A/N: Sorry for the long wait! This is a short chapter, but an eventful one. Hope you enjoy!
Thousands of tiny rain drops stung the reddening skin of Mary's face as Diamond's flying hooves carried her with breakneck speed down the gravel path. She rode as if the devil himself gave chase, trying unsuccessfully to outrun the demons that haunted her, one the ghost of a foreigner who, even in death, she couldn't seem to shake.
"Milady, we should go back!" Lynch called from some distance behind her, but she kept her eyes fixed on the road ahead.
The memory of Matthew's laughing face at dinner the previous evening broke through her concentration, and she briefly closed her eyes against the surge of emotion this inevitably provoked. Sir Anthony's unfortunate taste of the salted pudding had caused quite a stir. Several times throughout the evening, she had caught Matthew's eye, and they had both been lost to mirth once again, hiding their barely suppressed laughter behind glasses and gloved hands.
Mary had found additional amusement in the sight of Edith so attentively doting on her aged suitor as though he'd had a bite of pudding laced with arsenic rather than salt and might drop dead at any second. It had been a tremendous relief to her to hear her mother announce before dinner than it was Edith, not herself, who was to be pushed at their guest. Maybe her own mother had finally realized what a lost cause she was, Mary mused bitterly, digging her heels into Diamond's flanks as though the additional speed might just be enough to help her escape her own thoughts.
But she was to have no such luck, for that haunting pair of blue eyes still danced before her own, mocking her with their warm, sincere expression. She'd been proud to stand by his side during the flower show that morning. His suit, as always, didn't sit quite right across the shoulders, and his hair had flopped untamed over his forehead. Still, she'd thought him quite the handsomest man in the room. Together, they'd made what might have been a stuffy, boring affair an enjoyable one, making snide remarks to each other in hushed voices, their eyes meeting with amused half-smiles at the antics of their other family members.
"Lady Mary! I really must insist..."
Lynch's voice pulled her, once again, from her thoughts, and, this time, she glanced, for the briefest of seconds, back over her shoulder.
"Milady, look out!"
Diamond's startled whine pierced the air, and, suddenly, the gravel was rushing towards her.
Mary's eyes lit up as Matthew entered her bedroom - for the second time, she remembered. The last time he'd been in her private sanctuary she'd been humiliated and intentionally sharp with him; this time, she felt a delicious little flutter in the pit of her stomach as his blue eyes settled on her face. He smiled, exposing his dimples, and she smiled back, her hands fisting in the sheet that lay draped over her lap as he stepped into the room. Anna entered next, shutting the door behind her.
"Mary," he greeted her with a polite dip of his head, the panic that had been roiling inside him since he'd heard the news of her accident abating as her warm smile made his heart race in a much more pleasant manner. "I'm pleased to see you looking so well. When your mother told me you'd taken a fall from your horse, I was really quite concerned."
Ignoring the little foolish surge of joy the thought of Matthew being concerned for her welfare sparked, Mary cleared her throat and sat up a little straighter against the pillows as he made his way to her side. He was a doctor, after all. It was his job to worry about her physical well-being. She would be a fool to hope that it meant anything more.
"Oh, it was nothing, really," she responded cooly. "I've a few bumps and bruises, but hardly anything to worry over."
"Perhaps you'll let me be the judge of that," Matthew responded, seating himself in the chair beside the bed. He placed his bag on the floor beside him and leaned forward, his smile friendly and open, putting her instantly at ease.
Mary's heart sped with excitement at simply being in his presence with his attention solely on her. His eyes were so gloriously blue and seemed to look straight through her. Matthew had always seen her in a way she felt that even her closest family didn't. If only...But, no. "If onlys" wouldn't make her mistake magically vanish; they would only bring more pain.
"Well, if you must know, I landed on my right side, so my knee and shoulder took the brunt of the fall. But they're only bruised and a bit scraped up. Nothing to fuss over."
Matthew smiled knowingly at Mary's attempt at bravery. She really didn't like being fussed over. That much was evident. She was far too strong-willed and independent to accept sympathy with good grace. After her words had time to sink in, his smile faded, and his expression morphed into one of concern.
"Knee injuries can be more serious than they initially seem. I'd better take a look."
"Of course," Mary answered, her face flushing slightly at the thought of exposing her leg. Whether this reaction was born of embarrassment or excitement, even she couldn't say. Her eyes flitted over to Anna's slight form across the room. The industrious maid had generously decided to busy herself with straightening the contents of Mary's wardrobe, leaving her back turned to them.
"If I may..." Matthew stood slowly and caught the edge of the sheet between his fingertips, slowly drawing it back.
Unable to simply sit idle and fight against the turbulent feelings surging through her, Mary quickly assisted him. Once the sheets had been pushed aside, she blushingly raised the hem of her nightgown, stopping just above her bruised knee.
Matthew needed to sternly remind himself that Mary was his patient and that he must remain professional and detached as her slender ankle and calf came into view. Her skin was flawless, creamy white and looked impossibly soft. He surreptitiously wiped his damp palms on his trousers. But, as the darkened skin of her bruised knee came into view, concern overrode attraction, and he jumped into action.
"Is it very painful?" he asked as he knelt by her leg, his slender fingers gently tracing over the delicate joint, feeling the slight swelling.
"No," Mary answered, only to gasp audibly as he squeezed lightly. She met his look of chastisement with a little guilty smile before returning her eyes to where his large hands touched her bare skin.
"I need to test the range of motion to be sure there's nothing internally injured. Swing your legs over the side of the bed for me, please."
Mary nodded and slowly slide her other leg out from under the covers, turning so that her feet dangled over the edge of the bed. Her nightgown was bunched around her knees, exposing both her calves and her dainty bare feet. Matthew's cheeks turned a little pink, which she hoped was a good sign. But he soon reconfigured his expression into a more professional mien as he gently wrapped his hand around her ankle, placing the other hand carefully on her bruised knee as he slowly straightened the leg. Mary winced as the movement elicited a sharp, pinching pain, and Matthew's eyes darted up to her face, his brow creasing in obvious remorse that he had caused her discomfort. She managed to remain perfectly still as he repositioned his hand on her knee and lifted her foot a few more times, concentrating on the gentleness of his touch and the warmth of his hand wrapped around her ankle rather than on the pain.
At last, Matthew concluded his evaluation and reached into his bag, withdrawing a bottle of antiseptic ointment.
"There doesn't appear to be any cause for alarm, but I don't want you putting any weight on this leg for a few days. I also recommend that you apply a cold compress to minimize the swelling, which can, in itself, be harmful."
Carefully, he dabbed ointment on the small scrape at the top of her knee cap before standing, giving her unspoken leave to cover herself again. Mary resettled herself in bed and spoke Anna's name softly, gaining her attention.
"Dr. Crawley has recommended a cold compress for my knee," Mary spoke calmly, her usually composed manner belying her true purpose - a moment alone with Matthew. Anna, who had as much as guessed her mistress' feelings for the handsome doctor, readily obliged.
"Would you care for some tea as well, Lady Mary?" she added with a knowing smile.
"That would be wonderful. Thank you, Anna."
After Anna had bustled from the room, Mary turned back to Matthew, who was once again seated in the chair.
"And your shoulder?" he asked after a moment's silence. "Or would you prefer to wait until Anna returns?"
"It's fine," Mary spoke quickly, shrugging gingerly to slip her silk dressing gown from her shoulders. Carefully, she removed her hands from the material as he knelt at her side again, his face almost startlingly close to hers as he leaned in to study the largish scrape marring her delicate skin. The very sight of the red scratches surrounded by blossoming purples and blues caused Matthew's heart to contract. Her arms were long, slender, and beautifully formed. He couldn't help but notice the low cut of her nightgown and the thinness of the material covering her. He could almost make out the shape of her small, pert breasts under the cream-colored silk, and his rebellious body betrayed him as their delicate buds hardened in the cool air.
Reaching again for the ointment, he swiftly and resolutely returned his attention to her badly bruised shoulder. Though he would later deny the truth even to himself, he couldn't help but take longer than he strictly needed to in applying the soothing salve. His free hand cupped her elbow, enjoying the feel of her petal-soft skin under his sensitive fingertips. Again, he was forced to return his focus to the task at hand. His beautiful darling, how he hated to see her hurt in any way! If only she were truly his. If only she could ever care for him in that way.
Mary hardly allowed herself to breathe as she watched the expression on his beautiful face, so tantalizingly close to hers, as he worked. Genuine compassion was etched into his every feature. He was so good. So wonderfully, maddeningly, hopelessly good, and she loved him all the more for it. Taking full advantage of this singular opportunity to savor this closeness to him, she studied first the sweet wrinkles in his creased brow, his long, fine eyelashes, and, finally, his parted lips. When her eyes retraced their path, she was almost startled to meet his deep blue gaze. His captivating eyes were slightly hooded with...dare she believe it was desire? She was caught, trapped, by him. Enraptured. Before she knew it, she was leaning closer, then closer still. Her eyes drifted shut as his surprisingly soft lips ghosted over hers, and a delicate puff of warm breath caressed her skin.
"Mary," he breathed softly, almost pleadingly. She could do nothing but lean closer still to capture his lips again. This time, Matthew responded readily, eagerly, opening his mouth against hers to deepen the kiss. Mary's left hand came up to cup his smooth cheek, her fingertips dipping slightly into his soft, golden hair.
For a long, breathless moment they tasted and explored indulgently, all the pent-up longing and hopelessness pouring out into this singular expression of desire until the click of the knob turning and the creak of the door swinging slowly on its hinges caused them to break hastily apart.
"Mary, are you alright? When Anna told me you'd taken a fall from Diamond, I was worried sick."
"Mother, you're back," Mary observed cooly as the countess bustled into the room with Anna at her heels, thankfully oblivious to the tension lingering in the charged air between doctor and patient.
"No need to be alarmed, Cousin Cora," Matthew spoke up, clearing his throat in an attempt to control the nervous waver in his voice. "She's badly bruised her knee and shoulder, but nothing's broken. I've advised a few days of rest and quiet and a compress for her knee."
"We can't thank you enough for getting over here so quickly, Matthew." Cora seated herself on the bed beside her daughter, reaching out to touch her arm maternally.
Matthew cleared his throat again, his eyes darting anxiously around the room, settling every few seconds on Mary's flushed face.
"Well then...I'll just...be off, then," he spoke quickly, stooping to collect his bag. "I'll be back in a day or two to check on things."
"Anna will see you out," Cora offered with a coy smile, standing to bid the flustered doctor goodbye.
"Yes, well...goodbye, Cousin Cora..." Inhaling a steadying breath, he turned his gaze resolutely toward the reclined figure on the bed, his expression softening as her wide eyes locked with his. "Mary," he breathed simply, holding her gaze for one brief, endless moment before following Anna from the room.
Well, now we can get these two properly together at last! But fear not, the story is far from over! This isn't just a tale of them getting together, but will continue through the war years and beyond. Matthew's changed occupation will also change his role in the war and all kinds of other stuff. So stick with me!
Thanks for reading! Penny for your thoughts? ;)