A/N: Sorry for the long wait for this chapter, friends! I just got back from a week at the beach. Not too thrilled to be back in the real world, sadly, but I'm glad to have this chapter polished and ready to go. Lots of thanks go out to Willa Dedalus for being patient with my procrastinating and for all the help and support. Also to those who reviewed the last chapter or sent messages/comments on Tumblr. Your support and enthusiasm mean more than you know. :)

Chapter 8

A little flutter of nervous anticipation tickled Matthew's belly as he handed his bicycle to Thomas and entered the big house. Carson was there, ever vigilant, ready to take his hat and bag.

"Good afternoon, Dr. Crawley," the butler greeted him politely. "I'm afraid Lord Grantham isn't due back until tomorrow, sir."

"Actually," Matthew responded, wiping his damp palms on his trousers, "I'm here to see Lady Mary. Is she in?"

"I believe Lady Mary is in the library, sir. Shall I announce you?"

"There's no need, Carson. Thank you. I'll just...go on in, then."

"Very well," Carson responded with a twitch of his bushy eyebrow that clearly communicated his mild disapproval of Matthew's lax attitude toward the way things had always been done at Downton. Matthew gave him what he hoped was a reassuring and appreciative smile.

"I won't be long," he explained briefly. "Thank you again, Carson."

"Quite right, sir," Carson nodded before returning to his duties.

Matthew took a deep, steadying breath, gathering his wits, before turning in the direction of the library. The door stood wide open, and he quickly spotted Mary's slender form hovering in front of one of the book cases. She was standing on her toes, her long fingers grasping ineffectually at a book just out of her reach.

"Need some help with that?" he asked, smiling as she let out a little gasp of surprise. It wasn't easy to ruffle the ever-composed Lady Mary, and he felt a small sense of accomplishment at having done so twice in as many days.

Mary's hand flew to her chest as she quickly came down from her toes and spun to face her unexpected visitor.

"Don't you know it's rude to sneak up on a lady, Dr. van Helsing?" she scolded him playfully, a little surprised by the ease with which she accepted his unlooked-for company, as well as by the little tease that seemed to bubble up out of her without forethought.

To her relief, Matthew's smile broadened as he strode with renewed confidence into the room.

"Forgive me for startling you, but I thought it rather more rude of me not to offer aid to a lady in need of assistance. Now that I'm here, perhaps there's a blood-thirsty vampire I can slay for you...or I could fetch you that book down."

"Well, since Edith isn't here at the moment, I'll settle for the book," Mary replied saucily, earning a playful glare of reproach from Matthew as he took the last few steps to the book shelf, standing so close she imagined she could feel the heat of his body enveloping her. The warm, clean scent of soap and aftershave lotion drifted over her, and it wasn't at all unpleasant. Taking a step back to clear her head, Mary returned her attention to the high shelf.

"It's that one," she said, pointing.

"Dare I venture to guess it's Dracula you're trying to reach?" Matthew asked, trying to follow her line of sight.

"No," Mary answered quietly, blushing a little as she revealed her choice. "Kate Chopin, the Awakening."

Matthew quirked an eyebrow at her controversial choice, but quickly located the title on the shelf overhead and withdrew the slim volume. As he placed it in Mary's waiting hands, she stared unwaveringly up at him, her eyes daring him to question her choice. His reaction, when it came, surprised her.

"Miss Chopin's descriptions of the Gulf of Mexico sound very inviting, if rather hot. I'd like to see it some day."

"Uh...yes," Mary agreed with him after a momentary pause.

"I must say, I'm surprised your father has such a book in his collection," Matthew continued. "It doesn't seem like something he would approve of his daughters reading."

His tone and countenance bore no judgement, no sign that he agreed with his assessment of her father's opinion, which put Mary at ease.

"He doesn't approve, which is why it's placed high on the shelf where we'd have no hope of reaching it until we were older," she explained. "But he doesn't forbid me from reading anything in the library I wish to. He knows better than to try."

Matthew chuckled softly at her honest answer, imagining a barefoot Mary with her hair loose around her shoulders sneaking down to the library in the dead of night to read a forbidden book by candlelight. If he'd learned anything by observing her these past months, the knowledge that something was out of her reach would only make this tenacious woman more determined to have it.

"Thank you for your gallant assistance." Her soft voice broke the momentary silence. "Was there something you wanted?"

"Yes, actually," Matthew answered, finding it necessary to press his palms against his trousers again as the realization of just how close to Lady Mary he was standing began to toy with his composure. Her dark eyes were so incredibly bewitching when they looked up at him like that, so friendly and open, that small smile tugging at her perfect mouth and dimpling one smooth cheek. "I've just been to see Lynch. After you told me yesterday that he was ill with a cold, I thought I'd better check in."

"That was thoughtful of you," Mary responded, her expression growing concerned. "How is he?"

"Not as well as I had hoped. He's developed a rather nasty cough that should keep him in bed for a few weeks, at least, but he'll mend."

"I'm sorry to hear that. I'll have Mrs. Patmore make up a basket for him."

Matthew was deeply impressed by her genuine care for those in service to her, and she grew a little more in his already high estimation.

"I'm sure it would be appreciated," he breathed, steadying himself before plunging headlong into his real reason for wanting to speak to her, despite his nerves. "The thing is...I'd hate for you to have to forgo riding until he's up and about again. You seem to love it so."

Mary nodded and looked up at him with a questioning expression that silently asked him to continue.

"I was just wondering...if I might offer my services as riding companion until Lynch is able to resume his duties." Her eloquent features shifted again to reflect her surprise, and he quickly added, "Your father will be back tomorrow, so I doubt you'll be able to get away with riding alone for much longer. I'm happy to help, really."

"Alright," Mary responded, slightly hesitant. "If it isn't any trouble."

"Oh, it's no trouble. No trouble at all," Matthew shot back. "I can't have one of my patients riding out alone on my watch."

"Well...thank you, then, Dr. Faustus."

"Until next time, Lady Godiva," Matthew teased back boldly, his face instantly heating at the provocative image his rash words conjured. A quick glance at Mary's pinkened face told him that her mind had wandered down the same path, and he was relieved that she appeared rather more shocked than offended. He allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction that he'd ruffled her perfect feathers yet again.

He left Downton feeling rather smug, having discovered his own power to affect the beautiful and stoic Lady Mary's composure. It was a good thing to know.

The rhythmic thudding of eight flying hooves against the hard earth resonated in Mary's ears like the most exciting music. She glanced back to see Matthew gaining on her, his smile widening as he urged his horse to go faster. Robert's fine thoroughbred seemed to accept the challenge with enthusiasm, and, soon, the horses were neck and neck, their rider's shooting each other taunting glances and challenging smiles.

"Is that the best you can do?" Matthew called to her over the roar of the wind in their ears, and Mary's dark eyes narrowed into a defiant glare before turning resolutely back to the path ahead.

"You're only keeping up because I let you," she called back, her breathing labored with exertion and excitement.

"Rubbish!" Matthew shot back, a single word reply being all his laboring lungs could manage at the moment.

Mary shot him a look again before suddenly steering Diamond to the right, away from their original destination, heading straight for a small ravine with edges that appeared alarmingly steep to Matthew's eyes.

"Mary!" he called in warning, his horse faltering for a moment as he fumbled with the reins, eventually turning them in the direction Mary had taken off in. "Mary, don't! It's too dangerous," he tried again, but she was already sailing over the obstacle, suspended in mid-air for what felt to Matthew like an eternity, before landing gracefully on the other side.

Running a leather-gloved hand over his face, Matthew reigned his horse in and breathed a sigh of relief that she was alright. He mentally chastened himself for baiting her, knowing that, if she'd been injured accepting his foolish challenge, he'd never have forgiven himself.

"What's the matter, Matthew? Are you chicken?"

Her teasing, taunting voice brought an involuntary smile to his face, pulling him back into the moment. Riding out with Mary twice a week for the past month had been tremendous fun in so many ways. He'd never enjoyed the actual act of riding so much as now, when he saw the real beauty and thrill of it through Mary's eyes. Mostly, he'd enjoyed the time spent in her company, becoming more and more impressed with her as the protective walls she'd erected around her real self began to crumble before his very eyes and he was granted enticing glimpses of the vibrant personality that society had forced her to hide. So few ever saw this side of her - this playful, carefree side - and he wasn't blind to the privilege he'd been granted. They got on so well together, he almost couldn't remember a time when she hadn't been a part of his life, nor did he want to imagine a future without her in it. If only it were possible that she might see him as more than a cousin and friend, but she'd made herself quite clear on that score. But her friendship had become so very dear to him that, even if friendship was all they ever shared, he would cherish it. No one understood him the way Mary did; no one and nothing else made him feel so incredibly alive as Mary did.

Holding her smug gaze, he walked his horse carefully down the steep bank and up the other side, proving without words the she'd been right about his being chicken. He wasn't as brave as she was, and he didn't mind admitting it.

When Mary laughed and tried to take off again, he quickly spurred his horse into action, catching up with her in only a few strides and reaching over to grasp Diamond's reigns.

"I don't think so, Lady Mary! You won't get away from me so easily again...today, at least." He tugged their horses closer together without realizing what he was doing, the desire to be closer to her overruling conscious thought. His breath caught as her thigh brushed against his.

"Spoil sport," she accused teasingly, rolling her eyes at him as a fond smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.

Mary glanced over at Matthew to find his deep blue gaze fixed searchingly on her face, his expression unreadable. She found herself unable to look away, and, for a breathless moment, she was struck with a deep awareness that Matthew was attractive. Terribly so, really. The realization had been dawning on her by degrees for some time now, but the full force of it struck her all at once, making her breath catch. But then he spoke, and, suddenly, reality came crashing down around her, turning her heart into a lead weight that seemed to sink down into her stomach and lodge in her throat simultaneously.

"I'm so glad we're friends, Mary," he'd said so innocently, completely unaware of the effect of his words to cause a woman teetering on the edge of love to fall headlong into the gaping chasm opening up inside her with nothing to cushion her inevitably rough landing. It was cruel, she thought, that she would love the one man who couldn't possibly see her as anything more than a friend. For how could he ever return her love knowing what he knew? She was lucky to have his friendship and would have to be satisfied with that.

"I'm ready to head back now," she announced abruptly, almost harshly, as she tore her gaze away from his.

Matthew breathed a shaky "alright" as his hand fell limply away from Diamond's reigns, allowing horse and rider to distance themselves from him, as Mary so clearly intended.

Mary smoothed her skirt unnecessarily as she walked, her heels clicking rhythmically against the cobblestones of the street. The hospital came into view as she approached, and she, again, wondered if she should try to talk herself out of going. Her hay fever really wasn't so bad, but she'd been glad for any reason, even a practically contrived one, to see Matthew.

An entire fortnight had passed since their last ride together, and she was beginning to miss his company dreadfully, however wise she'd deemed it to distance herself from the source of such potential heartache. Perhaps distance was all that was needed to get her unwanted feelings under control. Despite her well-reasoned arguments, she found herself walking towards the hospital at a day and time when she knew Matthew would be there, hoping to spend just a few minutes alone in his company. Nothing good could come of it, she was sure, but she'd only seen him twice at dinner in the past two weeks and they'd barely spoken. She missed him, and, as much as she hated it, she couldn't deny it.

The hospital door creaked quietly as she pushed it open, stepping softly into the cool entryway. The smooth, warm tones of Matthew's voice instantly surrounded her, echoing softly from the main ward entrance down the hallway. She could tell by the animated lilt in his tone that he was speaking to a child. A little smile curved her mouth as she entered the ward and spied Matthew sitting on the edge of a bed with a young boy seated on his knee. The child's arm and ankle were tightly wrapped, and his round little face showed evidence of recent tears. But, at the moment, his eyes were dry and bright, fixed on Matthew's face as he concluded the tale of how he'd broken his arm falling from the garden wall of his boyhood home.

Mary's eyes were drawn reluctantly away from the sweet picture the two made as she noticed Isobel approaching from down the hall.

"Cousin Mary," the older woman greeted politely. "Is there anything we can do for you?"

As if sensing his gaze on her, Mary glanced back at Matthew, meeting his surprised stare for a moment before returning her attention to his mother.

"Yes. I've come to see the doctor about my hay fever," she answered succinctly.

"I'll be with you in just a moment, Lady Mary," Matthew answered before Isobel could offer her assistance instead. Mary watched as he gently placed the boy in his father's waiting arms before reaching into his coat pocket to produce a colorfully wrapped sweet.

"No more tree climbing for a few weeks, alright," Matthew admonished his young patient with a fond smile and gentle ruffle of his dark curls. The boy nodded obediently and thanked Matthew for the sweet. The relieved father also expressed his thanks before being shown to the door by Isobel, leaving Mary and Matthew essentially alone in the quiet ward.

A mere second of silence seemed an eternity as their gazes locked. Matthew patted his clothing and adjusted his stethoscope around his neck self-consciously, feeling unaccountably nervous in Mary's unexpected, and overwhelming, presence.

"Shall we step into my office?" he prompted, gently cupping her elbow to steer her in the right direction.

"Thank you," Mary acknowledged as she followed him into the designated room, her heart fluttering in her chest at his touch and his closeness. Once in his office, he closed the door behind them and walked behind the desk, seating himself and opening a large notebook.

"If you don't mind, I just need to jot down a few notes about that last case while it's still fresh. Have a seat, if you'd like."

Mary nodded her thanks but opted to casually stroll the periphery of the small office as he worked, the warmth building inside her making it difficult to think of sitting still. So, she slowly moved between each framed item hanging on the walls, admiring his diplomas and several pieces of art, sneaking glances at him as he quickly made his notes. She thought he looked wonderfully handsome in his white coat and red tie, all that wonderful blonde hair slightly disheveled and hanging over his forehead. Once, he looked up and met her gaze, his lips curving up into an infectious grin that she couldn't help but return.

To break the heated moment, Mary turned her attention back to her perusal of his office, using the opportunity to make little observations about the man himself. She noted that his desk was kept meticulously in order and each bottle in his medicine cabinet was neatly labeled and arranged alphabetically. The decor was simple and masculine and in good taste. Unsurprising, really, knowing him as she now felt she did.

Just as Matthew was closing his notebook and putting away his pen, Mary came to a stop behind his desk, her eyes drawn to the little plaque displayed there.

"Cura te ipsum," she read, her fingers tracing the embroidered letters. "Cure yourself. Sound advice for a doctor."

Matthew's deep chuckle warmed her skin from behind as he came to stand next to her.

"My father gave that to me just before he died," Matthew explained with a smile. "It hung in his office for as long as I can remember."

Mary turned to face him then, a breathtaking smile on her face.

"So, I believe I heard something about hay fever," Matthew spoke suddenly, causing that smile to falter as she realized she'd almost forgotten the reason she'd come in the first place.

"Uh, yes. I was hoping you might have something I could take."

"Well, let's see..." He stepped closer and pressed the cool backs of his fingers against her forehead. "No temperature," he observed before gently taking her face in his fingertips, tilting it up towards his. Mary's heart lodged in her throat. His eyes locked with hers, gazing so intently she was sure he was reading into her very soul. Her lips felt dry, and her tongue darted out to wet them without conscious forethought. Matthew's gaze tracked the movement, and Mary's eyes dropped instinctually to his mouth as he mirrored the action. Then his hands were gone from her face, the loss of their warmth making her feel suddenly chilled.

"Your eyes are a little red," he observed with concern as he strode to the medicine cabinet.

Mary blinked several times to collect herself while his back was turned. By the time he'd closed the cabinet and turned to hand her the small parcel he'd prepared, her calm smile was firmly back in place.

"Two of these a day with water should do the trick," he said.

"Thank you." Mary felt his fingers brush lightly over hers as he pressed the parcel into her open palm. "I suppose we'll see you at dinner tomorrow night."

"Of course," Matthew answered, reluctant to let her go now that she was here. Ever since the day two weeks ago when he'd given Lynch a clean bill of heath and had been forced to relinquish the position of riding companion in the absence of an invitation to continue, he'd been missing her company desperately.

"Well...goodbye then."


Mary turned to go, but he stopped her just before she disappeared into the hallway.

"Wait," he called, digging in his coat pocket for one of the same colorfully wrapped sweets he'd given his young patient. Mary accepted it with a smile that could almost be called shy, thanking him one final time before taking her leave.

Hope you enjoyed the chapter. So Mary has now made the big leap to acknowledging her feelings. I think it may be time to get these to kids together properly, are we agreed? ;)