The Duchess's little cheeks were flushed pink.

The Duchess’s little cheeks were flushed pink, and her mouth was grave. She had not wanted to handle the matter in this way, but she had deferred to Catan, who knew her sister better than anyone.

Cat had claimed that the only way to catch a Flann was by surprise: neither wheedling nor whipping would serve. But Cat had another, secret reason for springing this trap on her, and now she watched her sister closely.

Now she watched her sister closely.

“Flann,” Hetty murmured after a round of kisses, “I must confess that I did not ask for you merely for my own pleasure. There is a gentleman here who wishes to speak with you.”

Flann only gasped, but her face told Cat nearly everything she wanted to know.

Flann only gasped.

Flann was startled, but she was not frightened. And after the first instant, her eyes widened and her brows lifted hopefully. Her dark cheeks flushed darker. If Cat had been holding her hand, she was certain she would have felt her pulse quicken.

Flann had not been abused – at least not in her own mind. She was in love with a man, and she was hoping he had at last come to claim her and her child for his own. If only it were true!

“Who?” Flann croaked.

The Duchess turned and walked away, forcing Flann to follow.

The Duchess turned and walked away.

“Oh! I wonder whether I should have had a fire made for you,” she said, awkwardly dodging the question. “I hope you will not be cold…”

Meanwhile Cat went to sit on the bench against the wall. She and Hetty would serve as discreet chaperones, though Cat feared that an excess of affection in the other room was the least likely of possible outcomes.

She and Hetty would serve as discreet chaperones.

She knew her sister better than anyone, and she feared that Flann’s bulwark of good breeding would not hold up against the tempest of her pride. And if she was in love, then there was little use hoping she would rationally consider the merits of another man’s proposal.

“If only it were the same man after all!” she whispered when Hetty had joined her on the bench.

“Ach, Cat! He would not! A gentleman such as he!”

'He would not!'

“Some gentleman did. My sister is too proud to lie down with a common man.”

Hetty’s face contracted with worry. “Oh, I only hope it wasn’t…”

Cat waited, but Hetty did not complete her thought. Before she could ask, they heard a shriek from the other room.

“No! No! That is enough out of you!”

Hetty wailed, “Flann!” and dashed into the other room faster than Cat would have thought such a dainty lady could run. Cat had been so intent on hearing whom Hetty had almost named that she arrived only after her.

“Is that what you’re thinking of me?” Flann cried. “I wouldn’t have you before, but now I’ve sunk low enough that you need only be bending down to scoop me up?”

'Is that what you're thinking of me?'

“Not at all…” Ralf quavered.

“Flann! Behave yourself!” Cat scolded her in Gaelic, but Flann ignored her entirely.

“Well, I’ve not sunk so low that I shall be taking the first man that asks me! No, nor the last! Fie! I’ll not be wanting now the men I didn’t want then! And tell your fine friends that, and you’ll be saving them a trip!”

'And tell your fine friends that!'

“Flann!” Cat grabbed her sister’s elbow, but Flann yanked it away.

“And tell them too it’s high as ever I shall be holding my head, and if any man dares to wink at me, by the devil, I shall spit in the other eye!”

Hetty sobbed, “Flann! Please!”

'Flann!  Please!'

“I beg your pardon,” Ralf said in a cavernous voice. “Good day, ladies.”

Flann squeezed her eyes shut and choked on a sob.

Flann squeezed her eyes shut and choked on a sob.

Cat knew she clenched her aching heart between her teeth, but she found it difficult to pity her just then. Cat knew what it was to offer up love and have it cast back with mockery and scorn.

Ralf nearly stumbled against Hetty on his way out, proving he was blinded by confusion and humiliation, if not by tears.

She did not think Ralf spoke any Gaelic, so even before he had left the hall she cried out, “What the devil do you think you’re doing? How could you be so cruel to that man?”

'How could you be so cruel to that man?'

“That man?” Flann howled. “After he insulted me!”

“Insulted you? He offered to marry you! He offered to make your child his!”

Flann snarled through her bared teeth like a vicious animal. “No! No! My child has a father!”

Flann snarled through her bared teeth like a vicious animal.

“Then let him show himself! Let him claim his own child! Let him reclaim you from the shame he cast on you!”

“I am not ashamed of loving him!”

“Girls…” Hetty whimpered.

'It's a scoundrel he is!'

“It’s a scoundrel he is! A villain he is!”

“No! I love him! And so long as he lives – God help me! – never shall another man be laying his hand on me!”

“Then tell me his name!” Cat cried. “And – God help me! – I shall kill him myself!”

Flann laughed cruelly. “God won’t be helping you with that! And the devil won’t dare!”

'And the devil won't dare!'

“Then I shall help myself! If that scoundrel can hide himself and yet be standing between you and a good, gentle man like Ralf…”

“Ralf shall never have me! Nor Wynn, nor any of the men! If I can’t have the man I love I shall have none other!”

“Be reasonable, Flann!” A groan was the closest Cat could come to a calm voice, but it was better than a screech. “He would take care of you and your baby – ”

'I can take care of myself!'

“I can take care of myself! If you and Paul won’t!”

“Of course we shall, Flann,” Cat pleaded, “but you could have a house of your own! A family! Children! A husband!”

“A husband! The devil! Have you let your own lay his hands on you yet?”

Cat gasped in shock. “What?”

Cat gasped in shock.

“Well, have you?” Flann leaned closer, smiling grimly in defiance.

Cat’s outrage over her sister’s treatment of Ralf melted beneath the smoldering shame of her own treatment of her husband. She closed her eyes and felt her lashes fill with tears.

She did not know how Flann knew of it. Surely Paul would not have spoken of it. Had Leofric been telling the truth? Was it possible to tell? Her unmarried sister knew far more than she. Cat knew only the bare mechanics of the thing.

Flann’s smile had faded by the time Cat opened her eyes.

Flann's smile had faded.

“I’m not going anywhere with any man until you’ve a baby in your belly and have told the world,” she said. “I believe that elf will come back and come back until he gets a child of his own on you.”

“Oh, no!” Cat moaned into her shaking hands.

Hetty could not have understood a word of what they were saying, but she must have been frightened to see how utterly Flann had crushed her sister.

“Please, do not argue, girls,” she begged.

'Please, do not argue, girls.'

“He didn’t want anything to do with me,” Flann continued firmly, “and I believe that’s why. And if you don’t listen to me, I shall tell Paul myself, and he’ll be talking some sense into you, if not reminding you of your duty to him.”

Cat hid her face behind her hands and shook her head. Flann was wrong. Her gentle Paul would never speak the word “duty” to her. He did not speak of the matter at all, nor seek to remind her in other ways, and at times she could forget it entirely.

Every evening when they went to bed she forgot it entirely, for he would whisper jokes and funny little stories until she giggled herself to sleep. Then she was happy.

But almost every night she would wake and see his fair head on the pillow beside her, glowing faintly in the firelight, and she would remind her own self of her duty. Then her heart would shrivel up like a roasted plum, and she would stare at him and watch him sleep with dry, unblinking eyes until she cried.

'Enough of this feeling sorry for yourself!'

“Enough of this feeling sorry for yourself!” Flann yanked Cat’s hands away from her face. “It’s breaking his heart you’ll be if you keep it up! He’ll think you don’t trust him. Cat, listen to me!”

Cat shook her head.

Cat shook her head.

“Ach! The devil take you,” Flann sighed and crossed her arms as if she meant to end the matter.

Though she was crying herself, Hetty patted Cat’s wet cheek with her little hand. “Do not cry, my dear,” she whimpered. “Your sister did not mean whatever she said.”

Flann groaned in impatience, but in the end she wiped her sister’s tears away with two broad strokes of her palm.

“It’s sweet, sweet with a man you love, sister. But until you know how it is, don’t be giving me advice about it. I will not be told to lie down with a man I don’t love by a woman who refuses to lie down with a man she does.”

Flann squeezed Cat’s hand and then stood tall and defiant as before.

“Do not try to trick me like this again!” she warned in English as she headed for the door. “A man with ninety-​​three-​​odd cats ought to know that a cornered animal will scratch!”

'And do not try to trick me like this again!'