"As for your giggling like a ridiculous schoolgirl with Cousin Matthew! It was pathetic."
Mary raised her head slightly to take in her sister, growing weary of this constant barrage of barbs they continually tossed at each other but resolutely unwilling to concede anything.
"Poor Edith," she crooned. "I am sorry Matthew's proved a disappointment to you."
"Who says he has?" Edith shot back, eyes widening in trepid defensiveness.
"Matthew," Mary returned, smug in her small victory as she watched Edith's countenance crumble. "He told me. Oh, sorry. Wasn't I supposed to know?"
Her sister deflated before her, a slight twinge of remorse shuttering though Mary at the pitiful expression that washed across Edith's features.
"You were very helpful, Edith, looking after Sir Anthony like that," her mother put in, casting a rather marked expression at her eldest daughter that quenched any sense of regret Mary had just been entertaining. "You saved the day."
Edith was practically beaming, drawing her small frame up even taller.
"I enjoyed it. We seemed to have a lot to talk about."
A lot to talk about? Mary rolled her eyes in exasperation, tired of this show of bravado being displayed to no effect. She turned to walk away from her sister, stopped in her tracks as Edith's hand grasped her forearm.
"Spare me your boasting, please," Mary sighed, spinning on her heels to face whatever challenge was directly forthcoming.
"Now who's jealous?" Edith demanded, raising her chin in defiance to the notion of her elder sister's superiority.
"Of Strallan?" Mary breathed incredulously, shaking her head in disbelief. "No thank you. I have my sights set on bigger fish."
Edith's eyes narrowed, scanning her sister's face in desperation for any trace of transparency.
"Cousin Matthew, then," she deduced, watching in satisfaction at the small flicker of acknowledgement as Mary's brow twitched imperceptibly.
"And just why would I bother with Cousin Matthew?" Mary returned, attempting to appear slightly bored as she fought down panic over how very nearly Edith had nearly hit the proverbial target.
"Because you like him," Edith surmised, a smug grin alighting upon her face as brushing the truth increased her boldness. "And you're not sure if he likes you."
"Of course he likes me," Mary retorted, glancing over her shoulder at the other guests to ensure they had not heard those last remarks. "Why wouldn't he?"
"For a myriad of reasons," Edith shot back, drawing fire from her sister's glance that only increased her fervor.
"Then why should I bother with him?" Mary threw back, raising her chin in aloofness.
"Because you can't control him," Edith concluded. "Cousin Matthew does not conform to the same set of standards as your other suitors, and you're not sure what to do about it."
"I daresay that I could have Matthew eating from the palm of my hand before the evening is over if I set my mind to it," Mary spat softly, her eyes flashing in anger at being cornered in such a manner.
"But could you get him to kiss you?" Edith demanded in a whisper that chilled Mary's skin.
"Is that a challenge?" Mary questioned, her pulse speeding up imperceptibly at the very thought of such.
"If you like," Edith smirked, already certain of her victory in this matter.
She then turned and walked away, leaving the gauntlet lying immobile at Mary's feet.
Dare she pick it up?
The men then made their entrance, the sight of Matthew shooting a thrill of anticipation and nerves up her spine as she noticed Edith observing her every move. She returned her attention to the man in question, the man whose company she had been enjoying much more than she was willing to admit to anyone…
Especially to herself.
Matthew was striding towards her now, a hesitance in his step somehow bolstering her tenuous courage. She smiled at him—suddenly awash with a new determination that set her feet upon a path paved in his direction.
"I've been waiting for you," she began, noting the boyish grin that tugged at the corners of his mouth at her declaration. "I've found a book on the table over here, and I think it's just the thing to catch your interest."
"I'd-I'd be delighted to see it, actually," he responded, his eyes dancing around hers before they dropped to the floor momentarily.
She linked her arm in his, leading him effortlessly exactly where she wanted him to go.
Perhaps this was going to be easier than she had anticipated.
"You thought I would be interested in a book on farming?' he inquired as he traced the spine with his finger, a small dose of sarcasm lacing his tone as he eyed her underneath his brown.
"Oh my," she exclaimed quietly, "I must have been mistaken. The book I truly had in mind must have been returned to the library."
"Would you like me to go and fetch it?" he asked kindly. "I am sure you could provide me with details to its exact whereabouts."
"I don't think you would ever locate it in that clutter," she returned. "Why don't we go and fetch it together?"
The trace of eagerness on his face gave him away, even as his voice and step faltered slightly.
"Do you think your father would allow it?" he inquired, swallowing audibly as he continued. "Allow us to go off alone together, I mean."
"I don't think he would mind," Mary reasoned with a smile, "not if he knows the purpose of our mission." She lowered her lashes a fraction, seeking his gaze masterfully from beneath their covering. "I daresay we won't be gone long."
"Shall we seek his permission, do you think?" Matthew asked, Mary unable to quell a slight grin as she noted the tips of his ears turning a light shade of pink.
"Why not?" she countered, slipping her arm back through his deliberately as she guided him through the currents of the drawing room.
Permission was granted, their new course plotted. Yes, Mary thought smugly, this wager was proving to be no true challenge whatsoever.
She shot Edith a smug look over her shoulder.
"Just what particular book did you have in mind?" Matthew queried once they had arrived in the library, glancing around at the shelves as if he could locate the very volume she desired.
"A rather definitive collection of Greek myths," Mary replied, strolling towards a shelf nestled in a conveniently remote corner of the room. "It should be over in this vicinity unless someone has moved it."
Matthew followed her predictably, his encroaching footfalls increasing her assurance of victory with every step.
"Have you located it?" he questioned, standing a bit closer than he should have but still within the bounds of good taste.
"I believe it's that one—just there," she answered, indicating a far corner on a shelf just beyond her reach. She inched herself into the space, attempting to appear as though she were trying to grasp it on her own.
"Here, allow me," Matthew intervened, moving even closer and effectively pinning her between the wall and the bookshelf. "Is it the rather large gray one that you want?"
"I think so," she replied softly, refusing to move as he leaned in even closer in an attempt get it down.
"Mary, perhaps if you could," he began, faltering as he realized just how closely they were standing to each other. "I'm having a difficult time trying to maneuver myself close enough to fetch it down. Do you think you could…"
"Would you like me to move?" she questioned, the guileless expression she wore nudging loose a slight suspicion within him that began to grow.
"That would be helpful, yes," he returned, watching her closely to ascertain her next move.
"Then I shall, by all means," she responded demurely, smiling up at him purposefully. "I would never want to stand in your way."
"Then why are you?"
The question took her off-guard, her defenses rising instantaneously.
"Why are you still standing in the corner when you know perfectly well that I shall not be able to reach that book without bumping into you?" Matthew questioned again, leaning in closer as her eyes widened in alarm.
"No reason," she replied, swallowing hard as she searched her mind for the right words. "I just wanted to make certain that you knew which book it was."
"Really?" he returned, the crease in his brow alerting Mary to the fact that control of the situation had rapidly shifted from her hands to his. "Because oddly enough, I'm beginning to wonder if there truly is a book that you wished to discuss."
"Of course there is!" she exclaimed, attempting to look affronted. "Why else would I have brought you into the library?"
He looked to the side, shaking his head slightly as his eyes then swept the room.
"I have the strangest feeling that you want me to kiss you."
She was effectively trapped. Her eyes flew open in admission before she could stop them, heat rushing to her cheeks in spite of her effort to appear unfazed by his assumption.
"Whatever gave you an idea like that?" she demanded, drawing herself up taller as she squared her shoulders in defense.
He dared another step closer, knocking away of piece of her resolve as her pulse began to race without her consent.
"Because you have effectively allowed me to back you into a corner," he reasoned quietly, his eyes not allowing hers to waver from their grasp as he gazed at her intently. "And the only way you would ever allow that to happen is by design."
"You think you know me so well?" she inquired, raising a brow in a desperate challenge. "But haven't you noticed? You are the one who keeps stepping closer."
He stared at her, a contorted mixture of admiration and frustration racing within him as he held his ground.
"And you are not moving away."
Her breathing was becoming shallow, a fluttering she could not readily identify tickling her abdomen as a monstrous realization struck her.
She actually did want him to kiss her.
Brown eyes dropped unwittingly to his lips, flying back to his face only to notice how his were fixed upon her mouth. He wanted this, too, she quickly understood, suddenly quite uncertain of what she should do next.
"So do you?" he breathed, his eyes beginning to appear rather drugged by her proximity.
"Do I what?" she whispered, leaning forward just slightly without realizing it.
"Want me to kiss you?" he managed, suddenly unable to look at her directly as his eyes searched the shelves just over her shoulder.
Her pulse was deafening now, shallow breaths leaving her slightly light-headed as she refused to look away from him. She sought frantically for the right words, refusing to give herself away completely yet wanting what stood so very closely in a manner that perplexed her.
"What do you think?" she finally replied, the steadiness in her tone taking her by surprise as she observed his pupils rounding.
It was the last coherent thought she had.
His lips took hers instantly, their intensity leaving her reeling as they sought inquisitively to know her better. She caught herself responding, moving her own mouth delicately upon his as her arms cupped the sides of his face. His pressure increased, helplessly intoxicated by her as he pressed against her even more firmly. She then felt the solid frame of the wall against her back, sending a sudden thrill prickling up and down her legs as she dared to part her lips for him.
The invitation took him by surprise, and he drew back to stare at her, making certain he had understood correctly. Hooded lids reassured him quickly, his mouth returning to the luxury it had just abandoned as he dared a taste inside her.
Mary nearly lost her balance.
She grabbed onto him tightly, her senses caught up in a maddening reel that seemed to continually increase in tempo until she could no longer keep up. His tongue's teasing of her lips was more than she could comprehend, pulling him even tighter with trembling hands. She had never experienced anything like this, this need to delve even deeper into him propelling her forward as her tongue answered his summons.
He moaned audibly, pushing her further against the wall, shivering as her arms wound their way around his neck. He was lost, he realized, the comprehension of just how badly he wanted this woman pounding physically throughout his body as he began to respond at an alarming rate.
But this was Mary.
Cold reason jostled his insides, forcing him to break contact with her suddenly as he blinked repeatedly to regain some focus. She stood before him looking rather dazed, her hair slightly askew and her lips a darker hue than they had been before he had kissed her.
He had kissed her. Oh, God.
And she had most decidedly kissed him back.
Mary's ability to speak had fled, leaving her in the unfamiliar position of waiting for someone else to initiate conversation. She stared up at Matthew, wondering why he suddenly appeared taller than she had ever noticed. The uncomfortable realization that her arms were still draped around his shoulders struck her, and she dropped them self-consciously, staring at her feet.
"Mary, I—" he began, catching the apology upon his lips as he somehow deduced it would be the wrong thing to say. He wasn't sorry at all, he realized, that thought making him grin as she gazed up at him in confusion.
"What is it?' she managed, forcing her voice through the tightened confines of her throat.
"Nothing, really," he shrugged, his eyes continually flitting in her direction.
"Tell me," she implored throatily, the slight raspiness in her voice sorely tempting him to repeat his last impulsive action.
"I was just remembering when you called me a rather dull boy," he conceded shyly, a stray piece of golden hair flopping down between his brows at this admission.
She brushed it aside with delicate fingers, forcing him to close his eyes at the intensity of this unexpected contact.
"Oh, Matthew," she breathed, smiling softly as crystal eyes reopened for her. "What am I always telling you? You must pay no attention to the things I say."
"Would you still like for me to fetch that book for you?" he questioned, clearing his throat self-consciously as one side of her mouth drew up in a smile.
"Oh, I don't know," she hummed deeply, watching rich color infuse his cheeks. "I was rather enjoying our discussion without it."
"That's funny," he admitted with a shrug. "So was I."
"Perhaps we should discuss things further," she put forth, an edge of uncertainty lacing her tone that Matthew could not recollect ever before hearing.
"Perhaps we should," he agreed, already leaning into her as anticipation hummed loudly within.
And conversation resumed without another word.