Fandom: Downton Abbey
Summary: Lady Mary Crawley is unable to refuse when her cousin asks her to dance the waltz at Almack's. One-shot Regency AU.
"How in the world did he get in here? He's nothing more than a lawyer!" exclaimed Lady Mary Crawley to her mother as her cousin, Mr. Crawley, entered the Almack's ballroom in a dashing blue coat, every bit the fine gentleman.
"He's also your father's heir and as such is entitled to respect from all of us. As for who sponsored him, Mary, I vouched for him to the patronesses myself."
"You?" she replied, drawing in her breath and staring at the Countess in consternation. "Heavens. So it has come to this."
"It most certainly has come to this!" said Lady Grantham firmly. "And if he should ask you to dance, mind that you accept him. I assume you have space on your dance card?"
This was a low dig, Mary thought. Her dance card always had spaces on it nowadays. In fact, apart from dancing the sixth with Mr. Napier later on, it was completely empty. Four seasons, several high profile refusals and a few whispers among the dowagers about the reasons for these refusals and suddenly she found herself solicited by far fewer partners than in previous years.
"Why bother with me, Mama?" she protested bitterly. "Why not concentrate on Sybil? You might be able to make something of her. Admit it, I should set myself up as old maid and be done with it."
Further round the edge of the room, her youngest sister Sybil, now in her first season, was happily flirting with several young bucks and no doubt completely unaware of her effect on them. Darling Sybil.
"Don't talk nonsense, Mary," hissed her mother in reply. "I don't think you're on the shelf - and neither does Mr. Crawley, for here he comes now."
Mary whipped her head round to see that he was in fact approaching them across the floor. She immediately unfurled her fan and began to waft it in front of her face in an effort to still her suddenly treacherously beating heart.
"Lady Grantham, Lady Mary," began Mr. Crawley, after a low bow. The two ladies curtsied.
"I'm glad to see you have taken advantage of your ticket to Almack's, sir," said the Countess agreeably. "Is this your first time here?"
"Yes, it is; I'm merely relieved that I have managed to dress appropriately; they really are very strict."
He smiled far too much, grumbled Mary to herself, and anyway, who talked about such things in public? The strict dress code indeed! She turned her head away and stared at a spot in the distance.
"You are a credit to the family, Mr. Crawley," simpered her mother, making Mary almost want to throw up. But then again, what would she know - her father had been a banker of no family whatsoever!
"I am honoured you think so, Lady Grantham." He hesitated. "But I fear Lady Mary does not share your high opinion. I would be sorry indeed to lose the good will of any of my cousins on so short an acquaintance. I had hoped indeed," and now he sounded so utterly pathetically diffident it was hard not to sneer, "that Lady Mary would favour me with a dance tonight - but perhaps she is already engaged."
It was on the tip of Mary's tongue to reply that she was already engaged but it would be a lie that would be easily seen through and if she refused one man she would not be permitted to accept another for the rest of the evening. There was no need to look more unpopular than she already was.
So she bestowed a charming smile on him. "I am not engaged for the next dance, Mr. Crawley. But," (she couldn't resist), "it is a waltz and perhaps you only know country dances."
She met his eyes suddenly and was able to see his genuine look of delight turn to something more stubborn.
"I can dance a waltz, Lady Mary."
He held his hand out to her and with one final look of despair aimed at her mother, she was obliged to put her own in it.
For the first part of the dance they were silent. Mary found herself alarmingly overcome at being so close to Mr. Crawley and wished desperately that it had been a country dance. After several years of scorning those stick-in-the-muds who had tried to get the waltz banned, she started to see their point. She had to take his hand - and not just his hand - far more than felt comfortable and it was very hard to avoid meeting his eyes when they rose on the balls of their feet, their arms looped over their heads, so very… so very close together. Their hips grazed each other, their feet rose and fell in time, their faces so close that one of the curls of her hair brushed his cheek at one point.
She could really have done with more partner swapping. Even if that meant Sir Anthony Strallan.
The only thing worse than her distraction and the shortness of her breath was her partner's intense concentration on the dance - and on her, his blue eyes boring into her and never letting her escape. Her throat was dry and she was not sure she could have born it much longer, when his hand slid to her waist as their position shifted and she almost leapt away from him.
Jerking her head away from the imprisonment of his gaze, she said quickly, "I wonder at a lawyer from Manchester being such an accomplished dancer. I wouldn't have thought you'd have time for such frivolous pursuits."
He smiled and his hand on her waist shifted an inch. "I am a lawyer, not a clergyman, Lady Mary, and I do occasionally leave my office."
She raised her eyebrows. "For the assembly rooms, I see. So do many clergymen I know as well; you needn't be so proud of the accomplishment. But no, Mr. Crawley, I took you for more of a romantic in your leisure, pen or brush in hand, cataloguing the sublime."
"As bad as all that? Dear me…" she murmured.
"Well, I am still working on my 'Ode to a Cotton Mill' but if my humble efforts are of interest to you, pray accept a dedication at its publication."
Her lips twitched. "'Ode to a Cotton Mill'? I do believe you are mocking me, Mr. Crawley."
"Lady Mary, I wouldn't dare."
She met his eyes again by accident and had to look away immediately. Heart pounding, she concealed her feelings under replying archly, "Very well, I accept your dedication. Initials only - mind!"
They entered the last phase of the dance and conversation lagged again for a moment. Mary was congratulating herself on having survived and being able to get rid of this jumped-up tradesman in polished dancing pumps who would have the right to turn her out of the house once her father died, when he spoke again.
"I suppose I would be pushing my luck to hope you might not be engaged for the next two as well."
She stared at him, her heart sinking. "You would be, sir."
And yet her dance card was empty.
"I thought as much," he replied, with a smile of friendly regret. It almost looked genuine. "Perhaps later in the evening."
"I don't intend to dance again this evening."
The dance came to an end and they saluted each other before she allowed him to take her arm and lead her slowly to the side of the room.
"I'm sorry," he said.
She frowned. "What on earth for?"
"Because you don't intend to dance again. You do it so beautifully, you see, so I assume I've offended you in some way."
She stopped walking suddenly and raised her eyebrows in surprise. "No," she replied quietly, turning to face him, "you haven't offended me."
All at once she wished she had not spoilt the rest of her evening simply so she could get out of dancing with him. Why did refusing one partner forbid her from dancing with another? A wave of completely futile anger washed over her. She would not have other partners anyway. What was the point?
"Well, I'm glad of that anyway!" continued Mr. Crawley, looking as if he wanted to sympathize with her but was not sure about what. "In that case, may I - would you mind if I sat by you for a little while? Let me procure you some refreshments."
She glanced at where her mother had been joined by her aunt and Mrs. Skelton, gossiping harpies, then back at her cousin who was simply waiting patiently, his entire attention fixed on her face with the most genuine expression of hope and admiration she had seen in a while.
"Very well," she found herself replying, "if you have nothing better to do."
She led the way over to two vacant chairs, not quite missing him mutter behind her, "What could possibly be better?"