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Author's Chapter Notes:

Thank you for the comments!

My self-imposed goalposts for finishing this story have slipped again - I am now aiming to have the fifth and final chapter up before Twelfth Night...

Christmas Day itself passed in an enjoyable haze of nothing, for the most part. Dinner was the doing of Mary and her mother, all offers of help sternly refused, and Kitty was moved to remark that it was more than her life was worth to cross the threshold of the kitchen if that was how they felt about things; Mary, who had not lost the teacherly ability to listen to everything whilst appearing to hear nothing, had put her head round the door to invite her - with the most innocent of smiles - to clear up afterwards, since she was so eager to help. Peggy and the boys remained silent until the sound of her footsteps along the passageway had faded, whereupon they teased their sister for this most undesirable task she had brought upon herself.

There would be no walks that day. The driving rain against the yellow-green of the hills outside made the blazing fire seem that much cosier; the wet grey sky faded indefinitely into the sea in the distance. Peggy reclined against Rhyll on the great Chesterfield and Rhyll concentrated on breathing. She longed for some time alone with Peggy, no matter how brief, and realised with a pang that she was not sure when that might be. A quick look from Peggy told her that she had been entertaining a similar thought, and had reluctantly reached the same conclusion: the sympathetic recognition somehow provided the sustenance circumstances required.

The meal, when it finally appeared, was much admired by all. "I can't help hoping this year will be the last where that's quite so worthy of comment," Mary remarked, after shyly accepting compliments and insisting the best part of their praise was due to her mother alone. "Rationing can't continue very much longer, can it? Of course, one doesn't like to complain..."

"The end is in sight," her father agreed, and Mary smiled at him gratefully, "but I don't believe for one moment that your efforts with a liberated Christmas menu would be any less remarkable, so we'll have less of that talk if you please!"

The candles flickered; the laughter rang out; the evening was a happy blur.




After a contentedly quiet Christmas, greater excitement came late on Boxing Day with the arrival of Rosalie Dene and her father. Rosalie stepped from the driver's seat with a familiar wave, and from the pasenger side came her father; the startling likeness of the two made Rhyll widen her eyes, where she stood with Peggy at the window watching. Peggy saw and laughed.

"Yes, there's no mistaking the family connection there, is there? It's not just looks, either - as you'll find, Rosalie is her father's daughter in a great many ways. We're pleased they're both here - Rosalie came last year, which was smashing, and I'm glad for her that she's managed to drag him off for a holiday this year, as I know she worries about him. December is one of the busiest times for a curate, of course - but with the Christmas services out of the way, he hasn't much excuse not to take some time off to recover. I think it'll be better for her to be here, too, for she slips so readily into the role of housekeeper again whenever she goes back there. That's not what I call a holiday."

"Rosalie's a dear." Rhyll agreed. "I can quite picture her giving her own holidays over to helping with parish work."

"Mary's much the same, in a way." Peggy dropped her voice to a murmur. "She had to leave school early, you know, to look after the house and the boys after Mother got sick. Mother's fine now, at least as far as Kitty and I know - hard to say really if we do know! - but even now, Mary comes back and she mothers everyone. It's her nature as much as habit, I suppose."

"They're very alike too. Mary and your mother, I mean - or I suppose I should say your mother and Mary." Rhyll hastily amended.

Peggy nodded. "And Kitty's like Father - quick-tempered and easily distracted! So are the boys, for that matter."

"And you?" Rhyll turned from the window to her friend now, interested in how she might answer. "Who are you like?"

An unexpected flush of pink coloured Peggy's face, though her smile was undisturbed. "Nobody, I expect! Where you might call Mary - and my mother - 'dependable', it'd probably be more correct to call me 'stubborn'! I'm not so good as either of them. But quick-tempered isn't really me, either, most of the time. I don't think I take life seriously enough."

This off-the-cuff clarity delighted Rhyll. Peggy was quite right; it was her irreverence, her irrepressible lightness, more than anything else, that set her apart. "I love that about you," she whispered softly, and forestalled any need for a reply by indicating the passageway. "Ought we to go through for the meeting and greeting and suchlike, now?"

"I want to be with only you for a while," Peggy muttered, a protest that was neither attainable nor resentful, and was no less truthful than the enthusiastic hug in which she enveloped Rosalie on the doorstep.

Peggy had been quite right about the striking resemblance Rosalie bore to her father. Rhyll supposed it must be obvious, really; the indefatigable sense of generosity and of duty, so often exercised thanklessly and far from the limelight and yet with persistent good grace - they were the textbook features of a clergyman, and how could Rosalie have escaped inheriting them? How could Rhyll ever have seen Rosalie at work and not guessed from whence she had learned her sunny, pragmatic nature?

After supper, Rhyll found herself sitting with Andrew, not for the first time: through years of working in a male-dominated career, she was at much greater ease with the company of men than many women she knew, and she could tell that he saw in her a reliable ally. She had noticed, with a pang of sympathy, that he was somewhat nervous of his father-in-law; fortunately, from that perspective, this evening Mr Burnett's attention was quite taken up with his wife and her brother; the sisters and their cousin were still in the early excitement of Rosalie's arrival, and the boys were engrossed in their Christmas presents.

"You're off soon, aren't you?" She asked.

He nodded. "The day after tomorrow. Mary's staying a wee while longer, but the patients won't wait!"

She wanted to remark that it was unusual, in her experience, for a husband to be so content to let his wife choose when and where she wanted to be; was pleased that he clearly neither wanted nor expected anything quite so Victorian. But she did not know him well enough to say something so uncomfortable, so she merely nodded in understanding and accepted the cigarette he offered her.

"It's still a few more days past that for you, isn't it?"

"Wednesday," Rhyll agreed. She nearly added that she really ought to see her own parents for a day or two before she went back to work, but it seemed unwise: if Andrew were her acquaintance, then any resulting question of why she was not with her parents for Christmas itself could be quelled with the response that he was not spending Christmas with his parents, either; but Andrew was not her acquaintance, he was her lover's brother-in-law; it would not be fair to say something so uncompromising, in the circumstances; Andrew would not mind a short response; he did not mind the companionable silence; she did not mention her plans for the later portion of the following week.

He nodded again. "Change of scenery does you the world of good, doesn't it?"

She couldn't help wondering if he was referring to her thoughts, rather than the simple difference between Carnbach and here. Was it the newness of here in particular, in contrast to the familiarity of one's own family home for Christmas, that constituted this beneficial change of scenery? She supposed it was unlikely he had consciously thought any such thing; it was just one of those things people liked to say. "That it does. I suppose you can't prescribe it to your patients..."

"Oh, I do when I can," he answered, suddenly in earnest, and Rhyll roused up, interested. "Rest, change of air, new ideas, good company - I believe that would cure 90% of the ailments I see in a typical week. The only trouble is that in the case of most of them, you can tell without even trying that they'll not hear a word of that."

Rhyll laughed. "Schoolgirls can be just the same. Actually, never mind schoolgirls, it was always the folk I gardened for who were most wilfully hard of hearing once they'd got an idea of their own into their head!"

He laughed too, and in almost perfect synchrony, as if attracted by the sound, Peggy and Mary turned their heads to check their respective guests were all right. Perhaps in equal synchrony, Rhyll mused, she and Andrew returned reassuring smiles. Peggy waved a pack of playing cards at them, a question, and Andrew raised his eyebrows at Rhyll, making the question hers to answer. Rhyll nodded, and hauled herself to her feet.

Peggy grinned as they approached, and dealt out the cards. Six players made a good number, and Rosalie's arrival also meant that the group no longer felt like two pairs and then Kitty. Rhyll's unintrusive position between Andrew and Rosalie seemed to cement that shift: it did not matter that she drew attention by winning the first three games in a row.

The fire had almost burned out in the grate before anyone spoke of heading to bed.

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