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In The Bleak Midwinter

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Christmas came in cold and bleak; men frozen to the bone, huddled around tiny smudges that altogether failed to give off any heat at all.

The trenches were as dreary as ever, and the only hint of cheer came in the flask in Wimsey's hip pocket.

"Come, sir," Sergeant Bunter said, entering the dugout. "It's past midnight and your watch starts at four. Why don't you turn in?"

Peter glumly pushed the gasmask on the rickety folding table in front of him. "Gerry won't sleep, old son."

"Gerry may not, but you're done," Bunter said sharply. "Sir."

Peter sighed. He was, and it wasn't his habit to allow his men to see any weakness, but Bunter was different. Nevertheless, he screwed his monocle into his eye and regarded his servant. "Perhaps a pot of tea, Sergeant."

"The orders are to kill all fires, candles and smudges only allowed, sir." Bunter shook his head regretfully. He pulled a small glass from one pocket, a handkerchief from the other and gave the vessel a polish. "Here, sir. A nightcap." He held out the glass.

Peter nodded moodily and pulled out his flask. "Very good, Bunter," he said, and poured two fingers of brandy.

Bunter nodded approval. "Here's cheers, sir."

Peter paused as Bunter continued to hold the glass. "You first, old son," he murmured, lips twisting into a small smile.

Bunter blinked. "I -- " he started. Then he lifted the glass and tossed off the drink. "Merry Christmas, Captain," he said roughly.

Merry Christmas, Sergeant," Peter said, eschewing the glass and lifting the flask to his own lips. "You're right, man. We'll call it a night and stick it to Gerry in the morning."

***

The great hall was loud with revellers, the fire in the giant hearth blazing bravely against the chill. It was an uphill battle, as Duke's Denver predated any idea of cosiness.

Harriet Vane stood a little to the side of the hearth, her future mother in law at her elbow, her future sister-in-law holding court several yards away. The strident tones of the present duchess regaled the party with some wrongdoing of the duke - Harriet couldn't tell if his transgression was shooting grouse, or failing to do so.

"No, no, my dear," the dowager murmured in her ear, eyes alight with mischief. "It is that he has gone out for grouse with the men - as he should, mind! - and Helen thinks he should have stopped at home and squired her visiting."

Near the entrance, partly concealed by a suit of armour, Peter stood with his sister Mary, and Mary's new husband the policeman. Harriet allowed herself a glance in his direction and blushed to see him looking at her. Really, this would never do - she had never been a shrinking maiden, but this whole business of betrothal and Christmas visiting was trying every nerve she had.

"Ma'am," she murmured back, "I believe I have a headache coming on."

"I don't blame you. Listening to Helen is enough to bring on a migraine! Come." Honoria Lucasta took Harriet's arm and swiftly steered her unerringly through the throng to Peter's side.

Harriet blushed more. "Good evening," she stammered to Mary and her husband, barely sparing Peter a glance. She had never hated him more than she did at this moment - she had known, when he proposed the idea of a Christmas visit to Denver, that she would hate it.

"Take Harriet away from this dreary gathering, dearest," the dowager commanded Peter, then looked at her daughter. "Mary, I expect you should also rescue Charles. Really, Helen's parties become worse every year."

Charles expostulated weakly, but both of the dowager's children grinned wryly. "You're right of course, mother," Mary said, leaning in to peck her parent's cheek. "We shall escape, and you shall be our alibi - you have a headache and we must needs take you home."

"I shall sacrifice myself, of course," Honoria Lucasta agreed, with a smile that was nearly a grin. "Come, Harriet, Mary, take my arms. I am no longer young and may slip at any step!"

"Mother," Peter said in a low voice, "you are a wretch!"

"I hate you," Harriet said pensively as Peter helped her into the Daimler. Just ahead, through lightly swirling snow, the lights of Charles' car flickered their way toward the Dower House.

"Was it very dreadful?" Peter paused. "I mean, I hate it, don't you know, but everyone else who comes seems to enjoy themselves."

"Must we come every year?" Harriet narrowed her eyes. 'Or is it that you have decided that after all you don't wish to marry me, and you are hoping to frighten me off?"

"Harriet - " Peter froze, then picked up his monocle. "I trust you're joking," he said, and Harriet heard the fear under the jovial front.

She settled herself into the car and waited while he got in, and they set off. "It was really rather dreadful," she said slowly. "But families often are. It seems to me that on the whole, it's worth it."

Peter blinked, opened his mouth, and closed it again. The lights of the Dower House swirled by on the left, and Harriet glanced at the man whose name she would soon bear. "Peter?"

Peter kept driving, up the wooded road and through the village. Finally he pulled off the road - there was darkness all around and Harriet assumed they were surrounded by farmland. "Where are we, Peter?"

"Alone," Peter said, voice trembling. "Kiss me, and then I will return you to the Dower House. Yes, we must do this every year, but at least then we will be married - I hope."

Harriet slid across the seat until she could feel the warmth of the man beside her. It wasn't the way she had expected the evening to end, but after all, perhaps Christmas at Duke's Denver held possibilities she had not fully explored. Peter was many things, but certainly never boring.

***

Christmas at Duke's Denver was a forgotten tradition as the boys grew. The ancient pile bored them and helped them into mischief, or even outright danger, by turns. After the year Roger had nearly drowned in the semi-frozen brook, Harriet flatly refused to allow them out of her sight on their occasional visits.

Instead, Talboys, with its cosy parlours just right for hanging gay Christmas streamers bedecked with Christmas cards, adorned with a giant fir tree the boys and Peter decorated religiously every year, and the little village church ringing carols across the land, became their Christmas haven.

Mrs Ruddle's Christmas cake, steeped in brandy; Bunter carving turkey, the whole family replete with good food and fellowship; the vicar calling by for a sherry before supper.

It was all really too perfect; so perfect that Harriet often caught herself wondering if she'd somehow slipped through a door into someone else's life.

And then Peter would come up behind her as she stared out the window at the snowy landscape, his arms around her, whispering something in French in her ear - usually something barely fit for polite company - and she would blush like a young bride again, and let him steal a kiss.