As nineteen twenty three fast approaches, Lavinia is caught in a moment of introspection. The party is loud, so loud that the elderly neighbours next door will be complaining again but at least tonight, the rest of the apartment building and indeed, the city around them, are joining in the festivities.
Her eyes grace her guests in turn, some dancing in the space they've created by pushing their furniture up against the wall, some lingering at the edges of the room, trading conversation. She's overheard several scandalous pieces of gossip that she simply can't wait to tell Mary. Evelyn Myles is in a family way again and the Lancasters are once again sharing the marital bed with their maid. The air is thick with anticipation and smoke and jazz, and as she twists her glass in her fingers, brimming with champagne they can hardly afford, she wonders at how very thoroughly things have changed.
Here they are, far from home and its comforts, old jealousies forgotten and new joys a constant discovery. This new life, these new morals and new affections, deeper than she ever thought possible, still sometimes compels her to take pause, to stare around in awe at all she has become. Sometimes she truly feels as though she has been reborn. The past three years she has been like a babe, innocent and wondering, always learning new things, rejecting old ideas and old taboos. Paris had always been about starting over. They had promised.
Across the room, Matthew is reclining in his chair, holding court with Jimmy Barrow who's well known as a drunkard and the worst cake-eater in town. They look serious though, out of place amongst the liquor-fuelled party around them. She smiles.
Some things don't change.
Finally, her gaze rests on Mary, proof and contradiction of the fact in turns and not just because now Lavinia appreciates how the drop waist of her dress clings to her hips. Certainly, she looks different. Her hair is short and bears the imprints of Lavinia's fingers where she painstakingly set it earlier. And she carriers herself more lightly, smiles more, indulges the wicked side of her that was always there but used to hide behind a title. The rest of her though is exactly the same: she's particular about the company they keep, she's desperately in love with Matthew though she tries to hide the full extent of it, she's endlessly good to Lavinia herself and she loves being the centre of attention if it's for the right reasons.
And she is: dancing in the centre of a circle while onlookers crow get hot, get hot.
Lavinia sips at her champagne and shakes her head, fondly.
When she notes the time, nearly midnight, she sets her glass down on the table beside the gramophone and moves to change the record. A garbled version of Auld Lang Syne, the melody carried by muted trumpets, replaces the faster music of earlier.
And as the tempo picks up and the dancers join it, Mary nudges into her hip.
"You're a wet blanket tonight," she accuses lightly, eyes bright with mischief. "And turn that off darling." Mary plucks the record of her choosing from between Lavinia's fingers. "Come, put this on, dance with me. There's still a full ten minutes before twelve."
And she picks up Lavinia's champagne, swills a mouthful too large to be considered polite in the halls of Downton Abbey, but still small enough to betray her aristocratic upbringing. They're all fallen gentleman and gentlewomen here though, and they all still have their upper class ticks.
Lavinia takes the glass from her hand and finishes the champagne, unmistakeably French and nods. "If I must."
"Oh you must or I will insist." Mary pouts a little, her curls slightly worse for wear for the dancing and kohl starting to smudge at the corner of her eyes.
This is Lavinia's favourite change: that she gets to see this slightly undone version of someone who was once the picture of composure, the reserved and calculatedly polite Earl's daughter. She reaches up and thumbs the rouge Matthew kissed off earlier from the corner of Mary's mouth. "To borrow an expression from our American friends, you're a bearcat when you get going, you know that?"
Mary gives her the kind of sultry look that's a silent, but firmly positive reply and tugs at Lavinia's hand, spins her around and leads her through familiar steps in perfect rhythm.
Somehow, even though it's been a cold European winter, it's hot in their little apartment, alcohol and the promise of change creating tension, a fog that prickles and dews at skin, urging revellers towards scandalous decisions, sex. Lavinia's suddenly aware that they've stopped dancing, of Mary's fingers trailing lazily along the inside of her wrist, of the countdown beginning around them. She tastes her lips in anticipation, chances a glance at Mary from beneath her eyelashes.
She's flushed, cheeks pink from dancing, a sheen clinging to the skin revealed by the ever-plunging necklines that are the fashion these days.
And really, she's never looked more beautiful.
As the clock that hardly ever cuckoos chimes twelve, Mary pulls Lavinia toward her mouth by the long beaded necklace hanging between her breasts and holds her there with one glove-clad hand. Their mouths move in a practiced dance, Lavinia's tongue turning over the taste the champagne they've both been drinking, fingers stroking and stoking heat on the skin bared by the decade's sartorial leanings.
(Dresses bare shoulders, having ever creeping hemlines: Lavinia almost laughs at the thought of what they used to wear).
"Nineteen twenty three," Mary exclaims when they're done, breathless, an inch between their faces.
Every year is exciting in these strange and wild times they live in.
Lavinia hums her agreement. "I've got a feeling it's going to be quite splendid."
Mary laughs, melodically , releases her waist and steps backward, lets a hand curl around her elbow. "Oh Lavinia, you think almost everything is going to be splendid. I do so love that about you. Come on, we had better go and wish Matthew a happy new year. It'll be an excuse to rescue him from that awful Fred Bowles."
Matthew sees them coming, the crowded room parting easily to clear a path for their hostesses. He's beaming up at them by the time they cross the floor, making his excuses to his company and holding out both hands. They each clasp one.
"Quite the party isn't it?" he remarks.
"Oh honey." Mary laughs, leans down to smirk it inches from his ear. "You are bent."
"Only so much as you my dear," he retorts smoothly.
In a synchronised motion that Lavinia is sometimes convinced they practice, they both look up at her.
"Nineteen twenty three," she says, for something to say, cheeks hot at what she sees in their gaze.
"Yes indeed." Matthew nods, squeezes at her hand.
"Bonne année mes cheries," Mary says in perfect French.
She presses her lips to Matthew's cheek and Lavinia bends to do the same. She pulls back though, observes her lovers as they share a more intimate kiss. This is the change she is most grateful for she thinks, letting her fingers glance Mary's shoulder. Blood ties have long been severed in what was, at the time, the scandal of polite British society, but she can't help think that this is the strongest sense of belonging she has ever felt. She has her untraditional Bohemian family, this apartment with its modest furnishings and this foreign city and she has never felt more at home.
Sometimes she thinks the City of Love was made just for them.