A/N:Well, there it is. The final chapter. Big thanks to Willa Dedalus whose wonderful input and dedication helped shape this story into what it now is. Also, to all who have faithfully reviewed and commented, you probably don't realize just what an impact your feedback has. Thank you all. I couldn't have done it without you. :D
Eventually, Mary rose from the bed to find their dressing gowns and tidy the mess they'd made of their evening-wear in their haste to be rid of it the night before, hiding the evidence of their tryst from the staff until the family could be told of Matthew's recovery. She smiled at him as he stretched languidly under the sheets, yawning dramatically before struggling into a sitting position on the edge of the bed. Though Matthew was quite eager to try standing again, he couldn't help groaning in discomfort at the deep ache in his back and thighs.
"Ah...I think we may have overdone it, darling - much as I hate to admit it."
Mary wrapped her arms around him, leaning down to brush her lips over his reassuringly as she helped him work his arms into the sleeves of his dressing gown.
"Perhaps it's normal," she mused as she secured the sash around his waist. "I'm a bit stiff and...maybe even a little sore this morning myself," she admitted with a faint blush.
Matthew smiled up at her, trapping her with his arms securely around her silk-clad waist. "Yes, but my poor muscles are even more disused than yours," he whined playfully, giving her a mock pout. "Perhaps we can sneak away for a nap after luncheon."
"Why do I get the feeling that sleep isn't what you have in mind?"
"Because it isn't." Matthew leaned down to place a lingering kiss on her collar-bone, enjoying the feel of her fingers slipping into his hair, lightly massaging his scalp. "I was actually hoping you'd be willing to help ease my aches. Your little hands are remarkably skilled."
There was silence for a moment as they simply held each other close, still basking in the afterglow of their early-morning lovemaking.
"And," Matthew continued, "if we just happen to end up in l'acte d'amour, then so be it."
Mary giggled and playfully swatted his hands away from her bottom.
"That's the second time this morning you've said something terribly naughty in french. Whatever has come over you?"
"Well...it seems somehow less improper spoken in french than in the king's english."
Both laughed easily for a few moments, drawing out their time alone together before Matthew left for breakfast with the family and Mary ordered her tray. She secretly wished that he might stay and break his fast in bed with her, but that would have to wait. Just for this one day, nobody should be given reason to suspect anything until they were ready to divulge their secret. However, she was absolutely resolved to keep him in bed with her for as long as they liked the next morning.
As the day progressed, Matthew was amazed to discover that their intimacy of the previous evening hadn't changed much between them. He didn't feel any closer or more one with Mary than he already had; there was no new mystical bond tying them together. No, all those things had already been there between them. Their hearts had been knit together as one long before their bodies had done the same. In many ways, the sweet intimacy they'd forged before his recovery had been just as precious and fulfilling. He was only sorry it had taken him so long to see it.
He looked lovingly at his wife seated beside him in their quiet parlor, her dark head bent over a novel, and marveled, again, that he could possibly deserve such a treasure. When he had been blind to all but his own anger, she had seen him clearly. When he had been weak in body and spirit, she had been his strength. She'd seen something in him that was worth saving when he hadn't cared if he lived or died. Her belief in him had restored his faith in himself and in humanity. How could he ever possibly repay her? His Mary was wise and strong as she was beautiful, and it would be his privilege to love and honor her for all of his days.
"On any terms," she'd said to him, seated on the edge of his hospital bed. Yes, she was wise beyond her years for seeing things so clearly and so simply. What a fool he had been for failing to return her sentiment. It was with a searing pain deep in his heart that he realized that he hadn't loved her as she deserved in the beginning. He had loved her; of course he had. But her love had been selfless and sacrificial where his had been self-pitying and conditional. It had taken time, but he now felt that he too could say, without a single doubt in his heart, that he loved her - that he would love her - on any terms.
"Darling, you seem rather pensive this morning," Mary mused as she caught his eye.
Matthew sighed and looked down at Puck, who lay in a contented doze across his lap, and fiddled absently with one of his velvety ears. "I was just...thinking about how little I've done to deserve you, my darling."
His candor touched Mary's heart, and she moved closer to slip her hand in his. "It isn't a matter of deserving, Matthew."
"I know," he responded quickly, lifting her hand to his lips. "I will be forever in awe of you, my love."
"My, my," she teased him, hoping to lighten the mood. "I can't imagine that's something many wives get to hear from their husbands. Careful, darling. You're well on your way to making me a very vain woman."
Sensing her desire to steer the conversation away from such serious subjects, Matthew only chuckled at her ridiculous comment and pulled her close for a lingering kiss.
It was decided that they would wait to tell Robert until just before dinner, knowing it would be impossible for him to keep a straight face for very long with a secret such as theirs in his possession.
The earl was, perhaps, a little surprised to be summoned to his daughter and son's private sitting room after he'd dressed for dinner, but he could never have been prepared for the sight that greeted him upon entering.
Matthew had wanted to receive Robert already standing, so he'd had Mary watch at the door for when her father came round the corner. He had to lean rather heavily on her arm while they waited, but her ministrations during their stolen hour in their bedroom had lessened the ache in his back enough to make the exertion bearable.
"Surprise," Mary muttered lamely to break the silence as her father simply stood gaping at the two of them for what seemed like an interminable stretch of time. Despite both their best efforts, she knew Matthew wouldn't be able to remain standing for much longer.
"Oh, my dear chap. My very dear chap!" Robert strode quickly across the room to them and clasped Matthew's free hand in his, clapping his other hand on Matthew's shoulder and leaning close in a sort of fatherly hug. After a few moments, Matthew reluctantly admitted that he couldn't remain standing any longer, and Mary and Robert both supported him as he carefully seated himself. Mary then invited her father to sit for a few minutes while she and Matthew explained to him what had happened.
"Oh, Matthew, Mary, this is most excellent news!"
"Thank you, Robert." Matthew reached for Mary's hand, clasping it tightly as they beamed at one another. "It's pretty good news for us too."
"So, am I to understand that...that the possibility now exists for..."
"Yes, Papa," Mary answered, rolling her eyes at his very expected question. "We can now do our duty by Downton."
Matthew's eyebrows shot up at Mary's blasé answer, and he glanced quickly at her to find her smirking prettily, her eyes sparkling with mischief. She returned his look briefly, her smile growing, as if to reassure him that duty was the furthest thing from her mind when it came to all the new possibilities that now existed for them.
Throughout dinner, Mary frequently caught her father gazing at either herself or Matthew with a peculiar gleam in his eye that, she cringed to observe, had also captured Edith's and her mother's attention.
"Robert, what's gotten into you this evening?" Cora asked. "You look like the cat who's swallowed the canary."
Mary held her breath and glanced over at Isobel, her palms growing damp under her gloves. To her relief, Robert answered simply,
"You'll just have to wait and see, my dears. I assure you, you'll never guess."
"Heavens, Robert," Violet chuckled softly into her napkin, "you always did love a good intrigue. Now you've got us all on the edge of our seats."
"As I said, Mama, you'll just have to wait and see."
As Matthew smoked his after-dinner cigar with a gleeful Robert, he began to feel something akin to stage fright. The feeling lasted only as long as their abbreviated separation from the ladies, however. One glimpse of Mary's serene face was enough to banish his jitters. He asked Robert to place him near the fireplace so he could use the mantlepiece to hold onto, and Mary immediately moved to stand beside him, clearing her throat to gain the attention of the room.
"Now, if we could have your attention please, everyone, Matthew has something to show you." She smiled and nodded down at him, standing close enough to be available should he need her help, but making no move to assist him in standing. Matthew smiled gratefully back at her, thankful for her understanding. As much as he appreciated her being there for him, he wanted to do this himself.
For a moment, the room was atwitter with whispered speculations, but, as soon as Matthew slipped his feet from the wheelchair's footrest, silence descended. The quiet lasted for only a moment. Once he was fully on his feet, gasps of shock and delight broke out, and they were peppered with several disbelieving questions. Robert and Isobel took it upon themselves to answer these, seeing that Mary and Matthew were quite absorbed in one another to the exclusion of all else.
Mary still made no move to go to Matthew, who seemed quite steady with one hand braced on the mantlepiece. She merely gazed proudly up at him and raised her sherry to her lips, sipping delicately. Matthew's eyes zeroed in on the light sheen of moisture the drink left on her pink mouth, and his tongue darted out to wet his own lips, which quirked up in a rakish grin as he was seized by a rather scandalous idea. Improper though it was, he gave in to the impulse and reached for Mary, relishing the surprise on her lovely face as he drew her close and leaned down to slant his mouth firmly over hers.
Cheers and applause erupted around the room as he kissed her for a long moment. Mary's free hand came up to caress his jaw, allowing herself to briefly return the kiss before modestly pulling back to bestow upon him an affronted look that he was certain was only for show. If he knew Mary, she was already planning their escape.
Both were surprised by the expressions on the family's faces when they turned. There almost wasn't a dry eye in the room. Even the Dowager Countess dabbed discreetly at her nose with a handkerchief. Mary was most surprised by her mother, who stood with her hands clasped together in front of her, blue eyes shining with brimming tears. Sybil was the first to break free of the shock and rush to Mary's side, immediately pulling her into a firm hug.
"Oh, Mary, how happy I am for you both! How deliciously romantic."
Mary smiled indulgently at her sweet younger sister and accepted an embrace from her mother next, though she couldn't help but feel indignant that this sudden change of heart had only occurred after Matthew's recovery. She had hoped that her mother might have seen how good Matthew was for her sooner and thought to apologize for her previous actions. Mary sighed softly as she quickly accepted, then dismissed, Cora's words of joy. She was determined not to allow her mother to impede her happiness when she had so very, very much to be grateful for.
After the initial hubbub had died down, Mary finally took Matthew's arm, asking him if he'd like to sit back down.
"I think I'd better, but not in that blasted thing." He looked about apologetically as he realized his language hadn't exactly been appropriate for the drawing room, but nobody seemed to have taken offense. Catching Matthew's meaning instantly, Robert moved to his other side, assisting patiently as Matthew made the few shuffling, faltering steps to the settee. A deep, satisfied sigh was released as he sank into the soft cushion.
"Thank you," he addressed Mary and Robert once comfortably situated. "I can't even begin to express how wonderful it feels to be in a normal seat again."
Mary squeezed the hand he still held, giving him another proud grin before she was whisked away by the ladies.
Once left relatively alone, Robert, who had seated himself beside Matthew, leaned close, lowering his voice to a deep whisper.
"I must say, Matthew, that Mary seems to have blossomed overnight, and I can only assume your recent recovery has some roll to play in her newfound contentment. Well done, my boy."
Matthew blushed handsomely as Robert clapped him on the shoulder.
"Well...I...I'm afraid I'm about as good at all that just now as I am at walking. Mary's too good to put up with my fumbling."
Robert shook his head at Matthew's self-depreciating reply, gesturing discreetly towards Mary where she stood in the midst of the group of women, her smile lighting up the room far more than the electric bulbs.
"Nonsense. Just look at her, Matthew. She's positively glowing."
"Indeed, she is," he had to acknowledge. She was stunning. He suddenly found that he couldn't take his eyes off her. His Mary was a truly captivating woman, and he was the most fortunate of men to have won her devotion and her love.
Several days after the big reveal to the family, Mary found herself walking up several flights of stairs into Downton's massive attics alone in search of something she hoped would help Matthew - a lovely antique she remembered her grandfather having always with him. It took several minutes of digging, but, at last, she held the gleaming mahogany in her hands. For several moments, she admired the fine walking stick, just as lovely as she remembered it being. The brass handle needed a little polishing to restore its original shine, but the intricate carving captured her eye just as it had when she was a small girl. She thought Matthew would look very smart with it indeed.
Over the following weeks, Matthew and Mary could often be glimpsed from the windows of Downton Abbey out on the lawn, wearing broad smiles despite the chill, their little dog running playful circles around their feet. Mary would stand just out of his reach as he rose from his wheelchair, leaning gingerly on the late Lord Grantham's walking stick. With every slow, careful step he took forward, she took one step back. This game would continue until Mary allowed him to catch her, at which point he would be rewarded for his efforts with a kiss.
With such daily practice, it wasn't long before Matthew felt strong enough to walk the distance from his dressing room to the dining room for dinner one evening. When he'd exited the small room and was stood in the middle of the long hallway, he experienced a moment of panic. The distance seemed so terribly long, the task almost impossible. But, before he could lose hope, Mary stepped out of the shadows of their bedroom door, her face lighting up at the sight of him standing there.
"Leaving the chair behind tonight, darling?" she asked, clearly pleased with his initiative. She took the arm not supported by his stick as they began to walk, slowly, but steadily. As Matthew's strength began to wane, Mary moved closer, offering even more support.
"I'm not putting too much weight on you, am I dearest?" Matthew asked, turning to glance down at his wife's beaming face.
"Nonsense," Mary replied, squeezing his arm closer to her side. "I'm stronger than I look, Matthew. You can always lean on me."
*author bawling eyes out*
But, the sequel is coming up in a couple of weeks! I can now announce that the official title will be A Love To Lean On. Keep an eye out for it. :)
I'd like to thank you all so much for going on this journey with me. If you have a moment, please let me know what you thought of this final installment. It would be much appreciated. :D