When Viola opened the door, an obviously upset Alphonse was fairly dancing with agitation.
“There’s been a fight, my lady,” he said before she could say a word.
Viola could think of one young knight who would likely be seriously injured if there was a quarrel, but she couldn’t see the mild-mannered Sir Melvin getting involved in a fight.
Alphonse’s next words proved that she was right. “Sir Melvin sent me to fetch you.”
“How many were hurt?” she asked, wondering who might be injured as she followed the squire, the curious Sylvia right behind.
“Just Lord Barengar, my lady. Sir Melvin knocked him clean unconscious.”
Viola came to so abrupt a halt, Sylvia nearly collided with her. “Sir Melvin?”
“Aye, my lady. Sir Melvin and Lord Barengar got in a fight, and Lord Barengar’s out cold.”
“That can’t be possible, not if he was fighting Lord Barengar,” Sylvia declared.
“Was Sir Melvin hurt?” Viola asked, ignoring her friend.
Alphonse gave Sylvia a sour look before he addressed Viola. “He says he’s not, my lady.”
Despite that reassurance, Viola wasn’t sure she could believe the squire. Sir Melvin might be hurt but not want to alarm the youth. She started forward again, at a faster pace.
“I refuse to believe that Sir Melvin could hurt Lord Barengar and not have a scratch,” Sylvia declared, panting, as she followed them. “Several men must have set upon poor Lord Barengar.”
Viola whirled around to face her. “Just because Sir Melvin doesn’t enjoy fighting doesn’t mean he can’t. And I’m quite sure however their fight started, it wasn’t Sir Melvin’s fault.”
“Well!” Sylvia huffed, reddening. “I had no idea you thought that highly of him.”
“He’s the finest young man I’ve ever met!” Viola declared before she rushed away, Alphonse hurrying after her as fast as he could.
It was also obvious there’d been a struggle in that room. A wooden dummy lay on the ground with a broken shield beside it. Melvin’s dented helmet had rolled toward the bed, and there was a dagger near the wall. Melvin’s clothes were disheveled, as well as his hair, but mercifully he didn’t appear to be injured, too.
“Alphonse, go and fetch Royden, the physician,” she said to the squire. “Tell him Lord Barengar has fallen, hit his head and broken his nose.”
Alphonse nodded and quickly left the room.
“Barengar didn’t fall,” Melvin mournfully admitted. “I knocked him down with the dummy. And I suppose I should have sent Alphonse for the doctor, but I don’t imagine Barengar will want it to get about that I hurt him.”
“Whatever happened between you, I’m sure you were perfectly justified,” Viola said briskly as she went to the washstand, more relieved that Melvin was unhurt than sorry for Barengar. She poured some cold, clean water into the basin, soaked one of the linen squares, then knelt beside Lord Barengar and began to wash the blood from his face. “What happened?”
“We quarreled and he drew his dagger so I threw the dummy at him.”
Viola sat back on her heels and regarded him with amazement. “You threw it at him?”
The wooden figure alone weighed more than fifty pounds and with the chainmail, likely two times that.
“Yes, well, I was angry. He said things I didn’t like.”
That didn’t seem like much of an explanation for the rage he must have been feeling, especially considering what she’d heard his cousin say to him at other times.
Before she could ask any more questions, her uncle marched into the chamber. “What’s going on here?” he demanded.
Melvin laid his cousin’s head gently on the floor and got to his feet. “My lord, I apologize for disturbing the peace of your castle. My poor cousin, that is, Barengar here --”
Barengar groaned and opened his eyes. He looked around, dazed, then struggled to stand up.
“Barengar, what the devil happened here?” her uncle asked.
Lord Barengar looked from Lord Percival to Viola and lastly at Melvin, who couldn’t look more guilty if he’d killed his cousin and buried the body in the yard.
“My lord,” Barengar began. He paused, looked at Melvin again and spoke more firmly. “My lord, what happened here was my fault. To my shame, I confess I insulted your niece and Sir Melvin rightfully defended her.”
As Viola regarded Melvin with even more appreciation, Melvin stared at his cousin with amazement as well as relief.
Lord Percival didn’t appear to be convinced. “Is that so, Sir Melvin?”
Melvin nodded. “Yes, although I should have given Barengar a chance to apologize. We’re nobles, after all, and shouldn’t be brawling like drunks at a tavern, but I just saw red. I’ve never understood that expression before. I do now. Utterly lost my head, my lord, and next thing I know, I’m heaving the dummy at him. And then when he fell under it! Nearly fainted myself when I saw what I’d done. Thank God he’s all right, except for the nose. I hope the physician can --”
“I see,” Lord Percival interrupted just as the physician came into the chamber.
The doctor took one look at Lord Barengar and ordered him to sit down. He did, on the bed, and before anyone could say a word, the doctor put his hands on either side of Lord Barengar’s nose and pushed. Lord Barengar yelped, Viola winced, her uncle cursed and Melvin swooned.
This time when Melvin opened his eyes, he wasn’t in a tent. He was in his chamber in Lord Percival’s castle and a rushlight flickered on the bedside table. It was obviously night, and Viola was sitting on a stool beside the bed with her hands clasped in her lap and smiling down at him.
A quick survey of the chamber revealed that they were also all alone, something not exactly proper.
“What are you doing here?” he blurted.
“I’m making certain you’re not seriously injured,” Viola calmly replied. “You might have hit your head during the fight. I thought it best to keep an eye on you.”
“No, I didn’t,” he admitted. “I simply swoon when there’s blood or other... medical things.”
“Many people are the same,” she noted.
“You’re not, thank God.” He sat up more and spied the dummy bearing his chainmail and helmet now standing in a different place. His cracked shield leaned against the wall beside it, and even in the dim light, he could see that the helmet had a huge dent.
From when he knocked it over, before he threw it at Barengar, who’d had his nose broken and then the physician…
Moaning, his stomach churning, he put his head in his hands.
“Are you going to be sick?” Viola asked with that same calm competence. “I have the basin --”
“No, I don’t think so,” he interrupted. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. He already felt like a dolt as it was.
Taking a deep breath, he lowered his hands. “How’s my cousin?”
“Other than his nose, he’s not seriously injured, and his nose should heal. It’ll be a bit crooked, perhaps, but that’s all.”
“Barengar won’t like that, not at all.”
“Perhaps it will cure him of his vanity, which I assure you, Sir Melvin, is not an attractive quality, however he physically appears. It was about time somebody took that bully to task and I’m glad it was you. He’s been very mean to you.”
Nobody had come to his defense since his brothers had died, and even they had always done so with an air of condescension. Viola, however, sounded admiring.
If he wasn’t already in love with her, he would have fallen in love with her then.
Yet now he was even more aware of the impropriety of her presence there and the risk she was taking to her honor and reputation.
He got to his feet and was pleased to find that he wasn’t dizzy. “I think you’d better go, my lady. It’s not proper for you to be here.”
“There’s a servant in the corridor, and as you can see, the door is open.”
Once again he felt like a fool. He should have noticed that.
Viola rose and faced him. “I believe I owe you a debt of gratitude, Sir Melvin. My aunt is now quite determined that I not marry Lord Barengar and I suspect I have you to thank for that.”
Melvin ran a finger around the collar of his tunic, which suddenly seemed a bit too tight. “I did tell her a few things about him that might not have put him in the best light. I didn’t…that is, I wouldn’t want you…or any kind and sweet young lady to…he’s not quite what a husband…”
He gave up attempting to explain himself and simply shrugged.
“Just as I thought,” Viola said with conviction. “You did save me from a terrible fate, and I thank you.”
She came a little closer. His heart started to race and he was suddenly as hot as if it was mid-summer.
At the same time he was afraid, too. Afraid that he was too hopeful, that she was just being kind while he felt…he felt…
Now or never!
He pulled her into his arms and kissed her full on the lips, with all the passion and desire and need and yearning he’d been trying to restrain.
Instead of drawing back with dismay or indignation, Viola threw her arms around him as if she’d been waiting all her life for his embrace.
Several moments later, Melvin pulled away and stared at Viola with astonished delight.
“Marry me, Viola!” he cried breathlessly. “Please say you’ll marry me!”
“I will!” she replied with all the happiness and enthusiasm any man could ever hope for.
Just as joy rush through him, though, unwelcome reality intruded. “Your aunt and uncle probably won’t approve,” he noted woefully. “My estate’s not large and my family – well, my branch of it, anyway – isn’t powerful or influential, not like Barengar’s. And then, well, there’s me. Hardly a good catch, as they say. I’m not handsome or clever or good at arms and I talk too much.”
“You have a lovely voice to talk with,” Viola replied with heartfelt conviction, “and you are the sweetest, kindest nobleman I’ve ever met. And you’re courageous when you need to be. You have a truly noble spirit and a lion’s heart.”
“You really think I’m brave? And you like my voice? Nobody’s ever said to me before.”
She gave him a shy little smile, which was rather unexpected given what they’d just been doing. “You also kiss very well.”
His eyes widened. “I do? Truly, Viola, you aren’t just saying that?”
As if to prove her point, she kissed him again.
He forgot what they’d been talking about, but not for long.
“Viola,” he said firmly, taking hold of her hands and bringing them together before him. “We must be serious. Your aunt and uncle probably won’t give us permission to wed. We could run off together, I suppose, but how would we live? I’ve no skills to speak of. I won’t have you living in some hovel, sick and starving, because I’m too selfish to let you go.”
She gave him another smile that was anything but shy. “I believe I know a way to ensure that my aunt and uncle let us wed.”
She went to the door, peered into the corridor, glanced back over her shoulder and whispered, “Emil, the servant in the corridor, is asleep.”
“So now we can sneak past him?”
“No,” she replied as she quietly closed the door. She reached back and began to untie the lacing of her gown. “I’m staying here. All night.”
Melvin swallowed hard. Every part of him yearned to be with her, and yet… “No, Viola. If you’re found here alone with me, your reputation --”
“Will be ruined unless my aunt and uncle agree to our marriage. My aunt won’t want the family involved in such a scandal, so I’m sure she’ll insist that we marry.” Her lacings undone, Viola began to pull her gown and shift lower.
“What about the servant outside?” Melvin asked, his voice slightly strained. “He’ll be punished, won’t he?”
“Beaten, perhaps, but he’s my aunt’s spy among the servants, so he’s too valuable to be seriously hurt.” Her shoulders were bare by now. “You do want me to stay, don’t you, Melvin?”
“More than my life!” he gasped as her gown moved lower still.
“Then I shall gladly share your bed tonight and for the rest of my life, too, if you are willing.”
Without another word, Melvin swept her up in his strong arms and carried her to bed.