It hadn’t been a wedding Mary had dreamed of and she’d dreamed of so many weddings. When she was a very little girl, before she understood about the entail, she hadn’t pictured much beyond her husband. And, oh, he would be glorious. And she would love him.
When she understood about Patrick, he became the man waiting for her at the altar. At first, she imagined herself in love with him. Later, she knew that wouldn’t happen, so she started planning elaborate weddings. Hundreds of guests, flowers everywhere, a dress that would be talked about for years.
After Patrick died, she’d planned to go after so many suitors and it no longer quite mattered who the man was. As long as he was rich and titled, the picture could remain the same.
And Matthew . . . she supposed she never had enough of a chance to dream of a wedding with him.
If it hadn’t been for the war, she would’ve destroyed everything. She wouldn’t be standing here, as his wife.
It had all become jumbled up in her mind, that day. Matthew’s face when he told her they could never be, her father’s voice when he announced the war . . . and the feel of Matthew’s hands and lips when they came together and told each other that none of their arguments mattered. The war made everything between them seem silly. Everything but love.
And now, after a few weeks of wedded bliss, she was bidding her husband farewell. The rest of the family had wished him luck at Downton Abbey and even his mother stepped away as Mary and Matthew stood in front of the train.
“Will you miss me?” Matthew asked.
“You don’t need me to answer that.”
He smiled at her and, oh, she wanted to keep him here so he could look at her like forever. “But I want you to.”
So she took his hand in hers. Hands that had clasped hers on the ballroom floor, under the dinner table, late at night. “I will miss you every day. Will you be careful?”
She thought he would return her answer, tell her that she didn’t need him to answer that, but he had always been a better person than she was. “I will.”
“Downton Abbey needs you.” She looked down. She wouldn’t say she needed him. She knew she would survive without him. But she didn’t want to. Not even for the duration of the war.
“Oh, Mary.” And he drew her to him and kissed her.
And then he was gone.
Cousin Isobel came up beside and Mary braced herself for the words of comfort that would come, rehearsed her response in her head . . . but Isobel simply put her arm around Mary’s shoulders and was silent.
Matthew sent her letters. He’d never learned the art of writing society letters and, for that, Mary was grateful. He said what he meant, instead of coaching everything in polite, guarded phrases. She knew he didn’t tell her everything. He rarely even hinted at the horrors he must be seeing.
And, in return, she sent him letters about the household news, letters that pretended Downton Abbey was the same as it always had been, would be the same when he got back. She didn’t tell him that she spent every night on her knees, praying for him, or how much she feared she’d never see him again.
She longed for and dreaded his visits home on leave. When he was away, she missed him dreadfully, but she could pretend he was simply away on business. Perhaps only for the day and he would return at night. But when he was by her side, in his uniform, all she could do was stare at him, drinking him in, worried every second that this would be the last time she would see him. There was so much she wanted to tell him, wanted to make sure he knew, but she was afraid it would be worse if she said it all out loud. That saying it loud would tempt fate, would mean he didn’t have to come back to her.
Matthew was late. He was never late. Not in the time before the war and certainly not when he was coming home on leave. It seemed as if the trains he took moved more quickly, the cars ran more smoothly, like the universe was giving them as much time together as possible. But now he was supposed to be home and he wasn’t.
“Has anyone heard from Matthew?” Mary asked at dinner at Downton Abbey.
Her mother turned to her. “Don’t tell me you’ve had a quarrel.”
“No, of course not,” Mary said. “But he should be here already.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” her father said. “If you like, I can make some inquiries.”
The conversation moved on, but Mary caught Sybil and Edith’s glances. The war and, perhaps marrying Matthew, had changed her relationships with her sisters. By gaining some distance from each other, they had been able to forgo some of the old rivalries.
And, when they retreated after dinner, Sybil touched her on her arm and said, “He’s sure to show up any second.”
“Of course,” Mary said.
But she didn’t know it. There were so many things in her old life that she’d been certain of. Her looks, her place in society, her chances—or lack thereof—for a good marriage. But the war had taken all of that away from her. She was sure of Matthew’s love for her, but she had not made him promise to come back. She never wanted him to make a promise he couldn’t keep.
When Papa entered the room, he moved slowly. He didn’t speak to anyone beyond the pleasantries.
“Papa?” Mary asked, when she couldn’t stand it anymore. “Tell me.”
“There is nothing to tell.” And he looked her in the eye, took a sip of his drink and stared off into space.
She didn’t believe him. “I am Matthew’s wife, Papa. If you have learned something, you must tell me.”
“Must?” And Papa looked up at her. “Oh Mary. Do you ever think people might keep things from you for your own good?”
“No. Not this.”
He sighed. “I am sure it is nothing, Mary, but Matthew is missing.”
She gasped and felt her hand go up to her mouth. She’d pictured this moment so many times. Tried to push it away and then, when it stayed despite her will, she imagined how she would handle it. Stoically. Never let your emotions show. She knew how to do that.
But now all she wanted to do was collapse next to her father and sob.
“Oh, Mary,” Papa said. “It happens all the time. Men wander off and they show up again. You’ll see.”
Mary shook her head. She had no more brave words. She and Matthew had come so close to missing out on each other. She’d never taken a future with him as a guarantee. The war did not care who you were. It would destroy anyone’s happiness.
Mama urged Mary to stay at Downton Abbey for the night, but Mary shook her head. It felt right to be at Crawley House. That was where her life with Matthew was and that was where Cousin Isobel was. Mary knew her parents and sisters loved her husband, but she wanted to be with Matthew’s mother.
When she walked in the door, Isobel was standing in the front hall. “Any news?” she asked.
Mary looked down. Now she knew how her father felt. Her expression must’ve looked very much like the look in Isobel’s eyes. Mary could not give the answer Isobel wanted to hear, but neither could she lie. “He is missing.”
Isobel groaned. “Oh, my dear boy . . .”
They heard a noise at the door. Mary’s eyes snapped to Isobel’s.
And Matthew walked in. His uniform was perhaps a little dirty, but, otherwise, he looked perfectly fine. Mary stared at him. Next to her, Isobel stood, silent and unmoving.
“Well, what kind of greeting is this?”
“Oh!” Mary cried out and ran at him. She embraced him, so glad she had the right to touch him, so glad they were in private.
Isobel came behind them and hugged them both.
“What happened to you?” Mary asked, and reached up to dry her eyes. “I thought—I thought—“
“None of that,” Matthew said. “I got a little lost during battle is all. Was trapped behind German lines for a few days, but I was never in any danger.”
“You are in danger every day you are out there,” Isobel said. She reached up to Matthew’s hair. “But we are so very glad to have you back.”
The news of Matthew’s injury came in the middle of the night.
It was the worst time for bad news. Mary’s thoughts were very dark indeed, as she sat with Isobel all night. They traded reassurances that “at least he was live” and that they “would see him soon,” but, when he arrived at the hospital, all Mary’s fears were realized. It wasn’t his injuries, but Matthew himself.
“We never should have gotten married.” His voice was so low, she could barely hear him.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” She reached down to touch his forehead and he jerked away from her.
“I have robbed you of your life.”
“Oh, really?” Mary said. “Did you force me to marry you? Were you injured on purpose?”
“Of course not.”
“Nothing has changed.”
“Everything has changed.” He looked at her straight in the eyes, for the first time since he’d arrived. “This is not the life you want.”
“I want a life with you.”
“A life without children?”
Mary did not answer right away. She did not want to give a hasty answer. That wasn’t what he deserved, what they deserved. “I chose you, Matthew.”
“You chose the life I had to offer. I no longer have that life.”
“Can you really believe that?” Mary asked. “If you recall, I spent a year avoiding being pushed into your presence by my family?”
Matthew’s mouth twitched open at that. It wasn’t quite a smile, but it was enough for Mary to reach forward to stroke his forehead again. This time, he let her. “If you have doubts about me, after all this time, then that is our problem, Matthew. Nothing else.”
But she found she couldn’t quite say anything more. It was horrible to see Matthew like this, lying so pale and still. He had wounds all over his face. There was no pretending he hadn’t been through a war. No denying what had happened.
She leaned down and put her arms around him.
“Of course, it’s a terrible shame,” Mama said one evening, before the gentlemen came in from dinner. “Perhaps you and Matthew should’ve waited until after the war to be married.”
“Oh, Mary. You know I love Matthew. But I only want the best for you.”
“You thought Matthew was the best for me.”
“You cannot deny circumstances have changed.”
Granny cleared her throat. “And what would have her do? Leave him and bring in a wave of scandal?”
“Of course not! But—“
“And she loves him,” Granny continued.
“Granny, you’re a romantic!” Sybil exclaimed.
“Hardly. But it is foolish to argue in the face of such . . . devotion.”
“Well, I think it’s a shame,” Edith said. “You couldn’t have at least managed to create a child in one of his visits home?”
“Edith!” Mama exclaimed.
“What happens to the estate now? If Matthew does not have children—“
“This is not the time to have that conversation,” Mama said. “Now, Sybil. Why don’t you tell us of your work?”
Sybil, always eager to help smooth relationships among her family, took charge of the conversation, which left Mary alone with her thoughts.
It was nothing new. She had considered all of this many times before. First, in the split seconds after she learned of Matthew’s injuries. And, again, later, using all her rationality.
And the answer never changed, whether she was using her mind or her heart. Marriage was forever. At least, for people like her and Matthew. She could leave him and set up a house in London, and, after a while, the talk would die down, but what of it? She would still be married. Her life would be linked to his. There would be no children then, either. And she wouldn’t have Matthew.
She wasn’t being foolish or sentimental. Her decision was practical. It was best path . . . and the one that would make her happy.
One day, Matthew and Mary were visiting Downton. Matthew was in the drawing room with her father while Mary walked outside with her sisters and mother.
When they joined the men, Papa immediately stood up . . . as did Matthew.
And pandemonium erupted.
“My dear boy!” Papa exclaimed.
“Why, this is wonderful!” Mama said.
Mary stood with her hand over her mouth. She felt the tears she’d tried so hard to control in Matthew’s presence finally slipping out.
Matthew held a hand to her. She stretched out her hand until she could reach it. “Matthew.”
When it all came out and everyone knew the truth of the extent of Matthew’s injuries, when they knew he would walk and have children and a normal life and suffer nothing worse than a bruise on his spine, Mary supposed she should be angry at the doctor for the weeks and weeks of agony he’d put them all through.
But she couldn’t bring herself to complain. If it hadn’t been for the war, she and Matthew might’ve never been able to overcome their pride enough to acknowledge their feelings and join their lives together, and she wasn’t going to begrudge the war for reminding her to be grateful for what she had.
Grateful that she and Matthew would spend a lifetime loving each other.