It's been so long since he's heard from her that he doesn't even recognize her number when it appears on his phone.
Her contact information has undoubtedly disappeared several mobiles ago. Maybe he should feel a bit guilty about that, given how close they'd been in their younger years, but they hadn't even seen one another in ages. He heard news about her every once in a while from his mother or perhaps from Robert, but nothing more than that.
Things had just never worked out between them. He had befriended Patrick Crawley at school, thrown together by their similar last names despite seemingly no relation between them, and had frequently taken the train from Manchester to York and back to visit one another during holidays. Patrick always seemed eager to get away, and Matthew could see why. James Crawley was an intimidating man.
However, when Matthew would visit York, the boys tended to spend more time with Patrick's cousins, Robert and Cora, and their three daughters. They owned a sprawling estate and despite their obvious wealth, weren't snobbish towards him. Without a father of his own, Matthew found himself drawn to Robert. Perhaps he was just pleased to have someone genuinely interested in his impressive library and historic house, but nevertheless they bonded. Even when Patrick became entangled with a rather wild friend group and he and Matthew drifted apart, Matthew would find himself still in contact with the older man, and Robert would make a point of stopping in Manchester on his way from London to York to visit Matthew and his mother when Matthew began university there. Even when James and Patrick were killed in a boating accident two years later, they kept in touch.
When Matthew finished his medicine-focused degree and decided that he would not follow in the footsteps of his parents and instead pursue a career in law, Robert shocked him by not only putting a word in at Oxford but by paying a significant portion of his tuition. He had tried to protest, but Robert had quickly waived him off, insisting that it was only the money from Patrick's trust that would have been spent on education, anyways.
And so he was permanently tied to the Crawley family, even if he sometimes wished for some distance.
Mary had been fourteen when they'd first met, and just as haughty and self-righteous as any girl that age could be. She'd made it quite clear she thought Matthew was mind-numbingly dull and had no use for him. She was a child, in his eyes, and he had no qualms about avoiding her. But when he'd visited the Crawleys after his third year of university, things had already begun to change. Mary was entering into university herself, and much matured. Their regular exchange of barbs and witticisms evolved into flirtations, and as time went on, intense attraction.
But despite many heated kisses and mutual attraction and affection, Mary had decided that she wasn't ready to settle into a serious relationship. At least, Matthew knew, not with a man of his standing. She was spending her weekends partying on the yachts of millionaires' children while Matthew was entrenched in his studies and working as a gofer in a law office to pay the rent.
After so much back-and-forth just to get them here, Matthew wasn't eager to get his heart broken again. And so when she had finished her undergraduate degree and began showing interest in him again, he had rebuffed her.
He started seeing Lavinia shortly afterwards. When he took her back to Downton at Christmas to meet them all, determined not to make a fool of himself, he quickly put his foot in it by assuming the unknown man there to be a friend or colleague of Robert's.
Not Mary's new beau.
While Lavinia was eager to make friends and gain their approval (too eager, sometimes to his embarrassment), Richard Carlisle seemed quite content to sit in a corner and read the paper, often failing to even acknowledge them, despite Mary's best efforts to drag him into a conversation. He'd cautiously brought up the topic of Richard to Robert when they were alone, and was rewarded with a dry, exasperated look.
"Are you sure you and Mary can't make another go of it?" Robert had half-pleaded. "That man is my age."
"I think Mary and I are a lost cause," he had said simply before changing the subject. "And you seem to have forgotten that I'm with Lavinia."
That didn't stop him, however, from bickering with Mary, the tension between them increasing until they found themselves unexpectedly alone in the library one afternoon. It was only Carlisle's distant call for Mary that broke him apart. She broke away, shooting him a panicked, horrified look and then darted out of the room. They didn't speak for the rest of the trip.
Isobel was the one to inform him a year later of the break between Mary and Carlisle.
"You should see how she's doing," Isobel had encouraged.
Matthew had only responded with, "why?"
He and Lavinia moved in together, despite Matthew's better judgement and the feelings of longing he had around Mary. Lavinia was wonderful, beautiful, kind, but he was bored. In some ways, every night together felt like a first date, plagued with small talk and politeness.
Time had passed. Mary, a minor aristocrat, heiress, and frequent freelance writer at high-end fashion magazines, was dubbed a socialite by the press and would occasionally appear in the papers as a subject of gossip after fashion week or being seen with a new man. Both occasions happened frequently. Matthew began work as a lawyer, quickly moving up the ranks. Robert had even offered to call in a favour to the law firm his own company dealt with, which Matthew was reluctant to accept on nepotism grounds. Robert had countered with mention of his frequent promotions and desire to have a competent and knowledgable lawyer on his team. Matthew had yet to give his answer.
As slowly as it had taken Lavinia to establish herself in his life, she had begun to remove herself from it at the same pace. Things had been disintegrating between them, and while he knew he'd never treated her poorly, he also knew that he hadn't been as invested as he should have been. The end was inevitable, but neither one was able to make a break of it. It was like the removal of a very slow, very painful bandage.
Matthew didn't read much of tabloids, but any time he was online he seemed to see a photo of Mary with yet another man, some actor or heir or athlete, rarely the same one twice. Even after all this time, he felt a hot burst of jealousy at the sight.
And so now, months later, when Matthew's personal mobile rang in the middle of a work day with an unknown number, the last person he had expected to hear from was Mary. He'd spent so many years dodging her and keeping his distance that he had to stop himself from reflexively hanging up.
"I'm sorry to bother you," she said immediately.
"Not at all," he was quick to reassure. A moment of silence followed, and he nearly snapped at her impatiently before she makes a small, nearly imperceptible sound. A sniffle. "What's wrong?"
"Mary, you're scaring me. Tell me now."
He could hear it, then, in her voice. The shaking. The genuine distraught. "I...um. I need your help. I didn't know who else to call..."
"Of course," he said quickly. "Anything you need. What can I do to help?"
There was another long pause. "Could you come over after work tonight? Don't rush over, I just...I'd rather have this conversation in-person. I'll text you my address?"
It felt rather like he was about to dive into the lion's den. It had been years, he wasn't afraid of his own wayward feelings any longer. But things had never quite been the same with Mary after their disastrous relationship. Surely it couldn't be wise to become entangled in her life again.
"Alright. I'll be there by seven."
"I'm sorry to send you running over here in a panic. I just...couldn't talk about it over the phone."
He was sitting on her sofa, watching as she poured them each a glass of wine and brought them over. For as long as he could remember, she had always appeared to him perfectly dressed and styled as though ready for a photograph to be taken of her at any moment, even before she had established herself in the public eye.
Now, she wore her hair in a lose ponytail, barefoot and in a pair of jeans. Jeans. She sat across from him in the armchair, refusing to meet his gaze.
"Would you please tell me what's going on? Why did you contact me? Me, of all people? You really have me worried, just tell me what's going on."
"Kemal Pamuk," she said abruptly, staring into her wine glass but not speaking. "Have you heard of him?"
Matthew hesitated. "Pamuk? Sort of. He's some sort of businessman, I think."
Mary rolled her eyes. "His father is a hedge fund manager, his company is work billions. He works for him. We had a fling on holiday in the Caribbean, it's been all over the papers."
"Not the sort of papers I read," he replied pointedly. It had been a frequent point of bickering for them, how out of touch Matthew was with the less-severe news of the world.
"Right. Well, it was just that. A fling. That's all. I broke it off when we got back to England but he..."
Mary stared so intensely into her glass of wine Matthew was surprised it didn't start to boil. "He what, Mary?"
"He messaged me two weeks ago. While we were on holiday, he...he filmed us. Having...having sex. I didn't know he did it, I never would have agreed..." He must have looked revolted, because she immediately sat forward, setting aside her untouched glass. "You have to believe me, please, Matthew. Please. I never would have..."
"I know," he said at last, surprised when he meant it. "I know you wouldn't have. Christ, what a deplorable thing for him to do."
She reached across the distance to take his hand, squeezing it tightly. "I haven't told anyone. I've been in terror. He's...threatened to release it. Post it on the internet, send it to some disgusting tabloid, I don't know. I don't even know what he wants. Money, notoriety...he hasn't really demanded anything. I think he's just enjoyed lording it over my head. Just the thought of it being out there, ready to be exposed at any moment...I can't bear it, Matthew."
"Of course not," he soothed. "Of course not."
"I don't know what you can do. If you can do anything. Probably not, I've done my research. Not until he actually posts it online, and by then it's too late. Even posting it, there doesn't seem to be much to be done. But I...you're a lawyer, is there anything...? You're the only one I can trust with this."
"Are you sure he's telling the truth?"
Mary sniffled. "He sent me a clip of it. I'm sure."
"I don't know if there's anything to be done, legally. But I will look into it, I promise."
"I can pay you," she said raggedly. "I don't expect you to...I know we're not close anymore, I'm not expecting you to do this for free, of course."
"We're not close anymore," he agreed. "But we're still friends. This is a favour, I wouldn't dream of charging you. Best to keep it off the books and out of the office's files, I think. The fewer people know, the less chance of this getting out. It's just between you and me."
Mary released his hand and immediately pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes. She was entirely silent, but Matthew knew she was sobbing.
Perhaps, if he cared for her any less, had been any more of a vindictive man, he might feel some smugness over how far her superiority complex had fallen due to this. But he could only feel revulsion for Pamuk and agony for what Mary must have been feeling.
"Hey," he said, gently reaching out and tugging on her forearms. She didn't take her hands away from her face, but let herself be pulled from the chair and onto the sofa beside him. Matthew wrapped his arms around her and rested his cheek on her hair. "It will be alright. We'll figure it out. I'll do everything I can, Mary. I promise."
It took her some time to compose herself, but once she did, she pulled out of his arms, wiping the smeared mascara from her face and self-consciously smoothing her hair. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. Why don't you show me everything he's sent you since you first got in contact. Everything. Texts, emails, notes. Print them off. I'll go through those and I want you to find everything you can that he's posted on social media during and after you two were together."
"My God," Matthew said two nights later, repulsed by the report Mary has just handed him. "He's certainly been linked to a lot of women. I wonder if he's done this to anyone else."
"I should have known better," Mary said miserably, settling onto the floor beside Matthew, where he's spread dozens of sheets of paper out in front of him. "I'm so stupid. He's slept with every woman in existence, I should have known he was bad news."
"You consented to a brief fling on holiday, that isn't a crime," Matthew replied firmly. "You didn't consent to this. I don't want to hear you blame yourself again. Pamuk is the guilty party here, not you."
Mary was silent for a moment. "I don't even know why I'm so upset. The media already thinks I'm a slut, what difference would this tape make?"
"The difference is that your privacy has been breached in a disgusting way," he snapped. "No one deserves that, regardless of any media reputation, positive or negative."
"I feel violated," she confessed quietly. "I got his first message and was sick."
He turned to look at her. She looked terribly small and weary, nothing like the Mary he knew, the one that oozed confidence and was always quick with a snarky comeback. He reached across the map of papers and squeezed her hand. "We'll figure it out," he vowed. "I don't know if we can legally pursue this. He hasn't technically committed a crime because he hasn't posted it yet, and suing him for possession of it would bring it to media attention, and then he'd have an open market for perverts looking to buy it. I don't want that."
"I don't want that either. So we can't do anything? He can just...hold it over my head like that? Post it under some anonymous name and pretend he was hacked? Oh my God..."
"All's not lost," Matthew was quick to assure. "We're just going to have to be a bit sneaky about this. I was thinking about calling my friend, Tom. He's good with computers. He might be able to give us some information that we wouldn't be able gain for ourselves. You said he sent you a clip from the video, right? Tom might be able to trace that back to something. I don't know, but I think it's worth a shot."
"I don't want anyone else to be involved in this," she said defensively. "I came to you because you're the only one I trust with this."
"Mary," he said gently. "I trust Tom with my life. He won't say a word. He's a passionate advocate and staunch supporter of anyone who has ever been wronged, he'll be on your side."
He saw the hesitation in her eyes but felt a wave of relief when she nodded. He could never admit it, but he was afraid. Without him publishing the video, there was little legal action that could take place, especially without drawing attention to it in the press. Fearing criminal prosecution might be enough of a deterrent to keep him from posting it, but he could be clever about it, claim to be hacked. Part of him wanted to find some cyber hacker himself to tap into Pamuk's devices and delete all traces of the video, but what happened if he had another copy on a flashdrive somewhere, safe from prying hands? If he discovered he'd been tampered with, he might very well release the video out of spite.
Besides, could anyone really break into his computer like that and mess with his files? This wasn't a Liam Neeson film.
"I'm going to make coffee," she said at last, breaking him out of his thoughts. "Want any?"
"As much as you can make," he said with a small smile, lightened by the smile he received in return.
"Cream, no sugar, right?" She didn't bother to wait for an answer, ducking into the kitchen.
"I don't really think this is the best use of my skills."
Matthew sighed, closing the office door quietly to keep Mary from overhearing. They were sequestered in Mary's large flat, Tom having commandeered the computer at the desk, his own laptop set up beside hers. "You spend your days turning on and off computers for idiots who are too stupid to do it themselves. Your IT job isn't exactly codebreaking, is it?"
"I should remind you that I'm doing you a favour before you insult me. At least I'm doing something worthwhile instead of scrounging around for some socialite's sex tape."
"She didn't sell it and then change her mind, Tom," Matthew pleaded, lowering his voice. "This creep filmed them having sex without her knowledge or consent and is now hinting that he'll release it to the media."
Tom wrinkled his nose. "Ugh. Alright, alright. But I'm doing this for the principle of it, not to help you earn points with this girl."
"Mary and I are just friends."
"I thought she was your client," Tom replied with a smirk.
"Friend and client," Matthew defended, feeling rather caught out. "Can you just dig around, please? Nothing illegal. But anything that we might be able to use."
He sighed, running his hand over his hair. "You know that's absolutely no information to go off of, right? I don't even know what I'm looking for."
"I know. But the laws surrounding this sort of thing are only good if it actually gets posted online, and we want to avoid that at all costs. This is for prevention, not damage control. I know you think she's some airhead, Tom, but she doesn't deserve this. She's been a wreck, she was afraid to tell anybody at all about this."
"I get it," he replied. "Really, I do. I'll do what I can, but I'm not promising anything. Hope that doesn't do anything to wreck your chances with her."
Matthew huffed. "We're friends, Tom. Not every woman I encounter is a potential sexual partner. You should try that sometime."
"I didn't say anything about sex," he replied with a smirk. "You were the one who brought it up. But you have had sex with her."
"No, I haven't, actually," he said honestly, glad to finally be able to make an honest statement. But Tom's wolfish grin unnerved him. He'd answered that too quickly, hadn't he?
"Ah," Tom nodded, turning back to his computer. "Not yet, but you want to. I got it."
"I'm leaving now."
"I'll shout before I come out, shall I? Just in case you two are shagging on the sofa."
Matthew shut the door behind him pointedly, stalking down the hall to find Mary again on the floor of the flat, surrounded by their collected files. "Hey," he greeted, coming up behind her. "Maybe you should take a break. You look exhausted. Go have a rest, we've got it covered out here."
"I'm fine," she said quickly. "Besides, Tom already hates me. Best not to go have a lie-down while he's working."
"Tom doesn't hate you. He's just...he isn't fond of the whole English aristocracy and is a big advocate for making the economic inequality gap smaller."
"So he doesn't hate me, just everything about me," she said with a small smile.
He laughed. "Sort of. But on the bright side, he's a big union supporter, which means supporting a worker's right to a break. So go rest."
"I can't sleep, even if I did try. If he posts it before we can figure something out, I'm going to hate myself for not helping out when I could have. Besides, you and Tom are working. You've been working all weekend. Lavinia must be furious with you."
"I'm doing my job, so is Tom," Matthew soothed, kneeling down beside her and picking up a stack of notes he'd been working on. "You've been under a lot of stress, no one would blame you for having a nap, Mary. Like I said, we're on your side."
"I don't know why," she said at last, bringing her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around her legs. "I don't know why you're on my side. I suppose you always have been on the side of the downtrodden, though, haven't you?"
"The side of the downtrodden," he repeated, amused. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, come on, Matthew. You root for the underdog sports teams. You take more pro bono cases than anyone in your office. You take the sandwiches from the deli that have been squished because no one else will take them. You find under-appreciated films and television shows and love them for their own sake. Your favourite theatre shows are the ones that flopped before they had a chance."
An unexpected burst of warmth hit him at the details she can recite about him, at how well she knows him. But then, she had always seemed to understand him, hadn't she? Even when she didn't agree with him, even when they wanted different things. She had always understood him.
"We were a show that flopped, weren't we?" she said with a humourless laugh, her gaze turning down into the carpet.
He swallowed thickly. "I suppose we were."
Mary pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes. "God, Matthew, I'm so, so sorry. What you must think of me."
"It was a long time ago."
"Not then," she sniffled. "We were young. Children. I mean now. Sleeping with a serial womanizer, being a serial dater myself. I...God, you really dodged a bullet, didn't you? You're trying to establish yourself as a respectable lawyer and I'm just another fucked up heiress with a sex tape. I would have ruined you. Though I guess if we were still dating I would never have slept with Pamuk in the first place. So yet another fuck up on my part. A fuck and a fuck up, as a matter of fact."
"Stop it," he commanded, reaching over to grab her arms firmly. He didn't shake her, but gave her enough of a jolt that she took a gulping breath and then exhaled shakily.
"Thank you for that," she said at last. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to make you uncomfortable. Lavinia..."
"Oh God, Mary," he choked. "I'm sorry. Do you know how sorry I am?"
"If it was anyone's fault, it was mine. I was the one who broke it off."
"You were young," he replied. "Not ready to settle down. And I was too proud to accept it when you were ready."
"You've moved on," she said hoarsely. "Of course you have, it's been years. You've found a woman who's far kinder and sweeter than I ever could be, you're in a long-term relationship. And you're helping your pathetic ex-girlfriend when you have no obligation to do so."
"Don't...don't say things like that," he sighed.
"What? That I'm pathetic or that I'm your ex-girlfriend?" she said jokingly. Her attempt to break the tension between them backfired terribly, and Matthew found himself leaning in, cupping the back of her neck with his hand and pulling her in for a kiss. She grabbed fistfuls of his jumper before her hands slid down, slipping around his ribs and down his back.
"I am coming out, now!" Tom called from the office, and they threw themselves apart, panting.
"I am walking down the hallway!"
"For God's sake, Tom," Matthew rasped, grabbing for the abandoned notebook while Mary busied herself with another stack of papers. "Come out."
Tom appeared in the doorway, and Matthew felt as though he could read them both like a book.
"Okay, not exactly expert hacker-level material here, but did you notice that he sent these messages from three different IP addresses?"
Matthew looked up from pretending to reread his notes. "What does that mean?"
"It means they were sent from three different networks. His phone, his home computer, and then where would the third one be?"
"Work?" Mary offered. "He emailed me a couple of times. Honestly, who emails anymore?"
"Someone who's at work. That's his work email?" Matthew asked, pulling the sheets of paper that they had printed. "This only shows his contact name."
"The address is from his company's website," Tom confirmed, handing over the laptop.
"His father's company," Matthew stated, writing the email address down onto the page of message transcripts.
"What are you thinking?" Mary asked him, watching as he read and reread the messages.
Matthew handed her the page. "He basically threatens you in these emails. That you'd better 'behave' yourself because he was in possession of a damaging video."
"Yes. But he didn't demand money from me. It was vague."
"Right, but it was still a borderline threat. Whether or not we could get that to hold up in court on a blackmail charge would be one thing, but maybe we can approach him individually. He sent this to you on his business email. We can make a claim of there being a tie to the business if this case were to appear in court. We could conduct an entire, very public, investigation into the company's involvement in this."
"But the company isn't involved, why on earth would they be? It's just Kemal being an idiot."
"But by the time the investigators have come to that conclusion, the company is publicly tied to a scandal. Not great publicity for a man trying to establish himself as a responsible member of the business world. If we go to Pamuk and threaten him with public exposure of his company, we might be able to get him to sign the rights of the video over to us, including possession of all digital and physical copies. If that tape 'somehow' gets released after that, we could sue him into the ground. He won't risk that, surely."
"We'll have to be careful," Tom replied. "Until we get the rights, any little thing could set this guy off and he could post it. Are we sure he'll back down and not call us on it?"
Mary took in a shaky breath. "He's a coward," she said. "He's a rich boy living off of Daddy's trust fund. He's never faced a problem his family couldn't throw money at to make disappear. Catch him alone, be dramatic about it, and you could probably convince him to sign without even getting his lawyers involved."
"Are you sure?" Matthew asked her. "This is risky, Mary, but I think it's our best shot. I'll draw up a legal agreement for him to sign over his rights, check it for any loopholes. But this has to be your call."
He was reminded of the night she had come to him, ready to be with him, not ready to be rejected. It's the same unsure, fearful look that she was wearing now. "Do it. If it's our best shot, I'll do anything. Please."
God, he wanted to kiss her, reassure her. Instead, he looked over at Tom. "You'll have to come with me to do the 'deleting the digital copies' part. I'm useless with computers."
"I know. You're the idiot type who needs an IT guy to reboot their laptop," he smirked. "Just give me a time and a place. I'll be there."
"Well?" Mary asked forcefully as soon as she spotted them. They've agreed to meet at Tom's local pub, at his insistence, when Mary suggested they all meet for dinner afterwards. It had the added benefit of not drawing any media attention. No one would expect Mary Crawley at a place like this.
"He signed it," Matthew blurted, too eager to give her relief to draw it out. "Tom deleted all of the copies, went through his flashdrives and everything. He's well aware of the risks of posting now that he's signed, even if he managed to somehow keep a copy. You were right. He's a coward with a bloated ego."
"He folded like a card table," Tom grinned, clapping Matthew on the back.
Mary slapped her hands over her mouth and then threw her arms around Matthew, holding him tightly. "Thank you," she breathed into his ear, and he felt himself shiver. "Oh, Matthew. Thank you." She released him, though not fast enough, and they nearly brushed noses when Matthew turned his head to look at her. She steadfastly avoided his gaze and instead moved to embrace Tom. "Thank you both. You can't even imagine how relieved I am. Drinks, food, whatever you like. My treat."
"Which makes it all worth it," Tom joked before disappearing to the bar to order them all a pint.
"So...where's the contract?" Mary asked as she and Matthew settled into booth in the corner.
"Safe and sound and under lock-and-key in my office," he vowed. "I can give you a copy if you like."
"I'm not sure I want one," she confessed. "I know how irresponsible that is, to bury my head in the sand..."
"I have the contract in my office. If you're not ready to deal with it, I can make a copy whenever you like," Matthew soothed.
She sighed, leaning forward to rest her elbows on the table. "I don't think you'll ever know how grateful I am for this, Matthew. I mean it. Are you sure that I can't...pay you for your time? Give you a very generous gift? One of those ancient ACs from the twenties that you've always drooled over?"
"A vintage car is a bit much," he laughed. "Besides, this was a favour for a friend. No payment required. I'm just glad I could help."
"This isn't help, this is...cleaning up after my mess, just like old times. This is a Perseus-level rescue right here."
Matthew laughed at that. "Does that make Pamuk Medusa or the sea monster?"
"Medusa. He's far too good looking to be a sea monster," she joked. "Matthew, about what happened last week...that kiss..."
"Pints!" Tom cheered beside them, setting down three glasses of stout in front of them before joining them at the table. "And an order of chips for the table. I am taking full advantage, I hope you know that."
Mary smiled, and though Matthew tried to catch her gaze, she refused to so much as look at him. Her eyes were focused on Tom. "Please do. I meant what I said, it's all on me. It's the very, very least I could do."
They're three beers in (though Mary switched to vodka after the first round) when an alert on her phone went off. Given the fear she had been living with the past month, he wasn't surprised to see a nervous look in her eye. She deflated as soon as she saw the message.
"Text from Sybil," she said to Matthew, and then to Tom, "my youngest sister. She actually doesn't live far from here. Shall I invite her to have a drink with us?"
Tom sighed loudly. "Another heiress-slash-socialite? You're killing me."
"Sybil is a nurse," Mary defended. "Which means she could use a drink as much as us."
"Is she actually a nurse, or does she just go to fancy dress charity parties dressed as a nurse? Very different."
"Tom," Matthew scolded. "Sybil is actually a nurse."
"And about to start applying for med schools," Mary rebutted. "So ha!"
She still wasn't sure that he was convinced until Sybil appeared an hour later, looking haggard and unkept and very much not like her prim and proper eldest sister.
"You alright?" Mary asked as she flopped down into the booth.
"Tough day," Sybil replied mournfully. "One of my patients passed away. Five years old. We knew it was coming, but still. I'd much rather drink and talk about anything else."
"A woman after my own heart," Tom mused, shaking her hand and introducing himself before rising to get her a drink.
Mary huffed. "Oh, is that him being cordial? He's been calling me 'The Socialite" all week."
"He's a working-class man and proud to be," Matthew defended. "Nothing wrong with rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty."
"Hear hear," Sybil agreed, her weariness starting to fade. "I'm so happy to see you, Matthew, it's been ages. I wasn't going to come, but Mary said you'd be here."
"Glad to know I'm such a draw," he joked.
"I just meant that Mary mentioned she was out with friends. I like her friends, really, but they can be a bit...well, let's just say that I feel very out of place with them. But I knew at least you'd be in my corner."
"My friends are not snobs," Mary protested.
"I didn't say they were!"
She huffed. "You heavily implied it. They're not snobs! I...they're not all snobs... Anna's not a snob!"
Sybil pressed her lips together to keep from smiling. "Anna's great. Let's just say the rest of them don't have much to talk about with a nurse."
"A nurse and future doctor!" Matthew intervened. "Mary just told us. Congratulations!"
"That's if I get in."
Matthew waved his hand dismissively. "Of course you'll get in. How could you not get in? You should ask my mother for a letter of reference. You two know each other, you've volunteered with her. I know she's not a doctor, but a professional in the industry? An extra letter won't hurt."
"Do you think she would? Thank you, Matthew."
He smiled. "After everything you're father's done for me, I think she'd find it more than fair."
"What about you?" Sybil asked cheerfully. He was pleased to see her looking in far better spirits than a few minutes ago. "What are you up to? How's Lavinia?"
Tom appeared again to interrupt, placing a glass down in front of Sybil before taking his seat again.
It was easy, falling back in again with the Crawley sisters. He'd always liked Edith, of course, though she set Mary on edge just by being in the same room. But tonight is relaxing and joyful. Tom and Sybil get along like wildfire, and Matthew had no issue trading barbs with Mary again. He was so drawn into Tom and Sybil's discussion about the EU (discussion, not debate, as they had more or less agreed with one another on everything) that when he looked to make a dry comment to Mary, he noticed she had left the table. Not only was her purse gone, but also her coat.
He felt a brief twinge of disappointment, but excused himself from the table. Perhaps he could catch her before she got into a car. Tom and Sybil didn't even look his way when he left.
He did find her outside, but not waiting for a car. She was standing outside, taking a long drag from a half-ashen cigarette. She looked guilty when he spotted her.
"I know," she said. "Bad habit. Papa would disapprove. I don't usually, just with the stress of the last week, I seem to have picked it up again."
"I wasn't going to say anything. You're a grown woman, you don't need me lecturing you."
She huffed, and then reached into her pocket and offered him the carton. "Do you want one?"
"No. Never did smoke."
"Because you're a good boy," she teased, though her smile fell quickly and she dropped her gaze to her shoes.
"Mary...are you alright? These last few weeks have been hell, I'm sure. We're celebrating tonight, but we don't mean to pretend nothing happened to you, that you haven't been through any trauma. I hope I haven't been neglecting you."
"Neglecting me?" Mary asked with a dry laugh. "Matthew, you had every right and reason to lord this over my head, to feel superior, and instead you've spent every moment of your spare time helping me. It's...God, neglecting me? I don't deserve all that you've done."
He felt his heart leap into his throat. "We're friends, aren't we? This is what friends do."
"A friend would have comforted me after it got posted. Some of my 'friends' probably would have watched it and laughed about it behind my back. This is beyond friendship. I guess I'm just...struggling with that. I'm sorry, for what it's worth. About kissing you like that. It was completely inappropriate."
"It wasn't," he rasped. "Not inappropriate at all." He couldn't help himself. Matthew's hands strayed to her waist and her pulled her in. She dropped her cigarette and placed both palms alongside his jaw. They fit together like puzzle pieces, they always had.
The bright light of a camera flash, however, was the only thing out of place.
"Fuck," Mary murmured, and Matthew turned to face the photographer. A teenage girl on a mobile, that's all, who darted away after being caught. He was about to go after her, demand that she delete the photo, but Mary caught him by the arm. "It isn't worth it," she said. "Fuck, Matthew. I'm so, so sorry. I didn't think...I'm so sorry. People don't usually recognize me when I'm not at an event... Oh God..."
"It's alright," he soothed, resting his hands against her elbows to steady her. "It's a stupid picture. And dark out here, and taken from a distance. No one will know that's you."
"But what if they do? Oh God, Matthew, Lavinia! I feel so stupid...I'm so, so sorry-"
"Lavinia moved the last of her things out of my flat three months ago."
She gaped. "She...did? Why didn't you tell me?"
"It would have sounded like I was wanting to get together with you if I tried to bring it up. And I didn't want you to get into this again after you'd just been burned by Pamuk. If we were going to start this again, I didn't want it to be because of some misplaced saviour/victim complex or because you were grateful."
"I am grateful," she insisted. "For everything you've done. But I don't want to be with you because you're my hero. I called you to help in the first place because you've always been my hero, Matthew. That isn't new."
He leant in to kiss her again, but she jerked her head away, pressing her palms against his chest. "We've been on the edge of this so many times. Don't take me there again unless you're sure."
"I am sure," he vowed. "I've never been more sure of anything."
They kissed again, and again, without any regard to who might be watching. He'd missed her so terribly, wanted her so badly. It hardly felt real, after all this time.
"I'm sorry," she said when they finally pulled away. "I must taste like an ashtray."
"I'm sure I taste like Guinness," he grinned, kissing her chastely again. "If I'd known we'd end up here, I might have brought some mints."
"Next time," she smiled, stroking his cheek with her thumb. "We should go in before Sybil and Tom think we've fallen off the face of the earth."
"Oh, I think Sybil and Tom are getting along very well without us. I'd be surprised if they even noticed that we were gone."
Mary frowned. "Ugh. Hate to think that I've encouraged that."
"Tom is a good man," he replied, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear. "Just because he doesn't come from money and is a little uncomfortable being around people who do."
"Sybil comes from money."
"Sybil is a nurse and doesn't pay any attention to that sort of thing, you know that. I think they'd be good together. Now, let's go inside. I'm starting to lose feeling in my fingers."
"You should have brought your coat," she said pointedly, rising onto her toes to kiss him again.
"Robert is going to kill me."
"You're joking. Papa is going to start planning the wedding as soon as we tell him."
They lay in bed in Matthew's flat, Mary's head pillowed on his shoulder, her arm slung around his waist. Why had they not done this years ago? It was marvellous.
"He'll think I'm playing with your heart. He's protective of you."
Mary tilted her head up for a kiss, fingers sliding erotically through his hair. "I think my family knows us both well enough to know that I'm the heartbreaker between the two of us. They'll be far more worried about you."
"I hope they don't have a reason to be."
"Of course not," she promised. "I'm all yours, Matthew. We've wasted far too much time, I'm not about to mess this up again."
"When do we tell everyone?" he asked, pressing a kiss against the top of her head and trailing his hand up and down her spine. After the photo taken at the pub, unsurprisingly, didn't make the papers, they had flown blissfully under the radar. Sybil and Tom had been far too preoccupied, and then drunk, to notice their longing looks shot across the table, and neither Mary nor Matthew had shared the news.
"As fun as it has been sneaking around, we should probably say something," she agreed, nuzzling her face into his neck. "Mama and Papa are having a garden party in a couple of weeks. Would you like to be my date?"
"Ah, yes. I was invited to that. And my mother. I haven't sent Robert my response. I'm suddenly nervous."
"My parents love you," she reminded him. "You know Papa thinks of you like a son. They'll be over the moon."
He nodded. "I just hate to think of them being concerned about it. Breaking up can be awkward, especially for families as close as ours. I don't like the idea of them not approving and wishing we would have just left it in the past."
"Well, I suppose we'll just have to never break up," Mary responded, smiling softly at him and kissing him gently again. "Am I being too forward?"
"That's certainly not something many could accuse you of," he replied. "If you're asking if you're scaring me, you're not. I'm in this for the long run, Darling."
"What I hate is the thought of you appearing in a tabloid as yet another one of my string of past flings once news does get out."
He hummed. "You know I don't care about that. Besides, they'll stop talking about me like I'm a fling when we've been together long enough."
"You're not another fling, you know. I want to make sure you know that. I don't...I may go out on a lot of dates, but I don't..."
"You don't owe me an explanation-"
"-Kemal was the first man I ever slept with," she blurted, then turned red.
He paused. "When he...when he filmed you?"
"We were together all week," she said quietly. "The time he filmed wasn't my first time. But it wasn't...it was only two days before that we..."
"Oh, Mary," he breathed. "Christ, I'm so sorry he did that to you. It's awful for anyone, regardless, of course, but to have him of all people betray your trust..."
"I didn't come crawling back to you just because I trusted you and needed security. I want you to know that. I just...I always told myself that we would never work, that I needed someone exciting and spontaneous, and that you were always too responsible and practical. I'm sorry for that."
"I'm not an exciting choice, nor a glamorous one," he agreed a bit reluctantly.
"Exciting and spontaneous aren't always good for a relationship, I've realized. You've always been so good to me, Matthew. So kind and considerate. I never have to worry about you flirting with other girls, or worry that you'll spontaneously get bored and leave me. You always planned and scheduled because you knew what you wanted and how to get it."
"You make me sound so boring," he tried to smile.
Mary shook her head, rising up to hover over him, brushing their noses together. "On the contrary, it's incredibly sexy. Being able to come home after the best or worst day of my life and have you want me all the same...and you've certainly seen me at my best and worst."
"So I'm a safe choice, is what you're saying," he said teasingly, trying not to feel too downcast.
To his surprise, she laughed at him. "We bicker all the time, Matthew. We're both stubborn as mules when we want to be. We both have a lot of awkwardness and unpleasantness ahead with our families if this doesn't work out again. I don't think you're a safe choice at all. But it's worth the risk, because I can't see myself ever being as happy as I am with you. Trusting anyone as much as I trust you. I don't feel like I'm myself without you."
Matthew couldn't remember a time when he had felt so completely at peace, at ease. "Well put, you've saved yourself a lot of sulking on my part. Are you certain you won't get bored with me?"
"I think I'm wild and spontaneous enough to keep things interesting between us. Besides, you're better than anyone at allowing me to be. I know whatever wild thing I do you'll support me in it. I've never had that reassurance with anyone before."
"Now I see. I'm an enabler, and you like it." He pulled her down for a kiss and then rolled her onto her back, grinning as she threw her head back and laughed loudly. Mary might be attracted to him for his stability, but he had missed her ability to break down his guard. He hadn't laughed like this in ages.
"Exactly. And that means I can drag you out to fashion week and art gallery showcases and charity events and you'll grumble about them but ultimately give in and come with me."
"And garden parties?" Matthew mentioned, leaving a trail of kisses down her neck.
She hummed, and he can feel the vibration against his lips. "And garden parties. Speaking of which, I'll be wearing blue. Don't wear anything that will clash."
Matthew groaned. "Ugh, you know I'm no good at this. No one will care if we 'clash.' Maybe you should plan your clothes around what I'm wearing and then our problems are solved."
"Nope. I bought a dress specifically for this occasion. Very expensive. Designer. I've planned it all out. And don't tell me to wear another colour, it goes."
"Goes with what?" he asked incredulously.
She sighed at him, shaking her head. "Don't you know anything about dressing to bring out the colour of your eyes?"
"No. And your eyes are brown."
"It matches your eyes, not mine. It's the same colour exactly. So you can either change your eye colour or resign yourself to wearing blue for the party."
He felt his heart melt, sappy romantic that he was. God, he loved her, was it too soon to say? "I suppose I'll have to wear blue, then."
"Robert," he greeted, stepping across the lawn to shake the man's hand. "Thank you for inviting me."
"I'm glad I could finally tempt you out of London. It's been an age."
He smiled. For all of his rigidity and propriety, Robert had always been warm and kind to him, and Matthew had always been grateful. "Well, good weather, good food, good company. I couldn't resist."
"Is that the magic three? That explains why we haven't seen you all winter."
He gave a short laugh, trying to seem at ease. He'd far rather a family dinner than this large event, with white tents set up all over the estate and waiters moving about the lawn, serving copious amounts of champagne. "So? How is everyone, since I've missed so much."
"Much the same with me and Cora. The business trips to New York have slowed down, thank God, so I'm able to stay here for most of my time. Edith is gaining a lot of ground with her magazine, I guess it's been going very well. Sybil just got accepted into med school, and has been seeing someone new."
"Tom Branson," Matthew filled it. "I know him. He's a little rough around the edges, but he'll treat her well."
"Well, I suppose that matters the most," Robert said with a sigh. "And Mary been busy. Working for a fashion editorial for a few months, I think, and helping with my business in London. Another reason I can stay here more often. She...uh....has told us she's bringing a date."
He nearly smiled at the apologetic tone. How easy it was to hear about Mary's new partner without feeling the familiar jealous pang. "Not Richard Carlisle, I hope."
"May God have mercy on us all," Robert huffed. "I think she would have warned me in advance."
Mary had disappeared shortly after arriving. She had come to his flat, new dress on display and in a wonderfully cheerful mood. So wonderful and cheery, as a matter of fact, that they ended up making love up against the front door, and were late catching the train. The party was already in full swing by the time they arrived, and so Mary had gone off to greet her mother and grandmother, promising to return.
Robert was filling him in on the latest milestones of his business when Mary appeared by his side, pressing a kiss to her father's cheek in greeting.
"I've been looking for you. I should have known you'd be here talking shop to Matthew."
"He's the only one who doesn't run away when I do," Robert joked. "Or perhaps that's why he doesn't visit as often anymore."
"Not at all," Matthew assured. "Work has been busy, life has been busy, that's all. A poor excuse, I know."
"Well?" Robert asked.
Mary shrugged. "Well what?"
"You said you had a new beau. Where is he?"
"I most certainly have never used the word beau."
Robert sighed. "So he's not here? Have you broken up already?"
Matthew tried not to wince. For all the tabloids reported her stream of dates, he couldn't imagine she felt uplifted by her own parents making sly comments about it, especially knowing what he knew. For all of her defensiveness and composure, he knew she did care about what people thought of her, said about her.
"No, Papa," Mary replied tersely. "We haven't broken up. He's here."
"And hiding?" Robert asked. "If you've actually brought a man to introduce to us, it must be at least somewhat serious."
"It is serious. Very serious." She glanced in Matthew's direction, and with some unspoken agreement, moved to his side, letting him wrap an arm around her waist, her hand straying to unnecessarily smooth down his tie. "Matthew and I are back together."
The blank expression on Robert's face immediately had Matthew panicked. Oh God, had they miscalculated this badly?
"I see. How long?"
Matthew cleared his throat. "About six months."
"Seven," Mary corrected, rubbing soothing circles between Matthew's shoulder blades. "As of two weeks ago. We wanted to make sure that this was going to work before we let the families know."
"And it must be working, if you're telling me."
Mary nodded. "It is working. Very, very well. You can stop pretending like you aren't invested, Papa. Matthew and I are very happy together and plan on being together for a long time."
The burst of air Robert released, and the resulting smile, made Matthew want to cry in relief. Robert stepped forward to give Matthew another hearty handshake and kiss Mary on the cheek before stepping back to look at them. "Seven months. How wonderful. I was almost ready to give up on you two."
Mary smirked, leaning into Matthew's side. "Everyone seemed to know we'd come around except us. We had to figure it out for ourselves, I guess."
Matthew, elated by the positive reception, squeezed Mary's waist and gazed on happily as she shared the news. This was it, he knew. This is what he wanted. To be with Mary for the rest of their lives, to take the train up to York together to visit their families. To bring their children.To bicker about colour-coordinating clothing and just have Mary pick out something for him to wear in the end, anyways. To complain about having to get dragged out for fashion week and having her appease him by ordering Chinese food afterwards and eating it out of the containers as they sat on the sofa.
"Have you told your mother, yet?" Robert asked, and Mary shook her head. "No one knows besides Isobel and Sybil and Tom. And now you, of course."
"My mother visited us in London last week, that's when we told her," Matthew informed him. "She was...concerned, of course, after the way things ended last time. But I can't say that she was surprised."
"You'll be a good influence on Mary," Robert acknowledged.
"She's been a good influence on me," Matthew was quick to reply. "I only hope she doesn't get bored with me."
"I like boring," she replied with a warm smile. He sensed gratitude in her expression for being so quick to come to her defence. "Everyone believes I'm much more of a rebel than I am. Come get some champagne with me?" she asked, stepping out of Matthew's arms to take his hand instead.
Matthew said a quick goodbye to Robert before being dragged off. "I'm saving you," Mary informed him. "It was only a matter of time before he started subtly dropping hints about weddings and grandchildren."
"I suppose we should have that conversation ourselves before anyone else has a chance to," he mentioned as she plucked two glasses of champagne from a passing tray, handing one to him.
"What's there to discuss? I know you want to get married and are desperate for children. I want to get married and have children eventually. But I'm enjoying just being together and am not in any rush."
Yet again, he found himself relieved. "I am not desperate for children."
"But you want them. Very badly."
"Eventually," he repeated. "But I'm not in any rush. Though I do hope I have made my intentions clear. Just because I'm not in a rush doesn't mean that I don't see us there in the future. Because I do."
"So do I," she replied warmly, reaching out to rest her hand against his arm. "I'm so glad Papa was pleased. I was worried."
"You were worried?" he cried. "You said everything would be fine!"
"Obviously I wasn't about to tell you that, you would have gone into a tailspin."
He laughed at that. For all her cool composure could frustrate him, it was also a very practiced skill, and he had to admire it. "So, that's settled. If anyone should ask, we're in no rush to be married or have children."
"We both know it will happen eventually, so we might as well let it happen as it happens," she finished. "Now, put your arm around my waist and kiss me. Edith's walking past, and with her big mouth everyone will know we're together in less than an hour if she sees. Less, if we act like it's a secret and don't want anyone to know."