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Best Served Cold

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Mary Crawley permitted herself a small private smile as the festivities of her 18th birthday began wrapping up. In truth, she was a tad embarrassed at everything her parents had poured into it. Surely the money could be better used maintaining their land and helping their tenants? But she supposed she couldn’t blame them too much for their excitement, as she was certainly well looking forward to taking a larger place in the world as an adult.

“And one for the old man’s coconut, eh?” Mary’s smile widened as her cousin Patrick approached her.

Mary made a playful shoving gesture. “You know I never liked being bumped, terribly undignified.”

Patrick chuckled. “Always dignified, yes, we know. But surely you can spare a little a bit later on?”

Mary gasped and quickly glanced around at her family and guests, who were luckily all absorbed in their own conversations as they started to leave. She knew exactly what this was about. She and Patrick had gotten very close in her early teens, but he took things further than she expected when he started making strong hints about looking forward to her 16th birthday…and the proper age for intimate relations.

Mary had put him off by saying that while they’d always been raised to believe this was the consenting age, she was planning to wait two more years in deference to the comfort of her American mother. Patrick had tried to convince her that Cora didn’t need to know anything, but she remained firm. She’d hoped those two years would cause him to lose interest and go after a more willing girl, but now it seemed it hadn’t worked, and she suddenly found herself without any excuses.

But before she could even start to process this, Patrick went on. “In fact, I’m very glad we waited, because it’s given me more time to think about what I really want for my life. And what I want is to marry you.” Mary could only helplessly stammer, so he continued. “We’ve been happy together, haven’t we? And this will give you your own title, just like you’ve always wanted, don’t deny it because I know better.”

Mary took another look around before she finally found her tongue. “Patrick…I’m sorry. I don’t love you, it’s as simple as that. And yes, I do want my own title, but I want love too. And so do you, I’m sure. We just wouldn’t be right for each other.”

Patrick took a step back, looking like he’d been slapped. He seemed about to lose his temper, but then took his own look around and stifled it. Still, his voice dripped with surprising rage as he quietly said, “You made me wait all this time, and this is all I get? You’ll pay for embarrassing me like this. I don’t know how yet, but you’ll pay.” And with that he stalked away, leaving Mary shaken at this new side of her cousin she’d never suspected.

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A week later, Mary still couldn’t get Patrick’s threat out of her head. It was starting to seem like the waiting was the worst part, and she was starting to wish he’d just make his revenge already and get it over with.

After tonight, she’d wonder forever after what she was thinking.

Anna, Mary’s recently hired personal maid, entered as usual at this time of night for their preparations for bed. However, this time she said, “Your parents have requested you to come to the library, my lady.”

Upon their arrival, Mary was shocked to see her parents’ faces; both Robert and Cora looked like they’d seen a ghost. And then she saw Patrick sitting at the other end of the room, shooting her a quick grin. Anna turned to go, but Robert said, “You should stay, Anna. This concerns you too.”

The maid turned back, now looking just as confused as Mary was sure she did. “Mama, Papa, what is this about?”

Patrick stood up and walked over in an arrogant saunter. “I knew there had to be some deeper reason why you turned me down, but I never thought it could be something like this.” He turned to Mary’s parents.

Cora finally spoke up. “Mary, your cousin tells us that he’s seen you and Anna...well…”

She didn’t seem able to continue, so Robert abruptly coughed out, “Kissing. Intimately.”

The whole idea was such nonsense that Mary wasn’t able to move a muscle for several seconds. But Anna had no such problem, and gave a gasp before backing up and seeming surprised when she ran into the door.

Mary finally found herself able to turn to Patrick and gave a contemptuous chuckle. “Is this really how far you’ve sunk, Patrick?” She looked at her parents again. “You can’t possibly believe this. I turned down his marriage proposal at my birthday party, and so he’s telling this lie. It’s pathetic, really.”

Cora shook her head. “There’s more, darling.”

“I should say so.” At first Mary simply couldn’t accept the voice she heard coming from where its owner had been hidden in the shadows. But as she stepped into the light, what she accepted no longer mattered.

“Edith?”

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Edith looked at Patrick in shock. “You want me to do this to my own sister? It will ruin her entire life!”

Patrick smirked. “And do you really care so much about that? Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed the way they all talk about you. Poor younger sister Edith, forever doomed to be in her sister’s shadow, the one who took all the looks and charm and left nothing for you. Well, I’ve always found you quite attractive, and I know you’re smart too. So you should see this opportunity for what it is.”

He had hit on exactly what he needed to, not that Edith would admit that to him. “Still, it’s a great risk I’ll be taking, lying to the authorities. I’ll need a bit more out of this for myself, unless you think you can pull it off by yourself.”

Patrick gave a rueful laugh. “Didn’t I just say you were smart? Yes, you have figured me out. I need you for this, more than you need me. All right, how about this: when you come of age, we’ll be married. I stand to inherit the earldom after your father passes, and that will make you a countess. If we play things right, you could rise even higher from there.”

Edith gave a greatly satisfied grin. Another thing she wouldn’t be telling Patrick was that she’d long been attracted to him and greatly jealous at his going after Mary all these years. This was turning out better than she could have hoped.

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Edith glared at Mary and Anna. “I’ve seen the two of them together, several times. I wouldn’t have said anything to damage the family, but she didn’t care. She still threatened to ruin my reputation if I told anyone. Well, if they’ve been so indiscreet that someone else has found out, what’s the point of my keeping quiet?” She stepped closer and sneered at Mary. “I just feel sorry for all those boys who’ve been after you all this time, when you couldn’t respond to any of it.”

Mary was still in silent shock as Patrick replied, “Who would have thought, such a deviant in our own family? Well, I trust the proper thing will happen now.”

Robert turned on him in a rage. “If you think this will turn Cora and I against our daughter, you’re wrong. I could tell you stories about the lads at Eton that would put your hair on end, and they’re some of the finest men I’ve ever known. No, we will stand by Mary, no matter what.”

Patrick seemed surprised and even afraid after the outburst, but quickly regained his composure. “Well, I’m afraid it doesn’t matter what you or any of us think. Homosexuality is illegal in this country, with a penalty of prison time. And I’ve already done my duty and called the police, who should be coming at any minute.”

All eyes except Edith’s turned to him in horror, and then he moved to look out the window. “And look, I believe that’s them turning down the road now.”

Robert promptly turned to Mary. “Whatever is going on, just know that we love you. But for now, you have to leave. There’s nothing else to do to keep you out of prison.” Tears began in his eyes, while beside him Cora seemed about to faint.

Mary knew it was true, but didn’t move just yet. “Anna has to come with me. She’ll get it even worse than I would in prison.”

Anna looked her right in the eyes, in a shocking rarity for a servant, especially when paired with the shaken but determined look on her face. “No, my lady. There’s no time to take anything, and I’d just be another mouth to feed. You’re better off just leaving me here. Now just go!” And in an even more stunning breach of protocol, she actually shoved Mary away from her.

Mary knew she was out of time, and simply ran out into the rear garden without even saying goodbye to anyone. As soon as she was far enough away, she finally let herself cry. Once it was all out, she was able to start thinking about what to do next.

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In the year that had passed since Mary’s escape and Anna’s arrest, Robert and Cora had both seemed like shadows of their former selves. They both suspected the accusations weren’t true, but with Patrick and Edith both refusing to budge there had been nothing they could do. They barely even talked with Edith anymore, and while Sybil was trying her best to get on with everyone, her inability to get a straight answer from any of them had made her sullen and taciturn, often just reading alone in her room.

During his usual perusal of the morning paper at breakfast, Robert suddenly led out a horrified shout and dropped his spoon, taking no notice of its contents splattering on the floor. When no words were forthcoming, Cora ran around the table to see for herself what had caused the reaction. It didn’t take long to find, as a report of the death of a woman later identified as disgraced former heiress Mary Crawley in a carriage accident was a banner headline.

Neither spoke a word for the next few minutes, and there weren’t even many tears. They had cried all those out long before.

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“I’m not going, and you can’t make me!”

Patrick no longer bothered to hide his smugness whenever he achieved a win over an opponent; what the family knew about his disdain for them could no longer hurt him. “Your father gave the earldom to me, and that means I can do whatever I want with you.”

Sybil remained resolute. “I got the truth out of Edith, and I’m going to tell everyone about what the two of you did. You’re not getting away with it, not after what happened to Mary!”

Patrick shook his head. “Could you try to explain it, my dear?”

Edith looked at her sister with just as much contempt. “Who do you think anyone would be more likely to believe? Mother and father couldn’t do anything about it, so what makes you think you can?”

“Because you broke their spirits by what you did to Mary! I’m not like that, and my resolve has just gotten stronger.”

Edith was unmoved. “It’s just too bad none of that matters. The truth is what we’ve made it for a long time now. No one cares about setting anything straight, not as long as we’re the ones in charge.”

Patrick chimed back in. “And who knows, you might be happy at the convent. St. Mary’s, it should help you feel close to your sister. Of course, if you force us to use the authorities to drag you there, that would be a hard first impression to change. This is happening no matter what you do, and the best thing for you is to accept it.”

Sybil spit on the floor between them. “We’re not family. Families don’t do this to each other. And whatever happens to me, I’ll be praying every day that you get what’s coming to you.”

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The Great War had left a scar across the world, wiping out an unspeakable swath of people in all countries involved. But Downton Abbey still stood aloof, unaffected by the destruction as the new Earl and Countess kept themselves isolated from the conflict. Patrick had no problem putting it out of his mind entirely as he discovered an unusual letter in the daily mail.

“Darling, it seems someone has bought Haxby Park.”

Edith perked up. “Bully for them, it would be a shame to see the place go to waste just because the Russells’ son got himself killed. Who is it?”

Patrick kept reading. “Count Donovan. Never heard of him.”

Edith shrugged. “Nor have I. New money, you suppose?”

“It says here he’s holding a dinner party to get to know his new neighbors. Though if he really is nouveau riche, I don’t think it’s worth the time. He’ll probably lose it all soon at the horse track or something.”

They would grow to regret not accepting the invitation.

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Over the next few weeks, rumors abounded about Patrick and Edith’s new neighbors. Count Donovan was said to be fabulously wealthy, and stunningly handsome. However, he declined all efforts to get him to discuss his past, which of course just increased his allure for many. An even bigger mystery was his wife, who only went by the name Aine, and hid her face behind a dark veil, though her quick wit still endeared her to all who had met her. Patrick and Edith found it rather presumptuous, naming herself after an Irish goddess, but the reputation still perked them up, and got them interested in meeting the Count and Countess after all.

All of this was just as they planned, and upon getting a letter inviting them to Downton, Mary presented it to Matthew with a serene expression. “So far, so good.”