12

Mary stood naked in the bathroom, sobbing and shivering. The tiles were cool against her feet and she found that she couldn't stand any longer. She sank to the floor, her back against the door. She'd never sat naked on the floor before, at least not that she could remember, and the dampness between her legs made the tiles cold and uncomfortable. She sucked in a breath through her nose, which had started to run, and slowly, stiffly, climbed to her feet in search of a towel. She might be a slut and a total failure as a wife, but she could at least clean herself up and look presentable.

Her sobs quieted as she brought herself under control. She took in her reflection stoically. Her eyes, nose, and cheeks were red and blotchy, entirely unattractive, her hair hung askew, and wisps and clumps stuck out at odd angles. They'd begun their lovemaking and she'd forgotten that she had never taken her hair down. She did it now, pulling out pin after pin and leaving them along the edge of the sink, feeling as though each one were a reminder of all that she had lost; the death of hope. Snorting sourly at her melodramatic turn, she tugged her final hairpins out and they dropped into the sink with a tiny clatter. Her pin box was somewhere, probably out on the vanity, but Mary couldn't care less about the disarray in the sink. Her brush was out there too, so she had to settle for running her fingers through her hair. She wasn't happy with the results, but there was nothing for it. If she was to face Matthew looking on the outside as she felt inside, then at least she would be honest. She laughed bitterly at the idea that even now she was keeping her promise to him. It was the only promise that she had left that she could keep.

She wiped quickly at her tears and looked at the clothing available: a pair of cream-coloured gloves and a thin nightgown and robe. She picked up the nightgown but paused: she had no knickers to put on first and the thought of emerging into the bedroom wearing provocative clothing seemed entirely wrong, but reappearing naked was worse. She could wrap herself in a bath sheet, perhaps, and find a sensible nightgown from the dresser. She closed her eyes and pressed her ear against the door, but she could hear nothing from the other side. Matthew was probably not even in the bedroom any longer. He had likely gone into his dressing room and they would see nothing of each other for the rest of the night. She felt a mix of relief and sadness at the thought. They could not avoid one another for the whole of tomorrow, but perhaps they could at least talk and come to some understanding, find some way of parting without the rest of the family finding out until they were ready to make the announcement. Mary did not think an annulment was possible—they were not Catholic, after all—but perhaps some arrangement could be made. Perhaps the ceremony could be found to be faulty in some way—

She wiped at fresh tears and laughed bitterly to herself. None who had witnessed their wedding could possibly be convinced that it had not been done properly. No; they must live with this, this hell that was all her fault.

She'd been so angry before, so fearful, at the prospect of his leaving for war so soon after their wedding, but now his joining up was a blessing in disguise. They could surely find some way of hiding the dreadful truth for the next few days, and then he would be gone and no one would question their separation. They would have time to sort through things, decide what to do, perhaps at least part ways as friends if they could not be lovers. Married people did this sort of thing all the time, didn't they? Why else did they sleep in separate bedrooms? Her parents were the exception, not the rule. She already knew that, but she had thought that she and Matthew would be the exception, too: they got on so well.

She clutched the nightgown to her chest and sobbed. If she could not find happiness with him, she would never find it with anyone. Even the prospect of taking another lover was not one she could look forward to, for it would always end in this nightmare. And really, she didn't want anyone else if she couldn't have Matthew. He had the effect of making every other man she'd met pale in comparison, with his kindness and his wit and his way of gently exposing her true self whilst loving her anyway. No; she would stay true to him. She had promised him that, at least, even if she could not be a proper wife to him.

All her attempts to right herself had failed; she was just as broken as she always had been and how could she put a calm face on it?

She forced herself to straighten and she pushed back her tears with a deep breath, set down the nightgown, and cleaned herself up again, then pulled on the nightgown and robe, holding the fabric closed at the front. She was not going to spend the rest of this night, or the rest of her life, feeling sorry for herself. She would find something to do, someone to be, someplace to go. She would stop waiting for a man to give her life meaning. Sybil was right: Mary would step out of the waiting room on her own strength and make something of herself. What, she didn't know yet, but she would find it. There was a war on; surely she could make herself useful in some way. Even if she couldn't properly be Matthew's wife, she could support his efforts, support the men who fought, and do everything in her power to help them come home safely.

She gave herself a stern look in the mirror, swallowed, lifted her chin, and turned and put her hand on the doorknob. Taking a deep breath and forcing back the sudden urge to cry again, she pulled open the door and strode out.

Matthew was nowhere to be seen, although the door to his dressing room stood slightly ajar. The bedclothes were mussed; Mary looked away and walked to the chest of drawers. She needed to change into a more sensible nightgown. She wasn't exactly sure what she would do after that—her eyes flickered over to the dressing room door and then she drew them back to the matter at hand—but at least she had a plan. She followed through with it and then carefully folded the thin nightgown and robe and laid them at the bottom of the drawer, pulling other clothes over them. She would not have need of them again and she did not want to be reminded when the drawer was next opened. Closing it, she straightened and looked about the bedroom. At first there was silence, but then she heard a soft murmuring and she frowned.

Her feet carried her to the dressing room door and she put her palm against it and pushed, silently opening the door all the way. Her breath caught when she saw Matthew's naked form. He was standing in the bathroom, his back to her, bent over the sink as his hands gripped either side of it. He was making the murmuring sounds, and she noticed that they were interspersed with small gasps now and then, almost as if he were…crying, she realised.

All earlier thoughts of not being with him until the following day fled and she instead wanted to comfort him, to reassure him, to try to repair the damage that she had done, or at least soothe the wounds that she had inflicted on him. It was terribly unfair that her mistakes should result in his pain: he had done nothing wrong.

As she drew nearer, though, her ears caught a phrase that she wasn't expecting:

"…draw her close to you…" Matthew was saying. "Please…I can't…"

She frowned. He wasn't making sense.

His shoulders shook again and her heart twisted in her chest. She stopped just before the doorway and watched him. Her chest started to feel tight and she realised that she was holding her breath. She drew in air suddenly and Matthew stiffened and lifted his head. Their eyes met in the mirror and her earlier suspicion was confirmed: he was crying. It was a sight that she never wanted to see again, never should have seen at all. She was the cause of this and it hurt.

Matthew turned to face her, ignoring the tear-tracks on his face. Mary would have been wiping at her cheeks in this moment, but he merely looked at her. His expression still was not one of censure. She couldn't meet his gaze any longer and she dropped her eyes to his feet. She realised he was still wearing his black dress socks. She frowned and half-smiled. She didn't remember seeing him take them off before, but then she hadn't been paying much attention to his feet at the time.

"Why are you still wearing your socks?" she asked, which immediately sounded inane, but the words had been spoken and could not be taken back. She bit her lip.

Matthew gave a disbelieving chuckle. "My feet are cold."

Mary frowned; her feet felt fine. "Really? But it's a warm night."

Matthew crossed his arms and raised his eyebrows as if to say, 'This is what you want to argue about?'

Mary, incongruously, felt the urge to laugh. She shook her head and looked away, decided to try again. "What were you doing just now?" Besides crying, of course.

Matthew dropped his arms. "Praying."

Mary frowned, confused. "About what?"

Matthew gave her a look that bordered on censure now. "You. Us."

That made a bit more sense of the words she'd heard, but she was curious. She had of course been taught to pray as a child, but she couldn't recall anyone ever praying for her, specifically, as an adult. God helps those who help themselves and all of that; she was expected to sort things out on her own as an adult. Prayer was for desperate circumstances, a last resort when there was no hope. It was a wish thrown into the dark with no guarantee of return. It was what people did when there was nothing else they could do and they didn't want to feel like they weren't doing anything. She and Matthew would work through this and come to some understanding; what had prayer to do with it?

"Why?" she asked, annoyed.

Matthew frowned. "You really don't…?" he trailed off and looked away, then down. "No." He closed his eyes. "You don't."

This didn't make much sense either, but she wanted to understand. She felt as though she were miles away from him despite the fact that they stood only a few feet from each other.

"What did you pray for me?" she asked in a softer voice.

He opened his eyes and looked at her. After regarding her a moment, he turned and pulled a cloth off the shelf beside the sink, dried his face, took a deep breath, and let it out. He set the cloth back on the shelf and turned around, glancing down at her nightgown.

"Would you mind if I dressed while we talked?" he asked, gesturing at her clothing.

"Not at all," she said quickly, stepping back from the doorway. He nodded and walked past her, his moving form drawing an appreciative glance from her. He really was beautiful— She looked away. She ought not to take pleasure in looking at him now. It seemed wrong to take that from him after what she had done. She felt as though the restraints that had been lifted upon their marriage were back in place again, although now for a different reason, and one that was entirely self-inflicted. Perhaps she should leave him, rather than interrogating him about his private means of coping with grief. What right had she to ask now? But she could not force herself to go just yet.

He went to the wardrobe and rummaged in it until he found a pair of dark blue pyjamas. He pulled on the trousers first and she noticed that he didn't put on any drawers underneath them, then reprimanded herself for looking again. As he buttoned the shirt, he walked slowly over to her. She didn't step back, but she didn't meet his eyes, either. He was close enough now that she could smell him, and the newly-familiar scent—which reminded her of when she had pressed her lips to his neck as he'd moved inside her, above her—made her close her eyes as a sudden wave of longing washed over her. She wanted nothing more than to rest her cheek against his warm chest and find a moment of rest. Such a privilege was out of her reach now and so she stood still. Why was he standing so close?

She gave a start when she felt a hand slide into her hair, at the nape of her neck. The hand immediately stilled. After a long moment, his fingers moved up slowly and his palm came to cradle the back of her head. She kept her eyes closed, not sure what she was expected to do and afraid of doing something that would cause him to move away. She felt as though she were stealing this touch from him; that if he knew her, really knew her, he would never want to touch her again. Her mouth fell open as she felt his lips press against her forehead. The kiss was soft and gentle and he lingered for a heartbeat longer than necessary.

"I love you so terribly much," he said, drawing back but leaving his hand in her hair.

She opened her eyes, frowning at the small hairs that were visible above the collar of his shirt.

"How could you?" she asked, her throat dry and tight. "After all that?"

His fingers flexed against her scalp, encouraging her to look up. He rubbed his other hand soothingly against her arm.

When she met his eyes, he said with a smile, "How could I not?"

"Easily," she answered sharply, feeling anger rising in her again, even as she just wanted to melt against him. She pulled away, regretting it instantly as she watched the hurt of another rejection cross his face. She stopped moving back and put up her hands to touch his arms, feeling as though her attempts at soothing him were useless. What did she have to offer that could possibly make this better? He seemed to just want to pretend that it didn't matter, but couldn't he see that she would just hurt him again and again? She was unable not to. She pressed her lips together and broke away from his gaze, shaking her head and fighting tears again. Why did he persist?

"I don't deserve your love," she said, unable to stop her voice from breaking on the last word.

Matthew chuckled.

She looked up at him in shock, offended. How could he possibly laugh at a moment like this?

"Love is, by its very nature, unearned," he said, a sad kind of smile on his face. She flinched as he reached up to cup her cheek and he rubbed a thumb across it, calming her: a tear had escaped and he had brushed it away. She closed her eyes, but he wasn't done speaking yet. "I didn't fall in love with you because you deserved it."

"Then why did you?" she whispered.

He gave a breath of a laugh and she felt his forehead rest against hers as he put his hands on her upper arms. "Honestly? I don't know. You weren't anything like what I expected. I had never met anyone like you before."

"And what was I like?"

"A shock. A vision," he murmured. "In one instant summing me up and finding me wanting. And you were right."

She smiled, her eyes still closed. She had never confessed her own heart's leap at first seeing him; she hadn't given it a thought until this moment, in fact, but she remembered it now. His eyes had caught her. "You didn't make much of a second impression, I'll grant you that," she said. "Although you did a marvellous impression of a dead fish."

He pulled back with a laugh and she opened her eyes and looked up at him. He was half-smiling, half-frowning with curiosity. "An apt image: you speared me," he said, and then: "Second impression?"

Her eyes widened as she realised her slip. She shrugged and glanced away, but when he remained silent, she braved a glance back up at him. He was fixing her in a look that managed to be smug and amused and affectionate and reproachful all at once.

There was no escaping him now.

"You weren't entirely what I had expected, either," she said finally, fighting a smile.

"Really?"

She moved her hands up to his face, letting her thumbs brush across his cheeks. She enjoyed the slight rasp against her palms and the way his arms slid so naturally to hold her in a loose embrace. "I was already angry at you and I was suddenly wrong-footed as well." She chuckled. "Thankfully, you immediately proceeded to demolish that first impression and I was relieved that you were like all the rest, and as easily dismissed." She paused and looked down at his shirt, drawing her hands away from his face and resting them on his chest. "Why did you still care for me, after the way I treated you?"

"Because it wasn't hard to see that underneath all those sharp edges, you were hurt and afraid," he said and then, with a smirk in his voice: "I'm a sucker for the plight of the downtrodden, remember?" Mary chuckled, still not looking at him. "Later, when there was no family to see, no audience to perform for, you were warm and candid with me. For all that you tried to hide yourself, Mary, you weren't very hard to see."

Mary frowned. "You speak so confidently now, but you didn't seem confident then."

"I wasn't sure at first," Matthew said. "I saw it, but I didn't know if it was just wishful thinking on my part." He chuckled. "It was partly my ego, I suppose. I didn't want to believe myself to be the sort of man who would fall in love with an unworthy woman."

Mary tried to chuckle, but it wouldn't come; the laughter stuck in her throat. An unworthy woman.

"What changed?" he asked.

She looked up at him. "Pardon?"

"If I was so easily dismissed, why weren't you just indifferent to me?"

"You weren't so easily dismissed," she said. She looked away with a smile, remembering. "You could match wits with me, and did. But there were none of the usual flirtations: no flattery, no small brushes of the hand, no double entendres spoken with presumed intimacy, nothing with which I was familiar. When we talked, it felt devoid of pretence; I found myself saying things that I would never have dreamed of speaking so plainly to anyone. I didn't know how to respond to you. You kept leaving me wrong-footed."

Matthew chuckled. "It was mutual, I assure you. And if I'd known you expected those things from me, I would have done them. I just didn't know the rules of your game."

"Perhaps it was for the best," she said. "Your ingenuousness made you shine by comparison."

He smiled.

"But it was the night that you explained how to break the entail that began it, I think," she said. "You told me I mattered."

His eyes softened. "You do."

She smiled sadly and looked down.

He nudged his lips against her cheek, seeking her mouth, and his arms tightened around her, but she pushed away, breaking from his embrace and shaking her head, keeping her hands on his chest to hold him back.

"What is this?" he demanded.

She met his eyes. "How can you want to kiss me after what I did to you?"

He gave a frustrated sigh and threw out his arms in a rough gesture, turning away from her with a shake of his head. He took a step back. "What do you want from me?" he asked, then turned to look at her. "Do you want me to hurt you in return? I refuse to do that, Mary. I love you! You're my wife! I could no more cut open my own body!"

"I don't know!" she said, throwing out her arms as well. "I want you to be angry with me! Something! This continual forgiveness is irritating. I don't deserve it! And don't you preach to me about how forgiveness is unearned, too."

He growled and held out his hands, palms up. "It is! That's why it's called 'forgiveness', not 'retaliation'!"

"I told you I took a lover and I enjoyed him! I'm not ashamed that I did it! How can you stand there as my husband and not feel angry at that?"

He frowned at her. "And how would you respond if I told you that I had taken a lover? Why can't you see that what you chose to do in the past, before this—" he gestured between them, "—isn't something I can hold against you?"

"But you're supposed to hold it against me!" she cried. "Aren't men only interested in virgins, not sluts?"

He stepped up to her suddenly and his face was dark with anger now. She felt a stab of fear and wondered what had possessed her to provoke him. She didn't want him to look at her like this! Would he handle her roughly?

—but of course he wouldn't. No: if he were to wound her, it would be with words, and those wounds would last longer than mere bruises. Her eyes widened as she took in his drawn brows and flared nostrils and the frustration rolling off his body, and she regretted her own anger, her foolishness at driving him to this.

"Don't. Call. Yourself. That." he bit out, glaring at her, keeping his arms stiffly at his sides. "Ever."

She pressed her lips together and tried to frown up at him, but a sting at the edges of her eyes and an involuntary twitch in her chin betrayed her. She set her jaw.

"But it's true," she insisted, hating her weakness, hating the truth. She glared up at him. "And no amount of your forgiveness can change that!"

"It is not true," he shot back. "But you are right about one thing: my forgiveness is not enough."

"And what is, Matthew? What could possibly be enough? What's to stop me from kicking you off again the next time?"

He stopped moving, deflated, and looked at her now with eyes that were filled with pain. He reached for her.

"Mary—"

"We can't do this, Matthew," she said, her throat dry as she forced herself to speak the terrible truth. "I must not do that to you ever again." She turned and walked away, covering her mouth and nose with a shaking hand as she drew in a sharp breath. "I can't…"

He stood behind her in silence and she gathered herself, straightened her shoulders, wiped at her eyes, and then wiped her hands on her nightgown. She drew in a couple calming breaths and then turned around, not meeting his eyes.

"Your love for me might not be earned, but mine is not nearly so noble. You have earned my love." She looked at him now. "I release you. I trapped you with a lie and now you know the truth and you must see that we can't go on like this. You should be with someone who will be able to love you as you deserve."

"Stop talking such rubbish," he snapped. She blinked, surprised, and then grew angry again. Why wasn't he listening to her?

"Matthew—"

"Enough!" he said, advancing on her. "I made a promise to you and by God, I'm going to keep it! Does your promise to me mean nothing?"

She took an uncertain step back. "Of course it does! Your happiness means more to me than my own! That's why I'm releasing—"

"Rubbish," he growled. "If you cared a whit for my happiness, you'd do me the honour of listening to me!"

Mary glared at him. After several seconds of silence, he crossed his arms, still frowning.

"Well?" Mary asked, forcing her voice to be steady and lifting her chin.

Matthew sighed and looked down, then looked to the side and squinted. It took her a moment to realise that he was fighting tears. He gave a frustrated growl, uncrossing his arms and running both of his hands through his hair. He drew in a deep breath and exhaled, looked at her with a pained expression.

"You asked me what I prayed for earlier," he began. His hands twitched as though he wanted to reach for her, but he looked away again. "I prayed for hope. I prayed for you to heal, to forgive yourself. I asked that you would know that you didn't have to live imprisoned by fear."

Mary's mouth had fallen open slightly while she listened to him; she closed it now and frowned.

"I prayed—" Here, inexplicably, Matthew laughed and shook his head, then looked at her. He closed his eyes. "I prayed that I wouldn't fall on you like that again, that I'd be able to keep my wits about me in future. I asked Him—" he laughed again and pushed the heels of his hands into his eyes. "I asked Him to give me ideas for how to do better next time, and—"

Gasping, he pulled his hands away from his eyes and Mary was shocked to see how wet they were, and all the more so for their being tears of laughter, not pain. How could he find any humour in this situation? She would have been offended if he'd been laughing at her, but he wasn't: he was laughing at himself, somehow. Instead, she was jealous and she frowned at him, impatient.

"—and, God—" Matthew pressed the back of his hand to his mouth, finally meeting her eyes. He dropped his hand and stepped towards her with a wide grin, chuckling. "—did He!"

His words sent a sudden thrill of curiosity through her. Matthew saw the change in her expression and his smile turned maddeningly smug. He reached up slowly and when she did not flinch away, he ran his fingertips along her jaw, slipping his hand into her hair. She closed her eyes.

"He reminded me of so many moments when I'd been ashamed of myself."

Mary's eyes flew open and she frowned up at him. "What?"

His eyes were darkening again, she realised. His thumb stroked her ear. "You can be maddeningly distracting, darling," he said with a smile. "Sometimes, when I sat at dinner with your family and my interest in the conversation waned, I'd find myself watching you. You wouldn't be doing anything of particular note, but just watching you take a sip from your glass, or put your fork in your mouth—" He closed his eyes for a moment, a brief pain crossing his features, before he looked at her again. "I would suddenly wish— Well, it's probably best to show you…now that I can."

His maddening smile returned and she started to feel warm. How could he still do this to her? But of course he'd never stopped being able to and probably never would, she realised. He was her husband and she loved him, body and mind.

"And there were other moments," he continued. "Sometimes just walking behind you. The way you move…" He sighed and shook his head with a wry smile. "I would suddenly find myself filled with the urge to do something completely unacceptable. I thought I was going a bit mad, really, and I hoped no one else noticed. I used to be horrified at myself for what I was possessed to do. Which is why when you made it clear that you had no interest in me, I made myself scarce. It was partly because I was hurt, yes, but I was accustomed to that by then: the moments when we truly got on well were the rare ones, not the other way around—"

Here, she tried to drop her head, but he lifted her chin with his other hand, his finger curling gently under it, and he smiled at her as he spoke:

"But it was mostly because those urges were becoming more frequent the longer I knew you. I was ashamed of myself; the best way to handle them was to avoid you. They still happened, but not as often and at least you weren't nearby: there was no danger of my acting on them then."

Mary's mind spun at his words. The urges that she'd begun having after their engagement: could his be anything like hers? If he was ashamed of them, then perhaps she wasn't alone. Perhaps it was normal to feel this way if one was in love? The poets sometimes described love as madness. Was this what they meant?

"I used to dread these visions," he said. "Well, not them, exactly, they were far too appealing, but I disliked what they implied about who I was. No gentleman, certainly. Little better than an animal at times, it seemed." He laughed. "Until just now, when He reminded me of them…and said, 'Now. Have at it!'"

Mary giggled, curious and eager. "Me too."

Matthew frowned. "What?"

"I've had…urges…too."

His eyes lit up. "Really?"

"Yes." She felt her cheeks warming as she smiled, and she then remembered why she'd had those thoughts, and what it said about her past. Perhaps her thoughts were too base, even given what Matthew had said about his own. They made her recoil somewhat, as eager as she was to try them; what would he think of her if she revealed them? She couldn't bear the look of revulsion that would probably result.

"What's wrong?"

"Even if I'm not—that word—I'm still…damaged goods, Matthew," she said.

"Do you think I am without sin?" he asked.

The word stabbed at her and made her angry. It conjured a religious judgement and brought with it all of the strictures and stories of her childhood, her frustrations with its unverifiable and arbitrary nature, and the unthinking repetitions of Travis's answers to her questions. She had rejected all aspects of religion that seemed fanciful and unnecessary, although she saw the value of most of its principles—decency towards one's fellow man, that sort of thing—and she saw the usefulness of it in restraining society's darker tendencies, although it had been entirely inadequate to curbing her own and so seemed powerless, in truth. Certain lies were convenient. Church attendance was a necessity if one wished to be respectable, of course, but that was a purely practical motivation and not one that actually recommended religion to her.

She would never say any of this aloud, of course. She did not want anyone to think her a reprobate and she—in her more lonely moments—did not want what she knew to be true. But it was true and there was nothing for it but to carry on and do her best to muddle through, to make something of what she had at her disposal—which she was conscious of being quite substantial—and to hope that things worked out as best they could, without too many regrets in the end.

She would regret this failure with Matthew until the end of her days. His professions of love, although sweet, could not undo her body's automatic responses. She had not been in control of herself and she had thrown him off; how could they possibly move on from that, except to move apart from one another? For all of his "ideas", no matter how intriguing or fun they might be, they would inevitably end with him on top of her in some fashion and her tense with fear that she might lose control of herself and hurt him again. She could not possibly make love to him like that.

"Mary, talk to me, please," he said, his hands moving to her upper arms to caress them. "I can't bear to watch you like this."

Her eyes flew open; she couldn't recall closing them. "Like what?"

"Withdrawing from me," he said. "I'm here; let me in."

"I can't," she whispered.

"Why not?"

"I've already told you."

"Tell me again," he said.

She frowned at him. "I'm not good enough for you. Edith was right."

"No, she wasn't. Why do you think I'm too good for you?"

Mary shrugged and looked away. "You just…are. I've never seen you exchange a cross word with anyone. You didn't resent my family for uprooting you and your mother and dragging you into our lives, even after we—I—made an effort not to make you feel welcome." She looked up at him. "I truly believe that if you could give up the title, the estate, and all the wealth and influence that comes with it, you would. Not a man in a thousand would prefer that, but you do." She looked away again. "You didn't reject me when I told you…what I did. Not even now, even after—"

Her voice choked off with an unexpected sob and she covered her mouth with her hand.

He pulled her into his embrace and although she stiffened at first, she stayed in his arms as her shoulders shook. Her self-control was in tatters this evening.

"Just because you've never seen me exchange a cross word doesn't mean that I haven't done it," he said. "And how do you know I didn't resent your family? You heard my foolishness at our first meeting." She gave a breath of a laugh and closed her eyes when she felt his warm lips press against her hair. "God, what a fool I was," he murmured, then: "Still am." He loosened his hold on her and she stood back with a frown as he rested his hands on her upper arms again. "You're right about the title and the estate, but please don't think it's because of any high ideals on my part. I just don't relish the prospect of carrying the responsibility of maintaining it all." His smile became self-deprecating. "I'm just a middle-class lawyer from Manchester: what do I know of managing country estates and hobnobbing with lords and ladies? Can you imagine me, walking about with people addressing me as 'my lord' and all of that business?"

"Easily," she said with complete seriousness.

He paused and frowned. She smiled, feeling the urge to kiss him but restraining herself. The moment still felt too fragile, too easily broken. He shook his head and looked down with a dry laugh.

"I can't," he confessed. "I would always feel an impostor."

"You would do a lovely job," she said, smiling. "You're more a gentleman than most men who go by that name."

He blinked rapidly, his eyes suddenly damp.

"Thank you for that," he said thickly.

"It's no more than the truth, dar—" she cut herself off. She fell so easily into this with him: endearments and humour and…love. She loved him. She always would.

She looked down, unable to meet his eyes any longer.

"I know you don't think I understand," he said.

She looked up at him with a frown.

"I know you chose him," Matthew said. "I know you don't see what happened as simply a rape. From a certain point of view, you're right. Unfortunate situations are rarely the fault of only one person. I wouldn't have a profession if they were." He smiled. "I'm not under any illusions about you, Mary." He tilted his head to the side for a moment. "Well, at least not many illusions, I hope. I didn't marry you expecting it to be easy. And before you get upset over that: you should know by now that I enjoy a good argument…with you, especially."

His lips quirked up with the familiar tease and Mary found it impossible to resist a smile, but she at least had the wherewithal to look away from him briefly.

"He put you in an impossible situation," Matthew continued. "He convinced you that you were powerless to stop him. You thought you had only two choices left: let him have his way, thus giving up all control to him, which—" his eyes softened with a knowing humour, "—let us admit is not your strong suit—" She smirked at this, and then he sobered. "—or make a conscious choice to accept his attentions and reciprocate them."

She narrowed her eyes. He seemed to be saying no more than she had been saying all along, but she suspected that he was building some argument, waiting for her to accede to his points until he could deliver a logical blow that would fell all her objections to his point of view. She had married a lawyer, after all, but she felt strangely light of being, uncowed by his years of training, confident that she could rise to the challenge. She had spent far more time turning all of this over in her mind than he had; she stood ready to meet his next thrust and deflect it as she had all the others.

"Feeling powerless and in the grip of a monster is the stuff of nightmares," he said. "It is fear itself. To surrender to it is unthinkable, for there is no escape in surrender."

She swallowed, suddenly discomfited.

"You took the only path you could: you told yourself that you were choosing to take him as a lover," Matthew said.

"I did choose him," she said, annoyed at having to repeat herself.

"You did," he agreed, his voice soft and his expression pained. "But in so doing, you were forced to strike a terrible bargain."

Mary frowned. She couldn't see where he was going with this and she recoiled internally. She didn't want him to say any more, afraid of what his words might expose, but he was already speaking again.

"You were forced to believe that you are the sort of woman who would make such a choice. An unworthy woman."

Her heart was pounding, the sides of her mouth pulling down against her will. Her defiance came out in a whisper. "I did. I am."

"No, Mary." Matthew's grip on her upper arms tightened. "It's a lie you tell yourself because you had no other recourse. It's a lie you find easy to believe because you've lived for so many years being told you were unworthy. That you weren't good enough to inherit the title and the Estate, to follow in your father's footsteps, to make him proud—"

Mary's breathing broke suddenly, sharp shards of pain stabbing her throat as she dragged in a convulsive breath and pressed a hand to her mouth. Her eyes were wide and stinging as she stared at Matthew. She closed them, feeling tears push out as her shoulders began to shake. He gently drew her into his embrace and pressed his cheek to her hair. Her arms were trapped between them and she continued to shake silently. His hand rubbed slow circles on her back.

"It's not true, darling," he said softly after a short while, the warmth of his breath caressing her scalp and sending a pleasant tingle down her back. "Don't let your pain feel like the only truth. You are worth far more than you could ever know. And you are dearly loved."

Her chest felt full to the brim; it nearly hurt to breathe. Matthew had expressed a beautiful sentiment, one that she was desperate to believe, but it seemed to her that he was still simplifying too much...and yet, there was a searing, painful, healing truth in his words, too. She opened her eyes and shook her head against his chest, pulling back slightly.

"I can't forget the pleasure I took in it, Matthew," she said, swallowing down the rasp in her voice as she wiped at her eyes. "I was eager."

He reached up and took her face in his hands, lifting it until she was looking at him.

"As I told you before," he said. "You cannot hold yourself accountable for your physical responses. The feelings you experienced were new and unexpected and yes, probably very appealing. You said that you're afraid of fighting me off again. If that fearful response was involuntary, what of the pleasurable responses? Might they not be involuntary, too? Our bodies are marvellous creations, capable of a great many things that are not within our conscious control. Why can this not be among them?"

Mary frowned up at him, considering his words for a long moment. Finally, she sighed and sagged slightly. "I want to believe that what you say is true, Matthew, but I can't escape the memory of what I did, and how it felt to do it. I am not without fault in what happened. I could have chosen to resist him more strongly. I didn't."

"I'm far from perfect, myself," he said.

"Oh, I know that," she said dryly, looking back up at him with a smile that quickly fell away. "But I can't imagine you committing any 'sin' as black as mine."

"Blacker," he said.

Her eyebrows shot up. "But I thought, after what you said, that you hadn't done…what we did…before."

He laughed and kissed her forehead. "Sexual sins are not the only kind, darling."

She snorted up at him in disbelief. "What, you've committed murder?"

He immediately grew serious, dropping his hands from her and twisting partly away. She followed him.

"You didn't!" she gasped.

He looked up with a frown, distracted. "What? No! No…"

She stared at him with growing concern. "What is it?"

His gaze was fixed on the middle distance; he seemed almost unaware of her for a moment. "I don't want to," he whispered.

She was initially confused and then she realised: the war. She felt a chill as she stared at his face, horrified that she had forgotten. As she watched his features close up, she was afraid of what the war would do to him. Her gentle, beautiful husband would find himself in the midst of horrors that she could only imagine. She wished for him to return to her safe and sound, but what if he lived through it and returned changed? What would the war do to him? Her father had come through the Boer War seemingly unscathed, but he never talked of his experiences. The one time she had asked him as a child, she remembered the warmth leaving his face and how he had turned stiffly away from her, unable to speak. Mama had quickly ushered her from the room and told her never to speak of it again. The chill remained even now, as Mary watched Matthew face the unknown. He would have to walk into it alone; it was not a place that she could go. She felt with a sudden intensity that these might be the last days that she ever saw him and she did not want to spend them estranged from him.

Even if she could not be his lover, she wanted to be his comfort and she felt utterly inadequate to the task. She went close to him and touched his shoulder. He blinked and returned to her, drawing her into his embrace with a sigh. She wrapped her arms around his waist and held him. He was brave, and so afraid: she could feel it. She closed her eyes. She didn't want to give this up, not for her own shame or for some stupid political conflict. It was too precious, too rare, too valuable.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm so sorry."

He pressed his lips against her hair again and his arms tightened around her briefly.

"I know."

She released a pent-up breath and looked up at him with one eyebrow raised. "So what was it? Did you covet your neighbour's ass?"

He laughed. "No." He frowned, relaxing his arms. "I don't think it's even one of the Ten Commandments. It's more insidious than that."

"Worse than breaking one of the Commandments? Now you really must tell me!" she joked.

He smiled and reached down to take her hand in his.

"Would you mind terribly if we finished this conversation in bed?" he asked. "This might take a while and it's getting rather late. It's been a long day."

"Of course," she said, starting to move back into the bedroom, and he followed, a smile pulling at his lips. "We can finish it tomorrow, if you wish."

"No, now is fine. I just want to relax if we're to continue it."

She smiled at the prospect of being allowed to sleep beside him after all. She released his hand as he moved round the bed. She had started to turn down the sheets when her stomach gurgled and she frowned, then suddenly brightened.

"What?" he asked, watching her unexpectedly dart across the room.

She pulled open the door a crack and peeked out. The hallway was deserted and— Yes! She lifted the dessert tray from the side-table nearby, then carefully slipped back into the room and pushed the door closed behind her, grinning.

His eyes lit up as she handed the tray to him. She climbed on to the bed and sat down. He stood beside the bed holding the tray in a comical fashion as he frowned, confused.

"What am I to do with this?" he asked.

"Give it here," she answered.

"You mean to eat on the bed?"

"Do you have a better idea?"

He glanced about the room, then chuckled and shook his head. He set the tray down carefully and she pulled it towards herself, beckoning to him to join her.

"I feel like a child who's stolen a biscuit," he said, climbing on to the bed and settling down across from her.

"Not a bad analogy," she answered, as she lifted the covers off the two plates to reveal two pieces of decadent-looking chocolate cake. She hummed her approval.

He picked up the decanter of port and looked at it. "I'm not sure about this," he said.

She smiled and selected a plate and a fork, picking them up and making herself comfortable. "If you can drink wine from a water-glass, you can certainly eat dessert on a bed."

He gave her a smiling, provocative look, and poured them both a glass. "To be honest, I rather thought we'd already had dessert on the bed."

She laughed. "A fair point. Although I think this might offer a better ending."

"Mary," he sighed. "What you did was a shock, certainly, but it was entirely understandable and I thoroughly enjoyed myself up until the moment I unthinkingly hurt you."

"You didn't hurt me," she said.

"Frightened you, then," he said, picking up his own plate and fork. "I am so sorry about that. It was a novice's mistake. It won't happen again."

"I know," she said. "And I don't blame you, really I don't." She paused, watching him cut a piece of his cake. "Do you really think there's a way to prevent it happening again?"

He quickly looked up at her, serious, and then he smiled and something warmed in her.

"I know there is," he grinned. "More than one, in fact."

Her body gave a pleasant squeeze and tingled in anticipation. She could only smile at him, so she took a bite of cake, then closed her eyes and hummed. It was delicious: moist, dark, bittersweet. Mrs Andrews really was an excellent cook.

Matthew chuckled and Mary opened her eyes. "What?" she asked.

He swallowed his own mouthful and grinned. "You. You're beautiful."

Her neck and cheeks felt warm and she smiled and quickly looked down, then cleared her throat and cut off another piece of cake. She raised her eyebrows and looked up at him.

"So? What's this terrible sin you've committed?"

"Ah," he nodded, settling back. "What was the one thing that Jesus condemned, repeatedly?"

"Are you to take up sermon-making now?"

He smiled. "If I must."

She set down her fork and put a finger to her lips, hummed in mockingly-deep thought, and then paused, seriously considering his question. "The Pharisees?"

Matthew nodded. "More specifically, the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. He didn't rail against the more obvious sins. Do you recall? They criticised him for eating with the sinners: the prostitutes and thieves and tax collectors and such."

Mary nodded, taking up her fork again. "Go on."

"That was me," he said. "Self-righteous." He took another bite of cake.

She smiled. "You can be a bit of a prig."

Matthew chuckled and swallowed. "Yes, clearly I still need some work."

She shrugged. "So you thought too highly of yourself and appeared to treat the people around you well, even though you had little patience with them. Welcome to the human race. That's not blacker than what I did."

"No, it is," he said, gesturing with his fork and forcefully reminding her of his middle-class upbringing. "Don't you see: you at least could recognise what you'd done. It was obvious and you immediately felt the consequences of it. Me? I persisted in a wrong-headed fashion for years, unable to clearly see myself. I thought I was in the right."

Mary frowned at him. "Weren't you? The way your mother speaks of you, she makes you seem an ideal son."

He shook his head. "I looked it, certainly. I obeyed my parents, worked hard at school, didn't bring shame on my family. I could recount all of the classic Bible stories and recite my mother's favourite verses and answer the catechism."

"So? What was wrong with that?"

"In those particular things, nothing. But I never understood my mother's passion for it, or why my father actually chose to sit and read the Bible when he had the rare time to read. Sometimes I'd enter his study to find a new book or some such thing and there he'd be, just reading the pages, savouring it. He had so little time to himself: why did he spend it doing that? I'd had to read it myself, of course, but I had no desire to pore over it, especially when I was alone and there was no one else to see me." He grinned rakishly at her. "There were far more interesting tales to enjoy, such as things about naked virgins being chained to rocks."

She smirked at him and he chuckled.

"But I didn't give it a second thought; my parents were traditional. I was interested in advancing myself through intellectual pursuits, moving in my own direction."

Mary nodded. "Hence the legal profession, not medicine."

He smiled and nodded. "Precisely."

"So what's wrong with that? Most children don't want to repeat their parents' mistakes."

"I'm getting there, my impatient wife," Matthew said with a smile, quickly swallowing another bite of cake. He set down his plate and fork on the tray and licked his lips. "I didn't notice anything was wrong until Harry's father died."

"Harry?"

"My best mate at school," Matthew said. "His father died about two years before my own. Awful thing; it was a terrible accident at his factory. It was Harry's first day back at school after it happened, and he disappeared during lunch. I went looking for him and found him hiding, crying. I remember looking at him and thinking, 'I ought to comfort him. Do something.' But instead, I just stood there staring at him—he hadn't noticed me there—and not feeling anything. Nothing. I knew his father had died, but I didn't feel even a pang of sadness. It was as though I were dead inside, just frozen and watching this scene. I was more disturbed by my lack of feeling than I was by his pain—and then that disturbed me: I was so self-absorbed. I turned and walked away. He and I were different after that."

Mary frowned, listening to this recital. She could remember similar scenes with Edith. This lack of feeling had never disturbed her: Mary had merely thought herself stronger than her sister for not being such a crybaby. She wasn't sure that Matthew was right to be concerned about his response; she didn't think that she should suddenly start caring so much about others' pain all the time. It sounded exhausting.

"I went on like this, not sure what to do, if anything," Matthew said. "I certainly never told anyone about it. And then my own father started to fall ill. My parents tried to hide it from me for as long as possible, but eventually I confronted him and he admitted it." Matthew paused a moment, then sighed. "It was a slow decline. It went on for nearly a year after I learned of the cancer, and I watched him…die. Painfully. I felt something then: anger. I was consumed with it. I hated God. He was either powerless or He didn't exist at all. Mother's prayers were useless, all the good behaviour I'd saved up was worth nothing—my prayers had no effect either. I might as well have done what I wanted all along, for all the good it did me when it mattered. Father was a truly good man and I loved him and yet he was still suffering. Where was the justice in that? I remember that it felt endless and my anger joined with despair. I couldn't bear to hear Mother spouting platitudes and empty assurances about God's plan and all that rot." He sighed again. "I didn't realise it at the time, but I think my behaviour caused my parents more pain than his illness did. I was showing them my true colours, and they weren't pretty."

Mary set down her plate and fork quietly. Matthew continued, not seeming to notice her action.

"One night, she roused me and told me to put on my robe and then she led me downstairs. They'd decided to keep him home rather than in hospital, so he could be with us until the end, so I knew where we were going."

Matthew's face tightened and Mary ached to hold him close, her throat thick as she imagined the scene. He was allowing her to see into a dark, private place and she held her breath and listened.

"Father was—" Matthew's voice caught, but he pressed on. "—so thin. His skin was like paper and it bruised so easily. I remembered him teaching me how to ride, us going out together on weekends in the country, and now…he couldn't even lift his arm. His voice was raspy, but he still sounded himself, somehow. He took my hand and held it so tightly that he surprised me; I hadn't thought him strong enough for that, but he looked at me and squeezed my hand, and said, 'Don't hate God, son. Please. Promise me you'll seek Him instead.'" Matthew laughed bitterly. "I didn't want to make that promise. I had no desire to keep it. But how could I look him in the eye and refuse?" Matthew paused. "It was no matter; I was never able to respond. He had used up all his breath just to speak those words to me, and then he'd started coughing. His whole body shook, and Mother wiped away blood and I just sat there and blubbed like a child. I hated it, I hated God, I even hated Father for asking this of me when I couldn't say no. I wanted to hit something, throw something, kick something, scream at something, and I think I would have done it, too, if Mother hadn't suddenly gasped and touched his neck and I knew in one instant that he was gone."

Matthew's voice had broken and he curled in on himself and Mary saw him shake. She climbed quickly round the tray and settled beside him, putting her arms around him from behind. He sat very still for a long moment and then she felt him bring himself back under control. He wiped at his face with his hands. "Sorry."

"Blub all you like," Mary said softly, kissing a wet track on his cheek. She rested her head on his shoulder and held him. He twisted and slipped his arm around her, resting his cheek against her head, and was quiet for a short while. Finally, he said:

"His words haunted me, of course. I didn't have one moment when everything was one way and then it all magically changed in the next, but over time, here and there, little moments, something someone said, something Mother did—or didn't do—and I found myself feeling hungry. Feeling as though I were missing something: something deep, something underneath all of the things I'd learned to do to appear good. Something that would make them genuine. Something that gave my parents strength. I didn't know what I was missing; I just had an uneasy feeling that I was. I didn't know how to find it, or even name it. All I knew was that, for the first time, I recognised that I was a fraud." He paused as he watched her reach for a glass of port. "Am I boring you?"

"Only a little," Mary answered, and Matthew chuckled. "Go on," she said. "You've not told me much of your life before coming to Downton. Even if I must endure a sermon," she smirked at him, "I enjoy listening to you speak."

Matthew raised an eyebrow, smiling. "So I would do just as well to read the dictionary to you?"

"No," she said, taking a sip of port. She made a face and set it back down again. "I've certainly sat through drier sermons than this one. But don't give up your position at—what was the name of your firm?"

"Harvell and Carter," Matthew said dryly, then: "Speaking of which, I have some paperwork I'll need you to post. I had intended to visit the office before we left Downton, but I just realised that it's still on my desk at Crawley House."

"Of course," Mary said. "What is it?"

Matthew reached for the other glass. "Oh, just some receipts and notes concerning a will that I was working on. They'll know what to do with it."

"I should hope so," Mary said, "for I certainly won't."

"Oh, I don't know," Matthew said with a smile. "Robert and I are agreed that you would have made a formidable earl if you'd been given the chance." He savoured the port for a moment.

Mary smiled at him, but felt the old sourness inside. She moved away, sliding off the bed and picking up the tray. The cake was unfinished, but she didn't feel much like eating it anymore and neither did he, it appeared. Matthew frowned and swung his legs off the bed.

"I'm sorry; that was crass of me," he said, watching her set the tray down by the door.

"No," she sighed. "It is just…what is."

"It's terribly wrong that you should be prevented from making something of yourself just because you're a woman." He stood up with his glass of port.

Mary turned and raised an eyebrow at him as he approached. "Who says I haven't made anything of myself?"

He squeezed his eyes shut with a grimace. She laughed and stretched up to kiss him. He opened his eyes with a sigh as she pulled away, her own expression becoming serious.

"I haven't, really," she said. "There hasn't been much need, of course, and then it would have been frowned upon…"

"But you're my wife now," he said, with no small measure of pride in his voice. "If you want to do something, you're free to do it. You said once that you envied that I had somewhere to go each day. If you want to find that place for yourself, you should. It's becoming more common for women to attend university these days."

Mary shot him a sceptical look. "I don't think so."

"Why not?" he shrugged. "I did."

"There's a war on, Matthew. I could hardly spend it in some ivory tower."

He finished another swallow of the port and fixed her in a look. "Is that a real reason, or just an excuse?"

She frowned up at him. "I don't particularly want to attend university. Why ever would I? I don't need a profession."

"I'm not saying that you do," he said, setting down the glass and straightening again as she moved away. "I'm merely saying that the world is your oyster. I may be gone, but that doesn't mean you must simply move into a new waiting room."

"I may have already," Mary answered, returning to the bed and climbing under the covers. Matthew frowned. She gave him an exasperated look. "I may be with child. I can't possibly make any life-changing decisions until I know for certain."

"Of course…" Matthew said in an altered tone, and he stopped moving. His frown deepened and he looked to the side.

"Come to bed," she said, patting the covers beside her.

He continued frowning as he came to the bed. "Would you mind if I put out the light?"

"No," she answered, and covered a yawn, following it with an embarrassed smile. She'd never yawned in front of him before. He yawned a moment later and then smiled tentatively at her as he reached for the lamp.

"Are you all right on that side?" she asked, gesturing, suddenly conscious that they might be establishing a pattern that would last the rest of their lives. She wanted to be on the side that was nearer the bathroom.

"I prefer it," he answered, tugging back the covers and climbing under them. "You?"

"Yes." She straightened her covers and then spent a few moments learning how to fit against him, prompting a few grunts from him as she did so and quickly murmuring apologies each time. He just chuckled and when she finally settled her head in the hollow of his shoulder and draped an arm and a leg over him, he gave a long sigh of contentment. She revelled in his warmth and the length of his body. He would come in handy on the colder winter nights; she'd always thought it a shame that full-length hot-water bottles didn't exist.

After a minute of their enjoying this novel sensation in silence, Matthew said:

"I'm so sorry that I have to leave you."

"I know," she said. "So what was it you were saying about being a fraud?"

He frowned and pulled back from her. She quickly put out a hand.

"Please, I just meant for you to continue your story. I wasn't…bitter."

He relaxed somewhat and nodded, but she saw that the unintended meaning had left him uneasy. As he returned to lying on his back, she moved to her previous position curled against him. "Go on," she said. "I'm not bored, truly."

He gave a sad sort of chuckle. "Well, at least there's that." He sighed and did not continue his story. She waited. He reached up with his free hand and ran it down the length of his face, then let the hand fall to the bed. "God, Mary, I'm so sorry. I should never have done this to you, rushing you into a wedding and then leaving directly after. I wasn't thinking about children when I asked you to move up the date, just about being with you. But now—"

Mary rubbed his chest. "It will be all right," she murmured. "I'll have our whole family to smother me with advice and demands to have a lie down; you won't even be missed."

He laughed, then grew sober. "The enlistment officer said that my first leave wouldn't be permitted until nearly a year from now. I wouldn't even be able to be there for the birth."

"And what use would you be if you were? You could wear a path in the carpet and drink some of Papa's brandy, perhaps, and you could do that just as well after the birth as before it."

He laughed again. "How can you joke about this?"

She rose up on one elbow. "What else is there to do? Mourn something that hasn't even happened yet and might never?"

"I suppose you're right."

"Good. Because I am. Now," she said, settling back down beside him again. "If you don't return to your story soon, I probably will fall asleep before you finish it."

He chuckled and squeezed her with a fond growl. "Very well! Since you insist. Now, where was I?"

"Fraud."

"Right. So I realised I was a fraud. I was at Radley and I couldn't very well stop attending chapel; it's required. But I found myself listening in a different way: instead of nodding and thinking that I was already doing that—whatever the sermon was about—I was doubting myself, doubting whether there any point to even doing it, wondering why I was even sitting in the pew. I still couldn't bring myself to reject all that I'd been taught as a child, but I didn't believe in it all, either. It was a very uncomfortable place.

"I carried on in this fashion, not wanting to disappoint my mother, keeping my doubts and dissatisfaction to myself. I wanted to be the sort of man who would make her—and Father—proud. I knew that if I at least behaved well, I wouldn't cause her more pain, and I did it for that reason. But I felt desperately soul-hungry and I tried to fill it with intellectual accomplishments. I finished top of my class and made her proud in that way at least.

"Oxford was an entirely different set. There was a chap on my floor whom I often studied with, Tom, who, in addition to being brilliant at the law, was one of those irritating types who gets far too passionate about religion and assumes everyone else is as well—and if you're not, you ought to be." Mary chuckled at his words. "When he'd asked where I stood, I'd answered correctly, of course, and he'd assumed I was with him, which at least spared me the tiresome proselytising, but got me into some rather sticky pickles when we were out together." He laughed. "Stories for another day. In any case, he had brought practically an entire library with him: Amy Carmichael's letters, Hudson Taylor's biography, Spurgeon's sermons, that sort of thing. When I reluctantly confessed that I hadn't read them all, he pressed them on me. He was convinced that God wanted him to become a foreign missionary, defending the persecuted, and he was to do everything he could to prepare."

Mary made a sympathetic sound. "Tiresome, indeed."

"It was, at first. But reading Carmichael was like seeing into a foreign land—and I don't just mean India, I mean a foreign view of existence. All the familiar words were there and in the usual order, but the degree of surrender, commitment, passion, conviction…it was unlike anything I'd encountered before. And more than that…she spoke as though God were a real person, standing beside her. Perhaps it was the quality of a woman's voice, I don't know. There was a kind of everyday intimacy, a humour even, in knowing Him and being known by Him. I'd never seen that before: I'd just seen all the good deeds you were supposed to do and the right ways of thinking that you were supposed to adhere to."

"And that was when the magic moment happened?" Mary yawned. She really was trying to listen, but it was getting late and she was warm and comfortable and she'd caught herself starting to drift. She couldn't recall what had prompted him to recount this story; where was he going with it? More and more, the moment that she'd been looking forward to all day, of falling asleep in his arms, was looking especially appealing.

Matthew chuckled and rubbed her arm. "No. As I said, there was no one magic moment. Just conversations with Tom, my tutors, various friends, and the like. As I said, Oxford was an entirely different set: people aren't shy about questioning Christianity and espousing other belief systems. It's fortunate that a study of the law includes making a study of philosophy as well. I found that it became not only a professional pursuit, but also a personal one."

"…and?" she prompted, stifling another yawn. "I'm not bored, really. Just wondering where you're going with this."

"You're tired," Matthew said. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be nattering on like this. In short, I found myself doing exactly what I remembered my father doing: studying the Bible whenever I could. Of course, I was studying other sources as well, but I found what I was looking for in the Bible."

"And what was that?"

"Peace. Hope. The way to come to life and genuinely care about others, not just appear to care about them for as long as they are of use to me. Forgiveness." He pulled away slightly and looked at her. "My forgiveness can't heal you, Mary, but His can."

It all sounded vague and fanciful to her, of no more import than any of the sermons she'd sat through in her life. He might as well have told her to visit Oberon for all the good it would do her. But he clearly expected something, so she smiled and made a thoughtful humming sound and nodded, then returned to her resting place. He could believe what he wished; she was just glad for this moment, for the fact that she was warm and comfortable and in his arms, that he hadn't put her away after her shameful behaviour. Perhaps they could find some way to make this work. The love of God might be an abstraction, but Matthew was real, and she would enjoy him for as long as they had together. Although it would be nice if Matthew's words were true. A comforting illusion, perhaps, but it would be nice…to not…be afraid…any longer.

She yawned and cuddled closer to his warmth, smiling as he rubbed her arm and hummed contentedly, the low sound vibrating in his chest.