So here it is-the conclusion to a story I shall always cherish. Thank you for reading and being patient with this busy writer! I hope the ending was worth the wait.
"Wishes, Escape, Memories, Gazebos or Chapels, Mickey or Donald? God, you'd think we were planning a royal wedding but with a fraction of the budget."
Matthew ran his fingers over his scalp, gazing over Mary's shoulder at the laptop screen. At least six tabs were open, each showing a Disney World wedding plan option, each option more expensive than the next.
"The girls think we are royalty," she said, clicking on yet another link, making his eyes blink repeatedly.
"The girls want to live in Cinderella's castle," he sighed as he plopped down on the sofa beside her. "And I thought having one daughter was expensive. God help me now that I'll be raising two."
Her half-smile finagled a grin out of him, regardless of the dollar signs pounding relentlessly against his temples.
"We'll be raising two," she corrected, tossing him a pointed look from under her lashes. "And you do realize that if if we have a third child, the odds are ever in our favor that we'll have another girl?"
His head fell back on to the pillows, and he rubbed his forehead until it was pink.
"I'll have to resort to thievery," he mused. "There will be no other option. I'll be overrun with females, especially if we ever have twins."
"Every man should be so lucky," Mary quipped, turning to look at Matthew directly. "But if you ever mention the possibility of us having twins again, you'll be sleeping on the couch for at least a month."
He laughed, he couldn't help it as his fingers found their way into her hair, all mussed, touchable and utterly perfect.
"You'd be adorable, you know," he mused, leaning into her neck, nuzzling his nose into her skin, breathing in the mingled scents of dinner, chocolate and fabric softener. "All round and pregnant with two babies."
Her elbow connected with his ribs, eliciting a groan out of him that made her nostrils flare.
"I'd be hell on wheels, Crawley," she corrected as she eyed him directly. "If you think I'm cranky when it's that time of the month, you wouldn't last two seconds around me if I were carrying twins."
"Truce!" he cried out before she could elbow him again, unable to stop smiling at the self-assured pout she threw in his direction. He held up his hands in mock-surrender, watching as her body began to relax back into the cushions before daring a soft peck to her cheek. "I'll never mention the possibility of us having twins again-I promise." She sighed audibly before dropping her head onto his shoulder, nuzzling into him as if she were ready for a nap. "Triplets, on the other hand..."
She opened her mouth to protest, but was instantly silenced by the insistent pressure of his lips upon hers. Her hands pressed against his chest in a pathetic attempt to push him away, but he deepened the kiss, angling his torso to nudge her further into the cushions, humming into her mouth as she finally gave in and insisted on more. Their tongues met, her need as heady as his own, and he felt flush all over, wondering if they could just put Belle and Anna to bed early and enjoy a little time to themselves. He adored the feel of her in his arms, the ease and completion that had sauntered into his life in the form of her and her daughter, the lingering taste of cocoa on her lips that made him think of home and sex.
"Been into the hot chocolate again?" he questioned as he drew back somewhat breathlessly, staring down at lips more swollen and pink than they'd been just seconds ago.
"It's freezing outside," she returned, sliding deeper into her oversized sweatshirt, casting him a smirk he knew all too well. She wore no bra underneath the heavy fabric, and he had to fight down the urge to slide his hand under the material to cup her breasts. Images of her nipples hardening at his touch ran through his head, making his mouth dry and pants tight just before raised voices coming from upstairs derailed his train of thought. "And the girls have been driving me crazy."
"I think they're a bit stir crazy themselves," he reasoned, clearing his throat. "Four snow days in a row…"
"Is too damn many."
He wound a stray strand of dark hair around his finger, feeling the primal urge to mess up her hair in ways unsuitable for their children's eyes.
"They'll be back in school next week," he reasoned. "The main roads are clear now."
"But there's more snow in the forecast!" Her eyes narrowed in a glare she cast up the steps, honing in on unseen Kindergarteners squealing at the top of their lungs. "Spring can't get here soon enough."
"For more reasons than one." Brown eyes warmed in his direction as the reality of their upcoming wedding date sank in a little more. "I can't wait to marry you, you know."
"I know," she quipped, an out and out smile breaking out across her face as his nose nudged hers. "I just hope you don't change your mind before May gets here."
An irate scream he recognized as Belle's drew his attention.
"Or you change yours," he muttered, leaning into the feel of her fingers on his cheek. "Christ, how is it your fingers stay so cold?"
"I stick them in the freezer just before you get home," she replied. "I know how you adore it when I'm frigid." She leaned forward and nipped his ear with her teeth and tongue, making him groan at the contrast of icy skin and heated mouth.
"All the better to ride your sleigh," he muttered into her neck, feeling rather proud of her resulting shiver. He nipped her just under her ear, allowing his tongue to soothe where his teeth had just teased her, loving the salty sweetness of her skin.
"Better control that popsicle of yours," she said, her tone low and throaty, the sound of it doing things to him he'd prefer to explore in her bedroom. She cast a glance up the steps again, tilting her head to grant him better access. "The natives are too restless for us to engage in winter sports at the moment."
"No grand slaloms, then?" he sighed, edging his fingers under the band of her sweatshirt and up her bare back while his other hand eased down her upper thigh. "Not even a quick run down the bunny slope?"
"The slopes are temporarily closed," she insisted, squeezing her legs together beneath the laptop, effectively trapping his his fingers right where he wanted them. He nudged them upwards, delighted that she had chosen to don leggings rather than thick, baggy sweatpants. He groaned at the warmth he found hiding under lycra, warmth he'd like to notch up to wet heat with his fingers and mouth.
"Don't make me snow your balls, Matthew."
He chuckled into her shoulder, his fingers finding the juncture between her legs and pressing in as close as he could. His erection began to grow uncomfortably, urging his mouth to the side of her neck, his tongue reveling in the beads of sweat now dotting across her skin.
"It's decidedly warmer down here," he hummed, drawing circles through the fabric that prompted her hips instinctively press towards him. "Balmy, even."
"Which is why it's time to put away your pole," she managed, grabbing his wrist as a door opened and closed again on the second floor. She sighed, her eyes practically daring him to touch her again while the girls were still awake. "It's not the right season."
"Seasons are flexible," he stated, kissing her before she could protest again. Her pupils were slightly dilated as she pressed herself back from his mouth, her lips plump and even more kissable than they'd been just seconds ago.
"Certain conditions have to exist," she began, cut off by an insistent Stop it, Belle! that made her fists clench. "Or your run could be rudely interrupted.."
Her words faded into a low groan as he found and squeezed her nipple, trying to make her throw away all parental reason. She was right-he knew she was right, but she was also here, looking sexier than should be legal in oversized sweats, making him act like a sex-starved frat boy rather than a responsible father and attorney.
"I think I could manage to still slide down your mountain," he teased, his teeth nipping her earlobe, her resistance fading as he rolled her nipple between his index finger and thumb. "Regardless of the conditions."
He felt her body shudder beneath his whisper, smelled the musk of heightening arousal on her skin.
"Oh, God," she whispered, her back arching as one of his hands continued to toy with her peak while his other teased her nether regions, trying to helping her find it. She pressed her hips into his touch, urging him on with small circles and rubs until there was a yelp followed by a thud from upstairs, an ear-splitting wail and a cry for Mommy.
"Matthew," she sighed, her expression morphing from lustful to frustrated in under a second. "We can't...not now." She moved to push herself off the couch, her every muscle tense with acute aggravation and heightened sexual frustration. It was then he noticed the lines of fatigue around her eyes, along with the slight twitch at the corner of her mouth that betrayed the fact that she was fighting back tears. God, he felt like a heel.
"I'll go," he cut in, stilling her move to hand him the laptop. "You've dealt with those monkeys enough for one day and obviously need a break. Besides,I don't think they even know I'm home."
He watched relief wash over her and realized he should have been massaging her shoulders or feet instead of coming on to her like a sex-starved maniac in a suit.
"I'm so tired," she admitted, and he leaned down, touching his forehead to hers, feeling a part of her melt into him. "I feel like I've been living out The Jungle Book while stranded in Antarctica."
"I can only imagine," he said, shaking his head at the noises still assailing them from Anna's bedroom. She muttered a word he couldn't quite hear, tossing a glance out the window at the snow still piled knee-deep across the yard.
"Beware of Thing One and Thing Two when you go up there. They're untamed and volatile."
Her gratitude was palpable as he stood and looked towards the steps, holding onto her cold fingers as long as he could before trudging towards his impending doom..
"Send help if I'm not back in thirty minutes," he called back, taking the stairs two at a time as she tossed him a throaty chuckle. "And you're mixing your literature, you know"
"Tell that to and Rudyard Seuss," she returned just as he reached the landing. He threw her a smirk she caught and returned just as another scream reached out and grabbed him through the closed bedroom door. He sighed before knocking, wondering just what sort of catastrophe awaited him on the other side.
"Why didn't you remind me to wear my body armor?" he yelled down as he put his hand on the doorknob.
"Don't worry," Mary called out as small feet pounded and something crashed to the floor. "I have 911 on speed dial."
He emerged about ten minutes later, staggering down the steps and plopping down beside her on the couch once again. He was decidedly worse for the wear, his tie hanging limp, his sleeves rolled up, and sweat dotting his forehead and cheeks.
"I think The Escape Package suits us," Mary stated calmly as she gave him a once-over. "What happened to you?"
"I'm not entirely certain," he admitted. "But I think I have glitter in my hair," She inspected his scalp, biting her lower lip in amusement as silver and pink flittered to the ground.
"You'd better shower before you come to bed tonight," she instructed. "God knows I don't want to be picking glitter out of the sheets months from now."
"Perhaps I'll invest in body glitter," he teased, watching her eyes roll at his suggestion. "Rub it on you in places only I'll know about." She swatted his hand playfully, her focus still on the laptop and not on sex. "Why the Escape Package? It's more expensive than the Memories option."
He watched the lines around her eyes twitch as she inhaled audibly.
"The number of people it accommodates. It would allow both of our mothers and Sam to be there with us as well as the girls," she reasoned with a small shrug. Her shoulders drooped slightly then as some of her emotional starch leaked out. "And Edith, if she can manage to clear her schedule for something as trivial as her sister's second marriage."
The subject of her sister was a sensitive one, one Matthew had learned to approach with utmost care.
"I'm sure she'll do her best to be there," he said, sliding his arm around her shoulders. She leaned into him, somehow feeling heavier than before. "She is your sister, after all."
"A sister I've barely spoken to for nearly two years."
Mary wouldn't look at him, her refusal to do so silently communicating the depth of loneliness she'd experienced over the past six years. A mother overseas, a sister she loved but didn't actually like, a deceased father and husband, a dead lover and father of her child-her life had been extremely solitary with the exception of Anna's presence in it.
"A sister, nonetheless," he murmured, dotting a kiss onto her cheek. "All you can do is send the invitation. Then it's up to her to make the next move."
Her gaze sauntered over his arms up to his face, and he placed his hands on her shoulders, taking up that massage he'd thought about earlier. She sighed, humming her approval, and he watched her relax into his fingers as a slow melt of tension began.
"She'll find a way to make her absence my doing," Mary said, her brow knotted in consternation even though her eyes were now closed. "Everything that's gone wrong in her life is my fault, you know."
"Balance," he muttered. He smiled when she popped one eye open and gazed at him quizzically. "Everything that's gone right in my life recently is your doing, too."
He felt her go boneless against him, and he drew her as close to him as he could, stopping the massage so he could wrap his arms around her middle. How he wished he could bind up every wound ever inflicted upon her so it would never smart again, knowing the impossibility of such an action from the lasting scars of his own personal pain.
"How is it that I'm closer to your mother than I am to Edith?" Mary questioned, her words nearly vanishing into thin air. "Why is it that it's far more important to me that Isobel and Sam be at our wedding than my own sister?"
"Because my mother would take on The Evil Queen herself if she thought she wouldn't be allowed at the wedding, and we both know it," Matthew noted, watching the corners of Mary's mouth draw up in a semi-smile. "God, she might actually find a way to close down Disney for the day until they let her in. She already loves you like a daughter and considers Anna as much her granddaughter as Belle. There's no way in hell she'd miss this." He paused then, watching her closely as he formed his next sentence. "And your closeness to her and Sam makes perfect sense to me. They're here for you and our girls-both of our girls-they've prioritized them in their lives as much as you and I have in ours. It's hard to get around that, whether there's a biological attachment or not. And as for Edith, you can't pick your family-we've talked about this before."
She sighed, tossing her hands up into the air.
"But that's just it, Matthew. I have picked my family-I've chosen you, Belle, Isobel and Sam. I love my mother, you know I do, but I can speak more openly with Isobel than I ever could with her." She paused and sniffed, rubbing her nose with the back of her hand. "Regardless, I know she's coming, she can't wait to meet you and Belle, and I'm thrilled that Anna is going to finally get some quality time with her biological grandmother. She needs that-they both need that."
Old wounds had risen to the surface, so he held her gently as his lips made contact with her temple, trying to dissuade some of the discordant trappings of her past with the promise of their future.
"I agree," he breathed. "And I'm anxious to meet Cora. I've thoroughly enjoyed Skyping with her, and I know Belle has, too."
"She's bringing gifts for both girls," Mary said, looking up at him directly. "She's picked out proper tea sets she thinks they'll adore."
"Which they will," he assured her with a squeeze to her shoulder. "Although the two of us may get sick of tea if they both have a set of their own." Her smile was weary, weighted down with the realities of being snowbound, in charge of planning a wedding, and all of the trappings that go along with blending two families. "Is something else bothering you?"
He felt her sigh rather than heard it as her ribs constricted under his arms.
"I'm not inviting Tony's family. I can't put myself through that."
Her words were barely a whisper, nearly lost into his chest as she turned and pressed her face into it, clutching his shirt tightly.
"I never thought we would," he stated, the shock of her words still tingling up his arm. "You don't think they'll be upset with you for that, do you?"
"After the exchange I had with Carol a few days ago, I'm not sure," she admitted. "I don't want her to think I'm trying to nudge her out of Anna's life, but she's not exactly been a viable presence in it in the first place."
He wanted to call Carol himself as she sniffed and rubbed the bottom of her nose with the top of her hand. He'd tell her to back off, to let Mary finally have a life of her ownchoosing, to stop using her dead son to manipulate the daughter-in-law who'd loved another man. He couldn't help but wonder if Carol knew this-if she'd known the depth of Mary's love for Charles and the insurmountable obstacles her brief marriage to Tony had faced. Was she trying to punish Mary in an odd sort of way, hoping she wouldn't find happiness with someone else since she hadn't found it with her son? The very thought made his blood boil.
"You don't owe her an invitation, Mary. You don't owe her anything."
He felt her stiffen against him, knowing he'd hit a nerve. He inhaled before reaching out to cup her face, watching her brows flicker in a state of doubt.
"You're allowed to move forward and live your own life. You're allowed to fall in love, get married, have another baby, go to Disney World-you don't have to answer to Carol or Edith, to Tony's memory, to anyone. It's your life-your heart on the line here. For once in your life, do something you want to do just because you want to do it."
She cleared her throat, the sound alerting him to the fact that she was on the verge of tears. But she breathed in steadily before clearing her throat, tossing him a look he'd couldn't read.
"Then move in with us."
The words took him by surprise, and he sat up taller, turning so that he could see all of her features rather than just her profile.
"What did you say?"
His heart was pounding two steps ahead of himself, his chin quivering as if he'd been lost in a blizzard.
"I said to move in with us," she continued, leaning in closer, only increasing the volume of the blood already drumming in his head. "If I'm truly allowed to live the way I want to live, then I don't want to wait until May for you and Belle to stay with me and Anna on a permanent basis. I want it now. Having you both here this week…" she paused, swallowing down the thickness in her throat. "It's been crazy, crowded, chaotic, and absolutely perfect. I don't want to lose that when the snow melts, Matthew. I don't want to put off our lives one more second than necessary."
He'd terrified her just days ago, made her fear she'd lost him in the snow storm, made her cry over what could have happened but thankfully did not. He saw that now in her eyes, that fear now honed into a resolution that made him feel six inches taller.
"I want my family, the family I've chosen, here with me," she continued, almost breathlessly. "I want us living together, waking up together every morning, putting out fights together and arguing over who has to wash the dishes. I want to enjoy every second of our lives, even when that life is about to drive me insane."
Her hands were fidgety, and he took her fingers within his own, bringing them to his lips, watching her blink repeatedly at the onset of overwhelming emotion on a fatigued body and mind. He couldn't speak for a moment, couldn't barely breathe, come to think of it, and he racked his brain for a moment, searching for a logical reason why he would have to tell her no.
He couldn't think of one. Thank God.
"Are you sure about this? About Belle and me moving in?"
She was nodding before the question was out of his mouth, and she drew him down to her to kiss him, her lips greedy and tasting of salt. Her fingers made their way into his hair, dislodging more glitter in the process, making him even more in love with her if such a thing were possible. She chuckled as she drew back from him, laughing through threatened tears at the sparkles now covering her hands and his forehead.
"I'm sure," she stated without a tinge of doubt. "I want you here. I want Belle here. And I don't want to wait until fucking May."
He chuckled, his chest expanding until he thought it might explode.
"I don't want to wait until May to fuck, either," he quipped, laughing with her as she fell into his arms. "I'd honestly like to give it a go tonight, if you're game."
She snorted, and he nearly doubled-over at the sound of her laughter.
"I'm game, but I'm tired," she managed after finally catching her breath. "You may have to do all the work tonight."
He kissed her lightly, nudging her nose with his own as he pressed her back into the cushions. His mouth took up a trail down her neck, nipping and tasting, reveling in her muted moan as he whispered, "My pleasure."
"I meant that you'd have to see to mine," she said, his resulting laugh blowing out his nose and into her face. He felt her chuckling beneath him as his eyes began to tear, alerting him to the fact that they were both likely slap-happy from stress, snow and not enough sleep.
"Oh, God," she said between gulps of air. "If this is any indication of what sex is going to be like tonight, maybe we should stop while we're ahead."
He couldn't talk for laughing, and he doubled over as his stomach started to cramp.
"Perhaps," he finally managed. "But if it's any indication of what the rest of our lives are going to be like, I think we're in good shape."
Her hands cupped his face, her thumbs rubbing his cheek bones as she bit her lower lip.
"Does that mean you'll move in with Anna and me?"
Her question cut through the fog in his mind, and he caressed her face again, trying to gain control of his laughter even as more glitter fell from his hair.
"It means that I feel as though I've swallowed a box of fireworks just thinking about it," he grinned, feeling the wetness of a tear travel down her cheek and over his thumb. "I've never been so sure of anything in my life as I am of this family we're making, Mary. Let's do this."
Her arms were around him before he registered that she'd moved, and he pulled her into his chest, holding her like there would be no tomorrow, fully conscious that both of them had lived that unsettling reality first-hand. He understood the need to clasp on to what they had and to wring every second of happiness from it as possible. It was a risky business, loving someone the way he loved her, putting his heart out there again, asking her to do the same, knowing that either or both of them could be decimated again at any moment.
But it was worth it. She was worth it. Their girls were worth it.
"I'll see about putting my house on the market," he said, smiling as her eyes rounded to the size of quarters. "Your's is far better suited for us, and you're closer to the school. Don't you think?"
She was nodding as her fingers clutched his shirt, her lips trembling in time with her fingers as she opened them and pressed her forehead into his.
"Belle won't mind sharing a room?" she asked, smiling as he shook his head no.
"Neither will I," he hummed, brushing his lips softly over hers. "In fact, I'm not sure just how well I'd sleep alone in my own bed again after these nights here with you. You're highly addictive, you know."
God, there was that grin again, that grin he'd pay a king's ransom to see on a regular basis.
"Like caffeine?" she quipped, laughing softly with him as his thumb continued to stroke her cheek.
"Like the darkest and richest of chocolates," he amended. "I can't get the taste of you out of my mouth."
She continued to clutch his shirt, her eyes darkening a shade that made his blood hot all over again.
"I love you, Matthew."
Her tone was transparent, and he felt it everywhere at once, filling what had once been empty, completing him in a way he'd forgotten. Her words were quicksilver in his system, his heart beating to a rhythm she'd composed just for him, and he shook his head at this life they'd managed to already create for themselves, a masterpiece of colored ashes and ocher created from the depths of grief.
The way she touched his face was more intimate than any sexual act they'd yet shared, and he knew she was offering him her very soul, the part of her she'd tried to lock away when it had been smashed by Charles's death and repeatedly trampled by those who wouldn't allow her to grieve him properly. He absorbed her into every pore and crevice of his body until he felt completely and utterly filled with her, with Mary, this extraordinary and complex woman who fed his soul and fueled his blood.
"I love you, Mary Gillingham. So very, very much."
They sat like that as seconds ticked by, as the winds moaned outside their private haven, as the girls continued to squeal and play upstairs.
"So we're opting for the Escape Package?"
She shot him a glance as she buried now warm fingers into his hair, rubbing her lips over his just enough to whet his appetite again.
"Can we escape now?" she asked as another squeal hurdled towards them from upstairs. "I'm having a Calgon take me away moment."
"I'm having a Calgon take us to Hawaii moment," he said, grinning at the half-hearted eye roll she tossed him. "But there's no way we'll be able to afford Hawaii on top of a Disney wedding."
"Perhaps when the girls graduate from high school," she uttered, making him grimace at the mere thought of Belle and Anna being that old.
"Maybe by then we'll be able to afford an outing at McDonald's," he mused, pretending to wince as she elbowed him again. "But only if we start saving now."
She grinned and sat up straighter, readjusting the computer on her lap as she refreshed the page. He felt her sigh of relief as the Escape option was clicked, watched together as a new screen appeared before them.
"Calgon, give me a bigger bank account," he whispered as they began to examine their new options.
"Too much Calgon makes your skin all pruny," Mary said, earning herself a quick kiss on the cheek. She'd moved back into business mode, he noticed, her need to plan and organize taking over once again. "I think I prefer the gazebo to the chapel when it comes to the ceremony. What about you?"
"Can't we just get married on Space Mountain?"
She nudged his shoulder as he breathed into her hair.
"There's always the Canadian Pavilion at Epcot," she continued, her eyes fixed on the screen. "But as neither of us are Canadian…"
"I don't care where we have the ceremony," he interjected, wrapping his arms around her waist from behind. "As long as you say I do."
Her nose scrunched up in that manner he adored, the manner that made her look just like her five year old daughter.
"Massage my feet and I'll think about it," she hummed, leaning into his chest. She felt like home, like carry-out pizza and nights in, like ballet recitals and a mini-van, and he for one was sold. He watched as she wiggled her toes before tossing him a pointed look.
"They're hard to reach them from this angle," he muttered, and she laughed, trying to direct his attention back to the screen in front of them.
"Later, then," she said, touching the screen with an unpolished nail. "The gazebo?"
He sighed, rubbing his scalp yet again before nodding.
"The gazebo it is."
She clicked that link with flourish, selecting pink calla lilies for both her bouquet and his boutineer before he even realized what had just happened.
"This cake or that one?"
He was thankful she'd narrowed it down to two already. The page of confections had at least a dozen choices with enough decorative options on hand to give the Cake Boss a migraine.
"The first," he answered after studying them both. "The girls will love the castle cake topper."
"Agreed," she said. "If it's princess themed or pink, they're all in."
He rested his chin on her shoulder as they selected a cello for their instrument and photo package that would allow for pictures by Cinderella's castle. Why were weddings so damned complicated and expensive, he wondered. Part of the beauty of getting married at Disney should be the ridiculous simplicity of it. Couldn't they just stand on the steps of Cinderella's castle in their shorts and mouse ears and recite their vows?
"Mickey or Donald?"
Her question brought him out of his reverie, and he focused yet again on the laptop screen.
She sighed, shaking her head in his direction.
"Do you want Mickey or Donald there for the ceremony and reception?"
He gazed down at the laptop, rubbing his left temple before giving her an answer.
A warm chuckle slid up her throat as she made a small production of clicking on Goofy's picture.
"Excellent choice. And not the least bit surprising."
"What's that supposed to mean?" he asked, wriggling a finger into her ribs until she swore. She squealed and smacked his hand playfully, nearly tossing the laptop onto the floor in the process.
"It means that Goofy suits you," she cried, laughing loudly as his fingers moved into her armpit. "Stop it, Matthew! I'll drop the computer!"
Her chest was heaving, her skin flushed an irresistible shade of pink that just begged for his touch. Need hit him hard once again, and he had to fight back the instinct to strip that blasted sweatshirt off of her and take her right here on the couch. He wanted a fast, hot and breathless fuck that would make her yell his name and sweat until they slid across each other as if they'd been rubbed down with oil. He was hard just thinking about it, and he inhaled sharply, shaking his head in an attempt to clear his mind. .
"God, you're wound up tonight," she stated, her eyes drifting to where a part of his anatomy was poking her in the side. "What did you have for lunch?"
"It's what I didn't have for lunch that I'm craving," he murmured, blocked from reaching for her again by the laptop in her grasp.
"Down, boy" she insisted, her expression brokering no room to argue. "We're going to plan this wedding and book a date before you're allowed to bring that poker of yours anywhere near me. Got that, Crawley?"
He sighed as he nodded, noting how suspicious her gaze was has she settled back into his torso.
"Truce?" he breathed, daring to graze her cheekbone with the pad of his thumb. She eyed him warily, continuing to clasp the laptop to her chest for all she was worth.
"The last time you asked for a truce, you mentioned the possibility of us having triplets," she countered with a dangerous flick of her brow. "Those are unacceptable terms."
"Alright," he returned with an exaggerated sigh. "But if we do ever have triplets, I reserve the right to name them Huey, Dewey and Louie."
"If triplets are even a possibility, I'm driving you to the doctor's office for a vasectomy," she said, worming her hand beneath the laptop and between his legs before he saw it coming. He barked as she tried to squeeze him through his trousers, lifting them both an inch or so off the couch.
"Or maybe I'll just take care of things myself," she hummed, withdrawing her hand as she resumed a sitting position. "I told you I could snow your balls, Matthew. Now help me finish planning this wedding before I resort to frostbite."
"Why Mary Gillingham-the things you say."
She eyed him sideways before licking her lips suggestively, and he knew he was done for-utterly and completely done for to the point of no return. She had him-in every way possible, and he couldn't be happier about it.
"It's the things I do you should be wary of," she warned, quirking that brow of hers, playfully nipping his finger as he dared to stroke it along her lower lip.
"That's what I'm counting on," he breathed, drawing her in and sealing his mouth on hers before she could think better of it.
Oh, God. This was it.
She stared up at him as each step took her closer, and she clutched Sam's arm tighter than she should, her surroundings almost a blur as her destination took center stage.
He looked incredible. And within minutes, he'd be officially her's.
A warm breeze swept under her dress, tickling her legs as she smiled broadly at the man awaiting her arrival. His eyes were bloodshot-he'd been crying, she realized, and she had to swallow hard not to fall into a weepy mess as Sam continued to guide her down the aisle. She tried to memorize every detail, even as moments began to blur into a landscape of vivid colors and pastels she longed to wrap around herself and absorb into her skin.
This was her wedding day, and she wanted to hold on to every second of it.
Her last marriage had been rushed, a fiasco she'd tried to forget even as it pressed itself into her memory. She'd thought of one man while reciting vows to a stand-in groom, a decision she'd hated herself over for far too long. Marrying Tony had been a mistake.
But today, there were no second thoughts, no regrets, no wishing for someone else. Today, she was fully and utterly happy. Today, she was marrying Matthew.
Faces smiled up at her as she walked towards him-her mother's, her sister's, Isobel's-and finally the two she couldn't get over, both radiant and beaming as they held hands and giggled beside their Daddy.
For Matthew was Anna's daddy now in every way that mattered, just as she was Belle's mother. They hadn't yet made it official, but adoption had been discussed and agreed upon by all parties involved just before Matthew and Belle had moved in. They'd celebrated that decision on Valentine's Day, the family gathering giving the holiday a far deeper meaning for her than it had ever held in the past. Even Sam had given them his blessing, although Mary knew that decision was probably more difficult for him than he would ever admit.
"Charles would approve," the older man had told her later that night after the girls had gone to bed. "He'd want Anna to be loved and looked after by a man like Matthew. He'd want her to grow up with a father."
"I believe he would, too," she'd said just before he'd hugged her. She wondered if that dull ache whenever Charles's name was spoken would ever completely fade away.
She'd cried herself to sleep that night, and Matthew had let her, simply holding her into his chest and stroking her hair until she'd fallen asleep. He understood the urge to mourn those they'd lost, knew that memories posed no competition to what they shared.
"I cried, too," he'd admitted the following morning while they did their best to share a sink. "Over Lavinia, in my car, in the parking lot at work."
Somehow she hadn't expected this, but his words felt right, like a well-worn glove that hadn't lost its shape even after months of disuse. She'd nodded and had taken his hand as she'd stared at her engagement ring.
"Do you think it's a part of closure?" she'd asked him. "The need to cry again all these months later? Like a final stage of grief or something?"
He'd tugged her closer, drawing her hand to his chest as he'd worked her fingers gently with his own. He'd remained quiet for several seconds, his gaze fixed upon their joined hands until he'd cleared his throat and looked her in the eye to speak.
"I think it's a final goodbye."
There had been no question in her mind that he was right.
But today was no goodbye. Today was a joyful hello.
She and Sam reached the gazebo, and she looked into the older man's eyes, receiving a wink and a nod of assurance as he transferred her to Matthew and moved to stand beside Isobel. His hand was warm as hers slid into it, and she couldn't help but smile at the dumbstruck look on her groom's face as she finally faced him fully.
"You look amazing," he whispered, the tears in his eyes far too contagious for her liking.
"So do you," she breathed, and he brought her hand to his lips, kissing her skin, nearly making her swoon on the spot. She shivered, feeling a wave of something magical, an almost physical manifestation of one phase of their lives ending as another awaited them all with baited tug on her dress drew her out of her thoughts, and she looked down to see her daughter beaming up at her, curls dismissed in favor of a Cinderella bun that Anna wore with pride.
"You're beautiful, Mommy," she said, and Belle nodded eagerly in agreement, her own hair braided and pinned up in a way that made her look like a pint-sized Elsa. Mary leaned down and touched both of their cheeks, kissing each forehead before straightening herself and looking at him.
"So do you, my darlings," she said, grinning as both girls bounced on their feet as if they might take flight. "No princesses have ever looked prettier." Warmth enfolded her as Matthew's arm encircled her waist, and he leaned in, smelling of Bulgari and sunshine with just a hint of unbridled nerves.
"I love you," he uttered, drawing out a lone tear she couldn't hold back any longer.
"I love you, too," she managed, smiling, laughing, feeling free and light as she spoke her vows.
This was it.
It was here-the happiness she'd feared lost to her forever the day Charles had died. She'd believed Anna would be the sole love of her life from that point on, had been certain of it for years, had lived in that reality until it was all she knew. Being a mother had been her lifeline during years of silent grief, but she couldn't have imagined then how full her heart would feel now with two little girls standing on either side of her, one dark like her, the other fair and blue-eyed, just like her daddy.
Then his arms were around her again, his lips brushing hers with an insistence she returned with gusto. Her arms flew around his neck as the girls squealed and clapped beside them, and she smiled into his cheek as the words man and wife finally meant for her what they were supposed to mean.
"Remind me to send Ms. Laura a thank you card," he whispered, grinning adorably as she drew slowly back just far enough to see his face. "Assigning the two of us to work the Ring Toss Booth together last Fall was one of the best things that's ever happened to me."
She smiled, unable to help herself as she nudged his nose with hers. She felt light, bubbly and wonderful, and she couldn't help but wonder if her daughters had secretly tossed pixie dust on her as she looked up into the eyes of her husband.
"We'll send her a postcard," Mary uttered before clasping on to his lapels and tugging him to her mouth kissing him hard and open-mouthed, the way she'd been wanting to all day.
Her words silenced his near chuckle, a knee-jerk reaction to the hiss and upwards maneuver that nearly catapulted her from the examination table on to the floor. He drew her hand to his lips instead, tossing her an apologetic look she was debating whether or not to accept.
"Sorry," the nurse-in-training said, biting her lower lip. "I should have warned you."
"It's alright," Mary muttered, allowing Matthew to help her ease back onto the table and get comfortably situated again. Well, as comfortably situated as one could be with a protruding stomach and full bladder. "Just tell me if you have to put on more."
Just then, the ultrasound technician entered the room, prompting the young nurse to shake her head and step back. The technician glanced over Mary's chart with a nod as she clicked the door shut behind her and gave the Crawleys a welcoming smile.
"How are you feeling, mom?" she questioned as she sat down on the small stool beside the machine on wheels.
"Peachy," Mary answered, willing herself not to elbow her husband as he nearly choked on her reply. Her back was hurting, and she was starving, literally starving, even though she'd already devoured three pancakes and a couple of pieces of bacon less than two hours ago.
"This little one giving you a hard time today?" the technician asked as she picked up the magic wand that would allow them yet another sneak peek of their baby.
"She's stubborn," Mary sighed. "And has taken up residence under my rib cage."
"That's no fun," the technician said as she scooted closer to Mary.
"Perhaps he's stubborn," Matthew interjected as he toyed with his wife's fingers. "And I can't imagine where that personality trait came from."
Mary glared daggers in his direction, relaxing somewhat as the technician began to draw the wand across her stomach in search of said stubborn child.
"So you two still want to know the sex, I take it?"
"Yes," Mary answered, her eyes never leaving the blurry, gray images playing out before her. "Let's just hope he or she isn't quite so modest this time."
The technician chuckled, zeroing in on what was clearly an image of a small head.
"Unfortunately, not all children are cooperative when we want them to be," she remarked, the comment making Mary snort through her nose. "But you two already know that."
"Believe me," Matthew returned. "We live with it on a daily basis."
"So," the technician said. "Any last minute predictions before the moment of truth?"
Mary looked to her left and stared directly into the bluer than blue eyes of her husband, the man who had gotten her into this predicament. And God help her, she loved him for it.
"I'll be thrilled either way," Matthew murmured as he guided her fingers to his lips and kissed them, effectively turning her into a mushy puddle of emotions. "But I'm betting on a boy."
"You just want to even the odds," Mary stated, squinting in an effort to both fight back tears and clarify what she was seeing on screen.
"Can you blame me?" he chuckled, and she laughed, shaking her head as she exhaled audibly.
"No," she returned. "But I still think it's another girl. So do Belle and Anna."
"We'd be having twins if those two had their way."
The look she shot him silenced any further discussion on that topic, and they sat several seconds in silence, staring at the small screen as if they were watching the world's most fascinating documentary.
"Wait," Mary commanded. ""Am I seeing what I think I'm seeing?"
The technician was grinning, and Mary leaned forward as best as she could, her breath catching in her throat as all questions of gender were tossed out the window. She felt Matthew give her hand a small squeeze, and she squeezed back, revelling in this sacred moment they were sharing. Then tears came, they couldn't be helped as she watched her baby in awe and fascination while her husband chuckled beside her.
"God, we're in for it, aren't we?"
She smiled at his words, closing her eyes as his lips brushed her temple and his tears mixed with her own. Suddenly, her backache was irrelevant, as was her irrational craving for a Reese's Cup milkshake at ten a.m, and she felt like she was floating on a wave of euphoria similar to the one she'd ridden on their wedding day. She managed a kiss to his cheek as his arm slid around her back and more photographs of the life they'd created were taken.
"At least we're in for it together."