Downton Abbey, Yorkshire, England, January 1919

Patrick looked at Matthew briefly, then turned and left for his room.

Robert sighed, the energy seeming to drain from him and his posture sagging slightly.

"Papa," Mary called.

Robert raised his hand to stop her.

"I'll see the both of you tonight," he said, heading for the door. "Matthew, you'll partner O'Brien for the first dance, as usual."

"Yes, Robert," Matthew said, watching the Earl leave.

"My hero," Mary exclaimed, laughing as she ran into her husband's arms. "You did it! You truly did!"

"We did," he said easily. "It was you who decided to look back at the information we had on Robert's creditors. We never would have made the connection between Sir Richard and Patrick Gordon without that."

"I suppose I did do that, didn't I?" she said, leaning back in his hold so she could hold his face in her hands and beam at him. "We aren't a bad team, Mr. Crawley, are we?"

"Not bad at all," he agreed, laughing and kissing her lightly. "It appears we have quite a lot to celebrate at the Ball tonight."

"Indeed we do," she said, taking his arm as he escorted her towards the Great Hall. "At the Ball, and afterwards, if you're up for it."

"I feel like dancing until dawn," he teased.

"I don't think the Ball will last that long, darling," she joked.

"It won't, but that doesn't mean we won't stop dancing," he said, leering at her as they headed for the stairs.

She blushed and grinned, leaning closer to him as they went up to change.

Chapter 34:

Downton Abbey, Yorkshire, England, February 1919

Matthew turned the page of his newspaper, frowning in concentration as he read over the latest articles. He mumbled to himself quietly as he considered the different reports from across England and the Continent. During the War, he remained ignorant as to everything that was happening beyond whatever muddy trench he was based in. All he knew about what was going on in the rest of the world was from what Mary told him in her letters. When he was home for leave, he was far too desperate to see her and the family to worry about catching up on whatever news he'd missed.

With the Armistice now months old and holding, he needed to get back to normal life, or whatever passed as normal in this new world. He'd spent the weeks since his return touring the Estate and checking on the changes that Mary had overseen in his absence. He knew from his past visits that she made remarkable progress, and he spent more time congratulating her than he did actually examining anything in great detail, much to her amusement. Now he was slowly getting back into the routine of knowing the latest news on commerce, politics, Society and of course, sports.

He looked up from the table as the door to the library opened and Mary and Sybil came through.

"Ah, you're back," he said cheerfully, getting up from his chair and smiling at the two of them. "How was York?"

"Fine," Sybil said drily. She sighed and turned, kissing Mary's cheek. "I'm going to go and show Mama what I bought. Thank you for taking me along. Cousin Matthew."

"Sybil," he said, somewhat confused by her abrupt departure.

Mary frowned as she watched her sister wander away. She shook her head and came over to kiss her husband.

"What's wrong with her?" he asked. "She's still feeling lost, is she?"

"More than ever," Mary said, caressing his cheek. "I tried to have a proper chat with her but it was as though she wasn't even there. I even tried to get a rise out of her by saying that Mama was considering matching her up with Larry Grey, and she couldn't be bothered to protest. She muttered something about how Larry was a fine dancer, so that must count for something."

Matthew laughed and shook his head.

"I'm sorry, darling," he said. "She just needs time, is all."

"It's been a month, Matthew," Mary said in exasperation, arching her eyebrow at him. "She's doing a wonderful impression of you with all her wallowing."

"Now that was uncalled for," he said, pulling her into a hug and kissing her deeply.

"Mmm, no distractions, yet," she warned. "I'm worried for her. If I leave her to Mama and Granny to deal with, she'll end up miserable."

"All right," he relented, still holding her in his arms. "Let's go upstairs and get you changed, have Anna bring us some tea and we can put our heads together and see what we can come up with to give her some purpose. How does that sound?"

"That sounds lovely, if it's a genuine offer and not yet another scheme of yours to get me into bed," she said, smirking at him knowingly.

"Why would I require a scheme at all? It seems to me that you're still serving your punishment from last month, which means, I remind you, that any time I am feeling amorous, you will accommodate me, my darling," he said cheekily.

"I agreed to that in a moment of weakness," she grumbled, taking his arm and walking out to the Great Hall and over to the staircase. "Regardless, we must devote some time to Sybil's cause. You can have your way with me after dinner."

"Very well," he complained with mock annoyance. "We probably should look in on the children also. We need to get our hour with them out of the way."

She laughed at his joke as they headed to their wing of the house.

Downton Abbey, Yorkshire, England, January 1919

Richard sipped his Scotch, glaring into the fire flickering in the hearth. He could hear music and laughter from the Servants' Ball downstairs, and those sounds of celebration only added to his fury. When Lady Rosamund had told him he was invited for the Shoot, he was shocked and pleasantly surprised. He considered driving to Yorkshire, but the country roads could be rather difficult in Winter, so he chose the train instead. He regretted that decision now, having to spend one last night at Downton Abbey before slinking away in the morning. Not that he would get any sleep tonight. He was too angry for that. It was one thing to have been found out by Matthew Crawley and his plans scuppered, but to be kept in his room, like a banished child, was infuriating.

He scowled as he heard a light knock at the door. What was this now? One of the footmen or valets come to bother him with some nonsense? He thought that everyone was downstairs at the party. A party for servants, of all people. The absolute folly! He would never understand these aristocrats.

"Come in, what is it?" he snarled bitterly.

"Sir Richard," Mary said, opening the door and stepping inside.

"Mary!" he exclaimed in surprise, forgetting to get up from his chair as he stared at her. She was the last visitor he expected. For a moment, he sat speechless, taking in her burgundy dress with the plunging v-shaped neckline and the layered skirt. Her hair was immaculately styled, with a diamond barrette keeping it in place. The raised coiffure and thin straps of her dress showed off her pale neck and shoulders. "What are you doing here?" he sputtered.

"I thought we ought to have a talk, since you're leaving in the morning," she stated, closing the door behind her.

"You're not coming down tomorrow to see me off? That's rather impolite of you, isn't it?" he sneered, a jolt of arousal tugging at him as she approached.

"I think it best that we not see each other tomorrow, or ever again," she said, coming over to stand by the fire. "Which is why I wanted to talk to you now."

"Does your husband know you've come to my bedroom?" he asked lightly, his eyes narrowing as his confidence grew. "It seems the type of thing that could be misunderstood if you're not careful."

"Matthew trusts me," she declared. "And no, he doesn't know. He's my husband, not my keeper. I needn't ask his permission to do as I please."

He smiled, showing her his teeth. "Well, in that case, may I offer you a drink? I've been allowed a rather fine vintage from your father's stocks as my last libation, it seems."

He rose from his chair and went over to the dresser to refresh his drink. His blood began to pump with the familiar thrill of a coming battle. She was right. They would never speak ever again, so there was nothing to stop him from saying and doing whatever he wanted.

"No, thank you," she said. "I'd rather just say my piece and get back downstairs."

"Well, by all means, Lady Mary," he said, turning around and taking a sip of his drink. "I'm at your service."

She swallowed and composed herself, suddenly feeling not nearly as brave as she did on the way upstairs. The distance between them did not seem to be enough, despite him staying on the other side of the room. He was undressed, wearing just his socks, trousers and shirt, the collar and cuffs undone. Though she'd seen him naked before, his current lack of clothing seemed inappropriate, and dangerous.

"I'm curious," she admitted. "Your interest in me, was it all part of a plan of revenge on Matthew for ruining your loan scheme? There was never any…attraction…beyond that?"

He smiled devilishly and took another long sip of Scotch.

"I don't think any man could resist becoming attracted to you, Lady Mary," he answered, casually coming closer to her. "When I first met you at Cliveden, I knew who your husband was, but you were never a pawn in my plans. I told you that we would rule together as partners, and I meant every word. My offer to you, to protect you during the War and to give you a future beyond it, was entirely genuine."

"If you care for me as much as you contend, then why this entire mess with Private Gordon?" she demanded. "Surely you knew that I would never accept him as the heir."

"Of course you wouldn't," he agreed. "The plan was to throw your house into disarray. If your father sided with Matthew, then I would have revealed Private Gordon and his story to the world, thereby forcing your family to defend itself and attempt the impossible – to prove he wasn't Patrick Crawley. If, as I expected, your father believed him to be Patrick Crawley, then it would have forced you to choose between your husband and Downton. I must admit, I expected you to choose differently."

"And if I supported Private Gordon's claim, I would have been backing your horse," she said slowly.

"Exactly, my dear," he leered. "Matthew would have left in a rage of righteousness, and the two of you would have been divorced in short order, I expect, estranged at the very least. The new heir would have then invited me to Downton, with the support of Lady Grantham and Lady Rosamund, and you and I would have been able to renew our acquaintance, without your husband around to cloud your judgment."

She stared at him, chin raised, eyes cold, but her heart was beating quickly, the true danger she had almost fallen into dawning upon her.

"But you failed," she said quietly. "We stopped you."

"You did," he acknowledged, nodding his head as he swirled his drink in his glass. "I did not anticipate that you would be willing to give up Downton and that Matthew would be willing to fight for it. I thought the quandary that I had presented would be a bridge too far in both respects. Once again, he has been terribly unpredictable."

"Yes, and so I trust that you will give up this obsession of yours with Downton," she said, steadying her tone. "I am not so naïve as to think our paths will not cross in the future. You're part of Society now, after all. However, there is no need for us to be anything more than polite strangers to each other."

"You have my word," he said, ogling her as he nodded his head. "I will not set foot in this house again unless it is at your invitation."

She swallowed and looked away.

"That is why you invited me, using Lady Rosamund as your agent," he stated, forcing her to look at him. "We are hardly friends, are we? But you knew that I would come at your call. You knew that I would jump at the chance to spend time with you, which is why you sent your maid to summon me earlier this afternoon. You counted on my…attraction…to you. You've done it before, used your womanly charms to manipulate me, and others as well, I expect. You enjoy it, playing with men, demonstrating your power. I am familiar with the addictive nature that one feels from seeing a scheme come off."

"Matthew agreed with my plans," she said, glaring at him. "I merely did what was necessary to draw you here to expose your true intentions."

He laughed at her, shaking his head and looking at her with covetous eyes.

"You've won, Mary," he said easily. "You needn't be so defensive, or attempt to hide from the truth. Isn't that why you're standing here now? You came to me, against your better judgment, because your ego demanded that you be sure I wasn't indifferent to you all along. I may have lost this battle to you and Matthew, but you couldn't bear for me to leave without knowing that you still hold sway with me. You're here because you want to assert your power yet again. You crave it."

"That's not true," she said, her voice sounding weak even to her own ears.

"Come now, you know, in your heart, that you and I are far more alike than you care to admit. We both desire the same thing. Power. Control. That is why you enjoyed our confrontation earlier. Seeing your darling Matthew championing your cause, getting the best of me, and Gordon, and your father. It was all so very exciting for you, wasn't it?" he asked. "It didn't matter whether you were right or wrong in this. All you cared about, all you've ever cared about, was casting your lot with a powerful man and feeling that thrill."

"I love Matthew," she said thickly. "I would have left Downton for him. I don't need power. The woman I was before I met Matthew may have resembled who you say, but that's not who I am now."

"And yet here you stand, in my bedroom, gloating," he retorted. "Matthew wouldn't want you here, but you couldn't resist. I may have lost this time, but I am still the power broker I always was. A part of you regrets that this may be the last time we see each other. Just like your mother and your aunt, a part of you wonders about what you could accomplish with my influence at your disposal. Power, my dear, attracts power. You just can't help yourself, can you?"

"You're wrong," she said.

"You are free to tell yourself that if it suits your purpose," he said, smiling as he raised his glass to his lips. "Good night, Mary."

She blinked at his dismissal, then turned and left as quickly as she could, walking down the hall without looking back. At the top of the stairs, she took a deep breath and closed her eyes, trying to compose herself before returning to the Servants' Ball and the safety of Matthew's arms.

"Mmm…oh…God!" Mary sighed, wiping her hair away from her face as she took deep breaths and waited for her pulse to return to normal. Matthew laughed as he kissed her neck and shoulder, moving off of her and giving her some room.

"I hope you aren't worn out," he teased. "Dawn is still hours away yet."

"Of…of course not," she stuttered, gasping for breath. "I just need a few moments to recover and we can go again."

He laughed and shook his head, throwing the blankets off of them. "Come on, then. You can recover in the shower."

He carried her into the bathroom and set her down before he turned on the shower and waited for the water to warm. When finally satisfied with the temperature, he held her in his arms as the water rained down on them, then soaped her body liberally, a dull ache in her legs a pleasant reminder of all the pleasure he'd given her since they'd retired from the Ball.

"Mmm," she moaned contentedly as she leaned back against him, the water rinsing the soap off of both of them. "It seems I'm entirely in your hands, darling."

"Does that please you?" he asked, running his fingers up her stomach, across her breast and back down her side.

"Very much," she said sultrily.

"Good," he said. "It pleases me to know that I can keep you interested."

"Obviously you do," she replied, turning around and looking up at him. "You always have."

"I like to think so," he said, turning off the water. "However a man can jump to all sorts of conclusions when he finds out that his wife has gone to another man's bedroom, particularly when that other man is Sir Richard Carlisle."

Her mouth fell open and her eyes opened wide at his words. She stared dumbfounded as he grabbed a large towel from the nearby rack and began drying himself off.

"Matthew, I…it wasn't…I…" she struggled.

"I'm not angry with you. You're free to do as you wish," he said, his tone calm. "I'm not happy that you went to see him, but I expect you wanted a bit of closure."

"You could say that," she answered. "I don't know why exactly I did, but I do regret it now, and not just because you found me out. I never should have gone. It wasn't what I expected, and really, it was a waste. I'm sorry, Matthew, you must know I am."

"Well, it's good that you recognize that," he noted.

She nodded slowly as he passed her a fresh towel and stepped out of the shower.

"I was sorry to see you go, if only because it took away from the time we could have spent dancing," he said lightly.

"Do you mean to punish me, for neglecting you?" she asked quietly, following him out as she dried her hair.

"Do you believe you deserve to be punished?" he asked, looking at her intently.

"Yes," she whispered, nodding her head.

"Well we shall need to discuss terms then," he said, smirking at her devilishly.

Patrick walked slowly down the hallway to the front door. The wards barely resembled a hospital anymore, most of the beds and patients having been removed after the War ended. He glanced around, trying to remember the games room, the library, the Great Hall, places he never imagined he would ever set foot in, and places now that he knew he would never see again.

The footman went ahead and brought his luggage outside to the waiting motor. Sir Richard had departed earlier, he was told, and so it was just him heading off to the train station and London. He would be admitted to a hospital there for monitoring, and in about a month he'd likely be fit enough to leave. He was looking forward to moving on, trying to put this entire affair behind him.

"Private Gordon," Robert called, coming into the room before he could escape outside.

"Lord Grantham," Patrick replied, nodding his head respectfully as the Earl approached.

"Did you manage to get all of your belongings together?" Robert asked, struggling to make conversation. "You've been here for a while so I expect it wasn't easy to pack up."

Patrick shrugged his shoulders. "I've got it all, I think. Anything left behind is probably not worth keeping."

Robert nodded, regarding the soldier as though he was unsure what to make of him, as though he was seeing him for the first time.

"Why did you do it?" Robert asked finally. "Was it as simple as the money that Sir Richard paid you proved too enticing?"

Patrick looked down at his feet for a moment, then raised his head to look at the Earl once more.

"We all would like a place to call home, my Lord," he said. "Good day."

Patrick bowed his head, then turned and walked out to the motor. Robert watched him get in and leave, not moving from the Great Hall until he saw the car disappear down the lane.

Dower House, Downton Village, Yorkshire, England, January 1919

"That was one of the more lively Servants' Balls we've had," Violet noted, smiling before sipping her tea.

"It was," Cora agreed. "The end of the War has made everyone far more festive. The Season parties in London in December were quite fun."

"Everyone wanted to celebrate regaining their lives without the threat of war hanging over everything," Rosamund noted.

"Indeed," Mary said quietly, taking a small bite of her scone.

"Well, now that the Ball is over, we can officially begin the new year," Violet stated. "This is a rather important year, as well, given that we've finished with all of that business with the man claiming to be Patrick, and we can move ahead with Matthew's changes."

"I didn't expect you to be so eager to change Downton, Mama," Rosamund said with surprise.

"I know better than most how precarious our life here can be. There have been numerous instances throughout our family history where we were about to lose everything. If Matthew's plans can help us avoid such calamity, then I am all for it," Violet said easily.

"It must be a great relief for you that everything has turned out for you and Matthew in the end, my dear," Violet said, nodding to Mary.

"It is a great relief, though we would have been fine in either case," Mary said. "I am very much looking forward to moving ahead with the rest of his plans, and also putting all of this behind us. Matthew has survived the War, thank God, and I know I'll have a future with my husband by my side. It could not have turned out any better, wouldn't you agree, Mama?"

Cora looked at Mary curiously, something in her tone of voice seeming to imply there was more to what she said.

"I'm happy to have Matthew back safe, as is your Papa and all of us," Cora replied.

"Yes, of course," Mary said, smiling sweetly. "We're all quite lucky, aren't we, Aunt Rosamund?"

Rosamund looked from Mary to Violet and back again.

"Yes, very lucky," Rosamund agreed.

Mary shared a knowing glance with her Granny before sipping her tea.

Downton Abbey, Yorkshire, England, February 1919

"We want to talk to the both of you about Sybil," Mary announced, taking a seat next to her Mama on the sofa.

"With respect to what?" Robert asked, looking at his wife with concern as Matthew sat down on the opposite sofa next to him.

"We're concerned for her," Matthew said. "She seems rather disinterested in everything, really."

"Disinterested?" Cora asked.

"With the convalescent hospital closed, she's lost her job, what she devoted most of her time to," Mary explained. "She's having difficulty adjusting. She doesn't want to go back to her old life where she spends her days choosing dresses and paying calls."

"Aren't you being a bit dramatic?" Robert asked. "I thought she was still assisting Isobel and Clarkson with those flu patients?"

"They're only using her for small tasks. The flu is a very serious matter and they'd rather only fully trained nurses assist. Besides, I believe Cousin Violet may have intervened to keep her away from the front lines, as it were," Matthew said wryly.

"Of course," Robert said, nodding his head.

"Anyway, we believe that we have a solution, but it will require an adjustment for all of us, and most of all, we need the two of you to support her, and our idea," Mary said.

Robert shared a worried glance with Cora. "Why do I get the feeling that your idea will not seem particularly palatable to your Mama and I?"

"Nevertheless, hear us out and keep an open mind," Matthew said.

Downton Abbey, Yorkshire England, January 1919

Sybil walked briskly down the gravel path and turned the corner, picking up her skirts and almost broke into a run. The garage came into view and she hurried, moving as fast as was acceptable. When she reached the large open door, she looked around frantically, panic seizing her chest.

"Tom! Tom!" she called.

"Sybil?" Tom replied, peeking his head out from the motor. He got up and stepped out of the car, picking up a rag and wiping his hands. "What are you doing here?"

"What the meaning of this?" she demanded, holding up his crumpled letter in her hand. "You're leaving?"

Tom put the rag down and put his hands on his hips. "I gave His Lordship my notice, yes," he confirmed.

"But why?" she asked, swallowing nervously. "I…I thought that you intended to stay."

"I intended to wait," he corrected her. "And I have, for quite a while longer than I planned. My family tells me that matters are moving quickly back home. There's great changes coming, and I need to be there for them. This is a moment in Ireland's history and I can't miss it."

"But what will you do there?" she asked, her mind racing for some excuse, some reason to make him stay.

"I have a job, working at a newspaper. I'll be in the thick of things, keeping the British honest and letting the people know the truth. It's the chance of a lifetime, really," he explained.

"It does sound rather important," she admitted. "Well, then I suppose I ought to wish you good luck, then."

He watched her closely, frowning, then taking a deep breath.

"Come with me, Sybil," he begged. "The War's over. Her Ladyship is closing the hospital. Everything you've learned, everything you've achieved over the past years will be wiped away and you'll have to go back to your waiting room. Is that the life you want?"

"No," she said, shaking her head. "It's completely the opposite of what I want."

"Then marry me," he insisted. "You can live with my mum while the banns are read, and after we'll get a small place of our own. You can find a nursing job, or even perhaps work at the paper with me. There's so much happening over there. It's history, history happening before our very eyes. You should see it. You should be a part of it."

"Tom, I can't," she said, shaking her head. "This is my home. You're asking me to turn my back on my family, on everything I know, and for what? Will I be so easily accepted over there? By your family, your friends, your countrymen? You can't expect it will be simple for us."

"All that matters is what we feel for each other. I love you, Sybil. The rest is detail," Tom said heatedly.

Sybil closed her eyes and cringed. He was forcing her hand, and who could blame him? For years he'd waited for her and here she was, no closer to a decision than during the War. Mary and Matthew had given her hope, that marrying for love could overcome so many obstacles. Even Edith, and choosing to marry Sir Anthony, an older man with a permanent injury, wasn't what was expected of her. But in the end, her sisters' choices wouldn't help her resolve the main concern that she could not get past.

"Tom," she struggled.

"You're better than this, Sybil," he said quietly. "Your family will always be your family, but this is your life. Even with all the uncertainty that might face us, you can't possibly believe that you'll be better off staying here?"

She looked him in the eyes. She owed him that much.

"Tom, I can't," she whispered, her voice breaking. "This is your dream, not mine. I asked you to wait, and you did, but I don't know what I want, and I can't ask you to put off this chance any longer."

"Sybil," Tom said dejectedly.

She came into his arms and kissed his cheek, hugging him tight before stepping away.

"Be safe, Tom, please. I'll worry about you, and pray for you," she said, tears spilling down her cheeks.

He shut his eyes for a moment, then looked at her sadly and nodded his head.

"I'll write to you, if that's all right," he said. "Maybe you'll be convinced when you read how things are over there."

"I would like that," she replied. "I don't expect you to wait, to keep waiting, over there. I…"

"I'll write to you," he repeated. "I'll write, and you'll write, and maybe someday there won't be any need for either of us to wait any longer."

She gave him a brave smile and nodded before turning around and hurrying off. When she turned the corner and was out of sight she kneeled down and leaned against the side of the house, the tears falling violently as she tried to cover her sobs with her hand.

Downton Abbey, Yorkshire, England, March 1919

"The new tractor will be arriving tomorrow," Matthew declared. "I'm gathering a group of the farmers to go and see it. If it works as well as we expect, we'll be able to increase our productivity."

"It's all that he's been able to talk about for weeks," Mary said wryly, nodding her head as Carson served the potatoes. "But I must admit that they are rather impressive machines. I didn't expect them to be so tall."

"Perhaps we should all take a look when they first arrive," Anthony suggested. "They'll never be that clean ever again."

Edith laughed and smiled at her husband.

"That's a grand idea," Robert agreed. "We'll make a bit of a day of it. Have luncheon at the Grantham Arms, then head over to the farm afterwards."

"That does sound lovely," Cora said. "Sybil?"

"Hmm? Oh yes, lovely indeed," Sybil said plainly, picking at her vegetables.

Mary and Matthew shared a wry smirk.

"What about you, Alex?" Edith asked, looking across the table. "Can we interest you in coming along?"

"I've seen these tractors before, Lady Edith. My clients use them to great effect" Alex replied with a smile. "I would be pleased to come along."

"Excellent," Robert noted, sipping his wine.

Alex looked over at Matthew, who nodded to him knowingly. The two men then traded glances with Robert and Cora.

Sybil ate her dinner, barely paying attention to the conversation around her. She'd spent the day with her Mama in York visiting some of the charities that they supported. It was honourable, and they were helping others, but she couldn't motivate herself to care too much. In the end it was just money, and while it did matter, it wasn't the type of change she was interested in.

Sipping her wine, she glanced over at Mary and Matthew, the two of them laughing together as though they'd just shared a private joke. She didn't know any couple who seemed more in love than her sister and brother-in-law. They flirted constantly and every time they went out walking or for a drive, or sometimes even when they sat together reading, they would hold hands, or play with each other's fingers. Beyond that though, they supported each other completely. She never expected to see her sister calculating budgets, visiting farms and negotiating with suppliers, but Mary had done all that and more while Matthew was at War. Now that he'd returned, they worked hand-in-hand. Though she liked to joke and be sarcastic, Mary was enjoying herself immensely, Sybil knew, having found a purpose, helping her husband and Papa to preserve Downton for her children and the next generation.

Sybil felt a tightening in her chest as she once again wondered what her future would hold. She didn't regret not following Tom to Ireland, but his letters over the past months had been so full of joy and excitement. He was loving his new job, being back with his family and seeing all that his people were trying to achieve. She envied him having a clear direction and something to pursue each day. Even the possibility of Mama marrying her off to Larry Grey did not break her melancholy. She couldn't see a path to a career or a life of meaningful change, so perhaps she ought to accept her lot and be a dutiful wife and mother, and raise her daughters to strive for the opportunities that she did not have.

"Lord Grantham, I was hoping that I could rely upon you for a special project of mine that's rather important to me," Alex said. "It's rather involved, and could take a while, but I would appreciate having you be a part of it."

"I'm intrigued," Robert said, glancing at Cora. "What is this regarding?"

Sybil sipped her wine, barely paying attention.

"My law firm is interested in moving the profession forward," Alex explained. "As Matthew can tell you, we strongly believe that with the War over, business and the economy will be greatly changed from what we saw years ago. The law must change with it, and unfortunately, the law is often the slowest to evolve."

"That does make sense, yes," Robert agreed. "But how can I help?"

"As with many things, Robert, change can only happen if the government mandates it," Matthew said.

"You want Papa to help you convince the government to regulate the legal profession? Don't they already do that?" Mary asked.

"They do, Lady Mary," Alex said, nodding his head. "However, the actual regulation of lawyers is done by the Law Society. The government usually leaves them alone unless there is a particular matter of public interest that comes forward. We believe we have such an issue, and we'd rather the government address it than the Law Society. They have vested interest in maintaining the status quo, whereas the government is, in theory, supposed to be more forward thinking."

"We may disappoint you in that regard, Alex," Robert said, smiling at Cora.

"What is this issue that you speak of?" Edith asked.

"We believe it is time that a female lawyer entered the profession," Alex explained. "We'd like to be the first law firm to employ a woman as a practising lawyer, and we need your help to do that, Lord Grantham."

Sybil blinked, trying to figure out if she'd heard Alex properly.

"That is no small project indeed, Alex," Robert chuckled. "You want to bring a Bill before Parliament, do you?"

"Yes," Alex confirmed. "I have a number of lawyers within the profession who would support it, as well as numerous women's advocacy groups as well. I also have members of the House who's interest varies from full support to passing interest, but if I could count upon you, then that would sway some of the neutrals."

"You might be overestimating my influence," Robert warned.

"Be that as it may, we'd like you with us," Matthew said.

"How would it work, exactly?" Robert asked. "You'd want the government to order the Law Society to accept women as practising lawyers?"

"We actually would have the proposed law be much broader than that, so as to affect the most people, and hopefully garner the most support to pass. We want to propose an end to all discrimination based on sex for all positions in the civil service. It would affect government, the law, the courts, medicine, universities, it would be quite far reaching. All of the professions that either forbid women, and married women as well, from joining their ranks, would have to allow them in," Alex explained.

"That's quite brilliant," Edith noted.

"And ambitious," Mary added.

Sybil watched the conversation with great interest now, her food forgotten momentarily.

"Are there are candidates ready in the event you are successful?" Robert asked. "I imagine an argument against you would be whether there is a demand for women in these professions, and whether they are competent."

"Oh darling, honestly," Cora said, rolling her eyes.

"It's an attitude that unfortunately will be quite common, my dear," Robert said.

Sybil frowned, but had to admit her Papa was right. The mere mention of a woman wanting to work was always met with the most ridiculous excuses in opposition.

"The University of London currently permits women to study for their Bachelor of Laws degree, the same degree that Matthew and I earned," Alex said. "The deterrent of course has been that once they graduate, they have nowhere to go as the Law Society won't let them practice. Accordingly, the enrollment numbers are nonexistent, as why bother studying for a profession that won't admit you?"

"A waste of time, indeed," Mary scoffed.

"Well, if you believe it will help, you have my vote, Alex, subject to my reading of the draft Bill, of course," Robert declared. "I imagine it would be easier for you if you could offer up an example of a woman who wanted into the profession and was capable of succeeding, but for the current state of the law."

"It most certainly would, Lord Grantham. We intend to run a publicity campaign of sorts when the time comes closer to a vote in the House," Alex said.

"Sybil," Mary called. "You're rather quiet. What do you think?"

"I think it's a fantastic idea," Sybil replied, her eyes bright. "Allowing women into the law would be a monumental victory already, but to have such a broad and far-reaching mandate would be revolutionary."

"I think we'll only get one shot at this, so why not aim as high as possible?" Alex joked.

Everyone laughed.

"What about you, Sybil?" Robert asked.

"Papa?" she asked in confusion.

"Why don't you consider going into law?" Robert asked. "By the time you graduate, Alex's Bill may have passed, and you'll have a career to pursue."

Sybil stared at her father as though he had two heads.

"Even if you choose not to practise, the skills you'd learn in law school could serve you well in any number of careers," Matthew added. "There are managers, business owners, politicians, all sorts of people who have law degrees but do not work as lawyers."

Sybil turned from her father to Matthew, still speechless.

"We could discuss it greater detail, if you like, Lady Sybil," Alex said. "You can come to the office and see what a typical day is like, even accompany me to Court, and that will give you a better idea of what you might be getting yourself into."

"But…erm…I…what about…erm…" Sybil stammered, completely in shock.

"Sybil, darling," Cora said warmly. "We know that working as a nurse during the War stirred your ambitions, and now that your sisters are happily married and have families and households to run, your Papa and I are interested in what makes you happy, what you wish to do with your life. This is but an option, however, if you wanted to delve into it further, we would support you."

Sybil wondered if she wasn't dreaming. Never in a million years did she imagine she'd be discussing having a career with her parents. She glanced over at Mary, who smiled and nodded to her in encouragement.

"I would very much enjoy learning more about the opportunity, Alex, yes," she said finally.

"Thank goodness," Edith exclaimed, smiling at her younger sister. "You can't possibly begin to understand how much work we all put into arranging this."

Sybil's eyes went wide as she stared at everyone around the table.

"Well, let's go through. Sybil can take a moment to compose herself until the men arrive and we begin her education," Cora joked, rising from her chair.

Mary smirked at her husband, leaning over and accepting a kiss to her cheek before following her Mama and sisters into the sitting room.

Grantham House, St. James Square, London, England, May 1919

"Where's Matthew?" Sybil asked, covering her mouth as she yawned quietly. "I'm afraid I'm about to fall asleep."

"Oh, don't wait for him, darling. He's upstairs reading a story to George and Victoria. I'll tell him you said goodnight and we'll see you tomorrow when you get back," Mary said.

"All right, please apologize to him. Today wore me out and tomorrow is going to be more of the same," she said. "Alex does love to talk, doesn't he?"

"You'll find that most lawyers do," Mary laughed. "Have you made a decision yet?"

"Not yet," she smiled sheepishly. "It's all quite exciting and the official I spoke to at the university was quite high on my prospects. Still, I'd have to move here and I don't know if I'm cut out for law school, to be honest. Alex says I don't have to decide for a while."

"All right, as long as you're comfortable," Mary said. "Be mindful though. Alex told me that he thinks the draft Bill will be before Parliament in the Autumn, so you might have quite a bit of competition if you wait too long."

Sybil laughed and got up from the sofa. She kissed Mary on the cheek and went upstairs to her bedroom. Mary finished her sherry and went up herself, telling Mrs. Bute she could close up the house for the night.

Matthew smiled as he closed the door to the nursery and walked quietly down the hall towards the stairs. Traveling with the children required careful planning and far more effort compared to when he and Mary were journeying alone, but they had decided they wanted to bring them along more often. If it was a quick jaunt into the City, then they would leave them with Nanny back at Downton, but on a trip such as this one, where they were in London for several weeks meeting with bankers and suppliers regarding Estate business and politicians for Alex's proposed Bill, it was good to come back at the end of the day and have the children greet them. Dinner and bedtime was a further chore, but George was so active now, and Victoria, having just celebrated her first birthday last month was walking and babbling more by the day, so neither he nor Mary wanted to miss a moment.

He shook his head in disbelief as he wandered the darkened hallway and climbed to the next floor. Even with the children and Nanny in the nursery and Sybil in her usual room, the upstairs was quite deserted. He and Mary had their bedroom on the top floor of the house, giving them more privacy, but also so that they wouldn't disturb anyone on those nights they came back late in the evening.

Living in London had been quite fun. They dined out each night, and spent time dancing in the clubs that seemed to be popping up all over the place. Alastair had taken them to a new jazz club in Soho that had opened up recently and the fast-paced music and racy dancing had lit both of their imaginations afire. It was comforting to let go of the constant worries and stresses that they both carried and just enjoy being together discovering something new. This was a new era, and they weren't entirely sure what it would bring, but they were confident they would get through it together. Downton Abbey still stood, the Crawleys still lived there and they were making every effort to keep it that way.

Matthew smirked as he reached the closed door of their bedroom. Another benefit of being on their own here in London was they felt liberated. The house was theirs, especially late at night, and they were taking full advantage. Taking a deep breath and trying several times to wipe the smile from his face, he finally pursed his lips and took on a serious expression before opening the door and slipping inside.

"Cousin Mary," he called, closing the door behind him.

"Cousin Matthew," Mary replied drily, not bothering to look up from her vanity. "You wanted to see me?"

"I did," he said sternly, stepping towards her but maintaining a respectful distance. "I believe it is time that we had an honest chat about the Great Matter."

"Honesty? From you, Cousin Matthew?" she asked incredulously. "Goodness, I don't know if I'm quite ready for that."

He frowned at her. "It is that exact type of rude remark to which I am referring, Cousin Mary. You have been nothing but belligerent and acerbic since my arrival. Now, I appreciate the position that you find yourself in, however it is of no fault of mine, and I believe…"

"No fault of yours?" she asked, rising from her chair and turning to face him. "It is exactly that level of colossal arrogance that draws my ire, Cousin Matthew! Not your fault? My word, then who's fault is it? If not for you, I wouldn't be shoved out of the way and losing my birthright!"

"The blame for that lies with the past Earls of Grantham who entailed the estate and bound your Mama's money to the Earldom!" he snapped, taking a step towards her. "I am just as much a victim as you in all of this, but rather than whinge and get into a snit over it, I choose to make the best of the situation."

His blood raced as he let loose, gritting his teeth to stop himself from laughing. When they first began to play such games, he would often lose the plot right from the off. It was often too hilarious a situation for him to maintain the ruse. Lately though, he'd become much better at it, and was taking great delight in each scenario they came up with.

"It's rather easy to make the best of the situation when you hold all the advantage, isn't it?" she sneered, crossing her arms over her chest. "For a middle class lawyer from Manchester, you are remarkably full of yourself, Cousin Matthew. Tell me then, how am I to 'make the best' of the Great Matter when it is I who has lost everything?!"

"There is a way for you to still be Countess of Grantham, and you are well aware of what it is," he said thickly, his eyes narrowing as he leered at her and took another step closer.

She blinked in surprise, her mouth falling open in shock. "You cannot be serious! Be your wife? Marry a man who barely knows how to use the correct fork at dinner?"

"If that is the most egregious of my transgressions then I call it a small price for you to pay in exchange for being able to stay in your family home and wield the power that you've always wanted," he retorted easily.

She frowned at him, breathing deeply. "And if I refuse?" she asked.

"That is your right," he replied. "I will arrange for you to be sent to London immediately."

"What?" she sputtered. "You'd exile me from Downton?"

"Cousin Mary, surely you can understand that I would rather not have anyone in the house who is so openly opposed to my very presence. If I am to be a proper heir and future Earl of Grantham, I must focus all of my attention and effort on learning how things are done. If you will not fall in line, then you need to get out of my way. I'm sure your Papa would agree," he said.

"You bastard," she snapped, her pulse racing. "You're giving me no choice!"

"To the contrary, I'm being quite generous with you. I owe you no obligation. I could quite easily find another wife to be my future Countess and you and your sisters would be cast out," he said.

She scoffed and glared down at the floor.

"Come, Cousin Mary, what are you truly concerned about?" he asked. "You were never going to marry for something as juvenile as love, so what is so abhorrent about the idea of being my wife? I offer you a position and a life, the life you've always wanted. Why do you resist me so?"

She swallowed nervously, still averting her eyes as he stepped behind her, his breath warm on her exposed back. Her thin nightgown does not match the scene they are playing at, but it is entirely appropriate for what is to come.

"Do you know what I think, Cousin Mary?" he asked, his tone deep and hypnotizing. "I think you're scared. You're not scared of marrying me, oh no, not that. You're scared of doing your wifely duties to me. I'd even go so far as to say you're terrified."

"Terrified?" she croaked, secretly proud of herself for pulling off this illusion of uneasiness. "You think I find you terrifying?"

"Not me, per se," he said, running his fingers along her shoulder and drawing a gasp from her lips. "Rather, what you imagine me doing to you."

"I can handle the likes of you, Cousin Matthew," she said raggedly, not quite sure if she was acting anymore. His fingers ghosted across her bare arm and his lips found the sensitive spot below her ear. She fought the urge to moan at his touch.

"Are you sure about that?" he asked, a deep laugh shook her as he kissed the side of her neck and his hands slid down to take hold of her hips. "I think you fear what a middle class man like me is capable of. After all, I'm not a gentleman in your eyes. Perhaps you think I have all manner of wicked experience. Perhaps you fear that I may be too rough with you?"

He pushed his hips against her bottom just as his hand reached up and tugged on her hair.

She gasped, unable to contain it.

"Or perhaps you're afraid you'll like it too much if I am?" he whispered.

A ragged breath escaped her lips.

"Why don't we put it to a test?" he continued, smiling as he felt her push back against him now. "If I am able to seduce you, then you shall marry me and cease all opposition. If you are able to resist, I shall leave Downton and you may keep your Mama's money. I will be Earl in title only and the future of your home will be entirely in your hands."

"I can easily outlast you," she sneered, though her body was already betraying her. "Do your worst."

"As you wish," he said darkly.

She smiled as his hands roamed over her nightgown, not bothering to remove her clothing. He fondled her breast while his fingers moved between her legs with knowing skill. He alternated between light caresses and deep presses, the thin nightgown and her knickers doing nothing to shield her from the warmth of his hands and the firmness of his fingers. As he builds her up, his hard arousal is obvious against her backside, his breath spilling all over her skin.

She gasped and moaned in his hold, the audacity of what he was doing to her without removing her clothing sending her arousal spiralling. Her defences crumble beneath his confident movements, pushing her closer and closer to the edge, his inevitable victory fast approaching. Soon she is cursing her own garments, hating that there is any barrier between them at all, wanting his skin against hers, flesh on flesh. Just as she teetered on the precipice, he snarled in her ear.

"Kiss me, Mary," he ordered.

She turned her head and opened her mouth. He kissed her and pushed his tongue past her lips just as he sent her flying, a sharp moan signalling her willing and eager surrender.

"Mmm, now that was one of our better performances," she said, laughing smugly as she kissed her way back up his body and nestled against him.

"Must we always act out a scenario where you start off hating me?" he grumbled, his hand massaging her bare back and reaching down to caress her bottom. "I much rather prefer the ones where we are drawn to each other right from the off."

"Those are nice, yes, but they don't lend themselves to putting on an act because they're too close to our real life story," she teased, kissing him lightly and smoothing his hair away from his forehead. "Besides, I know that deep down, you enjoy playing the conqueror."

He rolled his eyes at her, though he couldn't stop himself from smiling.

"Coming to Downton as an interloper and turning the cold and careful Lady Mary Crawley into your willing harlot," she drawled, kissing him again. "You love it. I almost think you'd have preferred it happened that way."

"God, Mary," he groaned, reaching up and rubbing the nape of her neck and pulling her in for another kiss.

"I'm still undecided about which game was my favourite though. Tonight was wonderful, but I still have fond memories of when you played the fortune hunter who convinced me not to cast you out. That was quite wicked," she mused.

"You put up quite the fight," he recalled, bringing her hand to his lips and kissing her fingers.

"Or when you played the corrupt tax collector and made me bribe you with my body? Hmm, now that was an inspired idea," she said.

"I must say I never imagined that I would ever have a marriage like this," he said, smiling and shaking his head.

"A marriage like what?" she asked, looking at him suspiciously.

"A marriage like a dream," he said, smiling at her.

"Oh, very smooth, darling," she grinned, kissing him again and straddling him.

The Royal Normal College and Academy for the Blind, Upper Norwood, London, England, June 1919

Mary smiled as she walked down the familiar hall. It had been eight years since she'd last been here, and yet the memories came flooding back so easily. She grinned as she reached her old classroom, the classroom where she first met Matthew. Pausing for a moment at the door, she shook her head at how remarkable Fate could be. Teaching at the College each year was a joy to her. She enjoyed dealing with the children and singing, marveling at their enthusiasm and good cheer. They were all disabled, some being completely blind, and yet they were all happy and good spirited. It was a welcome respite spending time with them and not having to be an aristocrat or dutiful daughter for a few hours each day. Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine she would find her husband in this place.

Remarkable, indeed.

She opened the door and came into the classroom and it was as though she was transported back in time. The desks and chairs were immaculately organized, the room brightly lit from the sunshine coming in from the windows, everything clean and kept, ready for the next wave of students. She saw a tall man with blond hair and brilliant blue eyes and though there was no mystery Matthew now but she felt a flutter in her chest when he turned to smile at her. Seeing him here, where they had first met, and knowing all that they had been through since, was delightful.

"Ah, there she is," Matthew said, automatically reaching out his hand, which his wife took as she came to his side. "Mr. Campbell, my wife, Lady Mary Crawley."

"Lady Mary," Guy Campbell said respectfully, bowing his head. "Welcome back."

"Thank you, Mr. Campbell," Mary replied, smiling at Matthew. "It is ever so wonderful to be back."

"Mr. Campbell and I were just discussing possible renovations to the classrooms. I always thought there wasn't enough storage space and that some of the rooms were rather dark. It doesn't seem to have changed much since we were last here," Matthew explained. "What do you think, darling?"

"I agree," she replied easily. "This room was always one of the brighter ones, but there are others that seem as dark as a dungeon."

Guy Campbell laughed and nodded his head in agreement. "Well, I must say that this is a brilliant day for us. The generosity being shown by the both of you, I…suffice it to say, my father would be so very grateful."

"We're grateful to him," she said kindly. "Sir Campbell was so very good to the both of us."

"Let me take you out to the ground," Guy said pleasantly. "Some of the students wanted to put on a bit of a show for you. Just a small demonstration by the football team."

Matthew grinned and looked at Mary with bright eyes.

"Goodness, football," she said, rolling her eyes playfully. "I'm afraid we won't be able to leave for hours yet."

They all laughed as they made their way towards the front doors to head outside into the beautiful summer day. Mary glanced over and smiled at Matthew knowingly as they reached the foyer. He returned her smile and squeezed her hand. This was where they had shared their first kiss so long ago.

"Mr. Campbell, Mr. Crawley, Lady Mary," an assistant called as she came up to meet them. "Before you go out, if you could just take a look at this mock up for the commemorative plaque, please."

They all looked at the sketch on the large pad she showed them. When Matthew first suggested they make a donation to the College, she had thought it a brilliant idea. Though the future was still uncertain, the changes at Downton Abbey were taking shape and they felt more confident that they would be able to weather any storm that came now, with the Estate far more self-sufficient than ever. The money for the College would help repair and update some of the classrooms and establish scholarships for the students so more children from outside of London would be able to come here. In return, the College offered Mary a place on the Board, which she gladly accepted, a host of ideas already filling her head about how she would update the curriculum. Truly, she was looking forward to spending more time here.

"We'll unveil it at the official ceremony," the assistant explained, nodding to the sketch of the plaque.

Matthew smiled. He had originally planned to just make the donation and leave it at that, but as with most things involving Mary's family, it had quickly taken on a life of its own. There would now be an official ceremony to announce their donation and draw some publicity to the College. Violet, Robert and Cora were all in support, and would be attending with the entire family. While he didn't think the fanfare was entirely necessary, he was looking forward to bringing George and Victoria through, showing them the school and the classroom where their parents had first met. In the future, he envisioned bringing them here regularly, to sing and play, and also learn a lesson about tolerance and how even blindness was no excuse to not live a fulfilling life. Edith's first child was due in August, and one day the next generation of Crawleys would hopefully continue the work that he and Mary were beginning now.

"That looks lovely, doesn't it?" Mary noted.

"Very much so," Guy Campbell agreed.

"I would only recommend one change," Matthew said.

"What is that?" Mary asked, looking at him curiously.

"It's more appropriate that it say 'Lady Mary Crawley and Matthew Crawley' I believe," he said, smirking at her.

She looked down to avoid his playful eyes.

"Very good," the assistant said, walking on ahead of them with Guy Campbell.

"Well, what do you think?" he asked teasingly, giving her that look, which after years of marriage, still told her quite clearly just what was on his mind.

"It's all coming along very well, I think," she said quietly, looking at him and arching her eyebrow. "And your attempt at flattery is entirely obvious as well. No flirting, Matthew. We're here on official business!"

"And when we leave?" he retorted, still smiling at her. "We could make a day of it, you know. The children are with your parents. Brown's isn't too far from here, I seem to recall."

She blushed and shook her head at him, trying to scold him but failing completely.

"I suppose that will depend on whether our usual suite is available, or not," she said, raising her chin and holding his stare. No need to let him have all of the advantage.

He grinned wide and reached into the inside pocket of his suit jacket, taking out a hotel key and flashing it to her before putting it back. "I believe it is."

She laughed and took his arm, giving him a cheeky smile as they walked out into the sunshine.