After 84 years, an update. :) If you're still reading, thank you.
A nudge on his shoulder pulled him out of sleep into a semi-awakened state. The sun was too bright for early morning, so he must have slept in, and he blinked repeatedly in protest as his body begged him to linger in bed even longer. But something was off, he began to realize as he sensed a rhythmic breathing that wasn't his own, noting that there was a warm, decidedly feminine form lying across his chest, and his bare chest at that.
Mary. Mary had come to his bedroom last night. And his mother was currently standing over them trying to nudge him awake.
His eyes flew wide open, and he breathed in through his nose, careful not to move too quickly lest he disturb the woman who'd cried into his pajamas last night and kissed his naked skin. But Mary nuzzled in closer, effectively pinning him to his bed in full view of his mother even though her eyes were still closed.
He wished his were at the moment. Even with them wide open, he couldn't make out his mother's expression at all. Isobel gazed at him wordlessly, her eyes moving to Mary's bare arms dotted with a patchwork of ugly purple splotches left by a husband Matthew wanted to kill with his own two hands.
"She couldn't sleep," he whispered, watching as his mother nodded once.
"Well, she's sleeping now, " Isobel replied as her eyes creased in thought. "I daresay she needs it." She then looked back at him before turning and walking out of his bedroom.
What in God's name had just happened?
Warm breaths feathered across his neck, tracing an invisible line between her form and his heart. He tugged the blanket back over them, his fingers moving to trace the curves of her back now that watchful eyes were gone. She sighed into him, pale lips moving as her arm possessed him further, his body responding all too quickly to such an intimate touch.
Mary Carlisle had quickly become everything to him. And he would make sure she never had to fear that bastard of a husband of hers ever again.
He laid there with her, not daring to move as morning's shadows moved stealthily across his bedroom marking time's all too hasty passage. He'd gladly stay wrapped up with her like this all day if his blasted bladder would leave him alone, but it was complaining insistently now, letting him know all too clearly that he had to either get up or make a mess of himself in more ways than one.
"Are you alright?"
Her voice was muffled against his chest, it's edges softened by sleep and spent tears.
"I'm fine," he replied, rubbing her back with an open palm. "I just desperately need to visit the loo."
She sat up quickly at this, her pillow-mussed hair the most adorable sight he'd ever beheld.
"I'm sorry," she muttered, running fingers through hair sticking up several ways at once. "I didn't mean-"
"It's alright, Mary," he breathed, cupping her cheek in his palm, willing himself not to wince at the black and puffy eye she was sporting. Her lip was still swollen, and she looked somehow smaller than she had last night. "No need to worry over a silly thing like this."
"It's not silly," she murmurs, swallowing self-consciously. "At least not when you're the one who has to go."
He chuckled as she stood, allowing him to slide his body to the side of the bed before she both located and handed him his prosthesis.
"Can I help?" she questioned as he began to attach it to his leg. He paused to look up at her, half-touched, half-mortified at what he was allowing her to watch.
"I'm used to it," he stated, feeling the tips of his ears begin to burn. She nodded, taking a step back with a look of uncertainty that made his stomach cinch. "But if you truly want to assist me…"
His words faded as her eyes met his head-on, their bruised and haunted quality crying out for reassurance just as assuredly as if she'd spoken.
"You don't have to coddle me, you know," she uttered, reading his thoughts as clearly as if they were in print.
"No," he returned. "But I'd like to help take care of you, if you don't mind, that is."
She knelt in front of him then, touching where living flesh met science, helping to secure his artificial limb, her breath tickling the bare skin of his leg.
"Only if you don't mind that I want to help take care of you, too."
Her words were resolute, spoken with a resolve he couldn't help but admire.
"You drive a hard bargain, Mary Rose," he grinned, melting at the small smile that spreads across battered features. He utterly refused to call her Mary Carlisle.
"Don't you forget it, soldier," she returned, leaning over to kiss him gently, stealing yet another piece of his heart with deft fingers. "Should I try to sneak back into my room now?"
His expression fell, straightening her spine at once.
"Mother was in here earlier this morning," he confessed, feeling her exhale across his skin. "She's already aware that you slept in here last night."
"Thank God we decided to leave our clothes on," she muttered, his ears now hot enough to melt wax.
"Well, some of our clothes, anyway," he noted as he reached for his discarded pajama top. She blushed then, the pink nearly invisible under angry purple, yellow and black splotches, but there all the same. "I should put this on, I suppose," he added. "Mother seeing me shirtless once in one day is one time too many."
She smiled as she grabbed up her robe and slid it onto her body.
"If you hadn't stopped things…" she began, her hands hesitating as they reached for her sash.
Her brows flickered into her scalp as he reached out to cup her cheek.
"I didn't want to stop things," he confessed with a lopsided smile. "Believe me. But it was the right thing to do."
She nodded as she stood, stepping back to allow him the room he needed to grab a hold of his cane and push himself upright. She gazed at him with something akin to wonder, something he wasn't used to seeing when eyes fell on his injured body. He felt taller when he was with her, taller and complete in a manner no other human being had ever made him feel.
"Well," she muttered as she secured her robe and tightened it around her waist. "I'll leave you to it then."
Eyes held each other for a breathless moment, teasing, beckoning, wanting until he could stand it no longer. He leaned forward to kiss her, nearly missing her in his trajectory and losing his balance in the process. She braced her arms against his chest, steadying him as he righted himself with his cane, looking back at him in concern.
"Are you alright?"
His skin burned as he looked into her eyes.
"Other than being completely and utterly mortified, I'm peachy."
She grinned then, feathering a kiss across his lips the nearly set him on fire.
"Don't be mortified," she breathed. "After all, I'm the one who has to go out there and face your mother."
His head dropped with his exhale.
"I think that task has been assigned to us both." He looked at his bedroom door which his mother had thankfully closed when she'd exited earlier. His palm rubbed his chin, and he wondered just what Isobel had been thinking since finding them wrapped up together, half-naked, emotionally spent, and loathe to let each other go.
"I'm the one who came to your bedroom," she added. "After showing up unexpectedly on your doorstep last night. Technically, I'm the instigator in all of this."
Her gaze hollowed, making a chill ran up his good leg.
"No. None of this is your fault, Mary," he assured her. "What that husband of yours did to you, the fact that you needed a safe place to stay, that you couldn't sleep after…" The words stuck in his throat, clinging to his esophagus as if they'd been coated in glue. "After he hurt you."
She swallowed loudly enough for him to hear, and he wondered if she'd feared for her life last night, if she'd prayed someone would hear her screams and come to her aid, if she'd tried to fight back as punches flew and her home shattered at her feet.
"I hate him," Matthew said, his throat burning as if his sentence were made of fire. "So help me, Mary, if I ever meet the man face to face, I may just…"
Her voice was steady, her gaze resolute.
"The fact that I've dragged you into the middle of my divorce is bad enough," she said, her eyes falling yet again. "If anything happened to you because of me, I'd...I'd never be able to live with myself, Matthew."
He cupped her chin in his hand, drawing her gaze back to his, dotting a kiss to lips swollen by the wrong means.
"I jumped feet first into the middle of your divorce," he corrected. "There was no dragging necessary." Her chin quivered as her fingers clutched his pajama top, and he wrapped one arm around her as she wrapped both of hers around his waist. "I love you. Remember? We're in this together, you and I."
She nodded, still reluctant to look at him.
"I remember," she managed. "I just don't understand why. Why you love me, I mean."
He caressed where Richard had left marks, wiping a stray tear onto his thumb, absorbing this small piece of her into his very marrow.
"Because you're a part of me, now," he replied. "Because you fit me far better than my artificial leg ever could."
She tried to smile through insistent tears, allowing him to pull her into his chest as he kissed her hair.
"I only pray I don't contaminate you," she whispered.
"Not going to happen," he insisted. "You're too pure for that, Mary, far better than you think you are." He felt her shake her head into his chest, and his free hand reached up to cup her hair, her skull, her very being to try to show her what was so evident to him. "You're not the person that Richard has led you to believe you are."
She hiccuped and stood up straight.
"I'm not sure I'm all you think I am, either."
Her words cracked open as they fell off her lips.
"No," he agreed, surprising her. "You're more."
She shook her head, looking into him as no one ever had.
"I hope I'm allowed to be your Mary," she began. "For all eternity."
He felt her tremble, and he kissed her forehead, carefully avoiding the side purpled by a man's fist.
"You'll always be my Mary," he breathed. "And I'm all the luckier for it."
A small commotion was heard from the kitchen, and she stepped away from him, smiling as she wiped her eyes.
"I should go and help your mother," she said. "After all, she gave me a place to sleep last night. The least I can do is help her with breakfast."
"I'll join you momentarily," he stated, smiling at her as she opened his bedroom door and stepped out into the hallway. He heard voices and sent up a prayer that his mother's sense and tact would prevail over the instinct to protect her adult son. But he had to relieve himself, there was no way around it, so he made his way to the loo, gratified to hear what sounded like congenial conversation being had between the two women in his life.
His thoughts raced as he washed his hands, and he gazed into the small mirror, touching the cheek she'd kissed, closing his eyes as her scent washed over him. She was a goddess, his Mary, and he be damned if any man would ever lay a finger on her again, especially Richard Carlisle.
He splashed water on his face, drying it with a towel as his mind formulated a plan that made sense to him. He'd visit the club this afternoon, would let the band know why their lead singer had been unable to perform last night and would ask them to let him know if Mary's husband showed up trying to find her. In the meantime, he'd contact his mother's cousin, a police superintendent from Hastings to ask for his advice in how to best proceed.
Yes. This was good. This was progress. Simply waiting for Richard to make the next move was no good at all.
Plan in mind, he made his way toward the kitchen, the scents of toast and eggs making his stomach rumble as Mary brought him a cup of tea.
"Thank you," he said, relieved to see her looking more relaxed than she had in his bedroom.
"Here you go, dear," Isobel cut in, handing Matthew a plate as he sat down at the small table. "Mary, why don't you sit down and eat, too. I suspect you need nourishment."
The younger woman nodded and sat down beside him, and he dared a quick squeeze to her knee while his mother wasn't looking.
"You should eat, too, Mother," he said.
"I've already eaten," Isobel clarified, making her way towards the table with a plate for Mary. "But I'll join the two of you for another cup of tea."
They ate in silence a few moments, each afraid to speak, each wondering if one stray train of thought would launch an amiable breakfast into a confrontation nobody wanted.
"I'm sorry you had difficulty sleeping, Mary," Isobel finally stated, bypassing small talk and getting right to the point. "I suppose you had to much on your mind."
Mary took a slow sip of her tea, setting her cup down before making eye contact with the older woman.
"I did," she replied. "And still do, to be honest." Isobel nodded, eyeing Mary before directing her attention towards her son.
"Are you planning on contacting the authorities?"
Their answers clashed mid-air, bringing their eyes together even as their ideas collided.
"I don't think that's a good idea," Mary stated. "Richard is volatile."
"Which is why he needs to be in jail," Matthew cut in, reaching over to touch her arm. "He can't be allowed to roam around free, Mary, not after what he did to you."
"But if he catches up with you-"
"He won't," Matthew insisted. "What did you say that he knew about us? That you were seeing someone? He doesn't know my name or where I live, does he?"
Mary paused and looked down at her tea.
"No," she confessed. "Thank God. But that doesn't mean that he couldn't discover both of those things if he chose to go digging."
"Nor does it mean that he will," Matthew said, willing his voice to sound as calm and reasonable as it could. "Mary, I refuse to live in fear of this man. He needs to face the consequences of what he did to you."
She began to worry her hands, clasping them tightly together in order to keep them from trembling.
"He'll make it sound like it's my fault," she uttered. "He always does."
He scooted his chair closer to hers so he could clasp her hands firmly.
"Look at me," he insisted, remaining silent until she did just that. "This is not your fault, nor has it ever been."
"Matthew's right," Isobel interjected, instantly capturing both of their attention. "Men who treat women the way he treated you are quite adept at passing the blame off on their victims, even though the responsibility rests solely with them. The Richards of this world must be made to answer for their crimes, Mary. I think you know and believe this."
Mary's head fell, her expression far too wary.
"I do," the younger woman admitted. "But you know how difficult it is to get the authorities to take you seriously when the man in question is your husband."
Isobel sucked in a breath before taking a deliberate sip of her tea.
"You've spoken with the authorities before?" she asked , receiving a slow nod as an answer.
"Several months ago," Mary replied. "It wasn't this bad, I mean, he rarely left a mark, he was smart that way. But he twisted my arm so badly that I sprained it, and…" She paused, taking another sip of tea. "And I decided to report him."
The words fell incredulously off his tongue, stinging on their way out.
"He was called into the police station for questioning," Mary answered. "But when he told them that I sang at a nightclub, that I'd left him and filed for divorce, well, they assumed I was both a gold-digger and a woman of loose morals who got roughed up by a patron one night and decided to blame her husband."
"Dear God," Matthew whispered as he clenched his fist repeatedly. He imagined his hands around Richard Carlilse's throat, could all too easily feel the imagined sensation of his fingers cutting off the man's air supply, thus forcing him to beg for mercy.
"The husband is usually given the benefit of the doubt," Mary continued, her shoulders slumping in near defeat. "While the wife is left to fend for herself."
"It's so wrong," Matthew uttered, rubbing his fingers over his scalp.
"It is," Isobel agreed. "It's been wrong for centuries, yet it continues. And you're right, Mary. It can certainly be more difficult to see justice served in an abusive marriage situation. But it doesn't mean that it's impossible. And if you stand up to Richard now, you may protect other women from him, as well as yourself."
Mary gazed at Isobel, swallowing with difficulty.
"That's what I want," she stated. "It's what I've wanted for longer than I can remember now, but it's so bloody hard sometimes. He has means at his disposal, while I…" She broke off and shook her head. "I have a job singing at a nightclub just to make ends meet."
"She's been trying to divorce him for months," Matthew added, giving Mary's hands a gentle squeeze.
"And he doesn't like that fact, I take it," Isobel observed, watching Mary slowly shake her head. "Well, I must say that it's very brave of you to stand up for yourself as you are. Too many women let fear keep them from taking that first step away from an abuser."
"I don't feel very brave," Mary murmured, looking up to meet Isobel's gaze.
"The bravest souls usually don't," Isobel replied with a gentle touch to Mary's arm. A tear trickled down the younger woman's cheek, and she wiped her face with her napkin, trying her best to keep her composure in tact.
"I told Mary that she can stay here with us for as long as she needs," he said, watching his mother carefully. Isobel's eyes flickered in his direction, claiming his directly before she nodded in agreement.
"Absolutely," she agreed, straightening her spine. "We're here to support you in any way that we can."
Mary shook her head.
"But why? Why would you do this-open up your home, take in a stranger…"
"You're hardly a stranger," Matthew argued, remembering the feel of her breasts in his hands.
"I am to your mother," Mary countered.
"But not to Matthew," Isobel said. She looked back at her son without blinking before offering him a small smile. "And I trust his judgement."
He grinned back at her, breathing a silent prayer of thanks for her support in this matter.
"Then I suppose I will, too," Mary stated, gazing at him with eyes in which he could happily drown. She inhaled and pressed her lips together before clearing her throat. "If both of you really believe that contacting the authorities is the right thing for me to do, then I'll do it."
His smiled in relief, drawing a full breath he hoped conveyed confidence. They would do this, he and Mary. They would report her husband, would see justice done so her divorce could be finalized and they would be granted the freedom to actually envision and plan a shared future.
"Good for you," Isobel stated, giving Mary a smile that warmed him everywhere at once.
"And remember," Matthew added, once again squeezing Mary's hand, thanking whatever powers were responsible for bringing her into his life. "You don't have to do this alone."
"Thank God," Mary breathed, clutching his hand so tightly that he could feel her terror.