He also enjoyed being around other people and for once at someone else’s expense. His estate was on a main road, so he often had unexpected visitors. Most of the time he didn’t mind and was happy to extend his hospitality. Still, it was a drain on his expenses, so to be able to be the guest instead of the host had a great deal of appeal.
And although this had not been uppermost in his mind, he was hoping to find a woman who might consider becoming his wife, a genial sort of young woman who would tolerate his foibles, run his household and provide an heir. If he was very fortunate, he might even find one he could come to love and who could love him in return. He wasn’t as rich or good-looking as many men, but he wasn’t as ugly as some, either, and he meant to treat his wife well and be faithful, too. He hoped that would count for something.
He had no illusions that he could ever win a wife like Lady Viola, who was kind and competent and had those amazingly pretty eyes. He had about as much chance of winning her hand as he had of flying to the moon. She might as well have been on the moon with Barengar sitting at her elbow, a clear sign of her aunt and uncle’s plans for their niece. And Barengar’s, too, judging by the attention he was paying to Lady Viola, who was wearing an expensive gown of rich blue velvet, with a square cut neck, gilded double belt and cuffs embroidered with green, blue and red threads. A necklace of emeralds shimmered around her slender neck.
He could as good as hear the sweet nothings and charming compliments Barengar was saying to her. He’d heard them before when he’d stayed at Barengar’s family’s estate, and from the time they were about fourteen. They always seemed to work, though, regardless of Barengar’s sincerity, or lack of it.
A few times he’d been tempted to offer a warning about his cousin’s lack of sincerity or moral rectitude. A few times he had, when the object of his attentions had been obviously innocent or naïve. Once he’d given a hint of warning to a girl’s brother, and another time to a father. Both had decided to leave soon after. Thankfully Barengar never discovered the reason for their hasty departures. Instead he’d put it down to bad luck, and there had been other, more worldly women all too happy to share his bed to make him less likely to wonder about his few failures.
Melvin took a sip of wine and studied his host and hostess. Lord Percival was a brutish looking fellow, and it didn’t take a seer to suspect he would be dead within a few years. He drank heavily, and his cheeks were an unhealthy, ruddy color. Rumor also claimed the man was an inveterate adulterer.
His slender wife’s face seemed to have no color at all and the poor woman looked both fretful and anxious in spite of her smiles. Who could blame her for having to pretend to be happy with such a husband?
This couldn’t be a pleasant household to live in. How he’d like to take Lady Viola away from –
Lord Percival got unsteadily to his feet. He raised his goblet. Time for the announcement of the tournament champion, Melvin thought with a sigh and another drink of wine. At least that would also mean it was nearly time for the entertainment.
“My lords and ladies, noble knights and gentlemen!” Lord Percival began, his voice loud and harsh, rather like a bear growling. “I give you the champion of the day, Lord Barengar de Morraine!”
Like everyone else, Melvin dutifully clapped. Many of the ladies were all smiles, while some of the men who’d lost to Barengar were obviously less than pleased, and Lady Viola looked...bored?
Suppressing a smile, Melvin took another drink. But a woman who wasn’t impressed by Barengar.
In the next few moments, after Barengar had acknowledged the applause and received his prize – a bag full of coins and a dagger – the servants began removing the trestle tables from the middle of the hall. Melvin rose and made his way to the side of the hall, close to a pillar, where he could see the entertainers better.
A kerfuffle at the far end of the hall among the squires momentarily took his attention, until he saw that Alphonse wasn’t among them. His squire was at the other side of the hall, engaged in discussing what looked like finer points of swordplay with a tall, dark–haired and rather fierce-looking fellow. He wondered who he was, then noticed two noblewomen looking in the same direction and sidled closer.
“Oh, my dear, don’t you know who that is?” the youthful Lady Sylvia said to Lady Fishly, an elderly noblewoman slightly hard of hearing. “His name’s Rheged, or something Welsh like that. He hasn’t been in many tournaments yet, but he rarely loses. Actually, I heard he didn’t lose today, either, but Lord Barengar protested the count and Lord Percival concurred.”
Gave in, more likely, Melvin thought with a frown. Barengar had always been a poor loser, even when he was a boy. He had a vicious temper and usually got what he demanded.
A harpist came and sat at the edge of the dais and began to tune his instrument. Melvin glanced around, looking for a place to sit and realized with a start that Lady Viola was standing right beside him.
Melvin opened his mouth to say something, couldn’t think of a thing, and closed it.
He was even more shocked when Lady Viola turned to him with a smile and said, “Do you enjoy music, Sir Melvin?”
“Why, yes, yes, I do,” Melvin stammered. “A good harpist or singer is always welcome, as long as the ballads don’t go on forever so you lose all track of who it’s about or what happened at the start. Sometimes by the end I can’t remember who’s who so I don’t know if the lovers get married or die or go off with somebody else.”
He winced and wished he’d stopped talking until he noticed Lady Viola regarding him with what looked like genuine appreciation. “I know exactly what you mean. I much prefer a lively sort of song, whether for singing or dancing.”
“Me, too! God save me some of those dirge-like ballads! I swear it sometimes seems a miracle anybody survives being in love.”
“You prefer to think that people can be happy in love?”
“I like to believe so, yes,” he admitted, “although I suppose that’s not a very manly attitude. I daresay I should say something like it’s a noble thing to die of a broken heart or fight to the death for passion, but I don’t really believe it. I mean, what good does dying do in such a situation? I rather think it’s more noble to live and carry on doing one’s best and hope for another chance to love again.”
“Have you ever been in love, Sir Melvin?”
He flushed. “Well, my lady, you’ve caught me there. Not really. I mean, I had a few youthful infatuations. That’s to be expected, isn’t it? Mooning about and staring off into the distance at nothing in particular and writing bad verse and worse songs. But true, lasing love like the minstrels sing about? No, I don’t think so.”
“I think you’d know it if you had,” she gravely replied.
Of course he would. What a stupid thing to say! “No, I’ve never been in love,” he said firmly. “Have you?”
He winced again. He shouldn’t have blurted out such a question, even if he was desperate to hear the answer.
She shook her head and looked away. “No, not like the minstrels sing about.”
“I shouldn’t have asked,” he said with sheepish remorse. “It’s not any of my business whether you’ve ever been in love or not or who he was or when or what happened and why.”
That brought the smile back to her face. “I asked you first, at least if you’ve been in love. That wasn’t any of my business, either.”
“Didn’t bother me a bit,” he hastened to assure her. “Not that I generally discuss such things with women. Or anybody. I mean, love shouldn’t be bandied about like any old subject, should it?”
Be quiet, Melvin!
This time, he obeyed that inner order, especially when he saw her frown. God help him, he’d insulted her.
He was even more upset when she murmured something he didn’t catch and drifted away.
His evening’s enjoyment utterly ruined, he headed for the door until Barengar stepped in front of him and blocked his way.
“What the devil was that about?” Barengar demanded through clenched teeth as he forced Melvin behind a pillar where nobody could see them.
“What was what about?” Melvin replied, wrenching his arm free of his cousin’s strong grasp.
“What did Lady Viola say to you?”
“None of your business,” Melvin retorted.
“What did you say to her?”
“We were talking about musicians and ballads, if you must know.”
“Oh.” Barengar crossed his powerful arms. “What did she have to say about them?”
Melvin didn’t want to talk about Lady Viola with his cousin so for once, he took refuge in the low opinion Barengar had of him and let his words flow unimpeded. “Oh, you know, the usual things women say about music and ballads and the like. What sort of songs they prefer, what they don’t. Like most women, she likes love songs best, the weepier the better,” he couldn’t resist adding.
Slightly ashamed of his lie, he changed the subject and hurried on. “I still have to pay the ransom I owe you. When will you be leaving here?”
“I’m not sure when I’m going. I may stay for a few days,” Barengar replied, apparently mollified, before he turned on his heel and went back into the hall, his head swiveling this way and that, clearly seeking something or someone.
Melvin scanned the hall, too and had a moment of grim satisfaction as he continued toward the door. Lady Viola was nowhere to be seen.
Viola took refuge in the corridor leading to the family apartments. No one would be going there for a little while, so she could be away from the company, the noise and the machinations of her aunt. She was especially happy to be away from the boastful, arrogant Lord Barengar. He was another in a line of greedy suitors, none of whom had inspired even a portion of the respect and admiration she felt for the kind and pleasant Sir Melvin.
“Here you are, Viola! What are you doing?” her friend Sylvia cried, hurrying toward her. Sylvia was dressed in the extreme of fashion in a pleated gown of rose-colored silk with very wide, very heavily embroidered cuffs. “The dancing’s about to begin and Lord Barengar is looking for you.”
“Did he say so?” Viola asked, making no move to go.
“No, but it’s quite obvious he’s wondering where you’ve gone.”
“I’m sure he’ll find someone else to dance with.”
Sylvia regarded her with amazement. “Don’t you want to dance with the handsomest man in the hall?”
“Since he is the handsomest man in the hall, I’m even more certain he’ll not lack for partners if I choose not to return.”
“Why wouldn’t you want to dance with him?” Sylvia demanded. “You’re not sick, are you? Or are you too tired? You shouldn’t have spent so much time in the tent for the wounded.”
“I’m not ill or tired. I simply don’t want to dance.” Especially with Lord Barengar, whose marital ambitions were all too obvious.
“Lord Barengar adores you, as anyone can see.”
“He adores my uncle’s power and estates, and no doubt would adore my dowry, too. As for what he thinks of me, he knows I’m a woman. More than that, I don’t think he cares.”
“Surely you’re wrong! And just think of being married to a man as handsome as he!” Sylvia gushed. “I’d think I’d died and gone to heaven.”
“Perhaps,” was all Viola trusted herself to reply, although she had been thinking about it. She would rather be in heaven than married to a man like that. He would likely never be faithful and he’d probably treat as little more than a servant, just as her uncle treated her aunt.
She didn’t want to talk about Lord Barengar anymore, but Sylvia was a font of information, so she didn’t hurry away, either. “Isn’t Lord Barengar’s cousin here, too?”
Sylvia giggled. “Oh, my dear, he is and he’s such a buffoon! He didn’t even make it to the first charge in the melee before he was off his horse. And his squire isn’t even of noble birth. He’s his steward’s son, if you can believe it!”
Viola could easily believe that Sir Melvin would give a steward’s son a chance to rise in the world, just as he’d given up any chance in the melee to help the injured lad.
“Only think of being married to a fellow like that!” Sylvia went on with a titter. “He can barely hold a sword, let alone a lance, and he’s going to be as round as a barrel in a few years. Lady Fishly says he can talk the hind legs off a donkey, too. He’ll probably talk his wife to death without saying a single thing worth hearing.”
“It all depends on what one considers worth hearing, I suppose,” Viola replied, not mentioning Sir Melvin’s mellifluous voice. She’d be happy to hear him recite a list of foodstuffs in that deep, smooth bass. “As for his shape, I don’t expect to be slender all my life, either, especially if God grants me children. And if he can barely hold a sword or lance, he won’t be running off to wars or tournaments or making trouble with the neighbours.”
“Why, Viola, such an ardent defense!” Sylvia replied with another giggle. “But then, you always champion the weak.” Sylvia looked down at the ground and a pink tinge came to her cheeks, reminding Viola that she was little more than a girl. “I suppose you think I’m petty and unkind. I don’t mean to be.”
Viola immediately regretted speaking so sternly. “I’m sorry, Sylvia, but there’s more to a good marriage than a handsome husband.” She put her knuckle under Sylvia’s chin and raised her face so that her friend could see her smile. “Of course, if one finds one’s future husband attractive, that’s a good thing. It shouldn’t be the only thing, though, or even the most important.”
She was tempted to tell Sylvia that Melvin’s lovely voice, kind eyes and gentle smile, as well as his genuine good nature and patience, more than made up for any extra bulk on his frame, but she did not. She didn’t want to give Sylvia any hint of her true feelings. Sylvia was as likely to talk too much as Melvin, and the results would be disastrous if her aunt got wind of her feelings. “Let’s go back to the hall, shall we? If Lord Barengar wants to dance with me, I shall.”
And she would say no more about Sir Melvin, or the other quality she had seen in him. That fury in his eyes when Barengar blocked his way was enough to tell her that whatever Sylvia or anybody else thought, there was a lion’s heart residing within Sir Melvin’s stocky frame.