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best of wives and best of women (the pangs I feel)

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It was a bitter winter night in London when Peter Wimsey jolted awake in his bed, sweaty and shaking. The heart-pounding terror that exists in the moment between the hell of nightmares and the cool relief of a quiet bedroom was something he had not felt in quite some time. He had gotten used to other kinds of nightly distractions. But he had grown complacent in the face of the joys of marriage and fatherhood, and now that terror rose up on his unwary self and sank its claws into his chest. He slumped foward, his head hanging, his breathing ragged, as visions of the dead (those who had died beside him, those who had died because of him) slowly faded away.

He gropingly reached out a hand, but his bed was empty of a companion. For the past fortnight, Harriet had been finishing her work far later than was her custom, and she had taken to sleeping in her own room. The combined trials of two ill children, a very near deadline for a new book, and preparations for a series of speaking engagements had left Harriet exhausted. She would fall into bed well past midnight, only to wake at first light the following morning.

Now, he felt her absence so keenly it ached. He sat there for some minutes, and when his hands had steadied enough, he left his bed, wrapped himself in a dressing gown, and made his way haltingly to his wife’s bedroom.

Harriet lay in her bed, curled to one side (too stiffly for truly restful slumber), with the bedclothes bunched up around her and a fistful of coverlet clutched in her hand. In the moonlight, her golden skin turned a beautiful quicksilver, and her lips a deep red. He could also see, clearly visible above her pillow, one closed eye ringed with dark, puffy smudges and fine lines.

Moving with the greatest possible care, he eased himself into the chair that stood beside the bed. He sat and gazed at his wife, watching her chest slowly rise and fall. He watched the shadows play across her half-averted face, watched the faint flutter of her eyelashes and the minute flare of her nose as she exhaled and a single dark curl moving softly against her forehead. He watched her, and eventually his hands stopped shaking altogether, and his heartbeat slowed to the rhythm of her soft, even breaths.

He reached out and rested his fingertips at the very edge of the bed. He could feel, faintly, the warmth of her.

“Aimer ou avoir aimé, c'est assez. Ne demandez plus rien,” he whispered, barely audible in the quiet room. “Il n'y a pas d'autre perle dans les plis sombres de la vie.”

Harriet did not stir. He rose steadily and made his way to his own bed, where he slept deeply and dreamlessly until morning.