"I thought he would never go to sleep."

Matthew sighed at Mary's words as she slid into bed beside him.

"Christ, your feet are freezing!"

She drew them back from his legs, gazing back at him with a half grin.

"They're always freezing," she replied. "You've just never noticed."

Her words struck him as he absorbed their significance.

"Because I haven't been able to feel them," he began, swallowing with effort. "Until now."

"Until now," Mary echoed. He felt so giddy, he half-wondered if Dr. Meadows had secretly injected helium into his veins. Mary leaned in to kiss him, tenderly caressing his lips with her own.

"I've never been so thrilled by cold feet in my life," he mused when she drew back, eliciting a soft smile. "Isn't there a saying about cold feet, warm heart?"

"It's cold hands," she corrected, sliding her own across his chest. "Oddly enough, mine are rather warm."

"Perhaps I should test the veracity of your claim," he managed as her fingers made quick work of his pajama top buttons. "For the sake of accuracy."

"Be my guest," she hummed, unleashing a tingling sensation everywhere at once as her fingertips traced bare flesh. He moaned as she toyed with his nipple, pulling her to him for a kiss that meant everything. A small cry from the nursery halted their actions.

"Go back to sleep," Mary whispered, willing their son to obey. Neither of them moved, afraid of breathing too loudly, even though a thick wall separated them from Christopher.

"I think he's settled himself," Matthew observed after a few moments of tense silence.

"Thank God," Mary sighed, allowing her body to relax back into his. "He's worn me out tonight."

"It's been a big day for him," Matthew noted. "Christopher is not used to having so many people in the house."

"Or receiving so much attention," Mary said. "Between Mama, Sybil, your mother and Mrs. Larson, I don't believe he was put down all day."

"It was sweet of you to invite her over for Christmas Eve," Matthew stated, rubbing her back.

"I've included her tomorrow, as well," Mary replied. "I wish I had known sooner that her daughter and son-in-law had to cancel their plans to spend the holidays with her. He's evidently recovering from influenza." She sighed, raising her eyes to meet his. "I hope he fully recovers and that her daughter remains healthy. Too many people are dying from this, Matthew, and Mrs. Larson has already lost one child."

"I know," he breathed. "This bloody war finally ends, our survivors come home, and now-" His arm began to tremble, the stench of smoke too real for his liking. William's face floated through memories he wished would remain buried, replaced by the countenances of others he'd fought with on the front. All young, all frightened, all but him dead.

"Shh," she whispered, holding his arm to her chest, brushing soft lips against his neck. "The war is over, Matthew."

Tears of frustration pricked his eyes as the quaking grew in intensity, and she laid her body across him, holding him to her until the trembling finally began to subside. "We're together at home, in our bed. Everything is going to be alright."

God, he hated these tremors. They had been far less frequent as of late, as had the nightmares. But this one had sneaked up on him, catching him unawares. He breathed in and out, willing his limbs to respond to his wishes as his wife held him fast.

"Mary," he breathed, her name both a prayer and a benediction. His body calmed, and he breathed in again, filling his lungs with the scent of his wife.

"I'm here," she responded, sitting astride him, cupping his cheek. "I'm right here, Matthew."

"Thank God."

Her head burrowed into the crook of his neck, her breath warm, her hair a silken bond tying him to the present.

"I need to kiss you," he managed. "Very badly." She pushed herself upright before hovering over his face, sensing his need for something visceral. Her lips found his, her mouth warm, her tongue both soothing and eager. He drank her in, tasting, then feasting, stroking her legs until she shivered, easing up her nightgown with fingers starving for life. Within seconds, he was overheating, his want overtaking any lingering distress.

"I think you need more than kissing," she hummed, her fingers sliding between their bodies to stroke what was now prodding her thigh.

"Christ, that happened quickly," he managed, losing all ability to speak as she teased him through his pajamas.

"Making up for lost time," she mused, grinning into his chuckle before reclaiming his mouth. Her fingers slid inside his waistband, exploring, coaxing, stroking until he thought he would combust on the spot.

"Wait," Matthew said, clutching her wrist. She drew back to look at him quizzically. "I want to take them off first," he explained. "To be naked with you." She had no argument.

He grinned at how adeptly they relieved him of his clothing, the fact that he was able to better maneuver his own body allowing for both expediency and relative ease. "Your turn."

There was nothing ladylike about the grin she tossed him as she slid her nightgown over her head.

"One would think you would be used to seeing my breasts by now," she mused with a quirk of her brow.

"They're like fine wine," he murmured, leaning forward to flick his tongue across what ached for him. "Meant to be savored on a regular basis." He took her into his mouth, sucking, nipping, working her into a mild frenzy until she drew back to catch her breath.

"Matthew," she began. "I want–"

"What do you want, Mary?"

She leaned forward, kissing him without reserve.

"You," she breathed, her heavy-lidded gaze utterly captivating. "Inside me."

He nearly climaxed at her words.

"Mary, I don't, I mean, I'm not certain if–" speech deserted him as her fingers stroked his tip. "I don't know how long I can last."

She made a throaty noise he wished he could bottle.

"I guess we'll have to find out, then."

He kissed her hard and open-mouthed, fed by her equally demanding response. Hands were everywhere, skin hot and sticky, conversation reduced to a series of pants and moans. She pushed herself up on her knees, clasping him, easing herself down until she was poised to take him in.

Eyes met and held, the significance of what was taking place lost on neither of them.

"You're certain?" His words were barely audible, nearly sticking in his throat. "I know in the past-"

She effectively cut short his protest by lowering herself down on him fully.

"Yes. I'm certain."

Her voice was husky, sparking a pulse he felt down both legs His eyes shut of their own accord, her adjustments and movements more than his body could comprehend.

"Is this alright?"

He nearly laughed at the absurdity of her question.

"It's more than alright," he managed, swallowing hard. "It's everything."

She kissed him again, daring to raise and lower herself, instigating a dance both primal and holy. He pressed up to meet her, wishing he could move even deeper into the essence of his wife. His arms quivered, sweat beading along his forehead.

"What do you need?" she questioned, her words tickling his lips.

"You," he replied. "Just you."

"Would this be easier if you were on top?"

Her inquiry was almost too much.

"Only if that's alright with you," he breathed. "I want you to feel completely in control, Mary. I know you didn't have that when-"

She dragged his bottom lip through her teeth.

"I trust you, Matthew."

Warmth flooded his senses.

He rolled her over, lying on top of her for the first time since their ill-fated intimacy in the cabin. Her hair spread beneath her like a sensual Madonna, her eyes beckoning him closer as he began to move inside her. Her breath hitched, spurring him to move faster, watching her reactions for cues, wanting more than anything to pleasure his wife. She cried out when he angled slightly to the right, so he continued there, moving, stroking, learning, practically coming apart at the seams as panting replaced breathing and sweat began to mingle.

"Matthew," she murmured, mindful of the fact that both of their mothers and her sister were sleeping upstairs. "God, please, I-" She bit back a howl, emitting a low groan as she convulsed once, twice, then repeatedly, biting her lower lip, tossing her head back into her pillow, shattering around him. He broke then, arms trembling, buttocks clenching, feeling the most profound release of his life.

"Christ," he breathed. "Oh, Mary. Oh, God."

He eased down on her slowly, not wanting to crush her, mesmerized by dark, sated eyes and shimmering skin. They laid together in silence, holding on to something precious.

"What?" he murmured at her soft chuckle.

"Nothing, really," she breathed, smiling up at the ceiling before turning to face him. "I was just thinking."

"I don't know whether to be frightened or intrigued," he returned, making her laugh in earnest. A slim finger traced the bridge of his nose before stroking his lips.

"It's just," she began, pausing to look at him directly. "Now I know what it's supposed to be like."

He chuckled before rolling off of her, pulling her into his body.

"So do I," he muttered, kissing her again because he couldn't help himself. "So do I."


"How long are you planning on staying, Mama?"

Cora eyed her daughter over breakfast.

"Are you that keen on getting rid of us, Mary?"

"No," Mary rectified. "Not at all. Isobel is planning to stay through Epiphany, and you and Sybil are more than welcome to do so. I just know that Papa-" She broke off her sentence, looking down at her plate.

"What? That he will be missing us?" Cora paused, waiting for Mary's eyes to meet hers. "That's exactly what I want him to do."

"I'm surprised that you of all people are worried about his feelings," Sybil stated, tucking into her eggs. "Especially when he's shown so little concern for yours."

Mary put her fork down, staring at what was left of her toast.

"It's just that I know what it's like," she began.

"What what is like?" Cora asked.

"Being alone."

Silence descended, everyone's eyes but Mary's flitting from one face to the other across the table.

"Your father is hardly alone," Cora replied. "He has Edith, his mother, and a houseful of servants at his beck and call."

"I know, but-"

"Don't you dare feel sorry for him, Mary," Sybil interrupted. "He's got to learn what really matters in life, and right now he's being a pompous, prudish-"

"That's enough, Sybil," Cora cut in. "I think Mary sees the picture quite clearly."

"I believe we all do," Matthew said, catching his wife's eye.

"Your mother and sister are right, Mary," Isobel said. "Experience can be a harsh task-master, yet it's effectiveness as an educator cannot be disputed."

"Don't I know it," Mary agreed, taking a sip of her tea. "I just don't want him to believe that I'm responsible for tearing his family apart yet again."

"Our family, you mean," Cora corrected, forcing Mary to hold her gaze. "Don't you dare leave yourself, Matthew and Christopher out of that equation."

Cora's eyes shone with a determination Mary knew better than to question.

"Thank you for that," she replied.

"Indeed," Matthew added.

"Your father has absolutely no leverage to accuse you of trying to break apart this family," Cora added. "Especially after you took extraordinary lengths to protect everyone."

"Except for herself," Matthew added, turning to face his wife. "You even tried to protect those of us who didn't deserve it, my darling, at your own expense."

She met her husband's eyes, seeing familiar wounds hovering at the surface.

"As I've heard Mary say more than once, the past is the past," Lady Grantham inserted, drawing them both away from a familiar brink. "What matters now is the present and future, and both of those should include the three of you being welcome in your own home."

"Well said," Isobel stated, raising her teacup in the air.

"This is our home now," Mary said.

"Your temporary home," Cora corrected. "I know Downton isn't currently the most comfortable of places for you, but you can't let that stop you from returning to claim what is rightfully yours."

"It should have been rightfully Mary's all along," Matthew added.

"I can't disagree with you," Cora stated. "But without the entail, you wouldn't have come into our lives, Matthew, and I'm so very glad that you did."

His breath caught at her genuine absolution.

"So am I," Mary added. Matthew took her hand within his own.

"How much longer do you think Robert will hold out?" Matthew asked.

"God only knows," Cora replied. "But I'm hoping this time spent without us will prompt him to re-examine his opinions."

"From your mouth to God's ears," Sybil murmured.

"Begging your pardon, Mrs. Crawley, but there's a telegram just arrived for you."

Mrs. Jacobs entered the dining room and extended the missive towards Isobel.

"A telegram?" Isobel echoed. "How very strange. Thank you, Mrs. Jacobs."

She unfolded the message, her face going ashen as she sat back down.

"What is it, Mother?" Matthew asked.

"It's from Reginald Swire," Isobel replied. "He sent it to Crawley House, but it was forwarded on to me here."

Mary swallowed audibly, watching Matthew with steady eyes.

"Why on earth is Reggie Swire writing to you?" Matthew asked.

"It's about Lavinia," Isobel answered, looking from her son to his wife. "She apparently contracted Spanish Influenza."

Mary felt the color drain from her face, sensing what Isobel had left unspoken.

"It's she alright?" Matthew asked, his voice as unsteady as his arm.

"I'm afraid not," Isobel replied softly. "She's dead."

Mary shut her eyes, willing away such a death for a woman who had deserved better. She squeezed Matthew's hand.

"Dear God," Cora breathed. "Her poor father."

"I can't imagine," Isobel said. "One lives with the possibility of death every day during a war, but now, when it's over…" Her voice trailed off as she looked at her son. "I'm very sorry, Matthew. Lavinia was a dear, dear girl."

"Yes," he agreed, his eyes unfocused. "She was. I was fortunate to know her." His tone cracked, and he pushed himself up from the table. "If you'll just excuse me."

"Of course," Cora said.

Mary stood with him. "Shall I come with you?"

"No," he replied. "Not just yet. If you will just give me...a few moments." He turned and walked away from them, his gait as heavy as her heart. Mary stared at his back, her insides trembling as past images raced towards her with the speed of an oncoming train.

"Give him a little time, Mary," Cora instructed, noting her daughter's expression. "Just as he asked."

"I know," Mary returned. "But it's yet another blow for him, and he's still shell-shocked from the war."

"You can't shelter him from this," Isobel stated. "Just like you couldn't shelter him from the war or his culpability concerning you."

Isobel rose then, moving towards her daughter-in-law with measured steps.

"He knows you're here for him, that we're all here for him, my darling girl," the older woman continued as she laid her hands on Mary's shoulders. "But there are times one must grieve privately."

Mary nodded, only half-believing Isobel. In her depths, she still feared he would withdraw from her again, something she knew would shatter her completely.

"I can't-" she began, unable to look at anyone directly. "I can't lose him to her again."

Cora stood, joining Isobel beside her.

"You aren't and you won't," Lady Grantham began. "Matthew's heart is yours, Mary, there is no doubt of that. But Lavinia was an important part of his life, and her death has come as quite a shock. He just needs time to process it."

Mary nodded in silence.

"He's not the only one still carrying scars from the war," Isobel added. "He never has been. We all have them, it's just that Matthew's are more visible, whereas yours are well hidden."

"Not hidden well enough, apparently," Mary tried, almost wishing she could cry to release mounting pressure in her chest. "Not if you so easily sussed them out."

"Only because you gave me the gift of getting to know the real Mary when I visited months ago. It's one I'll always guard and treasure."

That did it. Something broke inside her, allowing one tear, then another, until both mothers drew her towards them into an embrace. She'd never been one for physical displays of affection, but a deep, primal need held on to this, allowing the strength of fellow women to bolster insecurities and partially-healed wounds. Sybil joined them, and they continued to hold each other until Christopher's cries interrupted.

"Shall I fetch him?" Cora asked, stepping back.

"No. I'll do it," Mary insisted. "I'm sure he's famished, as late as it is." She wiped her cheeks, knowing nothing could disguise the raw emotion just displayed. She took another drink of water as her son's cries stopped.

"I didn't think Nanny Logan was working this week," Isobel observed.

"She's not," Mary said. "She's spending the holidays with her sister in Westmoreland." She made her way to the nursery, wondering if Christopher had actually gone back to sleep, stopping short at the sight that greeted her when she opened the door.

Matthew was standing, holding their son against his chest, humming a tune that held her hostage where she stood. He paused to face her, her breath hitching before moving towards them, hoping she was welcome, nearly melting in relief as her husband gave her a small smile. She wrapped her arms around them both, clasping on with all that she had.

"I just needed to hold him," he breathed.

"I understand."

"I know you do."

He stayed with her as Christopher nursed, saying nothing but feeling so much. Eyes met repeatedly, and she handed their child to his father when they finished, allowing him to be a part of their ritual.

"I wish she could have had this," Matthew said. "She deserved to be loved the way I love you." Her chest expanded as her feet chilled.

"We don't know that she wasn't," Mary replied. "Lavinia was a lovely woman. Perhaps she found someone before the end." She paused to clear her throat. "It's alright for you to miss her, you know."

His eyes held hers fast.

"Thank you," Matthew muttered, kissing Christopher's head as the boy became restless. "But I don't, not really, not like that. I simply regret that I caused her pain. She didn't deserve it." He paused, ensuring that he had Mary's full attention. "Neither did you."

She stood and moved back to his side.

"None of us deserved the pain of war, Matthew," she stated. "Or this bloody influenza. I'm just glad you came through it alive."

"God, Mary," he whispered into her hair. "So am I. You have no idea."

She haltingly took up the words to the tune he'd been humming when she'd entered, her heart fluttering as it had when they'd first sung it together but a year ago.

"I would say such wonderful things to you…"

"There would be such wonderful things to do," his baritone continued before they resumed the chorus together.

"If you were the only girl in the world, and I were the only boy."

They began swaying to a nostalgic melody, standing, clasping, unwilling to let go of this tangible proof of life, praying through this private duet that the specter of death would pass over them yet again.


"I can see why you like it here," Sybil stated as they strolled home past the churchyard. "There's a touch of wildness to its beauty."

"And no censure," Mary added as Sybil linked her arm through hers.

"One would think that after the war, people would stop caring so much about the choices others have made and just be grateful to be alive."

"One would think," Mary echoed. "But I can hardly complain about what strangers may think when my own father won't accept me."

His slight burned deeper than she liked to admit.

"He will have to change his mind about a lot of things if he doesn't want to lose all of his daughters, Mary. Deep down I think he knows this."

"I hope you're right," Mary sighed, watching her breath chill in the wind.

"So do I."

"Sybil, what do you know about methods of preventing pregnancy?"

If the abrupt change of topic took her sister off guard, she didn't show it.

"Why do you think I would know anything about that?"

"Because you're a nurse," Mary stated. "And you worked with soldiers during the war. Surely you learned something."

The younger woman looked ahead before taking a deep breath.

"I think a cervical cap would work for you, if that's what you want to know. They're not that difficult to obtain and are easy to clean." She stopped, effectively halting their walk. "I take it this means Matthew is now fully functional."

"God, you make him sound like a tractor," Mary rebuffed, eliciting a bark of laughter from her younger sister.

"So he is recovering in more ways than one," Sybil continued, obviously not deterred. "And you are able to have sex again?"

"There would hardly be a point to this conversation if we weren't," Mary replied. "When exactly did you become so forward?"

"Like you said, I'm a nurse who has been caring for soldiers," Sybil replied. "And I've always been forward."

"So you have," Mary agreed with a half-smile.

"Do you believe that Matthew will be able to father more children?"

"I don't know," Mary admitted. "We can't know for certain unless I conceive again, and although I'd like to have another child, I'm not ready to do so just yet." She drew a deep breath. "Pregnancy was hard on me, Sybil, more difficult than I've told Matthew. Dr. Meadows placed me on bed rest for over a month near the end, and Christopher still arrived early. I had only just stopped bleeding when Isobel and I returned to Downton."

"Many women bleed for several weeks after giving birth," Sybil stated.

"So Dr. Meadows informed me," Mary returned. "But he treated me with extra care because I developed anemia while pregnant." Sybil looked at her with comprehension.

"That's why Mama and Isobel were so concerned about you. No wonder you were so weak."

"I felt absolutely horrid," Mary continued. "Mrs. Jacobs and Dr. Meadows tried to force-feed me on more than one occasion."

"Of course they did," Sybil said. "They were trying to increase your iron levels and therefore your energy. I hope you did as they asked."

Mary quirked her brow. "I wasn't exactly the easiest patient."

"Why am I not surprised?" Sybil replied. "But you're doing well now."

"I'm improving," Mary agreed. "Although Dr. Meadows still checks in on me weekly. He wants to ensure that I keep up my strength while nursing Christopher."

"The fact that you're nursing is a natural deterrent to conceiving," Sybil said, resuming their earlier pace. "Although it's by no means full-proof. Have you asked him about birth control?"

"Dr. Meadows?" Mary clarified. "If I had, would I be asking you?"

Sybil grinned. "You won't shock him, you know. He's a very sensible and modern–minded physician."

"I know," Mary agreed. "A fact for which I'm truly thankful. But it's still easier to discuss such matters with another woman."

"And you chose me over Isobel?"

"My mother-in-law, you mean," Mary put in. "She's been an incredible help to me, but I'm not exactly comfortable discussing my sex-life with her as it directly involves her son."

"Oh, Mary," Sybil laughed. "We all know that you and Matthew are sexually intimate. You already have a baby, and you're married, for God's sake."

"Knowing is one thing," Mary said. "Discussing it in detail is quite another."

"Have you talked this over with Matthew?"

"Not yet," Mary confessed. "But I shall. I thought perhaps it would be better if I already had a solution in mind. Otherwise, he might take my concerns the wrong way."

"Why would he do that?" Sybil asked. "He lives with you, Mary. He knows how weak you were after delivering Christopher, and the last thing he would want is to further tax your health. My God, he watched you collapse at your own wedding."

"I'm aware," Mary replied. "Not exactly one of my prouder moments."

"Don't be silly," Sybil said.

"I'm not," Mary clarified before sighing into the cold. "Matthew worries now that we can be fully intimate again."

"That he'll get you pregnant?"

"That he will hurt me." Sybil looked at her, awaiting clarification. "He is still concerned that his leaving me after our first time together will affect how I feel about being with him now."

"And does it?"

"No," Mary stated. "I feared it might at first, but it hasn't. But there are times…" She broke off, unsure of whether to voice something long buried.

"What?" Sybil prodded. "What is it, Mary?"

"There are times when what happened with Mr. Pamuk still haunts me."

There. It had been said.

Sybil stopped again, turning her sister around to face her directly.

"What did happen? You can tell me, you know. Did he hurt you?"

Mary closed her eyes as remembered sensations battled for dominance. Fear, confusion, arousal, nausea, searing pain when he entered her, mind-numbing horror when he collapsed.

"Yes. But I don't believe that was his intention."

"Why do you say that?" Sybil questioned.

"He was just looking for excitement," Mary stated, feeling somewhat detached, as she always did when she allowed herself to think of that night. "And he believed that I was, as well."

"But you weren't?" Sybil prodded.

"Not that sort of excitement," Mary said. "But I didn't stop it from happening, either."

"Could you have done so?" Sybil queried.

"I threatened to scream," Mary stated. "But men like him are used to getting what they want. Besides, we both knew that I was already ruined from his simply being in my bedroom, regardless of what happened next. So I kept quiet and let him."

"You let him," Sybil echoed.

"Yes," Mary sighed. "I didn't know what else to do."

They looked at each other as a hard truth settled.

"That's a form of rape, Mary."

"No," Mary argued, her mind unable to process such a word. "He didn't hold me down or–"

"Did he give you a choice? Respect your wishes?"

Silence.

"No."

"Did you tell him no?"

She shivered.

"Yes. Three times, actually."

"Was it anything like how things were between you and Matthew last year?"

"God, no!" The answer tore from her lungs as old scabs broke free. "I wanted to be with Matthew."

"That was your choice."

"Completely."

"Even though you weren't married?"

"Yes."

"And being with Mr. Pamuk wasn't?"

Another pause.

"Not really. No."

"Then it was rape."

Her insides began to crumble.

"Most people would disagree with you."

"Then most people would be wrong," Sybil insisted. "A woman should have control over with whom she chooses to share her body. It shouldn't be decided for her by men who know they have her backed into a corner because of misogynistic social norms."

"Wait," Mary began as a horrifying thought began to form. "You weren't, at the front, I mean–"

"No," Sybil assured her. "I wasn't, although I did have to fight off my share of advances. But I came to know too many women who have been. It's horrifying how much control men have over every aspect of our lives, from what occupations we can pursue to whom we can marry and what opinions we should hold. These should be our decisions and ours alone."

"I agree," Mary said, pausing yet again. "But finding men who agree with us is no small feat."

"I know," Sybil agreed. "But there are men who value women's opinions, and I'm relieved your husband is one of them. I couldn't stomach it if you'd been forced to marry someone who didn't appreciate your mind." She paused and looked Mary eye to eye. "If you had to get pregnant out of wedlock, thank God it was by Matthew and not Mr. Pamuk."

She winced, sensing his body collapse on top of her chest.

"He actually died before…" Mary's voice trailed off into frigid air.

"Before he ejaculated?" Sybil clarified before making an appreciative noise. "At least he did one thing right."

"Do you not think that a bit harsh?"

"I have no compassion for men who force themselves on women, Mary."

She blinked, swallowing down bile.

"You really believe it was rape?" The question was whispered, the word still bitter in her mouth. "I wasn't bruised or anything like that." Sybil looked at her directly.

"Would you have had sex with Kemal Pamuk if he hadn't insisted that you had no other choice? If he hadn't ignored your refusals and left when you asked him to do so?"

There it was, a question uttered so plainly that it couldn't be misinterpreted.

"No," Mary admitted. Sybil reached out to take her sister's hand.

"Then, yes. I would call it rape." Mary's face creased. "He took away your choice."

"As if my choices have always been so stellar," Mary returned. "I flirted with him so outrageously, Sybil. I was ridiculously obvious in showing him that I found him attractive."

"That still gave him no right to force his way into your bedroom."

Mary looked out at the horizon. "No. It didn't."

They stood in momentary silence.

"Women should also have control over how many children they want to have," Sybil began, noting her sister's discomfort. "I shall work with Isobel to locate you a cervical cap."

Mary shook her head.

"We've already discussed this. It's awkward for me to talk to Isobel about such things."

"For you," Sybil agreed. "But not for me. Let me take care of this for you. Alright?"

Mary drew another deep breath.

"Alright," she agreed. "But please, don't tell anyone else what I've shared with you. About Mr. Pamuk, I mean."

Sybil gathered Mary's other hand within her own.

"That's your story to tell, Mary, not mine. But I wouldn't be surprised if Isobel has already figured it out for herself. She's very adept at reading people, and she's most assuredly cared for women who have been raped."

Past conversations with her mother-in-law played through her memory.

"You're probably right," Mary admitted. "And I'm certain Matthew would agree with your assessment, although he's never used that precise term."

"Rape, you mean?" Sybil clarified. "Men don't like to use it, Mary. It's far too incriminating." Sybil swallowed and gazed at her sister. "Have you shared any of this with Mama?"

Her mother's pained expression that infamous night burned in her mind.

"No," Mary confessed. "In fact, I told her that he hadn't forced me when she asked."

"You should tell her now," Sybil suggested.

"What point would that serve?" Mary asked. "She's already forgiven me and moved past it."

"That's just it," Sybil said. "You did nothing that requires forgiveness. Even if things between you and Mr. Pamuk had been consensual, it was still nobody's business but your own. And the fact that they weren't should free you from all guilt."

The words struck her with force.

"Do you really think so?" She was trembling, quaking from the inside out, feeling an odd rush of warmth in the midst of winter's chill.

"I know so," Sybil stated, squeezing Mary's hands. "And it's time you let yourself believe it, too."

"That's easier said than done," Mary asserted, sniffing back strong emotion that threatened to break free.

"Look at where you are, Mary, at what you've not only survived but have conquered. You've faced extremely difficult circumstances and have come through them stronger than ever. I believe you're up to the task."

"You give me too much credit, Sybil. "

"And you don't give yourself enough."

They resumed their walk in silence, increasing their pace as an icy wind picked up speed.

"I mean it, Mary," Sybil stated as they drew near to the cottage. "Think about talking things over with Mama. I believe it would be beneficial for both of you."

"I'll consider it," Mary said. "But I'm not making any promises." Sybil grinned at her, making her wonder if such a conversation would prove to be healing, painful, or a combination thereof. Once they stepped inside, however, such musings flew from her mind. Cora stood before them, clearly distressed.

"Mary, Sybil, thank God you're back."

"What's wrong, Mama?" Mary asked, concern crawling up her spine. "Is Christopher alright?"

"Christopher is fine," Cora assured her. "Everyone here is fine."

"Then what has you so upset?"

Her mother's chin quivered.

"It's your sister," Cora replied, working to keep her tone steady. "Edith is sick with Spanish Influenza."