Here's the scene:
He was taller than the hooded man, she was sure, and for that small mercy Maggie was glad. The rest of him, the way his light blue eyes constantly passed over her, the way he bowed to her after the other ladies, the way he nodded to her two protectors, made Maggie suspicious. After his greeting and embrace of Lady Ygraine, his gifting of the partridges to her, he means to make similar courtesies to me, and for what reason? I sense he is not only Conrad’s brother but his ancient rival.
Discomfited, she stepped back, plucking a prickly holly bough off the nearest trestle table to form a barrier between them.
“Going so soon?” He smiled down at her, a trickle of snow melting down his open, handsome face, all boyish good humour and charm. “Is my grim younger brother such a draw?”
“I am with him,” Maggie replied steadily, aware that one of the ladies had rushed to find him a towel, that the others were envious of his attention to her. You can have him, for me.
Richard’s grin did not dim in the slightest. He reached out a hand, as if she was a comfit or other sweet treat, and said in a cozening way, “Shall I hang the bough in a timber crook for you?”
Yes, it would give him great pleasure to seduce me from Conrad.
“My thanks, sir.” Maggie’s fingers tightened on the branch. “But I can climb up easily enough.”
“She would, too,” said a new voice, and Maggie looked past Richard to smile at Conrad. He limped into the hall, a finger or so shorter than his brother but more sinewed and compelling, his face stark with cold and his dark hair falling like a storm about his shoulders.
“Did you wrestle the deer bare-handed, sir?” she asked, as the damsels pointed and tittered at his ripped trews and muddy, blood-stained tunic.
“Not a clean kill.” Lord William said stiffly as he marched into the hall with the rest of the men. “Steward here finished off the beast, stepped in and stopped it flailing and thrashing.”
“It needed doing,” Conrad replied, bluntly acknowledging the point. From the way he did not look at Richard, and Sir William’s pinched expression, Maggie guessed that his brother had made a mistake in the hunt.
Richard ran, to claim glory that was not his. Conrad stayed. “He loves the show not the substance,” he had said of his brother, and with the deer his warning was made manifest.
Without any conscious design Maggie dropped the holly and reached out to touch his splattered tunic, her fingers spread protectively over his heart. “Is any of this blood yours?” she asked gently. “Are you hurt?”
“Not even a little.”
“My lord is a good hunter,” put in Sir David, boasting and loyal, unaware of the tensions of the room. She felt Conrad flinch and understood at once.
His brother will want to do something to bring attention back to him.
“Not when I am here,” Maggie muttered, and in that moment knew what she would do. Light-headed with her own recklessness, she kicked the end of the holly bough aside, launched herself upwards as if rising to the surface from a mill pond, stood on tip-toe and kissed her dishevelled companion.
“My turn to rescue you,” she whispered, as she sank back onto her heels. He tasted of sweet salt and safety and it was hard to break their embrace.
“Thank you,” he whispered in turn.
“A song!” Richard bellowed, thrusting himself forward again. “Let me give you good folk a lay of our hunt.”
Lord William frowned. “Should that not be Sir Conrad as he brought home the deer?”
“Alas!” Richard gave a glittering smile. “My brother makes a bittern sound sweet! Allow me—”
No I will not. Maggie turned in Conrad’s embrace, faced the high table and breathed out an “O”. Before Richard could call for a harp or drum, she sang the rest of The Hunt of the Perfect Hind, pinching Conrad’s arm lightly and unseen so that he would join in the chorus.
Bring the holly, bring the snow,
To hunt the perfect hind, we go.
Their voices, hers clear and sweet, his a dark burr, blended together, lifting the simple tune. By the last verse, Conrad was singing with her and all joined in the refrain.
“You save me again,” he said softly, while the men in the hall applauded and stamped and Richard must join in or look petty.
“I cannot wield a blade but not all rescues are brawn, or protectors men,” she answered, not wanting Conrad to feel in any way obligated to her. I did it so Richard would not triumph, no more than that.
Or so she told herself.
“Indeed they are not! Still, I cannot thank you enough.” Conrad may have said more but a clear horn rang out from the woods and Maggie could make out the steady thunder of hooves.
Please, whoever is coming now, please let Michael be safe with them. Please let Michael be in this company, and happy and whole.
A foolish, forlorn hope, perhaps, but she prayed for it all the same.
SIR CONRAD AND THE CHRISTMAS TREASURE #Kindle @amazon amazon.com/dp/B07KW6K5RL/ @AmazonUK amazon.co.uk/dp/B07KW6K5RL/ #FREE TO READ WITH KINDLE UNLIMITED #medievalromance #historicalromance #holidayromance #Christmasromance #christmasstory #sweetromance #cleanromance