
“I did. I was just hoping you would consider a different position first.” He tried to quash his strange grin but he wasn’t sure if he was successful or not.
“What would that be?” She crossed her arms and look at him with challenge.
“I was hoping that instead of just being Sybbie's nurse, if you would consider becoming her mother as well.”
“What?” Lily uncrossed her arms and stood up straight.
“But by agreeing to that, it means you will also agree to becoming my wife.” He felt the beads of sweat forming on his brow.
“What?” Lily couldn't seem to comprehend what he was saying. He decided on one more route. A more direct one.
He knelt down on one knee before her and took her hands.
“Lillian Becker, will you marry me?” He could not say it more clearly than that.
She stared at him, her mouth open. She snapped it shut when she realized, and could answer what both her heart and brain were telling her was right.
“Yes. Yes. Yes!” The final one was punctuated by her pulling Tom to his feet.
He leaned down and kissed her soundly, exploring her mouth a little, going a little further than he usually did. When they broke apart, he took her left hand a slid a beautiful little diamond onto her finger. It was a perfect fit.
She stared at it and then she stared at him. She had never in a million years thought she would agree to marry any man but she couldn't have known that the winds of fate would bring Tom Branson into her life. And she was so grateful they had.
“I love you very much Tom Branson. And Sybbie too. I'm honoured to be asked into your family. And I will make Sybil proud by taking care of you both.” She leaned up and kissed him on the cheek.
They stood in the messy kitchen and just held each other. Eventually she stepped back and swept her arm around the room.
“I don't know what we can do for dinner. I've wrecked everything.”
“You've wrecked nothing my love. You've made me incredibly happy.” The look in his eyes completely melted her heart. “Tell you what. I've brought some of that lovely lemon cake that you love so much. We can just eat that, then we should go tell Sybbie the good news. She'll be dying to find out what you said.”
“Alright. That sounds nice.” She turned from him to get two small plates from the cupboard. He laughed to himself that she hadn't responded to him that she actually detested the lemon cake, but she wouldn't hurt him by saying it. He loved her so much. She would never hurt him.
He had opened up the box with the cake before she had come back and as she set the plates down she noticed that it was actually the cherry cake.
She laughed out loud, and he laughed as well, just to hear the melodious sound of her voice.
“I should have known.” She smiled at him, the warm dimpled smile.
He broke off a piece of the cake and popped it in her mouth. Some of the chocolate topping stained her lips and he bent down to take it away with his own.
Her kiss tasted like cherries and his heart was near to burst with the happiness he never thought he would feel again.
He was coming home... To stay.