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Sebastian's first excuse was, "My dear, Fiona is not conducive to my genius."

"You can finish the concerto after Christmas," said Veronica inexorably. "You've been spending too much time working as it is."

Sebastian's second excuse was less in the way of an excuse than it was an apparently genuine query. "Is spending Christmas with the Frasers supposed to be a holiday?"

"It's not the Frasers," said Veronica. "It's Aunt June."

"Even better," said Sebastian acidly. "She can sit there and look disapproving of our Bohemian lifestyle."

By his third excuse, he had resorted to: "Do you really want to spend hours sitting in fug?"

"I've become accustomed to the smell," said Veronica calmly. "In case you haven't noticed, we've been living in London for three or four years." In truth, Veronica had never been very worried that Sebastian wouldn't come with her to Bracken Hall, though he was quite capable of declining. She had yet to play her trump card. "And besides, Caroline will be there."

Sebastian rolled his eyes dramatically, though he was clearly moved by the mention of the cousin who, as he had informed Fiona on numerous occasions, was his favourite. His expressive face worked as he attempted to conceal his annoyance, and eventually he sighed tragically. But he absolutely refused to book the tickets himself. Veronica had to do it.

"It was practically painless, wasn't it?" he returned when she complained.

"The clerk forgot I was there," said Veronica, trying hard not to sound too woeful.

Sebastian looked at her. "Impossible," he said. The compliment was not entirely lost on Veronica and they almost missed the early-morning train to Newcastle.

Caroline met them at the station, huddled inside a thick coat which was rather too long for her, but red-cheeked and happy all the same. "We're going to get lunch first," she said, "and I'm paying, as I'm in funds at the moment and I may not get another chance." Poor Caroline! The life of a dancer was difficult, and rather more so for one not attached to a company like the Wells. Sebastian and Veronica had put her and Angelo up many times, so much so that Sebastian had threatened to start a home for impoverished dancers.

"The Playhouse run went well," Veronica said, smiling. Fiona might have phrased it as a pleasant question, if Fiona ever asked mere pleasant questions, which all three of them doubted; with Veronica it was a statement.

"She bought every rag in the newsagent," said Sebastian tartly. "And underlined sentences in red fountain pen ink, which was, dearest Veronica, decidedly excessive."

Which was itself, Veronica thought privately, decidedly rich for someone who would have preened every time Rosita and Angelo came up in conversation if he hadn't so detested people who did that.

"I wish you'd come up last week," said Caroline with a sigh. "That's when we did. At least Angelo hasn't minded helping me run errands for Fiona."

"How is the old fellow?" enquired Sebastian idly.

"He's fine," said Caroline cheerfully, "only he's got a bit of a cold. He's not making a fuss over it, though." This was directed at Sebastian. The last time he'd had the sniffles, he'd elected to take to his bed and quote Hamlet at length.

("Always the wrong bits, too," said Veronica. "I don't know what our `enseamed bed' has to do with anything."

"It means that I'm dying, Veronica," Sebastian was happy to explain. "I shan't take you with me."

"You mean you want the bed to yourself for a week," said Veronica, but obligingly curled up on the couch that night. She found an insomniac Sebastian sprawled on the floor at her feet the next morning. "And that you never learnt anything else but that speech at school," she added somewhat belatedly.

"The rest is silence," Sebastian declaimed, just to prove her wrong, and promptly fell asleep on the carpet. Veronica stroked his shoe-black hair as he murmured unintelligible words into her knee.

"And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest," she said, dredging up the little Shakespeare she knew from the depths of her memory. It seemed most unlikely, in Sebastian's case.)

Angelo was pleased to see them when they finally pulled up at Bracken in Caroline's old banger of a machine. But he was not dancing, much to Sebastian's disappointment.

"Is my presence not excitement enough?" he enquired. "I brought Veronica, too."

"I think I brought you, actually," Veronica retorted.

"I paid for the tickets."

"I bought them."

"If they go on like this, Veronica will end up throwing her engagement ring at Sebastian again," prophesied Caroline. This had its intended effect; cold water instantly quenched the kindling quarrel.

"Children don't understand these things," Sebastian said in his lordliest manner.

"What things?" asked Caroline.

"These things, my dear Caroline."

Caroline stuck her tongue out at him.

"Well, aren't we a happy family?"

Fiona's entrance made for an awkward moment, not made any better by Sebastian's immediate riposte of: "Well, until you came along, yes." The fact that it was under his breath was a testimony to the swiftness of Veronica's heel, now poised directly over his big toe.

"Fiona," said Veronica warmly, which Sebastian still secretly marvelled at, and moved away from him to kiss her cousin on the cheek. "Thank you for inviting us."

"I could hardly leave my own cousins off the guest list," Fiona said, with just enough frost that everybody could be sure that was why she had extended the invitation. But she did return Veronica's kiss, albeit as lightly as a snowflake. Sebastian, looking at her, found the comparison to Belinda Beaucaire irresistible.

("Oh, no," said Veronica later, when he explained this. "Belinda - well, Belinda was always so nice to me, at least when we were in the school together."

"So you admit that Fiona wasn't," said Sebastian with an air of triumph. "I was beginning to wonder whether you'd developed very specific amnesia."

"No-o-o," said Veronica, rather doubtfully. "I haven't, but - Sebastian, don't you think it's better to forgive and forget?"

There was a pause while they both considered this.

"Silly question," said Veronica, sighing.

"Very silly question," said Sebastian, heartfelt.)

"We won't impose on you for long," said Veronica, trying to smooth matters over. "Sebastian has a performance on Boxing Day."

"Oh?" enquired Fiona caustically. "Playing the triangle, I suppose?"

"As far as you're concerned, darling Fiona, it might as well be." Sebastian slid comfortably onto the sofa. "Ah, Christmas Eve. Such a wonderful holiday, Veronica."

Caroline and Angelo exchanged speaking glances.

Christmas Eve dinner was a great success, at least relatively. Aunt June refrained from enquiring after Sebastian and Veronica's living arrangements; Fiona's tongue was laced with more honey than acid. Sebastian passed the gravy boat in deadly silence, aware of the tension that wracked his fiancée's body. Caroline and Angelo carried most of the conversation, keeping it on mostly neutral terms. Veronica interjected the occasional query after mutual friends.

("That was awful," said Veronica, covering her face miserably.

"I thought it went quite well, really," said Caroline, surprised.

"Chin up, brave soul!" said Sebastian briefly, brushing his hand over Veronica's forehead.

Angelo, being Angelo, merely shrugged his shoulders. No one had thumped the table with a fist; no one had even raised their voice. The food had been fairly well-prepared - English, but one couldn't have it all - and Caroline hadn't been upset, so he saw no reason why he should be.)

The next morning was slightly more tranquil. Veronica woke early, as was her wont, and went straight into her stretches. Sebastian, awoken by the creak of floorboards beneath her, sat up to watch.

"Fiona never gets up until ten," he said.

"They wouldn't have kept Arab," said Veronica, a hopeful note in her voice.

"Of course they would. That said," Sebastian thought it wise to add, "he's probably the fattest pony on record nowadays. That happens so often. Ride him once and you'll end up bow-legged."

"Lies," said Veronica placidly.

"I would never," said Sebastian, much offended.

Actually, Arabesque was perfectly in shape for his age - which was advanced, so Veronica decided against a gallop.

"It's funny," she told Sebastian, running her fingers through Arab's mane, "I never thought I'd miss Northumberland so much."

"It sneaks into your heart like a thief in the night," Sebastian said whimsically. Before Veronica could point out the logical fallacy of this, i.e. that a thief would probably find it difficult to steal something they were inside, barring the possibility of wheels, he added, "It steals your soul, Veronica. Not your heart."

"I wasn't going to ask," said Veronica. It was only a little white lie.

"I can tell by your face," Sebastian said darkly.

Fiona's Christmas party - it was Fiona's party, you couldn't say it was the Frasers' - was a grand production, with walls covered from floor to ceiling in Christmas lights and a truly stupendous pile of presents surrounding the tree. For the first time since returning to Northumberland, Veronica felt homesick for her poky flat, where at least the fir tree was real, if it were small and hung with handmade ornaments.

Still, Fiona looked stunning in a deep red creation - and Veronica was sure it came from someone very important, because the name sounded vaguely familiar from casual chat with the wardrobe mistress - and it was almost worth coming just for that. This was Fiona's element, playing the gracious hostess. Veronica wondered how many of the guests knew she was playing, and how many didn't care. It was how one might play the Snow Queen, at first - and here Veronica's thoughts ran along the lines of choreography, and Toni Rossini's newest idea for a pitch.

"Mother did want me to speak to you," Fiona was saying. Veronica came back to herself with a start.

"Why on earth?" she asked.

"She's terribly worried," Fiona said, shifting her satin skirts so that she could sit beside Veronica without creasing them. "About you and Sebastian, you know."

"What about us?" asked Veronica, her heart beginning to beat wildly.

"Well, you know." Fiona leant forward slightly, so that the folds of her sumptuous red dress covered the fall of Veronica's white lace, suddenly looking very plain and dowdy. "Of course, I understand that Mother isn't being modern about it at all - she's being practically Victorian - but I feel I have to tell you that not everyone disagrees with her. I completely approve of your having separate flats, naturally, it's only sensible. But there are so many rumours, it's becoming a little embarrassing."

"I'll keep it in mind," said Veronica, her voice coming out splendidly, under the circumstances. Fiona smiled one of her favourite smiles and slipped away. Veronica looked askance at her drink, which was half-empty, and clenched her fingers round the glass. Sebastian, turning, saw her pale, sick-looking face, and instantly wheeled round to find Fiona.

"What did you say to Veronica?" he asked, so furious that his words came out low and vicious, which he was to be thankful for later.

"I thought it my duty to tell her," Fiona began, but Sebastian cut her off there.

"You mean you thought it would hurt her to know."

"There are rumours, Sebastian," Fiona hissed.

"If there are, you started them," said Sebastian coldly. "You forget, Fiona, I know you. I always have. You're so poisonous even the Borgias would leave you off their guest list. Snakes haven't a patch on you."

"How dare you," Fiona snapped, the colour high in her cheeks.

"Sebastian," said Veronica quietly. Sebastian turned again to face her. "It's fine."

"You are disgustingly forgiving," said Sebastian.

"Not really," said Veronica, her funny face wry. "It's just that Caroline and Angelo are going to dance."

("Where's Ian?" asked someone at the party.

"God knows," said someone else. "Asleep in the corner, I should think.")

It was actually a mixture of both, as Sebastian discovered on the train journey back to London, but by that time he was fairly calm. And smug, if he would ever allow that adjective to be applied to him.

"I do want to marry you," Veronica said, resting her head against his shoulder. The rat-a-tat of the train wheels was oddly comforting, even if it jolted you about a bit. "And I think we should soon."

"What, because Fiona says so?" demanded Sebastian, revolted.

"No," said Veronica, serene. "Because I say so. And it does matter, Sebastian. Not just legally and church-wise, but - I know you think Aunt June and Lady Blancintosh and all the rest of them are old hags, but I don't. It would mean so much to them." Veronica stopped, gathered her courage, went on. "It would mean so much to me."

Sebastian spent a horrible moment wrestling with a demonic image of Fiona, who had a pitchfork which matched her dress. "...Not right away," he said.

"Perhaps not," said Veronica, her tone sharper than she intended.

"I mean," Sebastian pursued, "we don't want Fiona to think she won."

"Anything but that," Veronica agreed, a smile quirking at one corner of her mouth. Some devil prompted her to add, "We'll have to invite her to the wedding, though. It's only fair."

Sebastian grimaced horribly, and Veronica laughed all the way home.