Matthew allowed himself to fantasize. As he pointed out the work he had done on the framework of the cottages, as he held out his arm to allow her to precede him inside, as he explained how he hoped the changes he had made would benefit Lord Grantham's tenants, and answered her intelligent questions, he allowed himself to imagine that this was what they did every day. He allowed himself to think that they always worked, planned, schemed, and dreamed together like this. He dared to consider a life where he had the support of Mary at his side every day as he learned to manage the estate. He wondered what it would be like to be able to rely on her as a nearer and more permanent relation than as his cousin.
As they stepped out of the last cottage into the bright sunshine, shielding their eyes from the sudden glare and he closed and carefully locked the door behind them and she silently stared out across the fields, he wondered whether the same ideas had not occurred to her as well.
He came to join her on the other side of the track and stuck his hands in his pockets. "What do you think then, now that you've seen them all?" He was more anxious to be validated by her than he cared to admit.
She looked directly at him. "I think that this work should have been done a long time ago and that you will make a very real difference to the lives of people dependant on our patronage. Congratulations," she added with a warm smile, turning to walk back.
He caught up with her. "So you approve?"
"Of course. More importantly, your future tenants will approve and they are the ones who have to live here."
"You care about them."
"Yes." She frowned at him. "Did you think I didn't? They are my people too. Just because I don't go around throwing myself at the servants like Sybil does not mean I do not care."
He murmured something non-committal, guilty at realising that he had assumed she had not cared, caught out into acknowledging that her interest and enthusiasm for the cottages had surprised him.
She continued, "Had I been born a son this would have been my responsibilty and had I married Patrick-" She broke off and then added more calmly, "It is hard to give up an attitude and on expectations held from birth."
He studied her unobtrusively as they walked slowly down the grassy path. Eventually he said, "You would really have married your cousin just to please your parents?"
She shrugged. "Why not? Edith would have had him if I didn't, and I'd rather have been a countess. Now, I'm not sure."
Matthew was desperate to ask what had changed but did not dare. Nevertheless, she continued with a rueful laugh almost as if he had. "Perhaps I developed a conscience! Who can say?"
"Surely you always had that?" He kept his tone light.
They walked in silence for a few minutes. The early evening sun was warm on their backs and the trees were alive with birdsong. Every now and then their shoulders bumped together and their hands brushed by accident. It should have been idyllic but there was a tension between them that no amount of pastoral charm and simplicity could assuage.
Mary laughed suddenly. "'Love and a cottage! Ah, give me indifference and a coach-and-six!'" she quoted and laughed again.
Somewhat bemused, Matthew stared at her and then joined in her laughter more because he liked its sound and the way amusement transformed her features from still, marble beauty into living warmth than because he understood her.
"Does that appeal to you?" he asked her.
"The quotation, cousin, or the sentiment behind it?" she quipped back.
"It is amusing because it is true."
"That doesn't count as answering my question, Mary!"
He grinned at her but she did not reply, only raising one eyebrow at him, a provocative gesture.
"I think," he said stridently when she did not seem inclined to speak, "that you want me to think you more heartless than you really are."
"Ah, don't you listen? I've already told you: I have no heart!"
"There, my point is proved!"
She smiled and shook her head.
His own heart contracted then and he wished there was some way he could shake her out of such a self-defeating attitude. He was convinced that cousin Mary had more heart and more human feeling than most people he knew and he desperately wanted to be able to touch her and break through the deflecting barriers she had erected all around her soul. He flattered himself that she occasionally allowed him a glimpse beyond the walls but they were few and far between. He treasured these moments with her.
"Mary," he began more gently. His tone caught her attention and she stopped walking and looked at him. For a split second he thought he detected a new warmth in her eyes and then it was gone. "If you had no heart you would not have spent the whole afternoon inspecting workers' cottages. So I do not believe you. But," he added, "your secret is safe with me."
She smiled faintly. "Perhaps the workers were not at the top of my mind when I agreed to spend my time in this way."
He held her gaze. "Perhaps they were not at the top of my mind when I invited you."
Did she blush or was it just the redness of the sun on her cheek? He knew what he wanted and sometimes he was even able to believe that she wanted it too.
It was getting late. He held out his arm to her. "Come. Let's go home."
A man could always dream.