A/N: Happy Friday (or Saturday), everyone! Sorry this chapter is so terribly late. I've had it written for a few days now, but a sudden bout of illness has prevented me from doing final edits and posting until tonight. I'm still recovering, but hopefully I'll be able to start on the next chapter of ALTLO tomorrow. *fingers crossed*

I just wanted to mention that this chapter contains some themes that should always be handled with care, and I hope I was able to convey the feelings and events I wanted to express tastefully. As far as Mary's thoughts/feelings about the Pamuk incident, please note that the expressed are my beliefs about what Mary's thoughts/feelings were and are not an expression of my own beliefs. I believe that what happened with Pamuk was rape. It was against Mary's will, full stop. That being said, I do believe it was a life-changing experience for her that holds great significance in the development of her character over the remainder of the series, so I did want to deal rather extensively with it here. Readers sensitive to content dealing with the emotional aftermath of rape should proceed with caution, however it isn't explicit or overly upsetting.

Sorry about the rambling, guys. You may now read the chapter. :)


Chapter 4

The church service might have been dreadfully uncomfortable, Mary mused, if she actually believed in God, which she wasn't at all sure that she did. She'd expected to feel some nagging sense of shame or remorse - at least more than she usually did - upon entering the hallowed structure now that she was...fallen, one of those unfortunate women who the matrons of society whispered about while shaking their grey heads in judgement. What did they know, anyway? Did they ever think to ask the subjects of their vicious gossip if they'd had any choice in the matter? But, no, she wouldn't indulge in self-pity. In the end, she'd given in, hadn't she? That was all that mattered now. It was done, and there was no point wasting energy on regrets that wouldn't change anything. She'd been to church and back, and no magical scarlet letter had appeared on her chest to give her away. She would survive this. She had to.

So absorbed in her thoughts was Mary, that she almost didn't hear the crunch of the gravel behind her until Matthew was nearly upon her, his rich voice breaking the trance her dark musings had put her in.

"Cousin Mary," he spoke, his brow creased with concern.

She only looked at him expectantly, somehow less annoyed by his presence than she usually was. Perhaps she simply lacked the energy for it.

"If there's ever anything I can do..."

"There isn't, but thank you," she interrupted him, slightly discomforted by his warm, concerned tone. She didn't deserve it. His kindness was completely unnecessary. He was wasting his time.

She chanced one last, long look up at his penetrating gaze before he nodded and turned, thankfully able to discern her desire to be alone. For an uncomfortable moment, she wondered if he could look at her and see it...the impurity. The change. She felt so different now, it had amazed her to see the same visage peering back at her in the glass that morning as every other. Perhaps Matthew's trained eye could see something others didn't. But, whatever he found, his gaze had held nothing of judgement. Only concern.


The days and weeks passed in a blur as Mary tried to sort through her thoughts and feelings in the wake of that fateful night. In the space of a mere hour, she'd faced the great mystery of life and the harsh reality of death, neither of which she had been in any way prepared for. Her innocence had been ripped from her in more than one way that evening.

She tried desperately hard not to think about it, to erase from her mind's eye the image of the dark skin of his shoulder as he'd covered her, panic rising inside her as the resolve to stop him no matter the cost came far, far too late. And, in the few seconds after he'd cried out and crushed her under his heavy bulk, she'd felt so empty inside, so hollow. So this was the marriage act. This was her lot in life. He'd called her his darling, but she wasn't really. The act itself has been as meaningless and false as the pretense of emotion he'd used to lure her into a deceptive feeling of security before...

For the first time, she realized just how much mutual love and respect were truly qualities to be desired in a marriage. What good were titles, money, or position if she had to face that every night - that hollowness deep inside? Perhaps the cruelest part of all was the realization that now she could no longer even hope for a marriage of love, for she could never lie to a man she truly cared for. It would be difficult enough with one she merely respected. She'd learnt what it was to be truly happy and ensured she never would be in the same hour.

Carson had tried to encourage her when she'd said as much to him, and she appreciated his kindness, though she knew all his assurances to be in vain. He couldn't possibly know all that was in her heart and mind, but it had felt good to unburden herself to someone, if only a little. Her own mother didn't seem to understand, and she could hardly burden Anna any further. It seemed that this was a cross she was fated to carry alone.

After almost a month had passed, she'd started to bear up under the strain, though she'd more accepted the pain than erased it. That is, until her mother entered her room one evening after dinner and shattered her insides anew.

"Mary, there's something we need to discuss," Cora half-whispered as she closed the door purposefully behind her.

"What is it?" Mary asked, her impatience already rising.

"Should I leave you alone, your ladyship?" Anna offerred, the brush in her hand stilling in mid-stroke.

"No, Anna, that won't be necessary," Cora answered. "In fact, your assistance may be needed."

Anna nodded and continued her work as Mary sighed expectantly, her eyes meeting her mother's in the mirror. "Yes?" she prompted, infusing her voice with as much boredom and indifference as she could muster to hide the growing sense of foreboding within her.

"It's been three weeks," the countess began, her face unsmiling as she watched her daughter's indifferent expression keenly. "I fear the time has come to discuss...whether or not your actions may have had...consequences."

Mary's gaze snapped up to meet her mother's again, her task of rearranging the various bottles and jars on the vanity before her completely forgotten.

"Consequences?"

Mary's alarm only grew as her mother's face transformed into a soft, patronizing smile. A moment later, the reality of what was being suggested suddenly dawned on her, filling her veins with an icy dread. A rueful laugh escaped as she inwardly berated herself for not realizing the possibility sooner. Of course she knew that the marriage act was performed for the purpose of creating children, only the truth of it had never seemed so real before. How terribly innocent she still was, she thought with a small, sad shake of her head.

"Do you have any reason to believe that..."

"Not yet," Cora interrupted her, "but we need to start watching for signs. When is your next cycle due?"

A hot flush worked its way up Mary's face at the mention of something so private and rarely, if ever, discussed. Her mother had never made mention of such things before, having left it to the nanny to explain to a twelve-year-old Mary that she hadn't contracted some exotic disease. Her eyes automatically sought Anna's, and the dutiful maid sprang into action, walking to the desk in the corner and opening the small pocket calendar.

"Actually, it should begin the day after tomorrow, if my calculations are correct," the maid blushingly answered, her eyes respectfully averted from her mistress' equally red face.

"Good. Then we won't have to wait long."

"For what?" Mary asked, embarrassed and bewildered by the whole business.

Cora placed a hand lightly on Mary's shoulder, her thumb rubbing soothing circles over the smooth silk of her dressing gown.

"A woman's monthly event ceases to come when she's..."

The countess couldn't find it within her to say it aloud, not yet. She didn't have to. Mary understood her well enough.

"I see," Mary responded, rising and drawing herself up to full hight. "Well, in only two days time, we'll know for certain that there's nothing to worry about."

But, despite her assurances, Mary's courses didn't arrive in two days, nor in three. Four days passed, which soon turned into five, then six. Still nothing.

With a heavy heart, Cora strode resolutely to the telephone after seeing Robert off to London on the seventh morning. It was time for Mary to face the music.


As he pedaled quickly up the gravel path to the big house, Matthew replayed the strange telephone conversation with his countess cousin over in his mind, just trying to make sense of it all. If nobody was ill, why the need for such haste? Why the need for secrecy? He hadn't even been able to tell Dr. Clarkson where he was going. It was all so very odd, and he couldn't help but worry.

Following Cora's directions, he cycled past the main entrance around to the side of the house where, as she'd described, he found a smaller exterior door, one little used or even know of. He dismounted and propped his bicycle against the stone wall just as the door opened, revealing a petite blonde maid who's name he couldn't quite recall.

"Please, come with me, Dr. Crawley," she spoke quietly as she held the door open for him.

Matthew looked curiously about as he entered the darkened hallway in what was an apparently disused part of the house. It was such a large structure that it didn't surprise him that there were parts unused, and he wondered if he could think of a way to ask Robert about it without revealing the clandestine nature of its discovery.

They passed no one as they mounted a narrow, twisting flight of stairs before emerging into a scarlet-carpeted hallway to be greeted by a solemnly smiling Cora.

"Cousin Matthew, thank you for coming on such short notice."

"Of course, Cousin Cora. I only hope there's nothing terribly amiss."

Before the countess could reply, Anna bustled back up the them, addressing them in a soft half-whisper. "Tea is served in your sitting room, your ladyship. And I've checked that there's no one about. Mrs. O'Brien just left to see to that errand you asked her about."

"Thank you, Anna. Please see that Lady Mary is ready."

Anna curtseyed and disappeared into a room a few doors down. Matthew's confusion grew.

"What's this all about, Cousin Cora?" he asked politely, but bluntly. "Why all the secrecy?"

"Come into the sitting room with me, and I'll explain over tea," she offered calmly, gesturing towards the appropriate door.


Not ten minutes later, Matthew emerged back into the long hallway, his face a mask of pure shock and dismay. His mind almost couldn't process what he'd just been told. Surely this was some sick nightmare from which he would shortly awaken in a cold sweat. Underneath the turmoil of his confused thoughts, a deep-seated ache squeezed at his heart with each beat, but he couldn't analyze it yet. Not yet. Later, in the privacy of his bedroom, he would unpack the whys and wherefores of his deeper feelings, but not now. Now he had to face her - he had to face Mary.

"I wish we didn't have to burden you with this," Cora had said, "but you understand our need to keep things as quiet as possible...so fortunate that your profession allows us to keep this...family...discretion is vital...scandal...ruin...Mary..."

The words were nothing but a blur in his memory with only the occasional word or phrase standing out amongst the meaningless babble of his thoughts. But he had to focus.

Don't think, he commanded himself. Just do the job you came to do. There'll be time for all of that later.

Far too little time had passed before he was stood before an open bedroom door - her bedroom. He paused to allow Cora to enter in front of him before standing awkwardly in the middle of the room as the blonde maid closed the door behind him. For a long moment, there was only an uncomfortable silence as Matthew tried not to notice how beautiful Mary looked seated in the middle of her bed in a lace dressing down, her long, dark braid resting on her shoulder. No, now was certainly not the time for such thoughts, not when he was there to determine if she carried another man's child. The thought caused an uncomfortable churning in his gut, and he quickly put on his most professional demeanor. It wouldn't do to have anyone see how affected he was by this, most especially the woman seated in bed, her dark eyes meeting his boldly with a look of defiance and stubbornness that he couldn't help but admire even under the circumstances.

"Cousin Mary," he greeted her with an awkward bow, "if I may..." He gestured to the chair beside her bed. She nodded her consent, and he pulled it closer to her side and seated himself, bending to rummage through his bag for his thermometer.

Mary dutifully opened her mouth and allowed him to slip the cold sliver of glass under her tongue before taking a deep, steadying breath through her nose. Though she tried her best to appear nonchalant, she knew her face was as red as the wallpaper. It was mortifying enough having Matthew in her bedroom, seeing her undressed and in so vulnerable a position, but to know that he...knew...Surely he would despise her now. She tried to tell herself that she didn't care.

His fingers brushed gently over her wrist, and she started a little.

"Pardon me, Cousin Mary," he spoke softly before touching her again, a little hesitantly this time. His touch was light and gentle as he turned her hand over between his, cradling the back of it in his open palm before placing two fingers on her wrist. His brow creased in concentration, and Mary's face flushed further, knowing her flying pulse would give away her carefully hidden agitation. She watched his face for any sign of recognition, and, when his eyes met hers, there was that look again - that unnerving compassion and concern she'd seen once before.

Matthew dropped her hand as though it had suddenly burned him, resolving firmly not to meet her eyes again. He'd seen a flash of unexpected vulnerability in her expression that had nearly been his undoing. He had to remain focused.

He removed the thermometer from between her pursed lips and quickly read it before stooping again to place it back in his bag.

"Normal," he answered Cora's questioning look quickly before turning back to Mary, his eyes fixed on her dark hair, her delicate hands clasped in her lap, on the crisp white sheets...anywhere but on her face.

"May I ask you a few questions?" he asked, nodding in Mary's general direction.

"If you must," Mary answered, her nerves humming as she wished he would just proceed to the more uncomfortable parts of the examination and have done with it. Was that not to be mortification enough?

"Forgive me, but...when was the first day of your last menstrual cycle?"

Mary closed her eyes in embarrassment, but answered him promptly.

"So, you're only a week late then," Matthew announced after finishing his calculations, his frown visibly lightening with relief.

"Obviously," Mary sighed, her forbearance quickly reaching its limit.

Matthew sighed at her brusque tone, but could hardly blame her for it. He was feeling more than a little strained himself.

"Have there been any other symptoms? Changes in your diet or sleeping habits? Unexplained bouts of illness or weakness, particularly in the mornings?"

"No," she answered firmly.

"Fainting?"

"No."

"Unusual cravings?"

"No." Mary sighed.

"Any..." Matthew felt his ears grow hot. "Any swelling or tenderness of the...breasts."

He couldn't stop his eyes from falling unintentionally on the area mentioned, and he quickly averted them, his embarrassment at this untenable situation growing impossibly deeper.

"Uh...no," Mary answered self-consciously, her fingers twisting together in her lap as she fought the urge to dive beneath the covers and never come out.

"Well then," Matthew spoke at last, rising from his seat to address the whole room. "I see no reason for alarm just yet. Women often experience irregularities in their monthly cycles as a result of great change or unusual stress. I'd say the past months'...event could have been enough to have caused it. As she has no other symptoms and it has been only a week, I see no reason to assume anything yet."

"Is that all?" Cora asked, her expression one of concerned disbelief.

"For now, I'm afraid so," Matthew answered. "It's far too early to tell anything from a physical examination. If things haven't straightened themselves out in two or three weeks time..." His stomach dropped and his voice failed him at the thought of...what he would have to do. God, he hoped it didn't come to that, for both their sakes.

"Very well," the countess relented. "Anna, please make sure Dr. Crawley's way is clear."

The maid bobbed a quick curtsey before disappearing into the hall, leaving Matthew to take his awkward leave of his cousins.

"Cousin Cora...Cousin Mary." He dipped his head in the general direction of the bed, but didn't actually look at the pale form on it. His composure had reached its limit, and he was eager to be out of this accursed house and in the bracing morning air.