A/N: This is a slightly expanded version of the story originally written for MMMondayMadness and posted to my LJ. (For those who read the original, it's only section 3 that's really changed.) For anyone reading for the first time, please bear with the seemingly unconnected scenes; it should all make sense by the end!
Many thanks to my sister for the idea and to the talented EOlivet for the title!
Food of Love
The clink of cup against saucer grated upon his nerves while the rich fabric of the napkin felt foreign against his skin. The perfect elegance of the tea service just added to his general annoyance.
Matthew had no idea why he was even there, sipping tea with a cousin with whom he'd barely exchanged a dozen words in the past four years. Originally he had received an invitation from cousin Cora but when he showed up, Carson (appearing strangely uncomfortable, though perhaps it was merely Matthew's imagination) informed him that Lady Grantham was called away and would Mr. Crawley mind if Lady Mary served as hostess instead? Actually, Mr. Crawley did mind, very much, but he found himself unable to say as much to the forbidding mien of the old butler.
"How are you finding the adjustment to civilian life?" Mary asked, trying to engage Matthew in conversation.
"Quite as I expected," Matthew said shortly, seemingly intent on stirring his tea.
"And how are things at your office?"
An awkward silence and then Mary tried a different subject. "We have a new gardener and he's marvelous with the melons but horrid with the roses. Granny is quite enjoying berating Mama about this, of course."
"I see," Matthew said and turned his attention to the cakes.
And so it went, topics introduced by Mary to be wet-blanketed by Matthew.
Something – frustration? determination? apology? – flickered briefly across Mary's face and was quickly replaced by a bland mask as she gave up on actual conversation. "Would you care for a sandwich, Matthew? You haven't tried one yet."
"Engaged to Mary?" Isobel couldn't keep her voice from rising in astonishment, though she stopped short of actually gaping at Matthew.
Her son beamed. "Yes," he said, "I am the luckiest man alive. Isn't it astonishing she accepted me?"
"Quite," Isobel said, rather faintly this time. After a moment's hesitation, she cautiously ventured, "Matthew, how exactly did this happen? If you'll forgive me, I thought you loved Lavinia."
Matthew frowned in concentration. "You know," he mused, "I'm not quite sure. One moment I was eating sandwiches and the next, the question just seemed to pop out of my mouth. I did love Lavinia – to think I was even considering proposing to her only yesterday – but now my feelings for her seem so pale in comparison."
"And you are happy?" Isobel asked softly.
"Yes," Matthew smiled, "I am very happy, Mother."
Three weeks later, Elsie Hughes and the recently engaged Lady Mary watched as painters placed the final touches on a sign declaring "Madame Elsie's Teashop Extraordinaire" above a new Ripon storefront.
"This is everything," Lady Mary observed, peering into the shop one more time. "I think you are ready to open next week."
Mrs. Hughes gazed around at the pale green walls and starched, white linens in misty-eyed wonder. "Thank you for making this possible, m'lady," she said in a choked voice. "This really is a dream come true."
Abandoning propriety, Mary reached out to give her former housekeeper's hand a quick squeeze. "This was the least I could do to repay your assistance, especially after you stayed five extra years waiting for me to be settled. If anything, I am still in your debt."
"It would hardly have been the time to open a teashop in the middle of the war," Mrs. Hughes said, trying to wave off her former mistress's thanks. "But," she added wryly, "I am rather glad you had no lingering doubts this time. I'm not sure I could afford to wait too much longer."
"It seems I did learn something from the last experience," Mary observed. "And you will think me ridiculous, but I find I will rather miss it all. I have such fond memories of our planning sessions."
Only her many years of experience in service saved Mrs. Hughes not only from agreeing that yes, Lady Mary was ridiculous, but also from questioning that lady's sanity. "I think I could have done without some of the experiences," she managed with as little expression as possible, though from the way the younger woman flushed, her tone still wasn't bland enough.
"Yes," Mary said quickly, "I do regret that minor setback with Mr. Pamuk, but how were we to know the combination would prove so powerful and lethal to a Turk? Thank goodness the English have stronger constitutions."
"And thank goodness we were spared an investigation and that odious newspaper man met his end at Verdun before we had to resort to drastic measures," Mrs. Hughes said. "I hope you don't forget just how lucky we were."
"I do know how lucky we were, how lucky I am," Mary said, a faint smile momentarily softening her face. Her voice took on a distant quality as she mused, "To think I attempted to control my own destiny and yet, after everything we did, the ending is exactly what I tried to resist for so long. Such irony! Perhaps it's fate, but at least I now possess the sense to accept it meekly."
"If you believe in fate, perhaps one day you should send the Duke a letter of gratitude for his unchivalrous departure that prompted you down this path," Mrs. Hughes observed. "Or at least have a word with Mr. Carson who hasn't forgiven him yet. I've heard the Duke still can't find a qualified replacement for his late butler due to some inconvenient rumors floating about."
Mary laughed, but her eyes were a little sad. "You and Mr. Carson were always too good to me. I'll miss you, Mrs. Hughes. Who else will force me to see sense or make me laugh with sarcastic observations?"
"None of that please," Mrs. Hughes said briskly. "I'll still be nearby and you'll just have to come visit."
"Oh yes, I expect to be a regular customer once you open and I'll encourage all the others to visit as well. Why, we may even get Mr. Carson to set foot in a tea shop."
Mrs. Hughes nodded, a determined glint appearing in her eyes. "Don't worry," she promised, "he's my next project."
Mary grinned appreciatively. "If your last project is any indication, I suspect Downton will soon be short a butler. Poor Mr. Carson, he won't know what hit him. Just be careful you don't get his order mixed up; we can't have everyone falling in love with you now!"
A/N: Thanks for reading!
Please do let me know if it all came together; I had a lot of trouble trying to find the balance between being opaque so it's more fun and being clear enough so you can get the point and I'd love to know if you think this worked.