First of all, thank you so much for your support! It really means the world to me. And I'm so sorry for the long wait, but life has been more than a little tough.
Anyway, I truly hope you like the new chapter!
The tension on the drive to the Abbey is palpable. The familiarity of the road is both comforting and unsettling as each curve leads closer to her... home? It is her home after all, or it should be. Even if the words now feel odd in her mind, like shoes that don't fit quite right.
There is too much going on, and only so much she can take. She is not sure if it is the pressure of being back, the fear of falling back into old habits, or the imminence of a confrontation she would rather avoid, but she has to turn her face to the window when her eyes swim with tears that she cannot seem to control.
And so she is silent as the train station falls behind and the village that she used to know all too well comes into view. She eyes the passing scenery absently, not paying much attention to anything if not one or another small change. But for a moment, a familiar, recently rediscovered strain fills her eyes. She knows that he is not there, and yet she dreads the vision of the house just around the corner.
"It's going to be fine, Mary," he says when her body stiffens next to his.
She breathes a little easier when the familiar hand touches her own. And for a second, her gaze drifts from the blur of houses and trees and meets Charles' warm eyes.
"I know," comes her quiet reply. Much too quick and too short for either of them to believe.
But she is glad that he is with her, and she cannot help but smile at how well he knows her. Or at how he fidgets with his tie and checks his pocket watch every five minutes. Although he would never admit so, she is aware that he too is nervous. Surely he has met her family before - and knows that they very much approve of him - but this is different. Downton is where she grew up and he wants to make a good impression. And so, for the first time since they stepped out of the train, she finds herself laughing as she remembers his resolve to win Carson over.
"What's it?" He asks.
"What if Carson doesn't like you?" She says slyly.
"Then I'll just have to try harder."
"Oh, I don't know," she teases. "He can be rather tough."
"I won you over, didn't I?" He says matter-of-factly and she has to raise a characteristic eyebrow at him. Even as she is sure that he has already noticed her slightly parted lips and flushed cheeks... At this instant, she whishes they were alone, and curses propriety for keeping her from reaching out and stroking the familiar spot on his face, just beneath his ear, with her long, cold fingers. She longs for him even as she feels the warmth of his body next to hers, or his arm brushing against her own. His hand holding on to hers.
He did win her over...
"Charles! What are you doing?" She chided as she observed him grab his coat and hat before heading back to the parlor, searching for something he apparently forgot. "You're going to catch your death in this storm!"
"We, Mary. You're coming with me," he said with that cheeky smile that he knew all too well she could not resist.
"You must be mad." She shook her head and stretched her arms along her sides, fidgeting with her hands and picking at her gloved fingers. Standing decidedly on his way.
But it didn't seem to stop him as he moved past her and grabbed her own coat, standing tall near the entrance as he held it open for her. He was lost before her. Her pale skin, her earnest eyes, her wit... Everything about her made his heart burst.
"Don't be a spoilsport, Josephine," he teased.
She could barely look at him. She wanted to be mad, to at least sound mad, but there was something about him, about his voice, the way his hair curled in the back of his neck... His smile alone could spark feelings that she had long been trying to supress.
"Don't call me that."
"Then come," he said, gently, and reached for her hand. An apologetic yet encouraging smile forming on his lips.
"I shouldn't," she murmured. "Aunt Rosammund will be furious."
But the intensity in his eyes combined with the feeling of his hands on her shoulders, his firgertips brushing the back of her neck as he helped her into her coat was enough to undo her.
There was a new trust between them, a friendship recently established. Curiosity that paved the way for pleasure in being in the other's company. But more than that. There was also attraction, a tension of sorts that had developed over the course of the past few weeks. A desire that made her breath catch every time he was anywhere near her. The mere sight of her enough to make his heart falter...
He hoped he was not blushing as she acceped his arm. She knew she was.
The proximity of their bodies was inebriating. A delicious flood of desire speaking louder than any other thought. Not even the raging wind was enough to pull them out of the private universe they had immersed in, only the first drops of cold rain causing them to break contact.
"What are you doing?" He asked.
"I," she smiled slyly and touched his arm. "Am going back." But her tone, gentle as ever, booked no argument as she turned around and started looking for a tea shop to wait out the rain.
"Mary," he called.
"I would prefer not to get soaked. Thank you very much."
But he was not willing to let her go. He could not let her go. "Come," he said, his hand taking hers and leading her all the way down the street and around the corner. "I have something to show you."
They walked - or better, rushed - past several houses until Charles stopped and led the way down a seemingly hidden starcase and a small door.
Now, standing in the middle of a darkened room, his body mere inches away from hers, control was the last thing in their minds. Their hands, still linked, brought them even closer together as Charles' free hand, almost in its own accord, found its way to her cheek. His fingers stroked gently and she leaned toward the contact, turning her face and touching her lips to his palm.
"Charles," she murmured. "We shouldn't. We can't."
But she did not mean it. For the first time in weeks, she looked at him, really looked at him, and saw the effects of the war upon this man she stubbornly refused to love. Dark circles under his eyes, the bruises under his chin, a fading scar just above his lips... She reached out and followed its lines with her fingertips. And something pooled inside her, a mix of a glorious thrill and an agonizing fear that made her knees buckle. What if... But she could not complete the thought.
"Charles," she said again, whispering this time. Placing her hands against his chest and leaning closer to him, toward his touch. Her mouth came up to his and she could feel him smiling against her lips.
The taste of her, the taste of him... It was magnificent. Nothing they might have expected could match this. Everything seemed to fit somehow. It was innocent at first, her hands against his chest and his on her hips. But as the kiss deepened, her hands found his shoulders, his neck, his cheek, and finally his hair. Long fingers and dark curls entwined. His grip, shy at first, tightened on her hips and pulled her closer to him. Their mouths moved against one another searching angrily, passionately, hungrily. His tougue found hers and she drank him in. He grasped her waist and secured her against him. He could not let her go. She could not let him go.
"Mary," he cried. Both grasping for air, neither willing to move.
But they had to.
"Where are we?" She asked at last, still within his arms . The room was dark, but she noticed that they were sorrounded by shelves and books. A small library perhaps...
Reluctantly, he broke free from her embrance and took her hand in his, showing the way to one small bookcase in the corner.
"This place belongs to a friend," he explained. "He and his wife used to run a small bookstore before the war. She's in Portugal with her family now, but he asked me to get something for him. And I wanted to show you this."
He grabbed something small and, still holding on to her hand, moved to one of the nearby chairs, mentioning for her to sit next to him. In his other hand, what looked like an old notebook. A diary maybe. Something she could not quite discern.
"Poetry," he looked up at her. His eyes were intense, so full of passion that she felt momentarily dizzy. Her ability to breathe forgotten for a second. "Brazilian poetry. My friend's wife is Portuguese and she translated some of the books she brought back from Brazil."
There was a pause as he closed his eyes and pressed a kiss to her hair. She tilted her head and brushed her lips over the spot right between his jaw and neck in response. He did not say anything, he could not - but handed the notebook to her instead.
"And I'll say to thou: 'Love to understand them!'," she read aloud. "Because only he who loves may have ears / Capable of hearing and understanding stars."
The words washed over her so fast that she could not speak. Their meaning still dawning on her. And the unexpected intensity of her own feelings nearly knocking her out of breath. It was a full minute until she found her voice again.
"This is beautiful, Charles."
He shut his eyes and nodded. His grip tightening around her shoulders as images from the nights spent at the trenches rushed back to his mind. "Do you know why I wanted to show you this?"
She shook her head against his shoulder, burrying her face in the crook of his neck. Overcome by the feeling that she had somehow always belonged there, in his arms.
"Because." He put a finger under her chin and lifted her face so she was looking directly at him. "Because when I'm in France, looking at the stars is what keeps me sane. I look at them and I know that the people I fight for may be looking at the same stars from a safer place. I know that you might be looking at them. It's a connection to the outside world."
She is deep in thought again, that old habit of isolating herself from the outside world, when she feels his breath tickle her ear.
"What is it, dear?"
She loves his thick voice, and how his irish heritage only ever shows when he is with her.
"Nothing," she shakes her head and the corners of her lips turn slightly up. She is glad that he is there. But before she has a chance to say more, the car pulls at the driveway and she murmurs. "We're here."
Her body stiffens. They are.
And things are not quite as different as she might have expected.
It's been two years, many losses, a war, and Downton is still Downton. But it's not easy either. The truth is, it is her own feelings she is afraid of.
Days blur between concert preparations and wedding talk, and she is glad to have something to busy herself with. She begins to suspect that Sybil might have a crush on the chauffeur, and decides to keep a close eye on her. Mama takes every opportunity to talk about dresses, dates and guest lists, while Edith cannot seem to stop babbling about her new interests... And Mary cannot help but laugh when Granny snaps at her middle-class aspirations at dinner one night. Carson worries about her and wishes she would come back, but there is something in his eyes... He is different somehow. But then, so is she. Papa and Charles discuss the estate management, because he cannot bear to talk about the things he has seen. And in the solitude of her room, Mary cannot explain to Anna why she has withdrawn from the man she is going to marry. Yet, a simple look at the maid is enough to tell her she she knows.
There is too much going on, and she is thankful for the diversion. But the night before he arrives, when sleep will not come, she cannot keep the thoughts she has been trying to avert away anymore. If she had accepted him... She stops. She knows one has to live with the choices they make. But what if things had turned out differently? Would they be married by now? Her hand phantoms across her flat smotach... Perhaps even with children. She would still be at Downton.
"Carson said you wanted to see me," she says as she enters the library the following night. He's standing right across from her, but she cannot meet his gaze.
She knows he has done nothing wrong, and so does he, but how can she look at him when another man keeps haunting her thoughts? She loves Charles and she wants to marry him, of that she is sure. But what is this feel in her heart every time she thinks about Matthew Crawley?
He reaches out for her hand and she allows him to take it and pull her to him. "Are you alright, Josephine?"
"You haven't called me that in a while," she laughs softly and plays with his fingertips.
Standing in his embrace, she feels his arms tighten around her and his sigh against her hair. And her heart drops because she knows he does not deserve this.
"I feel like I haven't seen you in days," he murmurs, but he cannot help but let some frustration show through.
What is she supposed to say? What can she even say when she doesn't know what is it that she feels? She leans back and finally looks at him, and her hand finds its familiar place on his cheek.
I'm sorry, Charles. She thinks, but does not say it.
She kisses him instead. And it's different this time. They hold on to one another desperatly, her hands still on his cheeks as he pulls her to him. Their kisses are hungry, anxious. And they do not want to let go, they cannot let go.
He bites her bottom lip and she clutches his hair. They cling to each other because they cannot let go.
"I'm sorry," says a voice from the door. "I didn't mean to interrupt."
They break apart, but she does not move. She cannot move.
"Matthew," she cries.
Please don't kill me. I promise that shippers of both couples will be very satisfied throughout this tale, even if you don't like C/M or M/M.
There should be a few typos in this chapters because it was pretty much written in hopitals and doctors waiting rooms, and I didn't have much time to check my spelling, so for that I am sorry. But anyway, I'd love to know what you think! X
*The poem Charles shows Mary is called Via Láctea and it's from one of my favorite writers, Olavo Bilac. If you speak Portuguese, his work is definitely worth a read.