I find it interesting that of the nearly five thousand fanfics currently in the Downton fandom on this site, only fifty or so concern themselves with the doings of Mary's Men. Perhaps that is because we will never forgive Matthew for dying, or that as a whole, the fandom likes to concentrate its energies on other stories the show does not cover – well and good. Regardless, we write what we would like to read, and this is what I like – a little longer, a little more period, more than a brief glimpse into the life of Downton. More will follow – we have a whole weekend to cover.

I wrote the story with the idea of it being more Team Mary than anything else – exploring her a bit as a person and what her needs and wants are before also exploring who will best fulfill those. I also wanted to know more (or create more, really) about Charles Blake, in light of his interesting socio-political situation, being an heir in Northern Ireland. I'm not sure that this is really a 'ship' kind of story, (though my bias on the subject is pretty clear) and have chosen not to label it as such.

I know my view is not a popular one, but I hope my reasons for thinking so are well explained throughout.

I also hope you enjoy reading it.

A Woman Well-Reputed

Testing the waters of her interest in Charles Blake, Mary accepts an invitation to his cousin Sir Severus' house for a shooting weekend, and gets more than she bargained for making new acquaintances, and putting past love affairs to rest. Mary, Evelyn, Charles, and others.

I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife:
I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman well-reputed, Cato's daughter.
Think you I am no stronger than my sex,
Being so father'd and so husbanded?

-Portia, Act 2, Scene 1, Julius Caesar

Act 1, Scene 1: Autumn, 1923.

Even from a hundred miles away he managed to make her sound like a snob.

You'll forgive us, I hope, if it doesn't live up to Downton, but my uncle hasn't entertained like this since before the war.

The mysterious Sir Severus, it seemed, had been talked around to hosting a house party, and Charles had written to Mary, asking her to come. It was to be a shooting weekend – Just neighbors, in the main, no one too posh, but Evelyn's promised to come, too, and he's bringing a friend of his from his Army days, and since "someone" had told him how much Mary loved to ride (That was probably Evelyn) and was a "sportswoman of some repute in Yorkshire" (Evelyn again, damn him.) he thought she might enjoy the proceedings.

My uncle's not a very sociable person, Charles wrote, apart from his Army friends, and I don't think Hilda and Lillian quite thought through who they were going to invite when they tried to talk Uncle into giving a party, so I've been asked to try and get a few younger people who aren't terribly dull and can tolerate a bit of jazz in the evening. Since many of my friends are from the Ministry, this first condition is rather a high order.

Mary had to allow herself a laugh at that – hadn't it been her assumption that Charles wasn't witty? But it was like him to be a little self deprecating. On acquaintance he could be a very fair conversationalist, a compliment she wasn't sure she could extend to everyone in government work.

It seemed so strange, to be thought of as 'the younger set' for the purposes of a party. Mary hadn't thought of herself as 'the younger set' since before the war. Were widows in general entitled to think of themselves as young? Mary supposed there were a great many of them, after four years of fighting, young women who had scarcely had time to think of themselves as married before finding out their husbands were dead.

But whatever else went along with widowhood, it also rendered her respectable – and above reproach for accepting the invitation of a single man to go and visit his family home for the weekend.

"Really, Mama, I don't know what you think is going to happen," Mary said when she'd first broached the subject of going to Ireland. "I have it on good authority all the revolutionaries have gone home now that they've got Home Rule. And anyway, we're out in the country, not in the back-end streets of Belfast."

"I wasn't thinking about bombs, Mary, I was thinking about your reputation." Cora made this sound as though a slight to Mary's good name was a good deal more catastrophic than a silly little thing like social unrest.

Mary resisted the urge to roll her eyes at her mother and sighed. "If he were concerned about what people thought about it he wouldn't have invited me. And there won't be anyone there to scandalize – it'll be his cousins, his aunt, Evelyn and some army friend, and some of Sir Severus's stuffy old neighbors. I rather get the feeling I'm being invited to make sure there's a female around to keep his cousins from being bored stiff."

"And how will you get to – what did you say it was called again?"

"Clonfinard. I'm taking the train to Liverpool, and we'll catch an overnight express steamer to Belfast. Charles is sending someone with a car to fetch us from the port."

"Seems like a long way to go for a shooting weekend."

"But not a long way for a friend," Mary countered evenly. Her mother couldn't argue with that, and so the matter had been considered closed. Mary hadn't shared Tony's startling news with her mother, that Clonfinard was one of the largest estates in the North of Ireland and was entailed lock, stock, and barrel to Charles when Sir Severus died. Somehow it didn't seem fair to Charles, when he'd said he wanted to 'win her on his own,' and she knew that her mother would take every opportunity to throw them together after she learned of his impending fortune. No, it was better to let this go naturally. Let her mother come to whatever conclusions she came to regarding Charles' suitability for her on her own and tell her about the money later.

It had been a long time since Mary had gone anywhere besides London, a longer time still since she'd done much in the way of country weekends, and there was a seemingly endless list of things to prepare – riding habits to be let out, or redone in the new style (was it appropriate for women to merely wear breeches, and ride astride now that skirts had gone high, or did one still wear the skirt and go side-saddle?) and boots to be gotten off of their trees and polished, luggage to be retrieved from the attic and the season's colors to be reviewed (Was this dress too bright for country sports? Too showy for the evening? Would they need to bring the tiara, or would diamond clips suffice? Was it in bad taste to be too in fashion the further you were away from London?)

She would take Anna, of course, that was not even a question. Mary rather doubted Lady Blake or the Misses Blakes had a competent maid between them, and it really didn't matter who was coming for the weekend - she wasn't going to be caught out trying to dress her own hair for dinner. (Results would have been disastrous. Not, she supposed with a brief smile, that Charles would have minded that.)

It amounted to a surprisingly short trip, given the amount of planning that had gone into it. The train to Liverpool was uneventful, and they waited a mere two hours before boarding their steamer to Belfast. One went to dinner, went to sleep, and then woke up to find oneself practically on the other side of the Irish Sea. There was breakfast, a bit of time to dive into a book, a walk around the boat deck, and then they were there. It was all very predictable and true to form, and once Anna had located their luggage, Mary was quite prepared to sit and wait near the customs office for someone from Sir Severus' house to show up with the car.

However, she had barely had enough time to walk out of the Port Authority offices when she heard someone shout her name.

"Don't tell me you drove all this way yourself!" Mary said in surprise, watching Charles jump away from his perch against the side of a very sporty looking Talbot.

"It's a splendid day for driving," Charles defended, giving her the polite peck on the cheek reserved for maiden aunts and friends who have seen each other at their very worst. "And anyway, I didn't want you to think I'd short-changed you somehow by sending someone else to pick you up."

"How gallant of you," Mary replied. "But I don't see how we're going to fit my luggage into your little roadster there," she said, gesturing to the diminutive sports car. "And I have Anna with me as well," she added, though Anna herself made a solid enough presence next to the luggage. She, too, was eyeing the car with some distaste, probably because, as her employer had already observed, this was a two-person vehicle – and a very cozy two people at that.

"My uncle's chauffeur followed me down with the house car," he said, pointing to the eminently more respectable looking sedan sitting fifty meters down the road, accompanied by its uniformed driver, a salt-and-peppered gentleman with an almost military bearing. "Have you so little regard for my planning skills? My aunt was kind enough to remind me before I left that ladies of rank never travel without a three ring circus' worth of luggage before I reminded her that I'd already asked Barnard." He nodded in the direction of the sedan. "So he can take Anna, and the luggage, and I can take you." He opened the Talbot's door and gestured inside with an almost theatrical flourish. "Don't worry, he won't lose a thing," he added impishly. "I know how highly you value Anna."

Mary glanced back at Anna, who smiled reassuringly. "Have a nice ride, my lady." And, implicit with that, the unspoken addendum: I don't think your mother needs to hear about this later from me. Mary considered this and, with a brief conspiratorial smile at her maid, stepped into the Talbot and allowed Blake to start the car and send them off running.

"Was it a pleasant crossing?" he asked politely after they'd cleared the city limits (quite a feat in itself, considering the mixture of horse-drawn drays, buses, and hordes of pedestrians) and could finally hear themselves talk over the loud purr of the motor.

"I slept soundly enough, if that's what you're asking," Mary replied, watching the countryside fly by.

"One of the many benefits of overnight steam travel," Charles remarked with a smile. "Go to sleep, and find yourself in a new place altogether. If only it were that easy to get everywhere."

"Some people call that dreaming, Charles," Mary said pointedly, returning her gaze to the undulant hills over the car's hood ornament.

It was a pleasant drive, far pleasanter than some Mary had been on in Yorkshire; they met only one or two other motorists, each one honking cheerily in greeting as they passed. After a while, the usual pleasantries of conversation had lapsed into a comfortable silence, leaving Mary to enjoy the view as the car sped along. So often, a room without conversation was seen as a trying, terrible thing, but a car-ride with only the wind and the wild birds for ambiance seemed a kind of Eden.

She knew they were getting close when Charles started pointing out local landmarks. It was surprising, at least to Mary, to watch him become so animated over a village, or a farmhouse, or even a stand of trees, and to hear him relate the local history with such relish – how this church had been here since the reformation, and this crossroads had a charming local story about how it got its name. Charles, who loved to be thought of as a modern with no sentimental ties to the way things had always been, was secretly a bit of a sentimentalist when it came to his own home ground.

"There have always been woods around, but the coppice here was planted in the early eighteen-hundreds by the first Baronet. The story goes that he didn't want his neighbors to be able to see into his windows at night while they were entertaining," Charles said, suddenly turning off the road onto what was clearly a private drive, heading through the woods and passing an open wrought-iron gate. A few more easy turns, meant, clearly, to ease the passage of the last generation's four-in-hand carriages rather than the current one's four-cylinders, finally brought them up to an allée of birch trees, trunks white against the greens of the lawn and the ashy-gray of the house beyond them.

As they neared the house, the shade of the allée finally opened up, revealing an expanse of Neoclassical villa, wings stretching wide around a graveled front ground punctuated by a small garden near the house's front door.

The house-parties of Mary's debutante days contained many memories of many such entrances, the servants lined up near the door to greet guests, the house's master and mistress present to give an even more formal welcome. Now in the age of the motorcar, where everyone's coming and going happened in the blink of an eye, many houses had dispensed with the formal welcome, though Mary could just make out two frenetic figures at the top of the house steps, waving madly.

"Well, here we are. And I think the welcoming party has spotted us," Charles said with a smile, turning into the driveway and parking the car at the base of the steps as the two girls descended, radiant with smiles.

"You said you'd be back hours ago!" the younger one exclaimed, throwing her arms around Charles without any regard for propriety. "Is this her?"

"Slow down, Hilly, we don't want to be thought unsophisticated," Charles said lightly, giving enough of a hint to the girls that their behavior was not quite up to snuff yet. The enthusiasm subsided a bit, enough for Mary to collect herself so Charles could make introductions. "Lady Mary, allow me to introduce you to Hilda and Lillian Blake, my cousins. Girls, this is Lady Mary Crawley, the daughter of the Earl of Grantham."

"How do you do?" the girls asked, very nearly in unison, which made Mary smile.

"Very well, thank you."

"Did cousin Charles make you take the long way around? He does that sometimes, to show visitors the farms and all his projects. I hope he wasn't too boring."

"Hilly!" Lillian, the older one at seventeen or so, looked scandalized at twelve year old Hilda's quip. Charles, deep in conversation with the footman who had just emerged to take the car around to the coachhouse, offered no defense. But Mary took it in stride.

"We took what I imagine to be the short way in, and it was not boring in the slightest," Mary said, utterly truthful. "He didn't lecture once."

This seemed to reassure the girls. "We're ever so excited you're here! Papa's friends all came up this morning and they haven't done anything except sit in the smoking room discussing politics," Hilly confided. "But now that you and Mr. Napier's friend are here we can have all kinds of fun!"

The car's care successfully remanded, Blake returned his attentions to the group of girls. "Hilly, why don't you go inside and see where Mrs. Booth has placed Lady Mary? Her things will be arriving soon with her maid, and she'll need to know where to go," Charles suggested, letting Hilly run off in search of the housekeeper.

"I'm ever so sorry about Hilly," Lillian said after her sister had run out of earshot. "Sometimes she's just…" The older girl's voice trailed off into uncertainty, clearly more than a little distressed by the unorthodox welcome afforded by her sister.

"I have two younger sisters myself," Mary sympathized, which garnered a look of relief from the teenager.

Lillian turned to go inside, and then, pausing, turned back. "We are very glad you're here," she repeated, and then took the stairs two at a time into the house.

Mary turned back to Charles to find him smiling widely. "What are you smiling about?" she asked, genuinely curious.

"They've been over the moon for the last week about your coming," Charles said, leading her up the stairs to the front door. "They may have made you over into a bit of a fairy princess, to tell you the truth."

"I suppose I have you and some over-rosy remembrances to thank for that," Mary added with an accusatory smile. Charles did not answer, but his own guilty grin served well enough for a reply. "They seem like very nice girls."

"They are. Hilly does run a bit wild and annoys her sister to no end, as I understand sisters do, but they're very sweet, at the end of the day. Even to their cousin who is taking their home away from them," Blake added regretfully.

"Entailments are tricky like that," Mary acknowledged, remembering another distant, estate-grabbing cousin with a fond smile. Charles' face fell.

"I'm sorry, I'd forgotten –"

"Never mind that, it's done now," Mary said quickly, wanting to move on to other things. No amount of reverie was going to bring him back. "Tell me more about this mysterious friend of Evelyn's. Are we all going to spend the weekend suffering through another load of war stories, or is it to be off-color college tales?"

At this, Charles smiled mysteriously. "Now that you mention it, I wonder why they're not here. They arrived before luncheon, and I sent them off for a ride around the park before I left. I thought for sure they'd have returned by now." He squinted down the wide green expanse of parkland off the house's east wing and finally pointed out a pair of figures in the distance, both coming in at a tidy gallop.

"So he's a rider. How nice to know we'll have something to fall back on for conversation," Mary said.

"Well, I wouldn't put it quite like that," Charles admitted, waving his hat to the two approaching figures and making them alter their course towards the front of the house. Whatever does that mean? Mary wondered to herself. "Ahoy there! We were beginning to wonder what happened to you. What did you think of the Outer Bound?" he called down, stepping smartly back down the steps to meet the riders as they came to a stop. Mary followed, her view of the riders obscured so that she heard voices before she could see faces.

"I hope your steeplechase has a few more jumps in it, Sir Charles. I like my rides to be a little bit more challenging than Lincoln Park on a Sunday afternoon."

It was a voice that was undeniably American – and female. Mary finished her descent of the steps to come face to face with both Evelyn and a young woman of perhaps her own age, garbed for a leisurely ride – astride, Mary was interested to note - in a soft tweed coat and forest-green bowler hat, both riders dismounting to greet Charles and the newly arrived Mary, who was still in shock. Evelyn's promised friend, a woman? But Charles had said – yes, Charles had said from Army days, not from the Army, which mean that this woman could be anyone.

Mary rather doubted the new arrival could be anyone, well, unsuitable, but in this day and age it was becoming harder and harder to tell.

She glanced at Charles, and saw, infuriatingly, that he was smiling at her surprise. Did he take special pleasure in putting her out of her element? Evelyn, to his credit, hadn't seemed to have noticed.

"Lady Mary, allow me to introduce Miss Virginia Sibley. Virginia, this is Lady Mary Crawley, from Downton Abbey, in Yorkshire."

"An American," Mary observed, trying (and, to be honest about it, failing) not to sound judgmental.

"Miss Sibley is from Chicago," Evelyn said as the two women shook hands somewhat awkwardly, Virginia shifting her crop and riding gloves to one hand.

"A pleasure to finally meet you, Lady Mary. Evelyn's told me so much about you." The woman's voice was even and cultured – as cultured as it was possible to sound with that Midwestern accent mixed in - and her handshake was firm.

"All good stories, I hope," Mary managed to say.

"The very best," Virginia said with a smile. "You'll be, ah, joining us for dinner, I imagine?"

"Oh yes," Mary said, smiling icily and wondering what sort of world this Virginia Sibley lived in that a guest for a houseparty would not join the party for dinner on the day she arrived. Virginia smiled and steered her horse in the direction of the stables, followed closely by Evelyn, the two of them bent in close conversation. She watched them round the corner of the house and heard laughter.

When they were out of earshot, Mary turned on Charles. "You might have said!" she accused, scowling at little at him as Charles tried to (somewhat unsuccessfully) hide a smile.

"It isn't often that I get to see you at a loss," Charles admitted playfully. "The temptation was too much to pass up."

Mary tried not to let this bother her too much, and soldiered on. "And how does Evelyn know her?"

"That I could not say. She was visiting London this past week, they ran into each other, and he asked if he could bring her along. After that, I know nothing about her except that she is very friendly, and a very capable horsewoman. My aunt was glad to have her; we were going to be short a woman anyway. Hilly and Lilly are mad to meet her. Americans in this part of the world are rather rare birds."

"Isn't your aunt afraid she'll tip over all your teatables and start waving flags?"

"Isn't your mother American?" Charles countered in surprise.

"I try to forget that as often as I can," Mary said archly, making Charles smile. "Hilly was concerned that you'd taken me the long way around while we were coming in to tell me about your experiments. Do you test all your theories here as well as in other people's homes?"

"I believe the best advice is the voice of experience," Blake said stoutly. "Would you like to come down and see my pigs after dinner? Berkshires, Middle Whites, Tamworths, of course, and a few Gloustershire Old Spots out in pasturage, for variety. I can promise you will not end the evening covered in mud," He added, just to see her take his bait and smile.

"What makes you think I wouldn't enjoy a bit of mud? Really, Charles, you underestimate me."

They had reached the top of the steps, and the open front door; Charles let Mary lead the way inside, nodding his silent greeting to the black-suited butler standing by.

Clonfinard was one of those stately Adam homes, built at the height of English privilege in Ireland, designed to impress and belittle anyone entering its doors. Not for this home the cosy oak-paneled hall and Turkey carpets that greeted visitors to Downton; Clonfinard offered instead a palatial expanse of echoing marble, enfiladed by columns leading the visitor's eye down the length of the room to a pair of sweeping staircases up to a second floor gallery. Here and there a piece of sculpture peeked from behind the pillars. Mary's shoes suddenly seemed very loud.

The silence of the hall didn't stay for long – a woman's voice could be heard coming from the upstairs gallery, moving quickly towards them.

"…and when you've spoken with Mrs. Morrow, you should have Timothy check on his lordship's guests. I can't imagine what they've been doing all afternoon in – Charles!" The speaker finally reached the main gallery and peered over the top of the railing – a middle-aged and rather attractive dark-haired woman, conservatively dressed in skirt and cardigan, sleeves pushed to the elbows. "Hilly was beginning to think you'd gotten lost." She descended the stairs in a flurry of quick, efficient steps, stopping to kiss Charles on the cheek with the air of a pleased mother.

"Don't worry, we assured her that all's well. Aunt Julia, this is Lady Mary Crawley. Mary, allow me to introduce my aunt, Lady Blake."

"How do you do?" Julia Blake asked, shaking hands with Mary with a welcoming smile. "You'll have to forgive our irregularity, Lady Mary – I'm afraid my husband is rather a poor host, and is wrapped up with his friends in the study at present. He is not used to entertaining outside of the occasional informal shoot."

"Perfectly understandable," Mary said with a smile, even if it wasn't. It was highly irregular, not having the host out to greet his guests for the weekend – but then, Charles greeting her at the Port should have told her that there wasn't a lot about this weekend that was going to be 'regular.'

"Charles has been telling us all about your house in Yorkshire, Lady Mary. I'm sure he's told you my daughters are very excited to meet you as well."

"Yes, we met on the porch coming in. Very darling girls."

"Very much a handful, you mean," Julia said with a knowledgeable smile. "You can be honest with me, Lady Mary. Trust that I know my own children. Charles says you have a son of your own," she prompted, seeming genuinely interested in hearing more about the child, and not just asking out of a desire to make polite conversation.

"George, yes. He's just turned two." For a moment Mary's heart was back at Downton, in the nursery. But there was no room for babies at house parties, even so charming a baby as George.

"They are a treasure when they're that age," Lady Blake said fondly, her gaze harkening back to the halcyon days of her children's youth. "I'm not sure when they lose the allure. Let Mrs. Booth take your coat, here, and I'll show you into the drawing room. Mrs. Booth, has the tea gone in yet?"

The housekeeper, a spare, efficient looking woman who had followed Lady Blake down the stairs, nodded. "Yes, ma'am, for the FitzGeralds and Lord and Lady MacInnis. Lord Westicott telephoned for you while you were out, Mr. Charles. He said to tell you he had some trouble with his car, but that he was at a mechanic's having it looked at and that he shouldn't be delayed too long."

"Thank you, Mrs. Booth. Mr. Napier and Miss Sibley are just back from their ride, they should be coming in any moment," Charles added, handing over his hat and his overcoat, and stepping over to help Mary with her own coat, leaving her hat for when Anna could help her out of it without ruining her hair.

"Bless us, they have been out all afternoon," Lady Blake realized. "They'll want to change before coming in for tea, Mrs. Booth - Can you see that Miss Sibley makes it up to her room? I think she's a bit overwhelmed by the house."

"I'll have Carew meet them in the hall with the bootjacks, my lady, and tell John to bring in more teacups."

"Thank you, Mrs. Booth, that will be splendid. Charles, will you take care of introducing everyone?" Out of the corner of her eye Mary saw Charles nod. Orders finished, Lady Blake disappeared behind one of the colonnades, opening a door and letting the low buzz of polite afternoon conversation leak out into the forecourt.

Charles exchanged a glance with Mary and held out his arm in the direction of the drawing room. "So, shall we to the lion's den?"

The lion's den, Mary repeated silently with a smile. "Are you frightened of drawing room conversation as a general rule, Charles? I thought that was just at Downton," she asked, teasing him just a little.

"No, only when the drawing room has my aunt's friends in it," Charles responded, nearing the door and pausing to let Mary peek inside a much less formal room than the hall they were leaving. "So, the woman near the window talking to my aunt is Lady MacInnis – her husband's here as well, his father was in the army with my uncle, and…well, I think it's best we go inside, you can't see anyone else from here."

The drawing room was a much more welcome space, the ceiling lower and the colors warmer. Two women, along with Mrs. Blake, surrounded the tea table in the center of the room, while a taller, darker gentleman gazed out one of the large picture windows overlooking the side of the house and a second, younger gentleman lounged, rather carelessly, in the corner of the room, leg almost hooked over the arm of his chair.

"Charles, is that you? How beastly of you not to have been here when we arrived," a very fashionable peroxide blonde drawled from the circle around the teatable, sitting up languidly in her seat to survey the newcomers. "Didn't I say so, Carroll?"

"Beastly," the younger gentleman with the rakish angle in the armchair echoed lazily, not looking up from his book.

"I didn't know what time you'd be coming, Christabel, or I'd have been sure to be here," Charles said, turning to glance at Mary with a slightly forced smile, a look Mary knew all too well from his early days at Downton. "Do you know Lady Mary Crawley?" he asked, trying his best to be pleasant as he and Mary moved further into the room.

"I don't think we've had the pleasure," the blonde Christabel said, her voice all fashionable purr.

"Lady Mary, this is Christabel FitzGerald, of Kenwick Park, very near here. Her brother Carroll is the gentleman in the corner."

"Charmed," the gentleman in the corner drawled distantly, still engrossed in his book. (Mary noticed, too, that his socks, peeking out from his pantlegs, were mis-matched, both of them luridly patterned in a different colored argyle.)

"How do you do, Lady Mary?" Christabel said, her eyes making a quick study of Mary's hat, dress, and shoes before meeting Mary's gaze again with an approving sniff.

"Very well, thank you," Mary responded, not sure whether to be offended or surprised that the young woman, in addition to not rising from her seat on the settee, had also not held out her hand to shake.

"I'm not sure you know Lady MacInnis, either, or Lord MacInnis," Charles said, bravely soldiering on.

"Pleased to meet you, Lady Mary," Lady MacInnis, a slight woman with dark marceled hair and what she hoped was a warm smile, held out one delicately gloved hand in greeting as Mary sat down on the other end of the same couch. Lord MacInnis glanced away from the window for a moment, caught Mary's eye, and nodded in silent acknowledgement.

"Pleased to meet you as well, Lady MacInnis."

"Lady Mary and I met at her father's estate in Yorkshire during our last Ministry Survey," Charles said, sitting down and accepting a cup of tea from his aunt.

"How perfectly dreadful," Christabel FitzGerald pronounced. "I still can't believe you invade people's homes to criticize their management, Charles, it's a wonder you get invited anywhere."

"We were glad to have the advice," Mary said loyally, with her 'best guest' smile fixed firmly in place. She made a mental note to ask Charles what, exactly, Christabel FitzGerald's role in Clonfinard society was.

"And did Charles pronounce you … fighting fit?" Lady MacInnis inquired brightly.

"After a few improvements, yes," Mary admitted, taking her own cup of tea from Lady Blake and smiling in silent thanks. "Time marches on and so must we."

"Charles was telling us that Downton has been one of his most successful sites yet," Lady Blake put in, sensing, as her nephew did, that there was going to be little love lost between Mary and Christabel. "Has your father the Earl taken to the idea of the pigs yet?"

The deliberate mention of Mary's father 'the Earl' seemed to take some of the wind out of Christabel's sails; at any rate, she sat up a little straighter on the settee, took a delicate sip of her cooling tea, and made no further snide comment. "Now that they're at the farm there's not much he can do," Mary admitted. "But my brother-in-law Tom and I are sure to walk him down there whenever we have the opportunity, to help push the point home."

"And are there any other improvements on the horizon?" Lady Blake asked.

"My late husband was a great advocate for several different building projects – new cottages, mending walls and so forth, which we may start soon."

"Surely that will be a great expense," Lady MacInnis observed, getting a sudden, hawkish glance from her husband, who until this point had been staring broodily out the window. What was that about? Mary wondered, busying herself with the sugar tongs for a moment and trying to look like she hadn't noticed Lady MacInnis' obvious discomfort.

"We will create jobs and short-term training for the upcoming class of skilled workers, improve the fabric of the estate, and create better living and working conditions for our tenants in doing so," Mary explained. "The county will profit in the short term, and we shall see gains in the longer term with increased rents and increased productivity. Who else besides us will spend the money to do any of those things? It seems a sensible course, no matter the cost."

"Yes, of course," Lady MacInnis agreed, suddenly making herself very interested in the nearest plate of biscuits.

"Carroll, weren't you saying something about your father building new cottages at Kenwick?" Lady Blake asked, trying to draw the younger man into the conversation.

As Carroll looked up and turned his general disinterest to the people in the room rather than the book he was reading, Mary took a moment to take stock of her fellow party-goers.

Christabel and Carroll FitzGerald, both 'The Honorables', of Kenwick Park, both no older than twenty six or so, both habitually disinterested in everything the room had to offer, both very smartly dressed, except for Carroll's mismatched argyle socks, which Mary supposed to be some half-hearted nod to bohemianism, or whatever it was they were calling it these days. Why were they even here, if everything bored them so completely? Mary's mind flashed back to Christabel's greeting, the kittenish smile she'd lavished upon Charles and the cold glare she'd flashed at Mary. Had she be called home to husband-hunt, with her brother as a chaperone? Compared to Lady MacInnis and Lady Blake, Christabel's style was daringly modern – perhaps she spent more time in town than out in the country. Her ensemble had probably cost a great deal, and it didn't seem at all like she took an interest in where her allowance was coming from, for she had nothing to add to Carroll's comments about his father's building projects.

Then Lady MacInnis, whose dress was at least two years out of fashion but very well made, and whose husband had jumped at the talk of money. In fact, Lord MacInnis' gaze had not left the window except for that moment when he'd thought to rein in his wife. It was the sort of look, Mary realized, that her father got, looking out the windows at Downton, a mixture of resignation and nostalgia, remembering better days when his place in the world seemed more secure. Perhaps that's not a happy household, then.

It was the first time, also, that she'd seen Charles in his native habitat, seen among his people as he had always seen her among hers. Not for this drawing room, though, the cool, confident civil servant who said what he meant and did not 'pull his punches', who knew his business and went about it brazenly, nor the smiling, comfortable presence of the National Gallery, or the Grantham House ballroom, who played the lover with such a hopeful, tentative charm, afraid of being thought too bold. Of the practical, sensible farmer who slopped pigs and threw mud and joked there was no sign whatever, and in place of all these faces was one Mary had never seen before – a man lurking in the background of the drama and judiciously watching all the other players. He had not sat down, and was standing with a watchful eye behind the couch where his Aunt and Christabel were sitting – perhaps to keep out of Miss FitzGerald's line of sight?

If out of Miss FitzGerald's view, then also inside Mary's - she caught his eye as it patrolled the room one more time, and smiled reassuringly. He smiled back, and Mary, for a moment, caught a fleeting glimpse of the man she'd known at Downton, happy, and at his ease.

The quiet moment, however, did not last. The butler, Carew, opened the door to announce another arrival. "Lord Westicott, my lady."

At the name Westicott, Charles' safe, somber expression vanished, and Mary's eye, like his, was drawn towards the drawing room's newest occupant, a young man of about thirty with rather disheveled hair, a suit that had clearly been of some expense but was now looking a little worn around the edges, and the kind of rakish good looks that had been getting girls into trouble at houseparties like this for generations on end.

Lady Blake, however, seemed just as pleased to see him – so pleased that she rose to greet him near the door, receiving a kiss on the cheek for her troubles. Another family member, perhaps? But not in that suit, surely. "Duff, my dear, we were afraid that the worst had happened when we got your call."

"You're wonderfully kind to worry, Lady Blake. I had the good misfortune to break down on a sunny day less than a mile from a telephone. It is awfully kind of you to invite me for the weekend - my mother sends her thanks for keeping me out of trouble."

"You must remember to call whenever you have a need to get out into the country again," Lady Blake said. "It must be so tiring, sitting at a desk in the Exchange all day."

"You're kind to offer, but I think you'd be rather sick of me after a while," Westicott said, smiling ruefully. "So who all is here?"

Lady Blake made a quick scan of the room. "I think you know Lord MacInnis, Lady MacInnis, Carroll FitzGerald, Christabel FitzGerald –"

"Got you out into the country for the weekend, did they, Christabel?" Duff asked pleasantly, eyeing the blond with antagonism in his voice.

"Daddy couldn't get away, and he didn't want to let the side down, so Carroll's shooting in his place," Miss FitzGerald said, smiling poisonously at the new arrival. That's no love lost between them, then, Mary observed with well-hidden amusement, glad to know she wasn't alone in disliking the younger woman. But Duff was not wasting any time scanning the room on his own, and when he found Charles standing behind the couch, his face broke out into an irrepressible grin.

"Charlie! How's the old Talbot treating you – still suffering along?" Westicott moved in the direction of his host, effectively placing himself out of Christabel's line of fire.

"Still suffering," Charles said, reaching out a hand for the very hearty shake exchanged between friends who go back a long ways. "Whatever was the matter with your car?" he asked in a more confidential tone as the conversation in the room shifted back to the lines it had been running along before Lord Westicott had arrived.

"Damn thing nearly threw an axel over a pothole," Westicott confessed. "I've got to see the county board about the state of these roads - it's really absurd. How can we claim to be living in a civilized society when every road from here to Londonderry's full of holes large enough to hide a horse? Thankfully it limped to the next village over, and they happened to have a telephone. Rang for a ride and left the thing there so I could fly over here and rescue whatever hapless damsel you've pulled into your evil clutches for the weekend." Duff did another quick survey of the room until his eyes came to rest on Mary, who rose from her seat and came to stand closer to the two men, away from the tea-table and whatever doubtlessly interesting subject they'd embark on next.

"Hapless is not a word I'd use. Duff, this is Lady Mary Crawley, of Downton Abbey, in Yorkshire. Lady Mary, allow me to introduce you to Lord Westicott."

"But you'll call me Duff," Westicott said, shaking hands with the conspiratorial assurance of a man who knows he is considered good looking. "I hope Charles didn't bore you all the way from the train station about his farming schemes. We're not all that provincial on this side of the Sea."

"First Hilly and now you - Does everyone think that is the only subject I talk about?" Charles wondered with mock horror.

"Well, you do tend to prattle on about it a bit," Duff accused.

"I don't think I could find his farming schemes boring, Lord Westicott. Charles was kind enough to assess my family estate when he was in Yorkshire last summer."

"Lady Mary takes a keen interest in the subject of management," Charles added, almost proudly.

"Beautiful and brainy." Westicott sounded impressed. "Where do you find them, Charlie?" 'Charlie' shrugged and tried to look very casual about it. "And it's Duff, please. I trust you're looking forward to this weekend, Lady Mary?"

"Very much. The company promises to be… very diverting." Mary's gaze drew back to the tea-table with slightly disguised distaste.

"Ah, yes, speaking of company, I was promised there'd be a ravishing American running around," Duff said, surveying the room. "Where have you hidden her, Charlie, or will I have to make you a liar in front of all these good people?"

Blake frowned, but Carew, however, was going to intervene again. "Mr. Napier and Miss Sibley, my lady."

Gone were the muddy hunters home from the hill of earlier, and in their place stood two smartly dressed young people – or rather, one smartly dressed young English gentleman and, as promised, one ravishing American. And she was ravishing. Hands clasped gracefully in front of the deep pockets of her tuxedo sweater, Virginia Sibley looked the very idea of young and sporty, and even Carroll FitzGerald had sat up in his chair and taken notice. Probably because she looks like she's borrowed her brother's clothes, Mary observed disapprovingly. It was a very masculine ensemble, down to the loose college tie and collared shirt. Call her old fashioned, but this sudden vogue for women dressing like men was not something Mary felt she could ever get behind.

"Hel-lo," Duff whispered eagerly, looking as though he might well have whistled if this were a streetcorner and not a drawing room.

"There's your American for you, Duff, but I have it on good authority she's spoken for," Charles murmured triumphantly, watching his friend's inordinately pleased expression as Lady Blake introduced the two new arrivals around the tea-table.

Mary watched the tableau at the middle of the room – Miss FitzGerald, Miss Sibley, Lady MacInnis, Miss Sibley, charmed, how do you do, nice weather we're having – with vague interest, and then, suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, saw something she hadn't seen when Evelyn and Virginia had ridden up, something that made her sit up and follow the scene with intense interest to make sure she hadn't gotten it wrong. No, there it was again! There was a distinct look in Evelyn's eyes, a protective interest that followed Virginia's every movement in around the tea-things and once, when she was sure Evelyn wasn't even aware of it, made his hand reach up to hold the small of her back, pausing before it reached the fabric of her sweater and dropping back down shamefully to its owner's side.

Could it be – no, no, it couldn't possibly. Evelyn, be romantically interested in …this American? From Chicago, the abattoir of America? What was wrong with him?

To say that she had a claim on Evelyn would be only fleetingly true. For ten years they'd danced around the idea of marriage, stopping only for the brief period that Mary had had Matthew. So much dancing, in fact, that in the process he'd almost become one of the family, like a brother who only dropped in from time to time, beloved by her parents, respected by her sister, and, when it came to it, depended on by Mary. So long that it simply seemed a fact of life, a part of the background, that he should always be there, admiring her, and she would always be there to be admired. Evelyn had been true north – dependable and truthful. If he was there, then the world was spinning as it should.

But True North must be a lonely place, especially for ten years – even Mary had to admit to that. He'd probably weighed his chances after Tony and Charles, and had thrown his hat in a different direction. All the same, it made her feel jealous, and angry, and resplendently selfish after all that. Who was she, to monopolize a man she wouldn't marry?

But Chicago!? Were things that desperate?

"Introductions! Evelyn, Lord Eldon Westicott, a very old friend of mine from school. Duff, this is Evelyn Napier, one of my colleagues at the Ministry, and Virginia Sibley, an acquaintance of his from Chicago."

"Enchantée," Duff said, making the same charming smile at the American as he had just done for Mary, and catching Miss Sibley's hand to kiss it. This amused rather than charmed Miss Sibley, because she gave a laugh rather than the pretty girlish giggle Duff had doubtless been expecting.

"Pleased to meet you, Lord Westicott. Or is it Lord Eldon?"

Well, she's not completely provincial. We can give her that much, Mary grudged.

"Lord Westicott, but for you, it's Duff."

"Duff, then," Virginia said, still smiling in that amused and confused manner, glancing at Charles as if to see if this was, indeed, entirely appropriate.

"Charlie tells me you took the long way in today and saw the grounds from horseback. Quite an adventure."

"Mr. Blake tells correctly. I must thank you, again, for the loan of your hunter, Mr. Blake – a very fine animal."

"I was glad you had a pleasant time. I'm very often in London and the horses don't get the use they should, apart from the odd daily jaunt here and there with the grooms. They probably enjoyed it just as much as you did."

"How did you find our grounds today, Miss Sibley?" Lady Blake asked, turning in her seat to glance over the back of the settee.

"It was breathtaking, Lady Blake," Virginia said, smiling with genuine gratitude. "You have a lovely home. And it was most kind of you to accommodate a last-minute addition."

"We are very happy you decided to come," Lady Blake assured her. "Although, you must know you may have to work for your keep while you're here – I am sure Charles warned you when you arrived that my daughters are both very excited to meet you."

"I will try to be as entertaining as possible when I finally do meet them," The American assured her hostess.

Lady Blake turned her attention back to her nephew. "Charles, do you think Miss Sibley and Lady Mary would like a walk around the garden before dinner?"

Charles glanced at Mary, who didn't really care one way or the other, and then at Virginia, who looked encouraging of the idea. "Why not?" he said, shrugging broadly. "Evelyn, you're welcome to come, too, if you'd like; I don't think you've ever seen the place. Christabel? Carroll?" The FitzGeralds collectively shook their heads, and Christabel's fixed hauteur even gave way to a look of mild revulsion.

"I'll come," Duff said, stepping forward into the circle of conversation again. "I could use a bit of a stroll before dinner."

"After the afternoon you've had?" Charles sounded a little doubtful, but there was a hasty exchange of strange secretive expressions between the two men and nothing more was made of the subject. "So, what's it to be – gardens, greens, or woods?"

The Abbey could, in any good company, easily admit to being a large house – Clonfinard, by comparison, was palatial. Virginia, at least, played the tourist with ease, nodding and smiling and asking all the right questions as the group strolled back out through the front hall, down a corridor and through another drawing room with doors opening up to the back of the house and the wide meadows beyond. Charles and Virginia led the way, with Evelyn following in close pursuit, leaving Duff to fall into step with Mary at the back of the group as Charles lead the way between a collection of beautifully cropped boxwoods.

"You look rather bored, Lady Mary," Duff observed wryly, glancing sideways. "We haven't even made it out to the birch-wood. It's where the house gets its name from, you know – and it's absolutely wonderful now, in autumn, with the color."

"If you've seen one garden, Lord Westicott…" Mary began, let the sentence drop with a knowledgeable smile. "I only agreed with the idea to be polite."

"Yes, that is rather the case, isn't it?" the young man agreed. "But one likes to put one's best foot forward for guests. It is an impressive park, if you like that kind of thing. Perfect for showing off to visiting dignitaries – or the daughters of earls." He glanced again at Mary, and, seeing her polite surprise, gave a little shrug. "Charlie hasn't stopped talking about you since he met you, Lady Mary. I wasn't going to meet you without looking your family up in Debrett's first."

So men do that, too, Mary thought to herself. "And am I found suitable?" she asked with a slim smile.

"Oh, eminently," Duff announced grandly, ticking off notes on his fingers as they walked. "Daughter of the Earl of Grantham, widow of Matthew Crawley, esquire, mother of George Crawley, heiress to extensive property, society beauty, farm manageress extraordinaire – I'm rather surprised you're even considering Charlie, Lady Mary; you could do much better than him."

Ah, if only you knew. "You take an interesting approach to salesmanship, Lord Westicott," Mary observed with wry amusement. "I thought men were supposed to promote their friends to lady admirers, not put them off."

"No, that comes later. Right now I'm trying to ferret out your interest. And it's Duff, please," Westicott put in again.

"How am I doing on that score, Duff?" Mary asked, seeing no reason to continue fighting for the use of a proper name. Lord Eldon really didn't suit the man, either, which helped a little.

"Well, you've already defended him once, so I'd say we're off to a brilliant start," Duff acknowledged with pleasure. "I say, Charles, you're going to bore Miss Sibley to death, which I cannot stand for. I don't think she came to Ireland to hear you preach a sermon on Capability Brown, or Robert Adam follies."

The threesome of Charles, Evelyn and Virginia had pulled ahead by a few lengths as Duff and Mary had been talking, and Duff had to shout a little to make himself heard. They stopped walking and waited for the pair to catch up, Charles looking a little sheepish that he had been caught lecturing again.

"I'll take full fault," Virginia said with a smile. "I asked him to tell me more about it. You must save your censure for another day. You don't mind, if we walk all the way out there? It seems so pretty, with the leaves changing."

"You're absolutely right," Duff declared. "Would be a shame to let you miss it. But you can't let Charlie wear your ear off. He'll keep you all to himself, given half a chance, and that's not very sporting either. He can't have all the lovely women to himself, even if we are at his house."

Charles rolled his eyes and sighed, putting up his hands in a gesture of surrender and taking a step back while Virginia looked on with bemusement, evidently not used to being fought over.

"We could have pushed for Christabel to come, if you're really that lonesome, Duff," the host reminded, probably only to see the look of horror on his friend's face as he suggested it.

"And spend the whole walk listening to a ticker-tape of London fashion and gossip? That'd be worse than your remarks on landscaping. Even I have standards, Charlie, if they are lower than yours. Besides, you know Christabel and I don't get on. Haven't since we were children," he confided to Virginia, who nodded as though she were intimately aware of the complications of such affairs.

"Have you known the FitzGeralds a long time, then?" Evelyn asked, emerging from the background of the scene as polite as ever. It always surprised Mary how obliging and pleasant Evelyn could be, even in the worst circumstances – even when the woman he had brought with him was content to be walking with their host, and not him. Yet he didn't seem concerned about it, at least from where Mary was standing. Because Charles has his sights on me? Or because he trusts Miss Sibley not to desert him?

"Long enough to have formed an intense and unyielding dislike," Duff stated frankly. "Society in Ireland is a little less varied than in England – we all go to the same balls, the same parties, the same horse races. There's not a lot that can be done in the way of avoiding people you dislike, so the dislike grows. And in the case of Christabel, it's been growing between us for years."

"She does seem like an - acquired taste," Virginia said diplomatically.

Duff grinned. "That's quite a phrase for it! Wherever did you find her, Mr. Napier?"

"France," Evelyn said cryptically, exchanging glances with Virginia with a secretive smile that she seemed more than happy to return.

Duff, at least, was happy enough ignoring such things. "And what brought you to Europe at this time of year, Miss Sibley? Business or pleasure?"

"A little of both. I was on the Continent for an article I'm writing," Virginia said as the group resumed their walk, more or less as a cohesive group.

"Ah, a journalist! How exciting," Duff exclaimed. "You'd better take my arm here, Miss Sibley, the ground's a bit uneven," he said suddenly, offering one arm with old-fashioned gallantry. Was he feigning interest, or genuinely enthralled with the idea? Having known several journalists, her sister among them, Mary couldn't pretend to be excited about a career with the popular press. If anything, it made her dislike the woman more. I still don't understand why she's here – and what Evelyn sees in her. She seems rather common to me.

"It is, rather," the American admitted, smiling a little self-consciously as she took Westicott's arm and Duff, predictably, wrapped his hand around her own as if to steady her. Mary resisted the urge to snort at such an obvious ploy and took the opportunity to watch her own footing.

"And what's the article about?" Charles asked, playing the polite host.

"The impact of the war on everyday life overseas," Virginia said, garnering a few raised eyebrows for her trouble. "It's a human interest piece, really nothing important. I wrote a series of them, during the war, the price of food and clothing shortages and collection drives and the like. My editor liked them, my readers liked them, so I'm back to see what it's all like five years on."

"What are you finding?" Westicott asked, still the soul of solicitous interest.

The American shrugged, unsure where to begin. "The rich are still rich, the poor are still poor. I think there's a greater sense of discontent now. People expect wars to be fought to change things, and I think this one was to keep the status quo - except that no one told that to the men fighting. Now everyone is home, and the soldiers want to know where their promised 'home for heroes' is. I know it's the same in Chicago - no jobs, few prospects, prices going up on everything. France has it worse - it's nearly impossible to get a meal worth writing about there. In Paris you see veterans in the streets begging, with their medals and campaign ribbons out, for all the good it does them. I think people are tired of thinking about it, and they'd like to move on, but can't." She paused to smile at Duff and extricate her arm from his. "I think I can manage now, thank you, Duff."

"The north of France is a mess," Evelyn concurred."The farms are full of shell holes and shot, and the men who are still alive to work them are either too few or too tired or simply not physically able. That, at, least, is not the case with most of Britain. If our farmers are tired, it's not because they're fishing five-nines out of their drainage ditches."

"I'd forgotten you'd been in France recently," Mary remarked, just to assure the party she had been listening.

Napier nodded. "The Ministry wanted to see what progress is being made on production from their end. In that measure we are ahead of them, but not by much. We have men and equipment, and farms large enough to make it worth the bother of getting them started again, which is not the case in parts of Northern France. The war reminded us how dependent we were on foreign imports, and now we must work to change that."

"The challenges of small islands," Virginia mused aloud, her eyes fixed on some distant point.

"The title for your next article, Miss Sibley?" Charles asked.

The American chuckled and shook her head. "I leave economics to other columnists and their political opinion pieces. But it would make a good title."

"Will this weekend make it into an article as well?" Mary asked, a little abrasive.

"Perhaps Country Life would take a picture-piece on the lost grandeur of the English Country House weekend, but not the readers of the Chicago Triumph," Virginia chuckled, and then, remembering herself, asked with circumspection, "It is still an English weekend, isn't it, even if we are in Ireland?"

Mary tried not to laugh and succeeded, more or less, but Charles took the question quite seriously. "The less openly speculated about that the better. My uncle is very firmly Unionist, and considers himself British before he is Irish, despite having lived his entire life here. O'Connell's comments on Wellington with regard to horses and stables might be said to apply."

They finally reached the promised folly, a little temple emerging bashfully from the autumnal birch-forest behind it, and Charles held out his arm to permit Virginia to be the first one up the steps to admire the view. She ascended the steps herself, followed closely by Evelyn and Duff, leaving Mary at the bottom of the steps. Charles looked back at her, smiled in his odd way, and offered her his arm, which Mary took with little-hidden satisfaction.

Looking back from the slight advantage of the portico, the view of Clonfinard was, as Virginia had described it earlier, breathtaking. Not without reason was Ireland 'The Emerald Isle' – a feast of green and yellow looked back at them in the afternoon sunshine from every direction – the foliage, the lawn, the hedges of the formal garden, the ivy trailing hopefully up the stable block. It was a garden paradise.

"And you, Mr. Blake? What do you consider yourself?" Virginia trained her view on the host while the rest of the party took in the scenery.

"I'm English, but not for the sake of the Union. My father was an Irish younger son who made his way in the Army, but I grew up in England with an English mother, went to English schools and learned an English way of life before I found out when I was about sixteen or so that I was going to inherit all of this."

"What a lot for a sixteen year old to take in," Virginia mused. "You must have been terrified."

"For you it might be," Mary commented derisively, not bothering to meet Virginia's eyes and fixing her gaze on the house's outbuildings and stable block, now somewhat within view from their elevated vantage point. "Men who are born to this way of life are never overwhelmed by it. I'm sure Charles didn't find it that way."

Charles, ever the polite host, pretended not to have heard. "I was a little scared, I admit. But it does grow into a person. And at the end of it, I still say that I come with a different view of land and great houses than, say, Christabel FitzGerald. When I first visited Clonfinard Sir Severus took me and Dad around, introduced me to all the tenants, showed me the fields and the pasturage and the mines and the mills. I didn't see the wealth of it - I just saw people. People who needed jobs, who needed stable incomes, who wanted to see all of this continue. And I didn't want it to just continue - I wanted to see it succeed. I do what I do for them."

"And how does Christabel FitzGerald see things?" Virginia asked, her voice much softer than it had been previously. Mary looked from Charles to the American several times before she realized – she was interviewing him. The soft voice, the careful, mindful look, it was all in pursuit of a story. And Charles was giving it to her, whether he knew it or not.

"Christabel and Carroll have always known luxury. They've grown up as absentees, more often in town than in the country. They don't know where their money comes from, and they don't care, as long as their allowances come and their bills get paid. And while they stay away in town, Kenwick Hall crumbles and their father grinds on."

"You've really got a way of making us eldest sons who let the side down sound like terrible people, Charlie," Duff said from the background, sounding forlorn.

Charles looked at his friend with objection shining bright in his eyes. "That wasn't your fault, Duff. No one should be responsible for their reprobate parents."

"My family estate was sold after the war," Duff offered for the benefit of Mary and Evelyn, who were all trying to look as though they'd gone politely deaf. Virginia looked sympathetic, but then, Americans were always talking about money. It didn't bother them as much as it did the English. "Dad's debts, mainly, after his death-duties were paid. Making me something of a yellow Lord." Looking around at the confused looks, he explained, "In the Navy, a man who has been promoted to the rank of admiral but has no actual command to is said to have been 'yellowed'. So now I may still hoist a pennant as Lord Westicott but I have lost the ship that should go with it," Duff related sadly, scuffing at a loose leaf on the pavement with the tip of his shoe.

"But you have not lost your conversation," Virginia said, patting his arm in consolation. "My cousin used to say that it was the man who couldn't sell himself who was the poorest man in the marketplace."

"Good advice," Charles agreed, before Mary could even think of snorting in contempt. Trust the self-made men of the middle American continent to come up with such a ridiculous idea. It wouldn't work in England, at any rate. She could think of dozens of men in her acquaintance who could speak eloquently and elegantly about themselves but who hadn't a scrap of income or skill between them. Words didn't keep men employed, and Duff Westicott's fine manners and gallant ways weren't keeping the proper shine on his shoes.

"You'll have to come to Chicago," Virginia was saying, "And we'll find a rich American princess with an empire in railroads or steel or salt or something who won't mind being Lady Westicott."

"That might be rather a hard sell - princesses always think they need a castle. She'll have to be Lady Westicott in a small apartment off of Threadneedle Street at the moment."

"All the best people in Chicago have apartments these days. Now, tell me on the way back what is it that a stockbroker does. We have an exchange in Chicago and I confess I still don't know what they do there."

They set off down the steps, arm in arm, Evelyn following behind again, leaving Charles and Mary to bring up the rearguard.

"That's how you saw Downton. Not knowing where the money came from."

Charles grimaced and dropped his gaze. "Yes, it was. But that's not the case anymore, if it was ever true at all to begin with. You and I have seen to that."

"Was what Duff said true? About his father?"

"Yes." Charles looked grim at the prospect. "He sent his son to school on gambling money and took him away just as quick with gambling debts - Duff almost didn't take his degree, until some aunt of his stepped in and made sure he could finish the term."

Mary considered the man ahead with renewed interest. "He seems like a very interesting man." She said truthfully.

"He is - he plays at being a bit of a rogue, but his heart's in the right place. I've known him since we were about twelve, so he knows all my secrets. I'm sure he'll even tell you some of them."

"Not a very trustworthy friend, then."

"For a pretty face, Duff will do just about anything," Charles admitted ruefully, watching his friend make the visiting American laugh again.

"I hope I'm not just a pretty face," Mary replied with a hurt tone.

Charles sighed and smiled. "No, you are much, much more than that. And much more than simply pretty," he added for effect.

Mary stopped mid-stride and studied him. "Is that a compliment, Mr. Blake?"

"What, is a man not allowed to give compliments?" Charles asked, still smiling.

"I am not obliged to accept them without suspicion," she said archly, just to watch him roll his eyes at her.

"Suspect what you like - it is true," Charles maintained gallantly as they resumed their walk.

"Come on, you two, or you'll make us late!" Duff called merrily from the bottom of the steps back up to the terrace outside the drawing room. "Plenty of time for sweet words behind the hedgerows after dinner!"

Mary blushed and Charles ducked his head in embarrassment, but both did as they were told, quickening their walk back to the house to change.

So, the players have all made their way to the stage (except for Sir Severus and the rest of the 'guns', whom we will meet next time) and the action can commence!

Thoughts, comments, concerns (and rotten cabbages, if you feel you must) all accepted gratefully and graciously.