A/N: long overdue, here is another update to this fic! I decided to insert yet another chapter before the epilogue, because you were all asking so nicely and because I did feel that a couple of issues needed to be dealt with before the story came to an end.

Also, I have received some really lovely messages in the last week or so, and I have been meaning to reply to them - I will do so very soon, hopefully tonight, but I just wanted to address them here in case the people who sent them to me thought I was ignoring them! xxx

...

Closing the creaky gate behind her, Mary hopped up the couple of steps to the house in order to escape the blazing heat, her left arm looped through the handles of several grocery bags. The front door clicked shut, but there was no response from her boyfriend; he usually came to meet her, or at least called for her, whenever she returned home. Looking for him, she peered into the living room, and a smile immediately graced her face. The heat had evidently been too strong for Matthew to handle, so he was now spread out on the sofa, in a T-shirt, shorts and bare-feet, his chest rising and falling steadily in his slumber.

Her fond smile soon transformed into a mischievous grin as she carefully stepped closer to him. "Hell-oooo!" She bellowed, purposely dropping the shopping bags onto the floor with a loud thud.

The sounds jolted Matthew awake and he groaned loudly. Her laughter should have irritated him further, but they had fallen into a habit of playing little pranks on each other like this, and he was quite amused by it. "You're a cruel woman." He said dramatically, rubbing his hands over his face.

"It's not my fault that you sleep so heavily." Mary retorted. She had never known anyone to be so difficult to wake up, although she'd had a lot of fun devising novel and effective ways to rouse him from his sleep, ranging from the erotic to the unkind. "Besides, I need someone to help me pack all this stuff away." She gestured helplessly to the bags around her feet, filled with cereals, vegetables, packs of meat and fruit.

"Come here and give me a kiss and then I'll consider helping you." Matthew murmured, reaching out to tug her arm. Mary smiled to herself as she settled in his lap and he sat up to meet her.

"I'm not sure how much I enjoy kissing you anymore, with all of this scraping against my face." She teased, stroking a hand over the short beard that Matthew now sported. She'd been unconvinced by the idea when Matthew announced that he wanted to change his look, but the truth was that he looked even more handsome with it, teamed with a newly-cropped hairstyle.

"I told you, it helps people at the theatre take me more seriously." Matthew replied, pinching her side as a rebuke for her teasing. "And I don't see why a bit of facial fuzz makes such a difference to you."

"It's more like barbed wire than 'fuzz'." Mary said drily, squealing when Matthew began planting a quick succession of kisses all over her face and neck. The feel of the long stubble bristling against her skin was actually a delightful sensation; she gently pulled his head up by his hair and leaned in to kiss him, the softness of his lips contrasting wonderfully with the roughness of his skin.

Mary slowly dragged her fingers across the base of Matthew's scalp while his hands languidly slid over her waist and back. They kissed slowly for a few minutes, revelling in the ability to take their time and enjoy each other in this way. In the back of her mind, Mary thanked her lucky stars for putting her in such a blissful situation.

It had been almost six months since her father had come around to the notion of Mary and Matthew leaving their marriages and starting a relationship. Both decree absolutes had been granted about a month earlier, and the last obstacle - however merely symbolic it may have been - had finally fallen away. To avoid protracted proceedings concerning the allocation of assets between herself and Ash, Mary had settled for much less than she was actually due, much to Matthew's consternation. Matthew had made sure to give Sophie every penny that was owed to her, and more - amongst other things, he had written the house over to her so that it was solely in her name. Mary had argued with him about this; she knew it wasn't her place to direct what he should do, but he had worked so very hard to raise the funds to purchase that house, and she felt he was being foolishly generous in handing it all over to Sophie. At least Mary was financially secure enough not to need Ash's money, but Matthew was effectively giving away most of his life savings and leaving himself with very little. However, Matthew assured her that he had enough to support himself for the moment and his income from the theatre was picking up, having secured enough investors and staged his first two plays (with both plays enjoying long runs). He would be more than willing to relieve himself of all his worldly possessions if it meant he and Mary were able to be together.

The passage of time was certainly helping them move on from the spectre of divorce, although it was obviously still a recent development. The couple had begun renting a house together in north London soon after their divorces became finalised. It felt too large a leap to buy a house together - regardless of the strength of their feelings, it felt important to be relatively cautious and sensible when progressing their relationship. Nevertheless, the modest terraced house had quickly become a home for the two of them. They cooked together, did chores together and shared a bed every night. They messed around and had silly arguments, and it was perfect.

"We should probably have some lunch and start getting ready." Matthew whispered once he'd pulled away.

"But we don't need to leave until 5.30pm." Mary responded. One of Mary's childhood friends - one of the few who had remained a friend through to adulthood - had recently gotten engaged. She was less wealthy than Mary but more eager to flaunt her cash; consequently, she was holding a lavish engagement party that evening, to which she had kindly invited Matthew despite never having met him.

"Yes, but I know you haven't decided what to wear yet, so we need to factor in a couple of hours for that too." Matthew smirked. The care that Mary took over her appearance, and the length of time it took to achieve that look of elegant effortlessness, had initially taken Matthew by surprise. It all seemed very futile to him - she looked equally beautiful in an old cardigan and jeans as she did in a full-length gown and make-up, but he loved learning about all her meticulous routines.

"Very funny. I'm sure you wouldn't be making jokes if I turned up on your arm looking like an absolute mess." Mary hadn't mentioned this to Matthew, but she was quite nervous about this evening. It was their first public outing together. The story of her marital breakdown and rumours of the affair that had taken place had made their way into some magazines and on certain websites, owing to her status as one of England's 'It' girls, and she worried that there might be heightened interest in her, even though it had been a few months since the story had broken out. She had of course informed her close friends and family of her change in circumstances, but many of them were yet to properly meet Matthew and see them together. As supportive as they seemed to be, there were bound to be many people in attendance who would have attended her wedding to Ash. She could hardly blame them for judging her, if they chose to do so; not everyone knew the whole story and it was easy to jump to conclusions and cast someone as a vixen. What she wouldn't be able to stomach, though, was any ill-feeling or resentment towards Matthew. He was being an absolute angel in trying to ingratiate himself with her family and friends, in spite of all the trouble they'd gone through, and she didn't want him to encounter any further rejection.

"Mary, I've never seen you look anything less than beautiful." Matthew said, softly kissing her lips. Mary deepened the kiss, seeking comfort. Whatever was troubling her, she could find solace and reassurance in Matthew's embrace. She smiled gratefully as Matthew pulled away and nibbled along her jaw. "Alright, I'm actually quite hungry now." He announced, nudging Mary off his lap. "I'll put the shopping away but I think you should make me a bacon sandwich as an apology for waking me up so rudely." He bargained, smirking at Mary's raised eyebrow.

...

"Woah - you weren't joking when you said that Elizabeth liked to splash out." Matthew murmured, his eyes scanning the large, opulently-decorated ballroom. Such ostentatious displays of wealth were still foreign to him and, as he caught the tail-end of a conversation wherein several young women shared stories of their personal stylists, he marvelled at how Mary had remained so relatively down-to-Earth. He wasn't going to stop mocking her absurdly expensive moisturisers, though...

"She's quite a character." Mary replied absent-mindedly. Many people recognised her from Crawley's and she was used to being glanced at curiously, but she couldn't help feeling that everyone in this room was staring at them, whispering, and she unconsciously clutched Matthew's arm more tightly. "Let's find Elizabeth and Michael; we should say hello to them." They wove their way through the scores of guests, some of whom were former classmates of Mary.

"So how many people here do you actually know?" Matthew asked, increasingly astounded by the event. He began to wonder what kind of celebration Mary would want if they ever got engaged, and the thought lightened his heart.

"I recognise a few from school, but I haven't spoken to them in years. I didn't get round to asking Elizabeth who else would be-" She stilled, her heart skipping a beat.

Matthew turned to her when she stopped speaking, immediately growing concerned by her expression. "Mary? What is it?" He placed his hand over hers, where it rested on his arm.

Mary squinted at something in the distance before shaking her head dismissively. "Nothing - I thought I saw someone I knew but it wasn't them." She gave Matthew a reassuring smile, and, although he wasn't entirely convinced by it, he nodded.

They heard an excited voice call Mary's name - Elizabeth had found them. She was glowing and breathless from the attention that she was receiving from all of her guests. To Mary's relief, she and Michael, her fiance, received Matthew with warm smiles and polite enquiries, and the promise of arranging a double-date for the two couples, before being whisked away by another guest eager to bestow praise and gifts upon them. Matthew found Mary's friend very amusing - she was bubbly and friendly and quite unashamedly materialistic.

Soon, they were taking their seats at their designated table for dinner. Elizabeth had thoughtfully placed them with the more liberal of her friends, who either didn't know of, or didn't care about, Mary's supposed scandalous break with tradition. Matthew spent a lot of time talking to the young couple to his right, who had both also trained in the law before deciding to pursue other avenues. Every now and then he would turn back to Mary, just to stroke a thumb over her hand or whisper a small joke in her ear to make her laugh. It made her heart swell, to know that they could share an evening like this. All her fears were beginning to be dispelled.

After dinner, the guests were treated to various forms of entertainment including a live band. Mary was in the middle of coaxing a reluctant Matthew to dance with her when Michael approached them.

"Matthew, come and join us in the casino." He gestured to the room behind him, where several tuxedoed men were travelling to.

"Oh, that sounds great," Matthew smiled broadly, and Mary knew his enthusiasm was less borne from a like of gambling and more from a hatred of dancing in public, "shall we?" He asked Mary, frowning when she shook her head.

"I believe I'll be staying here with Elizabeth and the other ladies for a chat. We have cocktails and the music to keep us company while you men drink whiskey and fritter all your money away." She explained, knowing that Matthew would be unaccustomed to the archaic practice of separating the men and women for a while after dinner. She shared a small smile with Michael at Matthew's utterly perplexed expression.

"That's right," Michael responded, patting Matthew on the shoulder, "don't worry, though - you'll soon be reunited with your sweetheart." He winked at Mary, who rolled her eyes playfully.

"See you later," she kissed Matthew on the cheek as he departed, and went to fetch herself a drink.

Spotting a couple of acquaintances who were beckoning her over, she happily took a seat with them and began to catch up. Given the occasion, conversation quickly turned to relationships, and the butterflies in Mary's stomach began to resurface as she prepared herself for disapproval.

To her surprise, the young ladies (one of whom was actually a 'Lady') showed a genuine interest in Mary's story. It was as if they were asking about a foreign land that nobody but Mary had ventured to. As uncomfortable as she felt talking about her private life like this, it was refreshing to know that not everyone was as judgmental as she and her family had supposed them to be. Matthew had been right - it was the twenty-first century and the upper-class were finally catching up with it.

"Do you think you'd get married again?" Lady Elisa asked her.

"Erm...I suppose I haven't really given it much thought." Mary lied. Of course she'd thought about marrying Matthew. The idea of spending every day of the rest of her life bound to him, taking each breath with the knowledge that he was hers completely, occupied her mind more often than she would admit. And she certainly wasn't going to divulge this secret to two women whom she was seeing for the first time in ten years before she'd even spoken to Matthew about it. Things between them had been precarious and uncertain for so long, plagued with so many worries and fears, that to contemplate a peaceful marriage between them seemed too much to ask for. She was already so blessed to be able to live with him, seeing him as soon as she opened her eyes in the mornings, that it felt greedy to wish for anything more. She suspected that Matthew felt the same way, so neither had broached the topic yet.

"I suppose you haven't been together very long." Lady Elisa nodded. "I always think it's best to-"

"Mary!" Michael sudden appearance interrupted them. Mary spun round to face him - he looked panicked. "Come quickly." He said.

There was an underlying urgency in his tone that scared her. Wordlessly, she hastily followed him into the room next door, where the casino was. Her heart was pounding. All she could see as she entered was a group of men gathered around something, and many of them were shouting "Stop!" or "Move away!" at the unknown entity in front of them.

Amidst the commotion, however, was a sound that ignited sheer dread into Mary's stomach. It was a man groaning in pain, in agony. It was Matthew.

Pushing her way through the men, her eyes settled in horror upon the figure of Matthew sprawled onto the floor, bleeding profusely from the nose and lip, his eyes closed. Towering over him was her ex-husband. The only thing that told her that Matthew was still conscious were the strained grunts escaping his mouth each time Ash pounded his fist into his face or chest.

"Matthew!" She screamed, running forward and shoving Ash away as hard as she could. Several men shouted at her to move, to be careful in case she got hurt, but she couldn't care less. She was willing to take the beating for him.

"Move, Mary!" Ash yelled. He was now, finally, being restrained by a couple of people, but he refused to walk away without taking the opportunity to kick Matthew's body as hard as he was able to. Matthew wailed again.

"Call an ambulance!" Mary shouted to the room. There was a lot of fuss around her, people bustling and speaking in worried voices, but all she cared about was the man lying on the floor. She knelt down next to him, unable to hold back the terrified sobs. "Matthew, can you hear me?" She said shakily, stroking a trembling hand over his face, noticing that one eye was completely swollen and bruised. One of the women came over with a few napkins and ice to apply to his nose. "Matthew?" She prompted, more loudly and desperately.

"Yes," Matthew coughed. Mary had never felt such strong relief flood through her veins. "I don't need an ambulance," he rasped.

"Nonsense, of course you do." Mary insisted, feeling totally useless. He was obviously still in great pain but she didn't know what to do beyond dab at his bleeding face and tenderly stroke the area on his torso that Ash had rammed his foot into. "My love, my poor darling," she muttered under her breath, tears still falling down her cheek.

Michael approached them. "He's left. He was quite drunk. I'm so sorry - we didn't realise he'd come here, someone brought him as a guest." He said, not needing to say who he was referring to.

Mary just nodded but didn't speak. She didn't have the words or the capacity to say how she felt about what she'd just seen. All of her concentration was on Matthew and ensuring that he was alright. He tried to sit up, and she panicked again, telling him to remain where he was until the ambulance arrived.

"Mary, I'm fine." Matthew reiterated, although now that he was sitting up Mary could see the extent of his injuries more clearly. He hissed as she tried to touch his face, but quickly sought to reassure her that he wasn't really in pain as he saw her tearing up again.

Within minutes an ambulance arrived, and within minutes they left. The assessment was that Matthew had a broken nose and a multitude of bad bruises but it was nothing that couldn't be left to heal on its own, with plenty of ice and normal painkillers.

Helpfully, Michael swiftly arranged for the hotel to give them a room to stay in for the night, to rest. Mary thanked him and tentatively wrapped an arm around Matthew's waist to help him walk out of the room towards the lift, ignoring his protests and assurances that he was perfectly fine.

"Do you want anything? I can ask to have more Ibuprofen sent up-" Mary began, closing the door to their bedroom for the night.

"Mary, honestly, I'm alright." Matthew said firmly as he sat down, his eyes imploring her to stop fussing over him. He held her gaze as she stood before him, fidgeting and looking anxious, as if she felt a need to do something. "It hurt at the time but it's much better now. It's mainly just my nose, although the ice has helped." He said, hoping that this elaboration would help her trust him and put her at ease.

Nodding a little, Mary perched on the bed next to him. "I'm so sorry, Matthew." She breathed, her eyes watering again.

"What are you sorry for?" Matthew asked softly, taking her hand in his. He reckoned he disliked seeing Mary upset as much as she disliked seeing him beaten up.

"I thought I saw him earlier on this evening - I could see him in the distance, but then I thought my mind was probably playing tricks on me, so I ignored it." Mary said regretfully.

"That doesn't make this your fault, Mary." He told her. She frowned and brought his hand to her lap, playing with his fingers distractedly. "I hardly blame him." Matthew said.

Mary stared at him, completely aghast. Was Matthew defending Ash's despicable behaviour? "What the hell are you talking about?"

"If I found out that some other man had bedded you I'd beat the shit out of him too." Matthew smiled ruefully, holding an ice-pack to his eye.

But Mary was not amused. "If Ash is going to remain mad at anyone then it should be me, and me alone." She said firmly.

"Mary, you must understand why he would utterly despise me." Matthew looked at her, slightly frustrated that he was being treated like some innocent victim. It took two to tango and he wasn't going to pretend that he didn't bear any fault for what happened. Not that it was anyone's fault that he and Mary fell so deeply for each other, but they were both responsible for acting on their feelings. "You yourself worry about Sophie hating you." He reminded her of the conversation they'd had several months back, when Mary had suddenly feared that she might bump into Sophie somewhere around London and would not know what to do - whether to apologise, to hide from her, or to act as if she'd nothing to be ashamed of. It was a predicament to which there was no correct answer, Matthew had told her - all they could do was hope that they'd never be placed in that situation.

"I know why he'd be angry at you but that doesn't excuse him from his behaviour - he should know how to control himself." Mary replied.

"He could say the same thing about us." Matthew replied simply. "I'm not saying that two wrongs make a right, but we must be in a better position than most people to understand how someone can be overwhelmed by their feelings."

"It's not the same thing," Mary argued, "we were desperately in love with each other. He's just jealous and upset that we wounded his pride."

"Look, darling, I'm not sure if this is something that can be rationalised." Matthew said patiently. He could see that Mary was shaken by the incident, and she always sought to find the logical explanation behind people's actions, but there didn't seem to be much point in this case.

"You're right." Mary sighed. "How did he know that it was you, anyway? I didn't tell him who it was that I'd fallen for."

Matthew shrugged. "He must have seen us together at dinner or something, then waited until he got some Dutch courage before confronting me."

Mary leaned forward and placed a soft kiss on his cheek, still feeling the need to apologise for what poor Matthew had had to endure. She raised a hand and touched the skin around his eye so very gently. It was turning a purple-ish black colour. "Are you absolutely sure that you're OK?" She asked, unable to erase from her mind the image of him lying helplessly on the floor as he was beaten.

"I'm absolutely sure." Matthew offered her a small smile, even though it pained him to do so given that his lip was cracked. "I feel like you're more distressed than I am." He lifted his arm up and she immediately snuggled into his side. "It probably looked worse than it actually was."

"I was worried that you might have...died." Mary murmured, slightly sheepish as she realised how silly it sounded now.

Matthew couldn't help but laugh a little, hugging her closer to him. "Oh, darling. I'm made of stronger stuff than that!"

"I've never seen anyone get beaten up before." Mary said.

"Really? Never?" Matthew asked with surprise.

"Not all of us grew up on the mean streets of Manchester." Mary teased softly, shifting her head to kiss his neck lovingly. Matthew smiled and rubbed her arm as she delicately pecked her way up to his mouth. He wouldn't be able to kiss her properly in his state but she placed a feather-light kiss on the corner of his mouth, so as not to disturb his injury. "Do you want to sleep?" She asked.

Matthew nodded. "But not here - I'd like to go home."

"It's alright, darling, Michael's already paid for this room for us." Mary replied. "And we have plenty of ice and bandages-"

"I know, but I'd feel much better if I were with you in our home." Matthew interrupted fondly. "I'll pay Michael back for the room - maybe not now, though. We've probably disturbed their evening enough."

"Oh God, poor Elizabeth." Mary said, only just realising how upset her friend must be for having her special evening ruined by such unpleasantness.

"Perhaps we shouldn't hold out for an invitation to the wedding." Matthew joked lightly, rising from the bed, his hand gently clutching his side.

...

A/N: firstly - sorry for having poor Matthew get beaten up! It's a bit more dramatic than I usually go for in my stories, but I decided to go with it. I think the fact that I wrote it from Mary's point of view probably made it seem worse than it actually was, and I promise that Matthew makes a full recovery very soon! And don't worry - the epilogue will be nice and fluffy and happy :) thanks so much for reading! Let me know if there's anything in particular you'd like to see in the epilogue - i haven't quite decided how far in the future I want it to be set...xxx