It had been some months since he had punched that 'ghastly salesman' after having found him in their bedroom and the thought still made his fist clench and his heart break. Not because he was sorry for the man - to be honest he deserved it- but, above all, because he had hurt Cora. He hadn't trust her and he had lied to her. Yes, lied. Because now that their still fragile relationship was beginning to come back to that kind of idyllic and totalising love it had been for years, he regretted the choice he made the moment Carson had given him a note which was not addressed to him, but to his wife.
His butler had told him that mr. Bricker had placed it in his hands before leaving, but that he thought it wiser "that his Lordship would take a look at it first".
In that moment he had gladly taken the advice, because it had seemed to him the best thing to do, when he was still deciding whether to be more angry at Cora or at himself.
The note was still placed among the pages of a book he kept in the drawer of his bedside table in his dressing room and every time he entered that room, he was reminded he was a liar.
There had been so many times he was about to tell her, like yesterday night, when she had apologised again for spoiling the Della Francesca for him. He had wanted to tell her, he had sworn to himself to be a better husband, never to let anything or anyone come between the two of them. But at the same time while looking into her mesmerising blue eyes, he hadn't found the strength to hurt her again.
"There is not now, nor ever will be, anything you have spoiled for me", he had said those words and they were true. Cora had never done anything wrong in her own life, let alone spoiling something she knew to be of such great importance for him.
And then he had kissed her and made love to her, promising he wouldn't spoil their Christmas Eve.
But was he really protecting her by omitting the truth? Or was he protecting himself?
It was while sitting on the edge of his small bed, thinking about the beautiful things that happened to them the previous night and fearing that he could lose her, that he had decided to do something. It could be dangerous, but he had to try if he really had the intention of starting the new year leaving all this situation behind and Cora was worth the risk.
It was with this awareness that he retrieved the uncomfortable piece of paper from his drawer.
He had read it only once, but he could almost repeat all the words in his mind and the thought made him feel anxious.
He was very much aware of the frailty of his marriage now. They were slowly coming back to each other, but sometimes he felt like he was still walking on eggshells when she was around.
What if Bricker's proposal of life, that was included in the message, could be more attractive to her than a life spent by his side at Downton?
He had taken her for granted and thrown tantrums at Cora like a little child, while the only thing he had to do was behaving like a man.
But his pride had suggested him to ignore her, and now they were paying the highest price.
No, he couldn't lose her. Not now. Not after all they had to go through together.
With his heart already thumping in his chest, he read for what he wanted to be the last time, the final lines of the note "...I apologise for having entered your room uninvited. But I still think you deserve more than Lord Grantham in your life. Should you change your mind, please send me a telegram and I will be glad to meet you. Simon Bricker".
How dare he? How dare he ask his wife to elope with him after he had fought with him on the floor and Robert had won? Ohh, he would have killed him, if Cora hadn't pleaded him to stop.
How dare he tell her he would have waited if she had ever changed her mind?
And how could he have been so stupid not believing Cora when she had tried to tell him in every way that she hadn't invited that man in their bedroom?
He had to meet that man and solve the problem in his own way and since Christmas was very close he had to do it as soon as possible.
He grabbed a sheet of paper from his desk and after having passed his palm through his hair, he began to write.
In a couple of minutes the message was ready and after having taken a deep breath he stadied his countenance and headed towards the door, then down the stairs where he met his butler, exactly the man he was looking for.
"Oh Carson, I need to send this telegram right away. It's urgent" he felt quite awkward, to be honest, but he couldn't take it back.
There it was! No second thoughts. After all he was trying to protect her, wasn't he?
Watching his butler leaving the room, he made sure he was alone before making a very important telephone call.
"After all I need an ally" he muttered between his lips while he was waiting to be connected to the other person.
The person involved was his sister Rosamund and he thought she was just perfect for the task, since she already knew what had happened between him, Cora and the art expert.
He had had to tell her when he had asked her to be present at the selling of the Della Francesca in London.
So, even if he only had to nod and say very few words to confirm her suspicions, because he didn't know how but she had already guessed it all, it had been one of the most awkward dialogue he had to endure in his life.
"Hello?" finally the tone of her unmistakable voice reached his ear.
"Rosamund I need your help"
"Robert! There you are" Cora's happy voice resounding through the library was all he needed to hear while he was sitting at his desk.
He didn't need to turn to feel she was right behind his back putting her hands on his shoulders and massaging them gently.
Though sometimes they still felt unsure about how to behave with each other, his Cora had always had the power to surprise him, like now.
When she felt his body relax and a satisfied hum escape his lips, she let her hands slip down on his torso, placing a soft kiss on his cheek, hugging him from behind.
"I gather your sister is coming for tea and will stay for dinner tonight" she half whispered in his ear. Feeling his body tense again she let him go and came standing beside him. Maybe he was not ready for this display of affection during the day. Maybe he wanted some space.
"Yes, darling. I didn't think you'd mind."
"Absolutely not. In fact there are a couple of things I'd like to discuss with her"
"Well, I hope it's not something that would let you feel uncomfortable"
"Robert it's just Christmas...I'd like to ask her advice on some arrangements."
He let out a sigh of relief, but she soon added "Speaking of which I don't think I have to remind you we agreed to spend some time with our grandchildren in the afternoon, since it's going to be Sybbie's last Christmas with us." When she mentioned their granddaughter and let her head simultaneously tilt to the side to try to look into his eyes, she couldn't find them. Was he averting her gaze?
"I thought we could read them some Christmas stories"
"Yes yes I know it. I'll be there. Don't worry" He tried to sound more convinced than he really was, hoping he would be back in time from the estate business to play with the children.
"Is something bothering you?"
Oh there were so many things bothering him right now, but he couldn't tell her, not when the thing that bothered him the most was winning her back.
"Nothing, my dear. Nothing."
"Well, if you say so" she was starting to feel annoyed by all this uncertainty. They had always been so at ease with one another. Why was it so difficult right now?
Putting his hands on the desk, he stood up "Now I'm afraid I must go. I'm already late for my meeting"
"I didn't know you had some business to attend to today"
She was so close he could feel her piercing blue eyes burning the exposed side of his face.
"Oh, it was something unexpected" he lightly brushed her cheek with his thumb "I'll see you later, my dear"
As soon as he closed the door behind him he let out a sight of relief, he just couldn't bear to stay so close to her knowing she was totally unaware of what was going to happen in a matter of hours. He had only to wait for his sister to arrive and everything would have worked smoothly according to his plan. Rosamund was supposed to be Cora's distraction during the second part of the afternoon so that he could leave the house unnoticed and meet the man who had almost ruined his marriage and put an end to this chapter of their life.
He managed to come back on time that day, therefore Cora and Robert spent a couple of hours in the nursery with their grandchildren. They had played and laughed and had a really great time together.
Some days before, he had found an old book he used to read to the girls when they were young during the Christmas holidays and he thought he could have tried it with the grandchildren too.
Cora was overjoyed, witnessing the sweetness and the love her husband had for these babies, all of them.
Sybbie was sitting on his lap, she was holding the book while Robert was whispering something in her ear; it must have been something funny because their granddaughter couldn't stop giggling. Cora was sitting next to George and Marigold and as soon as Robert opened the book to start reading their eyes met, a wave of nostalgia washing over them. They had done this so many times before, so many years before; the house smelled of the same scents of cinnamon, pine and biscuits, it smelled of Christmas and festivities, yet everything was a bit different.
And they had almost lost all this.
The three little faces looking up at them were waiting for their grandpapa to start reading, but Cora and Robert seemed so lost in their own memories that little Sybbie had to wake them from their reverie "Would you read for us, Donk?"
He had to clear his throat, this girl was so like her mother so sweet and caring, yet so determined and strong he felt his heart clench "Yes, of course my darling Sybbie"
Cora's smile grew wider and wider as she recalled the words her husband had read so many Christmases before. She had to admit, he hadn't lost his 'touch', their grandchildren as their mothers before them, were bewitched by his warm and low voice and the adventures he was telling.
When the nanny came back, after their presence had been requested for tea, Cora thought she could have caught Robert outside the nursery, but he left the room so quickly she didn't have the chance to see him leaving.
When Cora entered the library and tea was served there were only her sister in law, who had just arrived, Mary, Edith and Tom, but Robert was nowhere to be found.
She took a sit on the settee "Surely he must be somewhere. He was in the nursery with me moments ago and then he doesn't show up for tea."
"My dear" Rosamund interjected coming to sit next to her "I saw Robert leaving, he told me he had an urgent business to attend" she said stirring the amber liquid in her cup.
Cora lifted her brow in disbelief "Oh well, all Matters are urgent today" she muttered, taking another sip of tea.
Hoping to divert her attention from Robert's absence Rosamund tried to distract her "And so Cora, tell me, how are the arrangements for this year going?"
"Oh, Rosamund...I was in fact thinking of asking your advice on a couple of things..."
Rosamund had never been more eager in her life to give Cora her advice, as long as it took her attention away from Robert; and she took a sigh of relief when tea was over and Cora announced she wanted to retire to her room.
Cora thought this could be the perfect moment to wrap Robert's present, she had just feigned tiredness to sneak upstairs and wrap it.
She retrieved the box and the paper from her drawer, the card was ready, she had already written it days ago, she only had to prepare everything and put it under the Christmas tree when the time came.
She locked the door, afraid that Robert would be back while she was wrapping the gift, when she noticed she had forgotten the scissors. She knew she had a pair of them somewhere in her room, so she began to search everywhere, opening all the drawers and the wardrobe, but she found nothing except old buttons, books and useless stuff.
How could this be? She was so sure.
But maybe Robert had one in his room.
She opened the dividing door and looked in every drawer she could find, but nothing. She was about to go back to her room to ring for Baxter when she saw it: Robert's bedside table, maybe she still had a chance.
She opened the small drawer. There was a novel in it, she remembered he was reading that book some weeks ago, when after her little 'speech' on the threshold of the dividing door, he had decided to go back to her room and she knew why. She had striken a chord, it was a painful one, even if some years had passed, but she had to do it if she wanted him back. After those years during the war she never thought another person would have tried to divide them. But then life is unpredictable and there they were...trying to rebuild their marriage once again.
Pushing aside all these memories, because to tell the truth, she had already forgiven him ages ago, she lifted the book to have better access at the back of the drawer, when she saw a little piece of paper falling slowly from the book, until it reached the floor half open.
She bent on her legs to take it, with the intention of putting it again inside the book when she noticed that there was her name written on it, or better, her title: Lady Grantham.
She opened it and she gasped in surprise, she had to sit on the bed "Oh my goodness" she whispered in shock.
With trembling hands and a thumping heart she read the note again and again, but what was written in it had always the same meaning, no matter how many times she read it.
Mr. Bricker had left her a note the day of his 'sudden' departure telling her he would have waited for her forever to build a new life with him and that she only had to send him a telegram if she was willing to meet him. At least he had apologised for having treated her like a common vixen and for having introduced himself against her will in her room.
The thought made her stomach flip, it had never been her intention to cheat on Robert with him, let alone elope with this man. There was only a man in her life and that man was Robert.
Then, why hadn't this message been delivered to her, but it was hidden in his drawer?
She thought they were getting back to each other, he had been so sweet and caring from that day.
Did that mean Robert wanted to hide it from her because he didn't trust her after what had happened with that man?
Hadn't she been clear enough that nothing happened with mr. Bricker and that she was sorry?
Yes, that was probably the reason. He didn't trust her anymore. After more than 30 years spent together, sharing every obstacle and every joy, Robert had decided not to trust her.
The thought brought immediately tears in her eyes, maybe her marriage was about to be just a façade like all the others, a 'second hand' marriage.
If this was what was going to happen, she wanted to hear it from Robert's voice. She dried her cheeks and headed downstairs.
She asked the girls, Tom and everyone in the house but no one seemed to know where her husband was.
She opened the library door where her sister in law was sitting on the settee reading in front of the crackling fire.
Rosamund had to know, she was the last one who had seen Robert that day.
"Where's Robert?" her voice was low and very determined, she didn't want to appear weak, even if inside she was disappointed to the bone.
Rosamund jumped on the settee "Oh dear! You startled me!"
"I said where is Robert?" with her back straight and a stern gaze she was reaching the spot where Rosamund was standing breathing heavily and fidgeting wth her fingers.
"I don't know...I just saw him leaving. Is something bothering you?"
Cora's lip started to quiver, but she tried to steady her countenance, a thing she had learnt so well from Mama in the last 34 years. She knew Rosamund had to be aware of something, it was not like her fidgeting nervously with her fingers or breathing so heavily.
"Yes " she said " this is bothering me and I have to talk to Robert." She was still waving the note in front of Rosamund when she added "But you know where he is, don't you?"
"Cora, dear, I..."
She looked straight in her sister in law's eyes, a knowing look spread upon her face "Rosamund, if you know where he is I beg you to tell me. Don't you think you have already kept too many secrets from me?"
After his conversation with mr. Bricker and having made it clear he had not to try to get in touch with Cora ever again, Robert had wanted only one thing.
He had understood he had made a mistake by hiding that message from his wife; he had understood that if he really wanted to start the new year putting every effort to let this marriage work, he had to tell her the truth, the whole truth.
That was why, on his way home, he stopped the car to buy her a bunch of flowers and a chocolate box, a treat for his wife.
When he finally reached Downton and entered his home, strangely he was not met by the familiar chitchatting that always accompanied his sister's presence in the house.
"Carson do you know where her Ladyship is?" Robert asked while his butler was carefully removing his coat.
"She is upstairs, Milord. I saw her climbing the stairs hurriedly some minutes ago"
Robert noticed the worried look on his butler's face "Is she unwell? Did you send for the doctor?"
Robert was about to tell something else when his eyes met the unmistakable shape of his sister approaching him.
"Rosamund!" He greeted her with a light kiss on the cheek.
"Oh Robert! Thank God you're here!"
"I'll go upstairs to check on Cora. I have to tell her the truth"
"You're too late. She knows"
Robert froze on the spot, he felt his blood leave his body "What?"
"She knows everything...I had to...Robert! Wait!"
But he was already rushing up the stairs, climbing two steps at a time.
She was sitting on the settee near the window trying to concentrate on the novel she was reading, but she couldn't; images of mr. Bricker standing in front of her, the look on Robert's face when he had entered the room, the fight, her husband sleeping in his dressing room were replaying endlessly in her mind. Then, she heard a soft knock at her bedroom door.
She knew who it was and just for a second she hesitated, but then she gave her permission to come in.
"Cora?" She saw his head peeking out from the half opened door, his expression unreadable.
He stepped inside hesitantly, she could see it from the way he walked in and seeing him so insecure made her feel even more uncomfortable.
No one dared to speak, Cora was hurt, terribly hurt. She felt like if her heart was broken in a thousand pieces. Losing her husband's trust after more than 30 years was something she wouldn't have imagined.
Robert, on his side didn't know where to start. Was she angry? Was she sad?
This was his chance to win her back entirely and he couldn't throw it away again.
She kept staring at him from the settee, waiting for him to do the first move. If he had really lost his faith in her, she would have soon discovered it.
As her husband closed the physical space between the two of them, and he came standing in front of her, her eyes grew wider and wider.
"I have to tell you something"
"Yes" she said in a whisper, her eyes filled with tears.
"Rosamund has probably told you everything about the note and my meeting with that man"
"Yes. She has. I found mr. Bricker's message in your drawer" she replied lifting the paper she held in her hand and trying to swallow the lump that was already forming in her throat, while Robert could only nod in response.
"But why Robert? Why hiding all this from me? You don't trust me anymore, do you?"
There she said it! The uncomfortable question had just left her lips and now she was dreading the answer.
"I do trust you"
His words hit her like a cold shower, from one side she felt a wave of relief washing over her, but on the other hand she couldn't understand.
She patted the settee lightly to let him know she wanted him next to her. And so he did. He took a sit next to his wife.
"I was afraid of losing you"
He spoke the words so quickly and low that she thought that maybe she had misheard them
"Cora, I know I'm not an easy person to deal with. And when I read Bricker's proposal of a new life with him, I was afraid you could consider it more appealing than a life spent with me...that's why I hid the note and that's why I decided to meet him today...But now, you have to know, I have understood that I had to tell you the truth...I had to tell you from the very beginning."
He let his head fall heavily between his hands, his elbows resting on his thighs. His hands came covering his eyes and cheeks, she knew he was ashamed for his actions and for a moment she thought she could have even been angry with him.
But then, she had to admit to herself that it always takes two to make a mistake and it always takes two to rise up again.
It was her turn to make the first step towards him now, and she did the only thing she could. She took his hands off, uncovering his face, then she stood up and stretched her arm out and smiled at him. He took her hand and she tightened her grip.
Oh, how he loved her! She knew him so well to know there was no need to use words or to make heartfelt speeches, he needed a gesture. They needed a gesture.
He followed her until they reached the fireplace hand in hand. Cora was still holding the message in her free hand and handed it to Robert.
She nodded and he took the paper between his thumb and index. Now they were both holding it, Robert from one side, Cora from the other. Their eyes met again and she smiled at him then she spoke looking at him intensely "I choose you, Robert. As I did 34 years ago, and as I intend to do for the rest of my life" he smiled back never leaving her eyes "And I choose you, Cora. The only person who owns my heart" then, as acting in complete accord, they both threw it in the fire.
They watched the paper burn, then curling up and disappearing in the flames.
When even the last piece of it was burnt, Robert turned to his wife taking both her hands in his and placing them on his chest. They stared at each other in silence for some moments, relishing in the sensation of having the other so close.
After their mouths met, tasting of forgiveness and belonging, Robert lifted Cora in his arms heading towards the bed, both of them willing to show the other how deep their love was.
It was a new beginning. That page of their lives had already turned and they were starting to write another one, together.