At any moment, that hand would lay itself on the back of Condal's neck.

Cearball’s snarling outrage snapped and struggled helplessly beneath his crushing sense of impending doom. At any moment, that hand – that fat, freckled, sweaty, most vulgar hand – would lay itself on the back of Condal’s neck, and he would not be allowed to stop it.

And then? Perhaps trumpets would blare, thunder would crack, and a fiery pit would gape open before her feet, waiting for that fox-​​colored wolf to shove her into it – to trap her in precisely that plane of Hell reserved for old men who lusted after little girls, and for the girls they ruined.

Or perhaps not, Cearball thought bitterly.

Or perhaps not, Cearball thought bitterly, for rarely was the truth so plain outside of fairy tales.

At the very least, however, her neck would have been touched – her virgin neck, where no man’s hand had ever lain. Cearball was certain of it, little though he knew of virgins. Otherwise, could she have so innocently bent her head over her plate and bared it to him the night before?

Her smooth, spotless neck?

Her smooth, spotless neck? With its baby-​​soft tufts of wispy curls beneath the upsweep of her heavy hair? With the fine, dark, downy hair below, growing downward in a perfect V like a departing flock of geese, leading a man’s eyes along her spine into the warm shadow of her collar? Or leading that man’s fat fingers?

Cearball turned abruptly on his heel and attempted to stalk back into the firelit sitting room, but with his scowling and his stomping he nearly stalked straight into the little Duchess.

He nearly walked into little the Duchess.

He hurriedly shuffled backwards and squeaked “Hetty!” like a thirteen-​​year-​​old. He tried to rush into a florid apology for having failed to come to greet her, but all his thoughts were Gaelic.

And Hetty only looked up at the mistletoe over her head and giggled.

'I forgot.'

“I forgot,” she whispered.

Cearball recovered his poise and repeated – wickedly and deeply this time – “Hetty!

She giggled again, a little deliriously. Cearball thought someone must have been providing her with wine, for she had not tottered out to fetch her own since he had arrived.

“I forgot you know this custom!” she whispered.

“And I won’t let you forget!” he grinned.

'And I won't let you forget!'

Nevertheless, he would not have insisted. Pregnant women had never appealed to him, and furthermore this one had an eerily innocent face in spite of the ample evidence of her carnality below.

Her self-​​contradictory strangeness so jangled his senses that his clearest craving was to genuflect before her. It was Hetty who slid her hands up his chest to his shoulders, and Hetty who tipped her face up to be kissed.

Cearball kissed her.

Cearball kissed her, as was the custom, but he was disturbed again when her lips opened beneath his, and her mouth moved in search of his – in search of a real kiss.

He had kissed the Duke’s daughter to annoy the Duke, but he did not care to repeat the exercise with the Duke’s wife.

Awkwardly he pulled his head back before she had finished, and awkwardly they laughed.

Awkwardly they laughed.

“We do not have this custom in my country,” she tittered.

“A pity!”

She shook with a last, tipsy giggle, and then her face sobered.

“Cearball, I was coming to apologize for our little party. My husband did not think when he invited so many gentlemen that there would not be enough ladies for all to dance.”

“Ach!” Cearball attempted to sigh grandly, but he hiccupped and choked upon what might have been a despairing silent sob.

'It's no matter to a man how many girls there are.'

Hetty’s pale face softened into a look of pity, and Cearball gave himself up to it: the first look of understanding he had had since Condal had turned her eyes coldly away from him last night and denied him a kiss.

“It’s no matter to a man how many girls there are,” he said softly, “if he cannot be dancing with the one girl he’s wanting.”

“Ach, Cearball!” Hetty nodded knowingly. “Is she dancing with another?”

'Is she dancing with another?'


Her head stopped, and her mouth opened into a silent O.

“She told me she wasn’t dancing these English dances,” he pouted. “Nor am I, but…” He sighed and shrugged.

“You would have danced it anyway to dance with her?” she asked. Her compassionate eyes made his misery seem tragically heroic.

“I would have stood on my head if she would have looked at me,” he said softly. “You’re knowing how it is.”

'You're knowing how it is.'

She nodded. “One does not mind seeming a fool when one loves.”

He opened his mouth to protest, but his breath leaked out of him in a long squeak. Was that what it was?

“However, it is not enough to be a fool, Cearball. One must find what she lacks and wants and needs, and one must give it to her, in spite of any foolishness it makes one feel.”

'However, it is not enough to be a fool, Cearball.'

Cearball panted and held up his hand to slow her. He had a sense that she was saying something important, but in spite of her careful speech, it was all coming too quickly for him.

“But she is just learning our English dances, dear. Gwynn and Alred are teaching her, but perhaps she is a little shy to dance the first dance before everyone.”

“How shall I ever know?” Cearball mumbled. “I cannot be asking her again. Now, if she dances an English dance with another man…”

'How shall I ever know?'

“Then we shall have a Scottish dance and you may ask her again. Do you know that kind?”

Cearball blinked at her in astonishment.

“One of our musicians is a Scot,” she said slyly, as if it were a wicked innovation. “Can you dance a dance the Scots would know?”

'Can you dance a dance the Scots would know?'

“Aye, Hetty… We’re all Gaels…”

“Is there much leaping?” she asked, blushing at her audacity.

“Aye… often rather a lot…”

'Aye... often rather a lot...'

“Ach! Na ja,” she sighed, but she giggled as she took his arm and attempted to turn him around. “But you must attend Mass with us tomorrow if you leap.”

“But if she will no?” he protested frantically.

“Then you will look like a fool, dear. But she will know why.”

'Then you will look like a fool, dear.'