"Are you sure it'll be all right?" Hope asked anxiously as she and Peter made their way down the corridor of the train to the compartment they'd reserved. "I mean, I know your Mom and Dad did invite us, but that's still an awful lot of people: Dad, Mom, me, not to mention Grace and Bruce--"
Peter laughed, an affectionate smile crinkling the corners of his beautiful blue eyes. "Hope, you mustn't worry so. It will be fine, I promise. And you're beginning to sound like Su besides."
Hope resisted the temptation to make a face at him and settled for scowling fondly instead. "Now that is entirely unfair, both to me and to your sister. It's just that I've seen your parents' house in Finchley and it's lovely but it is rather small..."
"But we're not going to Finchley," Peter pointed out with a twinkle in his eyes. "Or haven't you noticed yet that this train isn't bound for London?"
Hope blushed. Truthfully she'd been so content just to be spending Christmas with both Peter and her family that she'd hardly paid any mind to their tickets. "Oh...then where are we going?"
"An old friend of ours, Professor Kirke, has a grand old house in the country," Peter revealed. "He invited us all for the holidays and when I told him about you, insisted that we invite your family as well.
"There'll be heaps of people there--not just Mum and Dad, Susan, Edmund and Lucy but also our cousin, Eustace, and his friend Jill Pole, and of course Miss Polly." She could hear the excitement in his voice. "It should be a right jolly time, provided Susan is all right about the house."
"Who's Miss Polly?" Hope asked next, feeling a little overwhelmed at the great catalogue of people. "And why wouldn't Susan be all right?"
"It's a long story, which I promise I'll tell you one day," he answered, giving her a brief kiss. "For now, suffice it to say something happened there, something wonderful that changed all our lives--mine, Susan's, Edmund's and Lucy's--and I don't know why but for some reason Su has chosen to act as though it never happened."
A shadow crossed his eyes then and Hope felt a pang of sympathy: worry for a sibling was something she understood all too well. She and Grace had given each other cause to worry on more than one occasion, most recently when Grace and Bruce had parted ways for some reason Hope still didn't understand. They'd reunited about six months ago and were now planning their wedding, but a small part of Hope still resented the man for the pain he'd caused her sister, even if flying himself, Grace, and their parents across the Atlantic to join them for Christmas did help. But then, what was the use of being a millionaire if you couldn't give lavish gifts to the woman you loved and her family?
"Does this have anything to do with Susan always trying to act as though she's everyone's mother?" she asked gently, her thoughts returning from her own sister to Peter's.
"I think it has everything to do with it," Peter admitted. "Though I don't know for certain."
"Well, I imagine if she doesn't like to admit this wonderful thing happened, she's probably not very inclined to talk about it," Hope deduced with a wry smile.
"That's true enough," Peter returned with an equally rueful smile and a soft chuckle. "And I suppose I'm one to talk about fretting over Christmas."
Hope laughed and laid her head down on his shoulder, threading her arm through his and entwining their gloved hands. "I think it comes with being part of a family, don't you? And that's certainly preferable to the alternative."
"It is," Peter agreed, leaning his own head on top of hers and squeezing her hand in his. "It'll be a magnificent Christmas, I promise you. Possibly even the best you've ever had."
* * *
The platform was deserted as Hope and Peter stepped down from the train at Coombe Halt. Of course, this was no great surprise considering the station was quite literally a raised platform beside the tracks, with steps leading down to a road that as yet had never been paved. The rare passenger who embarked on a journey from this lonely depot would have to purchase his ticket from the conductor on the train.
As the train pulled out, Hope pointed to where a sleek black Bentley was parked just the other side of the road. "That must be for us."
Peter looked dubious. "I suppose it must, but it's odd: in all the time I've known him, I've never known Professor Kirke to own an automobile."
"Then maybe it's not Professor Kirke's," Hope suggested pertly, bouncing down the steps with a suitcase in each hand and Peter following.
As they approached the car, the driver's side door opened to reveal a dignified older gentleman in a crisp black suit and perfectly pressed white shirt. Hope let out a surprised cry: "Why, it's Alfred!" Whatever issues Hope may have had with Mr. Wayne himself, they did not extend to his servant, who had never been anything but kind to her and Grace, so she embraced him warmly.
"It's a pleasure to see you again, Miss Hope," Alfred greeted her formally but with genuine affection.
"Why, what are you doing here?" Hope asked, astonished. "How big of an airplane did Bruce rent? And the car--did he rent that as well, or did he just buy it for the week?"
"I'm afraid those are all questions you must put to Master Bruce," Alfred answered with a smile. "I myself thought to remain behind at the Manor, but the young Master wouldn't hear of it."
"That sounds like Bruce." Hope snorted in a most unladylike fashion. "I'm surprised he didn't refuse to travel without the Blaires as well."
Alfred said nothing, but there was a secretive twinkle in his eyes.
Hope turned back to Peter. "Peter, this is Alfred: valet and all-around indispensable man-at-arms to Bruce Wayne, my sister's fiancé. Alfred, this is Peter."
Alfred executed a brief, neat little bow. "It is an honour, Master Peter. Miss Hope has spoken quite highly of you in her letters to Miss Grace."
He might have dropped to one knee and called him "Your Majesty" for the amazing transformation that Alfred's words and actions wrought in Peter. It was a change that Hope had seen more than once before--it was, after all, the reason his friends all called him "Sir Peter"--yet it never failed to amaze her. In an instant, Peter ceased to be a student and became a prince instead. He gave the butler a gracious, regal nod. "Thank you, Alfred."
"May I take your bags, Sir?" Alfred asked next, a gleam of approval in his eyes.
"You may. And thank you again," Peter answered sincerely. He handed over his own bags, followed by Hope's, to Alfred who opened the boot of the car and tucked them in securely, then swung around to the side of the car and opened the rear door for his passengers.
* * *
The "grand old house" turned out to be a sprawling sixteenth century red brick manor set in the middle of snow-covered grounds that rolled out in every direction like a white velvet blanket over the earth. It was almost like stepping backwards in time.
"Oh, it's beautiful," Hope exclaimed as the Bentley came to a stop in front of the heavy wooden doors.
"And more than room enough for all, don't you think?" Peter asked, grinning.
"Heavens, yes!" she enthused. "You didn't say it was a castle!"
An indefinable gleam came into Peter's eyes at her words and he laughed lightly. "Not quite, but it should suffice for the time being."
"All right, so it's not as big or as well appointed as Wayne Manor," Hope corrected herself, rolling her eyes when he just offered her that same enigmatic smile again. "But yes, it should do quite nicely."
Alfred let them out and came around to unload their bags before climbing back into the Bentley to drive it around back. Peter offered as he had on the train to take Hope's larger suitcase for her, but she brushed him off fondly. "Stop being such a gentleman all the time, Peter. I'd rather not give my sister a reason to try to steal you away from me."
He rolled affectionate eyes, but nevertheless conceded the argument.
They were halfway to the front door when it suddenly flew open and a familiar figure with short golden hair came running out. "Well, it's about time you two arrived!" Grace exclaimed, throwing both arms around her sister. "It's absolutely ridiculous that it should take longer to get here from Oxford than from New York!"
Hope returned the embrace with equal fervor, laughing aloud. "You've forgotten you all left a bit earlier than we did," she scolded in return. "How was it, flying all the way across the Atlantic?"
Grace made a face but her eyes were dancing. "Absolutely horrible. Next time, I've told Bruce, he'll simply have to send me on ahead by ship and follow whenever his business concludes. I felt like we were going to fall out of the sky at any moment!"
She next turned a critical but mischievous eye to Hope's companion. "You must be Peter. I'd say it's a pleasure to meet you, but there's one thing I have to know first."
"Grace!" Hope hid her face in her sister's shoulder.
Peter merely nodded, appearing completely unfazed. "I shall be happy to tell you anything I can."
"Give me one reason why I should trust you with my baby sister's heart," Grace demanded in a tone that was at once approving and challenging.
Lesser men--in truth, most of Hope's prior boyfriends--had wilted before that stern gaze, but Peter never dropped his eyes. Instead, she saw him undergo that change once again; he became a man who bowed his knee only to those he deemed worthy of not merely his respect but his allegiance, and that number was few. "While I know that in your eyes, nothing less than a king or prince is worthy of Hope's hand...I can only promise to love her as best I can and do everything in my power never to hurt her or see her hurt. If that is not enough...well, you have my apologies but I will not step down. I would not leave her side for the remainder of my life unless she wills it."
Grace's eyes widened and she glanced over at Hope. "Wow. Are you sure he's not a prince? He talks like one."
Hope's only reply was a relieved smile and a sheepish little shrug.
A spark of triumph came into Peter's eyes though, along with that same indefinable something that appeared whenever his princely alter ego was brought up. "Not in this world," he answered quietly, with a small, almost sad smile of his own.
Grace laughed again. "I suppose you'll do for now, then." She gave him a hug as well. "I'd welcome you, but as we're the guests of your Professor, that seems a bit backwards. So I'll welcome you to the O'Neil family instead."
"Wonderful, but can we save the welcome for when we're not all standing around in the snow?" Hope asked plaintively.
Her attention drawn to the matter, Grace immediately bustled them all inside and out of their coats, which were handed over to a thin, sharp woman whom Peter addressed affectionately as "Mrs. McCready." The elder O'Neil daughter was acting so much like a mother hen that Hope leaned in to Peter in the front hall and whispered, "And you thought I sounded like Susan."
He managed to turn a laugh into a polite cough, but not before Grace pinned them with a shrewd look of her own. "Professor Kirke said you would know how to find your room already," she told Peter.
Peter nodded. "Yes, I do." He leaned in to give Hope a quick kiss on the cheek. "I'll see you at dinner, then?"
He disappeared up the stairs and Hope turned to her sister, an expression of absolute mortification on her face. "I can't believe you did that! Interrogating him like that!"
"Do you really imagine he wouldn't do the same to any man who came courting his sisters?" Grace responded pointedly, though her eyes were sparkling as she led Hope up the stairs to their own room. What she tactfully didn't add was that Hope herself had done the same to Grace's parade of boyfriends in the past, and to Bruce in particular.
"Of course he would, but he's an older brother," Hope persisted obliviously. "Not an older sister with her own appallingly bad taste in men."
Grace cuffed her lightly on the shoulder. "I'll be sure to tell Bruce you said so."
"Please do. You know I still haven't forgiven him for breaking your heart last year."
Smiling, Grace stopped halfway up the stairs to wrap both arms around her sister. "And what would I do without you to look out for me?" she asked, before pulling back to give Hope a loving smile and tuck a stray lock of hair out of her eyes. "Honestly, though, Hopeful, I just don't want you to have to deal with the grief that I have. I'm sorry if I come across as a bit of a bear sometimes."
Hope relented. "I don't mind, really. Sisters take care of each other; that's what they're for. And if anyone's been a bear this past year, it's me: I know that. But Grace...I'm so lucky to have found Peter. You have no idea how lucky."
"I think I'm starting to see that," Grace acknowledged with a wistful smile. "It looks like you and I have both found finally found our knights."
Hope scoffed. "Bruce Wayne, a knight? If you're not having fun with me then you've finally gone completely insane."
A gleam of private humor came into Grace's eyes, not unlike the same one she'd seen earlier in Alfred's and Peter's. For one cross moment, Hope wondered bitterly if everyone here had some secret to hide but her.
The moment passed quickly, though, as Grace slung an arm around her sister's shoulders and pulled her close. "Bruce is many things that might surprise you. Now, come on. Let's get you settled in before Courtney descends demanding to know all about Peter."
Hope stopped dead in the middle of the corridor. "Courtney? You're not serious? When I told Alfred I didn't think Bruce would travel without the Blaires, I was joking!"
Grace laughed. "Hopeful, they're the closest thing he's got to family. You didn't really think he would leave them behind, did you?"
"What does Professor Kirke say about all this?" Hope asked with a dubious frown.
Her sister beamed. "He said--and I quote--'The more the merrier. This house has been far too lonely for far too long; it's about time it's filled to the brim with people again.'"