Private Villa, Kenwood, California, USA, September 2016
"I know," she agreed. "I do miss London. I miss Sybil, and Anna, even Edith. I miss work, though not as much."
He laughed in understanding.
"But it's just been so much fun being here," she continued. "Not having duties to perform or any responsibilities. I like how it's just been the two of us exploring the area and doing whatever we wish. I haven't felt this…free…in quite some time, and I am reluctant to let go of it, it seems."
"It has been nice, yes," he agreed, putting his arm around her shoulders. "And hopefully the memories will help us get through the annoying days that are sure to come, until our next trip. That's what normal people do, you know? They take vacation to recharge, then go back to work until they can find time to take off again. We're no different."
"Except our vacation budget is slightly more flexible than most," she said, smiling at him.
"Except for that, yes, though I would argue that some have much better schedules than we do," he countered.
She put her tea cup and saucer on the side table and snuggled against him. "I suppose there are some good reasons to go home. We have new home to move into."
"If you ever finish with your renovations and decorating," he joked.
"Keep joking," she said dismissively. "It'll be a palace by the time I'm through with it."
"I'm looking forward to it immensely," he said, kissing her softly.
116 Pall Mall – Home of the Institute of Directors, St. James, London, England, November 2016
The large ballroom was decorated by paintings. The ceilings had intricate wainscoting and gorgeous crystal chandeliers, but the paintings were the main draw. Large, majestic portraits in gilded frames were everywhere – between the large windows overlooking the manicured garden, bordering the tall mirrors at either end of the room, and framing the dark oak doors. They were all paintings of members of the British monarchy dating back to Charles I. King George III. The Prince of Wales. Queen Elizabeth II. They all stood stoically, towering over a room full of round tables covered in white linens and elaborate floral centrepieces. With the sun having long set and evening descended over the city, the paintings, just like the rest of the guests, were now watching the two couples on the dance floor.
"You look absolutely stunning tonight, Anna," Matthew said, smiling down at her as they danced. "It appears that married life agrees with you."
"Thank you," Anna said, grinning as she turned about the dance floor with her new husband's best man. "And thank you for everything that you and Mary did for us. It wasn't necessary, you know."
"On the contrary," he said. "It was absolutely necessary. My wife's best friend deserves the very best on her special day. I was terrified that Alex was going to want grilled cheese sandwiches or some other nonsense for dinner."
Anna laughed and shook her head.
"I wouldn't have allowed that," she said. "This hall is so beautiful. I never imagined I would be married in a place like this."
She couldn't stop smiling, remembering how the wedding ceremony took place on the grand sweeping staircase in the atrium, their guests standing in the galleries all around them. Coming into the reception on the arm of her new husband, all eyes upon her, had Anna feeling a bit like Mary, getting to be the belle of the ball for once.
"I think that Violet had something to do with arranging that," he said. "Anyway, do enjoy yourself, Anna. This is your day, and we're all so happy for you. I'm happy for Alex too, but not as much."
"Thank you," she said, smiling as she glanced over at her husband, who was dancing with her maid-of-honour.
"Even though you're practically family, Alex, make no mistake, if you hurt Anna in any way, I will kill you," Mary said haughtily, arching her eyebrow at the groom.
"And I would deserve it," Alex replied, keeping a respectful distance as they did an informal waltz. "I do love her, Lady Mary, more than anything."
"I know you do," she allowed, smiling at him kindly. "Just remember that, always, and take good care of her. She deserves to be happy, probably more than anyone else I know."
"We definitely agree on that," he replied.
Mary looked around the ballroom. It was such a contrast from the High Society Event of the Year that was her own wedding, with barely 100 guests and a far more casual and intimate mood, even here in this lavish venue. Whereas she had four bridesmaids, Anna only had her, and Mary was determined to make sure everything was perfect, down to the last detail.
"Now, after we're done, we should start going around and doing the toasts at each table, starting with Anna's Mum. I think she would appreciate that, since there's so few family members here," Mary instructed him.
"Yes, my Lady," he replied obediently, not so much leading their dance as keeping them moving.
"I've told the caterers to bring out the savoury table and desserts in about fifteen minutes or so, and the photographers will want some evening shots of the both of you out in the garden. When we're done the toasts, you and Matthew can mingle with your guests while I help Anna change," she continued.
"Yes, my Lady," he answered. "She has another dress?"
"Of course she does, Alex. Did you expect her to remain in her wedding gown all evening?" she asked lightly.
"Erm…I…well, I didn't pay much thought to that, I suppose. I know you had several outfit changes during your wedding, but I just assumed that Anna…" he stammered.
"She has another dress," she interrupted him. "And believe me, you will enjoy it."
"Yes, my Lady," he said crisply. "I'm sure that I will."
"Good," she said. "Now do smile. It's your wedding reception and you should be seen to be enjoying yourself."
"Yes, my Lady," he said dutifully, putting on a smile as they continued to turn.
"Thank you for coming, have a wonderful night," Alex said to an older couple that he barely knew. He shook the man's hand and kissed the woman's cheek, nodding to them as he watched them leave.
"Jules Ross and his wife, Amelia," Matthew whispered as Alex looked at him in bewilderment. "They're long standing clients at Crockfords. They always ask for Anna whenever they come in to play. I think they see her as a bit of a surrogate daughter in a way"
"Right," Alex said. "Well, I hope they had a good time."
"I'm sure they did, and I'm sure their wedding gift was quite generous," Matthew said. "Buck up a bit. In about two hours, this will all be over and you'll be able to take your wife home."
"Two hours and eight minutes," Alex replied. "Lady Mary had me set alarms on my phone for each stage of the evening."
Matthew laughed and nodded his head in sympathy. "She just wants to give Anna the wedding she deserves."
"I know, I know, it's very generous of her, of both of you," Alex admitted.
"Don't worry. I'll make sure she doesn't board the plane with you. You won't see her, or me, anywhere in Italy, I promise," Matthew said.
"Thanks for that," Alex replied wryly. "Look, I want everything to be perfect for Anna too, it's just that I thought this would all be so much…simpler. The photographers, and the savoury table, the candy buffet, the waffle station, it's all just so…"
"What did you expect, exactly?" Matthew teased. "A simple three-course meal, a couple of dances, the bouquet toss and to be on your way?"
"Well…yes," Alex admitted. "We were supposed to have a simple wedding."
"Compared to ours, yours is a simple wedding," Matthew noted.
"Compared to yours, Wills and Kate had a simple wedding," Alex said sarcastically.
"Well, we did show some restraint. For one, Mary thought that Westminster wasn't to her taste," Matthew joked.
Alex laughed ruefully.
"Alex! Matthew!" Sybil called, coming over with Edith. "Come on! The groom looks like he could use a shot or three."
"Definitely," Alex agreed readily, quickly walking with Edith to the bar.
Matthew laughed and put his arm around Sybil, catching up to Alex and Edith and ordering the first round of drinks.
"There, that should do it," Mary said, straightening the high collar of Anna's dress and smoothing the shoulders and back with her hand.
Anna took a deep breath and turned her body side-to-side, looking at her reflection in the mirror.
"You look gorgeous, Anna," Mary assured her, smiling and nodding encouragingly.
"Do you really think so?" Anna asked, biting her bottom lip nervously. "It's so much different than the last one I wore."
"It's lovely," Mary said. "He'll adore it."
"All right, all right," Anna said, turning around and giving Mary a brave smile. "Let's go before he gets sick of waiting for me."
"One last thing," Mary said, holding up her hands. "There's something that I've been meaning to give you. Matthew would kill me if he knew I'd revealed this to you, but I think as Alex's wife, you ought to know."
Anna watched as Mary retrieved a small bag from the side table and handed it to her. She looked at it curiously, then opened it to examine the contents.
"He…would like this?" she asked, looking at Mary in confusion.
"According to Matthew, yes," Mary said, nodding her head. "He was apparently afraid to mention it to you for fear you might find it rather…odd."
"I don't find it odd at all," Anna said, shaking her head. "He should have said something before. I would have done it."
"I know, that's why I'm telling you now, even though Matthew swore me to secrecy," Mary said, smiling mischievously. "It should liven up your wedding night, and your honeymoon."
"It most certainly will," Anna said, chuckling before tucking the bag away out of sight with the rest of her things.
"All right, let's get you back down to your adoring public, Mrs. Lewis," Mary declared, reaching out her hand.
Anna laughed and took her best friend's hand as they left the dressing room and went back downstairs to the reception.
"I do wish you had brought Lord Hexham," Alex said, nodding to Edith. "I haven't seen him since the grand opening, but he seemed nice."
"He is nice," Edith agreed. "I think a wedding is probably a bit too important an occasion to unveil him officially, though."
"You're waiting for a family dinner?" Alex joked. "That will be much easier."
"Good point," Edith said, laughing ruefully. "He'll be at our party in December, and we'll go from there. Part of me thinks that Mama and Papa will be elated that I've found a man willing to have me, so I'm not overly concerned, but one never knows until the proverbial stamp of approval is given."
"Well, I know that your Granny already thinks quite highly of him," Alex offered.
"Yes, Granny has been very supportive, which is nice of her," Edith said. "I don't know why I'm so concerned about it. It's 2016. Who I choose to be with is my business. Besides, it isn't as though we've discussed marriage. We're just enjoying being together."
"I think you'd still prefer if everyone got along," Alex said kindly. "It makes things far easier. What about Lord Hexham's family? Have you met them yet?"
"No, though he has told them about me," Edith said. "His family estate is called Brancaster, it's in Northumberland, near Newcastle. I expect after I formally introduce him to my family, we'll go up to see his at some point. I don't know why I'm not concerned about meeting his parents. Normally I'd be terrified of such a thing."
"I'm sure they'll adore you," Alex said confidently.
"If they like me half as much as Anna's Mum loves you, then I'm doing something right," Edith teased.
"If Anna loved me half as much as her Mum does, I'd be set," he shot back. "No, that's not true. Anna probably loves me about three quarters as much as her Mum."
Edith laughed and took another sip of her gin and tonic. She glanced to her right at Matthew and Sybil huddled together, as they usually were.
"I can't believe Rose told you!" Sybil groaned. "That fucking bitch!"
"Funny, she said that was going to be your exact reaction, verbatim," Matthew said, chuckling at her. "Now, when am I going to get to meet young Mr. Branson?"
"Never," Sybil said, glaring at him. "We've only been out a few times. It's nothing serious."
"Then you won't care if I meet him, if it's all so casual," Matthew noted. "Or am I going to have to wait for when you decide to bring him home to meet your parents before I get a chance to speak to him?"
"Maybe. You're just as bad as Papa when it comes to evaluating boys that I date," Sybil retorted, giving him a pointed look that remarkably resembled the face Mary usually made when she was annoyed with him as well.
"I make no apologies for that. If a young lad isn't worthy of you, I'm not going to stand idly by," he said easily.
"You think far too highly of me," she sighed.
"And you, my darling sister, do not think highly enough of yourself sometimes," he replied, shrugging his shoulders.
She smiled at him and shook her head ruefully.
"Oh God," she exclaimed suddenly frowning at him. "You aren't going to investigate him, are you?"
"Why would I do that?" he asked.
"That's isn't a no," she said suspiciously.
"I swear that I will not commence an investigation into your journalist friend," he said innocently. "Unless you ask me to."
"Is that because you're being nice, or because you've already investigated him?" she demanded.
He smiled smugly and sipped his Coke.
"Fucking hell," she whinged, taking a rather large gulp of her Amaretto and Coke.
They drank in silence for several moments before Sybil put her glass down and rolled her eyes.
"All right, let's hear it," she said in exasperation, looking at him in annoyance.
"I like him, actually," he said. "He's close to his family, has a brother back in Ireland. He's a socialist, which can be rather annoying, but not a dealbreaker. Do you know that before he got hired on at The Guardian, he was an Uber driver to make ends meet? Quite resourceful of him. I always respect a person who appreciates cars."
Sybil sighed and rested her head on his shoulder in resignation as she kept listening.
As usual, Anna worried for no reason. When she and Mary came back into the ballroom, she was flooded with compliments on her red ceremonial Chinese wedding dress. The silk garment hugged her figure attractively, with a sheer bodice across her chest and embroidered flowers that covered most of the gown. Mary had helped her style her hair from the long waves that she'd worn all day up into a tight bun.
When Matthew saw them come back, he smiled and turned to nudge Alex in the side. The groom stopped his conversation with Edith and looked at his best man, wondering what he wanted. Matthew simply nodded his head towards the centre of the room, and as Alex's eyes turned in that direction, his mouth fell open.
Matthew had to get him walking but soon they both were approaching Anna and Mary. Matthew smiled and veered off towards the head table to meet his wife, while Alex came forward and took Anna's hand, smiling in disbelief at her.
"When Lady Mary said you had to change, I thought it was just into something more comfortable," he muttered, looking her up and down.
"Oh, this is quite comfortable,' she replied, looking at him expectantly. "Are you pleased?"
"Love, I am humbled. You're absolutely gorgeous," he said reverently, leaning in and kissing her softly.
Mary and Matthew smiled from their seats as the happy couple went out to the garden with a photographer to take photos with the bride in her new dress.
"Maybe I should get her a drink, what do you think?" Mary asked, looking across the room at Anna and Alex. "A Coke, maybe, something sugary just to get her through the rest of the night?"
"She seems fine to me," Matthew said patiently, rubbing her back soothingly.
"Should we go and fetch them?" she asked. "They've spent too much time in that one spot. They should circulate more so all of their guests get a visit."
"They already went to each table during the toasts," he said. "Many of the guests are leaving anyway. It's late. They'll all stop in and say their goodbyes to them, so they can just stay where they are."
She frowned slightly as she watched the newlyweds. Anna was sitting across Alex's lap, his arm around her waist, hers across his shoulders, both of them laughing and chatting away with any and all who came by to see them.
"Do you like this music?" she asked, still not looking at him. "The DJ should play something more…I don't know…mainstream, shouldn't he?"
"I don't think anyone minds, or is even paying attention," he said, watching as Sybil, Gwen, Daisy and poor William were among the few still dancing.
She arched her eyebrow and kept watching.
"They're both happy, my darling," he said kindly. "Today has been wonderful, and memorable, and they're happy."
"I know, I know," she said, closing her eyes briefly and shaking her head. "It's just that Anna has always been there for me. Always. And today I just want…"
"I know," he said quietly.
"And I want her to know that I have always appreciated…" she continued.
"She knows," he said, taking her hand and finally drawing her attention. "Everything has been perfect, I assure you. I think it's time that you let them go and enjoy being newlyweds now."
Her expression softened and she reached up with her free hand and caressed his face.
"I suppose that means I need to go back to attending to my husband, doesn't it?" she asked lightly.
"Sadly for you, yes, yes, it does," he joked.
She smiled at him before her hand slid to the back of his neck and she pulled him into a teasing kiss, her tongue playing between his lips quickly before she pulled back.
"For being so patient and supportive, and for following orders quite well today," she whispered. "You are getting so much action when we get home."
"Dare I hope that the construction crews will be gone by then?" he asked, smirking at her.
"Oh, I'm quite certain the house will be all ours," she said.
"Mmm, well I can't say fairer than that," he said smugly, pecking her lightly before they drew back. He took a sip of Coke as she went back to watching Anna and Alex, far more relaxed now than she was before.
Home of Alex and Anna Lewis, Imperial Wharf, London, England, November 2016
Alex stirred the chocolate sauce on the stove, tasting it quickly to judge the temperature. By the time the last of the guests had left the reception, the savoury bar and candy buffet had been emptied, but the waffle station remained. There were plates of waffles, bowls of fruit and a chocolate fountain left over, and since they had already paid for it, he and Anna decided to box it all up. Lady Mary and her sisters helped out, packing up the unopened bottles of champagne and wine and the remains of the dessert table. Those, along with all the wedding gifts, were taken away to Grantham House, and would be delivered to Alex's tomorrow afternoon, or later this afternoon, as it was now two in the morning. He had snatched waffles, fruit and chocolate sauce for him and his new wife before they left.
His new wife.
Anna had insisted on taking his family name, even though he told her it wasn't important to him that she do so. He even suggested she use 'Anna Smith-Lewis' as her legal name and 'Anna Smith' as her professional name, since that was what everyone already knew her as. This made her even more resolute to change her name, and he had to admit when Matthew took to the microphone and introduced them at the reception as 'Mr. and Mrs. Alex Lewis', he had felt an old-fashioned sort of pride. Anna Lewis. Yes, if that's what she wanted her name to be now, he could get used to that.
Matthew had warned him that things would feel different the moment he exchanged vows with Anna, and he was right. Even now, hours after the wedding, standing in his same kitchen, jacket off, shirt unbuttoned, tie gone, cufflinks off and sleeves rolled up, he felt lightheaded and giddy. He and Anna had spent every night together for over a year, but now that they were married, being here with her felt tangibly different and exciting. They were embarking on a new phase of their lives together, and he chuckled and shook his head at the thought. He was going to be with the woman he loved for the rest of his life. The very idea seemed impossible just a short time ago.
"Love," he called, taking the saucier off the hob and pouring the warm chocolate sauce into a ramekin. "What do you want on your waffle? Blueberries or strawberries?"
"Can't I have both?" Anna asked, appearing from the hallway and leaning against the doorway to the kitchen.
"Of course, you can. We've got plenty," he said, laughing as he turned towards her. "I just didn't know if you…"
He stopped in his tracks, his eyes bulging and his jaw dropping at the sight of her.
Anna had let her blonde hair down after getting back home. It fell in loose waves past her shoulders. Instead of her robe, which was what he was expecting, she was wearing a tight navy blue skinsuit that left almost nothing to the imagination. The zipper of the suit was pulled down provocatively, and a large circular badge with the number '4' was sewn on just above her left breast.
He blinked as he remembered to breathe.
"Babes?" she asked, her eyes playful and bright. "You all right?"
He nodded slowly, his mouth opening and closing like a fish as he struggled to find his voice.
"What…where…how…" he babbled.
"Oh this? Just a little something that I picked up for our wedding night," she said, coming forward to stand before him. "Sue Storm, The Invisible Woman from The Fantastic Four. What do you think?"
"It's…I…like…like it," he struggled.
"You like it? Is that all?" she asked, smirking up at him.
"I love it," he said, finding his voice again. "Wait a second. How did you…oh, fuck. Matthew…"
"Mary, actually," she said. "Don't be mad. I would never have known about this little fantasy of yours if they hadn't intervened."
"Well, I…I just didn't think that…" he said, blushing furiously.
"You didn't think that I would go for it, if you told me?" she asked, sticking out her tongue teasingly as she wrapped her arms around his waist. "Alex, I love you. If you want me to do something for you, I will. I like finding out these little secrets of yours, and I think I look quite hot, actually. Don't you agree?"
"Yes," he gasped, nodding his head vigorously. "You look sexy as all hell."
She grinned at his breathless appreciation, a heady sense of power filling her as she saw just how overwhelmed he was, all because of her. "Let me guess, you discovered the comics as a teenager?" she asked.
"Well, erm, yes, but it was more the movie came out when I was 18 or so," he said, swallowing nervously.
"Ah," she said, nodding her head. "Well, you've got me in the costume now, so what's next?"
"Honestly, I never expected to get this far, actually," he said incredulously.
"Mmm, well then, how about you get a bowl of fruit, and the chocolate sauce, and come and find your wife in our bedroom to get a closer look?" she said, leaning up and kissing him. "Don't take too long."
She turned around, walked out of the kitchen and headed upstairs to the bedroom.
He scrambled to put together a bowl of strawberries and blueberries, grabbed the chocolate sauce and scampered after her.
Home of Lady Mary Crawley and Matthew Crawley, Knightsbridge, London, England, November 2016
"Alex is going to be pissed at me," Matthew said, running his hand through his hair and shaking his head.
"I suspect that he'll actually thank you quite profusely," Mary teased, kissing his chest.
"In a perfect world, maybe. You do realize that you could have ruined everything if the idea turned her off, don't you?" he asked.
"I knew she wouldn't be turned off," she said simply. "The problem with you, and with Alex, apparently, is that you don't talk about this sort of thing. You think that Anna and I are delicate and naïve, or something, and that we'll be aghast to hear that you have fantasies and desires. It doesn't occur to you that speaking about these things with one's partner is actually healthy for a relationship."
"If it works out, yes," he qualified, massaging her bare back as she settled on her side facing him. "If it doesn't, then now we've revealed ourselves as having chauvinistic and depraved thoughts and that's quite a difficult thing to overcome."
"Shocking news! Men think about having sex with their girlfriends!" she exclaimed with mock surprise.
"Since when did you become so open and bold about talking about this sort of thing? It isn't very ladylike," he asked suspiciously.
"I never was before," she admitted. "You seem to bring it out of me."
"Do I?" he asked, smiling wide.
"Don't read too much into it, I just wasn't interested in exploring that sort of thing before," she said defensively.
"Until you slept with me," he noted, ridiculously smug.
"Yes, until I felt the rapture of being ravished by Matthew Crawley," she said, frowning at him. "Are you going to let me finish my point or not?"
"All right," he relented, still smiling.
"First off, just because you share a fantasy doesn't mean it's going to come true, but it doesn't lessen you in my eyes, either. Second, just think about all the great fun we would have missed out on had I not finally dragged your fantasies of me out of you? And it isn't just the sex. It's the intimacy of being completely open with each other. The same thing goes for Alex and Anna."
"Can we just use ourselves as the example?" he asked, cringing slightly. "I adore Anna, but I'd rather not have the mental image of…"
"Understood," she said quickly.
"I agree completely with what you say, and if it all goes well, then yes, it's absolutely fantastic," he continued. "My point is this is 2016. There should be no expectation that a woman need to perform for her partner. I encouraged Alex to tell Anna about his…ideas…but I can understand his reluctance. It's a big risk. He was terrified that he was being selfish."
"And I think that's absolute rubbish," she scoffed. "Do you think I act our your fantasies for you out of a sense of duty? I do it because I love you, Matthew, and I enjoy it. It's my choice to do it. I don't see anything remotely chauvinistic about that at all, just as if I were to refuse, it wouldn't be because I consider you having fantasies of me demeaning. I'd most likely refuse because it wouldn't be the sort of thing I was interested in. That's all. It's not as though I would stop making love to you simply because you revealed a hidden desire to me."
"Well, I'm glad it's worked out for us, and I hope to God that it works out for them since, it can't be stopped now," he said.
She smiled and ran her finger along his chest. He hummed lightly in pleasure, and looked over at her with a cute smile.
"Darling, did it ever occur to you that women might have fantasies as well?" she purred.
"Of course," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "I wouldn't be surprised."
She arched her eyebrow at him, waiting for him to clue in.
"You?" he said in shock. "About me?"
"Yes, about you!" she said pointedly, laughing at his perplexed expression. "Is it so hard to believe that I have sexual fantasies about my own husband?"
"No! Well, yes, a little…" he said, frowning. "I just…wow."
"Very eloquent," she said, rolling her eyes. "Yes, I do. I fantasize about you. And I know that Anna fantasizes about Alex as well, and so it's ridiculous for him to have kept silent, when she was desperate to know."
"Desperate?" he questioned.
"She complained about it during her hen night, of all things," she revealed. "Of course, we were all hammered by then, but still."
"Crikey," he blurted out.
"I must say that in my fantasies, you're much more suave than you're being at the moment," she said wryly. She leaned down and kissed his chest, her breasts pressing against him.
"Well, darling, erm, is there anything that I can…do…for you?" he asked bravely.
"Are you sure you've got the energy?" she asked. "You seemed rather worn out after the last round."
He smiled and kissed her, their tongues caressing as he took her hand and brought it down to close around his firm arousal.
"I'm ready when you are," he said confidently.
"My, my," she smiled against his mouth, stroking him lightly with her fingers. "All right, darling. For what I have in mind, you'll need to be standing up."
He grinned and got out of bed to comply.
Military Intelligence, Section 5, Thames House, Millbank, London, England, November 2016
Charles sighed as he sat at his desk and scrolled through the various reports on his computer monitor. He had grown rather used to working out of Thames House, rather than his HMRC office back at 100 Parliament Street. He didn't feel that he was surrounded by accountants and bureaucrats here. Still basking in the glow and credit of his settlement with Sir Richard Carlisle, he could have taken the rest of the year off, if he wanted to. There was a question though, still nagging at him, which kept his mind focused on what was supposed to be a closed file.
On the surface, it seemed quite simple. Sir Richard's family went back generations, had been in the newspaper business going back to before the First World War. It wasn't particularly novel that he would want to avoid paying his fair share of taxes, and normally such a case wouldn't come across Charles' desk. It was Tony who had tipped him off that the affairs at Sir Richard's casinos may not be entirely legitimate, and that was how the investigation took off. It wasn't only that the media side of Sir Richard's business was underreporting revenues. It was the casino side that had far more transgressions, and was responsible for the lion's share of penalties and fines. Beyond that, the casino business in general always drew suspicion – an industry known for its ties to organized crime, money laundering, and extortion – the exact crimes that Charles' division was created to fight.
The worst he'd found though during their searches and examinations was poor accounting practices, something that any corporation across Britain could be guilty of, though perhaps not on so extreme a scale. Charles thought Sir Richard was the kind of man who wouldn't be against getting his hands dirty in the pursuit of fame and fortune, but he didn't find anything overly scandalous upon which to delve further. That was why they had settled – HMRC didn't want to waste time and money chasing shadows, and Sir Richard didn't want the matter dragged out and give his rivals fodder for their editorials.
Charles had tried to get Sir Richard to cut a better deal and give him information on any other businesses with questionable finances, but his lawyers had rejected any kind of discussion on the topic, portraying their client as just a successful businessman who's only failing was putting too much trust in underlings to deal with his accounting. That was obviously a lie, but Charles didn't have much incentive to pursue it further. Now though, months later, he still wondered if Sir Richard Carlisle was but the tip of a very large iceberg.
"Mr. Blake," the agent said, knocking lightly on his door.
"Yes," Charles said, looking up and nodding.
"Here's the analysis of the casinos that you requested," the agent said, placing a stapled document on his desk. "I emailed you the electronic copy."
"Thank you," Charles said, scanning over the first page. "These are mainly Carlisle-owned casinos at the top of the earnings list."
"Yes, sir," the agent said.
Charles frowned, staring at the page and pursing his lips in thought.
"Sir?" the agent asked.
"I would have thought the Crawley Group casinos would have been higher. Sir Richard was apparently concerned about them cutting into his market share. That's what Matthew Crawley told me," Charles recalled.
"Perhaps Matthew Crawley wasn't as aware of the financials," the agent suggested.
"The Managing Director isn't aware of the financials?" Charles asked, frowning and shaking his head. "No, I highly doubt that."
"Well, Mr. Crawley isn't with Crawley Group anymore, anyway. He's running his own charity now. I read about it a few months back in The Guardian," the agent said.
"Yes, I remember that, but I also seem to remember that his wife, Lady Mary Crawley, has been President of Crawley Group for a while, now," Charles said.
"Do you think that there's something going on at Crawley Group, sir?" the agent asked.
"I have no reason to suspect it," Charles said. "But then, I suppose there's never a reason to suspect anything until one presents itself."
"Yes, sir," the agent said.
Charles flipped the page of the report.
"Let's put Matthew Crawley's charity on the watch list. Since it's newly founded, it makes sense that we would pay close attention anyway, but I expect there will be substantial donations from Crawley Group, and credits claimed in return," Charles ordered.
"Yes, sir," the agent confirmed. "However, given the publicity of the Carlisle settlement, do you think that anyone is going to try anything so soon?"
"No, but that doesn't mean the Crawley family wasn't trying something before," Charles said.
"Yes, sir," the agent said, turning and leaving his office.
Charles turned back to his computer screen and brought up an internet browser window. A few clicks later and a stock photo from Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley's wedding filled his screen. He picked up his coffee mug and took a long sip, staring at the couple intently.
Grantham House, St. James Square, London, England, November 2016
"Pardon me, Your Ladyship," Carson announced, bringing the tea tray into the parlour and setting it down on the side table.
"Carson," Violet said pleasantly. She turned back to Isobel as the butler went about setting out place settings, pouring their tea and putting the tower of pastries between them.
"Mrs. Crawley," Carson said respectfully, handing her a tea cup and saucer.
"Thank you, Carson," Isobel said, smiling and nodding her head.
"Your Ladyship, the pilots have called, as you requested, and inform me that Mr. and Mrs. Lewis have landed safely in Rome," Carson advised, handing the Dowager Countess her tea.
"Oh, very good," Violet said drily. "Thank you, Carson. That will be all."
"Your Ladyship. Mrs. Crawley," Carson said, bowing his head and leaving the parlour.
"Italy was a lovely choice," Isobel noted as Violet took a sip of her tea. "Not as warm this time of year, of course, but I often find that traveling during low season is quite nice."
"I agree," Violet said crisply. "It was perfectly warm when we were there, and I quite liked the lack of tourists."
"Speaking of which, have you had a chance to look at the information I sent to you?" Isobel asked. "They say that this a banner year for seeing the Aurora Borealis."
"I glanced at it," Violet said, frowning slightly. "Are you quite sure there will be enough for us to do in Sweden? I can't even imagine what we'll eat there. A lot of fish, I suspect."
"Well, we'll be in the capital for the most part, it's an overnight trip to see the Northern Lights. You will not be stuck in the wilderness, I promise," Isobel said cheerfully.
"Very well," Violet said, waving her hand. "Make the arrangements and let me know when the itinerary is complete."
Isobel smiled in satisfaction and sipped her tea. She watched as her friend looked down at her tea cup, deep in thought.
"You miss him," Isobel said patiently.
"Miss who?" Violet asked with feigned ignorance. "Alex? Of course not. They were just here. I've had my fill of him for a few months, at least."
Isobel smiled. "I remember when Matthew first went away to Cambridge. He called every night at 8pm precisely. No matter what he was doing, whether he was in the library, out with his friends, in his dorm room, he would take time out to call. He set an alarm to remind him."
Violet nodded and smiled at the recollection.
"Well, eventually he only called every two days, then every three, then every week. Now, I get texts and emails regularly but his calls are every two weeks, or fewer," Isobel said. "I sometimes talk to Mary and Sybil more often."
"He's grown up, developed a career, gotten married," Violet said. "He's his own man now, and you should be proud, Isobel."
"Of course I am," Isobel agreed. "And truly, I don't miss the daily calls, at least not very often, anyway. I'm content to watch his life from afar now."
"So you should be," Violet said.
"And so should you," Isobel said pointedly.
"Alex isn't my son," Violet said dismissively. "I hope he does end up calling me less now that he has a proper wife to look after him. It was sometimes a chore finding anything to talk about with him, you know."
Isobel smiled and sipped her tea.
"To say nothing for the fact that he does talk quite a lot," Violet continued. "I'll sometimes go minutes listening to his stories without the chance to get a word in, not that I ever have much to add. He always has such fanciful tales to regale me with. I don't know what even causes him to think I have any interest in hearing what he has to say most of the time. Robert and Rosamund never ring me just to have a chat. They call, tell me what the purpose of their call is, and we get through it, and that's that. Alex just wants to talk for talking's sake, I ask you."
Isobel kept smiling as she reached for a scone.
"Well, not that I envy her, but Anna will have to endure his chattering now, and best of luck to her," Violet said, nodding her head firmly.
"Excuse me, Your Ladyship," Carson called, coming into the room once more. "Mr. Lewis is on the phone for you. I've told him that you're taking tea with Mrs. Crawley and that I would check if you were available to speak with him. Shall I have him ring back?"
"No, certainly not, Carson," Isobel interjected immediately. "Do bring the phone here, please."
"Yes, Mrs. Crawley," Carson obeyed, going over to the desk and taking up the cordless phone. He brought it over and handed it to Violet.
"Thank you, Carson," Violet said, nodding her head and dismissing the butler. She pressed the button to pick up the call and looked over at Isobel as she did, giving her old friend a grateful smile.
"Yes, Alex. You've arrived?" Violet said into the phone. "How was your flight? How is Anna?"
Penthouse Apartment, Otranto, Lecce, Italy, November 2016
"Your hands are cold!" Anna squealed, shivering and squirming as Alex massaged her back.
"Relax, love," he said, laughing at her unimpressed frown. "They'll warm up."
"God, I don't know why you insisted we come out here," she groaned, pulling the blankets up over her shoulders and snuggling closer to him. "I'm sure the sunrise is just as beautiful from inside."
"If we were inside, you'd be burrowed under the covers and would miss one of the wonders of nature," he said, kissing the top of her head.
"If we were inside, I'd be giving you a very good reason to stay burrowed under the covers and forget all about the stupid sunrise, but we're not," she grumbled.
"Come on, love, it's just a bit longer. The sky's already brightening," he said cheerfully. "Besides, of the two of us, you're the early riser."
"That's when we have to go to work, not when we're on our bloody honeymoon," she said. "And considering that we were dancing all night, I've barely gotten any sleep."
"And you still look radiant, Mrs. Lewis," he said, kissing her forehead.
"Oh, fuck off," she shot back.
He chuckled and held her tighter, pressing his bare chest against hers, wrapping his leg across her thigh. Between the blanket that he had spread out on the chaise lounge before they had lied down, the soft duvet covering them, and their shared body heat, it eventually became quite warm.
"Mmm," she sighed, relaxing finally.
"There, not so bad now, is it?" he asked, smiling as he smoothed over her hair.
"Not so bad," she agreed, nuzzling his neck. He smelled of the sea air, and soap.
They had stumbled home rather drunk after dancing at a packed beach club into the wee hours, laughing, singing and shushing each other as they wandered the quiet streets. Upon reaching their rented apartment, they clumsily removed each other's clothes leading to the bedroom, their laughter eventually giving way to wet kisses and heated sex. A second impromptu round in the shower had almost led to injury, and they were lucky to collapse into bed without further incident, until Alex's mobile unceremoniously reminded them of his plan, made when he was sober, admittedly, to watch the sun come up over the Adriatic out on the terrace. She complained vehemently, but followed him out all the same.
She wasn't actually as cold as she let on earlier as she placed soft kisses along his neck, her hand reaching lightly across his stomach. Though it was winter, the temperatures here in the south were still in the mid-teens, and the weather was sunny and quite pleasant. They had come here after visits to Rome and Florence, Alex being determined to take her to the sea, and holed up in their penthouse in this resort town just steps from the sand. They took day trips to Lecce to see the churches and tour the old town, visited nearby village markets, and ate incredible meals of fresh seafood and pasta at tiny restaurants where there were no menus.
It was almost better than their vacation in France, a similar mix of time spent in the big cities, with their museums, fine dining and shopping, and the smaller towns where not a word of English was spoken and other tourists were rare to spot. The fact that neither of them spoke a word of Italian didn't bother them in the least. Communicating with the friendly locals became a bit of a fun game, and after two weeks in Italy, they'd picked up a few words, though it seemed every new place they went had a different dialect.
She caressed his cheek, then turned him towards her and kissed him, moaning into his mouth as his tongue duelled with hers. It was still difficult to believe she was here, vacationing in Italy with her new husband, her life changed so completely from before she met him. She smiled as she felt his hand move down past the waistband of her panties and fondle her arse, their legs tangling together as they kept kissing.
"Love," he said, kissing her again, then turning to look out to sea. "It's starting."
She whinged in protest, then settled against him. Watching the light blue sky above the horizon, she smiled as the long awaited moment arrived. It began as a small fireball in the distance, slowly growing in size and shape, the water reflecting it as a shimmering ray stretching seemingly straight to them. They watched in silence for several minutes, bundled beneath the duvet in a warm embrace, their minds suspended on the edge of nodding off as a new day awoke before them.
"Mmm, not bad," she said lazily, lying in his arms.
Office of The Reginald Crawley Charitable Foundation, Monument, London, England, November 2016
Sybil scrolled across her tablet screen carefully, checking and re-checking that she'd dealt with all the questions listed on the electronic document. She wished, yet again, that she could handle interviews as naturally as Matthew did and not have to use notes, but she tended to forget things when she was nervous, and even now, months into the job, she was still getting used to some parts of her role.
The early days of the Foundation could not have gone better. Not only had they raised a ton of money and decided on several worthy causes as the first beneficiaries, but Sybil was loving her job, even more than she expected. Matthew had already brought her along to meetings with Oxfam over the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, and to tour a women's shelter in Essex. She spent a delightful day in Manchester with Isobel visiting the Royal Infirmary where Dr. Crawley had worked, and she was planning fundraising events for the holidays and next year's London Marathon. With the defence of her dissertation scheduled for early next year, she had more time to devote to work over the past few months. With each passing week, Matthew was giving her more and more responsibility, and her successes were far outnumbering her mistakes.
Which was why she was now conducting this interview. They needed additional staff with the increased activities and Matthew's growing ambitious plans. She knew he was never going to be content to just write a bunch of cheques and dole out his money. He was becoming far more discerning in which causes he wanted to support, and there was no lack of suitors, either. The word was out now, and everyone was knocking on their door looking for funds.
"Now, then, did you have any questions for me about the position or the Foundation and what we do here?" Sybil asked, finally looking up from her tablet and moving into the unscripted part of the interview. One thing she was well equipped to do was figure out whether a candidate would get along with Matthew or not, which was obviously important. It wasn't that he was difficult to deal with, but his professional persona was different from his personal one, even around her, and she had to be certain that anyone they hired would be as driven and professional as he was.
"A few, if that's all right," the candidate asked.
Sybil nodded and smiled politely.
"You mentioned that some travel might be involved?" the candidate asked.
"A bit, but not much," she replied. "Your main role will be to vet the different organizations who apply to us for aid. The actual trips – where we go and inspect the charities themselves – Matthew and I will handle those. There may be the odd time that you meet with the organization yourself to get a better understanding of their application, but it wouldn't be outside of England, I would think. Anything out of the country you could have a video conference."
"All right," the candidate said. "And how would you describe the office culture here?"
"Hard working and professional," Sybil answered. "We're very busy and we're managing multi-million pound portfolio that's steadily growing. On top of that, one of our goals is to ensure that as much of our money as possible actually gets to those who need it, rather than be spent on administration, so time is always of the essence. The faster we do our job and get the funds allocated, the sooner we can help those in need. Matthew runs a rather fast pace and you'll need to be able to keep up."
"I see," the candidate said timidly.
"Do you expect that to be a problem?" she asked, wary of the candidate's shyness.
"No," the candidate replied immediately. "I've worked in several offices, although this one is awfully grand."
Sybil smiled at the comment. "Well, Matthew likes it that way. He thinks that if the environment here is comfortable, we'll all work better, and I'd say he's been right so far."
"I'm pleased to hear that he's concerned for the well-being of his staff. The way you described him before, and from what I've read about him, well, it makes him seem rather intimidating," the candidate admitted.
"Oh no, please don't get me wrong," Sybil laughed. "He's very serious, Matthew, but he knows how to have fun too, under the right circumstances. I promise you. He's demanding, yes, but he isn't unfair. You'll enjoy working for him. Everyone here does."
"Well, I appreciate you saying so, but you're related, aren't you?" the candidate noted, laughing a bit. "Surely he isn't the same with you as he is with everyone else?"
"We're only related because he married my sister. And, actually, I'd say he's much worse with me," Sybil said wryly. "Anyway, he'll go easy on you at first. I always make sure he doesn't scare off the new people."
"Thank you," the candidate said, smiling in relief. "I know it will sound silly, but I just find him quite larger-than-life, even though I've yet to meet him. Just the story about him in The Guardian, how he left his job to start this Foundation, named after his father, and how he wants to approach charitable giving in a different way than has been done in the past, it's all just so impressive, really. I'm a little person, an ordinary person, but when I read that, well, it made me want to be a part of it somehow, as though it's my calling to work here."
"That doesn't sound silly to me," Sybil said kindly, though she immediately pictured Mary rolling her eyes if she were to hear such a speech. "And you're right. Matthew can be rather inspiring, and it's his vision that's made all of this possible. There are moments where we all get swept up in the good that we're doing, but he wants us to be focused on the task at hand as well. He's rather level-headed, at least as far as the work goes."
"Well, I'll consider myself lucky if I am able to work for him," the candidate said genuinely. "I can't wait to meet him, really."
"All right, then, was that all?" Sybil asked.
"Yes, I think so," the candidate replied.
"If anything else comes up, send me an email and I'll get back to you. He wants to move on this quickly so we'll likely make a decision on all the candidates by the end of the week.
Sybil rose from her chair and the candidate did the same. She escorted the candidate out of the boardroom, down the hall and to the front reception area.
"Thank you for meeting with me, Lady Sybil," the candidate said cheerfully.
"Oh, you can just call me Sybil," Sybil replied, shaking the candidate's hand. "And thank you for coming in, Miss Swire."
"Please, it's Lavinia," Lavinia replied. "Good day."
Rented Apartment, Messina, Sicily, Italy, November 2016
"For tonight's gelato, we have fragola and cioccolato," Alex announced, sitting down on the couch and balancing the bowl in one hand. He put his other arm around her as she cuddled against him and reached for a spoon.
"Mmm, that's so good," she exclaimed, tasting her spoonful of both flavours of Italian ice cream. "I won't be able to fit into any of my clothes by the time we're done this trip. Between having pasta, Nutella and gelato every day, my ass is going to be huge when we get back to London."
"Fine by me," he said, licking his spoon. "Just gives me more to grab on to."
"Shut up," she said, slapping his thigh. "I'm being serious."
"So am I," he replied easily. "I love your ass."
She sighed and gave up, reaching for another spoonful of gelato. They eventually finished off all of it and he put the bowl and spoons on the side table before pulling her to him and kissing her neck.
"Babes," she said, rubbing his hands across her front. "Do you ever think about contacting your father?"
"Nope," he replied, kissing her again. "Why would I?"
"I just wondered if you've ever been curious, is all. Lady Grantham told me that he has other children, so you have siblings," she explained.
"Half-siblings, whom I've never met and don't even know that I exist," he corrected her, leaning his head in and nuzzling her hair. "I don't want anything to do with him. I'd think you of all people would understand that."
"I do," she said, turning her head and looking at him kindly. "But, I knew my Dad. I was 15 when Mum finally left him. You never got to know yours."
"Because he didn't want to know me," he said quietly. "He didn't want me, Anna. He left before I was even born. So, good riddance to him."
She looked at his tight expression and pursed lips, the Dowager Countess' words ringing in her ears.
"I'm sorry," she said, shaking her head. "I shouldn't have brought it up."
"No, it's fine, really," he said tiredly. "I'm over it. He didn't want me. I didn't need him. You're all the family I need, love."
She looked at him carefully. Both of Alex's parents had abandoned him, leaving him essentially on his own since the age of sixteen. Anna's Mum and Dad were hardly shining role models, but she'd at least had some semblance of a family for most of her life. In his professional life, Alex's independence and self-sufficiency served him well, but in his personal life, he'd suffered. She could see that now. His stubbornness, his wariness, his penchant for being suspicious and never opening up to anyone save for Mr. Crawley were all aftereffects of growing up without anyone to rely on.
Yet he had taken a chance on her, pursued her despite her giving him no indication that she was interested, at first. She realized now that he shared parts of himself with her that he didn't with anyone else. How long had he waited for this? Not just to have a wife, but to have a confidant, an ally, someone who wouldn't leave him.
Turning in his hold, she sat up and straddled him, sitting in his lap and framing his face with her hands, making him look up at her.
"Alex," she said softly. "I want you. I'll always want you."
He smiled shakily at her, his hands on her knees, just below her skirt.
She leaned down and kissed him, pressing her lips to his and opening his mouth so she could slip her tongue against his. He responded eagerly, his hands sliding under her skirt and over her bare thighs. She moved her hips against his, smiling against his mouth as she felt his growing arousal beneath her.
Breaking away from his mouth, she kissed his face, then moved to his neck, nipping and licking his skin as her hands came up and pulled her hair tie free, shaking her blonde tresses loose. Kissing him again, she pulled back, smiling down at his dazed look.
"Let your wife take care of you, Alex," she said wickedly, a shiver going through her at how wanton she sounded.
He raised his arms as she reached down and tugged his shirt free, bringing it up and over his head, then discarding it to the floor. Making sure she had his full attention, she slowly unbuttoned her shirt and pulled it free of her arms, grinning at him as she undid her bra and tossed it aside.
She laughed and slapped at his hands as he tried to reach for her. Shaking her head, she smiled and got up off the couch, standing before him. Turning around, she bit her lower lip as she unzipped her skirt and bent over, grinning when she heard his audible gasp as her skirt fell to the floor.
Her eyes found his when she faced him once again. She deliberately looked down between his legs, then back up to his eyes, and slowly licked her lips.
"Off. Now," she said firmly.
He quickly undid his belt and unzipped his trousers. She grinned at his enthusiasm as he removed his trousers and shorts and sat back, naked and obviously eager with anticipation.
"Good boy," she drawled, placing her hands on his thighs and leaning over to take him in her mouth.
He groaned loudly and grabbed the cushions to either side of him, suddenly feeling quite warm as he watched her head moving on him. His eyes feasted on every part of her that he could see – the rings on her finger against his thigh, her blonde hair spilling down to her shoulders, her smooth back and the curve of her bottom. She was his wife and he couldn't imagine having ever been happier.
"Anna," he moaned, his hips thrusting towards her.
She pulled back and stroked him several times. "Are you ready for me?" she asked, grinning at him.
"God, yes, please," he begged.
Holding his gaze, she shimmied her panties down her legs, stepping out of them and taking hold of his shoulders as she straddled him once more. Throwing her head back, she closed her eyes and sighed as she took him in, his hands holding her hips and helping to guide her.
Her eyes opened and found his once more as they moved together, increasing their speed when the other needed it. She kissed him feverishly, and his arms came up and across her back, clutching her tight as he took over, thrusting firmly as she cried out and whimpered into his mouth. She found her release first, his fingers moving between them and helping prolong her peak. He followed soon after, her fierce voice in his ear finally sending him over. They stayed locked in a tight hug on the couch as they caught their breath.
"I love you, Anna," he whispered, kissing her again.
"Love you too," she said happily, kissing him back, then resting her head on his shoulder as she felt his beating heart against her chest.
Crockfords Casino, Mayfair, London, England, November 2016
Thomas looked over the felt table one last time before reaching over and throwing the small white ball into the spinning roulette wheel with a flick of his wrist. He stepped back as the gamblers watched, transfixed by the flight of the ball as it went round and round, eventually losing speed and jumping off its track, bouncing around frenetically before finally settling into the chosen slot.
"Black 22," Thomas announced. He swept his rake across the table, sweeping up the chips of the lost bets. Some of the gamblers groaned and departed, while others moved in eagerly to take their places. Thomas retrieved a stack of coloured chips and pushed them towards a tall black man who had been playing for about a dozen spins now.
"Congratulations," Thomas said. "You're on a bit of a streak."
"So far," the man smiled. He took a chip off of his stack and flipped it back to Thomas. "For you, Thomas. Keep it up."
"Thank you," Thomas said, smiling as he took the chip, tapped it on the polished bumper of the table and put it in the tip box.
The new gamblers counted out their notes and chips and placed them on the table. Thomas exchanged them for roulette chips and gave each player their own colour. The usual murmur went up as the players debated what numbers and colours to bet on. Thomas stood by patiently, exchanging smiles with the black man who had already placed his bet.
"Real nice place, this," the man said.
"We expanded early in the year," Thomas noted.
"I read about that, had to come in and see it for myself," the man replied. "Is Lady Mary Crawley around, do you know?"
"Lady Mary is usually about, but she's not in tonight, I'm afraid," Thomas replied, surprised by the man's question.
"Ah, guess I missed her, then," the man said.
Thomas smiled politely and nodded, then checked to make sure all the bets were in before picking up the roulette ball and preparing for another toss.
When Thomas went on break, the black man cashed out his chips and stopped playing. Thomas found the timing rather peculiar, but didn't pay any attention as he made his way to the employee break room in the back.
He stopped and turned around as the black man caught up to him, a smile on his lips.
"Thanks for tonight," the man said. "That's the best run I've had in a long time. Do you only work the roulette table?"
"You're welcome, sir," Thomas said politely. "No, I work all the tables but I'm on roulette for the next little while."
"Maybe I'll look for you the next time I'm in," the man said, still smiling.
"Looking forward to it, sir, have a good evening," Thomas said.
"Thomas, before you go," the man said quickly. "I was wondering if you could do a favour for me?"
"A favour, sir?" Thomas asked, confused at the request, his mind filling with possibilities.
The man reached into his jeans and took out a small envelope. He held it out to Thomas.
"If you could see that Lady Mary gets this, I would appreciate it. I was hoping to run into her tonight but you said that she isn't here," he explained.
Thomas looked at the envelope curiously. "And what's in there, exactly?" he asked, not taking the envelope just yet.
"Oh, it's just a USB stick with some photos and videos I'm sure she'll want to see," he said.
"Are you a friend of Lady Mary's then, Mr…?" Thomas asked.
"Yeah," he confirmed. "My name's Erik."
"Well, Erik," Thomas said, looking at him for a moment before pointing to the counter on the far side of the casino. "If you just take that to the desk over there, they'll make sure it gets to Lady Mary."
Erik looked over to where Thomas was pointing, then nodded and smiled at the dealer.
"Thank you, Thomas, that's perfect," he said, nodding and heading away to drop off his package.
Thomas watched him go, mulling over the man, their conversation, and the envelope and its contents in his mind as he turned and headed off on his break.
Home of Lady Mary Crawley and Matthew Crawley, Knightsbridge, London, England, November 2016
Matthew looked out the window at the park across the street. It was already dark out, the street lamps lit and the area quiet. He would have to get used to that, he supposed – the quiet. Even back when he was living at the Shangri-La, or staying over at Grantham House, there was always a fair bit of noise from the city all around him. Knightsbridge was still in the heart of the city centre, but he felt shielded from all the urban noise somehow, as though this was an enclave of sort. It was difficult for cars to navigate the small residential streets of the neighbourhood, meaning that the traffic snarls of the nearby shopping areas could be left behind. He liked the idea of coming home and escaping all of that.
Turning away from the window, he looked left and right, up and down as he left the study and walked down the hall. There wasn't a single room that Mary hadn't touched in her renovation and redesign. She'd had the entire house painted, for one, but had also updated all the doors and windows, and even knocked down a wall or five. The place still retained its period-era façade, and enough elements that it was still the stately home it always was, but now with all the modern conveniences – pot lights in all the rooms, a brand new, modern kitchen, glass showers and marble soaker tubs in all the bathrooms, and a central audio and video system so they could literally watch the same show on any television in the house.
He descended the grand staircase and walked leisurely through the foyer, taking in the massive crystal chandelier hanging above. His new home wasn't nearly as large, or richly appointed as Grantham House, but it was still far beyond the house he'd grown up in back in Manchester. Living in a London mansion wasn't part of his original plan from years ago, but he didn't mind. The cost of buying, furnishing and maintaining such a home was an acceptable expense to keep his wife happy.
He grinned and went in search of her.
Mary walked around the long dining room table, smiling as she took in the polished, custom-made black marble. She expected that Granny would have a fit when she saw it, so non-traditional and different. There was something fun about shocking her family and friends with her design choices. This wasn't going to be a miniature version of Downton Abbey or Grantham House, or a copy of any of the luxurious homes she'd frequented through her life. The design was still sophisticated and elegant, but with her own personal, modern touch. She and Matthew had lived in a construction zone ever since coming back from California, but the results had been well worth it.
She chuckled to herself as she reached one end of the dining room and looked at her reflection in the large mirror. If her younger self could see her now – married to Matthew Crawley, of all people, and living in splendour in Knightsbridge. Her destiny had always been to take over Downton, to rule from Yorkshire as so many had before her. Now, she couldn't dream of leaving London, finally feeling as though she had arrived, both professionally and personally.
Her fingers came together as she idly played with her rings. Two years ago, she and Matthew had started dating, and even that seemed an entirely different life altogether now. They had been through so much, survived adversity that she never would have bothered trying to overcome in any of her previous relationships. She wasn't delusional, and didn't believe that somehow everything would be golden from here on. They would argue and fight, face challenges from both within and without, such was their lot given the life they chose to lead and the world they chose to live in. But she wasn't afraid of any of that. Standing here, in their home, she felt supremely confident that whatever came, Matthew would stand by her, and she by him. They were truly partners, a team, and she never felt more powerful.
"You look rather smug," he said, his hands taking hold of her waist from behind, his lips ghosting across her ear.
She smiled as she watched their image in the mirror. "Smug? That's all you can come up with to describe your wife?"
"No," he said softly, his playful eyes and teasing smile leaving no doubt as to his mood. "I can come up with all manner of words to describe my wife in this moment."
"Mmm, do tell, darling," she challenged him, her eyes never leaving his in the mirror as she leaned back against him. "I'm intrigued."
"My wife," he began, making small circles on her hips with his hands. "Is brilliant, judging by how incredible our redesigned, renovated home now looks. She is also beautiful. This particular dress is a favourite of mine."
Her eyelids fluttered as he pressed a light kiss to her neck and ran one hand across her stomach and up and down the thin silk of the vee-neck framing her cleavage.
"She is ever so sexy," he continued, his voice liquid as it flooded her senses.
"Is that different from being beautiful?" she asked, struggling to keep her eyes open as his fingers deliberately brushed across her warm skin, dipping beneath her dress and bra to lightly touch her breast.
"It is," he confirmed. "She is beautiful for her elegance, and her warmth, and her generous heart, which often goes unknown and unappreciated. However, I say my wife is sexy because when she chooses to, she can inspire all manner of improper thoughts."
"Improper, you say?" she asked lightly, moving her hand behind her and reaching for him. She smiled when she found him already aroused. "Mmm, yes, improper indeed."
"Above all, though, if I was limited to only one word, I would describe my wife as magical," he said, kissing her bare neck once more.
"Magical? How so?" she asked, genuinely confused at his choice.
"Magical, yes," he replied. "For I find that there is always at least one moment every day, where I stand in awe of her, astonished and amazed, as though I'm under a spell from which I never want to wake up. No matter how boring, or annoying, or normal the day may be, there is, without fail, a moment, at least one, where I marvel that I get to call this woman mine."
She grinned widely, finally turning around and taking hold of his lapels, pulling him towards her.
"The feeling is entirely mutual, I assure you," she whispered before kissing him deeply.
They both laughed as they came apart, her hands smoothing out his suit jacket as he held her.
"Happy with how everything's turned out?" he asked.
"Very much so, with both the house, and all else," she answered.
"Good," he said, kissing her again. "Now we can start planning the house warming."
"In due time. I want to have a few weeks of enjoying this place with just you before we let the masses in," she replied.
"I'll have to endeavour to keep you occupied and entertained then if it will be just the two of us," he noted.
"You will, and I have the utmost faith in your abilities," she said, kissing him again.
"Well then, shall we head to the kitchen and see what we can find for dinner?" he suggested.
She took in his blond hair, bright eyes and pink lips. She could feel his warmth beneath her fingers, and his firm chest, the muscles that she knew lurked beneath, which made her think of how it felt when all of that strength was focused on her.
"Are you hungry?" she asked, licking her lips.
He narrowed his eyes, watching her carefully. "Famished," he replied.
"Well, that won't do," she said. "I can't leave my husband wanting."
"You are more aware than others of how picky my appetite can be," he said.
"That I am," she agreed, arching her eyebrow at him. "I'm intimately familiar with just how ravenous you are when stirred."
He kissed her again, groaning as she reached between them and stroked him through his trousers.
"Mary, darling, please," he growled. "Here, please."
The need in his voice made her drunk with power and delight. They were more alike than she had ever imagined. Both of them loved hearing the other beg. Both of them seemed to know when the other was feeling particularly playful, and moreover, as it was now, their moods always seemed to mirror each other. She could see the need in his eyes, and she expected he saw the same in hers.
She grinned and kissed him, her hand reaching for his belt. "Yes, here, now."
She pushed him towards the dining table as they kept kissing, her fingers succeeding in pulling his belt free, then sliding his jacket off his shoulders and on to the floor. His cufflinks and shirt followed, and she kissed his bare chest as they continued to move. When he felt a chair behind him, he kissed her hard before spinning her around and against the table.
A gasp escaped her lips as she leaned on the dining table and felt him behind her. His fingers found the zipper along her back and soon her dress was falling down her arms and to her waist. She took off her bra as he worked her dress past her hips, making her yelp in surprise as he turned her around once more and lifted her on to the table and eased her on to her back, now wearing just her panties and stockings.
She briefly thought of how wonderful the chandelier looked hanging from the ceiling before his firm grip on her thighs pulled her to the edge of the table. Her hands grabbed the table for purchase as he raised her legs and pulled her panties off. She felt exposed, open and incredibly randy as he parted her thighs and leaned over her, kissing her breasts, then moving lower.
"Matthew!" she cried as she felt his finger slide into her, soon joined by a second and his lips and tongue. The satisfaction of finally seeing their finished home, the joy of how well it had all turned out, and the thrill of flirting with her husband had her so aroused that it did not take much for him to send her over the edge. He knew her body so well now, knew exactly what she liked. When she was finally able to open her eyes and raise her head, he was smiling down at her, massaging her legs.
"Your turn," she said firmly, reaching for him and pulling him up on to the table with her. She didn't waste time thinking of how outrageous this all was. Her hands undressed him urgently, both of them determined to lose themselves without another thought.
"Come here," he said tightly, moving so that he was on his back.
She bent over him, taking him past her lips and stroking him with her hands. He swelled in her mouth, and she moaned around him, delirious from the effect she had on him, that she could do this to him. Unexpectedly, he pulled her up, his obvious desperation firing her own arousal.
She went to straddle him, his hands holding on to her thighs as she moved into position across his hips.
"Look up, darling," he rasped, and she paused for a moment, not sure what he meant. Her eyes lifted from his flushed face and her breath caught as she realized she was facing the mirror at the end of the room, the entire tableau of what they were about to do crystal clear in the smooth glass.
He took advantage of her distraction to pull her down on to him, and she cried out, a dark thrill coursing through her as she watched them, every touch and sensation heightened. It was as though she was detached from herself, looking from somewhere outside her own body, seeing herself taking him deep inside her, then rise, and take him in again. Yet at the same time, she felt his every thrust, heard her every moan and cry, sensed the intense waves of pleasure build inside of her.
His hands moved up and fondled her breasts as she increased her pace. She was squeezing him, driving him mad, daring him to try and outlast her. He sat up and captured her breast with his mouth, her hands coming up and cradling the back of his head, her eyes never leaving the mirror. They moved together, again and again, until she saw and felt herself on the brink and cried out as she flew past.
"Yes! Yes!" she squealed, her voice echoing loudly off the high ceiling of the dining room.
He held her tight as she rode out her release, kissing her neck and rocking her gently in his arms. She gulped in air, breathing heavily, hanging on to him as she sat in his lap. Opening her eyes finally, she looked at herself in the mirror, her dark eyes, dishevelled hair, and swollen lips, her thin arms clinging to her husband's broad back.
She smiled wickedly and grinded her hips against him.
"I've unleashed a monster," she said thickly, closing her eyes and snuggling against his warm chest as he pulled the duvet over them.
"What do you mean?" he asked, laughing as he caressed her bare back.
"You know exactly what I mean," she retorted. "First, you had me in the dining room, on top of the dining table no less, which I still can't believe we did, then on the bathroom counter, here in our bed, in the shower, and once more in bed again. I'm absolutely exhausted and I'll be useless until late afternoon tomorrow at the earliest."
"You conveniently failed to mention what you did to me in the kitchen when we finally did have an actual dinner, or on the stairs on the way up here," he said lightly. "And I'm not entirely sure that I initiated each of those trysts either."
"Details, details," she sighed.
"I suddenly feel quite grateful that we have so many spare rooms," he said casually. "It raises all sorts of possibilities."
"I thought you'd like that," she said, opening her eyes and looking up at him with an arched eyebrow.
"I also have a new appreciation for mirrors," he said cheekily.
"You're filthy," she said, laughing freely. "Enjoying watching us fuck. Honestly, Matthew."
"I wasn't the only one," he said pointedly.
She blushed and grinned as she looked away. "Well, we did look quite hot."
"We did, indeed," he said, glancing upwards. "Perhaps we should consider a mirror on the ceiling?"
"You're absolutely insatiable," she huffed, slapping his chest lightly.
He laughed and hugged her close.
"I think we are going to be quite happy in our new home. What about you?" he asked, smiling at her.
"Well, if tonight is any indication," she teased. "I can only hope that you're still happy with me when I'm unable to meet your voracious needs."
He frowned at that. "And why would you ever be unable to do that?" he asked.
"Darling, be realistic," she said patiently. "Once we start having a family, everything will change. You won't want anything to do with me when I'm as big as a barn, and eventually all of my youthful beauty will fade with motherhood and such. We'll be more companions than lovers."
His mouth fell open in shock. Shaking his head in consternation, he smirked at her, then rolled her over on to her back, leaning over her and glaring at her with a fierce glance that was both covetous and confident.
"Now you listen to me," he said firmly, kissing her lips. "There will never, ever, come a day where I do not love you, or want you, just as fully and completely as I do now. God, Mary, you honestly believe that the only reason I enjoy making love to you is because of your looks? It's all of you that I want. And I'll have you know that, from what I have read, women can become quite ravenous during pregnancy, and I am very much looking forward to experiencing that with you."
She rolled her eyes and shook her head, laughing wryly as he kissed her neck and caressed her breast.
"That's what you think about when it comes to having a child? How big my breasts may get?" she joked.
"That isn't the only thing I think about, no," he replied, kissing her again. "But it is potentially one of the benefits, yes."
"And what about when I'm huge?" she retorted. "There will be none of the acrobatics that you enjoy so much."
"Acrobatics, hardly," he scoffed. "Given how tall you are, I doubt you will ever be huge, as you put it, and even if you are, there are plenty of creative ways and positions that we can still use. Don't think a pregnancy will put me off you, darling, because it most certainly will not."
"You've put a lot of thought into this," she noted, smiling as they kissed lightly.
"If you think I'm going nine months without making love to my wife, you're mad," he said.
"Well, I suppose we'll cross that bridge when we get to it," she said, smiling at him.
"Mary, surely you must know," he said seriously. "All those times when we were younger that I would think of you, dream of being with you, it wasn't for the sex, or my own ego, or even to get back at you for making fun of me. I came to London because I wanted a life with you, with all the good and the bad, all the ups and downs. I always wanted to be the one to share all of that with you, and now that we are, I…I've never been happier."
She blinked and pursed her lips, a wave of tears threatening to spring forth. She reached up and touched his face.
"Oh, my darling," she whispered. "Me too. Me too."
They kissed again, then snuggled together as they normally did, with her nestled into the crook of his arm and chest. Eventually they fell asleep together, in their bed, in their house, the world outside being made to wait until they were good and ready to deal with it.
"True luck consists not in holding the best of the cards at the table; luckiest is he who knows just when to rise and go home." – John Milton Hay