Matthew looked up from the desk, looking out the window as he tried to ignore the piles of boxes that surrounded him. He had to finish going over this case brief before that night. Before...
"Matthew, have you seen the box with my cosmetics? I could have sworn I labeled it clearly."
He turned, meeting his girlfriend's eyes.
"I don't know, Lavinia. Was it with the boxes in the kitchen?" he asked, his stomach tightening as he thought about the coming evening.
"I looked there," she replied, looking over the boxes piled beside the desk.
"The movers didn't really pay attention to the labels," Matthew replied tiredly.
"I tried to keep any eye in them, honestly," she said, pushing a strand of hair from her eyes. "Did you find out where the party is tonight?"
"Tom said it's in a private dining room at the...at the Ritz," Matthew managed to say, avoiding her gaze. He hadn't stepped foot in that hotel since...
"My, how posh," she said with surprise, interrupting his thoughts once more. "Well, it's good of them to add us on to such a party, especially at the last minute. I can't believe you even hesitated to tell Tom you'd be his best man."
Matthew shrugged, not ready to divulge the reasons for his hesitation.
"Are you sure you don't mind going? It'll likely be very dull," Matthew told her, not believing the words himself. He knew it would be the strangest evening of his life.
"Of course I don't mind," Lavinia said, stepping up behind Matthew. She kissed his cheek, causing him to smile slightly. "Tom's your best mate. I liked him when he came to Manchester. And you always speak so highly of Sybil, I can't wait to meet her."
Matthew bit his lip, his shoulders tense. "And the rest of them?" he asked.
"I've never heard you utter one unkind thing about the Earl of Grantham's family. Not even about Mary."
Matthew slowly inhaled, his stomach suddenly feeling as though it had filled with lead. He'd only told Lavinia the minimum details of his three-year relationship with his ex-girlfriend and completely omitted her refusal to marry him, citing wanting different things for the reason of their breakup. Lavinia pretended to buy the story, not keen to dig up old baggage and wounds Matthew had tried to keep hidden from her, but she knew there was more he wasn't telling her. Why else would he remain single for so long? Why was he so cautious about beginning his relationship with her?
"Things might be a bit awkward there," Matthew said, pushing the case file aside as he got to his feet. He'd just seen the time and realized he needed to get ready. "We haven't seen each other since...well, since we broke up."
Lavinia smiled warmly. She was always so honest about her feelings, it was something Matthew still hadn't gotten used to. "Don't worry about me," she said, brushing her fingers against his cheek. "I'm actually very interested in meeting her."
"Why?" Matthew asked nervously.
"Because she was such an important part of your life for so long," Lavinia said affectionately. "And I'm sure we'll get along we'll together."
Knowing enough of Mary, he thought this very unlikely, but Matthew held his tongue instead of voicing this rebuttal.
From all of his conversations with Tom over the past four years, whether he'd asked for any information or not, Matthew knew Mary had only had one other boyfriend in that time, Evelyn Napier. Matthew thought this relationship seemed strange, especially since she'd been so adamant about her own indifference toward him. But he supposed people could change. God knows he had.
From his own ill-advised, and probably slightly stalkerish, reading of every article she'd written, he knew she was still at the magazine where she'd had her first internship. He also knew she'd been made junior editor six months earlier and the knowledge of this made him feel strangely proud of her, even though he thought it shouldn't.
"I'm going to take a shower," Matthew told Lavinia, who'd just found the box she'd been looking for.
"Alright, dear," Lavinia said, giving him a warm smile. "Do you want me to lay something out for you?"
"No, I think I can handle it," he replied with a chuckle. "Trust me, I've dressed myself for a fancy party before."
"Always surprising me," she quipped.
"At least you still love me," he replied, trying to keep his voice light for her benefit.
"Someone should," she teased. "Oh, you should wear your blue tie," Lavinia added as he headed for the bedroom. "The one that matches your eyes."
"I'll try and find it," he said, giving her a half-smile before disappearing into the next room.
Once he was out of Lavinia's view, Matthew stopped and stared blankly at the empty space in front of him without processing any of the emotions he felt. There was no way in hell he was ready to see Mary again.
"Don't be nervous," Lavinia entreated as they headed inside.
Matthew passed his car keys to the parking valet, wishing he could grab them back and drive off into the night. She linked her arm with his, observing the grandeur of the hotel's lobby as they approached reception.
"Excuse me, we're here for the Grantham party," Matthew told the desk attendant.
"Name, please?" she asked, her eyes flitting to her computer screen.
"Crawley. Matthew Crawley," he replied anxiously. Matthew's heart felt like it was being clenched by a fist.
"Of course, please come with me," she said, stepping out from behind the desk.
Matthew bit the inside of his lip as they followed after her, his stomach turning as she stopped near an open door. Soft music emanated from the doorway.
"Just through there, sir," the lady said, leaving them swiftly.
"Ready?" Lavinia asked, giving his arm a gentle squeeze. Matthew gave her a half-smile, hoping he didn't look as nervous as he felt.
They stepped into the room, Lavinia's pressure on his arm increasing slightly. Apparently she was apprehensive as well.
As Matthew looked around, hoping to see Tom, his eyes immediately falling on Mary as she crossed the room. She stopped in her tracks, looking over at him with surprise and something else he couldn't quite place.
"Matthew!" Tom exclaimed, walking over to greet them. He shook Matthew's hand, giving him a swift clap on the back before turning his attention to Lavinia. As Tom spoke to Lavinia, Mary moved toward them. The sight of her made Matthew's throat go dry, his memories threatening to overpower him with only one gaze. Sybil had approached as well, speaking before the rest of them.
"How lovely to see you, Matthew," Sybil said, casting her eyes to Mary for just a moment before planting a kiss on Matthew's cheek.
"Hello, Sybil," Matthew said, his eyes unintentionally going to Mary as soon as he spoke. "This is my girlfriend, Lavinia Swire. Lavinia, this is Tom's fiancee Sybil."
"It's so nice to meet you," Lavinia replied. "And you must be Mary!" she added, her voice warm. Matthew felt himself smile at Lavinia's sweetness, a trait Mary had never been keen to develop.
"Um, yes," Mary replied, looking stunned by Lavinia's enthusiasm. Matthew swallowed, his heart contracting inexplicably at the sound of Mary's voice.
"I've been longing to meet you, because I've heard so much about you from Matthew. Er, that is-" Lavinia began.
"Nice things, I hope," Mary said, the smile on her lips not quite meeting her eyes as she glanced from Matthew to Lavinia.
"What else would she hear from me?" Matthew asked, hoping his own smile looked genuine.
"I'm sure we'll be good friends," Lavinia added, rather naively in Matthew's opinion, but he couldn't blame her. He could tell how nervous she was by the slight shaking of her voice.
"So, Lavinia," Sybil began, leading her away from Mary and Matthew. Tom followed after them, but Matthew wished he hadn't. He wasn't sure if he should be left along with Mary.
"Sorry to burst in like this," Matthew said, trying to catch Mary's eye again. "It's been a long time."
She looked at him, her face unreadable as she gazed back. "Four years," she stated, apparently unwilling to give Matthew a conversational partner.
"How have you been?" he asked, genuinely wanting to know. There was only so much you could learn from conversations with Tom and reading magazine articles.
"I'm well," Mary replied, rather tense as she spoke. "I'm assistant editor at the magazine now."
Matthew feigned surprise at this information. "Wow, congratulations," he said, foolishly placing his hand on Mary's arm and giving it a gentle squeeze. It caused his heart to race again. "I'm really proud of you, Mary."
"And what about you?" She asked, carefully extracting her arm from his hand. Her voice was playful, but her eyes were pained. "Are you winning any big cases for yourself?"
"Not yet," he replied, forcing his own smile. "Although I was made partner at a very prestigious law firm in northern London. That's why we moved back."
"We?" Mary asked, frowning slightly. Matthew swallowed nervously. He felt his ears burn and noticed Mary's glance at them. He felt very foolish for remembering all those times she'd kissed him there when he was embarrassed.
"Lavinia and myself," he corrected, feeling like a giant arse as Mary swallowed.
"Oh, of course. How wonderful," Mary said with sudden enthusiasm. "How long have you been together?"
"A little over a year. We met in Manchester at the university. Lavinia just got her undergrad in primary education."
"My, how interesting," she replied, her voice quite sarcastic.
"I know what you're thinking," Matthew said, furrowing his brow. "She's not as bookish as you would have expected, is that right?"
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that. She seems very sweet," Mary corrected, smiling uncomfortably.
"She is. I think you'd like her," he said. Mary still smiled, but didn't respond to his words.
"You-you look beautiful," Matthew told her truthfully. She always did.
"Thank you," Mary said quickly, playing with her dress. "Sybil helped me a bit."
"Oh, naturally," he replied, teasing her. "You're still as lovely as ever."
Mary smiled, but didn't acknowledge this. "Well, you should get back to Lavinia," she said, shifting away from him.
"We should catch up sometime," Matthew said, reaching out to touch her arm again. At the last second, he pulled his hand back, unsure of his own feelings.
"Mm, that would be lovely," she said. Matthew caught the doubt in her voice.
"Lavinia would love to know you better," Matthew replied.
Mary nodded as she inched towards the doorway. "Of course. Pardon me, I was just going to the loo."
Matthew nodded, although he knew this wasn't true from the route she'd been taking across the room as they'd entered. She slipped past him and Matthew turned his head to watch her go. He frowned and shut his eyes tightly. The past four years had been an almost unbearable nightmare. Now it seemed he would be forced to relive every memory of his time with Mary in the space of one night.
Downton quotes are italicized. Thoughts?
Story continued in "Falling." And look for a new update to the sequel, "All Over Again," coming soon!