Written for Mrstater, who requested Mary/Richard and the prompt: Jewellery.


Bare

The wrong man proposes to Lady Mary Crawley at the railway station, but perhaps he chooses the right words when he does. No flowery declarations of passion or love, only a matter-of-fact suggestion that they are a team who can build something worth having. It's hardly the stuff of dreams, but she's already given in to passion once and the memory of it seems likely to haunt her for ever more. As for love; when you've turned your world back to cinders with your own stupid, cowardly hands, then it's clear that chance has been and gone and will not come again. Now is the time to be pragmatic like her would-be suitor, not waste time mourning for what could have been.

What is on offer here is Sir Richard Carlisle, boasting no aristocratic lineage, but a recently-acquired notoriety and a fortune that impresses even a jaded City which has seen such things come and go many times before. Currently, he's seeking to impress her with his rich, sandy voice and a pair of earrings: perfect pearl teardrops hanging from elegant gold hooks. "To celebrate our new agreement," he says when she protests, aware that he shouldn't be giving, she certainly shouldn't be accepting, and that she hasn't agreed to anything at all yet. It seems, however, that Richard does not concern himself with minor details such as these, and instead leaves them to others to worry about.

Is he seeking to buy you?" asks Edith, who never misses a gift from a man, especially when it's not hers to receive.

"He saw me admire them," Mary replies, omitting to mention that it was only after she'd opened the box and seen them for the very first time. "It's a generous gift of friendship."

Edith sniffs. "I wonder how generous he expects you to be in return?"

Mary is wondering this herself. It feels as though the marriage deal is set out plainly on the table in front of her, which brings back other painful memories of once being bought and sold to Patrick. At least she can do the buying here, though there is an unexpected sense of like recognizing like when it comes to Richard. Of ambition reaching out to the part of her that would very much like to leave her gilded cage and find something with which to fill her days. Richard is a man who doesn't play by the rules, who isn't a gentleman, and while most of her family save Mama point this out to her at every worried opportunity, this pales into insignificance compared to the brutal fact that he isn't Matthew.

"I suppose there is no hope…" Her father stops his own words, so as not to voice out loud his dearest wish. No hope for you and Matthew?

"None whatsoever," she says, conscious of how difficult it is for him when he's unaware of the circumstances which brought them together, of why they parted, and simply wants two of the people he holds dearest in the world to be together.

It's even more difficult for her to begin to explain, without running headlong into that which she can't, so she says crisply, "Besides, now there is Lavinia to consider-– and Richard. We have both moved on."

Her father nods, suddenly looking as old and weary as she's ever seen him. He turns away, but not before she hears his other unspoken words. Have you really moved on, Mary?

But she's beginning to think she has. That first glimpse of Lavinia Swire helped: whatever she was imagining, it's not a quiet, pretty girl, who gazes at Matthew adoringly and trembles whenever Granny goes near. This is a different Matthew as well; he doesn't flirt with Lavinia, doesn't tease like he did with Mary, but he's both gentler and somehow more forceful. Perhaps the captain's uniform has changed him, he certainly seems much more country squire than country solicitor standing there, and Lavinia sweetly defers to him in everything, even her own opinion. Was this what he really wanted after all? Rather to her own astonishment, Mary finds that Lavinia begins to inspire the same protective feelings in her. It's easy to imagine that Downton might one day swallow Lavinia whole.

In total contrast, Richard says, "Together we're strong and we're sharp," with the emphasis pleasingly on 'we're', and with the confidence of a man who scents an unexpected victory beckoning. On this visit he's brought an unsuitable tweed suit to wear, an inclination to loudly voice unpopular opinions during dinner and to annoy Granny, and, in a velvet-lined box, some more earrings. This time it is neat triangles of jet edged with gold, which she loves at once. So much so that it's an effort to coolly murmur that he's very kind and really shouldn't.

"I thought they'd go with that red dress of yours, the one with the black lace that you like so much." His smile isn't remotely kind but amused, and his blue eyes say that not only does he notice her, he notices what she wears, and what she says, and everything about her. That he only waits with barely concealed impatience for permission to notice even more as he adds, "You can wear it and them for me."

By now, she's beginning to seriously consider she might do just that. She thinks she can manage him; the trick is to avoid being managed in return. "Social respectability and emotional austerity," says Granny, with a sniff that such as Edith can only one day hope to emulate. "I suppose that's how marriages are made these days."

There is emotion there all right, though she doubts Granny would approve; on her part it's a strong attraction to this man, almost in spite of what she increasingly knows of him. It's hard to say what it is on Richard's, because he never does quite say. She has to rely on the frequent touches to her hand, her wrist, her elbow; the look in those heavily-lidded eyes that suggests flames could ignite between them if she once touched him in return. "He must know every bone in your right arm," Sybil says one night, waspishly for her, but Sybil – frighteningly - lives on mad dreams of the chauffeur herself. Sybil doesn't know what it is to be this age, still living with her parents, and feeling like she's getting older and smaller all the time.

She cannot afford another mistake. Perhaps choosing a harsher partner is what she deserves; Matthew has already chosen a far softer one. Richard promises her an escape, promises a clean slate and a family at Haxby Hall, but he never promises her the love she's not sure she wants but, perversely, would like to have. Instead he brushes his lips against her cheek, and she thinks of the warm sun touching bare skin, only for it to cool again, like a warning, immediately he has gone.

"Can you afford to keep him waiting?" Mama, for once, is ready to face the subject head on; not diverting sideways into the difficulties of so many strangers recuperating at Downton or what Isobel has done wrong today. "If you don't expect too much, you may in time be pleasantly surprised."

Is that what you were told when you came to England to marry father? It's an appalling thought, which chokes Mary, even while she tries to tell herself that this is how it was and still is for women. That she either stays in this waiting room all her life or uses Richard to help kick the door down.

"Matthew loves Lavinia," Mama adds, in case Mary has failed to notice this fact. It's hard to disagree, just because it seems very much a gentle, fond love, not one set in stone. "It's time to look to your future and embrace it with both hands."

That, of course, is another worry, which Mama, of all people, should understand. Naturally, she doesn't mention the subject. Embracing a man, sleeping with him and all that follows… Richard's a man of experience, he's bound to know, and yet the idea of lying next to him and feeling his hands on her skin, on her once awakened body, is a heady, exciting one. Sometimes he and Matthew seem like two opposing halves of the same golden-haired coin: Richard the significantly older, with his hawk-like face all angles and bones; the lines on his face adding to rather than detracting from his looks. He'll never fatten in old age, though his hair is already being far-too carefully arranged. Matthew is almost boyish next to him. He's been sent away again to France now, facing God knows what horrors, and she prays for him, guiltily knowing it isn't her place to, but quite unable to stop herself. He's asked her to look after Lavinia and Isobel, should anything happen to him, and if that doesn't break the final piece of her useless heart, then nothing will.

So it is to be calm friendship with her amiable cousin Matthew, a role they briefly played out before. If only he comes home safe, she thinks this is a deal with God and conscience she can keep. And wife to Richard? Mistress of Haxby? One last hesitation; remembering Pamuk, aching for those brief moments in Matthew's arms which had felt like coming home, and shocked by tales of threats to Lavinia made behind laurel trees. Though it's easier to understand the act of blackmail, the lack of scruples, than it is the choice of target. It's a harsh, judgemental world out there and Mary is facing a tough survival choice herself.

"It wouldn't be enough for me. Second best, that is," says Anna. She's struggling with the clasp of Richard's latest gift, a leaf-shaped pendant overlaid with filigree of silver and gold, with fingers that are not quite steady. Let's turn over a new leaf together, he'd said. Let's write our own history and—

"You see, I'd always know it was," says Anna, and looks at her steadily in the mirror. "And it's best to be honest with yourself."

Mary opens her mouth to snap something, such as a smug little maid is the last thing she needs right now. Closely followed by honesty. Her own fingers tremble, as they have ever since Matthew was laid out, soiled and bloodied, on a narrow bed in front of her. "Tell me," he'd said, and she had. Everything except that she still loves him, still wants him now he's broken and bitter, and that settling for anything else seems more impossible and even more essential than ever.

Richard. She's been unfair to him and he's waited for her. Time to give him an answer, and if she can't give him love, she'll try and give him everything else she's capable of. It's a better starting point than many are given.

"Mr. Bates and I are in trouble," says Anna, the necklace slipping from her grasp, and Mary belatedly realizes that the eyes holding hers aren't smug at all but angry and fearful.

"Tell me," she says, and discovers that Kemal Pamuk lives on to hurt her still. That the past never goes away, that a reputation, once lost, can never be fully recovered, and that she's about to find out what she's always wondered: how much does Richard Carlisle care for her?

"I've come to tell you something very difficult," she says to him in the opulence of his Fleet Street office. Now, at last, he's the right man for her, the only man who can perform the miracle rescue she needs as she bares her soul. She half expects him to throw her over; discovers, at this the eleventh hour, that she doesn't want him to, and prays he won't look at her with disgust. She'll fight back, of course, because a blackmailer and a bully shouldn't be throwing stones at Lady Mary Crawley, but it'll be yet another moment she'll be unable to forget.

Instead, the right man uses the wrong words to her now. It's not disgust she sees in his face but bitter disappointment; not contempt but icy cold rage. He wanted to be my first. Why did I never see? But it's too late and she's become a rival now, someone who has crossed him and tarnished all those dreams he was so careful to never let her see. Richard knows only one way to treat a rival, and he's about to do to her what he'll do to Vera Bates. They will be crushed underfoot and firmly put in their place.

She doesn't find out how much he cares; instead she finds out how much he'll do to get what he wants.

"You'll marry me," he says quietly, while she's fighting the urge to back away and pull her hand from his. "We're on slightly more equal terms now, and that pleases me. You're in my debt."

The necklace arrives in a velvet box at Downton the very next day, not long after her father explodes with dismay at the engagement announcement in the paper. Freshwater pearls threaded with silken gold, on the longest of long gold chains. Hard to believe that something so fragile could be used as a threat.

Wear it with the red dress, says the accompanying note. Until I buy you another.

Mary looks at her reflection in the mirror: the chain touching her bare skin like Richard now has the right to. Delicate, beautiful; a promise of the sunlit future they are going to build together. The pearls fall over her breasts and drift down to hang below her navel. She is in little doubt that ownership is being clearly pronounced.

It feels like the heaviest of ropes lying around her neck.


I'd like to say that reviewers get the pick of Richard's obviously extensive jewellery collection, but that might prove a bit expensive! My thanks instead? ;)