Lady Margaret came to the door with a short gallop.

Lady Margaret came to the door with a short gallop, a skip, and a sliding stop.

“What ho, gentlemen?” she demanded, like a little man herself.

Eadred began, “Good even – ”

“I know why the Captain’s here,” she said to Saeward, “but what are you doing here? Dan–cing during Ad–vent is not an offense warranting arrest!”

'I know why the Captain's here'

“I am here because I was invited,” Saeward chuckled deeply, “but tell me, my lady – why do you suppose the Captain is here?”

Eadred tried to protest, “I was invit – ”

He’s here to catch a girl,” Margaret interrupted.

“I – what?” Eadred laughed uneasily.

“I could smell you coming from half a mile away!” she declared. “If you stink yourself up with perfume and curl your hair with tongs…”

'I was invit--'

“I do not!” Eadred gasped, to Saeward’s growing amusement. “My hair always curls like this when it’s damp!”

“Well, if you took a bath for the occasion then it’s just as bad. Unless you fell in the moat?” she asked shrewdly. “I hear it’s a good way to catch a wife.”

Grateful that she had at last made a joke at some other man’s expense, Eadred ventured a laugh.

“In any event, we had better tell you gentlemen the mistletoe rules at once, lest Saeward have occasion to give you another black eye.”

'In any event, we had better tell you gentlemen the mistletoe rules at once.'

Eadred grimaced, astonished that this little girl even knew who had hit him.

“Thank you, lady,” Saeward purred – in Margaret’s direction but at Eadred’s ear. “How does it go again? Men are required to kiss ladies, and vice versa? I get so confused about that…”

Fortunately, Eadred thought, Margaret did not seem to catch that part of the joke. At least she did not know why he had been hit.

She simply explained, “Tonight my father invited so few ladies that we must ration the kisses, sir.”

“And to prevent outright melee,” Conrad added, “whenever a lady walks beneath mistletoe, good fortune falls upon the first man to shout aloud her Christian name, and not the first to reach her.”

'Good fortune falls upon the first man to shout aloud her Christian name.'

“And to that end,” Margaret concluded, “the fire is in there, and the wine is in here, but so far, except for an adventurous few, we only have a lot of very tipsy ladies and a few more who are nearly burnt to a crisp.”

“What are you?” Conrad asked her.

Margaret turned to him and belched.

Conrad shook his head and muttered, “Bon sang…

“Kindly give me your long-​​arm-​​of-​​the-​​law,” Margaret said primly to Saeward. “I shall just introduce the Captain to Connie, and then I shall take you around.”

'Kindly give me your long-arm-of-the-law.'

Conrad and Eadred protested these arrangements at the same instant, but only Conrad succeeding in capturing Margaret’s attention, for he had the cleverness to capture her arm.

Eadred was obliged to follow obediently, though his heart and his head were both beginning to pound in panic. How did she know?

'Oh, Connie?'

“Oh, Connie?” Margaret cooed as she strolled past the young ladies. “I’ve a gentleman here who washed his hair just for you!

Lady Gwynn scolded, “Margaret!” but Margaret and Conrad only giggled naughtily, and Saeward laughed through his nose.

Eadred saw his hopes being ground to a powder between Gwynn’s outrage and the others’ amusement. Why had not the gracious, gallant Duke come to introduce him? Would the course of his entire life be altered because Lady Margaret had felt like having a gallop and a skip to the door?

Eadred saw his hopes being ground to a powder.

But Condal’s chin dipped shyly, and her cheek curved round as an apple above a smile she could not contain. For an instant, as she turned to him, Eadred had a glimpse of the most adorable dimples he had ever seen.

They faded at once as her cheeks fell slack. Her eyes were wide and stunned, and her sudden flush did not brighten her face but darken it.

Eadred's hopes crumbled.

Eadred’s hopes crumbled. Her disappointment was plain. He was not whom she had expected – or worse, she had expected no one in particular, but the mere sight of him had filled her with dismay. His pride twanged like a plucked string.

But though she was surrounded by the likes of Lady Gwynn’s elaborately affected propriety and Lady Margaret’s artful mockery, and though she had been raised among such brassy young ladies as Catan and Flann, all Condal’s emotions were plain to read upon her unguarded little face.

They faded at once as her cheeks fell slack.

She had the stunned, disbelieving look of a girl who has leapt up blindly – gentle and joyful and trusting she would be caught – and fallen in a tangle of awkward adolescent limbs. Eadred could not leave her lying there. Already sly Lady Margaret was eyeing her strangely.

He had hoped to be more clever, more cunning; and most particularly he had hoped to avoid any risk of looking like a fool. However, it seemed his hopes had been dashed already. He had nothing to lose.

How had Mammie always said? “Just like your mother’s! Cannot even be getting a comb through it!”

“But do not be asking me to get a comb through it,” he said to Condal in Gaelic.

'But do not be asking me to get a comb through it.'

Margaret and Conrad stopped their chortling, and Lady Gwynn’s pretty mouth fell open.

More importantly, however, the shadow of a dimple appeared at the corner of Condal’s mouth, and the corner of her mouth curved up into a shadow of a smile.

The corner of her mouth curved up into a shadow of a smile.