Fandom: Downton Abbey
Summary: “Peace on earth and goodwill towards men – and that includes cousin Matthew.” It is Christmas 1913 and there are games to be played. Matthew/Mary crack-fic with a heart. And vampires. And Pride and Prejudice. And mistletoe.
Disclaimers: 1. I stole the title from Bones. 2. Lady Grantham (Bex) kindly allowed me to borrow her Cora-is-a-vampire idea. Thank you very much! 3. The Jane Austen mis-quotes belong to, er, Jane Austen. 4. The inclusion of Matthew reading "A Night Before Christmas" was on the insistence of clunkhall who also very kindly beta-ed and reassured me that Matthew is not behaving like a massive lunatic. (Just a medium-sized one.)
I hope you enjoy and do leave a comment if you do, so that I can feel justified in spending half my weekend listening "Fairytale of New York" on repeat.
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts ~ Shakespeare, “As You Like It”
“Today, Mary, is about peace on earth and goodwill towards men – and that includes Cousin Matthew,” said Lady Grantham severely to her eldest daughter.
“I hope you've told him that as well,” replied Mary with a show of indifference.
“I'm not sure he needs to be told; he's been very polite and friendly to you recently.”
Polite. Friendly. It was true; he was both of these things to her. Months of stiff courtesy and bland friendliness, and she was never allowed a chance to explain herself. Mary had been frustrated by him for so long that she was almost used to it. What was she to do in the face of such constant damning reminders of her oh so great folly, that she had once dared to use him in a game against Edith? With all of her early efforts to apologise to him mercilessly quashed, her own resentment had grown (she had not done anything so very bad – what was his problem?) and she had begun to treat him with the same levels of indifference and coldness as he showed to her. It was an intolerable stalemate and she did not know how to lift it or what it would mean if she did. Once upon a time she had thought that – well, she had been mistaken.
It would be hard to sustain their cold war over Christmas Day, but Mary was sure that they would manage it nevertheless. Never mind the warmth from the roaring fires, the crispy grease of the goose or the laughter of Cousin Lavinia's children at play with their new toys by the tree: between them the ice would doubtless remain unthawed.
Mary's gloomy prognostications were perfectly realised. Matthew was all charm to everyone except her. Over the extended Christmas dinner, she painfully watched him unfold from his cracker a bright green paper hat and proudly wear it for the duration of the meal, laugh delightedly at bad jokes with Sybil, and even promise to read The Night Before Christmas to Lily and Eustace that evening (he would have done it on the day before if he had thought of it), but whenever he chanced to meet her eyes his smile dropped and he looked away quickly. He wished her happy Christmas – stiffly – and as for his gift to her, a packet of handkerchiefs she knew came from the village shop, he might as well not have bothered!
When dinner was finally over, they repaired all together to the drawing room. Before they got there, however, the earl stopped them all.
“For the sake of those of us who are new to Downton Christmases-” He nodded towards Matthew and Isobel “- we have a very specific tradition following dinner that I am afraid we do expect you join in with if you possibly can.”
“Oh?” said Matthew.
“Those who want to play divide into two teams and we have a proper, old fashioned game of Charades until tea time!”
Carson threw open the drawing room doors at this point and ushered them into a very changed room with a small stage set up at one end and all the other chairs arranged before it for the audience.
“Charades!” exclaimed Isobel. “How very- how very Victorian!”
“I suppose you won't be taking part then?” replied the dowager countess immediately.
“Oh, I don't know, I am rather tempted!” she replied with a satisfied smile at her rival. Violet only sniffed.
Teams were soon decided and for the most part the families stuck together, though Edith and Mary refused to be on the same team. The Crawley team, made up of the earl, the countess, Mary, Sybil and Matthew, would be first to perform. Following them would be the Painswick team consisting of Rosamund, Lavinia, her husband Horace, Isobel and Edith, with the two children attached to them as well. Violet and Great-Aunt Elizabeth were observing.
“Aren't you going to take part then?” asked Isobel innocently before disappearing into a huddle with her team.
“Somebody needs to remain objective!”
Everybody then turned to look to look at the other non-participant, Lady Elizabeth, dozing off in the most comfortable seat. She jerked her head up with a start.
“I'm not asleep!” she exclaimed loudly and thumped her stick against the floor for good measure.
Violet also had the privilege of picking the clues out of a hat and giving them to the two teams. Then they had only fifteen minutes to decide how to present the word, rehearse it and send the servants off for appropriate costumes and props. Backstage, Team Crawley examined the word they had been given: mistake.
“Well, it's two syllables so we have three scenes to do,” said Cora, kicking things off. “'Miss' and 'take' and then something to represent the whole word.”
“Mary and Sybil could do something for 'miss',” suggested Robert after a moment, “since they're unmarried.”
“But, Papa, we're both Ladies,” pointed out Mary. “It would be confusing.”
They all lapsed back into thought.
“I know!” burst out Sybil. “We could play a game, with a ball or something like that, and everyone could keep dropping and missing it! That way everyone can join in.”
Nobody could think of anything better to do and time was at a premium so this was agreed on. Anna was sent off at a run to find a ball from somewhere.
The second syllable presented more problems. 'Take' was such a generic word that it was hard to think of any way to make it stand out.
This time it was Matthew who came to the rescue. “How about instead of 'take' we use 'stake' – you must have some tent pegs lying around somewhere.”
“Tent pegs!?” muttered Mary making a face.
Sybil jumped up from her seat. “Or, I know, somebody can be a vampire and I can stake them!” She mimed thrusting a stake through the air and giggled.
“You'll give Granny a heart attack!” protested Mary, wondering just how much of Carson's good wine Sybil had managed to consume during dinner.
“I think it's a lovely idea, darling,” said Cora.
“What, vampires or giving Mama a heart attack?” asked Robert sardonically.
“You know what I mean. I think we could manage it very simply. All we need is a wooden box, a stake and perhaps the vampire should wear their nightdress to be especially effective.”
“Nothing simpler then!” sighed Mary, rolling her eyes, accidentally catching Matthew's and looking away, as William was despatched in search of these obviously easy to find, everyday objects.
“Who will volunteer to be my victim then?” insisted Sybil, bouncing on the balls of her feet.
“I nominate Cousin Cora,” said Matthew with a grin. “She seems the keenest!”
“I'm flattered, Matthew! I suppose I'd better go change then.”
As she left the room, Anna rushed back in, anxiously holding out a small, blue ball.
“All I could find was this – it's Pharoah's, but I cleaned it up. Will it be all right?”
“You cannot be serious!” exclaimed Mary automatically, even though she was already resigned to the indignity of it. After all, if there was one day of the year not to mind about everything being topsy-turvy then it had to be Christmas.
“Please, Mary,” implored her father, taking the ball, “there are worse things you could do than play catch with a dog's ball! We only have a few minutes left and there still remains the final scene. What can we do for 'mistake'?”
“A false solution to a maths problem perhaps?” suggested Matthew. He was really getting into this, Mary thought with some amusement, not that he had volunteered himself yet for any acting, she noted.
“It's not much of a dramatic finale,” she pointed out. “A blackboard with 'two plus two equals five' written on it will not garner much applause.”
He looked at her properly for the first time in a very long time. It was a shame therefore that his expression seemed so mulish and antagonistic. “Is melodrama the aim then? Forgive me, I have not played before. Perhaps you have a better idea of what a mistake consists of, cousin.”
He raised his eyebrows at her and Mary narrowed her eyes, feeling more bad-tempered as she understood his meaning. She could have explained to him many times over before now if he had only let her!
“May I make a suggestion?” interrupted Anna tentatively. They were all only too happy to turn their attention to her and she continued. “Perhaps instead of a factual mistake, you could act out a scene in which someone realises they've made a mistake, a misjudgement about something? That could be quite dramatic.”
Robert smiled at her. “Good idea, Anna. Any thoughts, team?”
“Matthew could propose to one of us-” suggested Sybil with equal amounts of enthusiasm and lack of tact.
“Oh yes, that would indeed be a mistake!” cried Mary before she could help it.
“No, no, no!” protested her sister, who, she decided, had definitely had a glass or two too many. “Matthew proposes and is rejected and then you can be very sad because you made a mistake, you see?” She smiled hopefully.
Mary blinked and stared and did not look at Matthew. “Why me? Why not you?” she managed finally, as her mother slipped back into the room in her nightdress, carrying a solid, wooden stake.
“Because it wouldn't be fair if I have another major role after staking Mama in the previous scene. Where on earth did you get that?”
“Oh, O'Brien found it somewhere... I have no idea how she manages it! I bumped into Carson outside by the way and they're ready for us. You had all better go on for the first scene!”
“I'm really not sure about the last bit-” Matthew was saying anxiously, but there was no time and he was propelled by Sybil out onto the stage.
They were greeted by polite applause from the others and with much more enthusiasm from Eustace and Lily sitting on the floor at the front.
Then took place one of the more embarrassing few minutes of Mary's life as she tossed and purposefully failed to catch Pharoah's little blue ball with her sister, father, and Cousin Matthew, whose eyes she could not meet at all now. At least she knew that Charades was only something she was subjected to once a year and it could therefore be born with more equanimity, though she played with markedly less enthusiasm than her father, Sybil (who did not need to pretend to miss the ball) and even Matthew who went over-the-top with so much enthusiasm it looked like he was trying to distract himself.
When they thought the other team had had enough time to get the point they went back behind the curtain to a smattering of clapping and murmuring. Presently Anna carried out a box for the coffin and the countess went out. Someone, probably Horace, whistled. Sybil peeked round the curtain, clutching her stake, and went out with a flourish a few moments later.
This scene seemed to be more successful than the first judging by the laughter. Backstage, however, the atmosphere was tense.
“I suppose,” Matthew was hissing to Robert, “that it's too late to think of anything else for the last scene, but what are we meant to do?”
“Oh, I don't know...” The earl was distracted by peering round the curtain and smiling at his wife and daughter's antics on stage. “I'm sure you'll think of something.”
Matthew sighed heavily and glanced at Mary who was sitting down and trying to pretend she could not hear their discussion.
Enthusiastic applause. Flushed and pleased, Cora and Sybil came back behind the curtain.
Robert kissed his wife on the cheek. “Well done, dear!”
Mary stood up, bracing herself and stretched her arms at her sides. No point putting off the inevitable. “Well, shall we go?”
“You go on first,” ordered Sybil beaming, and almost pushed her onto the stage. As she went Mary heard Matthew whisper again, “What do we do?!”
Alone on the stage in front of the rest of her family, she felt herself freeze in panic. Despite going through life playing a part, when actually required to act she did not know where to start. Clasping and unclasping her hands in front of her she paced over to the side of the little stage and stared into space. The audience grew restless and Mary's nerves increased as she realised it. She felt very exposed. Then there was a sharp knock on the back of the stage causing the entire construction to shudder and Mary started in real surprise. Recovering herself, she pulled back the curtain to reveal Matthew looking nervous, though she could not tell whether it was acted or real.
He tried to smile at her and she immediately turned away from him as he walked to the front of the stage. Her heart was beating too fast for a silly little game, yet it felt like the first time they had been alone together in so long, even if they were not alone at all.
Behind her, Matthew cleared his throat and she forced herself to turn round. He was staring imploringly at her and she frowned as she realised that she would have to actually look at him if a silent proposal was going to work. Unfortunately, Matthew was a very bad actor. First he paced away, then he paced back. Then he clasped his chin in thought. Mary simply stood there waiting, not quite sure what he was trying to convey or how she ought to react to it. Then he turned to face her again and burst out into passionate... mouthing.
What was he saying? She thought she saw a word that could be 'struggled' but it could equally well be 'scones' and so she had no idea. And if she had no idea what was going on, then surely the audience would have even less of one?
Matthew finished his silent outburst and seemed to deflate. Mary stared at him, her brows knit together, quite unable to think how to respond. Had this been the proposal itself or had he merely been overacting an introduction and was asking whether he could have a cup of tea?
Then Great-Aunt Elizabeth's stick banged on the floor again. “Is this part of the scene or are they having a moment?” she bellowed.
Mary flushed. Matthew looked away and concealed a sigh.
“Get on with it!” she bit out at him from between clenched teeth. He stared. “Go down on one knee!”
His eyes widened but he did as she ordered, kneeling clumsily before her. A strand of hair flopped over his forehead and she blinked, surprised at how vulnerable he suddenly appeared.
An Aaaah of comprehension wafted through the audience at this development, though Aunt Rosamund spoilt it all by commenting with wicked humour, “You know, I'm still not sure if this is part of the play or not!”
Matthew, his face flushed, broke the fourth wall. He shuffled awkwardly round on one knee to face the front. “We are trying to act our parts,” he said with as much dignity as he could muster in the circumstances, which wasn't much, “and I would ask your Ladyship's leave to let us continue trying!”
“All right!” weighed in the dowager countess with a thump of her own stick. “Continue then if you can before we all die of old age, and not just Elizabeth!”
Mary, already nervous and on edge, corpsed. She clasped her hand over her mouth to stop the laughter escaping, but just when she thought she had it under control, Lily removed her thumb from her mouth long enough to complain, “Mama, why is Mr. Crawley on the floor? His clothes will get dusty!”
Then she felt a tug on her skirt. Turning sharply, she saw it was Matthew. His face was beet red and he looked a combination of desperate and determined. He was also holding up a silver ring between finger and thumb and suddenly it was not funny any more.
It was her mother's engagement ring. Mary knew it well for she had always expected to wear it herself when her engagement to Patrick was made official. Yet Patrick would never have gone down on one knee like that to ask her. What was the point? Eventually (if nothing better came along) an announcement would have been made and she would have worn the ring.
She swallowed, the laughter disappearing from her face and Matthew, noticing her reaction, glanced down at the ring and then back up at her. What? his expression seemed to ask, but her chest felt suddenly tight and she remained frozen.
This time it was Matthew's turn to clench his teeth and hiss at her, “Do something!”
It was what she needed to hear and she did what she should have done already, what was the whole point of the piece. She sliced her hand through the air in front of her in firm denial. Then she turned sharply away and folded her arms and gave her head a decisive shake. Behind her, she heard Matthew get to his feet and then he pulled on her arm, turning her back round to face him for which liberty she glared at him. He spread his arms, held up the ring again, and pleaded with her with his eyes, but she continued to shake her head, getting more worked up as she did so. She unfolded her arms, holding her hands up in front of her as if to ward him off. Then he sighed and stepped back from her in defeat. He shook his own head at which she jerked her head sharply.
It was over, she hoped, as he walked slowly back to the curtain. She watched him go in undisguised relief, but then, just as he was about to go backstage, he turned and looked at her once more with such naked longing that her breath caught in her throat. As he left the stage, she stared after him, aware only of her pounding heart, until applause from the audience broke through to her.
She took her bow with the rest of them as if in a dream and found her arm grabbed by Sybil as they made their way to their seats while the other team debated their answer to the riddle.
“Oh, Mary, you did do well!” Sybil cried, clutching rather too hard at her arm.
Mary blinked and forced herself back to the present. “I did?”
“Yes. I thought you had forgotten the clue was actually 'mistake' but then that look of regret when Matthew left was just perfect!”
“Ah, yes, of course...” Mary considered that she must be a much better actress than she had thought she was as she did not remember consciously trying to look regretful. “Well, I'm glad you enjoyed it, darling. You made a very convincing vampire slayer yourself!”
“And Cora was a dashed convincing vampire!” boomed Horace, overhearing. “Best thing I've seen all Christmas!”
“Rather too convincing for me, I'm afraid, my dear,” said Robert. “I do worry about O'Brien sometimes. Wherever did she get that stake from?”
“That's it!” exclaimed Lavinia. “'Stake'! And you said the first one had to be 'miss', didn't you, Edith?”
Edith nodded but it remained with Isobel to give the full clue. “'Mistake'.” She seemed to be looking directly at Mary as she said it with a slightly questioning glance, or perhaps she was looking at Matthew who stood next to her. Mary felt awkwardness wash over her once again.
The dowager countess gave her grudging assent. “Yes, that is indeed the clue. Well done. Now you had better go backstage and get on with your own play, and I hope it goes more snappily than theirs!”
Team Painswick left their seats and went backstage, Lily and Eustace leading the way, and Team Crawley sat down and relaxed. Mary avoided talking to anyone and sat down on a two-piece settee on the second row, leaning her elbow on the arm and looking into the middle distance. She felt annoyed with Sybil for making her act that ridiculous scene with Matthew. Mostly though she felt annoyed with herself for being so affected by it. What of it? It was a game of Charades and the idea of wrongly refusing a proposal was a good idea for 'mistake'. Well, it was not an altogether terrible idea. Yet she had not liked to see Matthew with her mother's ring in such a position. It was too close to what everyone expected of them, and too close to what they both knew would never happen – and with good reason. It was quite simply too close, especially considering what their relationship had been for the last few months.
“Mary, I'm sorry about-”
She turned quickly at his voice. Matthew had sat down on the settee next to her and her heart dropped. Could he not continue to leave her alone? He had been doing it so well for six months!
“What on earth were you mouthing back there?” she interrupted him hastily, not wanting to know what he was apologising for. “The point of Charades is to mime, you know. Nobody could have any idea what you were doing. I certainly did not!”
He drew his mouth into a thin line before replying. “It was Sybil's idea. Just before I went on. She told me to act out Darcy's proposal from Pride and Prejudice.” He shrugged. “It seemed a good idea at the time. You know, 'In vain I have struggled, it will not do. You must allow me to tell you-'”
Mary had rolled her eyes at hearing who was behind it. She finished the quotation with a superior little smile,“'-how ardently I admire and love you.' Yes, I know.” Then she swallowed. Austen's vocabulary was so well chosen that it was impossible to say those words in an unconcerned way. She met Matthew's eyes yet again and wished she could look away.
“Mary, I wanted to say-” he began again, but the sound of a hunting horn from backstage interrupted them again and Matthew sighed and looked forward at the stage. She frowned at him quickly before turning to watch the next Charade.
First Edith entered at a kind of skipping run. She was dressed all in white and was somehow managing to carry a pair of antlers in front of her. Mary recognised them as an inferior pair shot once by Great-Uncle Alfred and usually found hanging out of the way in an upper corridor. She was glad of the distraction from whatever Matthew wanted to say and laughed with the others at the ridiculous picture her sister made. Then the children entered on their hands and knees and caused great confusion getting in the way on the stage, hounding Edith as she darted about. The children were followed by Horace in his pink coat riding a hobby horse and miming blowing into his horn. The children crowded Edith into a corner of the stage and she slid to the ground. Then Lavinia entered with a toy bow and arrow and drove an arrow straight at Edith's breast. Throwing up her hands she collapsed in a heap and died a long, drawn out death scene. Mary inwardly rolled her eyes at how much Edith was enjoying being a tragic heroine. Even if she was playing the part of a stag at the same time.
The audience clapped as the actors froze in a tableau before disappearing back stage to get ready for their second scene. Team Crawley huddled together.
“Hunt!” suggested Sybil from her position on the floor. She had found another paper hat and perched it on her head at a jaunty angle. “Kill! Chase!”
“Didn't Edith look ridiculous!” drawled Mary, who was not very good at guessing and had not been watching the scene with the intention of working out the syllable from it.
“Poor Edith!” replied her mother reprovingly, but her lips twitched.
“You're all missing the point!” cried Sybil. “What's the word?”
There was a moment of thought and then Matthew said deeply, “Heart.”
“Heart?” said Robert sceptically. “I don't see it, not in a hunting scene.”
Matthew looked up. “Sybil's suggestions may be right but it's very hard to think of words of which the first syllable could be 'hunt', 'kill' or 'chase'.”
“It's a pun,” he continued, warming to his theme. Mary found she could not help smiling at his keenness. “Cousin Edith is the white hart, you see, but she is also struck in the heart when she is killed. So the syllable's being used twice in the scene in different ways.”
This was very clever and the rest of the team was forced to concede that he might be right. As for Matthew, he chanced to look at Mary and caught her indulgent smile. He raised his eyebrows at her and she flushed and looked away, just as Aunt Rosamund came onto the stage dressed as a man in a military jacket and sat down with a toy drum, miming beating it. However amusing and shocking the image, Mary could not concentrate on it with Matthew sitting only a hair's breath away from her.
A moment later he touched her arm and whispered, “Mary, can we-” He jerked his head towards the back of the room. “I want to talk to you!”
She frowned at him, looked back at the stage as a laugh rose up as Horace reappeared dressed as a policeman and strode pompously up and down. It was all so absurd. She nodded once and stood up and made her way quietly to the back of the room. Thomas, on duty at the door and impassive as ever, opened it to let them out into the hall and shut it behind them, leaving them properly alone together.
Suddenly nervous of standing there with him and being forced to face him, Mary walked up a few stairs and sat herself down, leaning her head against the banister, appreciating its solid coolness. Matthew shoved his hands in his pockets and paced around almost as he had done on stage before saying, “I'm sorry if I embarrassed you, cousin.” For an apology it sounded rather peevish.
She raised her head. “That was what you wanted to say to me?”
“I, er, yes! Isn't it enough? I didn't want to act out that farce any more than you did, so I'm sorry for it.”
“Then I suppose I should apologise for embarrassing you as well,” she replied after a moment, staring at the polished wood of the stairs.
“You didn't,” he said meaningfully and he walked pointlessly from one part of the hall to another.
Mary watched his pacing with a frown. Then she began, “Where-” She cleared her throat. “Where did you get the ring? It belongs to Mama.”
He stopped and pulled the ring out of his pocket again and looked at it, blinking rather stupidly. “Oh. Yes. I know. She just pulled it off her finger and thrust it at me. I had to take it and it was a good idea, I suppose. It's important, isn't it?”
Mary nodded. “Yes. It has been given to every future Countess of Grantham for over a hundred years.” She hesitated and then added with a wry smile, “It will be yours one day.”
“Only to give away!”
She laughed nervously, the sound seeming loud in the stillness of the hallway. “Yes... Here, let me take it. I'll return it to Mama.”
She held out her hand and he stepped onto the first stair in order to reach her. He held the ring suspended for a moment as if he was not quite sure he wanted to give it to her and then placed it on her palm, his fingers accidentally brushing hers. She quickly closed her fist and pulled back her hand, trying to ignore the heat that shot through her at his touch.
Just then, as Matthew quickly stepped back down, the dining room door opened and Carson came out with a tray of glasses. He stopped when he saw them and Mary immediately stood up, not liking to be seen in such an informal position by a servant.
Matthew, his restlessness displaying how ill at ease he was, put his hands back in his pockets and grinned at him. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Carson!” he cried in an overly jovial way.
“Merry Christmas to you too, Sir, and to you, Lady Mary.”
“I hope you and the rest of the servants haven't been working too hard for us, though the dinner was fabulous. Please pass on my congratulations to Mrs. Patmore and everyone else downstairs.”
“I shall do, Mr. Crawley, and thank you. We shall have our own celebrations tomorrow and, if I may be so bold as to say so, we are all very much looking forward to them.”
Matthew nodded. “Good. Excellent. Good.”
Carson prepared to move on but then stopped, briefly raising his eyes to the ceiling before looking back down.
“What is it, Carson?” asked Mary.
He cleared his throat, though his features remained impassive. “You will forgive me for pointing it out, my Lady, if you have already noticed, but have you looked up?”
Matthew and Mary both did so and saw suspended from the ceiling in the gloom right over the bottom of the stairs a sprig of fresh mistletoe. Mary was sure it had not been there that morning but she had to admit she probably would not have noticed it if it had. Why should she have done in a household with two sisters? Mistletoe was put up more for the amusement of the younger servants, not the family.
They looked down at the same time at the space which Carson had occupied a moment previously: he had disappeared behind the green baize door.
The silence was complete. Matthew turned away from her and cleared his throat into his hand and Mary was suddenly fed up. The whole situation was ridiculous: months of avoidance and then the Charades and now this. If the fates had been conspiring to force them to confront each other they could not have managed it better.
“It's a silly tradition,” she said stridently. “Silly and meaningless. We don't have to do anything about it. In fact, it would be better not to encourage it.”
He looked up at her then and raised his eyebrows. “I'm afraid you lack the Christmas spirit, Mary!”
“I fear I must.”
Still he looked at her in that challenging way and her hand gripped the banister. Pressing her lips together in resignation she stepped down to the next stair and sighed in a long suffering sort of way. “Well then, cousin, since you are so determined that we do what is expected of us...”
She leaned forward and aimed her face in the vague direction of his cheek. As she had intended, the air kiss missed and only caught a wisp of his hair. Still, it was very daring and she felt pleased at how shocked he would be that she would even contemplate such a forward act. She brushed smugly past him on the stairs, her confidence rising at the improvement in the dynamic between them as it returned to something like its former teasing nature.
She did not get very far. As she passed him his arm snaked out and caught her right round the waist and pulled her firmly against him. Then he kissed her full on the mouth. Her arms flailed out at right angles as she tried to catch her balance and she was so shocked her eyes remained wide open. It took a second to register what was happening and only then did she become aware of the softness of his lips, the warmth of his hand through her thin dress lying flat on the small of her back, and of the pounding of his heart against hers. Only then did her eyes flutter shut and as they did he dropped his hand, pulled back, and walked right away from her, tugging down on his waistcoat as if by this action he might put himself in order as well as his clothing.
“As you say, cousin, a silly and meaningless tradition,” he commented blandly, his voice steady with only the rapid rise and fall of his chest betraying him.
She stared at him, her mouth slightly open, rendered perfectly speechless. He looked back at her and grinned, a proper grin such as she had not seen on his face when looking at her for ever so long and something in her expression softened imperceptibly.
“I'm going to see how the players are getting on. I want to know if I was right about 'heart'!”
She could not have followed him even if she had wanted to. Her feet were rooted to the spot. She watched him re-enter the drawing room and blinked as if emerging from a fog when the door closed behind him. Matthew had kissed her. It was almost inconceivable, and yet it had happened. She did not know why he had done it or what it could mean but, she realised as excitement began to flood through her veins, she was very much looking forward to finding out. He might have got the upper hand today, it was true, but that was not the most important thing. Mary's lips curved into a smile: the game was on again.