Fandom: Downton Abbey
Summary: AU S01 epic set after the flower show. Following an explosive argument with Matthew, Violet takes Mary abroad for adventures of discovery and romance in Europe while back at home Sybil finds herself torn between two men and her independence.
Read Chapter Twenty-One here!
It was dusk over the sea now and the low sun struggling through the clouds made the water shine silver. The mountain in the centre of the island was soon no more than a dark silhouette that got gradually smaller as they pulled further and further away. A chill breeze rose up and increased the swell of the waves. All shivered and Matthew made to take off his jacket but Mary waved away his offer with a tight smile.
"Don't be ridiculous, Matthew; I shall be good for nothing if you freeze to death." She chewed her lip and then asked lightly, "I suppose Sybil sent you?"
Of all the questions to ask this seemed the oddest and he stuttered in reply, "I – I suppose she did in a way, yes."
She forced a smile. "Dear Sybil!"
As she replied, everything became clear and Matthew's heart leapt into his mouth. Falling to his knees in the bottom of the boat, he grabbed her hands where she sat opposite him.
"No!" he exclaimed. "No, Mary, you've got it all wrong! Sybil did send me but not because we're going to be married – because we're not."
Her eyes widened and her stomach leaped – or perhaps that was simply a reaction to the motion of the boat.
"Oh," she murmured and pressed his hands without quite meaning to. "You're not?"
"No. It was all a – I won't say it was a misunderstanding because that's not really true, but it was a mistake. For both of us."
His eyes as he gazed up at her told the story far more eloquently than any words could have done if only her mind had been sufficiently capable of reading them at that moment. She felt – she felt a great many things, but her thoughts were all confusion.
It was uncomfortable kneeling amid the fishing nets and Matthew straightened up and sat back down opposite her. She was staring fixedly at the point where he had been and her eyes landed on his umbrella.
"I'm sorry," she said after a moment had passed, giving herself a little shake. "I'm sorry it's ruined."
Matthew picked it up. "This? Oh, it's nothing." He smiled at her in reassurance; she looked so serious.
"A casualty of battle," she said, meeting his eyes for a moment and touching the slashed material with tentative fingers.
"It fought bravely but was taken by surprise."
Now she smiled back, genuinely amused. "Fortunately an intrepid piece of pottery was on hand to help."
"Most fortunately." He wanted to take her hand again but the distance between them was too great without making a big deal out of it.
Gwen interrupted them forcing Mary to break eye contact. It was rather a relief for she had not known how to look away or what else to say.
"My lady, I've found some pins in my pocket. Would you like me to try to do somethin' with your hair?"
"Oh, yes, if you can! Thank you."
Mary took off her hat and clutched it on her lap, turning to the side to allow Gwen better access. Matthew cleared his throat and stared out over the sea. It was probably ridiculous but he felt that to watch Mary have her hair pinned, even if it was outside in the wind on a boat, would be an intrusion.
They arrived at the harbour, Matthew paid the fisherman an exorbitant amount of lire and Molesley found a cab while Gwen and her mistress stood quietly to one side, arm in arm. Mary knew she had no need to be frightened of Naples after all the time she had spent in Italy, but she nevertheless shrank into the corner of the cab as it rushed off in a different direction from the port to the one going to her previous hotel. The streets got narrower and more crowded and the smells more pungent as they dived into the old town. Fortunately, the journey was short and they were soon dropped outside a dilapidated but palatial building just off a bustling square. A passage through a massive stone archway brought them into a courtyard. Matthew was briefly distracted by staring round at the architecture.
"You can see the Greek influence," he muttered, turning on the spot. "Almost reminiscent of Mycenae in the size of the stones."
"Sir!" called Molesley from the entrance to the reception.
Matthew blinked and focussed. There would be time enough for this... well, he really wasn't here as a tourist! Mary, still hovering in the entrance passage with Gwen, watched him, her head tilted to one side. She felt strangely relieved to have a moment to observe him unnoticed. A wave of unreality washed over her as she realised once more that Matthew was truly here in Italy, enthusing over its history just as she had thought he might. She shivered suddenly, feeling incredibly weary and cold, and quickly followed Molesley inside.
The landlady was not particularly communicative though that was to be expected considering she spoke no English and the only member of the party who spoke Italian was Mary. She was polite and asked no questions, however. She had also clearly never come into contact with any members of the aristocracy, either Italian or English, for she called Mary "Signora Crawley" as she showed her to her room along a darkened fourth floor corridor. After opening her mouth to correct her, Mary closed it again. In the end, it was a thing of very little importance.
Her bedroom was gloomy and still a little clammy though a fire had been lit and was now burning merrily in the grate. The window opened onto the courtyard and two heavy chairs and a table were arranged at the foot of the bed by the fire. A crucifix hung over the bed at a slight angle. It was, however, clean, anonymous, and the door locked. Mary would have been satisfied with a lot less in the circumstances. After a cursory inspection of the room, her eyes were drawn to a milliner's box on the bed. She advanced cautiously, having glanced at Gwen in question and received only a shrug in response, and opened the box to discover a nightdress and other necessary toiletries. She ran her hand over the soft silk, torn between confusion and simple relief.
"My lady, there's a note!" said Gwen and held it out to her.
It was short and to the point:
I hope you can find it in you to forgive me for what I said to you. It was never my intention that you should be exposed to any danger.
Yours most sincerely,
Mary sighed and shook her head.
"A woman without a protector must always be exposed to danger," she murmured as there was a knock on the door.
Gwen opened it a crack and then more. Matthew said tentatively, "May I come in?"
Mary dithered a second before putting the note down and crossing to the door. She smiled at him. "Of course, Matthew."
He advanced round the door with so much hesitation that her smile relaxed further and she beckoned him in. His eyes glanced round the room. "Are you sure, Mary? Isn't it rather improper, my being here? Only..."
"I suppose the advantage about not having a reputation is that I can invite anyone I choose into my bedroom without a chaperone and nobody will bat an eyelid."
Matthew frowned instinctively and then smiled tightly before looking away quickly. Mary sighed again at her hasty words and shivered. She felt almost light-headed and gripped the bedpost to steady herself.
"Come in, Matthew," she repeated, swallowing nervously. "And, Gwen – will you go and find some tea and something to eat? Some sandwiches or – or anything really."
She had not eaten anything all day.
As Gwen curtsied and left the room, closing the door quietly behind her, Mary released the bedpost reluctantly and found her way to one of the chairs. Matthew followed her and sat down slowly opposite her.
"Well," he said, and no more. He had not eaten either and the exertions of earlier were catching up with him. It was almost impossible to understand, now that he had finally stopped moving, that two days ago he had been at Downton and now he was in Naples. Moreover, he was in the same room as Mary, who was observing his bewilderment with placidity, or maybe it was simply exhaustion. There was so much that needed to be discussed, so many things he needed to tell her, so many things he wanted to ask. And yet this hardly seemed the time when she was no doubt in shock and he was barely aware of what country he was in.
"Tell me about your journey," Mary asked him suddenly. She was white and drawn but still managing to look interested. A rush of deep affection and admiration for her passed through Matthew suddenly.
"Alright," he replied and leaned back in his chair, trying to relax. He started with his sudden departure from Crawley House with Molesley and continued doggedly all the way to their arrival on the island. By reliving it, Matthew felt as if he was finally catching up with himself. It was, moreover, a factual (if edited) account and cost him little to tell it or her to listen to it.
She was an engaging auditor too. She responded only with the odd quirk of her lips or raise of her eyebrows but her eyes on his face were bright and steady and she made encouraging comments whenever he seemed to be flagging.
"We never got to Milan," she commented at one point, "but I've heard it's a lovely city. The cathedral is meant to be exquisite."
"I'm sure it is but I'm afraid I didn't see anything beyond the train station."
She smiled back ruefully. "I suppose you didn't. Perhaps on the way back-" She broke off abruptly and twisted her hands in her lap. Matthew quickly continued his narrative.
He was just explaining how he persuaded the fisherman to take them to the island, trying to make it sound more entertaining and less frustrating than it had been when Gwen entered with refreshments.
She had a tray with a metal pot of tea and two tea glasses. There were also two plates with a steaming hot pizza on each. Mary's mouth watered just from the smell and Matthew looked from the food to her in confusion, not having ever seen anything like it before.
Mary laughed. "Oh, Matthew, it's a pizza! Street food, really."
"I asked for sandwiches," explained Gwen apologetically, hovering over them. "I'm not sure she really understood me though, but she went out an' got these from some local place all the same."
"Thank you so much, Gwen," said Mary.
"Will that – will that be all then, my lady?"
"That will be all." She bit her lip and then reached out and touched her maid's hand. "Go to bed, Gwen; get some sleep, you deserve it. I'll manage."
Her maid's eyes flickered between Mary and Matthew then she nodded. "Yes, my lady." She hesitated at the door again, as if to check she really was safe now.
As soon as she had left the room, the atmosphere felt oddly thicker. Mary felt an uncomfortable prickle on her spine as the shadows in the room seemed to close in around her and Matthew and the fire and their little supper.
"Have you really never seen a pizza before?" she asked quickly to cover her awkwardness.
"Where should I have done?" Matthew spluttered in reply. "How does one eat it?"
"Well, I did say it was street food..." With a mischievous glint in her eye, she picked up a slice delicately in her hands and took a bite. Matthew's mouth fell open and he gawped at her as she ate it, his eyes lingering compulsively on her fingers as she brought the pizza to her mouth and...
"Aren't you hungry?" she accused him, her cheeks pink, and he snapped his eyes away.
"Of course I am!"
She wiped her fingers on a napkin and took her revenge in watching him attempt to eat in a dignified fashion. Soon, however, their hunger overtook everything else and they ate quickly, the only noises in the room save the crackle of the fire being the rustle of napkins and the unavoidable little sounds of satisfied eaters. Both became warmer and more content as the hollow inside them was filled. A three course banquet could not have been more welcome at that moment.
When she had finished eating and had wiped her fingers and lips on the napkin, Mary poured tea for them both with as much grace as if she had been in the drawing room at Downton Abbey. The comparison occurred to Matthew and his face fell as he recollected. It wasn't really tea as they knew it in England, more an infusion, but it was hot and comforting which was the main thing.
They had both been silent for quite some time when Mary eventually looked up over the rim of her glass and asked him, "Do you think it was true, Matthew, what Mrs. Bowen said about Count Sciarpa?"
He had not been expecting such a direct question so soon though he immediately chided himself for imagining Mary to be the kind to beat about the bush.
"That he is married, yes. The rest of it, I wouldn't like to say for sure."
Mary closed her eyes a moment and looked down with a sigh.
"I'm so sorry!" he burst out. "God, I wish-"
She waved it away. "Don't be. It wasn't your mistake. I just pity that poor woman so terribly."
"I wanted her to come with us," replied Matthew, "but she wouldn't."
She shrugged. "He is her husband." The words hung in the air. Mary took another sip of tea and continued very reasonably, "She could have been me, you see, if I had been an heiress. Count Sciarpa, the Duke of Crowborough – what difference does it make in the end? Women like that are pursued and bought by the highest bidder, that's all there is to it. It's not such an uncommon story."
Matthew did not know who the Duke of Crowborough was and was not sure he wanted to. He looked at her sympathetically for a moment and then, just as she glanced down and stirred her tea, replied quietly, "I would be very sorry if that were indeed true."
She made a sharp movement of frustration. "Oh, Matthew."
He put his glass down and licked his lips, pondering for a moment.
"When I saw Mrs. Bowen earlier," he began a few moments later, "she was very sorry for what she said to you."
"I know," replied Mary. "She bought me a nightdress and asked me to forgive her."
"She – she did?" stammered Matthew, his mind catching on the first part of her sentence. The issue of Mary's lack of wardrobe was not one that had even crossed his mind since they had left the island. Mary rolled her eyes rather fondly at him as he blushed and he coughed into his hand, remembered what was the salient part of the sentence and added cautiously, "And – and do you think you could, one day?"
Mary blinked, suddenly unsure not of her answer but of his question. This was skirting dangerously close to the one subject she was too afraid to broach.
"What is there to forgive?" she answered coolly. "I would probably have reacted in the same way."
"Would you have really?" he challenged her with great concern. "Then you are kinder to others than to yourself."
He leaned back in his chair and suddenly she could not bear to be looked at with such compassion when she was not being kind, only realistic, so she put down her glass and rose only to kneel down in front of the fire. She jabbed at it with the poker rustling the coals until fresh, bright sparks leapt into the air, and finally sat back on her heels and looked up at him again, turning away as soon as she caught sight of the open mouthed intensity with which he was observing her perform this uncharacteristic, domestic task. Her breath came more quickly and she stood up immediately. She asked him the first thing that came into her head.
"Did you – did you break it off with Sybil?"
He opened his mouth and then shut it again. "No, she did."
Mary had met his eyes in passing as she sat back down. She was fidgeting a little, just twisting her hands together on her lap. Her lips formed an "Oh" shape but she did not say it.
"She ended it," he continued hastily, "but I was glad she did. That is, I'm not sure – I'm not sure I could have done it but I admit I felt relieved when she did. I'm rather ashamed of that," he added with a frown. "I care for Sybil very much but not-" he swallowed, "not as a wife."
"You would have married a woman you are not in love with rather than disappoint her by terminating the engagement." Matthew opened his mouth to reply but she exhaled in a rush of relief or mockery or weariness and shook her head. "Oh, what does it matter anyway? I'm glad, really, that it was her. It means she will be suffering less than the alternative. You haven't mentioned my father, Matthew, or any of the rest of them."
He was once more taken aback by her sudden shifts in the conversation, but this was too serious and uncomfortable a topic to waste on his surprise.
"No, I haven't." He had not prepared for this; he ought to have done, but he had not. He had not prepared for any of it really.
He held her gaze until her eyes dropped to her lap and she sighed in deep resignation, no response necessary. Suddenly she seemed diminished somehow, a terribly fragile, tired women engulfed by the chair. Matthew leaned forward and took hold of her cold hands on her lap, speaking to her very earnestly.
"Mary, there are so many things we need to talk about and decide; there are things I need to – want to say to you, but it's late and today has been – do you understand, my dear? Let us discuss these things tomorrow in the daylight when we have slept."
Her lips parted and she nodded her assent. As if by mutual, unspoken agreement they stood up together and he relinquished her hands with some regret for then they simply became two people standing together in the middle of a room, the very air of which seemed to be holding its breath. Even so, the connection between them was more palpable than when they had been touching. They were there in this room, but beyond that they were quite alone and separated, it seemed, from the rest of the world by the divide of a half-empty hotel, a seething, pulsing foreign city at night and the barriers of mountains and seas. The world seemed a large, unfamiliar, and desolate place and in that moment they would willingly have clung to each other a minute longer.
Mary moved slowly to the door and he followed her with equal reluctance. Beyond the immediate circle of the fire the room was dark and cold and by the time she turned to him with her hand on the door knob, it was hard for her to suppress her trembling.
She gave him a tremulous smile which he returned in silence and for several long seconds they simply looked at each other in the dim light. Words had not helped them much in the past and they did not need them now. Mary felt a warmth begin to spread through her despite her shivers as she gradually allowed herself to hope a very, very little.
"You were quite the champion today, Matthew," she said eventually very softly, her eyes shining at him. She touched his hand briefly where it hung at his side.
"Not really," he replied in the same tone. "You seemed to be managing quite alright by yourself."
"No." Her smile wavered. "No, I'd have been lost without you."
He blinked at her and stepped forward, clasping her hand again. He understood what she was telling him and it only increased his tenderness towards her.
"It's alright, Mary," he murmured, caressing her fingers, hardly aware of what he was doing. "It's alright."
Her throat felt tight, her heart fluttered and she pulled open the door very suddenly even as she nodded sharply, not trusting herself to speak. The corridor yawned in front of them, black and empty. Matthew looked at her and finally stepped out of her room.
"So, goodnight," he whispered with a rueful smile. "I'm so very glad that – well, I hope you get a good night's sleep anyway."
She nodded several times more and tried to smile but her lips were trembling too much. Her expression communicated all that was necessary, however.
"Goodnight," he said again quite pointlessly.
She could not bear it any longer and with one more non-verbal plea to him, she shut the door, turning round to lean limply against it. She pressed her hand to her mouth and closed her eyes. Silence instantly pressed against her with such force that she was almost overwhelmed by it. She was hit by a stab of profound loneliness and she longed briefly but intensely to open the door of her bedroom, run after him and ask him to remain with her. If they were going to be lonely, at least they did not need to be alone.
The feeling passed though or at least diminished and after a few minutes she felt strong enough to open her eyes, adjust the brightness on the oil lamp, and prepare for bed.
They met for breakfast the following day in a cavernous room on the piano nobile, hesitantly, for it seemed an uncomfortable thing to be drinking their morning coffee opposite each other at a table for two. It was also rather delightful though and the initial discomfort soon faded into something altogether more delicate.
The night had refreshed them both and they had left their rooms with ideas of what had to happen next which they shared with the other over the meal. Mary intended to write to her grandmother and anticipate the postal delivery with a telegram. She felt strongly that she should not remain a day longer than was necessary in this hotel, dependent on Matthew as she currently was. She did not know how much her grandmother could know of the scandal, if anything at all, but her first action of the day had to be telling her the whole affair and seeking immediate refuge with her and the Eastwicks. It was not a letter that she relished the prospect of writing but it was necessary.
Matthew, careful not to muddy the waters by talking of more long term plans, agreed with her and suggested she delegate the sending of the telegram to Molesley, a proposal she accepted without quibbling. In the meantime, he intended to return to Proschia and recover Mary's trunks, taking Gwen with him to deal with packing the clothes.
"Is that wise?" cried Mary, her eyes flying to his.
"Legally speaking, I can do much worse to him than he can do to me and he must know it." She still looked unconvinced so he smiled as broadly as he could (for he had to admit reservations to himself). "I promise I'll take care, Mary."
She pressed her lips together but quickly returned his smile with a bright one of her own. "Well then. I won't try to persuade you not to."
The morning passed just as planned for Mary at least. The letter to her grandmother had to be one of the most difficult things she had ever written, however plainly factual she made it. She was accustomed neither to begging nor to expressing her feelings openly on paper. Despite numerous drafts, the finished product still seemed stilted to the point of coldness. It was painful enough to write down the bare truth of the matter as she understood it without trying to add emotions to it. In the end she simply had to rely on the dowager countess' own pragmatism being greater than her propriety and hoped that she would arrive in Tuscany in person before the letter did.
Arriving back from posting the letter, she opened the door of her room to find Gwen surrounded by all her luggage. Tears started unexpectedly to her eyes at the sight of the familiar boxes with the Downton crest on them. Moreover, it meant that Matthew had succeeded. The amount of relief she felt in that moment was terrifying.
Gwen helped her change into new clothes and she made her way downstairs to meet Matthew half an hour later with renewed energy. Nothing he could say about her family could be worse than what she had already imagined, her future was already far brighter than it had been at this point the previous day and though she could not be entirely sure of him, she felt an increasing, fluttering anticipation that no amount of common sense could squash.
She found him in the atrium studying a street map and touched him lightly on the arm to make her presence felt. He looked up immediately and smiled in appreciation at her refreshed and calm appearance. He seemed more relaxed than the previous day too, so she simply asked, "Would you like to go for a walk?" and when he said that he would, took his arm as they left the hotel together.
It was another cold, grey day but the wind had dropped a bit and there was no rain though the streets were still wet. Mary remembered a pleasant promenade by the sea near her old hotel and with the help of Matthew's map they set off on foot in what they hoped was the right direction. It turned out that the two hotels and areas of the city were not so far from each other as the crow flies and after half an hour of weaving among the narrow, dark streets, they came out in a broad boulevard leading to the front. While they were still in the old city conversation had been limited to observations on what was immediately before them but when they emerged into light and space, there was no longer any excuse.
Slowing her pace to match those of the other people taking their afternoon passegiata by the sea, Mary glanced up at her companion and then looked away again.
"Matthew, you can't put it off any longer. Tell me what my father said. I cannot believe that gossip which has reached the south of Italy is unknown in Yorkshire."
Matthew turned his head away towards the sea as if it might provide inspiration. "Mary, I don't-"
"It can't be worse than what I've imagined. Don't keep anything back from me, please; you must have spoken to him."
He took a deep breath, chiding himself for being so ridiculous. It was Mary who was affected the most, after all. "I did talk to him before I left. Mary, you have to know – he loves you very much!"
She stopped and forced herself in his path, facing him. "Spare me. I know my father loves me but I also know, and better than you do, that if it comes down to a choice between his daughters and Downton, I will always be a slender consolation for his lack of sons."
Matthew could think of no way of protecting her. She stood before him, brave and unbeaten, and there were no words he could think of to express everything he felt for her. Swallowing and gently taking her arm again, the only suitable gesture allowed to him, he told her as calmly as he could, "Your father is very disappointed and angry with you."
She rolled her eyes. "Naturally; I'd hardly expect him to be proud. What of it?"
"He wants to disinherit you," finished Matthew in an embarrassed rush, and looked away in a mixture of unnecessary guilt and embarrassment.
Mary's eyes widened and she expelled a rush of air. Of all the things she had thought might constitute her punishment, she had not expected anything as drastic.
"Well," she said as normally as possible, making an effort to pull herself together, "I must admit I didn't think he would go that far. The next few years with Great-Aunt Elizabeth in Brighton was what I – My imagination is lacking, it seems."
"You couldn't go to Brighton," said Matthew in a rush, feeling almost as distractedly wretched as she did. "Edith's there."
Now she looked up at him in astonishment. "Edith? What on earth for?"
He opened his mouth and closed it again, finally admitting, "She started the rumours. She admitted it. Mary, I'm so..." He trailed off. "...sorry."
This was a new blow and she could not rally so easily a second time. Turning abruptly from him, she leaned on the parapet for support, her fingers digging into the hard stone, ruining her dark gloves. Far below, the waves washed backwards and forwards against the wall, only increasing her sudden nausea.
"Edith..." she murmured. "I cannot believe this. Why would she- I deserve many things, but not that, not from her."
Flawed as her relationship with her sister always had been, Mary felt more upset than she could have imagined to learn of Edith's betrayal. They had sniped at each other, played stupid games (some more dangerous than others) but this was on quite another level. When had she done it? Why had she done it? For she inevitably shared in her sister's disgrace, as they all did. At her side, Matthew had also turned to face the ocean. After a moment of hesitation, he silently laid his hand lightly on her back in support.
"Edith, banished; myself, disinherited," she murmured, turning her head abruptly towards him. "What has happened to our family, Matthew? And all because I – all because I-"
He shook his head, pleading with her. "Mary, don't say it. It doesn't matter."
"What?" she shot back, taking a step backwards, her heart pounding. "How can you say that it doesn't matter? Don't talk nonsense!"
He stepped towards her and enveloped her hand which was resting on the wall in his, holding it very tightly. "It's not nonsense. Do you think you are the only person who ever made a mistake? It doesn't matter, not in any real way, not to anyone who truly loves you."
Her eyes flickered over his face almost warily. "And do you love me?"
He blinked several times and licked his lips but did not at least make the mistake of delaying his response too long. "I'm here, aren't I?" he replied. "And I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be."
She shook her head, frowning at his hopeful smile. "Yes, yes, very well. You have won the race and strung the bow – and are here to claim your reward. Yet I'm afraid that once you've stripped the gold off your trophy, you'll find nothing but tin underneath."
"No!" cried Matthew with more energy, holding onto her hand when she would have withdrawn it. "You're no prize to be won by me or by anyone. I'm here because I love you not because I expect anything from it. That wouldn't be right."
Her lips parted in wonder. "You would – you would go home then? And leave me?"
"If you wanted me to, yes," he replied earnestly. "I – I don't want to go anywhere now, not without you at any rate, Mary, but it's your choice."
She stared at him. "My choice?" she breathed. She glanced out over the bay and raised her eyebrows. Her hand under his flexed restlessly. "And how am I meant to choose?" She returned her gaze to his face. "When I do not know what I am being offered."
"Marriage, Mary! What did you- I'm asking you to marry me."
Only the smallest flicker across her face as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other betrayed the tightness of her heart. "Even now?" she queried, however. "Even when my scandal will drag you into exile as well as myself and when you know what I have done? Can you really dismiss that so easily?"
Matthew licked his lips before replying carefully and a little breathlessly, "I can. I can dismiss it because I've thought about it and I understand it completely. Oh my darling Mary, I can never be to you what – what you would be to me but I've made my peace with that. You see, it doesn't matter that I won't be your first lover only, if you can, I'd so much like to be your last."
She blinked at him several times and though her chest rose and fell rapidly she seemed unable to make any reply. Eventually, she broke his gaze and spoke with hasty embarrassment, "Every girl dreams of the proposal of marriage they intend to accept and how they will answer it." She met his eyes again. "But now I find that I have forgotten all the words I planned to say."
"It's not a difficult question," he replied, a wave of irrepressible joy building up within his heart and threatening to spill out. He trembled all over and his smile was too broad. "I'm asking if you want to marry me."
Mary closed her eyes briefly and when she opened them again, her expression meeting his was radiant. "Oh Matthew, more than anything in the world!"
He let out the breath he had not realised he had been holding and took her other hand in his, threading their fingers together. If they had not been in public he would have kissed her. As it was, eyes had to take the place of lips and though only their fingers touched, after several long moments of standing too close together, they were just as breathless and flushed as if they had actually been able to embrace.
For the rest of the afternoon they wandered at random through the city, getting wonderfully lost and poking their noses into every old church and open palace courtyard they passed, admiring architecture and antiquity without any real notion of what they were looking at. By unspoken agreement they spoke of nothing unpleasant for the rest of the day. Matthew told her about the South African diamond case that had occupied him so exclusively for the last few months and she had the good grace to at least appear interested. In return Mary told him of everything she had seen and done in Italy, sharing her impressions and reactions openly as she had not been able to do with anyone so far. However, if their conversation did seem to revert more often than not to the state of their own feelings, being the subject of greatest interest to them at that time, they probably should not be blamed for it.
When darkness fell and they were tired from all the walking, they found their way to one of the many lively and welcoming restaurants found in the squares of the old city that advertised local red wine and the best pasta they would ever taste. Whether that was strictly true or not was debatable but both swore afterwards that it was. They returned to the hotel late and about as warm, full, and content as it was possible to be. Matthew collected their keys from the landlady as they passed through reception and walked with Mary to her room on the way to his.
Once again, they found themselves alone in that silent, black corridor, the door open behind her, but this time there was no holding back. Their eyes gleamed as matching beacons in the dark and then, moving at the same time, they were in each other's arms. There was none of the hesitation that might be expected of a first kiss though; nothing but joy, relief and the understanding that accompanies tried and tested mutual love. It felt like coming home.
Read the Epilogue here!