A/N: Thank you as ever for your lovely reviews (and speculation heee) and your enthusiasm for this story. We apologise for missing last week. Basically, every chapter of the first part of this story was already written... apart from this one that we just needed to "fill in at some point". Well, that took quite a long time! Anyway, it's here now and we hope you enjoy! :)
Previously on Consequences of the Castle:
His hand dropped from hers but her fingers still tingled as she turned and disappeared into her room, almost collapsing against the door as soon as she shut it.
Matthew stood for a few moments staring at her door. He couldn't process it all, he was too tired, too drained, too - stupefied by all that had happened. Shaking his head slightly, he turned and set off in search for Lady Grantham as she had asked - he was not looking forward to that conversation!
As he made his way through the hotel towards the distant noise and activity of the drawing room, Matthew's mind was in a whirl. He'd run over and over in his mind what he might say, how he could excuse things – it was really very simple: they'd been out, lost track of time – no, that was a poor excuse, why would they have lost track of time? Mary had slipped – they'd thought it best to clean up at the tea shop as it was closer – yes, that would do, and he'd simply have to hope that they didn't press him too hard on it. Really, though, he was most concerned about his own reaction.
Merely thinking about it spread an almost uncomfortably warm glow through him, he felt nearly sick at the thought of facing her family – God, her father! – knowing what they'd done together; his hands felt clammy and he trembled with nervousness. Surely, surely they would be able to see…
Well, he couldn't put it off any longer. Opening the door to the large room, bustling in a quiet sort of way with after-dinner chatter, he scanned around quickly and made his way over to them.
He was still several feet away when Robert noticed him and stood up.
"Matthew, good Lord, where on earth have you been?"
"Do you know where Mary is?" Cora looked anxiously up from her chair.
Matthew took a breath before replying, "I'm terribly sorry, there's no need to worry – Mary's perfectly alright –"
"You've been with her, then?"
Matthew's eyes widened, hoping that he'd only imagined the almost accusatory snip behind Robert's question. It was concern, only concern, he told himself.
"I've - been with her, yes…" The words seemed to stick in his throat and he swallowed uncomfortably. Oh, how he'd been with her… The memory of her before him, against him, around him, sprang unbidden to his mind, and he blinked to clear it. "I happened upon her at the castle a while earlier, and –"
"Then, what have you done with her?" Matthew was sure his cheeks flamed at that. "Has she returned with you?"
"We were about to send out a search party…" Cora worried quietly, and Matthew suspected she was only half joking.
"No, she's perfectly alright, and – look, can I just explain a moment?" he snapped out, determined to follow the path he'd carefully prepared.
A moment, then Robert nodded, and seated himself again. With a tight, acknowledging smile, Matthew did the same, uncomfortably aware of everyone's eyes upon him.
"I apologise for any concern, but there's really no cause for it. I was exploring the castle earlier; Mary walked up and chanced upon me. We were there for a while then Mary – slipped, and we thought it best to stop by a tea shop on our way back to save her walking back here in the state that she was."
"In the state that she was? What does that mean?"
"Please, Cousin Cora, it's nothing at all to worry about," Matthew tried to placate her. "It was – pretty windy and muddy, up on the headland, and the stumble left her looking a touch – dishevelled, that's all." He swallowed uncomfortably. This was torturous. They were staring at him so!
"Dear Mary, was she hurt?" Sybil frowned, sitting forwards in her chair. Matthew coloured even further.
"No, she – was not hurt. No."
"But –" Cousin Cora remained unsatisfied. It was too much.
"It's really quite alright; she is really quite alright! Heavens, it was barely anything at all, I can only apologise again –"
"Why not once more, you seem so intent on it!" Violet chuckled irritably. "Have a care, Matthew, or we might suppose that you were somehow responsible!"
"Now, Mama…" Robert sighed.
A nervous sort of laugh spilled from Matthew's lips. What else could he do? His fingers flexed and curled anxiously against his leg.
"Well, I'm – only very aware of the worry it must have caused. You know Mary, though; she would not walk all the way back to the hotel without at least making sure of things in a mirror, and I'm afraid we simply lost track of the time over tea. But I can assure you, she's quite alright, only very tired – I've just seen her up to her room, she asked me to pass on her apologies."
"Typical of Mary, to only think of appearances…" Edith sighed, slumping back into her chair now that everything seemed to be perfectly boring and normal after all.
"Edith, that's unkind," Cora muttered, seeming to relax a little bit at last. Turning to Matthew, she smiled weakly. Clearly, she'd been worried. "And – you say she's gone straight up to bed?"
"Yes," Matthew repeated, tiring of this now. Such an inquisition! Which, normally, he might not have minded if his gut was not churning with awareness of what they did not know. "We returned only a moment ago, I made sure she got to her room alright then came straight down to tell you."
"Then we must thank you for being so chivalrous!"
Matthew spluttered some sort of dismissive response, shifting uncomfortably. Chivalrous seemed to be… the very least of what he had been! Though – he knew he hadn't pressed her to it – he hadn't, had he? At that moment, he was enormously grateful for his natural modesty that sheltered his embarrassment, but – oh God, he'd shown little of that when he'd taken her against the wall, and – good Lord, wouldn't they all stop staring at him?
Beads of sweat prickled at the back of his neck, and forehead. He felt hot, smothered, from their questioning eyes and his own memory of Mary's body, her heat around him – he needed to stop! As he pulled his handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his brow (claiming exertion from the walk), he was horrified to see Mary's gloves spill out along with it…
"How strange, aren't those Mary's?" Violet instantly recognised them.
"Yes, I think they are," Sybil nodded, picking them up from where they'd fallen. "Matthew must have – hold on, why do you have them?"
He swallowed. "I – well, she took them off to – clean up, and – must've forgotten them."
"Dear, look at them," Cora took them from Sybil, shaking her head. "Quite ruined…"
"I'm not surprised she didn't put them on again!" Sybil agreed. "There's mud all over them, look, even on the backs… Poor Mary; thank you, Matthew…"
"Yes, well, it really was nothing." Nothing, it had been nothing, it had been… everything… How could it be that they did not realise? That mud couldn't possibly have covered them so if she'd simply put her hands out to brace her fall; no, they'd been… dropped carelessly to the ground in passion, trodden on…
"Don't be so silly," Cora smiled warmly at him now her anxiety had finally settled. "And it was so thoughtful of you to take her for tea, afterwards."
Violet sniffed. "What else would a gentleman have done?"
"I quite agree," Robert threw a proud smile at his heir. "You did well to think of it, Matthew."
"Oh, please, I –"
"I won't have you object, my dear," Cora insisted. "You could've easily come straight back, but you didn't. You must have been getting on pretty well to have lost track of the time!"
"That'd be a miracle," Edith laughed humourlessly under her breath.
Matthew swallowed uncomfortably. "No, well, I suppose we – put aside some of our differences, and…" He trailed off into a quiet mutter, unable to bear any more of it. How was he ever to bear polite company with her again, when every word only made him think of her! Of how they'd put aside their differences in a blinding, passionate kiss; of how he'd behaved in a most ungentlemanly manner when he'd lifted her skirts, and… of how they'd dashed aside all thought of propriety, there against that castle wall, as they'd kissed and clutched and moaned and peaked and…
Almost shaking, he rose quickly to his feet. This was unbearable, he had to leave before he gave himself entirely away. "Look, if you'll – excuse me, I'm pretty worn out myself. I'm terribly sorry again, I – hope you'll have a pleasant evening – do excuse me."
He felt as though he were running away. He was running away. He only released the breath he'd been holding when no-one seem to think his departure out of the ordinary, only nodding understandingly and bidding him goodnight.
Robert stood up. "Alright, dear chap. Thank you for letting us know – we'll breakfast at eight, if that suits you?"
"Yes, I'm sure. It really was no trouble. Good evening."
Matthew smiled, and had to hold himself back from breaking into a run, such was his desperation to leave that room and the pressing atmosphere of their concern and questions. By the time he'd reached his room he felt not much better.
He dismissed Molesley immediately. He was perfectly able to – undress himself… God. As he climbed into bed, his skin tingling with the memory of her touch, he wondered if he'd ever be able to sleep… or if she'd be able to sleep, thinking of him…
Mary almost fell against her bedroom door as she shut it behind her, her legs refusing to hold her up any longer. She pressed her hand to her mouth as if expecting to cry as she slid all the way to the ground. No tears came however. She tilted her head back and closed her eyes, but they were dry and she was afforded no relief. Next she began to tremble all over, as if she were cold, only she wasn't, not really. She hugged herself and almost sank further onto the floor before some feeling of self-preservation stopped her and she managed to drag herself to her feet and to her bed. Without taking off her shoes or her coat, she collapsed onto the pillows and crawled into a ball.
The arms around her, holding and protecting her, were her own though and it was no longer sufficient. She had felt what it was like to be held by him and now she felt his loss as if a part of herself had been wrenched away. Her bed was soft and welcoming but she would have swapped it in an instant for the hardness of the castle wall and one touch from Matthew. Was she to be reduced so quickly to such pathetic dependency? Her face crumpled in self-pity, loss, and exhaustion, but still no tears came. She felt empty of tears, of any kind of emotion that she could express in a familiar way, of everything. There was a profound hollow within herself that only seemed to grow as her imagination filled her with memories and desires and the ghosts of sensations.
How long she lay there curled up in the centre of her bed, her hands clutching the counterpane for dear life, she had no idea, but eventually she relaxed her grip and sat up. Her head swam as she did so and for a moment she felt extremely faint. Then she remembered that she had missed dinner and hardly eaten any of her tea-cakes at the cafe. With a deep breath of resolution she stood up on trembling, heavy legs, crossed to the bell, and pulled it. This seemed effort enough and she sank again onto the stool in front of her dressing table. Leaning on her elbow she took in her appearance. She seemed pale and haunted to her eyes. Her hair was a complete and utter state and her eyes seemed somehow wider and darker.
Anna answered the summons very quickly and her relief at seeing her mistress returned turned swiftly into concern at how ill she seemed. Mary was able to smile inwardly at how little she needed now to pretend to shock and exhaustion as she told her story as best she could. Apart from that, she had never wanted comforting more and her maid seemed to understand; for she helped her out of her clothes, tutted at the state of them in a reassuringly normal way, ordered her a bath and eventually left to fetch her some hot chocolate and biscuits.
On her own again and forced into activity in preparing for her bath, Mary felt some life return to her. Even undressing, however, felt different. Every time her fingers skimmed over her skin, the recollection of his fingers, which had barely touched her, intruded and she shivered involuntarily. Her toes curled on the carpet and she shifted from one foot to the other, testing the ache she felt in her legs and elsewhere. What would it be like to feel his hands on her skin, if it were him peeling back one layer of clothing after another? Her entire body flushed with heat and she almost jumped as Anna re-entered the room with the tray of refreshments.
Mary sank into the bath, leaning back and letting her eyes close. The warm water washed over her and seemed to take away all the stains of the day, literal and imagined, leaving her relaxed and limp.
"Would you like your chocolate in the bath?" Anna asked with a mischievous look and Mary opened her eyes to smile back. She had not had a drink in the bath since she had been a little child. Encouraged, Anna moved a table beside her and put the tray on it, before beginning to pick up her mistress' clothes and get the room in order for bedtime.
In the mean time, Mary ate the biscuits and drank the hot chocolate, wrapping her hands round the mug to absorb as much of the warmth of it as she could. It was sweet and comforting yet as she licked it off her lips, she was suddenly filled with an almost overpowering memory of the feel of Matthew's own lips on hers, of licking them, of his tongue glancing against hers, of his body moving against hers in the most intimate way possible... She had to put the mug down and clutch the side of the bath as a wave of unexpected and uncontrollable desire and longing for him washed over her. Now, too late and completely unreasonably, she began to sob. By the time Anna had rushed over to her and put her hand on her shaking shoulders, Mary had buried her face in her arms on the edge of the tub, crying as she had not cried for as long as she could remember. Not when Patrick had died, not after Pamuk – she had managed to stifle it every time. But now it seemed impossible to hold it back.
"There, there, my lady," murmured Anna rather uselessly and helped her out of the bath, drying her efficiently and unquestioningly as Mary continued to sob, and eventually getting her into bed. Clean and limp and nestled in a soft nightgown, with the blankets all around her, she finally cried herself silent. When she eventually looked up, Anna was still there, sitting by her bed with an expression of the greatest worry and sympathy. Mary felt completely and utterly drained. All she wanted now was the relief and oblivion of sleep for she was able to recognize that there was little point trying to think intelligently about anything that had happened at this stage.
"Shall I get Lady Grantham for you?" asked Anna.
Mary shook her head quickly. "No, don't disturb her. Thank you." It seemed important to thank her for some reason.
"Will your ladyship be alright?"
This kindness felt unbearable but she was too tired to resist it. "Oh yes," she replied with a little, grateful smile. "I shall be alright. I'm only terribly weary and a little – a little overwhelmed."
"Of course you are, my lady. It's lucky you were not more hurt - it must have been a very bad fall. I didn't see any bruises but perhaps they will appear later."
"Perhaps they will," Mary agreed, doubting it very much considering no fall had taken place, but not minding if Anna had this excuse to rely on.
"The consequences of this sort of thing sometimes take a little while to show up, but hopefully you're over the worst now."
"I'm sure I am," she replied, already feeling the effects of a good cry, a hot bath, and sweet food. She stifled a yawn.
Anna seemed happy to leave her now and with a final, anxious look, she curtsied, gathered up Mary's soiled clothing to be washed and mended and left her in peace. Sleep claimed her almost instantly.
A good night's rest and awakening to a new day can work wonders. Mary woke up on Thursday morning and discovered that the world actually looked much as it had the day before. Heavy rain during the night had given way to a damp but sunny morning. Her muscles no longer ached nor did she feel that alarmingly uncontrolled emotional response that had overwhelmed her the night before. It was almost possible to believe that nothing had happened. Except... that it had.
She knew it had in the way that Anna was very gentle with her and asked her if she was feeling better and in the way that she told her that the hat was already completely restored but the coat would take a little more work once back at Downton. She knew it in the way that her mind drifted to Matthew before anything else as she dressed, as she sat quietly while Anna did her hair, as she prepared to go down for breakfast. She did not think about him in any specific way but he was always intruding in her thoughts. She saw his smile in her mind's eye, relived moments from the previous day in a jumble of memories and feelings and finally wondered what on earth he was thinking. The closer she got to leaving her room, the more nervous she became. Had he passed on the message to her parents the previous night? What had they said? Did he regret what they had done yet? She knew Matthew's sense of honour and propriety and it seemed impossible that he should not. Did she regret them? Her stomach fluttered and she was not quite sure of the answer.
It was all very well saying that they would try to get along better but she was not sure how to go about that. Wouldn't it be obvious to everyone that they were lovers? How could she possibly see him and not be reminded of it? As she entered the breakfast room, she decided that some amount of reserve would be necessary simply to get through it, though she would take her cue from his own behaviour.
The countess was alone and Mary was not sure she was relieved or disappointed not to see Matthew. Cora looked up and smiled as she entered the room.
"How do you feel, dear? Matthew told us what happened last night."
Mary sat down opposite her and felt glad to do so. "Did he? Well, I feel perfectly recovered now."
"I'm so glad to hear it." Her mother hesitated and seemed to be debating whether to say something or not. Mary pretended she was not aware of this and took a roll and began to butter it very nonchalantly. "I hope you and Matthew have taken this opportunity to resolve some of your issues. If I have to spend another day stuck between the two of you and your bickering I really will go mad."
Mary raised her eyes to her mother's. "Yes," she managed to say, "some, I hope." She felt herself to be blushing.
"I hope so too because you've been behaving like such a pair of children. Ah, good morning, Matthew!"
Mary almost dropped her butter knife and twisted immediately in her chair to see him enter the breakfast room. Already she felt a prickle on the back of her neck, just from being aware of his presence in the room.
Matthew had steeled himself the moment he'd seen her upon entering the room, and now, faced with her wide-eyed stare as she caught his glance, he felt his pulse quicken alarmingly just as he'd worried it would. She was there, she was quite real, and he couldn't avoid her or... what they had done. His stomach churned uncomfortably, and he hastily sat down.
"Good morning, Cousin Cora," he smiled quickly at her before pulling his napkin into his lap, and taking some toast. He had barely slept a wink, tossing and turning and reliving and worrying and remembering... "Mary," he greeted her too. His voice shook alarmingly, and he had to look away again almost as soon as he'd glanced at her, feeling his skin tingle with awareness.
"Matthew," she greeted him rather vacantly, her eyes darting all over him.
"Forgive me, I'm - quite ravenous," he muttered as he buttered his toast and took a large bite, followed by a gulp of coffee.
Mary could not help focussing on his lips as he ate and the movement of his throat as he drank. She shifted in her chair and then looked down, forcing herself to concentrate on her breakfast. She wanted to say something, a witticism, some clever remark to break what she perceived as tension, to show that they could be friendly to each other, but she could not think of anything. It fell to her mother to ask how he had slept.
Waiting until he'd swallowed properly, Matthew wiped his lips and made more of an effort to smile at Cora, staring almost fixedly at her as he tried to avoid looking at Mary. He... couldn't, not just yet.
"Not terribly well, I'm afraid," he managed. "But a decent breakfast will fix that!" He smiled more widely, and was sure his hands trembled as he picked up his toast again. "I hope that you did, after your - worry, yesterday evening."
Oh God, why had he said that? He swallowed again and forced his eyes to Mary. He couldn't possibly ignore her entirely, and... well, he did wonder... "And you, Mary, I - hope you're quite recovered from yesterday?"
"Perfectly, thank you," she replied very crisply, forcing herself to look up, but fixing her gaze just to the left of his eyes. "I'm sorry you didn't sleep well."
Her voice sounded flat and peculiar to her ears, as if she were reciting the words of a script she had not yet read and for which she did not know the outcome. His face fell, which he quickly covered by taking another large sip of hot, bitter coffee.
"Thank you," he muttered down at his plate. "I'm so glad you've suffered no ill effects."
Of course, she must regret what they'd done. It had been madness! What had he been thinking, really? She was Lady Mary and he'd - he'd... All their promises and affection of the evening before seemed forgotten. Desperate to evade the awkward silence he could feel hovering, he glanced again at Cora.
"Do you have any particular plans for today?" he asked politely, in the hope that her answer would give him some time to think.
"I don't know," replied the countess, oblivious to any awkwardness. After all, compared to their behaviour previously, Matthew and Mary were in positively good humour! "But isn't that the joy of holidays - to do just as you like?"
Mary rolled her eyes. "Isn't that what we do at home too?"
She was so caught up in her automatic response that she met Matthew's eyes by accident. She twisted her lips anxiously and quickly looked away, taking another roll and beginning to butter this one very quickly.
If the blush Matthew felt spreading up the back of his neck was in any way apparent, Cora thankfully seemed oblivious to it.
"I suppose it is," he replied quietly, before chewing thoughtfully on another mouthful of toast. He tried to concentrate on the taste of it but somehow could only remember the taste of Mary, and the softness of her lips. He blinked.
"I think I might go for a walk along the beach," he said after a moment's silence, with an air of impulsiveness. He needed the air, the distance, the time to properly think in the clear light of day. Again, his eyes darted to Mary, trying to guess at her feelings, but... there was nothing there. His heart tightened in his chest.
Mary raised her eyes again and met his. They should talk, really they should. Clearly he was suggesting this in the hope that she would join him and yet she did not even know how to look at him, for he was Matthew... and he was her lover, and he seemed positively choked by all his clothing and rigid layers of propriety. She could imagine his throat, the feel of it and its texture, if only his collar were looser... As her thoughts drifted into unhelpful territory and heat flooded her, she missed the opportunity to reply and her mother got there first.
"What a lovely idea, Matthew!" Cora said warmly. "The sun's out but not strong enough for bathing, I expect, so a walk would be excellent. Robert will like that I know. Will you come, Mary?"
She nodded and concealed a sigh. "If everybody's going, then I suppose I have no choice," she responded. Her resistance was to her mother's hijacking of the scheme but it came out simply as sounding purposefully difficult.
Matthew blinked, his gaze flicking between the two women. That hadn't been what he'd meant! And Mary sounded so resistant to the idea, well... why wouldn't she be? It wasn't as though he could hope for a moment alone with her, not now, and what could he say to her in any case? What could he say to her at all, company or not? Somehow he'd become distracted as his gaze fixed upon her lips, where a crumb had settled - had she noticed? - and he coughed quietly.
"Of course you're welcome to join me, if you'd like," he offered (a superfluous courtesy since it seemed the decision had already been made).
"Isn't that rather Mama's point?" Mary replied with grudging civility, "We'll all go."
Matthew pursed his lips into a slight frown. She was being so cool towards him! Just then, Sybil and Edith entered the room together and, thankful for the distraction, Matthew stood quickly up to greet them as Mary broke off with a rather pointed and frustrated glance at him. There was a crumb on her lip - she licked it away quickly (sending an involuntary shiver through Matthew, who gripped his knife tighter) and forced a smile onto her face to greet her sisters.
"Good morning," Matthew smiled, but their attention was immediately turned to Mary too.
He watched carefully for her reaction, now not directed at him as Sybil clutched her hands while she sat beside her and asked, in a breathless rush, "Mary! We were so worried about you yesterday, you know. Are you quite alright? What a good job Matthew was there to save you!"
Never had it been harder to be nice to her sister... "Don't be so melodramatic, darling!" Mary replied. "Matthew didn't save me from anything; he just... happened to be there." It seemed that there was a tense silence when she spoke though there really was nothing of the kind and she felt obliged to continue in a hurry, "Though I suppose I am very grateful he was, all things considered."
Her voice got quieter and quieter as she continued until she looked down at her plate and was happy to be distracted by the footman pouring her coffee. As she spoke, Matthew stared at her, biting the inside of his lip. Just to breathe seemed like the most tremendous effort. 'Just happened to be there' indeed! If he hadn't... Well, if he hadn't have been, nothing at all would have happened, and - they wouldn't be in this mess, admittedly, but a part of him would be very, very sorry for it.
Still staring (rather obviously, he worried) at Mary, he took a gentle breath and said, "You're very welcome, Mary." He thought for a moment about his next choice of words, then decided to say them anyway, for what harm could it do? "I'm... very glad I was there," he said carefully, and quietly. He blinked, and his expression became almost hopeful.
Mary raised her eyes to his over her coffee with more tenderness than she had done so far this morning. His tone reminded her more of the previous evening and her lips curved up into a gentle smile as the rest of the room faded into irrelevance. He did not regret it, he couldn't, he still - he still what? Cared for her? She was not sure.
She was about to reply in some nonsensical way when Edith interrupted, "Well, that's what you get, Mary, if you will rush about the headland on your own. You're very lucky in my opinion not to be injured."
Quite unexpectedly, Matthew felt a rush of defensiveness on her behalf at Edith's unnecessary comment.
"But she wasn't on her own, was she?" he said, too quickly, flexing his fingers as he released his butter knife and taking another sip of coffee. Blood raced through his veins at Mary's ghost of a smile - very slight, but definitely there, he was sure - what did it mean? He felt clueless, and lost. He blinked, and lowered his eyes to his plate. "She wasn't alone, and she wasn't hurt, and - I'm sure that Mary would rather not be bothered about it any more."
"Thank you," she mouthed at him, as Edith retorted, "Oh, Mary gets away with everything, doesn't she!"
"Edith!" exclaimed her mother, looking between her three daughters and Matthew in some bewilderment.
Fortunately, before the scene could get any more awkward, the earl, his mother and Isobel all entered together. Mary felt her grip on her coffee cup relax a little. For a moment she had been unwise and who knew what might have been suspected from her behaviour - their behaviour. She sat up a little straighter, cleared her throat, and asked her father with great interest about the day's papers.
Matthew smiled gratefully at Mary, mouthing "Thank you," back to her as the Earl summarised the morning's (entirely uninteresting) news then quickly looked away. He'd only seen his mother briefly the evening before, after leaving the rest of the family, and greeted her quietly now. His mind was left in turmoil over Mary, and through the rest of breakfast he did not speak directly to her; it wasn't necessary and he couldn't draw any more attention to them. He sufficed to steal repeated glances at her, trying to rein his mind in as he remembered, and wondered what she truly thought of it all. Perhaps he would get the opportunity later on. He wasn't sure whether he hoped so, or not.
The weather was fine, when they set out later on, the air having cleared from the previous day's storm. Matthew took a deep breath as they stepped onto the beach, idly watching the other bathers and people enjoying the sunshine. He walked with his mother; not purposefully avoiding Mary but making no effort to seek her out... Well, he didn't want to seem at all obvious.
He stared out at the sea, then at the sand, watching it sink beneath his feet, and suddenly he felt the urge to feel it between his toes, as he hadn't done since he was a little boy. Glancing round the rest of the party, he wondered if anyone would mind. Surely not... and in any case, he decided he didn't care. He might be the future earl of Grantham, but for now he was still a very ordinary upper middle-class country solicitor, and he wanted to walk barefoot in the sand.
"Do go on, Mother," he said quickly, "I won't be a moment."
When she nodded and walked on, he stooped, untied his shoes, took them off as well his socks, tucking them into his shoes and, for good measure, rolled his trousers up a few turns. That was better! As he started to walk again, a childishly happy smile lit his face as he carried on, a few paces behind the rest of the party.
Mary wandered along the sand next to Sybil and her mother but without really paying any attention to them. It was good to take deep breaths of sea air and feel refreshed. After so much crying the previous night, not to mention the muggy weather up until now, it was natural to feel the need for blowing away the cobwebs and she soon felt entirely restored to her normal equilibrium. She was always aware of Matthew, however, and when Cousin Isobel drew level with them and he was not with her, she looked back and saw Matthew taking off his socks. Her mouth suddenly felt dry as his feet and ankles emerged and she fell silently behind the others. This was the most amount of skin she had seen on him before and her stomach flipped. She had to control this! Pursing her lips she slowed her walk almost to a standstill until he caught her up.
He hadn't expected her to drop back to follow him! His pulse quickened as he drew level with her, after having quickly realised that there was no way to avoid it short of distancing himself completely from the family. He smiled breathlessly, a little nervously, at her.
Heart pounding as if she were seventeen years old and talking to her first dance partner, Mary smiled tentatively, ran her eyes up from his feet to his eyes and asked lightly, "Planning a swim, Matthew?"
"What if I was?" he replied; then, without thinking, "Would you want to join me?" No sooner had the question left his lips, he blushed fiercely with horror at himself. God, what was he suggesting! The thoughts, images that... that conjured... Of her own feet, ankles, her dress clinging to her limbs in the water, limbs that he'd... his eyes dropped to his feet, and he swung his shoes distractedly by his side. "God, Mary, I'm - sorry, I didn't mean..." He trailed off, without excuse.
Mary stared at him, her jaw dropping a bit and then, as his embarrassment increased, she laughed softly.
"Didn't you?" she retorted, biting her lip in amusement, her eyes sparkling at him. Her hand stretched out automatically to touch his arm in sympathy but she quickly dropped it before it did. She quickly looked away as she continued walking but it was hard to feel as embarrassed as she should in the face of his ridiculous behaviour - and the fact that the rest of their party was walking ahead and facing away from them.
He glanced quickly across at her, blushing gently. "No, I - well, I didn't mean to imply that you might want - oh, it doesn't matter!" he blustered, though a gentle, awkward smile curled on his lip. Considering that their opportunities to be alone would be scarce, and he could not count on another before they left Scarborough, he decided to make some use of it and swayed towards her a little as he spoke.
"Are you really alright, after - yesterday?" he asked quietly, and very seriously. "Do you - do you regret any of it?"
"Not as much as I should do probably," Mary replied a little more soberly, but still not matching his gravity. She still had not been able to think seriously about what they had done and she had an idea that she would not be able to bear it as soon as she did. In the meantime, it was sunny and blustery and they were together... "Is the sea cold?" she asked him hastily.
Was the... sea cold? Matthew had no idea, he didn't care! He licked his lips and frowned quickly. What was he supposed to take from that? Clearly, she was in no mood to talk about the state of things between them, and - he wasn't sure what to make of that.
"I really don't know," he shrugged, a little offhandedly.
Mary raised her eyebrows and flicked her eyes down to his feet. He was flexing his toes in the sand and she perceived a brush of hairs on them. She looked quickly back up again, trying not to blush.
"What's the point of taking your shoes off if you're not going to try the water?" She tilted her head. "Perhaps I should. What do you think, Matthew?"
He couldn't do more than look at her for a fleeting moment, for all the feelings she inspired in him. The thoughts spiraling through his mind at her suggestion were making him warm, all the way through, the threads of desire mingling with frustration at her apparent determination to avoid any sort of serious discussion.
"I think what you do is entirely up to you, Mary," he finally managed to say, staring determinedly down as his feet, noticing the tips of her shoes every time they fell in step with his toes.
"Entirely up to me?" retorted Mary with raised eyebrows. "I see. In that case I shall do exactly - what - I - want." As she spoke, she bent down to catch at the buckles on her shoes to undo them. Standing on one leg, she swayed and grabbed Matthew's arm to steady her as she took off first one shoe and then the other.
"I - Mary!" he gasped, reaching instinctively for her, caught somewhere between amusement, horror, and... arousal. He swallowed heavily. Stiffening, he felt every muscle tense against his instincts (to move away from her, towards her - he hardly knew!) as he froze in indecision. She was impossible! "What are you doing?" he hissed.
She dropped his arm, feeling the imprint of it on her hand for moments afterwards, to pick up her shoes. She still wore her stockings but there was really no way of getting them off without raising her skirts and well, once a week was enough for that, surely?
"Being very improper indeed," she replied, a little out of breath, as she straightened. "I wouldn't have thought you'd mind."
Matthew's jaw dropped in surprise. "You wouldn't - that I - Mary!" he hissed again, feeling incredibly affronted at her opinion of him. "I - of course I - Mary, our family are only just there!"
What he meant by that, he really couldn't have said. Did he mind? Did he want... For himself, he didn't suppose he did mind, but - they had to be careful! He felt as though he were on fire, shifting uncomfortably in the sand, staring in bewilderment at her.
"So they are." Her shoulders bumped against his as she turned to continue walking. Mary was not quite sure what she was insisting on. She frowned and then shook her head. "Cheer up, Matthew; I'll keep my stockings on! A line must be drawn somewhere, mustn't it?" She was smiling at him but it was forced and she was not quite sure... The smile wavered.
"I think it must!" he said, with far more sharpness than he meant (though out of necessity than desire, he felt) and she drew back at his tone. Was she determined to tease him until he snapped, and - well, what was she hoping for? Did she want him to break, as he had done yesterday? His gaze slid sideways to hers, his lips pressed into a thin line of forced control.
"Are you - going to try the water, or not?" he eventually asked, for the sake of conversation. This was unbearably difficult! His entire body prickled with awareness of her proximity, and... her shoes were off, he could see that her feet and ankles were delicate, pretty and... he had to stop!
"Obviously not, unless you think I should take my stockings off as well!" she snapped, gesturing down at her feet. "Oh, come on; let's catch up with the others. Perhaps Sybil will want to paddle." She started walking a little more quickly.
Now Matthew felt frustrated, unsure of her or even himself.
"Perhaps she will," he bit back, hanging behind her for a second and glaring at her figure in front of him. At her slender ankles and slim waist, the skin at the back of her neck shining in the sunlight where a few wisps of hair had escaped in the sea breeze, and - God, he knew her, he'd had her and felt her and now he hadn't the slightest clue of what she expected of him and how he was supposed to behave properly around her!
With a frustrated sigh, he picked up his pace and briskly caught up with her. "I'm sorry," he muttered quietly. "I'm not sure how to - how to do this, yet."
Mary hadn't really wanted to push him away, of course she hadn't, so as soon as she became aware of him at her side again she slowed down and turned to him quickly, softening.
"No, of course you're not," she replied, "and I suppose that's why we're not announcing our engagement this morning!"
On an impulse, she reached out and briefly touched his fingers and squeezed them before dropping his hand again. It was a simple gesture but she had not been prepared for the surge of emotion and desire and memory that passed through her and she gasped and looked quickly out over the sea. Almost as if it had actually happened, with one touch she had been pulled into his arms once more and could feel them encircling her. She swallowed and blinked to clear her head.
His fingers seemed to burn from her touch, and he wished (so fiercely that he felt an ache of longing in his chest) that she had not let go. They flexed unconsciously at his side, and he moistened his lips, peering ahead of him at the lightly clouding sky.
"Yes, I suppose so," he said quietly. "We will..." He stopped walking, touched her elbow, and looked earnestly at her, taking the opportunity to gaze unguardedly and drink in every feature of her sun-bathed face, her paleness taking on a beautifully golden hue. He smiled gently. "We will - be alright, won't we?"
Her face passed through various shades of doubt and affection as he spoke. "I hope so, Matthew," she replied and suddenly felt very warmly towards him indeed. If she had to have made love to anyone outside matrimony, she was glad it had been him. She was not quite sure how to express that so she just gave him a shy little smile and a shrug and then shoved her hands into her coat pockets and began to walk again.
"So do I," he replied quietly.
Something about her gentle expression - something tender, almost, reminding him of the previous evening when she had kissed him softly on the path - reassured him. He stood for a while, still, and allowed her to catch up to her family before walking again, concentrating on the sensation of damp sand between his toes. He needed to concentrate on something!
At least she didn't seem to hate him, this morning, which was what he'd been most afraid of. It was something, at least, and if he was honest he didn't quite dare to push it any further. They would be back at Downton in only a couple of days, and... maybe, it would be easier if he stayed away from her until then. Then, when they were back in the normalcy of familiar settings and routines, they could do as they'd promised and simply practise getting along. Here - with every association that it brought, every memory (he could see the castle in the distance, on the cliff) - that task seemed impossible, not without risk of giving himself away through his stammers and blushes. Ultimately, he thought, they both hoped that it would be alright.
He smiled, swung his shoes, and caught up again to his mother who'd just seen a crab in the sand.
A/N: Thank you for reading. We hope you enjoyed and would love to hear what you think! :)
OrangeShipper and Silvestria