11

Mary rested her head on Matthew's shoulder as the car trundled through the London streets towards Painswick House on Eaton Square. It had been a long day. A long week, really. The whirlwind of wedding preparations in the last few days had fallen largely upon Mary to manage, with Mama and Granny and Isobel to advise her, and she hadn't ceased moving since she'd risen this morning. First all the personal preparations, then the carriage ride through the village, the ceremony, the reception at the house—even with the smaller affair, there were still so many people to see—then weathering the tearful good-bye from Mama before finally taking the afternoon train to London. She had been unable to fall asleep during the trip, despite the privacy of their car and Matthew's encouragement, and now it was nearing the dinner hour.

Mary couldn't say that she was truly hungry, although she knew she ought to be; instead, she felt a strange sort of weary anticipation. She didn't really want to dress for dinner but there was nothing for it. The evening would play out as expected. She looked forward to finally being alone with Matthew after dinner and she knew what was to come, but what she wished for most was the moment when she could curl up in his arms, warm and content under the covers, and fall asleep.

The car jolted over a rough patch and she drew in a sharp breath and sat up. Matthew's hand squeezed hers, where she was resting her palm on his thigh, and she smiled and ran her thumb against his leg. He tilted his head to press a kiss against her lips and she acquiesced, lifting her mouth to meet his for a moment.

"We're nearly there," she sighed, returning her head to his shoulder.

"You're tired," he said.

She straightened. "I'm fine."

He chuckled. "Of course you are."

She gave him a look and he laughed and kissed her cheek.

"It's all right; I don't mind," he said. She shot him a look of disbelief, but he just smiled and looked ahead again. "I am too."

"Oh, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have let Aunt Rosamund have her way. Manchester would have been so much easier for you," she said, giving his leg a fond caress.

He shrugged. "It was kind of her," he said. "And it does make some things much easier: we don't have to make arrangements for the house."

"Mm. Mead will have things well in hand," Mary said, smiling. "Besides, Aunt Rosamund loves any excuse to be back at Downton. I can understand that." She frowned.

Matthew looked at her. "You don't have to leave it yet."

"No, I know. It's just… It won't be the same anymore." She paused. "It's not the same without you." She looked at him in surprise. "When did that happen? When did Downton become less to me, somehow? It used to be everything…" She trailed off, frowning. "Pay me no attention, darling. I'm becoming a sap."

Matthew laughed. "Now that's a strange thought: Lady Mary Crawley, a sentimentalist."

She shot him a look and slapped her fingers against his thigh, briefly dislodging his hand. "I'm just tired; my defences must be down."

"Good."

She raised her eyebrows, but he just grinned at her in a way that made her want to smile back, so she looked away with a shake of her head. She saw her aunt's house come into view as the car turned a corner, and she made a sound of relief. Dusk was fast approaching over Belgravia; the sun would likely have set by the time they finished dinner. They would have this night together, undisturbed, and the next six days to do with as they wished. Matthew was to report for Army training on Thursday morning. It was far too brief a time, but Mary was determined to enjoy it, to enjoy him.

If everything went well and the papers were right, this war would be over by Christmas and she'd have him home to herself soon enough. Her new sibling would likely be born by then and they would know whether they were to stay at Downton or to strike out on their own. Perhaps Mary herself would be pregnant by then. She felt a small thrill at the thought of being able to hold her own child in her arms, to share such moments with Matthew. He would be a splendid father. Before him, she'd never had a particular desire for children, but she found that what she wanted was slowly changing. She wasn't desperate to be a mother any time soon, but she was no longer quite so indifferent to the prospect. It was a novel sensation. She smiled, happy. She was in the waiting room no longer.

The car pulled up to the kerb and she waited as Matthew stepped down and turned to give her a hand out. Mead was standing in the entryway and he gave them a slight bow as they came up the steps, Mary's hand resting in the crook of Matthew's elbow.

"Lady Mary, Mr Crawley," Mead said, standing aside as they crossed over the threshold. "Welcome. Dinner will be served in half an hour, if that will suit."

Matthew, who had been taking in the room, glanced at Mary.

"That will be fine, Mead, thank you," she said. Mead nodded and turned to the footman who was standing beside him. "James will show you to your rooms. Anna is waiting for you upstairs, Lady Mary. Shall I see to your bags?"

"I didn't bring any," Mary said.

"I have something in the boot, though," Matthew said.

"Very good, sir," Mead replied. "I'll have it sent up."

At Mary's nod, James went ahead of them up the staircase and Mary slipped her hand free of Matthew's arm to ascend the steps. She was shocked a moment later to feel his hand rest briefly on her bottom and she immediately twisted to look back at Mead and glance hurriedly about the foyer. If someone had seen! But there was no one there to do so: Mead had gone out to the car and the foyer was empty behind Matthew. She still shot him a look of intense censure, but he merely grinned. Feeling heat rise in her neck—not to mention tingling in the spot that his hand had touched—she turned stiffly back around and continued up the stairs, following the oblivious footman.

"This is your room, my lady," James said, gesturing to a door that was stood open. Anna appeared in the doorway a moment later with a wide smile on her face. Her uniform was different now: all black, indicating her new status as a lady's maid.

"How was your trip, my lady?"

"Good," Mary answered. "How did you and Molesley fare?"

Mary heard James and Matthew continue on down the hall behind her. "And this is your dressing room, sir," James said, before their voices faded out.

"No difficulties," Anna said, going into the room ahead of her. "Most of the gowns came through without needing much pressing."

Mary smiled. Of course Anna had done a first-rate job of packing her clothing.

"So how was the reception?" Anna asked, taking Mary's handbag and helping her out of her jacket.

Mary smiled. "Better than I was expecting, actually. My cheeks are still a bit sore from all that smiling."

Anna chuckled. "I'm so happy for you, my lady."

Mary smiled again and then sighed as she stepped out of her shoes.

"Is everything quite all right?" Anna asked.

"Yes, it's just been a long day, even if it has been good one. I confess that I'm more eager to sleep than to eat at the moment."

Anna giggled. "You'd better not tell Mr Matthew that."

Mary laughed. "He's tired, too."

The sceptical look Anna gave her made her laugh again, but then she sobered. She turned to allow Anna to unbutton the back of her blouse.

"Are you nervous?" Anna asked quietly.

Mary turned her head to speak over shoulder. "Oh...no. Not really."

"That's good," Anna replied. "I'm sure you've nothing to worry about."

Mary nodded, looking straight ahead again. The last few days had been a whirlwind of preparations, and now...now the moment that they'd been preparing for was nearly upon them. The beginning of the rest of their lives together.

She smiled over her shoulder again at Anna, who unfastened her skirt and knelt down, holding it open. Mary stepped out of it and turned around.

"Anna, I've been so pleased with your efforts these last few days. I'm certain that without your calm competence and keen eye for detail, today would not have gone off nearly as well as it had."

Anna smiled. "It was truly my pleasure, my lady."

Mary looked at the gown that Anna had hung beside the wardrobe. Mary had intended to have a new ensemble made for her honeymoon, but the dressmaker had not been able to finish the order with so little notice, understandably, and Mary had settled for selecting clothing from what she already owned. She knew that Matthew liked this gown, the cream-coloured one with the low back. She remembered the distinct sensation of his gaze on her when he'd come to explain about the entail. That was the night that she'd begun to see him not merely as an interloper, but as a person, a man with a kind face and a gentle manner. She smiled; she liked this dress too. She thought it set her dark hair and eyes in a good light.

Anna set about making her presentable for dinner. Mary wanted a minimum of fussing. It was only Matthew, after all, and she suspected that he would be perfectly content if she were to appear for dinner in a nightgown and slippers. She smirked to herself as Anna laced her up: he might actually prefer it. Then the thought struck her: the equivalent for him was…what? The idea of Matthew in pyjamas and a bathrobe brought to mind both the comfort of her father's presence when she'd had nightmares as a child and also the image of Kemal entering her room that night, sending both fear and arousal through her. She closed her eyes, forcing that image away. Not this night. This night was theirs. She swallowed and opened her eyes again.

"There," Anna said, stepping back.

Mary turned to look at her. "Thank you, Anna," Mary said. "Truly. For everything."

"You're not quite finished yet, my lady," Anna said, clearly suppressing a smile. At Mary's look of confusion, Anna gestured past her towards the vanity. The necklace and earrings that went with the dress were laid out neatly there. Mary gave a self-deprecating laugh and sat and fastened them—Anna assisting with the necklace—and patted her hair. It was still in place, despite the day's travel, and she smiled. "I do believe I'm ready to go down now. Would you agree?"

Anna smiled. "You look lovely."

"I suppose I shall have to be content with that," Mary smiled, pleased with her reflection in the mirror, and rose to her feet. "You've done a first-rate job."

"Thank you, my lady. Will that be all?"

"Yes." Mary gave her a final nod and crossed the room to open the door, but she turned suddenly at the knock that came from behind her. She looked back at the door that must lead to Matthew's dressing room and paused. "Come," she said, willing her voice to be steady. She'd never once had a man enter her bedroom through the connecting door. Even her father only ever came through the main door. She had not thought of all the small ways in which her daily life would change, now that she was married. She'd known of this one, of course, but to face its reality…

The door opened and Matthew appeared, dressed in his tails and looking, as usual, just slightly uncomfortable in them. He smiled and she smiled back.

"You look marvellous," he said, his eyes travelling over her. "I've always liked that dress."

Anna slipped out of the room, moving past Mary through the half-opened door behind her.

Mary smiled. "I know."

"Really?" he asked, crossing the room to her.

"You've not exactly hidden your appreciation of it," she said dryly.

He chuckled and shook his head, running his hands down her gloved forearms. "And I thought I was doing so well." He lifted her hands and pressed a kiss to the back of each one before releasing them.

"Oh," she said, starting to feel as though she wasn't sure what the conversation was about any longer and not minding in the least. "You are…"

His smile made her feel warm and she met him eagerly when he moved in for a kiss. She wasn't supposed to, she thought. They were supposed to go downstairs and— She drew in a sharp breath when she felt his fingertips run across the bare skin on her back and she arched involuntarily against him. His light touch felt so good, more pleasurable than any touch she'd felt before, and this realisation surprised her. She had not expected to feel something new. He hummed against her lips and she closed her eyes as they continued to kiss. After a moment, he pulled away slightly.

"This is why I like this dress," he said, his voice a low rumble, and she shivered with pleasure at the sound. "I've wanted to do this since the first evening I saw you in it."

She laughed. "I'd wondered what you were thinking..."

He chuckled and bent to kiss her neck, his arms pulling her closer against him, and she moaned without meaning to. At this rate, they were never going to make it down to dinner, and she absolutely would not give Aunt Rosamund's servants any reason to take note of their behaviour. It was enough that the household knew this was their wedding night; Mary would not be their entertainment as well. She could not call what she and Matthew were doing shameful, exactly, not now. Oh God, not now… She so wanted to stay in this moment, shiver against her husband, run her hands over his— She pulled herself back.

"We must go down to dinner," she said, and nearly laughed at Matthew's answering groan.

"Must we?"

"You would put all of Molesley's efforts to naught?" she asked, extricating herself from Matthew's arms, as loathe as she was to do it.

"Gladly," he said with a grin, reaching for her again. She squirmed out of his grasp and shot him a quelling look. He sighed and straightened, tugging his waistcoat. He gave her a mocking demi-bow and gestured with an arm. "After you, darling."

She found that her earlier weariness had quite disappeared. Now, instead of merely wanting to fall asleep in his arms, she had the challenge of keeping her mind off the sudden urge to do something far different to him. Not this again, she thought. She would not let this night be sullied; she would do this properly and seek to not disappoint him. The first step in her plan was to go downstairs and take the opportunity to regain her equilibrium. They would eat a civilised dinner and then come back upstairs, change into their nightclothes, and proceed with the evening. She pulled open the door and went out into the hallway, Matthew close on her heels. She stiffened suddenly as she felt his fingertip run down her spine.

"Matthew!" she hissed, twisting and shooting him a look.

He raised his eyebrows, an expression of studied innocence on his face. His hands were at his sides as if they always had been. "Yes?"

She intensified her look of disapproval, but he merely smirked. Turning away, she strode quickly down the hall to descend the stairs, fighting the urge to push him against a wall and kiss him, hard. She heard his soft chuckle behind her and she pressed her lips together. He was not making this easy. His newfound, playful boldness beckoned to her, surprising and intriguing her and promising a great deal more. She wanted to repay him in kind, but this left her feeling conflicted. What was he expecting of her? She must be careful.

They entered the dining room and Mead indicated their seats. Dinner proceeded in proper fashion, with only the minimal conversation necessary as James and Mead offered them small trays of well-apportioned courses and kept their glasses filled. Mary resisted letting Matthew catch her eye throughout, for fear that if she did, she would lose her composure. They ate in silence for several minutes and then Matthew said:

"Lovely weather we're having, wouldn't you say?"

Mary raised her head and looked at him with wide eyes. He'd fixed a bland expression on his face, but his eyes were twinkling at her.

She couldn't very well tell him off with Mead watching, so she took a sip of her wine, dabbed at her mouth with her napkin, and said, "This morning was quite nice, but it seems likely to rain tonight."

It was no more likely to rain than to snow on this summer evening and Matthew knew that. He smiled and took another bite.

Mary returned to her meal, not wishing to be at odds with him, and cast about for a suitable topic of conversation. "I thought we might see a show," she said. "One of the new follies, perhaps?"

Matthew nodded. "Or we could visit the opera." He looked across at the butler. "Do you know what's being performed, Mead? Is the D'Oyly Carte Company in residence right now?"

Mead shook his head. "No, but A Midsummer Night's Dream is at the Savoy, sir," Mead said. "The production is quite…invigorating. Would you like me to secure tickets?"

"Invigorating?" Mary asked with a smile. "That sounds dangerous."

Mead's eyes had lit up. "There are several elements of the staging that breathe fresh life into Shakespeare's classic comedy."

"You've seen it, I take it?" Matthew asked, grinning.

Mead had the grace to look briefly abashed before he straightened and became the consummate butler once again. "More than once, sir, yes."

"Well then!" Matthew looked at Mary, who smiled and nodded to Mead.

"Yes, that would be perfect." She looked back at Matthew. "Would tomorrow night suit?"

"Yes."

"Very good, my lady," Mead replied. "I'll see that it's done."

"Thank you, Mead," Mary said.

"Have you seen it?" Matthew asked her. "I enjoyed it when a company came through Manchester a few years back."

"Yes, it's very droll," Mary replied, and Matthew chuckled.

They returned to their meal. When their plates were cleared, Mead came over to offer the dessert tray, but Matthew put up a hand.

"I find that I'm quite full," he said, glancing at Mary before looking up at Mead. "Would it be possible to have dessert sent up later?"

Mary shot Matthew a look but he just smiled at her. She frowned at him; he was being so terribly obvious!

"Of course, sir," Mead replied, his expression unchanged. "Shall I wait for you to ring?"

"No; I don't think that will be necessary," Matthew answered, putting his napkin on the table and starting to push his chair back. "What is the cook's name?"

"Mrs Andrews."

"Please pass my compliments on to Mrs Andrews. The fish was delicious. An excellent meal."

Mary murmured her agreement, having no choice but to follow Matthew's lead. She stood up as he moved to stand beside her chair.

Mead smiled. "I will tell her, sir. I'm sure she'll appreciate your saying so."

Mary was certain that Mead knew exactly what Matthew was doing and she felt a warm flush of embarrassment. No dessert, no after-dinner drink for Matthew while she retired; it was all so irregular! She lifted her chin and gave the butler a cool nod as she moved past him, through the door that he held open. Matthew paused for a moment to exchange a few words with Mead and then caught up with her after she had crossed the foyer and reached the staircase. They mounted the stairs together, this time with no clandestine caresses, to Mary's relief—and, frustratingly, also regret. When she reached her bedroom door, she went inside and frowned when her attempt to close it behind her met with unexpected resistance. She turned, surprised to see Matthew slip in and close the door.

"What are you doing?" she demanded. "Aren't you going to undress?"

"Yes," he said, advancing on her with a grin. She took a step back and held up her hands.

He stopped moving. "What's wrong?"

"Won't Molesley be waiting for you?" She inclined her head in the direction of the dressing room.

Matthew began moving again. "No. I told Mead that we won't have further need of Molesley or Anna this evening."

Mary rolled her eyes. "God, Matthew, could you be any more obvious?"

He chuckled as he reached her and he put his hands on her waist. "I don't know how your kind of people do it," he said. "But I am done with this charade."

But the soft kiss he placed on her lips belied his words. From his manner, she'd been expecting something along the lines of how Kemal had pushed her against the wall with the force of his kiss, but Matthew wasn't Kemal. Mary closed her eyes. She did not want this night to be littered with comparisons to Kemal. She wanted Matthew, and only Matthew. She opened her eyes again and saw that he was looking at her with a curious expression. She mentally kicked herself and gave him a wide smile.

At this, he frowned and took his hands away from her waist. "What's wrong?"

"What? Nothing. Nothing's wrong. What a silly idea!" She realised that she was babbling, so she straightened and went on the offensive. "I'm just taken a bit by surprise. I'd rather expected a few minutes after dinner to gather myself, prepare, settle my nerves. This 'charade', as you call it, has its uses, you know."

Matthew glanced at the door. "I can ring for Anna, if you'd like," he said.

Mary raised her eyebrows, by now beginning to contemplate the prospect of what he was offering. "I think it's rather too late for that, don't you?"

He smiled, although there was still uncertainty in his eyes. "I don't mean to rush you, Mary. I'm terribly sorry."

He half-turned and exhaled, then lifted a hand as though to run his fingers through his hair but he stopped suddenly, probably because of the pomade, she realised. She found the gesture oddly endearing; it suggested something of him that she had never seen before: he was nervous, not entirely in control of himself. She began to have an inkling of an idea; she wanted to put him at ease.

"I couldn't bear another minute in that dining room," he said, his eyes flickering over her before he looked away. "Watching you but not being able to touch you." He looked back again, and she could see the effort he was making to respect her wishes. "I'll just— go change."

He started to move past her towards the door to his dressing room, but she put out a hand and told herself that this was allowed, for it was no more than she had done with him before now. She grasped his lapel and pulled him towards her, moving her hands up quickly to hold his face as he spun in surprise, and she kissed him with determination. He was nervous but he didn't need to be; she much preferred his confidence when he took the initiative. She had just been caught out, that was all, she tried to tell him in the kiss. She didn't want him to go. If he wanted them to undress together, then she would do it. She was his wife; she would trust him and try it, even though it was not what she'd expected. They would prepare together, rather than apart. The thrill of the unknown, of discovering him and exploring the freedom that lay in relaxing propriety, excited her. She poured all of this awareness, decision, and desire into the kiss, apologising for her earlier resistance. It was just the two of them, finally able to be husband and wife without any impediment but that which they introduced themselves. They would be separated soon enough: in this moment, she wanted to be united with him.

He broke free of the kiss, his breathing ragged, and laughed. "God, Mary!"

She kissed him again to shut him up and he responded. She paused to catch her breath and relied on his arms to steady her, and he rested his forehead against hers. They swayed for a moment and then laughed quietly together. He buried his face in her neck and hugged her tightly. She felt a slight tremor in his frame and closed her eyes, tears burning along their edges.

"I'll do whatever you like, Matthew. Please just be patient with me," she said in a near-whisper.

He laughed, exhaling shakily, and pulled back, still holding her close as she looked at him. He swallowed and then his lips parted and his chest rose and fell as he looked at her in something akin to wonder. She blinked rapidly and smiled at him, wanting so terribly much to feel him relax. She moved her arms and he loosened his hold enough to allow her to reach up and cup his cheeks, stroking her thumbs across his face.

"I would ask the same of you, darling. Although," he said, closing his eyes. "I'm afraid that patience is not my strong suit at the moment." He opened his eyes with a wry smile.

"What is it?" she asked in amusement.

He swallowed. "I'd like nothing more than to divest you of this lovely gown and properly make you my wife with as little delay as possible." Mary drew in a breath at his words and at the way his eyes travelled down, his gaze finally lingering on the swells of her breasts.

He looked back up at her and smiled, drawing in a deep breath and straightening. "But what would you like to do?"

"I would," she glanced up at his hair, "like to help you undress. As a valet would. I'm curious."

"Really?"

Mary looked down at his shirtfront. Kemal had given her no warning, no time to prepare. She'd felt rushed, cornered; she'd known that she needed to seize the moment and embrace it fully, once she'd decided to go through with it, or the opportunity would be lost. But there was none of that urgency with Matthew—although she was aware of his eagerness—and she wanted to savour this evening, not rush through a few hurried minutes. She smiled at him.

"Yes, really."

"And may I do the same with you?" he asked. "I'm also curious."

"Certainly," she said.

"Well then," he stepped back with a grin. "Let's get to it!"

He took her hand and led her to his dressing room, where he gave her a final, appraising look, drew in a breath, and tugged his bow tie loose. He let go of her hand and she watched as he ran his fingers under his stiff collar and it sprang out on one side. The image of the polished gentleman was thus dispensed with and she smiled. He returned her smile and then handed her the tie and the collar.

"Where do I put these?" she asked.

He shrugged. "Anywhere, I suppose. Molesley will take care of them."

Mary glanced about and decided to leave them on the side table under the window. When she turned around, Matthew held out his tailcoat. Mary took it, noting its weight. She ran her hand over the fabric, appreciating its smoothness and the coolness of the satin facings. When she looked at him in question, he tilted his head towards the wardrobe as he started to unbutton the neck of his shirt. She crossed to the wardrobe and opened the doors, inspecting its contents. Once she had gained her bearings, she took out a clothes-hanger and settled the coat on it, carefully smoothing the shoulders and the lapels, before hanging it in the wardrobe.

Matthew chuckled. "You'd make a fine valet; that was Molesley to a tee."

Mary smiled and turned around ready to speak, but her response died on her lips at the sight that greeted her. Matthew had thrown his waistcoat over a nearby chair and shrugged off his braces, which now hung at his hips. His shirt was untucked and unbuttoned and he was just then working at the buttons on his cuffs. Her attention was caught by his newly-exposed chest and stomach, and she noted the light brown hair and the paleness of his skin. So unlike— So beautiful. She wanted to run her hands over what she saw.

He looked up as he finished his cuffs and he seemed about to shrug off his shirt when he paused and smiled, taking her in. He turned and picked up the waistcoat from the chair and held it out towards her. When she did not immediately move, he said:

"Shall I bring it to you, then?"

She roused herself and walked over to him, quickly taking the waistcoat, but she wasn't looking at it. He pulled off his shirt. She tore her eyes away from him as he handed it to her and she started to neatly drape the shirt over the waistcoat on her arm, but she gave a start a moment later when he stole a kiss. She took a step back and raised her chin, fighting a smile.

"Mr Crawley! I'm surprised at how your treat your valet!"

He chuckled and turned away from her, moving towards the bathroom. "When my valet stares at me in such an unrestrained fashion, I can hardly be blamed for it."

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," she said primly, admiring his back and shoulders as she crossed the room to lay the discarded clothing on a shelf in the wardrobe. She decided to put the bow tie and collar there as well; Molesley would certainly know what to do with it all when he found it, she thought. She heard water running and peeked into the small side-room, curious. Matthew was stood before the sink, his hands under the taps. When he was satisfied, he left the water running and took a small bottle off the shelf before him, squirting something into his palm. He rubbed his hands together and then ran them through his hair. She watched in fascination. "What's that?"

"Oil," he said, wetting his hands and then turning off the taps. He poured a bit of powder shampoo into one palm and then glanced at her in the mirror as he lathered his hands. "I'll need a towel in a moment," he said, and started vigorously rubbing his scalp.

While she located the towel, he started to splash water into his hair: she realised that he'd filled the sink. She watched from a safe distance as he cleaned the pomade out of his hair and she waited for the moment when he needed the towel. When he finished, his eyes closed and his face dripping, he held out his hand. She silently gave him the towel and he rubbed his face and hair, then draped the towel round his neck and ran his fingers through his hair several times with a sigh of contentment. She watched him move and listened to the small sounds he made, entranced by this view into his domestic routine. Everything she'd done with Kemal had been in the dark, but here Matthew stood in the room's light, not even explicitly seducing her, and she was more eager and more comfortable than she had expected. She felt something in her begin to relax and she smiled.

He turned, pulling the towel down to dry his hands, and he gave her an appraising look, also smiling.

"What?" she asked.

"Just you," he answered, and he came close and kissed her with a contented sigh. "You were right: this charade does have its uses."

"This isn't a charade," she said. He chuckled and acknowledged her words with a wry nod. He held out the wet towel. She smirked at him and took it, enjoying the tousled, damp blonde locks that fell on either side of his face. There was something about this look that said more about their new intimacy than even his state of undress. She reached up and ran her fingers through his hair, curious, and he closed his eyes and rested his hands on her waist as she did so. "I like it," she said.

"Good," he answered, opening his eyes. He kissed her again, then drew back with a smile. "I'm nearly done, and then we can see to you." The look in his eyes made her shiver with anticipation.

He turned back to the sink and started the water again. She looked around for clues as to what she should do with the towel. Finding none, she decided to put it with his discarded clothing in the wardrobe. After she had done so, she returned to the bathroom and looked up in surprise at the sound of Matthew brushing his teeth as the sink drained.

"I hadn't expected you to be this thorough," she commented. He spat and filled a cup with water, took a sip, and spat again, still holding the toothbrush.

"You object?" he asked, wiping his mouth.

"No, not at all! I just…" she paused, realising that soon he was going to watch her. "No one really watches me do this, not even Anna."

He smiled. "I won't take offence if you don't want to watch this," he said.

"Do you need my help with anything else?" she asked, glancing down at his trousers. "Do you want me to bring your…pyjamas?"

He shook his head. "I can manage on my own. If you'd like to start your preparations, I'll be over shortly."

Mary nodded. She gave him a small smile, which he returned.

"Just to be perfectly clear," she said as she reached the doorway and looked back at his reflection, arching an eyebrow, "do not expect me to touch your soiled clothes in future."

He laughed. "Understood."

She gave a satisfied nod and strode out, crossing the dressing room and entering the bedroom. She rummaged about in the dresser until she found the nightgown and robe she'd planned to wear this evening. It was a thinner fabric than anything else she owned and was positively daring; she smiled at the thought of wearing it for him. She carried it into the en-suite bathroom and left it on a shelf, then inspected what Anna had laid out. She nodded, satisfied. Everything was in its place. She'd never brushed her teeth while wearing an evening gown before, but as it would be difficult to remove the gown by herself, she would just have to make do. She pulled off her gloves and left them near the nightgown, then busied herself with her nightly ablutions.

Matthew padded into the bedroom a few minutes later, having removed his shoes and braces but not his trousers or socks. She glanced at him in the mirror as he approached, admiring what she saw. He crossed his arms and leaned against the doorframe, watching her dab at her face. She proceeded deliberately, determined that his presence would not distract her from making herself comfortable, studiously ignoring the fact that the moment was already unusual as she was still formally dressed. When she was done washing up, she removed her heels and carried them past him out of the room; he stood back to let her pass.

"What should I do?" he asked.

She held out the shoes and pointed across the room. "Would you put these over there?"

He did as she asked and by the time he'd returned, she'd seated herself at the vanity and was removing her necklace and earrings. She laid them in their case and then lifted her knees with some discomfort and tugged off her stockings, balling them up and dropping them on the floor. He crouched down beside her and picked them up with a laugh.

"You don't hand these to your maid, I take it?"

"Not usually," she replied, unfazed by his implied rebuke. "Anna usually just trails around behind me, gathering things up."

He laughed again. "That I can easily imagine."

She sighed, feeling pinched by her corset after tugging off her stockings, and stood. "Would you unlace me?"

"Gladly," he answered. "But where should I put these?"

Mary frowned; she'd never really thought about what Anna did with her discarded clothing. It just reappeared later, cleaned. "The shelf in the bathroom, beside my other things."

While Matthew found the shelf, Mary considered loosening her hair, but decided against it: it would only complicate the process of unlacing her gown. Anna preferred to do her hair last. When Matthew returned, Mary presented her back to him and her bare skin tingled with the memory of his earlier touch. She glanced over her shoulder as he bent behind her with a slight frown.

"Let's see…" he murmured. She felt him tug on something at her side and then heard "Ah!" and she felt the familiar loosening of the gown's shoulder panels. He worked through the laces surprisingly quickly. A moment later, his fingernails brushed against her back as he grasped the top of her dress and tugged the zipper steadily down. Her skin prickled as she recalled just how far down the zipper went. She wanted him to do something provoking, but he did not; when he finished, he merely stepped back from her and waited. She twisted and looked at him, one eyebrow raised. He was looking down at her back in some consternation.

"What?" she asked.

"That looks uncomfortable," he said with a slight frown.

"The price of beauty," she replied, shrugging her shoulders out of her gown. He made an unconvinced sound but said nothing.

She shimmied out of the garment, careful not to catch the gauzy fabric on her corset. She couldn't bend down to properly step out of the gown, not with her corset still on, and she didn't want to drop the dress on the floor, so she stood waiting for a moment. This was usually where Anna stepped in to assist. Mary turned and beckoned to him with a toss of her head and a smile.

"I'm afraid I'm about to be a terrible maid," he said, hanging back.

"You've not done badly yet," she said, trying to reassure him with a smile. "Here, would you hold this for me?"

He sank to one knee and grinned up at her as he took the gown out of her hands. "That's not what I meant," he said. He held the gown carefully as she stepped out of its circle, gathering her chemise about her legs to make sure she didn't step on the dress.

"Thank you," she said, letting go of her chemise. "What did you mean?"

Mary watched him stand up with the armful of evening gown and she smiled as he tried to figure out what to do with the yards of fabric. She took pity on him and pointed at the dressing room. "It's probably best to lay it out on the bed in there," she said.

He made a sound of agreement and moved to do so. Mary put her hands on her hips as he left the room. Her gaze fell on the bed in front of her and her mind was suddenly filled with the image of having him underneath her there, at her mercy. Her body responded with the sensations to match the image and she ached with the desire to realise it. She wanted to be in control this time. She turned away from the bed suddenly and closed her eyes, rubbed her brow. Would he let her do that or would it be too forward? She wanted to so terribly much, but would it reveal something better left hidden? She thought that perhaps a virgin bride would be more passive, more easily led, but her desires ran in quite the opposite direction, so much so that she feared that they encroached on the shameful. Baser images flooded her now and she felt warm, too warm. She wanted this corset to be removed. She tried to reach behind herself and find the ties, but her movements were awkward and frustrated by the stiffness of the garment. She felt a burn begin behind her eyes but she refused to allow tears. She would not commence her wedding night by crying.

"Let me," Matthew said from behind her, covering her tugging hands with his own larger ones. She straightened and drew in a breath, stopped from full satisfaction by the damned corset. Her body dreamed of its freedom and she closed her eyes and waited as Matthew inspected the corset and then began loosening its laces. The moment she felt it give way enough for her to unhook the front panels, she did so, and immediately drew in a full breath. She'd not felt short of breath until just a few moments ago, but now her heart was beating more quickly and she needed to be free of constriction.

She slipped off the shoulder straps and pulled her arms out of the garment, handing it to him. Her eyes closed, she gloried in the freedom of movement and the lack of pressure on her skin for several long seconds, turning to face him as she did. When she next opened her eyes, she found that he was still standing there, his mouth slightly open as he watched her. He wasn't holding her corset. She glanced down, surprised, and saw that he'd laid it on the seat in front of the vanity.

He swallowed and met her eyes. "What would the maid do now?"

Mary blinked and considered him for a moment, then smiled. "She would stand ready to take my chemise and give me my nightgown." She gestured towards the bathroom, where her nightgown remained on the shelf.

He took a step closer, ignoring where she was pointing.

"This is where I fail to meet those standards," he said in a low voice, slipping his arms around her and leaning down for a kiss.

She had a brief moment to note the novelty of how much taller he was, now that they both stood at their natural heights, before his lips met hers. Although his embrace quickly became gentle, she'd felt the initial pressure he had used before relaxing his arms. He was restraining himself and she didn't want him to. She didn't want to restrain herself either and she was hungry to discover who he truly was. Perhaps encouraging him to relinquish some of his self-control would give her a clue as to how much she might be permitted to relinquish as well.

She put her hands on his waist, feeling the smoothness and warmth of his skin and the strength of the muscles under it. She traced them with her palms and ran her fingers over his back, matching his embrace and smiling as she felt him shiver under her touch. As she had hoped, his arms tightened around her and his kiss deepened and he gave a low hum. She smiled and briefly broke the kiss, angling her head differently to meet him again, and let herself revel in the sensations that their movements together evoked.

Her eyes still closed, she felt him lower his head to kiss under the edge of her jaw and she sighed with pleasure, warming and excited to finally be moving this night forward. She was done with her preparations and he with his; she was ready and what he was doing felt so good. She melted against him, acquiescing to whatever he wished to do, her breath coming in short gasps. His quiet moans of pleasure sent shivers through her; she dearly loved learning these sounds. She felt a laugh bubble up as he pushed one shoulder of her chemise aside and showered warm attention on her newly-exposed skin.

She was steadying herself now with one arm draped behind his neck, her hand splayed on the back of his shoulder, enjoying the movements of his muscles under her palm. Her other hand moved up to thread through his damp hair and she ran her nails over his scalp, enjoying the new sounds he made as she did this. He ceased his kissing and sank against her slightly with a relaxed moan. She drew in a long breath: he smelled clean and warm and eminently appealing and she smiled, then caught herself with a gasp as she felt his hand move up to cup the side of her breast. He hummed and pulled back to look at her. She smiled up at him and together they looked down at what he was doing. His tentative explorations quickly elicited small shocks of pleasure and she responded; he kissed her again with a soft chuckle.

Oh God, she'd had enough of this slow waiting. It was difficult to recall why she should feel shame when she was flooded with such an eagerness to take him on her own terms. He'd never seemed the least bit put off by her challenging him before; in fact, he'd taken quite readily to engaging her and meeting her intellectual swordplay or her playfully evasive riding. He hadn't always jumped the streams and hedges as she had, but he'd found his own way through the thickets and had surprised her on many occasions with his resourcefulness. He would meet her now, she was sure of it.

She put her hands on his shoulders and pushed him hard, roughly breaking their kiss as she did so. His face registered shock and confusion as he took a step back, instantly lifting his hands away from her body.

"Mary, what—?"

She took a step forward. "Lay back on the bed," she commanded.

His eyebrows shot up and his mouth dropped open and he took several steps backwards as she advanced on him. She continued moving forward and the backs of his legs met the side of the bed, bringing him to a stop. Already committed, she did not permit herself to waver: she put her palms on his chest and pushed. He let her and he quickly threw out a hand behind himself to break his fall, but he caught her unexpectedly with his other arm, bringing her down with him and shooting her a triumphant smile. She fell heavily against him with an undignified "oof!", her elbow catching awkwardly under his armpit. She pushed herself up immediately and frowned down at him, steadying herself with both hands on the bedspread. She was stood against the side of the bed, one of her legs between his, and he had dropped both of his arms to rest by his sides. He raised his eyebrows with a smug smile.

"Yes, my lady?"

She frowned down at him again. "Don't call me that. You're a member of the family."

He chuckled. "I'll call you what I like, my—"

She pushed herself up on to the bed and cut him off with a forceful kiss, which she broke when she was quite finished. "Call me 'darling', 'Mary', whatever else is appropriate," she said, pulling back to a standing position, one knee still resting beside his hip on the bed. She'd held herself up by trapping his arms under her hands, and she released him now with deliberation, slightly taken aback by her own actions but unwilling to let him know that.

"Mrs Crawley?" he asked with a grin, his loose blonde hair giving him a devil-may-care air. She growled, which only widened his smile. "Darling Mary?" he tried again.

"'Darling' is fine," she said. "'Mary' is fine. 'Darling Mary' sounds like a child's doll."

"Mary Jo?"

"Do I look like I'm from the Middle West?" she demanded.

He burst out laughing. "Now there's an image!"

"I never want to hear you call me that again," she growled.

He just laughed and pulled her face down for a kiss. She tried to resist him, but he was stronger than she was. Half a second before a feeling of panic could overtake her, he released her and she pushed herself back up with a huff.

He had that smug smile on his face again.

"You're so beautiful when you're angry," he said. "It's difficult to resist needling you."

"I'm not angry," she retorted.

"What's this, then?"

"Annoyed."

"Ahh," he answered, running his hands down her arms. "What's your pleasure, then, darling?"

"Better," she said.

He smirked and lifted his hands over his head, slipping them underneath it and relaxing back. He looked self-satisfied as her eyes left his face and trailed down the rest of him. Deciding to wipe the smirk off his face, she took a step back and lifted off her chemise, tossing it aside before stripping down entirely. She was pleased to see that he looked slightly stunned now and she kept her eyes on his face as she stepped out of her knickers. He had taken his hands out from underneath his head and he started to sit up, but she wasn't in the mood for that.

She climbed up and straddled him, pushing him back with one hand as she steadied herself with the other, and she settled down, moving her hips slightly until she was comfortable. She was secretly thrilled to note his response beneath her; she loved this feeling of control, of knowing what came next and of being able to predict his responses. She had a strange shot of awareness at the idea of what Kemal must have felt, controlling her, and she pushed this aside, disturbed, and shifted again to find a more comfortable position. This was completely different.

Matthew moaned and thrust his hips up against her. His eyes were closed and his hands convulsed where they gripped her thighs. His chest rose and fell with rough breaths and he opened his eyes again. They were surprisingly dark and she found the sight arousing. She bent down and kissed him fiercely and he responded with equal force. She marvelled at how he seemed pleased by her forwardness; she could feel him smiling as he kissed her and she pulled back a hair's-breadth to look down at him in wonder.

"You are so beautiful," he breathed.

Happiness bubbled up inside her and she grinned. His hands had found their way to her bottom and he curled his fingertips teasingly against her skin, making her giggle. Their soft laughter mingled together before they cut it off suddenly with another kiss. His hands roamed over her freely now and she let them. She rose up slightly to give him easier access and knelt over him, feeling powerful and desirable and enjoying every moment with the whole of her being. He broke free of the kiss with a moan, his hands cupping her breasts. He ran his thumbs over her nipples in curiosity, and she felt herself squeeze involuntarily in response.

Oh God, she knew what she wanted and she didn't want to wait. Her body ached and nearly drove her mad with its demand. She pressed her hips down against his and he curled up towards her with another moan, taking her in his arms and rolling her suddenly down beside him, holding her in a hard kiss.

Their feet had no purchase and Matthew broke away and sat up, gaining his footing, as Mary pulled herself further back on to the bed. She was briefly disappointed by his drawing away, but pleased a moment later as she realised that he was taking the opportunity to match her state of undress.

She smiled as he kicked off the last of his clothing and climbed back on to the bed with a look of single-minded focus. She had barely enough time to bring herself far enough on to the bed to give her feet purchase before he had gained a position kneeling over her, his hands on either side of her shoulders. He lowered his head and kissed her, repeatedly breaking the contact and leaving her breathless. She could do little more than close her eyes and cling to him, thrilling at the power he was displaying. Yes, this. This was what she wanted, and she wanted more of him than this. She wrapped her legs around his and tightened them and he groaned-laughed and moved his head down her body.

She broke her legs' hold on him as he pulled away and she arched up against him, her hips frustrated at not meeting aught but air, and felt his mouth close over her breast. God, she ached. It felt wonderful but it wasn't enough—it wasn't what she really wanted. She wanted this and she wanted more. She writhed and tried to pull his head up—what he was doing was torture: it was sending pleasurable shocks through her and she shivered with each one—but he just gave a low chuckle and continued his suckling.

"Matthew!" she gasped. He hummed and lifted his head to look at her with a thoroughly satisfied smile. She breathed a sigh of relief—the torture had ceased—and then gave a cry of dismay that was choked off against her will with a moan of pleasure when his mouth found her other nipple. "God, Matthew!" she cried. "Stop! Too…much!"

He gave a low laugh and lifted his head. "Now you know how I felt," he said.

"Please," she said, trying to lift her hips to tell him what she meant. She could see from the look in his eyes that he understood and was only too willing to acquiesce. He gave a curt nod and pulled back. She suppressed a moan of disappointment and willed herself to patience, something that she was terribly short on at the moment. What was he waiting for? She frowned up at him and then followed his gaze, realising only a moment before his touch what he was about. Her hips twitched involuntarily and she gasped as his hand found its target and ran down the length of her as he explored her contours. There was a brief pain and she hissed—whatever that was, she did not want to be touched there—and then a moment later, his finger slipped inside her and she moaned, her eyes squeezing shut.

"There," he said, his voice altered. "So wet!"

She opened her eyes and watched him, her heart beating hard in her chest. When his eyes met hers, she nodded.

He started to position himself over her. "I'll try not to hurt you," he said.

"Don't worry about that," she said, remembering the shock of the pain from Kemal's entry but prepared for it this time. She wanted this so much that the idea of a brief sting barely stayed her. Matthew started to move his hips down, but she had a sudden thought and quickly put out a hand to stop him. He looked at her, confused, and she smiled at him. "Just a moment," she said, remembering what Kemal had done first. It was sure to minimise the pain for her, she thought. Her smile widened as she reached down, wet her fingers, and slipped them down the length of him, eliciting a gasp from him as his whole body stiffened in surprise. She repeated the gesture, marvelling at the feel of him against her fingers and thoroughly enjoying the small sounds and movements he made, until she was satisfied, and then she looked up at his face. His eyes were squeezed shut and he was breathing through his mouth. She took her hand away, wiping her fingers on her leg, and curved up to meet his mouth with her own. He kissed her back, his response slightly delayed. His breath ran over her lips.

"Now, darling," she said, and he opened his eyes. He met her gaze for a moment and then looked down between their bodies, positioning himself. She lifted her hips, waiting to feel what her body was aching for and then—yes—as his body filled hers, slipping smoothly inside her.

He groaned deeply and shuddered, gritting his teeth and squeezing his eyes shut.

She was trembling herself. There had been no pain, just a deep sense of satisfaction and an immediate hunger for more. She moved her hands over him in what she hoped was an encouraging fashion. His eyes were shut tight as he tried to control himself and hold his weight steady above her. She continued to massage his taut, trembling form, the sight of him so impassioned and vulnerable making her heart squeeze.

"Matthew," she said, moving her hands gently. "Look at me, Matthew."

He forced his eyes open. She smiled and nodded, watching as his eyes narrowed in concentration. His first movements were jerky and he pulled out too far once, making her cry out in disappointment, but he re-entered her immediately, eliciting a mutual groan of relief, and he quickly found a steady rhythm.

She grinned at the feel of him moving under her eager hands and then she gasped her delight. It was happening again! A growing, wild, wordless pressure tightened the whole of her body, increased by each of his thrusts. She began to feel almost as if she were dizzy with the intensity that was building in her and she urged him on. She recognised the sensation, but this time it was strangely different: it was building more slowly, but rising with a relentlessness that shocked her. It was carrying her off and all she could do was moan and hold on to him and throw her whole body into matching his. The building tension seemed to go on, past what she'd been expecting, making her mind reel. The intensity drove out all thought of the world outside and then—

She gave a strangled moan and pulsed and rocked with it and waves rolled through her, washing away all of her tension. She was dimly aware of the strength of his response above her as he arched back suddenly and she relaxed into the warmth and light, her body well and truly satisfied, heavy and loose-limbed. His movements slowed, still sending pleasure through her, and she moaned again. Her breath was coming fast from the exertion and her eyes were wet with happiness. She had a whole lifetime with him! A whole lifetime of this!

He collapsed on to her heavily and did not move, and she suddenly couldn't draw air into her lungs.

Her whole body screamed with panic and before she was even fully aware of herself, she was pushing and kicking at him wildly, desperate to dislodge the dead body, unable to breathe—

Notagainnotagainnotagainnotagain—

He cried out in surprise and pain and pulled back awkwardly, trying to protect his face from her mad attack, and heaved himself to the side. "What the—Mary? Stop! Mary!"

By this point, his initial cry had penetrated her panic and with the removal of his dead weight, Mary looked at him—he was very much alive—and suddenly realised the terrible enormity of her error. A flood of dark memories was flashing over her skin, mixing with the light and the rictus of Matthew's face and twisting the moment into a living nightmare.

Mary shuddered and cried out in horror and curled in on herself, wrenching away from the hand that he'd put on her arm to calm her while she thrashed. Her heart was pounding almost painfully in her chest and she couldn't seem to draw in a full breath. The warm glow of contentment had drained away and left only shaking shame in its wake.

She knew what had just happened. It had all been going so beautifully: Kemal hadn't intruded, it had just been Matthew, her mind and body entirely consumed with her husband, and she had lost herself in his arms. It had just been so...good, so much more. She'd soared and she thought that he had as well, and she'd been so blissfully happy, so happy she could cry, so relieved, so grateful, so at peace.

And then the old nightmare had swept over her and her body had betrayed her before she'd even realised it and she had destroyed everything. Matthew must despise her for it. How could she ever do this with him again? She would be in fear of this involuntary response swallowing her every time, poisoning this beautiful, living hope that she'd had with him. And never mind her own pleasure, what of his? How could he ever enjoy a wife who would lose control of herself and fight him off after they'd made love? Everything everyone had ever said about 'damaged goods' was true; she was the living embodiment of this hell, of her disobedience. His forgiveness had not been enough to heal her or to wipe away her guilt.

She sobbed, knowing that even if she hadn't given in to her desire to assert control, if she'd been as passive and tentative as she had been with Kemal, she would still have come to this end. She was trapped; there was no way out. She was a broken, wretched thing, now not just living in her own hell, but dragging her beloved Matthew down into the blackness with her. He'd married her; he was trapped. There was no getting out of this for her kind of people.

Even though divorce was not an option, she would let him go, let him find a better lover, a whole one, and she wouldn't hold him back. The joy that she'd felt earlier was matched now by the absolute conviction that she would never be happy, never could be, never deserved to be…for if she were forced to let Matthew go, to watch him walk into the arms of a better woman, she would die inside. No; bitter steel rose up in her. She already was dead inside. She would not let him go: she would make him go. He would protest, but she would take whatever last tattered shred of control that she had and make the cut swiftly. She preferred a quick death over a lingering one, and it would be best for him as well.

She shivered, naked and cold in her resolve, the sweat on her skin drawing away heat and reminding her of all that they had just done together. The happiness was a memory and her body ached; before, it had been a pleasant sleepiness, but now she just felt battered and weary, old and unable to find rest.

She felt his hand rest tentatively on her arm again, but this time she did not shrug him off. She squeezed her eyelids shut against the burning of her tears and pressed her face into the bed to muffle a sob. She did not have the energy or the desire to fight him. She wished desperately for his touch even as she knew she could not permit herself to enjoy it. She'd hurt him.

Oh God, she'd hit him. More than once. Her dear Matthew. If anyone deserved it less, she'd couldn't name them. He who was always so gentle with her. Edith was right: Mary didn't deserve him and never would.

A sob convulsed her and she curled into herself more tightly.

She felt his warm lips press against her shoulder and she covered her mouth with the back of her hand, unable to stop the next convulsive sob.

"Oh, God, Mary," he whispered hoarsely, his voice breaking. "I'm so sorry."

A bitter laugh rose out of her amidst another sob and she shook her head, unable to speak.

"No, I am," he said. "I should have known not to fall on you like that. I should have realised—"

"No!" she managed, her voice jumping as her body shook, out of her control. "No, Matthew! Stop!" She pulled away from him now. "We both know: this was my fault."

"No!" he said, just as forcefully, pulling himself against her and cradling her body with his own. She wanted to fight him but the thought of hurting him further just stabbed her through and she shook with the force of another sob, going limp against him instead, exhausted. She covered her face with her hands, aware that there was a damp spot quickly growing under her cheek. Her ear was wet with the tears that pooled there.

"No," he said more softly, and she felt his breath warm, then cooled, on her other ear. "This is not your fault. None of this is your fault."

She was angry now; he had never listened to her about this. He had adopted a narrow perspective on it that simplified too much, but the memories that flooded her now were sharp and incriminating and she felt as though she had trapped him with a lie.

"It is!" she said as she twisted her head to shout at him, irrationally wanting to wound him with the truth. "I chose him, Matthew! I let him kiss me! I kissed him back! I enjoyed it!" The skin around his eyes tightened as he watched her, but he did not stop her speaking. "I took Kemal Pamuk as my lover. It does not matter how the night began, or whether I felt trapped, I made the choice! I was eager to feel the excitement. I was curious, aroused, flattered, just as rebellious as everyone thinks! I'm damaged goods. Edith was right, I am a slut!"

"No, Mary," he said fiercely, his arm tightening around her. "Feeling pleasure in the midst of his—" Matthew's nostrils flared and his jaw worked, "—terrible actions does not make you a slut!" He bit out the final word. "He trapped you and used your body against you."

She gave a wordless, high-pitched growl of frustration and broke his hold on her with a hard twist, rising up on her elbows. Matthew was denying her sense of free will and conscious choice, her assertion of control, her right to be treated as an adult with full knowledge of her actions.

"I know what I did, Matthew!" she fairly screamed at him, her desperation rising. "You don't know! You weren't there! I'm damaged goods! I can't forget what happened, or pretend it was something that it wasn't! I tried, but I can't escape it! I am a wanton slut who spread her legs for a complete stranger! I can't be something I'm not and you're a damn fool to believe otherwise!" Her voice broke and she fought a sob.

Her ear was cold; she wiped at it impatiently, her movements jerky. His frowning face was a blur through the tears that stung her eyes and she blinked and wiped roughly at them, too, trying to clear her vision. She expected to see judgement and censure at last, to have the relief of finally being understood. He must see now that this was the end, after the awful way she'd treated him, but what she found in his expression was far worse. Love. Compassion. His frown had melted away and she realised that it had not been directed at her. It had been an expression of thoughtfulness and not anger on his face.

He was impossible! He wasn't listening to her. He was going to persist in his delusion of her worth. He wasn't going to make the break easy or swift.

"Mary—"

He reached for her again but she sob-screamed and pushed him away, rolling off the bed and hurling herself towards the bathroom. She couldn't bear to look at him, to hear him try to talk her out of what she knew to be true, and she ignored each stab in her heart as she heard him call her name. He didn't know; he hadn't been there. She had taken what pleasure she could and her wantonness had led to Kemal's death and now to this living hell that she had inflicted on Matthew. It was her pain to bear. Her fault.

She made it to the bathroom and shut herself inside, Matthew's desperate voice drowned out by the loud slam of the heavy oak door and her own sobbing.


Matthew lay on the bed in shock, his throat thick and sore, as his last call of Mary's name died on his lips. The hard finality of the closed door stood between them and his heart twisted painfully at the faint, muffled sounds of her sobs that filtered through it.

He rose from the bed, leaving the mussed bedclothes behind, and walked over to the door, wanting so desperately to gather Mary, his dear wife, in his arms and reassure her, comfort her, hold her close. He wanted to tell her that she was beautiful, that she was more than the product of one awful (pleasurable?) night in the distant past. He wanted to help her see that she was so much more, that she meant a very great deal to him, that he wasn't put off. If only she would listen!

He lifted his hand to knock on the door but was stayed by the sound of a wrenching sob. She was struggling to draw in a breath, her sobbing was so violent, and when he placed his palm on the door, he felt the wood vibrate. She must be pressed against it, he realised, just on the other side...

He rested his forehead and his other palm against the door and closed his eyes, feeling as though the wood were a thousand miles thick, for all that he could penetrate it and reach her. What could he possibly say that he had not already said? His words had fallen on deaf ears, his touch had been inadequate, and it was his thoughtless actions that had caused this terrible memory to flare back into life for Mary again, reducing their joy to ash.

His eyes were already shut and he squeezed them more tightly closed. He was powerless to make this right, powerless to heal her.

God! he cried. What do I do?

Come away from the door.

He didn't want to leave her; he wanted to be closer to her.

Come away from the door, Matthew.

No! his heart cried. I can't!

Yes, you can. Leave her to Me.

Lord...! he cried in desperation. His knees felt weak and he rested his forehead against the door for one final moment before drawing in a deep breath, straightening, and pushing off. Weariness filled his frame.

Come away, Matthew.

He opened his eyes as he turned away from the door. The room was empty, the bed rumpled.

Joy to ash.

All of his worst fears had been realised in one, awful, shocking moment: the very moment when he had felt most assured of success. All of his efforts seemed foolish now. He was powerless in the face of this.

True. Matthew heard a touch of gentle amusement. But I am not.

He closed his eyes again, feeling the familiar beckoning in his spirit, and let out the breath he'd been holding.

I will provide.

But how? Matthew wondered. It seemed impossible.

Trust Me.