Hello! Happy New Year! I'm so sorry that it's taken so long to get this chapter up. Thank you so much for your patience, and thank you to all who read, follow, and favorite, and especially review. You can't begin to know how much your reviews mean!
And if you haven't read my Secret Santa story, Silent Night, Lonely Night, please do! It's a "missing moment" from Chapters 1 and 2 from Center, so it's like getting an extra chapter!
Thank you so much for all your love for Center!
Matthew pulled himself up and started walking. The desolation of the battlefield stretched as far as the eye could see. No sound of battle, no sound of any life at all. No sun, no moon, no stars, just a heavy grey where the sky should have been. Where was everyone? Where were his men? Where was William? If he walked far enough, he would find them, surely. His legs ached, though, and he didn't know how much longer he could keep going, the pain was getting worse. He had to force each step, his legs weren't working right, but somehow he put one foot in front of the other. At last, he just couldn't go on and fell to his knees and then pitched forward. At least his legs didn't hurt anymore. It was so strange; he couldn't feel them at all. Could he crawl? He dragged himself along with his arms, and just as he thought he could go no further, he suddenly realized that he had managed to crawl beyond the battlefield into a meadow. It shouldn't make sense, but yet it did. The sky was so blue, not a cloud to be seen, and the sun beat down upon him. It felt good on his back. And Mary was sitting there! Was she waiting for him? Yes, she rose and ran to him. He reached up his hand—oh, she was so beautiful!—and she clasped it as she knelt and put his head in her lap. He closed his eyes and felt her stroke his head. "I thought you would never come," she said. "I've been waiting for you all this time." It felt so good, so right. But he had to tell her. He would always love her, but he couldn't be her husband. He made himself push up, his arms were shaking, he was so very tired, but somehow he managed, and he looked up at her. Before he could speak, she took his head in her hands and, smiling and shaking her head, said softly, "You are my husband." He was her husband! But then, he remembered, sadly, that he couldn't give her any children. "And we're going to have a child," she smiled. "Isn't it wonderful?" A child! It was a miracle! But he had to be sure she understood. "I'm still a cripple, Mary." She kissed his forehead. "It doesn't matter. All that matters is you're home." He shook his head, then looked around in disbelief at the abbey, the Downton grounds. He was flooded with relief and, sighing, he laid his head on Mary's lap.
He kissed her hands. "The long and the short of it is, I've been doing so well, that I've been discharged as a residential patient. Dr. Yardley will take me on in a consulting capacity. I like him very much, and he's very thoughtful—that's his car and driver that brought me here. So, I'll go to York twice weekly for physio, and once a week, a physiotherapist will come here. And I'm still Coates's patient, so I'll need to go back to London every six weeks or so at first, then every few months, as a day patient. Which is all wonderful news, you see, because it means," and here Matthew lifted a stick, "this isn't the end of what walking looks like for me."
"Oh, Matthew, such wonderful news." Mary reached up, cradling his face, shaking her head, smiling, laughing, crying. "And really, truly? You're home?"
His hands covered hers, and he kissed her forehead, then held her eyes. "Really, truly, my darling, really, truly. I'm home."
Then Matthew pulled her to him, embracing her tightly, her head tucked under his chin, now and then pressing a kiss to the top of her head as he gazed at the grounds, having almost as hard a time as she was absorbing the reality that he would not have to leave her again. Finally, he cupped her chin, turning her face up to him, and kissed her tenderly.
"Shall we go back? I asked that mother be called, and Trent should have had time to fetch her."
Mary nodded with a smile, "Oh, I'm so glad. I was going to suggest calling her myself." She eyed him critically. "You must be exhausted."
"I'm not, darling," he smiled. It wasn't a complete lie. He was so exhilarated by all that had transpired, ending with him sitting next to his wife, it quite buoyed him up at the moment. He'd pay for it later, but right now he didn't care.
Mary shook her head skeptically. "All the travel, and I'm sure this new doctor 'put you through your paces,' as Coates would say."
Matthew laughed as he leaned forward, then placed his sticks and pushed up. "He did indeed." He straightened up, then paused, swaying a bit before he got his balance. "Not as extensively as my examination by Coates when he came here, but he was thorough." They set out across the lawn to the gravel path, his steps slow, careful, and still awkward, but Mary marveled to see him walking without the leg braces, using canes instead of the forearm crutches.
They entered the house through the library French doors, and found Robert, Cora and Isobel waiting for them, as Carson served tea. Isobel rose, shaking her head, her eyes brimming. Matthew made his way to her, smiling happily, his throat tight. He really couldn't speak, as he watched his mother trying to maintain control.
"Oh, my boy," murmured Isobel. "My darling boy." She held him by the shoulders, kissing his cheek, then stood back, her voice choking. "It's so good . . so good to have you home."
Mary watched as Matthew clasped Bates around the neck, who then pivoted him to the bed. Matthew pulled himself back, as Bates lifted his legs, then drew up the covers.
"Thank you, Bates. I'm sorry for the bother. I'm just worn out."
Bates shook his head, smiling. "No, bother at all, sir. It's very good to have you back."
Matthew had lasted through tea, but then had had to face the music. It was suddenly as if a balloon had been deflated, and he felt just how bone-tired he was, the muscles in his back and legs beginning to ache and spasm. He knew he couldn't walk any more today.
"Carson, I'm afraid I must ask for my chair to be brought round," he smiled apologetically. Then he looked at Mary. "I'm fine, darling, but it's time I was put to bed." Mary stood as the chair was brought in. "And, no, you are not going to push me." Mary frowned, but didn't object as Alfred waited behind the chair. With Robert's help, he got himself up, kissed his mother, then sat down heavily in his chair, propping his sticks between his legs on the footrest. "I'll see you all at dinner tomorrow night," he promised with a smile, as Alfred started pushing, Mary beside him with her hand on his shoulder. He exhaled a sigh of relief.
Bates held out the laudanum and aspirin, then a glass of water. Matthew swallowed the medicine, then got himself over onto his stomach, with minimal amount of help from Bates. Bates carefully placed three flannel-covered hot water bottles on his back.
"Anything else, sir?"
Matthew said from his pillow, "That'll do it, thank you."
Bates inclined his head, then withdrew.
Mary came to him and kissed him, then came round to the other side of the bed, unbuckling her shoes and climbing in.
Matthew turned to face her. "Daring, you don't need to—."
Mary placed a finger on his lips, then kissed him softly. "Shhh. Yes, I do need to." She began to stroke his hair.
He held her eyes, a smile playing on his lips. "How's baby?"
She took his hand and placed it on her belly. After a moment, he chuckled happily as he felt the kick. His lids grew heavy, then closed. "Love . . ." He breathed evenly, and surely he was asleep, but then, ". . . you."
"So much," Mary whispered, watching until his breathing told her he was well and truly asleep, then she closed her eyes, giving in to the exhaustion she herself now felt. But she could only doze, waking again and again to make sure it wasn't a dream, he was there, next to her, until Anna quietly came in with a tray for her supper.
Home. He awoke, not in the mud of the battlefield, as he so often did when sleeping prone, but lying in soft grass. As the dream fell away, he tried to remember: Mary was holding his head in her lap. He was home at Downton, he was with Mary. All that mattered was that he was home. He reached for her, then realized her side of the bed was empty. He heard the door to his room open, and he pushed up, turning his head.
Mary came to him. "I'm sorry I woke you, darling. I had to relieve myself." She kissed his forehead, combing his hair with her fingers.
"I'm not sorry," Matthew said softly.
"Are you ready to turn over?"
He made a face. "Mmm. What time is it?"
Mary glanced at the clock. "Nearly three-thirty."
Matthew sighed. "Good, yes, let's turn me over."
She collected the hot water bottles, setting them in his chair, then helped him get onto his back, one pillow under his head. She eyed him with concern. "Do you need pillows under your legs?"
His mouth tugged up. "What I need is for you to open that curtain a bit, and then take off your nightgown, so I can see my beautiful wife."
Mary laughed, "Your fat wife, more like." He started to protest, but she stopped him with a kiss, then went to the curtains, tugging them aside to let the moonlight stream in. She pulled off her nightgown.
Matthew gazed at her changed form in wonder. "Oh, my love," he breathed, as she slowly turned for him. He held out his hand, and she climbed into bed, kneeling next to him, gratified at his response.
"I warned you."
"No," he said thickly, his eyes drinking in her swollen breasts and her round belly. "No, you didn't warn me that you're more beautiful than ever." He gently caressed her stomach.
"Wait until you see me in another month."
"Stop," he whispered, pulling her down for a kiss. Their lips parted, and they tasted each other hungrily again and again, the long weeks apart intensifying their need.
Mary started to unbutton his pajama top, but Matthew stayed her hand. "Wait."
"What?" she asked impatiently, not stopping.
"Wait. Is this all right?"
"Is what all right?" she frowned, starting to pull off his top.
"For us to, you know, do this? When you're so far along." He had meant to ask Jack before his next visit home, figuring that with his father specializing in women's medicine, he'd know. But then suddenly, he was leaving in less than twenty-four hours. He'd called to let Jack and Alice know he was being discharged, but Jack was still at work, so he'd only spoken with Alice. He was hardly going to bring it up with her.
"It most certainly is," Mary nodded, as he pushed up and shrugged off the top.
"How do you know?"
She started on the tie to his pajama bottoms, but he stayed her hands. "I asked Alice, of course."
Matthew's brows flew up. "You did?"
Mary leaned down and kissed him. "Yes, I did. Jack's father is a women's specialist, after all. And," she added, as she continued to work on the tie, "I asked Clarkson, as well, since I knew you'd worry."
"You did? Well, then!" Matthew grinned. He made quick work of the tie, and he and Mary tugged the bottoms off. They stared at each other, breathing heavily, then Mary straddled his hips, taking him and lowering herself down. They moaned in unison, then Mary began to rock.
How had Peter described it? It's bliss, just to be inside her. Dear God, it was.
"Oh, Mary," he groaned. "Oh . . .oh . . ." It had been so long. She made that sound in the back of her throat, her fingers digging into his shoulders, as she rocked harder and harder, her eyes slits. He held her hips and began to thrust until she cried out with a wail, and then he didn't hold back, his body jerking, shuddering, his own cry echoing hers.
They gazed at each other, panting, throbbing. Matthew pushed up again, and Mary gave out a whimpering cry, her head falling back, then dropping. Finally, she looked up, sighing heavily, and brushed a lock of hair off his forehead.
"Now, I know . . ." she whispered.
Matthew traced her lips with his finger, looking up at her with a puzzled smile. "Know what, my love?"
"That you're here."
She kissed the palm of his hand and placed it over her heart. "I'm not dreaming."
He shook his head. "Not dreaming."
"And you don't have to leave?"
"I don't have to leave."
And then it was just too much. Her face crumpled. "Oh, God, Matthew, I've missed you so."
It wasn't that the chicken soup with rice wasn't delicious—Mrs. Patmore had cooked it, after all—it was just that the laudanum always made him slightly nauseous. Matthew took another taste, then set the spoon down on the tray, closing his eyes, luxuriating at being propped up in his own bed—Mary's bed. The clock chimed the noon hour. He managed to stretch his legs a bit and couldn't help smiling. It still was a surprise: He could stretch his legs! He sighed happily and began to doze. The door opening startled him awake.
"Darling, look—oh! I'm so sorry, you were asleep!"
Matthew's head jerked up, then he smiled, picking up his spoon again. "No, no, not at all. The laudanum just makes me drowsy."
"Well, look who's here—you have a visitor," she replied, returning his smile, holding the door open wide.
"Mother!" he exclaimed, holding out his hands, "I didn't expect to see you until dinner tonight!"
Isobel entered the bedroom, taking his hands and kissing his cheek. "I hadn't expected to come myself, knowing you'd be resting, but—."
"But, I called her to come," Mary finished, "because you see, there's something that just cannot wait." She fed him a spoonful of soup, then picked up the tray and started to set it on the floor, but straightened up, sighing in irritation.
Isobel came over and took the tray from her. "Here, you shouldn't try that, let me." She set the tray down, then turned back to Matthew. "Now then!" she smiled.
Matthew looked from Mary to his mother and back, completely baffled. "Now . . . what?"
Isobel held up a worn black leather pouch with the initials "RC" embossed in gold. Matthew recognized it immediately. "That's father's—." He stopped, looking at his mother.
She removed his father's stethoscope, smiling. "We could have used mine," she said softly, "but I thought it would be nice if he were here with us."
At first, Matthew didn't understand, but then, as Mary unbuttoned her blouse and lifted her chemise, his throat grew tight. Isobel fit the ear tips into her ears, rubbed the bell on her palm to warm it, then placed it on Mary's belly.
His mother moved the bell once, then again, frowning in concentration. The room was silent except for the clock ticking. Suddenly, she smiled broadly. Holding the bell in place with one hand, she removed the ear tips with the other, handing them to Matthew.
With shaking hands, he adjusted the ear tips, listening intently, his own heart pounding. He inhaled sharply, his eyes wide, then he looked up. "It's so fast," he whispered.
Isobel nodded reassuringly, "It's supposed to be."
He looked at Mary, his face breaking into a joyous smile, his eyes filling. He reached out, and she clasped his hand, as he kept listening to their miracle.
Matthew had arisen mid-afternoon, done some exercises with Bates, walked a bit, bathed, rested again, and then dressed for dinner—white tie, of course, Granny was coming. His pain was enough under control that he had dispensed with the laudanum—he'd take some again at bedtime. Wheeling himself to the end of their corridor, he took his sticks from Mary, and got himself up, a small grunt escaping him.
Mary frowned as they entered the great hall. "Now don't overdo. You can always have the chair brought round."
He had stopped, setting a stick against a table, leaning heavily on the other, and reached out to take her hand. "I know. But right now, anyway, I'm fine." Then he pulled her to him for a quick kiss. "Believe me, darling. I won't push myself too hard, and I'll gladly use my chair if I need to," he reassured her. Wearing himself out would just put him back in bed longer, and possibly needing the braces, something he was determined to avoid as much as possible. "And," he grinned, tapping her nose, "I told Bates to have Alfred bring the chair and collect me at ten o'clock, if I haven't rung before."
"Well, I'm relieved you're being so sensible," she laughed. "And," she added, returning the tap, "ten is perfect—it's when I start yawning rudely."
"Matthew!" Edith cried, as he and Mary entered the drawing room. She rose from her chair, followed by Anthony, "this is the most wonderful turn of events!" She kissed his cheek, then stood back shaking her head, taking in his new sticks, and that he wasn't wearing the leg braces. "You look marvelous!"
Anthony clapped him on the shoulder. "Just splendid!" he nodded. "Good to have you back!"
"Thank you. It's so good to be back." He smiled at them both. "And so good to see you back from your honeymoon. I can't wait to hear about your travels."
"Matthew, I hope you rested well," Robert smiled, coming forward, and giving him a hand as he sat down, as Mary joined her mother on the settee.
"I did, indeed. I'll take it easy tomorrow, but then I'll start with my new regime that Coates and Yardley have worked out, to build myself up to begin the physio at Royal York, which will start next week."
"You'll be going there as an outpatient twice weekly?" Edith asked.
"Yes, and someone will come to work with me here once a week."
Carson entered the drawing, standing aside for Violet and Isobel to enter.
Matthew rose. Isobel kissed him, then went to greet Mary, and he waited as Violet approached. She looked him up and down, then nodded, reaching out to pat his arm. "Well done, dear boy, well done." She smiled and raised her stick. "You'll find these aren't too bad."
He smiled and shook his head. "No, not bad at all."
Such a happy dinner, the family all gathered for the first time since Edith's wedding.
"If only Sybil were here," Mary said under her breath to Matthew. "And Tom!" she added, as he inclined his head and raised his brows.
Mary, quite lovely in a loose garnet-hued dress, embellished with black beading, found herself feeling a pang of jealousy looking at Edith. The couple had stopped a few days in Paris, both at the beginning and the end of their honeymoon, and Edith had ordered several dresses, which had only just been delivered. She really looked stunning in her rose and pale green beaded sheath. Then the baby kicked, and Mary didn't mind as much.
Matthew, for his part, saw immediately the change in Edith and Anthony that Mary had described in her letter, a confidence in their relationship that hadn't been there before the wedding. No longer did Edith look desperately at Granny or Robert, hoping for a sign of approval, nor did Anthony seem, by his very expression, to apologize for his presence among them. It was lovely to see them so relaxed, so clearly sure of the rightness of their marriage.
The family had already drunk to his return. Now, Matthew raised his glass. "And, since I wasn't here to toast them when they returned from their honeymoon—to Edith and Anthony, wishing you every happiness!"
Everyone joined in, as Edith and Anthony smiled their thanks. "Thank you, Matthew," Edith said softly, her face reflecting how much she appreciated his support. She looked at Anthony, bringing her hand to her stomach. "We are so very happy."
No one but Mary seemed to notice, but of course, she would. Her eyes widened. "Edith?" she smiled, "Do you have something to tell us?"
The table grew silent as Edith, blushing, looked at Anthony, and he gave her a nod. "Well, we were going to wait to say anything—this is Matthew's night." She gave him an apologetic look, but he raised his hand slightly, and shook his head, he now smiling broadly, having understood Mary's question, as he waited for her to continue. "But I guess I've given myself away." Edith looked around the table, her face glowing. "We're expecting a child. Sometime in May."
Another toast, exclamations of congratulations, even from Granny, more happy conversation, more of Mrs. Patmore's finest, including Madeira syllabub for dessert. It was one of Matthew's favorites, and he knew that she had made it for him, syllabub not being something she had been able to pack up in a hamper and send to the clinic. When he finished, he set his spoon down and looked around the table, his chest heaving slightly. He pressed his lips together and swallowed. It had happened more than once each time he had come home from the clinic, often here in the grand room after ample and delicious food, surrounded by loving family, the clash and crash of memories and emotions suddenly overwhelming him.
"Are you all right, darling?" He started at the pressure of Mary's hand on his arm.
Cora stood, "Shall we go through?"
Matthew nodded. "More than all right," he assured her softly. Seeing the concern that she couldn't hide, his hand covered hers, giving it a squeeze. "Truly." Mary wasn't convinced, but she kissed his cheek, then rose, following the other ladies out.
Robert and Anthony rose and came around to his end of the table, as Carson set out the port, then brought the cigar box.
"Do you know, Carson, I must indulge tonight in honor of Sir Anthony and Lady Edith's news," Matthew grinned.
"Very good, sir!" Carson nodded in approval.
Robert clapped him on the shoulder. "Now, that's the spirit!" He poured them each a glass, then raised his to Anthony. "To the happy event!"
"Thank you, Robert." Anthony shook his head," smiling broadly. "I still can't really believe it. I had reconciled myself long ago to never having children. Really, I think I'm going to burst." He took a sip and raised his eyebrows. "Robert, this is excellent."
Robert inclined his head with a smile. "Well, such an occasion deserves the best." He started to say something, then changed his mind, taking another taste of the port. Anthony ducked his head in acknowledgment. The two men fell silent.
Matthew took an appreciative drag on his cigar—he didn't miss them, now that he'd given them up, but did still enjoy those rare times he indulged—then smiled at Anthony. "I've never seen Edith so happy."
Anthony's eyes lit up, but before he could respond, Robert, who had been rolling the tip of his cigar in his ash tray, looked up and held Anthony's eyes. "No, nor have I," he said quietly. "And it's wonderful to see."
Anthony looked at him in surprise. "Thank you, Robert, that's . . . Thank you." He took a sip of his port.
They puffed in silence, and Matthew got the distinct impression that conversation between the two continued to be as uncomfortable as it had been before the wedding. He was about to ask about the honeymoon trip, when Robert blurted out, "Anthony, I feel I've been very—." He broke off, frowning.
Anthony set his cigar down, then looked at Robert. "I understood . . . why you felt the way you did," he responded evenly. "But, we don't need anyone's approval, however much we wanted yours." Robert had the grace to look abashed.
Matthew set down his glass and pushed up, holding onto the table. They didn't need him here. "You know, I'll be making an early evening of it tonight." He reached back and moved his chair, then grasped his sticks. "I'll go join the ladies now." Robert and Anthony started to rise. "No, no, don't get up." He carefully turned away from the table and started for the drawing room. When he was just through the dining room door, he heard Robert say, "I'm sorry I wasn't more supportive of your marriage," and, smiling in relief, he knew he was right to leave them.
"May I join you?" he asked cheerfully, entering the drawing room. Everyone turned to him in surprise.
"Why of course," Cora replied, giving him a puzzled smile, seeing that he was alone.
"Robert and Anthony will be along shortly," he continued, heading toward a Sheraton armchair next to the settee where Edith and Mary were sitting, answering everyone's question before it was asked, "but I won't be up late tonight, and I didn't want to miss your lovely company."
"And we're glad to have you," Isobel called.
"I see even patient Matthew found Anthony dull," Violet observed under her breath.
Isobel rolled her eyes. "Oh, do be quiet!" she hissed, then turned to speak to Cora.
Mary, seeing he was walking with greater difficulty than earlier in the evening, rose and came to him, staying with him until he reached the chair and settled himself, then resumed her seat next to Edith. She eyed him skeptically, but before she could say anything, Edith turned to him, leaning across Mary.
"Matthew, I can't believe you left Anthony alone with Papa!" she admonished in an undertone. "They haven't stayed behind together since the first night we were home. Anthony said it was completely awkward between them."
"Yes, that was pretty clear." He cocked his head, giving her look. "You might have warned me, you know."
"Well, you're quite aware of how Papa feels! Not that we need his or anyone's approval," she added.
Matthew nodded. "That's exactly what Anthony told your father."
"What? He told Papa that?"
Matthew nodded again. "And as I was leaving, your Papa was saying he was sorry he hadn't been more supportive of your marriage. He's trying to mend fences, Edith. They didn't need to have me sitting there as an audience."
"And he wasn't just saying the words?"
"No, I feel sure he was sincere."
"I don't care for me, but Anthony didn't deserve—." She broke off, pressing her lips together. "It's the baby."
"Whatever it is, if it's brought about a change, rejoice. Your father said he's never seen you so happy," said Matthew softly.
"Well," Edith laughed, shrugging her shoulders, "he's right."
"How are you feeling, then?" he smiled warmly.
"So far, just tired. Mary, you described it perfectly—sometimes my head feels like it's filled with sand. No nausea yet, although I'm keeping salted wafers on my bedside table at the ready.
"And at the first sign of queasiness, stop drinking tea!" Mary advised.
"I know, but—no tea?" She shook her head. "I can't ima—." She stopped as Robert and Anthony entered the room, chuckling together. Edith sat back, her eyes wide. "Will wonders never cease," she murmured.
Robert went to the drinks cabinet and held up the decanter of Scotch, looking first at Anthony who nodded, then at Matthew, who raised a hand and shook his head.
Anthony came straight to Edith, leaning down and kissing her cheek. "How are you holding up, my sweet?"
"I'm . . I'm fine," she said happily.
"So, I'm still waiting for a report on the honeymoon," Matthew requested with a smile. During dinner, Anthony and Edith had spoken only in general terms of their trip, the rest of the family having heard details when they had returned home. Now they happily obliged Matthew, describing their time in Paris, Venice, Florence, daytrips from a Tuscan villa, and then Rome. Matthew had many questions and observations. He, Jack, and Eddie Brett had tramped around Europe, and Italy in particular, the summer after their graduation from Oxford—with the war, a lifetime ago. As always, Mary loved hearing about his life before he came to Downton.
The conversation moved back to Paris, and the last days of their trip.
After hearing about all the sights they'd taken in, Matthew observed, "Paris is still Paris. That's wonderful." He paused in thought, then asked, "And how's the rebuilding from the war damage progressing?" Mary's mouth opened in surprise. He almost never brought up anything about the war.
"Even in Paris, not very fast. And the countryside is much as you last saw it, I'm afraid, from what we could tell from the train. Of course, it's not yet a year since the Armistice." He held Matthew's eyes, and they shared a world.
Everyone grew silent.
When Anthony and Edith had returned, they had described what they seen on the train from Calais to Paris— miles upon miles of devastated landscape, often stretching to the horizon; town after town bearing the scars of shelling, including Amiens, some reduced to rubble. Edith had finally buried her head in Anthony's shoulder, while he continued to stare grimly out the window. She hadn't wanted to talk about it in front of Mary: It was hard enough seeing it and thinking of the injury Anthony suffered, and he was behind the lines, but what Matthew endured . . . I kept picturing him there . . . But Mary had insisted: I want to know. I need to know. It would help her understand, and she had made them tell her.
"I'd like to talk to you about it, another time." Matthew said quietly.
"Of course," Anthony replied.
"I want to go back, one day, when I can travel."
Anthony nodded sympathetically.
Mary inhaled sharply, her eyes widening. "You do?" Then she added, "You mean, travel to Paris."
He turned to her, saying simply. "Not just Paris."
She opened her mouth to respond, then pressed her lips together, remaining lost in thought as the conversation moved on.
Soon, the clock struck ten, and Alfred appeared on cue with the wheelchair. Matthew gripped a stick with one hand and a chair arm with the other, pushing himself up. He held out his hand to Mary. "Darling?"
Mary's eyes filled, her consternation at his desire return to the place that had cost him so much momentarily forgotten. Smiling up at him, holding his gaze, she took his hand, and he pulled her up—he pulled her up. Everyone applauded, they couldn't help it.
Shaking her head, she kissed his cheek. "You're full of surprises tonight, aren't you?"
Mary stared into her dressing table mirror, one hand propping her chin, the other fingering the toy dog, waiting for Matthew to come in. Her thoughts were all a jumble, and the longer she waited, the more of a jumble they became. She exhaled, frowning, then tugged at the ribbon tying her plait. She ran her fingers through her hair to undo the braiding, then gave her head a shake and picked up her brush.
The door from Matthew's room opened, and she watched in the mirror as Bates pushed him in, Matthew smiling in pleasure at the sight of her with her hair down, watched as he held on as Bates lifted and pivoted him onto the bed. A slight groan escaped him, as he pulled himself back, and he couldn't help grimacing.
"You over did," she stated looking at him in the mirror, continuing to brush her hair.
Matthew leaned back against the pillows, frowning slightly. There was an edge to her voice.
"Really, darling, I didn't." He started to say more but decided to wait.
Bates poured his dose of laudanum into a medicine cup, then offered it and a glass of water. Matthew held up his hand, giving his head an imperceptible shake, then returned to watching Mary, who continued brushing. He realized she was brushing very vigorously. Angrily?
Bates set the medicine cup and glass down. "Anything else, sir?"
Matthew glanced at him. "I believe that'll do it, thank you."
As soon as the door had shut behind Bates, Matthew reiterated, "I didn't overdo. I'm tired, yes, and that's why I didn't try to put myself to bed, so that I wouldn't overdo."
"Mm," Mary replied.
This isn't about my overdoing, Matthew realized.
"Shouldn't you be lying flat?" Again, a sharpness to the question. Her brush snapped her hair.
"I will, when you come to bed."
"I apologize unreservedly. Now, please stop brushing your hair and tell me what I've done to upset you."
In spite of her pique, her mouth quirked as she suppressed a laugh at his preemptive apology. She turned around and sighed. "I'm not upset with you." How could she be upset with him when those blue eyes looked at her with so much love and concern? But still.
"Darling. You are." He held out his hand. "Please, tell me what's wrong so I can make amends."
She set the brush down, then rose, removing her kimono, and came to the bed, taking his hand and climbing in. She knelt next to him, lacing her fingers with his, trying to sort out her feelings.
"It was just such a shock," she began, "when you said you wanted to go back to see . . ." she stopped, starting to choke up.
But Mary went on. "And it's not really, the idea of your wanting to go back, even though I don't understand why you'd want to, after the horror you went through, but it's that you'd never talked about it with me, before saying it in front of everyone." She shook her head, "It's silly of me, I understand it's all so hard for you to talk about. It's just that if you could say it to the family, why couldn't you have said it to me, first? I'm hurt," she said, blinking back tears, "and I'm upset with myself for feeling hurt, but I can't help it."
"My love, I'm so sorry," he said, he eyes reflecting his distress. "I didn't think about it before I spoke, it just came out, I suppose because I was talking to Anthony. But I should have realized. Can you forgive me?"
She leaned down and kissed him tenderly. "There's nothing to forgive. I said I was being silly."
"You're not being silly." He gazed at their joined hands, his mouth working, then raised his eyes, looking at her apologetically. "It's not just that it's so difficult to talk about. You already put up with so much from me, I don't want give you one more moment's worry."
"Don't ever let that stop you," she whispered.
Matthew pulled her against him into an embrace, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. After a minute, he began diffidently, "One of the hardest things for me . . . is having no memory of what happened . . . one minute, it seems, you see, I was there, a place I thought I'd never leave alive, and then I was here . . . alive, but . . ." His voice trailed off. Mary stifled a sob, finishing silently what he couldn't: Alive, but you didn't want to live. He kissed the top of her head again, and his arms tightened around her. He couldn't tell her, he might never be able to tell her, that in those early, awful days, there were times he had wished he were still back in hell, that that had seemed better than the life he was facing.
He went on, "We fellows talked about it at the clinic—the difference for those who remember at least some part of being wounded and brought home, and those of us who have no memory at all." He remembered blowing his whistle—sometimes he couldn't get the sound out of his head—then chaos, then William was with him, then "Sir!"—and then Mary looking down at him. It still seemed impossible. "I don't remember, and there's such an unreality about it, even after over a year. I think going back may help me reconcile it some." He shrugged. "I'm still a long way from making that trip."
She sat up and looked at him, cupping his face. "Thank you for telling me," she said softly.
"Are you sure?" he asked gently.
"Yes," she nodded. "Very sure."
He kissed her hand, his eyes grateful for her understanding, then tugged a lock of her hair, his mouth pulling up in a smile. "Why'd you brush your hair out, if you were so rightfully put out with me?"
She laughed again, "Exactly because I was put out. I know how much you love it, and you know I know, so it showed I wasn't being unreasonable, if you follow."
Matthew frowned, then raised an eyebrow. "Well, I think I do." He held her face, pressing a kiss to her lips. He leaned his forehead on hers, twining his fingers in her chestnut glory. "I do appreciate it, awfully much, in any event."
Mary tugged one of the pillows from behind him, helping him settle flat on his back. They kissed again, deeply. Mary turned off her bedside light, then reached across Matthew to turn off his and spied the glass of water and his dose of laudanum.
"Shouldn't you take your medicine?" she asked.
He looked up at her, shaking his head. "Right now," he answered, huskily, "you're the only medicine I need."
She turned off the light, and they began making love.
Thank you so much for reading! Reviews are like a Valentine!