'A nightgown?'

Condal squeaked, “A new nightgown? We won’t be needing nightgowns for the party, too?”

“Sounds like a fun party!” the dressmaker laughed.

“Waerburh! The idea!” Hetty scolded, giggling. “A party in our underclothes!”

“During Advent!” Gwynn squawked.

Hetty laughed until her face was as pink as a shell. “That shall be the new mistletoe rule!” she declared. “Everyone who passes beneath must strip to his underpants! Ach, girls!” she gasped as her wicked thought reached its logical conclusion. “We must take care not to invite any kilted men!”

Finally Condal broke into naughty giggles, in spite of her shy awkwardness over the unexpected gift of the nightgown.

Finally Condal broke into naughty giggles.

“Now Cousin Malcolm will never come!” she cried.

“Cubby will,” Gwynn groaned. “He never misses a chance to parade around in his kilt.”

“And out of it?” Condal asked pertly.

Gwynn laid her pointed chin on Condal’s shoulder, and Condal tipped back her head to giggle with her in unison. How cozy it was to have a friend!

“Pity you can’t invite that new silversmith,” Waerburh drawled. “I just hope your party starts a fashion around town.”

“Whom else can we invite?” Hetty asked eagerly. “Egelric has a kilt…”

Gwynn groaned, “Oh, Egelric!

'Oh, Egelric!'

She rolled her eyes and twisted her arms and made much show of dying painfully from the ignominy of the idea.

Nevertheless it secretly thrilled her, as the thought of Malcolm and Cubby and even the new silversmith had not. Egelric in a kilt – or out of it! It was not that she wanted to be witness to the sight – not quite–but she was already wondering how she might contrive to repeat this conversation to him, and make him laugh deeply again, with his head bowed close to hers. That would be flirting!

“Egelric would do it, too,” Waerburh smirked, “just so long as he overheard someone saying he wouldn’t dare.”

'Egelric would do it, too.'

Gwynn sucked in her breath, outraged at the woman’s presumption in claiming to know what Egelric would do and why.

Sir Egelric would not dare,” she corrected her. Then, realizing she had stupidly repeated the very substance of the dressmaker’s remark, she huffed, “He does not even like parties.”

Waerburh pinched a fold of Condal’s plain shift and shook it, pulling it tightly over her waist. “Not even nightgown and underpants parties?”

'Not even nightgown and underpants parties?'

“Connie!” Hetty blurted. “Does the Captain have a kilt?”

Gwynn squeaked in protest. “How should Connie know about the man’s wardrobe? She only talked to him once! I’ve known him since I was a baby, and I never saw him in a kilt!”

“I don’t believe he does,” Condal replied earnestly to Hetty. “He’s not calling himself a Scot. Only his Mammie was.”

“His grandmother,” Gwynn groaned to herself.

“But he’s just as proud to be an Englishman,” Condal added. “He was only speaking Gaelic to please me.” She clasped her hands together and stammered, “To – to make it easier for me, I’m meaning.”

“That is a great kindness,” Hetty smiled. “Particularly when he must have already feared appearing foolish. I have always thought it so very flattering to a lady if a man greet her in her own language.”

'I have always thought it so very flattering to a lady.'

“Perhaps so,” Gwynn admitted, “but a truly romantic man would not need to speak at all!”

Condal clutched her arm and squeezed with all the force of her thin fingers. Gwynn felt a thrill run directly from Condal’s heart to hers – they were perfectly attuned!

Gwynn felt a thrill run directly from Condal's heart to hers.'

But Waerburh laughed loudly, almost braying, and spoiled the moment. 

“Pish!” she scoffed. “‘Good day, sir!’ and all the man does is wink and blink and leer at a girl! Or pinch her behind!”

She demonstrated a pinch on Condal, making her shriek straight up in the air and land giggling.

“Off with that, now,” Waerburh commanded. “We’ll fit the party dress first and the party nightgown after.”

Condal clapped a hand shyly over the collar of her shift and pleaded, “But shan’t I wear anything under the dress?”

“Better not walk beneath the mistletoe!” Gwynn laughed wickedly. “That’s the rule!

Waerburh pulled Condal’s shift snug over her middle again and inspected her dubiously.

'Shan't I wear anything under it?'

“No, dearie, you want something with a waist that laces, or even I won’t know how to give you any proper curves.”

“But I’m not needing any proper curves…” Condal whimpered.

All the ladies laughed at her adorable innocence, and Gwynn, who loved her best, wrapped her arms around her thin waist and squeezed.

“What do you think?” Waerburh asked Hetty. “Should I give her improper curves?”

Hetty patted her bulging belly and advised Condal, “You had better make the most of your waist while you still have one, dear. Even if it is a little bit improper,” she giggled. “Waerburh, will you please send a maid to fetch one of Connie’s – ”

Gwynn threw up her arms to interrupt her. “No! I shall go!” she declared valiantly. “Hetty, you know no one is to touch our intimate affairs.

'Hetty, you know no one is to touch our intimate affairs.'

“Ach, that is so,” Hetty smiled. “I forgot.”

Gwynn put out her hand to within squeezing distance of Condal’s, and Condal obligingly squeezed. Gwynn had not forgotten what treasures were pressed between the folds of Condal’s linens.

Hetty discreetly turned her smiling face aside, though her cheeks were pink from mere suspicion of secret love. Gwynn found her stepmother almost perfectly attuned to matters of romance, and she considered putting out her other hand to take Hetty’s, and to see whether she would squeeze.

But Waerburh interrupted with a braying sigh. “Well, take that off anyway, then,” she said wearily to Condal. “We’ll fit the nightgown first.”

“But must a nightgown be fitted?” Condal squeaked.

'But must a nightgown be fitted?'

Gwynn laughed at her adorable innocence and twirled away to skip for the door. “Don’t you dare take it off again before I’ve seen it!” she commanded.

She cracked opened the door and peeped outside in search of any inward-​​peeping eyes. There were none this time, though she suspected that young gentlemen did sometimes so thirst for beauty that they would sneak and spy at locks wherever young ladies were disrobing.

At last she opened the door just wide enough to fit all the proper curves of her body through, and she slipped out into the gloomy corridor.

Her eyes were so attuned to the bright light of a winter morning that she nearly walked into someone coming around the corner. She shrieked softly, threw up her hands, and, she fancied, nearly swooned, but it turned out to be merely one of the maids.

It turned out to be merely one of the maids.

“Oh, my lady!” Edith gasped. “Is Connie still in with the dressmaker?” she asked excitedly.

Gwynn put on her least excited expression. “Yes, she is…

“‘Cause there’s a gentleman here to see her!” Edith squeaked.

“A gentleman?” Gwynn gasped, forgetting in her excitement that she was not supposed to be excited.

'A gentleman?'

It was Malo! It had to be Malo!

“A gentleman!” Edith squealed. And then she clapped her hands and said, “The Captain!

In her shock, Gwynn took such a ragged breath that she fairly oinked.

“Of the Royal Guard!” Edith giggled. “Soon to be a knight!

'Of the Royal Guard!'

“The Captain?” Gwynn asked hoarsely. “He dares march in here and demand to see Condal?”

“He wasn’t demanding – ”

“I would have thought him at least well-​​mannered enough to ask to see the Duchess, when she is receiving – and if his company is agreeable, he might hope to be allowed to greet Condal and our guests.”

“Well,” Edith said uneasily, “he said he didn’t want to barge in on us, and anyway I told him she was being fitted for a dress…”

Gwynn’s nose had already wrinkled at the “barge in” but at the “told him she was being fitted” she groaned aloud.

“You told him she was being fitted for a dress?” she demanded. “Now he’ll be imagining her… unclothed!

'You told him she was being fitted for a dress?'

Edith shrugged. “I don’t think the men need to be told anything to do that…

“You may tell him that Condal is presently unable to see him, and that is all he needs to know!”

“Well, he said he could come back, but he just wanted to know an hour when it would be good for her. I’ll just bother her a minute if I can just ask her…” Before Gwynn’s evident disapproval she added weakly, “Or your ladyship can just ask her…”

I shall ask her,” Gwynn scowled. “Lest you see what she is wearing and go down to give him a report!”

Edith giggled softly as soon as Gwynn's back was turned.

Edith giggled softly as soon as Gwynn’s back was turned, which only infuriated her the more. She was about to seek some small relief by slamming the door, and then she saw Condal, and she pushed it softly closed.

Was this her shy, dimpled, tousle-​​haired little friend? This slender maiden? This swaying reed? This gleaming pillar of ivory-​​white loveliness?

Then she saw Condal.

It was no wonder that all the men were in love with her. Condal must have had the beauty she claimed for her sister: she was so lovely it hurt to look upon her. She was so fine it made Gwynn’s stomach feel sick.

Then Condal saw her, and she called out, shyly smiling, “Did you find it already?”

Gwynn laughed wildly. “No, I forgot where I was going! I mean – I wanted to see you in your nightgown first.”

I wanted to see you in your nightgown first.

“It fits fine as it is, doesn’t it?” Condal begged.

“Wait till we pin you up!” Waerburh mumbled through a mouthful of pins.

“Connie,” Gwynn declared, “if there is a man on earth who isn’t in love with you already, he surely would be if he ever saw you like this. You are ravishing!

Condal turned her face shyly against her shoulder, but Waerburh swiped her pins out of her mouth and laughed, “I told you this is going to be a fun party! How many men are you inviting?”

'How many men are you inviting?'

Finally Condal had grown panicked enough to beg, “We won’t truly wear our nightgowns?”

“Why not?” Waerburh asked her. “Can you ever have too many men in love with you?”

Condal peeped, “Aye…”

Hetty clapped her hands on her lap and sighed dreamily. “One man is all one needs, dear, provided one finds the one.

'One man is all one needs, dear.'The One! Hetty almost perfectly understood without even being told.

Waerburh nipped her pins between her lips again and mumbled, “Well, dearie, I hope the one is invited to your party.”

Condal, who had her back to the other women, was free to grin widely across the room at Gwynn, but Gwynn had to content herself with a complicit wink.

Gwynn had to content herself with a complicit wink.

Oh, he was invited! Gwynn had made certain he was! The One Man sensitive enough to appreciate her shy friend and not startle or offend her with any crudeness or vulgarity. The One Man capable of loving Condal as she deserved to be loved. The One Man Condal loved.

“Now I shall just go get your shift!” she announced.

“Don’t forget on the way!” Waerburh advised.

Gwynn turned slowly and walked to the door, trying to make herself sway and glide as Condal did, though she feared it appeared more like stumping from behind.

Once the door was closed between her and the brilliant light of morning, she let herself shuffle. She let her plain, straight, uninteresting hair hang before her face until she met the maid again, and she threw back her head.

She threw back her head.

“What did she say?” Edith begged. “What should I tell him?”

Her vulgarity made Gwynn’s lips pucker. She would have made a far better bride for the Captain than such ravishing divinity as Condal. Perhaps, Gwynn thought generously, if he improved his manners, he might aspire to such a woman as Waerburh.

Her vulgarity made Gwynn's lips pucker.

“You may tell him,” she instructed the maid, “that Condal was flattered by his kindness in greeting her in her own language. However, she has no interest in furthering their acquaintance, now or at any time.”

She has no interest in furthering their acquaintance.