His plan must have succeeded. He was sorry Viola wasn’t there because he could have at least have gazed on her from afar, but he was pleased to think he’d saved her from a disastrous marriage.
He turned to find Lady Sylvia at his elbow. She was younger than Lady Viola, and pretty in a flaunting kind of way, with pink cheeks and big blue eyes that didn’t seem particularly shrewd. She wore a gown similar to the one Viola had worn last night, and while it suited her, it made him miss Viola even more. “Good evening, Lady Sylvia. How are you? Lovely day we had, eh?”
“It was indeed a fine day. Would you mind if I joined you at your table?”
Melvin couldn’t have been more shocked if she’d asked him to draw her bath. “Sit with me? Of course! Delighted, my lady.”
Yet even as he answered with enthusiasm, his gaze was drawn again to the high table.
“Lady Viola’s not coming. She’s taken ill.”
Despite Lady Sylvia’s words, she didn’t look particularly worried, and it occurred to Melvin that illness would be a good excuse to stay away from the hall. Nevertheless, he spoke with grave concern. “Nothing serious, I hope?”
“No serious illness,” the young woman replied. “Her aunt thought it best she keep to her chamber, though.”
He wondered if Lady Sylvia was in Viola’s confidence. “Lord Barengar will be disappointed,” he suggested.
“I daresay he’ll be disappointed about more than that,” Lady Sylvia replied.
“That so?” Melvin murmured as he raised a brow and led the lady to the nearest table.
Later that night, Melvin sighed wearily as he sat on the bed to remove his boots. He’d let his squire stay in the hall to enjoy the rest of the evening’s festivities, provided Alphonse was up and ready to leave at first light. He was tired, he’d said, and wanted a good night’s sleep.
He was tired, in no small part because he found trying to make small talk with Lady Sylvia difficult and tedious. Like many a well-bred young lady, she barely said a word, leaving all the conversation up to him. While there was much he might have talked about – the hall, the fortifications, Lord Percival’s fine horses, the crops, the weather – he’d confined himself to the subjects Barengar said women preferred, like clothing and jewelry, and been bored beyond belief.
As was the young lady, who made no effort to hide her yawns or, as the meal wore on, her disgruntled expression. He’d been tempted to remind her that she had sought him out, not the other way around. He wasn’t that desperate for female companionship that he’d be grateful for whatever crumb of attention she deigned to give him.
When he compared how he’d felt in Lady Sylvia’s company with how he’d felt when he was with Viola...it was just as well he was leaving in the morning.
The door to the chamber suddenly flew open, banging hard against the wall, and Barengar strode into the room. He came to a halt, his hands on his hips. “What the devil did you say to Lady Anne?” he demanded, glaring.
Melvin rose and faced him squarely. “I told her about you, as you asked.”
His brows lowering even more, Barengar crossed his arms. “What exactly did you tell her about me?”
Melvin went to the washstand and poured some water from the ewer into the basin. “The sort of thing I’d thought you’d want me to tell her. How your family is friends with king and so on.”
“Then why did the woman barely speak to me tonight?”
“Maybe she was worried about Lady Viola,” Melvin replied before he dipped his hands in the water and rinsed his flushed face.
The basin suddenly went flying across the room, drenching him with water.
“You little toad!” Barengar snarled as Melvin stumbled back, swiping at his eyes. “I know you said something stupid! You always do!”
Barengar grabbed Melvin’s arm and shoved him hard against the wall, knocking the air from his lungs. “Do you really believe Lady Viola’s taken ill when she gave no sign of sickness before?”
“Lady Sylvia told me she was sick,” Melvin gasped.
“Sick my eye! She’s no more ill than I am,” Barengar snarled as he took hold of Melvin’s shirt and shook him like a dog with a rabbit. “I tell you, something’s gone wrong and I know it’s all your fault, you ungrateful little worm! I had Lady Anne eating out of my hand! Viola was as good as mine!”
Melvin’s hands balled into fists. “You aren’t fit to even look at her,” he muttered.
“What? How dare you? Who do you think you are?”
“Who do you think you are?” Melvin retorted, his fury and disgust building. “Some great prize, no doubt, although I don’t doubt you’ll make any poor woman who marries you miserable. You’re a braggart and a bully and you whore and gamble, yet you think any woman in the kingdom would be blessed to be your wife and ought to swoon with gratitude if you so much as look her way!”
“Better me than you, you chattering dolt!” Barengar retorted, swinging at him.
Melvin might not have been the most slender of men, but he was fast on his feet and he easily dodged the blow.
“Think you’re clever, do you?” Barengar charged, moving to block the door. “Can’t run away now, you fat fool.” He raised his hands. “Come on and fight me, if you dare. Or are you too much of a coward to defend that little bitch Viola --”
“Get out of my chamber, Barengar,” Melvin grimly interrupted, “and leave this castle before I hurt you.”
His handsome face ugly with anger, Barengar drew the dagger he’d won as a prize from his belt. “You hurt me? Never! And now I’m going to shut that stupid mouth of yours once and for all.”
He ran at Melvin, who darted first one way, then another, avoiding the slashing knife, before he dashed to the wooden dummy holding his mail, helmet and shield and tried to pull the shield from its arm.
It fell to the floor with a crash. His shield broke and his dented helmet rolled across the floor. He whirled around. Dagger raised, Barenger was almost upon him. Melvin grabbed the dummy, hoisted it over his head and threw it at his cousin.
The dummy knocked Barengar over and landed on him, so that his body lay prone beneath it, his arms outstretched as if begging for forgiveness.
“Oh dear God, I’ve killed him!” Melvin gasped as he stared in horror at what he’d done.
“I’m beginning to think you’ve lost your her mind, Viola,” Sylvia said as she sat on the stool by the dressing table in Viola’s chamber, facing her friend. Viola, dressed in her shift and bedrobe, her hair long and unbound, sat on her bed.
“Sir Melvin is a fool if ever there was one,” Sylvia went on, tapping the dressing table with her finger for emphasis. “All he wanted to talk about was my hair or my gown. What the fabric was and how it was made, and did I like having a long braid and wasn’t it a nuisance sometimes? He sounded like a dressmaker or a maidservant or a gossipy old woman, not a nobleman!”
“He does talk a lot, but he’s the most genial, kind-hearted young man I’ve ever met,” Viola replied.
“I suppose he might be, if one could stand to be near him long enough to find out.” Sylvia traced a pattern on the tabletop. “I think Lord Barengar was upset you weren’t in the hall.”
“I’m sure there were plenty of other ladies happy to talk and dance with him. Did you?”
Sylvia blushed. “Once. He’s a very good dancer.”
Viola frowned. “That may be, but I doubt he’d be a very good husband.”
Sylvia rose abruptly. “Perhaps not for you, Viola, but he is a lord and rich, too, so--”
Someone pounded on the door. “My lady, come quick!” a voice cried in a loud whisper.
Viola gasped. It was Alphonse, Sir Melvin’s squire.
She drew her bedrobe about her and ran to open the door.
Note: This novella is PG13. With the exception of GWYNETH AND THE THIEF and THE WASTREL, MM's books are usually steamier.