She leans down, her nose almost touching the candelabra in his hand.
"I don't think it's anything to worry about, Mr Carson," she says, straightening up. "It's just a mark. I can barely see it, so I doubt anybody else will notice it."
"I will notice it," he says, annoyance colouring his voice. "Is it bad? Just look at it, Mrs Hughes."
She makes an effort not to roll her eyes, settling instead for a raised eyebrow as she leans down once more. She squints at the silverware that has once again been thrust in front of her.
"Do you think…?" He pauses as he feels the warm whisper of her breath on his hand. "Do you think it will come off if I rub at it some more?"
"I imagine so," she says, patience a little too thick in her voice. "Why not give it a go? You don't lose by trying."
He nods, turning the candelabra over in his hand, aware of his arm brushing her shoulder as he feels the full weight of it. She doesn't move.
"Could you fetch the silver polish please?"
"Of course, Mr Carson."
She steps away and he feels the warmth go with her.
The first few notes drift softly into his pantry through the open door - a love song so late in the evening. There's a familiar tightness in his chest as he listens to the rise and fall of the melody, his thoughts drifting slowly away to another time, another place.
She is standing in the doorway, her features softened by the low light. He starts at the interruption of her voice and at the quickening of his own heartbeat.
"I was miles away," he says, gesturing for her to enter and sit down. He has already prepared the tea - strong with a dash of milk, just how she likes it -, and set it out with her favourite cup.
"I can see that," she says with a smile. "Was she pretty?"
The heat that creeps up his neck colours his cheeks a delicious, rosy pink, but he furrows his brow.
"I can't possibly imagine what you could be referring to," he says with a gaze of stone.
"Come now, Mr Carson," she says, but his expression does not yield. She sighs and picks up her cup. "I know you'll pretend otherwise, but surely there was somebody at one point?"
He stares at her for a long moment as the soulful notes of the piano float between them still. He finds his hand at his collar, adjusting and loosening to create some breathing space.
"Why do you ask?"
She shrugs with an air of casual composure.
"I told you about Joe Burns. I thought you might tell me a bit more about you."
"I see," he says, swallowing hard. "And if I had anything to tell, then I would. Downton is my life, Mrs Hughes. I don't have time for other… ventures."
"Don't be so coy," she says with a grin and a soft sparkle in her eye. "But I understand."
He bows his head - acknowledgement that she has chosen to spare him -, and he admires her for it. For a moment, the silence echoes around the pantry, permeated only by the irrelevant notes of a love song.
"I really should put a stop to this," he says, suddenly irritated by the sentiment behind it. He is halfway out of his chair when he feels her hand on his shoulder, his awareness of it hitting him like a hurricane.
"It's only William," she says, the pressure of her fingers encouraging him back into his chair. "Give him a few more minutes. I like to hear him play."
Her hand stays there, and he is overcome by the urge to brush it away. Instead, he stays still, holding his breath as if the very act of breathing would break the delicate thing that is descending slowly upon him.
Deft fingers flutter slowly up his neck, feeling their way to his jawbone with an attentiveness that makes his breath catch in the back of his throat. She explores the soft flesh of his cheek and the hard line of his cheekbone with a touch so soft that he could almost believe he is dreaming. His eyes flicker shut against this pleasure that he doesn't have the right to feel.
The look in her eyes - it's the most tender thing he has have ever seen.
It feels like forever before she moves - then it is all at once, pulling herself away with a sharp sniff of apology.
"Mrs Hughes… I…"
"Don't say anything. I'll go now if that's what you want."
He looks at her for a long moment, the subtle sadness of rejection already in her eyes.
The candelabra is sitting on his desk, reflecting away the weak rays of the early morning sunlight. One of the arms is clutching a note written in achingly familiar handwriting:
You don't lose by trying.
He picks up the heavy silver, examining every inch with a sense of admiration. The mark that had tarnished it yesterday has all but vanished, leaving nothing but a high shine that he would be proud of. He wonders for a moment how she has managed it - he had given up all hope.
When he finds her again, she is gazing out of the window at the fresh, spring lawn. He watches her there for a moment, nothing more than an outline in the watery sun. He clears his throat, and she looks back over her shoulder, permitting herself a sad smile as he approaches.
"Thank you," he says, gesturing to the note he is still holding in his hand. "I'll never know how you did it."
"Time and patience," she replies. "You just didn't try for long enough."
"I tried for at least fifteen minutes!"
She laughs at his indignation, and he is pleased to see the storm back in her eyes.
"Oh, Mr Carson," she says, shaking her head in disbelief. "Things don't just happen straight away because you want them to. You have to rub away at the surface until you get through all the hard, stubborn stuff. It takes time, but it's good life advice."
"And that's what you did?" he asks, realising they are no longer talking about polishing silver. She looks away from him with a heavy sigh and a heavy heart.
"No," she says. "I didn't."
"You're a brave woman," he says at last, stung by her sadness, aching for being the cause of it.
"I'm not sure brave is the word. Foolish, maybe," she says, and just like that, the silence is back, loaded with all the words he wants to say to her - his own beautiful, foolish truth.
"I don't think so," he says quietly.
She is watching him - close enough to touch - and his hand hovers for a moment in mid-air between them, drawn by the very warmth of her standing there. He sees the soft surprise in her eyes, hears the quiet intake of breath as the boundaries are almost broken.
Then he chokes. He lets his hand fall - a curled fist of frustration - as she turns away.
He is left staring at the back of her head, digging his fingernails into the flesh of his palm, suffocating.