Disclaimer: I don't own these characters. But this is what I would do with them if I did. :-p

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to my dear sister for all the support and encouragement.

There was nothing gentle about the way Richard gripped Mary's hands in his. Then again, there had never been anything gentle about him.

She kept trying to adjust her grip underneath, letting her fingers hang limply to allow them some space. But every time she did, he merely applied more pressure with his thumb, changing from one finger to the next until finally, it rested on her ring finger. As though he could brand her finger with his thumb before it was forever branded with a band of shiny gold.

She assumed she made quite the picture of the dour bride, her face a perfect ivory mask of emotionless sorrow. He was watching her like a hawk, clearly peeved at the funereal expression she wore, but she would not even grace him with one of her plastered-on fake smiles. She was here, at the altar, had made it down the aisle with leaden steps, each step closer to him filling her with an almost suffocating sense of dread. He could not expect anything more than her presence today; she had grown weary of pretending.

Sacrificed at the altar. How fitting.

Chastising herself for her self-pitying thoughts, she imagined how her grandmother would react if she could hear.

No one likes a martyr, dear. Especially one that's dressed in white.

It was almost enough to make Mary smirk.

As she stood numbly, half-listening to the priest as he droned on, her ears perked up at a string of familiar words.

"-why these two should not be lawfully joined, then may he speak now"

Mary's heart pounded, blood rushing into her ears as her attention unwittingly shifted over her right shoulder to where her family sat, even as she kept her eyes still under Richard's watchful stare. She tried not to hope that Matthew – dear Matthew! – would spring to his feet and challenge the union, but hope, that traitorous emotion, bubbled up into her chest of its own accord as her mind selfishly raced through any other possibilities – Papa? Mama? Granny? - any members of her family that could save her, save her from this marriage that was to save them from notoriety and ruin.

The priest was waiting, fulfilling the tradition of glancing out over the congregation, letting a few seconds pass, each second driving Mary deeper into despair as she felt her foolish hopes dashed to pieces.

No one would rescue her. Certainly not any person in this congregation.

It was then that there was a commotion overhead.

Mary gasped as a wood thrush took wing from atop one of the rafters high above their heads, swooping down with a shrieking cry, eliciting hushed exclamations from the congregation. She followed its flight over her right shoulder as it headed for the most promising source of light, shining through one of the high windows, and she could not stop her intake of breath as she noted its mistake.

The window was closed. It would surely crash into it and die.

Yet at the last moment, the thrush changed course, halting its suicidal mission and alighting on the windowsill. Transfixed, Mary watched as it beat its wings ineffectually against the glass a few times before seemingly giving up and settling down.

Letting out a sigh of air, Mary's gaze dropped from the high window as the other members of the congregation turned round in their seats, murmuring amongst themselves over the brief interruption. Members of her family now filled her vision, and she could not prevent her eyes from straying to find Matthew's face.

He was muttering something to Cousin Isobel, straightening in his seat, but he must have sensed her eyes upon him for they all of a sudden snapped up to meet hers.

His mouth dropped open, seemingly in surprise to find himself under her scrutiny, and as an unmistakable expression of longing washed over his features, he looked as though he might speak. As her ivory mask cracked to reveal her own unabashed longing, she felt her heart flutter in anticipation as he drew a breath. But the moment passed, and Mary watched his mouth close into that familiar grim line, his bright blue eyes turned stormy, his expression clouded over.

Just then she felt a harsh tug on her hands, still clutched in Richard's vise-like grasp. Whipping her head back around, she found herself once more the object of his piercing glare, as he nodded to the priest.

"Please continue." Then, pausing for effect, he raised his voice so everyone could hear. "Since I think we can all agree the bird doesn't get a say." He smirked at his joke, widening to a self-satisfied grin as various members of the congregation chuckled in response.

Something broke loose inside of Mary.

Closing her eyes against the onslaught of sensations, it was as though time stood still. In the space that it took for the priest to take his next breath, she felt the pieces of her long-forgotten, oft-ignored, shattered self coalesce into something much more like a whole person. Silently begging of her family's forgiveness, she made her decision and opened her eyes.

No longer fearful of Richard's glare, she directed her attention to the priest, interrupting him before he could speak.

"I'm sorry."

Richard's grip instinctually tightened on her fingers with bone-crushing pressure. "Don't you dare," he warned.

Now she looked at Richard, and it was if she was seeing him with new eyes. Before her stood a rich, powerful man, endowed with the power to destroy her and her family, yes, with a ruthlessness and cruelty that had started as intriguing and quickly turned frightening. She could see how he would cut her down with swift severity, sparing her no mercy.

But that hardly seemed important now.

Mary looked boldly into his face, her ivory mask replaced by steely determination. "I can't do this."

His eyes blazed with barely contained fury, and he now seemed set on breaking the bones in her knuckles and fingers before he would let her go. "Don't you dare, Mary. Don't forget – I still have the power to destroy you," he hissed at her from between clenched teeth.

Her head felt light, and there was a ringing in her ears, but she regarded him calmly. "I know."

Wrenching her hands from his, she turned to where her family sat and addressed them with as much compunction as she could muster. "I am so sorry." She searched for her father's face in the milieu which was awash in confusion, though she noted wryly that he didn't look entirely surprised. Clasping her hands together in supplication, she pleaded with him. "Please forgive me."

As she took her first step up the aisle, she felt Richard's hand close around her wrist, impeding her progress. "This is your last chance, Mary," he growled in her ear. "I will not be made a fool like this."

Shaking herself out of his grasp, she stared at him, unflinching. "I am letting you go, Richard. I release you of your promise. Have the decency to do the same and not make a scene."

And now she kept her gaze trained on the doors in front of her, her steps quicker than her slow death march down the aisle, but not so quick as to convey any shame or cowardice. Keeping her head high, she still felt her cheeks start to redden as the murmurs sounded around her, but she would not think of what they were saying. Her freedom lay within her grasp now, and she would not turn back for anyone.

As her hand at last closed round the handle to the door Richard's voice broke through.

"Do you really think Matthew will want you after he's discovered that a Turkish man died in your bed?"

She froze. Despite the jolts of pain to her abused hands, Mary's grip on the door handle turned savage as she clung to it to keep herself upright. Her breathing became laboured as his cruel words settled over the room, turning it deathly quiet. She could feel all pairs of eyes in the room glued to her back, collective breath held as they waited for an answer.

As Mary desperately gathered every ounce of courage she had ever possessed in her life, she felt that simple calm descend once more.

Turning to face him, she studiously ignored everyone else in the church and addressed him as though they were having a private conversation.

"No," she admitted coolly. "But he didn't want me before. Why should now be any different?"

And with that, she flung open the door and stepped into the sunlight, her pace quickening with each step as though she could outrun the humiliation she felt was soon to claim her.

Yet somehow, as she wound her way up the path, each step was lighter than the last. The lightness to her head had seeped its way down her body so that her heart felt lighter than it had been in some time. She knew that her life was effectively ruined, that she should be upset, that she should be hanging her head in shame, but she found she could not. Perhaps she would become an old maid, now that she was no longer marriageable. Or perhaps she would go find work, train for an occupation like Sybil had. Or she could always go abroad, if she absolutely must marry. What had once seemed impossible life choices no longer appeared dreadful to her. There was only one certainty now: that she would find her own way, beholden to no one. A different flush now reddened her cheeks, and she was surprised to discover it was that of excitement, not embarrassment.

Suddenly there was a flurry of exclamation behind her and she turned round to see the wood thrush soar above the dispersed congregation's heads, tweeting merrily as it climbed higher and higher. Perplexed, Mary searched for the window and saw it was still sealed tightly shut. How on Earth…

Then she saw that the door was now standing wide open.

It had not given up after all. It had merely been awaiting a new opportunity.

Smiling, Mary watched as the figure of Matthew suddenly came into view as he stepped over the threshold of the church, blinking several times at the sunlight, his arm raised to shield his face. His head moved almost imperceptibly as he scanned the landscape before finally stopping on her. Dropping his arm, his eyes met hers for only a moment before he started towards her with a stride more purposeful than she had seen in months.

Her prior calm now dissipated by the butterflies in her stomach, she nonetheless smiled serenely as he approached. Deciding that hope was a more dreadful thing than humiliation, she silently repeated her options and reminded herself that nothing had changed and that she was satisfied with her new life possibilities.

All that melted in an instant when she saw his face.

Gone were the stormy looks of guilt, the regret, the undirected anger, even the longing. What shone from those bright blue eyes now could only be described as…admiration.

"I was just wondering… if I could walk you to the house?"

Mary nodded once in thanks, preparing to take his arm, but was surprised when he instead extended his hand, palm facing up.

Placing her fingers in his palm, she felt him give them a gentle squeeze as they walked with light steps back towards the house together.

*Fin*