"Of course, there's also the announcement to consider."
Mary felt a prick of something unpleasant, and on what had started out a perfect day, it was like the weight of a needle being slowly eased into her balloon of happiness.
Her mother and father exchanged looks.
"There are a number of things to consider about the announcement…" Matthew started, awkwardly, and knowing precious little about engagement announcements, there was little he could do but look around at everyone and hope they understood his meaning. His mother clearly wanted to say something—of course, she always did, didn't she—but one pointed look told Isobel to let it alone.
"Well, it's still very early yet, anyway," Cora added, helpfully, and her future son-in-law smiled with apologetic gratitude across the table. "I expect you won't want to marry until April at the earliest, so there's plenty of time to worry about all that…"
"Considering how long they've waited," Violet interjected, drolly. "I expect they would get married tomorrow, if propriety allowed it."
Mary did not think she had ever seen her grandmother look less apologetic or her father more embarrassed in public—but she supposed it did the trick, because no one felt much like talking about wedding announcements, invitations or flowers after that. She made a mental note to call on granny later and thank her—though she
"I think we ought to put off announcing it for as long as we possibly can," Mary told him, as the conversation had returned to commonplace generality.
"We've heard nothing from Carlisle's newspapers yet—"
"That isn't to say we won't hear eventually—I doubt announcing our engagement two days after he's left will improve our chances."
His hand was on top of hers, and Mary wondered how it must have appeared to an outsider. As though they were discussing something of a far more sentimental nature, most likely…and when he ran his thumb over her bare knuckle, so gently, she wished they were.
"We'll have to face it though, won't we? And isn't it better—sooner rather than later, don't you think—?"
"Oh, darling, I know that…" Her voice caught, and Mary felt the familiar sting of annoyance at herself for her weakness. "It isn't that, it's…" She was looking past him, down the table where the rest of their family were. Isobel and Cora, who were so often naturally at odds, were particularly animated, knee-deep in what appeared to be a rather good-natured debate.
Matthew understood without her saying it.
"You're…worried about what mother will think?"
Mary's hands twisted in her lap.
"Well, it's not the sort of thing most women would enjoy reading about their daughter-in-law in the newspaper, is it? I mean, I could hardly blame her for…" she trailed off helplessly.
"Mary, she'll understand."
Matthew could hardly think how to reassure his fiancée, only knowing that he must start somewhere.
"I know, I know she will, eventually—but all the same—I had hoped to start again with her."
"Are you afraid she doesn't like you?"
He nearly laughed, before he saw how in deadly earnest she was. Pride, haughtiness, conceit: it was amazing, he thought, the things people believed her guilty of. Seeing the future countess worried about what Isobel Crawley thought—he marveled at how the world so misjudged her.
"Darling—she was the one who told me I ought to propose to you again."
She drew back in surprise.
"Did she? I thought only granny was guilty of such a breech in…decorum."
"Well, they were in agreement on this point—it must be a sign from the Heavens."
"It is rather shocking." A pause, a nervous twitch—and then, curiosity was at war with vanity in her. "What did Isobel say, precisely?"
"It was that day—that you met us at the church." To put her father's ashes in her grave still hurt a little to say, to think. "She told me afterwards that you were still in love with me, that it was 'plain as the nose on my face,' actually."
"That does sound like your mother," was her dry reply. "I assume you didn't agree?"
"I wasn't willing to see the truth…and even if it wasn't true, I didn't think I deserved it."
They lapsed into a momentary silence, their family all around them. Mary simply didn't know what to say. Carson came by, then, to offer him another drink, which he politely declined.
"If Carlisle was going to publish, you'd think he'd have done it by now," Matthew finally said, as the butler trotted off to push some more champagne on Edith.
"I don't know…" She chose her words very carefully. "Perhaps he's…waiting to see what I do next."
"You don't think he believed you?"
"Well, I'm not going to America, am I?"
"I'm going up to London in a few days with your father," he said, face suddenly screwed up in determination. "Perhaps I'll pay Carlisle a visit, see what he plans to do."
She raised one perfect eyebrow.
"What do you intend, exactly? A repeat performance of your prize fight in library?"
He had the good sense to look abashed.
"You're right of course—" He sounded distant, his mind far away. "All it would do is satisfy my anger at him for threatening you, it wouldn't accomplish anything…"
Matthew was pensive. She could tell by the way that he'd clenched his fist under the table.
"Darling…you aren't still thinking about what Richard…said, are you? That night?"
She took his silence as a confirmation.
"I'm sure Lavinia never said that."
"Are you?" he laughed, humorlessly. "I'm not certain. She—" he hesitated, seeing that in those soft brown eyes there was only concern and genuine interest, before continuing. "She told me she suspected there was something between us—for a long time. Since before I was injured, even."
Agitated, he ran a hand through his hair.
"Well, she wasn't a fool." Her voice was free of emotion. "I didn't try very hard to keep it from anyone. Even Richard said—" She stopped herself.
"What did he say?"
"It will only make you angry."
Not surprisingly, her hands were twisting in her lap again.
"It was when you were injured. He was the one who brought Lavinia back to the house." He started in surprise. "He and mama did. They both thought that I was too—that there was something not right about it. I ought not to have preferred pushing you around in a wheelchair. I suppose that's fair, really, come to think of it."
"But then Lavinia came back, and it really didn't matter."
She looked down, and despite her lightness, he could tell it did matter to her.
"I should never have become reengaged to her. It wasn't fair to any of us. Least of all her."
"I shan't argue with you on that score."
Feeling suddenly very restless, he stood up and walked over to the window, staring out over the vast, snowy lawn. From where Matthew stood he could see where he had knelt down last night…he could practically make out their footprints in the snow, could see the pattern of his unsteady footsteps as he had spun her around, three, four…five times.
He wanted to capture that moment, bottle it somehow, before the storm completely wiped away the proof that it had happened.
"I think it's very difficult sometimes to not give the people who love us what they want, regardless of how we feel on the matter."
"Are you making excuses for me, Mary?"
He heard the clicking of heels behind him, that light and elegant noise that he had just begun to notice, and expected to know better than almost any sound in the world.
"Am I? I must be in love."
"It's more than I deserve."
Looking out the window, he could not see her gentle eye roll, but he could hear the clucking of her tongue.
"I don't think much of loving people because they deserve it." Gently, she clasped his hand, as he had done a few minutes before. Immediately the tension lessened. "I prefer my life not mirror some moralizing 18th century novel."
"I will strive to be worthy of you, Mary." The pressure on her hand increased, warm and comforting. "Every day."
"Well," she squeezed back. "If you insist…"
"Well, he didn't waste any time, did he?"
They were sitting in her study, having the habitual before bed cuppa. She glanced at him over the rim, almost laughing at how self-satisfied he looked.
"I always knew it would turn out this way."
"You hoped it would, you mean." She could have sworn she nearly saw the intractably dignified man roll his eyes. "Well, I am happy for them, anyway."
Satisfaction turned to astonishment on Mr. Carson's face as he watched her turn her attention back to the saucer.
"I'd have to be a blind fool to not see that he adores her, Mr. Carson…" she sighed, heavily. "And I'm not one yet."
"Not so long ago you'd have said she didn't deserve him…"
"Well," she put her cup down. "My mother, God rest her, had a saying for most things. She used to say that no matter how hard you try…"
She gave a short little pause, eyes twinkling in amusement at his solemnity.
"You can't fight fate."
The little fic that almost never got finished! I'm sorry to everyone about this one lying fallow for so long, but I hope finishing it before the series 3 premiere means it hasn't completely lost relevance. Thanks for the help, Zee, even if you claim it was minor—I really appreciate it.