A/N: HAPPY DOWNTON DAY! In honour of this special and emotional day *sniff*, we bring a story we intended to publish last Monday for mmmondaymadness on LJ only we hadn't finished it in time! It is based entirely on the episode 8 preview at the end of episode 7 so there are no spoilers for the extended dancing clip or anything else!

Matthew/Mary forever whatever happens tonight!

The gramophone had occupied the entire house all afternoon and Robert had not sent the servants away when they had crept up to hear the music. Spirits had been high all round and there had been dancing. With unusual good humour Richard had proved himself competent at the slow waltz (a relief otherwise their wedding dance would be an embarrassment) to "Oh what a pal was Mary" to the great amusement of the rest of the household. Mary had not danced since before the war and putting her arms into hold and going through the motions of the steps felt like a strange memory of a long ago time when things were very different.

Now that she was dressed for dinner, she returned to the empty hallway and approached the fascinating machine slowly. She hesitated then put on a new record, turned the volume down, and leaned back against the table as two voices began to sing a wistful war song. She began to sway and point her feet in time to the music, staring intently at her shoes as she concentrated on the unfamiliar sound filling the hall.

"There's a song in the land of the lily, Each sweetheart has heard with a sigh."

Walking - he still couldn't quite get over that - to the front door from the car, Matthew rubbed his hands briskly together against the cold evening air. He went straight in - he was early, he knew, and didn't want to disturb any dinner preparations – but he wanted to grasp the opportunity for privacy whilst it arose. That was, of course, if he could find Mary to speak to… If she wasn't the first down, he'd just have to find an opportunity later. As he approached the hallway door, after leaving his gloves, coat and hat on the table, he stopped a moment, trying to work out where the faint sound of music was coming from.

"...while you kiss me sad adieu, When the clouds roll by I'll come to you..."

He smiled gently, recognising the words, and considering how strangely appropriate they seemed. His hand was on the door when he looked through the glass, and froze, captivated by the sight in front of him. Mary was down already - dancing, ethereal in her blue gown, alone in the vast, empty hall as the music echoed quietly. Moving quietly - not wanting to interrupt, she looked so enchanting - he gently pushed open the door and stepped through, a fond, thoughtful smile on his face.

So intent on listening as she was, Mary heard the slight creak of the door and instantly looked up. Her lips parted in surprise and her hands gripped the table edge a little harder for a moment when she saw it was Matthew. She still found it difficult to see him walking without feeling somewhat emotional - and then for a moment he had been looking at her in such a peculiar way!

"You're early!" she said presently, stopping her feet and smiling a little hesitantly. There was something about the emptiness of the hall and the music that was making her feel strange to be alone with him. "Is Cousin Isobel with you?"

He took a breath, smile faltering just a little, and walked towards her. "No, she's not. Things have been somewhat hectic at the hospital, so she'll be having a small supper later when she's home – I thought I'd come up still, anyway."

Mary nodded absently, her eyes anxiously following his progress to the table till she had to twist round to keep him in view. She hoped Cousin Isobel was alright at the hospital. What with the 'flu outbreak, it was a real worry at the moment, but she could not be sorry Matthew had come anyway.

Reaching her at the table's edge, he looked admiringly at the gramophone for a moment, and seemed not quite able to meet her gaze. "I'm glad to have caught you, actually," he murmured quietly - almost hesitant to admit his purpose.

"Are you?" she replied equally softly. "What have I done now?"


He looked at her suddenly then, and smiled again, just looking at her for a moment. Ever since he'd moved back to Crawley House, months ago now, he'd… missed her. And the absence had only made him play over more what cousin Violet had said to him that evening, it had given him the space to think, and... nothing seemed quite the same anymore. Not since then, and even more since Lavinia… Well, that was still painful, but it had forced his mind to reflect. It wasn't his place to question Mary's affection, certainly not for Sir Richard, who she intended to marry - but still, he couldn't help watching her that bit more carefully now, and wondering... Well, yes. This was the right thing.

"I only wanted to give you something - well, only, it isn't mine to give I suppose, but -" He took a breath and licked his lips, bringing his hand out of his pocket. "Here." Before he could change his mind, he held out her little toy dog, just as she had done to him once.

Her eyes flickered over his face and then she drew in a breath when she saw what was in his hand. She had not seen it since that day in the hospital. She looked quickly back at him, her brows creasing into a frown. Her heart was beating too fast and he was standing too close to her against the table. She hesitated then shook her head slightly and smiled faintly.

"No, he's served you even better than expected. He's yours, Matthew." Gently, she curled her hand round his, closing his fist over the toy and pushed his hand back towards him.

Pursing his lips a moment in determination, before his gaze softened, Matthew met her eyes with sincerity.

"He's mine?" A smile crossed his lips. "Well, then, I give him to you." Blinking, he considered her - questioning everything. Every word, every look. Her shadow of a smile only convinced him further. "I think I've had my fair share of luck from him, and I cannot express my gratitude for that - it's your turn, now, for a little luck. Don't you think?"

Placing his other hand warmly over hers, he urged the little dog - clasped tightly between their hands - back towards her.

"Do you think I need it?" she replied anxiously, without withdrawing her hand. The atmosphere was different somehow, thicker; she was finding it difficult to continue to hold his gaze. What was it – was it him? But why?

Unable to answer her with any confidence - who was he to cast judgement on her future? - he dropped his gaze to their hands.

"I can hardly say; only that my need for it has been repaid more than I could have imagined." A fond smile crossed his face, and he seemed to drift away for a moment. "You see, though, I brought it back only a little the worse for wear, considering how -" He took a breath, and realised that he wanted her to know - how important it had been to him. "Considering how much time it spent in my pocket." Looking warmly up at her again, he squeezed their clasped hands. "I didn't go anywhere without him, you know," he almost whispered.

Her countenance mirrored his expressions. What was he thinking about so wistfully? Lavinia still, perhaps, and the thought of that hurt on many levels. And yet just the squeeze of his hands made her as giddy as a schoolgirl. Her lips parted as he spoke. The thought of him valuing her little toy so much... well, it made it so difficult to think of Lavinia!

"Then," she eventually said with a tremulous smile, though she tried to speak casually, "I'm surprised he is only a little scruffed!" But still she did not pull her hand away and take the toy.

"So am I!"

He chuckled gently, pressed it further into her hands and released his own, to stand slightly awkwardly. He wanted her to be happy. So, so much, did he want her to be happy, more than he wanted himself to be happy. Mary was marrying Sir Richard, and that was all there was to it.

He shrugged, and smiled ruefully. "Anyway, when you marry you'll be leaving everything that's familiar to you, and - so, I want you to have him back. That way - I'll always know you're alright."

His hands fell away from hers, leaving her fingers tingling through her long black gloves. The toy was in her hand and she looked down at it in the palm of her hand for a moment. It was in perfect condition. How had he - She was not sure she wanted to know.

She raised her eyes to his again with acceptance and replied ruefully, "Then, I suppose, I must be consoled with that!"

"I hope so," he said, with a great deal of warmth. He felt a great deal of warmth towards her - affection, fondness - more than that, he couldn't allow himself to consider. But he had considered it, how could he not have - but always, his mind seemed to close off, reject the thought whenever he seemed at all near some revelation.

She closed her hand around the charm and after a brief hesitation placed it discretely on the table behind her.

After a moment's silence, he raised an eyebrow and said, softly, "You were dancing." There was a faint note of admiration in his voice and she looked back at him, faint embarrassment crossing her face at realising he had seen her.

"Hardly. If you think that was dancing - But we were all enjoying the new gramophone earlier. Have you ever seen one before?"

She stepped to the side so that he could inspect it. By this point the song had finished and the needle returned to its place and they were in silence. Mary had not even noticed.

At her invitation, Matthew bent down to look more closely at the impressive contraption. "Not closely, no," he murmured. He straightened. Tracing his finger lightly down the needle arm, he turned to her, casting his eyes up and down her.

"Were you practising?" he asked quietly. For your wedding, the unspoken end to his sentence hung in the air. He swallowed, almost painfully, suddenly aware of an ache deep in his chest.

She shrugged slightly, one elegant lift of her shoulder, knowing exactly what he meant. Once again the way he was looking at her was making her feel warm and flushed all over. She felt very bare in this new dress with only the thinnest straps.

"Not really," she said as carelessly as possible then added irresistibly, "I already know how to dance!" Carlisle could dance tolerably but she got a little bite of satisfaction at running him down when Matthew wouldn't know any better.

He dropped his eyes for only a moment, his chest tight as he tried to breathe, before he held out his hand. "Well, I for one certainly could use a little practise!"

He must be mad. Walking was difficult enough, still, for any length but this... Though somewhere, he knew it must be inappropriate, he couldn't bring himself to mind. Here, alone, in the grand, empty hall, he felt as though they were quite detached - almost out of kilter - with anything else. Anything of their real lives, and what they must go back to. For now, he couldn't think of anything but Mary, and this.

"Care to help an old soldier find his legs again?" His lip quirked into a smile, and he inclined his head in an invitation.

For a moment she stared at him in breathless consternation. What was he doing? Literally, what was he doing?

"Matthew... are you sure? Can you-?" Though she realised as she spoke she was not just referring to his physical capabilities.

Matthew looked, almost wistfully, towards the centre of the room. "I'm not sure. But," his eyes seemed to glint with sadness, just for a moment, before he recovered into a breezing smile. "I suppose I'd better find out, before I risk horrifying everyone at your wedding."

"We can't have that," said Mary carefully, unnerved and curious by his reaction and the unexpectedness of the smile – it looked similar to the sort of smile she had worn herself when he had been engaged to Lavinia. She was not sure she wanted to think about that. She held his gaze for a beat and then turned round to restart the record. She had only done it once before and with his eyes on her it seemed to take forever, as at one point the needle almost slipped from her fingers with an ominous crackle from the bell.

He waited while she seemed to toy with the needle, until at last the soft sound of the music filled the air. It seemed quite wondrous.

"Well, then," he said, so softly. "Would you honour me with this dance, Lady Mary?" He almost flinched at the formality of it, but he had to – it seemed too dangerous not to. He was so close to her - so close, only inches between them it seemed.

She turned round, her heart beating fast again and delicately placed her right hand in his and stepped forward into his arms.

"Well, Captain Crawley..." She hesitated and then the beginnings of a smile blossomed over her face without her being able to help it. "If you insist!"

She put her left hand delicately on his shoulder, marvelling at the feel of him. He was not a stranger to her now; she had held him, embraced him so many times in his worst days without a second thought, but this was quite different. Because this time, he was holding her.

He smiled, quite naturally, as he took her in his arms. He hadn't thought about dancing with Mary for such a long time. He hadn't thought about dancing at all, for so long, but with Mary... It had only been a dream, since... Sybil's ball. Memories of that evening crashed unbidden into his mind - he'd been going to marry her - he'd been so sure, she'd been (or certainly appeared) sure, they'd been so happy...

A wave of longing washed over him, and he blew out a gentle breath, and started to dance. Every ounce of his concentration now honed on moving his legs - one at a time, step by step - in strangely familiar patterns. That way, he wasn't so painfully aware of every point where she touched him... From the corner of his eye, he saw her, and allowed himself just for a moment to remember - to dream. She was beautiful, she was in his arms, and if this was the last dance they would share... No matter the difficulty of his hesitant steps, it seemed utterly perfect.

It was rather lucky the music was slow. Mary could feel his concentration in the way he held her though she felt him relax into the long forgotten movements after a few bars. She felt as if she was holding her breath. Waiting for him to make a mistake, to need to stop, to comment on something as Richard had done - obnoxiously. (She had wanted to drown him out.) But Matthew wasn't like that. He was so delicate in the way he guided her, and the way she let herself be led. He did not pull her too close either, though a part of her wished he would, and she could glance across at his face every few seconds without really moving her head.

He was grateful for her silence - he felt as if he were learning all over again, was perfectly aware of his failings, though he hoped she didn't mind. For a while, they danced contentedly so, letting the music and the mood wash over them.

"Do you remember the last time we danced?" he said eventually, leaning back a little to look at her.

She had not been thinking of that. She had been thinking of the present and how the next time they would dance would be at her wedding, and trying to commit to memory every feel of him since it would be all she would get. But when he spoke it all flooded back. Sybil's ball. How they had danced (he had held her much more closely- scandalously closely, but they had not cared), how they had laughed! How innocent they had both been. Every memory and feeling rushed back to her and she met his eyes, lips parted in surprise at the vividness of the recollection and the strength of her feelings.

"Yes," she replied in a low voice. "Of course I do."

It was funny; he wasn't struggling nearly as much as he'd thought he might. Everything felt automatic, his legs moving at the direction of memory, oh, that memory... He thought of dancing with Lavinia - they only had once, at a friend's party in London one evening - but it was strange, how she'd just seemed to melt into his arms, his lead, her own self almost disappearing. His memory of Mary, now that he thought of it, seemed infinitely stronger, infused with herself and her presence, despite...

"Doesn't it seem such a very long time ago," he mused, with a far-off gaze. "Just think, we thought we'd be married."

Immeasurably long, she thought, and yet in some ways it felt like no time at all. They had been different people and yet she was never so aware of who exactly she was as when she was with Matthew.

"I still do," she replied with a little smile at him, "just to somebody different."

His gaze shifted between her eyes and her smile, finally allowing himself to recognise the sadness behind them both. Again, that conversation spun around his head... Quietly, testingly, he murmured, "So it seems." A breath, then, "You know, cousin Violet came to me... Told me to marry you." He gazed at her, still turning slowly, barely breathing.

She had looked back over his shoulder after speaking but now turned her head to look at him properly in amazement, her eyes moving briefly across his face returning to his eyes. There was a knot in her stomach of nerves and longing and horror and almost amusment at her grandmother's audacity. She wondered when this had been. Not long ago, surely? It explained his attitude at least.

To cover her reaction she swallowed and managed to say, "Granny said that, did she!" There was a little moment of silence. Then she continued in a more level tone, "And what did you say?"

He blinked, but held her gaze, almost forgetting about everything else around them. "That I..." He sighed a little, and shrugged. "That I couldn't throw Lavinia over."

Ever since, he had questioned his answer, questioned himself, his feelings... But it wasn't even about that any more. Never mind what had happened with Lavinia, in the end, Mary was still about to marry another – and he held no claim to her – whatever her own feelings might be. If only he could know… Know for sure…

"That was honourable of you," she replied, amazed at how level her voice was. It was meaningless sarcasm, spoken for the sake of it. She was not even sure whether it even was sarcasm. He was so... so miserable. He shouldn't be miserable! But the way he was looking at her, with such... knowledge. She wondered with a flash of consciousness if that was all her grandmother had said. "Did Granny give any reasons for such a wild idea, apart from her native love of interference?"

His mouth opened, but his voice stilled. It wasn't his place to say, but... She was slipping away from him, into another life, and if cousin Violet had been right and there was a chance - what had he to lose? Though he tried to say it almost dismissively - letting her know it was fully Violet's own opinion, not his own foolish, boyish hope - his expression softened, brightened, and his voice betrayed him as he breathed, "That you were still in love with me."

He looked almost apologetic, resigning himself to how ludicrous the idea surely was.

For a moment she could not breathe. Oh, Granny. But what did he think about it? He spoke so lightly but his voice was like a caress, or was that his normal tone and she just heard it like that. She did not know what to reply, what to admit, what to hope; it seemed a momentous point in their relationship. Then her breaths started coming more quickly and she wasn't able to disguise the rise and fall of her chest from him.

She moistened her lips and eventually managed to say with a smile that tried to be indifferent, "Well, you would have no qualms about dismissing that, I'm sure!" It ended up sounding more like a question than it was meant to be and her gaze was far too serious to support her attempt at levity.

Her reaction did not pass him unnoticed, and he found his own breath coming short. Attempting to remain as neutral as he could - though suspecting he was failing, somewhat - he took a breath and smiled weakly.

"I - couldn't dismiss it, or believe it - I cannot make a judgement on cousin Violet's words alone!" To confirm, or deny, it, had to be Mary's place, and hers alone. He couldn't look away.

"Oh, I see," she responded immediately, the crease between her eyes growing more pronounced, "you don't want to jump to any conclusions about my feelings. That makes a change from last time the question was raised."

Her tone was mild and truly non-confrontational. She was still so unsure about how to react and how to play the situation and she was really thrown by the fact that he really had not dismissed the idea straight off.

Immediately Matthew frowned, and tensed, his fingers tightening slightly around her hand and on her back - only serving to remind him afresh of her closeness. Yes, this was Mary... Always, so intent on avoiding straight answers, it seemed... Her reminder sent a stab of anger, or longing, or regret, uncomfortably through him.

"A lot of things have changed since then," he muttered, and looked at her with pain in his eyes. So much had changed. And some things... were rather more constant.

She pursed her lips, regretting her words, as she felt him tense. Her heart was beating so fast in the silence now that once again the song had come to an end; she felt he must be able to hear it. She could not describe the way he looked, only that she wished he would return to how he had been gazing at her a few minutes before. She twisted her head a little and dropped her eyes for a moment.

"Not everything, Matthew," she replied and raised her eyes again.

They seemed to still, then - he'd as near as forgotten he should still be dancing, now - but they remained in the close embrace, as though it did not occur to them to let go. Seeing the drop of her eyes, he softened. It wasn't his place to be bitter, to push her on this - he had nothing to lose, and she so much. But he took encouragement from her demeanour.

"Really?" he asked meaningfully.

She swallowed and exhaled almost desperately.

"I think, don't you," she said, her gaze flickering anxiously again before meeting his eyes once more, pleading with him to interpret her correctly, "that very often the only change is in degree."

It was a nonsensical statement if she was replying to his original comment. As she finished her lips quirked upwards. She could not help it. She had thought she loved him then; she had had no idea.

"Do you know, I..." His voice was coming out low, almost husky as he dragged the words from his throat, feeling as though he were underwater somehow. Everything else seemed dulled, obscured, faded - she seemed heightened, sharpened, deepened. "I think that maybe you're right."

He hoped he had understood her correctly - he hoped she had understood his reply - and just then he didn't care at all that she was getting married (or rather, seemed to forget it), as he stood with her in his arms, filling his vision completely.

She shivered involuntarily at the depth of emotion in his voice and shifted her hand in his, suddenly incredibly aware of the places where he was touching her through her glove and the thin material of her dress.

"I'd very much like to think I was," she responded warmly and softly.

"Well, how - fortunate," Matthew murmured. His lips barely moved, as he struggled to put his mind to anything but her, and what she meant. "Are we at last in agreement on something?"

A faint smile flitted over his lips, but he could not hold it for trembling.

"Such a rare event should be celebrated!" she replied with an answering tentative smile.

She couldn't think about it. The depth of her emotion was impossible to articulate. Nothing she could say could possibly do justice to it. To skirt round it was best: not to consider the enormity of what they appeared to be admitting, not to do anything irreconcilable with the necessity of her marriage to Richard. And it was necessary that she married him. Wasn't it?

"Yes, it - should."

His words were barely a breath past his lips and he was sinking, losing the battle, could feel himself giving up the fight to resist her. Involuntarily, his eyes dropped to her lips, his heart thudding in his ears as she seemed to be getting closer and closer. A rush of anticipation flooded him, he was entirely overwhelmed by it. He hadn't felt such strong affection - no, such love - since... He didn't think he ever had.

His gaze intensified and her expression sobered, the smile disappearing. How was he so close to her? She had not been flush against him so that she fancied she could feel his heart beat when they had been dancing, surely. Even as she struggled to keep hold of the thought that she could not compromise her marriage for her parents' sake if not her own, she felt her resolve crumble in time to follow his gaze downwards.

Everything seemed to still around them as they drew inexorably closer, closer, until he was aware of her breath and her warmth and her lips - even as the thrill trembled through him at that first soft touch, it seemed somehow wholly unsurprising - meeting his own in a pure, sweet harmony. He moved again, though this time the dance was different, his steps and his hold altering to pull her closer.

Her eyes fluttered closed as their lips met, sweetly, tenderly and slowly. Mary felt every inch of her grow limp and relax against him as she felt his arm curl more fully round her back. Somehow this kiss removed every inch of tension from her leaving her feeling warm and utterly loved.

Everything about them seemed to fit so perfectly into place, she felt so very right in his arms, and he gave a gentle sigh of contentment. Releasing her hand, he traced his own up her arm, skimming over the bare skin of her shoulders to touch her cheek. He had no right to do this, no license - only that she was allowing him to, and that was more than enough.

She tilted her head into his hand as her own arm naturally went round him to embrace him properly, her palm sliding across his back. The angle of the kiss was altered and deepened by her movement and she poured out the beginning of her love into it as her head began to swim deliriously; she did not dare completely let go; it would be too much. To kiss him like this was beautiful torture enough.

It was perfect - too perfect - and he knew it couldn't possibly last, but he was going to savour every precious touch for as long as it did. He held her closer, if possible, gasping as the kiss deepened, realising only in that moment the full extent of how much he loved her, as though a floodgate had been opened within him. All the feelings and desires he'd denied and ignored for so many years flooded out, into her kiss, into her arms, as he gave himself up to her.

He was breaking down all her walls of defences and it was becoming harder and harder to care. The warmth she felt was being superseded by a stronger flame. The hand that was still on his shoulder snaked round his neck to pull him even closer and she found her lips part easily under his as she kissed him with a growing passion that, however inappropriate, she no long had the strength to resist.

As he felt her respond, felt her mouth open to allow a greater intimacy, felt her hands urge him nearer, he smiled against her lips. In this - in her - he realised, every dream he didn't even know he'd had was being fulfilled. The thought of letting her slip away now, of not being able to do this, was utterly intolerable and he slid his arms more firmly around her, as if she might otherwise disappear.

For a few moments more she kissed him recklessly and thoroughly back, tasting him more intimately than she could have imagined possible, until the need for air began to override other desires and she relunctantly pulled back though without unentwining herself at all from his arms. She took a few gasping breaths, her face still so close to his that it seemed they shared the very air between them. She felt so completely cocooned and safe in his arms and if she just tilted her head - like so - their noses would touch.

"If Granny," she began in a low, heavy voice and met his eyes just a few inches away from hers which were shining with warm wonder and more than affection. "If Granny came to you now and gave you the same advice, would you now give her the same answer, I wonder?"

Still reeling, almost dizzy, from their embrace, Matthew stared at her from heavy-lidded eyes. He couldn't muster himself to any proper response, the moment was too fragile - all he could do was shake his head mutely, his lips forming a denial that barely carried out on his breath.

"Apparently you wouldn't say anything!" she teased breathlessly and very fondly. The adrenaline from the sudden release of all her feelings was still coursing through her veins and she felt a fierce, unconquerable excitement.

Her gentle teasing eased the wired tension within him, and he chuckled breathlessly, smiling at her with pure adoration shining in his eyes. Making no move to release her from his arms, where she remained so warmly and contentedly, he gave a light shrug.

"Seems rather fitting," he said, voice still deep with emotion. "You and I have never seemed to say the things we mean, have we?"

She made a soft noise of agreement, responding to his smile, only now gradually letting her love show in her eyes as the evidence of his feelings took her breath away. If she just tilted her head... she did, and brushed her lips lightly against his again, this second kiss, reassuring in one way but also thrilling in its signficance; it was no longer a one off.

His eyes closed, lips curving into an indulgent smile as she leant into him again. He was taking her, stealing her, he knew - she wasn't his to take - but she was giving herself to him, and that made it all the sweeter. His hand lifted to her cheek in a soft, tender caress, as he found the simplest of gestures communicating far more than any words could.

Lingering on the kiss she pulled back eventually, leaning into his hand, her entire countenance smiling at him.

"I'm not sure," she murmured, "that not saying the things we mean has served us very well so far, has it?"

She would do it, she realised then. If he asked her, she would throw Carlisle over with a single word, consequences be damned. Her heart began to flutter more nervously again.

"It doesn't seem to have, upon reflection," he breathed softly.

She smiled at him with such open affection - he couldn't possibly be mistaking it - it was almost impossible to think that she was going to marry. It seemed so horribly wrong - though it was hardly fair of him to judge her for it. She seemed to encourage him though, both in word and certainly in deed, and... he couldn't help wonder. If she were to throw it back in his face, well - he would hardly have lost anything, would he? For she was not his, as it was.

He licked his lips, and narrowed his eyes a touch, holding her with his gaze. "That wasn't all cousin Violet said to me, you know," he murmured.

Her gaze flickered slightly though her concentration did not drop. Ought she to be worried? She honestly could not imagine what else Granny could have said to him - what else did she know? She forced her voice to remain to light though it was too breathless to be convincingly cool.

"In addition to telling you that I was still in love with you and saying you ought to marry me? Heavens! What else?"

He took a breath, and smiled tremulously. "No, she - gave me some advice. Said that marriage was a long business, and - well, it's not something to be easily gotten out of, and - how very important it was to make sure you got it right." Whether he was telling her with any serious intent or suggestion, he wasn't even sure. For just a moment, he looked mildly abashed. "I - wasn't ready to take that advice, but..." He shrugged. "That hardly matters now, does it?"

She listened with growing astonishment and some embarrassment as she felt her own situation under scrutiny. Eventually she moistened her lips and replied, "It depends on who you're talking about, doesn't it?" A ghost of a smile crossed her face. "I feel I should be annoyed; she has given you far better advice than she ever gave us!"

An eyebrow quirked up, he couldn't help it. "You think it good advice, then - I hope - that you are taking it." She was still in his arms, so beautifully close... How could she possibly be looking him like that, if she was sure?

His expression deepened to seriousness. "Mary, if - if you really do think that you can be happy with Sir Richard for forty years -" He shook his head with just a touch of resignation, and sighed, simply falling back to his earlier statement. "It's wise advice to heed, I know that now."

She pulled back a bit more and turned her head away in resignation, sighing. "It is wise advice but... oh, Matthew, it's not so simple!"

She eyed him a moment weighing her options. She did not think that she could mistake the intention and meaning behind what he was saying but ... well, what did she have to lose now? She slowly began to release herself from him, her hand slipping relunctantly down his arm from his shoulder, her other arm loosening its clasp, though she met his eyes again.

"Why don't we sit down?"

Surely, she thought, with a pang of guilt, he would be feeling uncomfortable by now.

In truth, the weariness of his legs had not occurred to him, he'd not even thought about how long he'd been standing, he'd been so swept up in her. Tension seemed to prickle between them, and the strain suddenly swept back.

He nodded, almost not wanting to know why she suddenly looked so serious. "Certainly, if you like - yes." Stiffly, he stepped back.

She bit her lip at his relatively cold reply - it was less encouraging - but she refused to let her courage fail her now. She quickly scanned the hall and saw that the only place they could sit was a long bench that was surely due to moved somewhere else soon. Holding Matthew's hand tightly, unable to bear completely breaking their connection, she led him over to the bench and sat down.

He followed her wordlessly, and sat down beside her – more heavily than he might have liked; normally when he sat there was something to grasp onto for support, but the bench offered none. There was only her hand, still tightly in his, and so he came to rest considerably closer to her than he'd thought, able to feel her thigh just touching his. His heart thudded uncomfortably; she was evidently working up to say something and so he sat, hand still clutched tightly in hers. He took a steadying breath, and watched her, waiting.

As they had crossed the room, she had thought of what she was going to say and now she was able to look at him calmly, taking courage from his nearness and his wordless support of her. Whether it would last, she could not say, but things could hardly be worse for her than they were, and at least he would know.

"You see, Matthew," she began in a level tone, the only sign of her agitation, the way her thumb restlessly moved over his hand, "the reason it is not an easy matter to follow Granny's advice is that if I do not marry Sir Richard Carlisle, he has the power to make life very uncomfortable not just for me but for all of us."

Was he surprised? He couldn't quite make out. He'd wondered if there might have been something more to their relationship than met the eye, but as to what that might be... He could hardly judge from what little she'd said. A shadow of confusion passed over his face, his lips pursed a fraction, but that was all.

"Go on," he said carefully, holding off any response until he understood her entirely.

This was not very encouraging, but she forced herself onwards. She did not suppose that, had their situations been reversed, she would have been brimming with vocal support either, and she appreciated him the more for his lack of hypocrisy. She looked down at their clasped hands and for a second they made her smile before her thoughts returned to the subject in question.

"He has in his possession some information, scandalous information." She looked up at him and took a deep breath. "If I do not marry him, he says he will publish it all."

Matthew couldn't seem to take it in what she was saying, he didn't understand. He frowned, licked his lips, and leaned forwards ever so slightly.

"Are - you saying that he's - he's - blackmailing you? I don't -" Shaking his head, he gripped her hand a little tighter, whether for his own comfort or hers he wasn't sure. "What - information could he possibly have? Nothing so very terrible, surely?"

His pulse quickened in concern for her, an uncomfortable, prickling worry at what she was suggesting.

She shrugged slightly, not willing just yet to confront his second question just yet. Then she replied with a touch of surprise to hear it spoken outloud so bluntly, "Yes. Yes, I suppose he is blackmailing me. It doesn't sound very genteel when you put it like that!"

She looked away again and frowned, putting off the inevitable yet again.

To hear it confirmed, and all that it implied, sent a shiver of anger through Matthew. He looked down for a moment, and his voice trembled as he muttered, "Sound genteel? No, it bloody doesn't."

He clenched his hand around hers, almost bruising, though he didn't notice. To think... all this time he'd stood by, prepared to accept it because he thought she was happy, thought it was what she wanted...

Her eyes flashed back to his in alarm. "Please, Matthew, don't get angry; it serves no purpose! It's all my fault anyway. I - I gave him the information in order that - you know, it doesn't matter. It's my folly and I must live with it! So you see," she finished rather quickly, "I can't throw him over just like that." Her expression softened. "Did you really think that - that I was in love with such a man?"

He didn't know what he thought.

"I - well," he blustered, eyes flitting between hers. "I hardly knew - it wasn't my place to wonder, I..." He was getting nowhere, and then all at once seemed to give up. "No, I - don't think I ever did. But I believed you were sure of it - what else was I to think?" His heart ached for not having known it, for having been so blind to it.

She raised her free hand and laid it gently against his cheek in an attempt to stop his agitation. She shook her head and replied sadly, "You saw what I wanted you to see! Don't be embarrassed by my success!"

"But why, Mary, you -" He sighed, and his eyes closed a moment as he focussed on her touch, allowing it to calm him. "I wish you'd have told me," he whispered. "Whatever it is, Mary - it can't be worth binding yourself to him. What secret could be worth that?"

If only he'd have known. At least - it wasn't too late.

"I don't know about that," she replied and dropped her hand to join her other holding his. She did not want to think about his 'wish you'd told me'. What was the good of that? She stared out beyond his shoulder, not really seeing the rest of the room, her eyes fixed on a knot in the wood panelling. Had the time really come after all these years?

Eventually she sighed and told him in a level voice. "Sir Richard knows that, many years ago, I took a lover, that he died in my bed, and that I was obliged to carry his corpse from one end of the house to the other. He may not know, though it is nevertheless true, that I was helped in this by Mama and my maid Anna. Naturally," she continued, not wanting to stop talking and give him a chance to speak just yet, "were such a scandal to be released in his papers I would be ruined and my sisters too by association."

Numb cold speared in Matthew's chest as she spoke, spreading through him as she continued, each word another stab. He might've released her hand, only he couldn't, his fingers having tightened involuntarily. A barely perceptible "Oh," was all he could manage. He shook his head, as if that would clear the words from his mind, it hurt… He drew several short, gasping breaths before he was finally able to speak again.

"Many years ago -" he eventually got out. "It's - none of my business, I'm sure, but -" Frowning, he licked his lips and watched her, unable to think with any coherence as her revelation spun around his mind.

"November 1912. Kemal Pamuk. The Turkish diplomat. I dare say you don't remember," she responded immediately and crisply, determined not to think about his reaction, but only focus on the facts. It was difficult though. She could not help being aware that his hand was still between hers, that his leg still brushed against her thigh and that he had not yet pulled away.

"On the contrary, I - God."

Yes, Matthew remembered him, remembered the way he had fawned over Mary, and she over him, and he felt sick. But only more so, he realised, over the thought that Carlisle was holding this over her - as if he could buy her with it. Their marriage was payment for his silence.

One thing seemed clear above all else, and Matthew fixed her with a piercing, determined gaze. "You can't marry him," he insisted, with such quiet firmness that his voice shook.

"Kemal - of course I-" she began automatically and stupidly and then dared to look at him and fell silent. Her expression was guarded as it met his and she held herself away from him, but she could not now look away and though her voice was silenced her lips parted and she stared at him anxiously. Even as she did so she was aware of one feeling that was growing more and more dominant, that of hope. But she would not let herself feel it, not yet, not when she did not deserve to expect it.

"I mean it, Mary." He shifted, closer to her, gripping her hand with fierce determination and refusing to let her drop his gaze. Then, his expression suddenly softened, to one of the most tender concern. "You can't, I - I can't let you marry him. Whatever - it doesn't matter - it isn't worth it."

No matter his discomfort at the thought of - what she had admitted - it paled in comparison to the strength of his hatred for Carlisle in that moment, and the desperation to keep Mary from him, almost possessively.

She began to breathe a little faster as she started to believe it and she clutched his hands so desperately hard that her knuckles were white. She could not even nod.

"What are -" She was about to ask what he was going to do and then she changed her mind. "What are we going to do?"

Her instant acceptance of it, her visible relief, made him suddenly grin - though it certainly wasn't the time for it. But... she trusted him. He had promised - to himself, if not ever in so many words to her - that he would protect her if Carlisle should prove a danger, though - now he wasn't sure what he could do.

"I don't know," he said honestly. "But," he leaned fervently towards her, his eyes glittering with promise and determination, "whatever happens - whatever he does - Mary, you don't have to bear it alone. You - don't." A trembling smile passed over his face, just for a moment, and as if to prove his point he suddenly kissed her in reassurance. "I don't know what we can do, but - we'll find something. We will."

Her eyes closed almost painfully as he kissed her and she returned it briefly but fervently. She opened her eyes again slowly, to a new world, it seemed. They searched out his face, desperately trying to believe in what he was saying and seeing nothing but the truth. There was nothing to say that was worthy of him, no promise, no pledge, no meaningless echo of what he said - she appreciated his honesty far more than she would have appreciated a wild and unworkable plan of campaign, such as her grandmother might have provided. After simply staring at him a few moments, she eventually managed to say in a low, tremulous voice, full of feeling, the only thing that could really be said at this point: "I love you, Matthew!"

His heart seemed to burst in his chest. He finally released her hands, though only to clasp her face, as he smiled breathlessly at her. Any bitterness, any anger he'd felt at her past, or her situation, paled behind the blossoming joy at her words. If anything, her honesty with him – that she had trusted him, loved him enough to tell him – only made his heart swell the more. How could he care, when she loved him, and he knew it?

Simply nodding, he cast his eyes fondly over her with a new appreciation. If she had changed at all in his eyes, it was only to appear more impossibly beautiful than before, everything about her coloured with the new understanding between them… and he loved her.

"Darling Mary," he breathed, rubbing her hand between his. "Sir Richard may do what he likes, but I will – I will always love you." After letting the words settle, sink in, for a moment, he pressed a kiss to her lips, and leaned back, lips curving into an unrestrained smile. "And once – we're rid of him, and all this settles… Who knows. Perhaps we shall practise dancing for another wedding."

A/N: Hope you enjoyed this piece of wish fulfilment! We really appreciate any feedback you are able to leave us. Enjoy the episode!

Silvestria & OrangeShipper