TRUST AND PROVIDENCE
A Downton Abbey story
by Rachel Smith Cobleigh
PART I: AFTERMATH
As the great house returned to the calm of its evening routine, the two of them sat at a corner of the long mahogany table in the richly-panelled dining room, both making a show of nonchalance and civility whilst being acutely aware of the other's presence.
Matthew unstoppered the decanter and smiled. "We can drink to Sybil's safe return."
"Why not?" Mary replied as Matthew filled his glass, and then she realised that it was the only one available, not enough for both of them to toast. She moved to stand up. "I'll ring for a glass."
"Never mind that," he said, stopping her. "Here." He handed the filled glass to her and moved to pour wine into his water glass. She stared at it, frozen in shock at the breach of protocol for a moment, and then she smiled and leaned forward.
"You're not very fastidious about doing things properly, are you?"
He confirmed her observation with a soft snort. "Are you?"
"Less than you might think." They toasted each other and then took a sip from their respective glasses.
Mary looked at hers as she set it down, aware of the unusual intimacy of their situation. There was something enticing about the way he flouted custom in the house, and she wondered what else he might be willing to set aside. She was not sure if he knew that they were already ignoring propriety in being alone together behind closed doors, given that Papa had—probably unthinkingly—encouraged the situation.
She knew better; she ought to let Matthew eat in peace, but she'd missed his company for months and she had only herself to blame. Her triumph at briefly winning the boring Sir Anthony's attention away from Edith had been a hollow victory. Matthew had begged off immediately afterwards, and she'd been left behind to watch his receding form as he stalked angrily into the night. It was only then that she realised she had trampled on the honest affections of a good man.
Matthew lifted the cover off the plate of sandwiches and his stomach rumbled at the sight. It had been kind of Mary to think of him. He glanced at her, wondering what she was thinking.
"Are you at all political?" he asked. Sybil's proclivities were well-known; Mary's, on the other hand, were, typically, kept close to the vest.
"Yes," she answered, selecting a strawberry and toying with it. "But with a hung Parliament, it's hard to get excited about a by-election. You know nothing will change, whoever gets in."
Matthew smiled in acknowledgement. Trust Mary to cut straight to the heart of the matter without being distracted by idealism or hope. Her calm clarity of thought was refreshing after all the heightened irrationality at the rally.
"It's hard not to hope for change, nevertheless," he said, picking up a sandwich. "Women's suffrage is long overdue."
"You're a suffragist?" she asked, amused. "You don't strike me as a radical."
He chewed and swallowed. "Women getting the vote isn't radical; it's just right."
"Defender of the downtrodden," she observed with a smile, and popped the strawberry into her mouth. He caught himself staring her lips and he forced his gaze down to the sandwich tray instead.
He smirked, pushing aside his self-consciousness. "If the title fits…"
Mary ducked her head with a smile. They ate in silence for a short while, Matthew wondering what to say next and Mary imagining the scene at the rally. The idea of him knocking a man down intrigued her. She couldn't quite reconcile it with his gentle manner.
"Thank you for coming to Sybil's rescue," she said, catching him with his glass in mid-air as he realised that he'd been staring at a tendril of dark hair that curled at the nape of her neck. "You were very brave. She told me you knocked a man down."
He wrenched his mind back to the day's events and mentally kicked himself for being so distracted. She wasn't interested in him in that way, he reminded himself; acting like a besotted fool wouldn't recommend him in the slightest. The least he could do was give her the courtesy of rational conversation. He smiled tightly. He couldn't deny that he was proud to have defended her sister, but as the man he'd hit had also knocked Sybil down when he fell, Matthew didn't feel like a hero.
"I hope I did my duty," he said, covering his discomfort with a sip from his glass.
"Are you a creature of duty?"
He paused at the oddity of the question: the conversation had taken a turn, but he wasn't sure of its direction. He set down his glass.
"Not entirely," he said with a frown. Where was she going with this? Curiosity and foreboding mixed together.
Mary's expression shifted subtly. "When you laugh with me, or flirt with me—" His whole being tightened at her delicate pause. "—is that a duty? Are you conforming to the fitness of things, doing what's expected?"
He stared at her. Had he just heard her correctly? She had never named them before, had never been so bold with him. They had only just begun to mend their relationship after months of tense standoff due to her cruel game with the hapless Sir Anthony. Equal parts thrill and frustration rose within Matthew. He narrowed his eyes, searching for the trap that surely awaited him. Engaging in verbal swordplay with Mary was an arousing and dangerous sport. He settled for ending this game before she wounded him again.
"Don't play with me," he warned. "I don't deserve it. Not from you."
She looked away from him, conceding the point. He picked up his glass to take another sip of wine before he ate a final sandwich, realising that it would probably be best if he ended this meal as quickly as possible. Before the glass had even reached his lips, however, Mary had taken a different tack.
"You must be careful not to break Sybil's heart. I think she has a crush on you."
He set down his glass. He'd never heard anything so ridiculous in his life. Sybil no more had a crush on him than Mary did. This was no mere defence of her sister: Mary was still playing with him. Very well. If she wanted to play, then he would call her game for what it was: a meaningless flirtation.
"That's something no one could accuse you of," he said.
She looked down quickly, suddenly toying with her necklace in a way that struck him as uncharacteristically nervous. "Oh, I don't know," she said in a low tone. Her eyes flickered back up to his.
He paused as his heart skipped a beat and then hardened in disbelief. He would not fall for this again.
"I assume you speak in a spirit of mockery," he accused, but he couldn't prevent the note of uncertainty that entered his voice.
"You should have more faith," she said, her eyes beckoning to him.
Why did she persist in this reinvention of the truth? He leaned forward in challenge.
"Shall I remind you of some of the choicest remarks you made about me when I arrived here?" he asked. She broke from his gaze, the fingers that toyed with her necklace growing more agitated, but he was not finished. "Because they live in my memory as fresh as the day they were spoken."
You wounded me, he willed her to understand. This is not a game.
"Oh Matthew, what am I always telling you?" She met his eyes undaunted, a warmth even sparkling in her own. Her fingers stilled. "You must pay no attention to the things I say."
Time held for a long moment as he stared at her, tasting spice on his tongue—no, wanting to taste her spice on his tongue. His eyes flickered helplessly down to her lips, then back up to her eyes in mute question. Was she truly saying what he thought she was?
Stop listening to my words and listen to my heart instead.
I want you.
He moved; she moved, and their mouths met in mutual hunger. He felt a rush of sensation, his lips and tongue flooding him with familiar and foreign tastes and soft textures that made the insides of his mouth tingle and narrowed his focus almost unbearably. This was no chaste first kiss as he had once imagined it would be, but a heady, equally hungry exploration. She matched him press for press, the stroke of her tongue against his shocking him as she met him without hesitation. He challenged her, tasted her; she ran her tongue along his bottom lip and surprised him with the acute sensitivity at the corner of his mouth. His awareness widened to take in the way her fingers curled into the hair behind his ear, making his scalp prickle pleasantly under her touch. Her thumb bumped against his earlobe as her fingers drifted down his neck, raising gooseflesh there that ran down his back, tingling. The fingers of her other hand clutched his forearm just below where his elbow still rested on the table…and his other hand cupped her waist. Her waist. Her body was warm under the thin, soft fabric of her dress and his mind spun wildly at the prospect. His trousers felt uncomfortably tight, his clothes suddenly too warm against his skin. He was filled with the mad urge to remove them, which he suppressed with some shock at himself, then amusement. She wanted him as much as he wanted her! And in a sudden rush of awareness, he knew what he wanted with absolute certainty.
Mary's body hummed and her heart hammered in her chest, every flick of his tongue and press of his lips making her head spin. He kissed like he duelled: with quick responses that were at once gentle and arousing. His skin smelled warm and clean and uniquely him, and the slight rasp at the edges of his lips unexpectedly reminded her of his masculinity. Heat coiled deep within her at the awareness and she felt a sudden fluttering squeeze there that took her entirely by surprise. She nearly broke the kiss with a gasp, but she stilled her lips and held them against his at the last moment, hoping that he hadn't noticed her falter. She engaged him all the more to compensate, hungry to repeat the sensation and eager to match his ardour, for she was certain he could not feel more than she did in this moment and she wanted him to know it, to know that her blossoming joy was due entirely to him. Dear God, they were kissing! A slight sting of the scent of his sweat swept into her nostrils and she wanted to press herself closer to him, to breathe in his skin with an open mouth. Her head spun. It had never for one instant felt like this with Kemal—
Hot, sick guilt washed over her and she pulled away from lips that she ached for immediately.
She knew in an instant, in a rush of a hundred thoughts all meeting in one, terrible truth, that she did not deserve Matthew. He was too good for her. He was kind and clever, without pretence or guile—so unlike herself.
Her artfulness was what had gotten her into this bind in the first place. Since her debutante Season, she had excelled at attracting men and had revelled in her newfound power, mastering the flirtations and the games. Although she enjoyed the chase, her heart had never been touched, and her desires were only occasionally roused; the sensation always passed soon after each brief encounter with an awkward, overeager, or stuffy suitor. She came to subtly resent them all, these men whose fortunes were her only salvation, her only purpose.
Against this backdrop of formal English gentlemen, Kemal Pamuk had struck her through. When Evelyn Napier, the current frontrunner in her stable of suitors, had brought along his friend Mr Pamuk to a hunt that her father was hosting, she had expected to meet some nervous little foreigner, his hair reeking of pomade. Instead, the young Turkish diplomat's first appearance on his spirited charger had taken her breath away. With his swarthy skin, and dark eyes that were pools of knowing humour and secret enticements, she had experienced for the first time what it was to be shockingly drawn to a man. She had come alive in a new way, and she burned when she saw how quickly he perceived it.
Within minutes, the expected flirtations had begun, and Kemal Pamuk was equally as skilled at playing the game. Their verbal parries and thrusts continued into the evening, her attention caught only by him. Evelyn Napier and Matthew Crawley were also present at the family dinner, of course, but they were dreadfully dull by comparison. She was flush with pride at having captured the enticing Mr Pamuk's attention so easily, and all was moving along delightfully until he led her into the small library on some innocent pretext and suddenly pressed a fierce, demanding kiss upon her.
It wasn't her first kiss, of course, but it also wasn't a very pleasant one. He'd quite banged her head against the bookcase, and he had taken her so thoroughly by surprise that her lips nearly felt bruised when he finally drew back, amidst her protests.
This was not at all what she'd intended for the evening, and she had let him know—in no uncertain terms, she thought—that she wasn't that sort of woman. She had walked out, straight-backed and with her head held high, convinced that that was the end of it.
But it hadn't been. And when he'd come to her room late that night—how had he managed to invade her privacy?—the force of his dangerously alluring presence had finally overcome her reservations, and she had embraced him, uncertain and yet eagerly aroused...
Her fate had been sealed that very night, when she understood, only too late, how much she had sacrificed for so little gain.
Kemal had died upon her. It had taken all of her strength to dislodge him, and then another desperate clutch at sanity to keep her wits about her as she stood staring in horror at his unmoving body. Perhaps he'd died for his sin, but her curse was to live with it.
She'd hidden her disgrace from everyone except her loyal maid, Anna, and her mother, for she had required their help to move the young diplomat's body back to his room before the rest of the house awoke and discovered he was missing.
The household reacted with shock to the discovery of the body, all while Mary remained silent, watching the tableau play out as expected. Official condolences were sent to the Turkish Embassy and to Kemal's family, but no one mourned for her, and Mary did not allow herself to mourn, either. She could not be seen to be more moved than was appropriate for a mere acquaintance, a guest who had stayed at the house for only one night. She did not know what to feel, so she simply chose not to feel anything, whenever she could manage it. Her walls usually broke down at night, however, and then she was not sure for whom she mourned. She had barely known him, after all; why did it hurt so?
But time had passed, the months going on, and she returned to the endless series of social calls and charity events, and the day-to-day troubles and intrigues of her family home. Granny had kicked up a fresh round of fuss about the entail, finally exasperated with her son's lack of decisive action in the matter. Granny, the only one who ever seemed to take Mary's side.
So against all reason and potentially to his own detriment, Matthew had investigated how to break the entail, which required her father's title, the bulk of his wealth, and all of his lands to pass to Matthew—who, despite being the nearest male relative, was only distantly related to the family. Most men, upon unexpectedly discovering that they would inherit an aristocratic title and a vast fortune, would have been only too willing to revel in it, and to use their newfound power against the previous earl's female relatives, who would effectively be left paupers upon their patriarch's death.
Thus Mary had expected Matthew to wield his power over her, knowing that her mother, grandmother, and any unmarried sisters would be entirely dependent upon her, as the eldest, to marry well so that she could provide for them after her father's death.
But instead, Matthew had immediately understood what was at stake, and what her family expected of her—marrying him to keep the money in the family—and he had gone to great lengths to befriend her and help her win some power back. He hadn't tried to pressure her, or seduce her, or even seriously flirt with her. Instead, he showed her respect and he asked insightful questions, actually listening to her answers. It had been a novel sensation; few men, if any, looked at her as though she had anything important to say.
When Matthew had discovered that it was effectively impossible to break the entail, however—it would require a private bill in Parliament, and even then it wouldn't be passed unless the integrity of the estate were under substantial threat—he had explained the legal nuances to Granny and to herself; and most notably, he had done so in a gentle voice, his expression pained.
When she had cried out in anger and frustration at being passed over and seen as a source of disappointment for the whole of her life, he had told her that she mattered a great deal. She mattered to him; he saw her; he understood; he ached with regret that he should find himself standing in her rightful place: not just in terms of the inheritance, but also in terms of her father's respect and regard.
That pain had begun at the cusp of her adulthood when her whole dreadful predicament had been coldly explained to her: Mary, you will not inherit Downton unless you marry your cousin Patrick, so you must marry your cousin Patrick. There are to be no suitors, no thought of love, merely expedience; your worth is of so little value that you are only a means to an heir for Patrick. You must wait in the shadows and practise the arts of society and beauty to woo him, hidden, voiceless, until the day your father and your intended beckon you out and you are transferred from one man to the other like a pretty possession. Your thoughts, your feelings, your dreams, your self, are of no interest in this transaction. This must be done to preserve the family, the future of the estate, the title, the role. You will become Countess, Lady Grantham: queen of the county, presiding over your little kingdom at the sufferance of your lord. It is a great honour, Mary: you should be grateful. You will be groomed for this your whole life and you will make your father proud. Come here and give your Papa a kiss; now off to bed with you.
But Matthew, he saw her: her true self. He saw through her deceptions and her pretences, her armour and her attacks. He saw her pain and it hurt him, too. Whenever she thought of men in general, of how tedious or predictable or boorish or generally infuriating they were, some part of her always remembered but Matthew isn't like that… She would acknowledge it and then brush it aside and continue on in her generalisation: but everyone else was. How had Matthew so thoroughly wormed his way past her defences? Hadn't they always disliked each other? And then they had begun to share looks of instant understanding across the dinner table, and to laugh together. He was well-read, able to meet each challenge she'd posed him, and she each one that he'd volleyed back. There was a shared love of literature and an equal interest in dissecting it. He could be an uncomfortably acute observer of character.
The way he saw the world was maddening at times, but on later reflection she always found her heart tugged, sometimes unwillingly, to acknowledge that perhaps he was right. What he valued had true value: it was not propped up merely by centuries of tradition and unquestioning acceptance. He thought about the world; he had strong convictions; he wasn't afraid to speak them out even if it put him at a disadvantage. Yes, he could be frightfully naïve and a prig, but the more she'd gotten to know him, the more she had come to respect him. He even accepted correction well: she'd seen her father take him to task, and Matthew had borne up under it with surprising poise for so middle-class a person. She would be hard pressed to name half a dozen men of her acquaintance, lords or heirs all, whom she could imagine responding with such grace to correction. For all their airs and graces, Matthew was the true gentleman, and this realisation shocked her. How far from a true noblewoman she was!
She burned with broken shame in the rush of all these thoughts, in the heartbeats after their lips parted. His warm forehead rested against hers and she felt his breath run across her open lips. His breathing was heavy and quick. He swallowed and licked his lips, pulling back, and she immediately felt the loss of his warmth. He grasped her hands in his own, resting his forearms on his knees as he leaned nearer again. His eyes sought out hers, which she raised to meet his only reluctantly, because she feared that he would see her secret exposed in them. God, his eyes were so beautiful. She almost cringed away in her feeling of intense unworthiness.
"Marry me," he breathed.
She blinked. Had she just heard him correctly? Had he really just proposed? Disbelief, elation, internal mockery at how ludicrous it was to think that she had truly heard him correctly, a mad and wild hope, anger, and helpless frustration all rose at once and warred within her. If she'd had to marry Patrick without a choice in the matter, then by God he was going to propose properly to her: she was going to have a perfectly impressive ring, and he was going down on one knee to say the right words and make her a formal and unambiguous offer that she would imperiously accept while looking down at him—probably her one opportunity to do so. That was what she had imagined: a scene of the utmost propriety and the brief sense of being worth at least a proper proposal. Love didn't enter into it; it was the due of a Lady and she would have it that way and he would not deny her.
But Patrick was dead, lost with the Titanic, and here Matthew was, sitting in a chair opposite her with his mouth hanging open like a guppy and not even asking her, for God's sake, but commanding her. No knee, no ring, no proper words, no permission from her father, and no warning.
"After only one kiss?" she demanded in disbelief, her voice suddenly sharp and hard in the stillness of the room.
Matthew, infuriatingly, smiled in what she could only think of as a very male way, and said, "Do you require another?" as he leaned back in to claim her lips once more.
Her righteous indignation took a back seat at the prospect of tasting him again, and now his grip on her hands tightened and relaxed in time with the rhythm of his kiss and her fingers slipped between his, brushing against his warm skin. She slid her fingertips up his wrists and under the edges of his cuffs; his palms cupped her wrists by the time their mouths broke apart. She paused to catch her breath, her eyes falling to fix on the sight of her fingertips hidden beneath his shirt, resting against the soft, light hairs peeking out from under the cuffs.
"Well?" he asked, his voice a low rumble that made her shiver pleasantly. She swallowed.
"It's all…very sudden," she managed, stalling, dreading, wanting so badly and yet dying inside as she knew that she would never have. God, she didn't deserve him. What was she doing, leading him on in this…achingly pleasurable…way? She couldn't accept him without telling him about Kemal, but she recoiled from the very idea of doing so. She would be horribly exposed and he would despise her. She couldn't bear to see the warmth in his eyes turn to cold and righteous censure as he pulled away from her, never to return. She needed distance so she could think.
Matthew saw Mary withdrawing even as she clutched his wrists, and he immediately felt an idiot for pressuring her so suddenly like this. His proposal had made perfect sense to him in the moment, but they had run from cold to hot without warning. He had not courted her properly. Of course she couldn't feel for him yet as intensely as he felt for her; he'd been aware of his attraction to her for nigh on two years now and had grown accustomed to its near-daily presence. But what did she feel? Had she even wanted to kiss him this evening or had he imposed himself on her?
No—not that: her response had been unmistakable. But perhaps her attraction to him was a recent, tentative thing. He should treat it as fragile and not trample on her so thoughtlessly.
"I'm sorry! Of course you needn't answer right now," he assured her, loosening his grip on her wrists and sitting back slightly. "I can wait for as long as you need."
Mary's eyes widened as she considered the escape that he was offering. She could tell him that she needed to think about it—Hah! something inside of her scoffed—and then she wouldn't have to tell him about Kemal yet. She could wait, she could figure something out, perhaps talk to her mother, or to Granny, and ask for their advice. She could get the distance she suddenly both dreaded and craved.
She wanted to stand up and draw this evening to a close—she had so much to consider!—but as she turned the possibilities over in her mind, she knew with a heavy, sinking feeling that there was no way out of this hell she had created for herself, no advice that anyone else could give her that would make this easier to navigate. Either she must refuse him or she must tell him and then he would refuse her. Delay would achieve nothing except to inflict further pain on them both. Not telling him was not an option; she could not catch him with a lie. Her stomach tightened and lurched and she felt a sudden welling of hot tears, which she quickly covered with her hands, pulling them abruptly from his grasp to do so.
She heard his soft inhalation of breath, his shock. "I'm sorry—I'm so sorry, Mary, please…please forgive me. I'm new at this," she heard him say, a rising tremor at the end of his words.
Oh God, he was apologising to her.
"I can't—" she choked out, her own voice breaking. Her hands were pressed against her face to hide her tears, but it was a fruitless endeavour, if she were to be honest. Honest, how laughable. This thought brought about a new burn of tears. Her eyes and throat stung from the effort of preventing them falling.
Matthew waited for her in agonised silence, until he finally asked, "You can't—what?" He dreaded hearing her answer.
She shook her head, her hands still covering her face. "I'm no good for you," she whispered.
He couldn't believe what he had heard. Lady Mary Crawley not good enough for him? He nearly laughed out loud at the very idea, but he stopped before he wounded her or made an even greater fool of himself.
He ran his fingers along the edges of her hands, trying to convince her to draw them away from her lovely face so that he could get a clear look at her. He had made her cry, which was the last thing that he ever expected the cool Lady Mary to do, and he felt a right brute.
"What are you talking about?" he asked. "Of course you're good enough for me! I'm a middle-class lawyer, for goodness' sake. I should never have presumed—"
"No," she cut him off, dropping one hand to flutter briefly against his knee before pulling it back as though burned. She tried to wipe at her eyes with her other hand, but she couldn't catch all of her tears.
The sight stabbed his chest with a thousand tiny pinpricks of shame. What could he do? He settled for the first reasonable thought that occurred to him and he reached back to fish his handkerchief out of his pocket. He held it out to her, a white flag in an inadequate peace-offering.
"Here," he said. She gave a soft breath of a laugh and took it, pressing her hands once more to her face.
"I'm sorry," she said, sitting up and straightening her back as she dried her eyes. "I don't know what came over me."
His eyes narrowed. "I find that hard to believe."
Her gaze shot up to him and he was surprised to discover shame in her eyes. No; he must have been mistaken.
She let out another bitter laugh and dropped her hands to her lap in frustration. "Perhaps I do know, then, but I can't—" she broke off.
"You can't what?"
"I can't speak of it."
He reached for her hands again, one still clutching the dampened handkerchief. "Yes, you can," he said. "Or aren't we friends enough for that?"
"Oh, Matthew! Have we ever truly been friends?"
He had no answer to that.
She shook her head, trying to draw her hands away from his. He let her go.
"Is that a no, then?" he pushed out through a painfully tight throat, sure that once he was out of her presence he wouldn't be able to stop his own tears. All his efforts were for naught again, but this time the wounds were so deep that he felt an almost physical pain in his chest. It was a good thing that the path to Crawley House was dark and generally deserted at this time of night.
"No, it's not," she said quickly, leaning towards him when he turned in his chair to stand up. Her eyes were wide and filled with pain, and it arrested him. She wasn't playing, he realised. She was struggling with something. He turned back to her again, his body tense, afraid of another blow.
"What is it then, Mary?"
After a long moment of staring at him in silence, she suddenly stood up and moved away from him. "I can't tell you!"
He rose to follow her. "Why not?" he demanded.
"Because you would despise me and that I could not bear!" Her back was still to him.
He couldn't imagine ever despising this maddening, beautiful woman. He took a step closer to her and laid a hand on her upper arm. He felt her tremble through the thin fabric.
"Even so, please tell me," he said. Although she remained silent before him, she did not move away from his touch. "Let me share your burden, Mary, please."
His words seemed to break something in her and she spun round to face him, her eyes flashing. "You can't share my burden, Matthew! It's my shame to bear!"
"I already am sharing it, Mary."
The truth of his words cut her to the quick and her eyes widened. Oh God, he was right. The moment she'd kissed him, she had dragged him into her circle of hell. He could no more escape the repercussions of her foolishness now than she could. If she stopped now, she would be wounding him more deeply than she ever had before. But if she pressed forward and told him the truth, would it hurt him even more? She didn't know the answer, and she hated this moment with every fibre of her being. Why, oh why, had she ever flirted with Kemal? He had meant nothing to her, and he had imposed himself on her, and she was angry at him even though he was dead.
Dead! As irrational as she knew it to be, she couldn't shake the feeling that she was cursed, that Kemal had died because of her, that there was something terribly wrong with her, and that Matthew could suffer the same fate at her hands. It was utterly ridiculous, and yet it filled her with an awful panic. Matthew didn't deserve such a fate! She had to stop him coming any closer; surely breaking it off with him now would be the more humane course to take. As she opened her mouth to say the words that would end this beautiful, terrible evening, he stepped close to her, put his hands on her shoulders, and pressed a soft kiss to her forehead. The gesture was so like Papa's from her childhood that a sob rose suddenly in her throat and her resolve fled. A feeling of safety and protection tried to flood through her even as she trembled from the force of her fear.
"I love you, Mary," Matthew said. "I would never—I could never—despise you."
She stared up at him with wide eyes. First a kiss—such a kiss!—then a proposal, and now this? She felt her knees weaken in shock and she quickly placed her hands on his chest to steady herself.
"Tell me, Mary, please."
She wanted to protest, to dodge, to avoid, to run away and never wound him again, but she couldn't hide from him any longer. He had laid himself bare before her; it was only right for her to do the same. If he rejected her, she would understand. She would accept her fate, because she could not change it. She never could.
"I took a lover. Kemal Pamuk," she forced out, squaring her shoulders and lifting her chin. Shock froze Matthew's features, but she pressed on. "And he died…" she choked, her posture deflating, "…in my bed."
All her fears were confirmed when she felt Matthew's hands drop away from where they had rested on her upper arms, the uncovered skin now cold. He took a step back from her and her hands fell away from his chest. She felt alone and exposed. She did not pursue him as he backed further away; she did not beg him for forgiveness; she did not cry anew. Now that the words were out there between them, she felt a strange sense of relief. Her fate was fixed; all rested in Matthew's hands now. She would know one way or the other by the end of this evening if she would live with a broken heart or a whole one, as she realised in a blinding flash that she never quite felt wholly herself when Matthew wasn't nearby. In these last months, she'd missed him acutely, so much more than she would miss a mere friend. She had been right earlier: he had never been just her friend. Without her knowing quite how, he had become someone far dearer and more necessary to her than that.
She realised all of this with a clarity of truth that brought with it a strange peace, even as she watched his shocked face and waited.
His features were frozen as he took in what she had told him. He was no doubt imagining the events of that awful night. She wanted to reassure him but had nothing to offer, so she remained silent. He had been willing to wait for her answer earlier; she could do him the same courtesy now, even though her skin crawled in fearful anticipation.
He turned his back on her and stepped further away and her heart fell. Her breathing felt too loud in the silence. She would lose him. It was no more than she deserved, but she was still struck by the terrible unfairness of it all. How foolish she'd been, a mere girl. She felt miles away now from the girl she had been then, even though the events had occurred only a few rooms away from where they now stood.
Matthew stood staring at the wall before him in shock, unable to stop the flood of unwanted images that Mary's words had elicited. His chest felt tight. As much as it stung to realise that he wouldn't be her first lover, her words worried him: the Turkish diplomat had died in her bed. How awful it must have been for her, for this to be her first experience of sexual intimacy!
Was it her first experience?
Matthew's blood ran cold.
But Lord, what if Pamuk wasn't her first? Matthew wondered, anger rising in him. What if there were others? This sort of thing is commonplace amongst the upper classes, isn't it?
All of those cold, businesslike marriages, arranged for fortune and title rather than love: he disapproved of them. Even His Majesty King Edward seemed to have kept a number of mistresses, if the speculation in the papers was to be believed, and that sort of behaviour encouraged others to follow suit, as if it were a matter of course. The prospect left a sour taste in Matthew's mouth, but what did he know? Far more disturbing was the personal notion of Mary—of Robert's family—involved in such indiscretions.
No; not Robert. He was a kind master and a man of integrity. Matthew had never seen the merest hint of such an inclination and couldn't imagine Robert doing so distasteful a thing. And Mary?—Matthew's heart rebelled at the very thought.
But her life makes her angry, doesn't it? Wouldn't taking a lover be a way for her escape her frustration?
Matthew frowned, recalling her words at the village fair more than a year earlier. Women like me don't have a life. We choose clothes and pay calls and work for charity and do the Season, but really, we're stuck in a waiting room until we marry.
No, he thought. Mary wouldn't take a lover merely to escape her frustration and boredom, would she? No... He'd thought he knew her better than that, but before this night, they hadn't exchanged more than a mere handful of words in months. It was laughable to think that he knew her at all. He only knew what he wished to be true.
Mary watched Matthew turn round part way and her breath caught in her throat. He seemed to be warring with himself. She wanted to cry out and demand a response from him, but she held her tongue. She owed him that courtesy, at least.
He finally settled on a thought. "Why?"
This was not what she was expecting. She had no answer.
Matthew looked at her. "Did you love him?"
"You mustn't try to—"
"Because if it was love—"
"How could it be love? I didn't know him!"
"Then why would you—"
"It was lust, Matthew!" His expression shifted in some unnameable way at this, but Mary pressed on. "Or a need for excitement or something in him that I—oh God, what difference does it make? I'm Tess of the d'Urbervilles to your Angel Clare. I have fallen. I'm no good for you!"
"Don't joke! Don't make yourself into something you're not, not when I'm trying to understand!"
Mary paused, her heart thudding in her chest. Had she heard him correctly? She focussed on him again. "Thank you for that. But the fact remains that I am made different by it. Things have changed between us."
Matthew looked at her. "Have they?"
Mary stared at him in disbelief. "How could they not?"
"Because I know you, Mary. This is not you."
Oh no, he was in denial. No, no, no. She must not allow him to ignore it. "But it is! I did it! I am impure!"
His face flashed with sudden anger. "Don't say that!"
"But it's true!"
He stepped swiftly towards her and clasped her upper arms again, the pressure of his hands underlining the importance that he gave his words. "Listen to me, Mary." His voice was low and rough. "You are not defined by one act. Perhaps you made a mistake, but you are more than the mistake!"
She shook her head. "This act does define me. I cannot escape that fact."
"Everyone is impure; we live in a fallen world."
She glared at him. "Don't quote Scripture at me."
He sighed. "Why do you let this one act define you?"
She stared at him, her frustration rising. It wasn't merely a matter of letting anything happen: it just did. She had recurring nightmares of being trapped under Kemal's dead body. Her own body would forever hold the memory of his touch. And worse even than her private shame, somehow—she didn't know how—there were whispers in London that she was not virtuous. People looked at her differently and closed their doors to her. Why couldn't Matthew understand that she couldn't help being defined by this one act?
She shook her head and looked away from him.
"Do you think I am without sin?" he asked.
She pulled her shoulders free, disbelieving. How could he be so blind? She couldn't imagine the righteous Matthew Crawley doing anything to compare to her own fall. Her voice was laced with sharp, mocking edges. "So you've given yourself to a woman whom you cared nothing for and even tried to refuse?"
She frowned. Had she been right with her mocking barb? Suddenly the image of him in the arms of another woman filled her mouth with ashes and her stomach with pain, as her whole body screamed a protest. Dear God, this must be only a fraction of his own response to her confession, for hers was not imagined. She turned away, unable to face him any longer.
He came swiftly round beside her until he faced her and he took hold of her upper arms again, but this time the pressure was uncomfortable. She stared at him in shock as he bent to fix her in a gaze that was suddenly unbearably intense.
"Mary, did he force you?"
She shook her head and looked away. She'd chosen to give herself to Kemal; the fault was entirely hers.
"But you tried to refuse him?" Matthew's grip tightened further and she gasped and glared at him.
"You're hurting me," she said.
He let go of her instantly, apology in his expression before he fixed that gaze on her again. "Tell me what happened," he said, his tone suddenly cool.
She balked at the prospect. He wanted her to relive that awful night?
"Because I need to understand, Mary."
"But you do understand! I've told you everything that matters!"
"No," his eyes softened. "You haven't."
"Stop saying that! I'm not virtuous. I'm—"
"Mary," his voice took on a commanding tone that surprised her and again reminded her eerily of her father. Then Matthew's voice quieted. "A woman without virtue would not feel shame as you do. Her eyes would not be filled with such pain as I see in yours." His hand came up to touch the side of her face with aching gentleness.
She still could not let him avoid the truth; playing games with the word 'virtue' would not erase her past. She chose a word that would allow him no ambiguity. "I am no longer a virgin, Matthew. Don't play with me. I don't deserve it, not from you."
To her surprise, a small smile tugged at his lips before he became serious again. "I'm not playing with you and I'm not denying the facts of what you're telling me. I'm just not convinced of your interpretation of them. I can't reconcile the woman I see standing before me with the one you seem to see yourself as."
"Because you are not that woman, Mary. You are warm, clever, strong—"
He did laugh this time. "Yes."
Now she was affronted. "You agree so easily with that!"
"I've been a fool, too, Mary."
"Yes?" she snapped, sceptical that it could compare to her folly. "About what?"
"'They're clearly going to push one of the daughters at me!'" he quoted, with as affronted an expression as he could manage.
She actually giggled, surprising herself.
"I'm so glad you pushed in," he said softly, his other hand coming up to cup her elbow. She still clutched his handkerchief against her stomach, and she bumped her knuckles affectionately against his suit coat. His eyes rested on the side of her face, following the path of his hand as he moved it up to her temple. His fingers found a tendril of hair there to brush against. She closed her eyes, feeling tingling warmth at his touch, and swallowed hard. Strong, was she? She didn't feel it. She felt weak and weary and unworthy of his love.
"He pushed in," she said in nearly a whisper, and she felt Matthew's fingers still against her skin. Swallowing again, she opened her eyes and met his. They encouraged her to continue. "I don't know how he found my room, how he even knew which one was mine."
Matthew's eyebrows rose. Even he had no idea which room was hers; that oversight was intentional and entirely a good idea, in his opinion. He could only imagine what he'd be tempted to do otherwise.
"I was reading and suddenly, there he was." Her gaze fell into the middle distance.
Matthew rested his hand against the curve of her neck and waited for her to continue. She pressed through the rest of her story in a rush:
"I asked him to leave. He refused. I threatened to scream—" Matthew's fingers tightened at these words and then he relaxed them. "—and he said that it was too late: even if I screamed, a man would still be discovered in my bedroom and my reputation would still be tarnished." The black expression that took over Matthew's face shocked her, but his gentle fingers encouraged her to continue. "So I let him. Do what he wanted. And I kissed him back." Her face twisted at the memory. Kemal hadn't been violent, but he had been focussed on what he wanted from her. She hadn't been ready, she'd been a little afraid, and the unexpected pleasure that she'd experienced had faded too quickly after he had collapsed on top of her. She shuddered. "So you see, I am at fault."
"No!" The word escaped Matthew in a rush and he pulled her against his chest. "No, he took terrible advantage of you!" His arms tightened around her and after a moment of resistance, she relaxed into his embrace. He was so unlike Kemal! Matthew's hold was comforting, not demanding. "He was no gentleman. You must not blame yourself."
"But I let him—"
"You felt trapped. It was rape, Mary."
She pulled back in shock. "But he never forced me!"
"Physical force is not the only kind of coercion."
She trembled and leaned against him, only now realising that he was trembling as well. She moved her arms up to hold him in return and she felt him sigh. She marvelled at this moment: she had never expected anything close to this kind of response. Her best hope had been that he would look at her with disgust and ask for time to think about it. Then he might return days? weeks? later with a stern acceptance of her shame, which she would spend the rest of her days atoning for. Yet here he stood, holding her close, his breath stirring her hair, absolving her of all guilt. His words made her doubt herself, but she wasn't sure how to feel yet. She didn't feel comfortable with absolution.
"So I take it he died after…" his voice was rough.
She hated reliving this. She hated it. "During."
He shuddered, but did not release her.
"Oh God, Mary, I'm so sorry."
There was nothing she could say to that, so she just tightened her arms around him for a moment and he answered her in kind. She didn't want to talk about this any more. She never wanted to talk about it again. She wanted to put it behind her. It had been looming heavily over her future for far too long. Speaking of which…
"So does this mean you've forgiven me?" she asked.
She felt him shake his head against hers. "No, I haven't forgiven you."
Surprised and disappointed, she pulled away. "Well, then."
"Mary! Mary," he called her back and she looked at him in confusion. "I haven't forgiven you because I don't believe you need my forgiveness."
She fought back a fresh desire to burst into tears, but now for an entirely different reason. God, this man! How could he do this to her? She was lost to him, she…loved him, terribly. She smiled at him through eyes that were blurred around the edges.
"So will you?" he asked, drawing closer to her with a smile.
She frowned for a moment, blinking, and then realised what he was asking. Schooling her features to hide the jolt of delight, she stepped back and smoothed out her dress, one hand still clutching his handkerchief. She went over and laid it on the sideboard, then turned back to him. She needed to do this properly.
"Are you sure?" she asked. "Because I might make a terrible wife for a country solicitor."
He smiled and shook his head, slipping his hands into the pockets of his trousers in a smugly self-assured way. "You'll be magnificent."
She quirked an eyebrow at him. "That seems a rather grandiose word to describe such a position."
"It doesn't describe the position," he said. "It describes you."
She tried not to blush and failed. How could he still see her this way after everything he now knew about her? She tried again to be sensible, since he clearly wasn't capable of it.
"What if I can't be happy living a middle-class life?" she persisted. "What if I start to resent you for not being able to maintain me in the manner to which I am accustomed?"
He regarded her seriously, pursing his lips as he nodded. "Do you think that is likely to happen?"
She thought about it for a long moment. What would she be giving up, really? Dressing for dinner every night? A full wardrobe of perfectly-tailored, fashionable clothes? Enough servants to fill a mansion? A succession of tedious social calls where everyone constantly sized up everyone else? She'd told him not long ago that her life made her angry and it did. What would she be gaining if she joined him in his? Could his companionship and affection really compensate for all that would necessarily change for her? And what of…children? What kind of mother would he expect her to be?
Slight trepidation filled her: middle-class families did not usually have nannies and governesses, she thought. Actually, now that Mary considered it, she didn't know how many household staff they could expect to employ on his salary and she balked at the idea of cleaning and cooking herself. She knew nothing about how to do either and she suddenly felt intensely useless. What had she been learning to do the whole of her life? Speak French and discuss fashion and direct servants? Of what practical use was that? She couldn't run her own home without help, not yet at least, but if she married him, would she be expected to?
Then she relaxed a little: she recalled that Mrs Bird had arrived at Crawley House with Matthew and his mother; they had had a cook, at least. And given Isobel's preoccupation with the hospital, they had likely had a maid as well. Molesley seemed to be a fine butler, in addition to being Matthew's valet. He was no Carson, of course, but Carson belonged at Downton. Mary started to relax a little, but she was still uncertain. Would Matthew expect her to move to Crawley House? She balked at the prospect of living with Isobel. Perhaps it would be easier to convince him to move into Downton.
"I don't know," she said. Matthew nodded and looked down for a moment. Mary felt intensely awkward, not wanting to leave him in such a place. "…but I don't think so," she finished.
He looked up at her with a smile. "A wise answer."
"What about you?" she asked. "I haven't always treated you as well as you deserve. I can't promise not to make that same mistake again. Can you live with me without coming to resent me?"
He tilted his head and looked at her for a long moment. Just as she began to feel a dart of uncertainty, he took a step towards her. "I don't know for certain," he replied. "…but I think so. On one condition."
She arched an eyebrow. "And that is?"
"Be honest with me. Always."
She smiled and nodded.
The grin that lit up his face was beautiful. "So you will?" he asked, taking another step closer.
She lifted her chin. "Matthew, I won't give you an answer unless you say it properly, kneel down, and everything."
He chuckled and shook his head in wry disbelief.
"Honestly, I'm a bit disappointed," she confessed, trying to hide an insistent smile.
His grin disappeared. "By what?"
"You've been avoiding me for almost eight months, and then you propose to me after just one kiss. Have you taken leave of your senses?"
He exhaled a brief laugh and then sobered. "No, I haven't taken leave of my senses. When a man feels about a woman as I feel about you, he proposes."
"Without a reasonable delay?" She spoke archly although his words had sent a pleasurable tingle throughout her body. But she wasn't about to give him any ground.
"And just what would be a reasonable delay?" he retorted, raising his eyebrows as he made a final step to stand directly in front of her.
Mary cast about for an answer and couldn't think of one, not if he felt for her half as much as she felt for him. God, she would marry him tonight if she could, and a thrill shot through her at this realisation.
He took her silence for the concession that it was and tilted his head in satisfaction.
"You accused me before of not being fastidious about doing things properly, but I am. Very much so. Just not about unimportant things like wine in water glasses."
Mary smirked. "If you're so fastidious, why are you still on your feet?"
He fixed her in a look of affectionate reproof and then took a step back, pulling his hands out of his pockets. She felt something squeeze in her chest as he lowered himself to one knee before her and took both of her hands in his own. He tilted his face up to hers and she couldn't prevent herself grinning this time. His smile grew to match and he began, with a slight tremor in his voice, "Lady Mary Crawley…" He suddenly looked down, bashful, and then met her eyes again. "Would you do me the honour of becoming my wife?"
Her heart took flight, even as his hands held her to the earth.
He rose immediately and beamed at her for a moment, until she reached up and drew him down to kiss him thoroughly. His arms came round her waist and when she broke the kiss, he hugged her so tightly that when he straightened up, he lifted her feet off the floor. She clutched his back and felt a giggle bubble up despite her ribcage being partially crushed. He buried his face in her shoulder and laughed, then eased her back down until she stood before him again.
"I'll speak with your father first thing tomorrow." His eyes twinkled. "I want to do this properly."
Oh God, her family. They were all going to be crowing. Then she gave a mental shrug. Before this evening, the thought of conforming to the fitness of things, of doing what was expected of her, would have set her hackles up, but somehow, now…it didn't matter. She knew her own heart, she knew what she wanted, and she was ready to take on the changes that it would bring. Who knew what the future held? She was so glad that now she looked forward to it instead of being indifferent to it or dreading it.
He loved her!