“No, not at all,” he replied, looking anywhere but at her remarkable eyes. “That is, nothing about your hospitality or accommodations. Excellent, both of them. I just wanted a bit of fresh air before I retire. I like a good night’s sleep before traveling. It’s time I got back to my own estate. Even small ones need to be supervised, you know.”
“I was hoping you’d stay a bit longer.”
She certainly sounded sincere and looked it, too. “Yes, well, thank you. I wish I could. Can’t, really. Too much to do at home.”
“I do hope you’re not leaving because of anything that’s happened while you were here.”
“Oh, no! That is, things happen all the time, don’t they? But I’ve got business back home. Important business. There are decisions to be made. About the mill and...and a tannery. And a new byre. Busy times at my estate these days, my lady, and I can’t be wasting my time --”
He shouldn’t have implied that talking to her was wasting his time! “Can’t be spending my time galavanting around the countryside entertaining myself, however charming and delightful the company.”
“Are you calling me charming and delightful, Sir Melvin?” she asked with a charming and delightful smile.
“Everything here is charming and delightful,” he replied. “The castle, the chambers, the food. Never had such fine pastries. Or wine.”
He frowned. The mention of wine reminded him of Barengar.
It seemed to have the same effect on Viola. “Some young men pay too much attention to wine.”
“Yes, well, youthful spirits and all. Not that I condone such behavior,” he added. “There’s a limit, after all and --”
“Limit to what?” Barengar interrupted, appearing on the wall walk behind Lady Viola. “How much food you can eat at a banquet? I’ve never seen you reach it.”
Melvin regarded his cousin with silent, seething rage as Barengar came to stand beside Viola as if he thought he belonged there.
Viola barely glanced at him. “Your comment is a very poor way to repay Sir Melvin, who has just been coming to your defense.”
“Was he now?” Barengar replied. He bowed toward the despairing Melvin. “Thank you, cousin. I did get a bit carried away last night.”
“I should say you did,” Viola sternly replied. “And if you are wise, you will control yourself for the remainder of your visit here.”
With that, she turned and left them both.
The moment Viola was out of sight, Barengar pushed Melvin into the merlon, narrowly missing the gap between them that would have sent him plunging to the ground below.
“Did I hear you say you were leaving?” his cousin angrily demanded.
“Yes,” Melvin replied, straightening his tunic. “I have to tend to some business on my estate.”
“That’s what a steward’s for! He doesn’t need you messing about and interfering. Not when I need you here.”
Melvin couldn’t be more surprised if Barengar had said he wanted Melvin to be king. “What do you need me for?”
“You can put in a good word for me with Lord Percival and Lady Anne. Tell them all my good qualities, how I’ll make their happy.”
“As much as a husband can, I suppose. Fortunately, Lady Viola seems a fairly independent sort, so I expect I won’t have to have much to do with her. She won’t come running to me with every little problem.”
“Leaving you free?”
“Free to do what, exactly?”
Barengar’s frown deepened. “God’s blood, Melvin! Don’t be daft! What noblemen do.”
Melvin knew pretty well what noblemen like Barengar did, whether married or not. “If you really want to marry her, I suggest you start by not getting drunk again.”
Barengar waved a dismissive hand. “That’s easy enough. Now, come, coz. Stay and help me. After all, you owe me. Out of the kindness of my heart I made certain you were invited here and admitted that you’re my cousin to anyone who’s asked, although it’s made some of those here question my wisdom.”
Melvin wasn’t fooled by that declaration. Having Melvin nearby made Barengar look even better.
Nevertheless, he would do what his cousin asked, although perhaps not exactly the way Barengar intended. “All right, Barengar and have a chat with Lady Anne tomorrow. I’ll tell her all about you.”
Barengar smoothed down his expensive, ornately embroidered tunic, a costly contrast to Melvin’s plain wool garment. “Excellent!”
“What about the lady herself?” Melvin asked. “Do you want me to sing your praises to her, too?”
“No need for that,” Barengar said with a hearty laugh. “I’m sure I can woo her without your help.”
“She doesn’t seem too keen at the moment.”
Doubt flashed in Barengar’s eyes for an instant, but any lack of certainty was swiftly erased by his usual confident expression. “I like a challenge and I’m sure I’ll win in the end. I always do. Now I’d best see where my lady love has gone and make her understand it was my adoration of her and despair that she might refuse me that drove me to drink.”
“Good luck,” Melvin muttered as his cousin strode off in pursuit of Viola.
Although he was sure Viola could never be his wife, he silently vowed she would never be Barengar’s.
The next day Melvin headed toward the rose garden. Alphonse had told him that Lady Anne and some of the other noblewomen had gathered there. A quick survey showed Melvin that Viola wasn’t with her aunt in the garden, and for that he was grateful.
To catch his hostess’s attention, he purposefully stumbled into a rose bush. A thorn scratched his hand and as he wiped away the blood, Lady Anne rose and came bustling toward him, her veil fluttering behind her. “You’ve broken a branch!” she declared, frowning.
“Terribly sorry, my lady,” he replied. “I’m always barging and bumping into things. Clumsy oaf, that’s what I am. One reason I’m no good at games, or tournaments, either,” he added with a self-conscious laugh that was only partly feigned. “Barengar –- my cousin, Lord Barengar, I mean -- was wondering if your niece might be here. I said I’d look and see.”
At the mention of Barengar’s name, Lady Anne’s expression changed to one of delight. “Your cousin was asking?”
“Yes, he’s quite taken with her. Of course, what man wouldn’t be, eh? Such a lovely girl! And he realizes she’s from a very important family.”
“So is he. I understand his father is a good friend of King John,” Lady Anne replied with a gleam in her eye that told Melvin where her interest truly lay, and it wasn’t with her niece’s happiness.
“Oh, yes,” Melvin replied, rocking back and forth on his heels, his thumbs in his belt. “So far, anyway. The king’s a capricious, suspicious sort of fella, though, isn’t he? Still, Lord de Morraine – Barengar’s father, that is -- can probably keep in his good graces, although so many often don’t. It costs him a small fortune to entertain the king if he decides to come to his castle on a progress. Have you ever had to entertain the king and his entourage?”
Lady Anne shook her head and looked slightly less excited.
“Oh, dear me, Lord de Morraine spends a fantastic sum, what with the food and entertainment and extra servants and grooms and things. The poor man’s coffers were almost emptied the last time the king came his way.”
“I thought Lord de Morraine was rich,” Lady Anne warily replied.
“He used to be. Very rich. But then there’s the cost of the king’s visits and fitting up his sons for tournaments and well, there’s... ” He shook his head. “Maybe I’d better not talk about his wife’s extravagances. What do I know about the price of women’s clothes and things anyway, eh? Maybe what she spends isn’t strange, although I must say I thought fifty marks for a single gown rather a lot.”
“Fifty marks?” Lady Anne cried, aghast. “Was that for the king’s visit?”
“Oh, no. Just a gown she wanted. Of course, Barengar would never spend that much on his clothes. Armor, though, he’d spend more. Or a helmet or surcoat. Necessary expenses, he calls such things. He likes to look good for the tournaments, and who can blame him? I would, too, if I was as handsome as he is. Mind you, good looks can be expensive in another way. He’s gotten a few of his female admirers in an interesting way and had to pay...”
He gasped, widened his eyes and put his fingers to his lips. “Oh, dear me, I probably shouldn’t say anything about that. He can afford to have his sport or will be able to again if he marries well, unless the king decides to….”
He looked down as if embarrassed. “There I go again, talking too much.” He raised his head and regarded Lady Anne with a woeful smile. “He’s a good chap, really, even if he drinks too much and gambles. He wins sometimes, after all. And about the women, well, I’m sure he’ll settle down once he’s married. Or after a few years.”
He began to back away. “I think I’ll leave you now, my lady, if you’ll pardon me.”
“Good day, Sir Melvin,” Lady Anne snapped before she turned on her heel and marched back to her friends.
A short time later, Viola sat in a window seat in the hall. She was working on some embroidery and Lady Sylvia had joined her. Sylvia also had sewing on her lap, although that was where it stayed.
“Of course you can be calm and sew,” Sylvia said, keeping her voice low so the servants spreading rosemary and fleabane on the newly laid rushes wouldn’t hear. “You’ll be betrothed to Lord Barengar soon.”
“I’m sure you’ll be married soon enough,” Viola replied. “That squire of Sir Melvin’s likes you.”
“Him? He’s only a steward’s son.”
“He may make something of himself. Didn’t I hear that the Welshman who nearly won the tournament was a common foot soldier once?”
“So they say, but how often does a man rise in rank as he has?”
They both looked down the hall to see Lady Anne striding toward them, her expression as fierce as if she was about to declare war. “What is it, Aunt?” Viola said after quickly putting away her sewing and getting to her feet. “Is something wrong?”
“I want to talk to you. Alone,” she emphasized, glaring at Sylvia as if she’d done her some kind of personal injury. The young woman dropped her needlework and didn’t even pause to pick it up before she hurried away.
“Leave that for later,” her aunt ordered the maidservants with the herbs. They hurried away, too, so the hall was empty.
“What is it?” Viola repeated, fearing her aunt had somehow guessed…something.
“I want you to keep away from Lord Barengar!”
Viola couldn’t have been more astonished if her aunt had announced her betrothal to the king. “I-I beg your pardon?”
“Stay away from that young scoundrel!”
“Because I don’t want him encouraged to stay,” her aunt retorted. “His family is too important to insult, or I’d send the rogue packing right this minute. Since I can’t, you’ll stay in your chamber tonight. We’ll say you’re ill.”
“I thought you wanted a betrothal.”
“Not after what that ninny of a cousin of his said to me in the rose garden today. He was trying to make Lord Barengar sound like a paragon, but that Melvin is so stupid, he revealed something quite different, things that makes it clear no relative of mine should be married to that man, or allied with that family.
“Now gather up your sewing and get to your room. The sooner I start telling people you’re ill, the better!”
“Yes, Aunt,” Viola humbly replied.
Whatever her aunt believed about Melvin, Viola was sure he wasn’t stupid. It was far more likely that Melvin had purposefully saved her from an unhappy marriage.
She must and would find a way to thank him.
Note: This novella is PG13. With the exception of GWYNETH AND THE THIEF and THE WASTREL, MM's books are usually steamier.