“Viola!” Lady Anne shrieked.
“What is the meaning of this?” Lord Percival demanded with righteous rage.
Her aunt and uncle, attired in their bedrobes, stood at the foot of the bed. Behind them and cowering in the doorway was an obviously frightened Emil. He must have summoned them when he finally awoke, exactly as Viola had hoped.
She hurried to pull the coverlet over herself, while Melvin sat up and stared at the irate couple.
“L-Lord Percival, Lady Anne,” he began, “I can explain.”
“I doubt it,” Lord Percival growled, crossing his arms. Even in a bedrobe and night cap, he was a fierce-looking man.
Wrapping a sheet around him, one corner thrown over his broad shoulder like a toga, Melvin got to his feet. Viola, meanwhile, wrapped the coverlet around herself and also got out of bed.
Melvin gave her a swift smile, then faced her upset relatives. “It’s like this, my lord, my lady,” he said, spreading his hands until the sheet started to slip. He hastily grabbed it and held it in place. “We love each other, Viola and me, and we want to be married. I’m sorry if we got ahead of ourselves a bit --”
“You seduced her!” Lord Percival charged. “You seduced my niece, you cad! You lout!”
“No, he didn’t,” Viola said firmly, stepping forward. “I seduced him. Because I want to marry him.” She went to her aunt, who had never been happy in her marriage, and took her aunt’s hands in hers. “He’ll make me happy, Aunt. I’m sure of it.”
“Indeed I will!” Melvin declared. “Your niece’s comfort and happiness will always be my first concern. I know I’m probably not quite what you had in mind for a nephew-in-law. I’m not clever or talented or rich, although I’m well off. I am sincere when I give you my word that as long as I live, I’ll love your niece and be good and faithful to her.”
His last words hit home better than he guessed. However, since at that particular moment his attention was on Lord Percival, he didn’t see the sharp glance Lady Anne cast at her husband. Viola did and from that moment, she knew she had an ally in her aunt.
Nevertheless, she didn’t want to count solely on that, for her uncle was a powerful man used to having his own way in all things.
“Sir Melvin’s family is an old and honorable one, my lord,” Viola said to her uncle. “I recall his cousin saying that their great-grandfather came over with the Conqueror. And if Sir Melvin’s branch is not as well known as his cousin’s, there’s nothing bad said about them either. You need not have any fear that your nephew-in-law will cause any disgrace or give you any concern at all. Surely that is worth much, Uncle.”
“Indeed, I won’t do anything to knowingly cause you grief or pain or disgrace,” Melvin declared. “I mean, nothing serious, at any rate. I’m liable to still be clumsy and say foolish things in company, although I’m sure my lovely Viola will stop me before I make a complete ass of myself. And even if I do say something stupid, what harm? It’ll just be Melvin being Melvin.”
“And Melvin’s much less likely to try to influence his wife’s family’s affairs than other, more ambitious noblemen,” Viola noted.
“Indeed I won’t!” Melvin confirmed. “Politics has no appeal to me. A nice, quiet life in the country with Viola is all I want.”
Lord Percival started to stroke his beard. “I suppose a lack of ambition can be a good thing.”
Encouraged, Melvin hurried on. “You’ll be welcome to visit any time, and if you require any assistance with the harvest or such things, why, naturally any aid I or my servants can provide will be given. Take my steward, for instance... well, no, don’t take him. I need the fellow myself. He’s a wonder with the accounts. Found out I’d been paying too much to the miller, for one thing. I could let him take a look at your accounts and see if there’s anything --”
Lord Percival held up his hand. “That’s quite all right. My steward is more than competent.” He addressed Viola. “You really want to wed this fellow?”
“I do, Uncle, truly.”
Lord Percival turned to his wife. “You favor the match?”
“I do,” she replied with a nod of her head.
Lord Percival turned away from his wife and addressed the young couple. “Very well. You may wed.”
Viola gave a happy cry before she rushed into Melvin’s open arms.
“What the devil’s going on here?”
They all turned to see Barengar standing on the threshold, his hands on his hips, both eyes black, his nose as large and red as an apple.
Barengar also had a wineskin dangling from his fingers. His voice was thick, too, although whether from the swelling or the wine, it was difficult to tell.
Before anyone could answer, his frown deepened and he gestured at the embracing couple with the hand holding the wineskin. “God’s blood!”
“Come along, young man,” Lord Percival said, taking him by the arm and steering him out of the room. “You’re imagining things.”
“Get dressed at once, Viola,” her aunt said after they had gone, “and get back to your chamber before the household stirs. Emil won’t say a word of what’s happened, although his silence will no doubt cost a pretty penny. As for your wedding, Viola, I suppose we’d best have it at once, lest you’ve gotten yourself…. People can count, so we’d best take care to avoid a scandal. As for you, Sir Melvin, you’d better...” She sniffled and dabbed at her eyes. “You’d best be as good as your word about treating my niece well!” she exclaimed before she choked back a sob and hurried from the room.
Still clasped in each other’s arms, Viola and Melvin looked at one another.
“I’m afraid I’m asleep and dreaming,” Melvin murmured.
“I don’t,” Viola replied as she raised herself on her toes. She kissed him gently. “Do you still think you’re dreaming?”
“Maybe,” he replied and his slowing broadening smile was an enticement in itself.
She kissed him again. “Awake now?” she purred.
“Wide awake,” he replied. He glanced at the bed, then frowned. “Your aunt told you to get dressed and go before the household --”
“My uncle’s given his consent, but until we’re married, he can change his mind. We’d best insure that we will be married, and the best way to do that is not to hurry. If another servant discovers us together, well, it may cost my aunt and uncle some more money, but it may be the only way to make certain he doesn’t withdraw his consent.” She gave him a sultry smile. “Besides, I’ve discovered something else you do as well as kissing. Perhaps even better.”
“In that case,” Melvin replied with a surprisingly seductive smile of his own, “I believe I shall retire. And you, my lady?”
Although her gleaming eyes were anything but tired, she made a great show of yawning. “I believe I had better join you.”
Lord Percival’s announcement that his niece was to be wed to Sir Melvin de Courcellet caused quite a sensation later that day, even though he waited until many of the remaining guests had already departed. Those who were still at Lord Percival’s castle might have supposed that the nobleman was not in earnest, except that a beaming Sir Melvin stood at his right hand. Even more astonishing, Lady Viola looked equally delighted.
Any remained doubts the guests might have had about the marriage disappeared as they watched the newly betrothed couple dine together. It was clear that Lady Viola genuinely liked the young man who appeared to prefer looking at the lady to eating or talking, something a few wags considered a miracle equal to the betrothal.
Some of the older lords began to wonder if they’d been mistaken to dismiss Sir Melvin as a fool. If Lord Percival agreed to the marriage, there might be more to the young fellow than they supposed. More than one took Lord Percival aside to congratulate him and his family on the alliance, and to make it clear they would consider it an honor to be invited to the wedding.
Lord Barengar waited until the hall was nearly empty before approaching his cousin and his future bride.
“Melvin!” he said a bit louder than necessary to get their attention, which seemed to be focused solely on each other.
“Oh, Barengar, there you are,” Melvin said. “How’s the nose? Not too painful, I hope. I’m truly sorry about that, coz. I hope you’ll forgive me. You’ll come to the wedding, won’t you? It’s to be in a fortnight. Here, of course, home of the bride and all that.”
“It’s really true then?” Barengar asked. “You’re really betrothed?”
“Yes, it’s really true,” Viola replied.
Melvin and Viola exchanged smiles before Viola leaned closer and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper. “Since you saw us in my bedchamber, it would be useless to lie, so I won’t. My aunt and uncle are insisting that we marry. But I must admit that it was a most satisfactory night, in every way. Your cousin is a veritable lion, Lord Barengar.”
Barengar reared back, his brows raised, his mouth agape, while Viola took her future husband’s arm in hers and regarded him with calm serenity.
While Melvin merely smiled.
“I can’t believe you’re so pleased,” Lady Sylvia said to Viola later than same day as they strolled in the rose garden. “I know you like him, but still! He’s not rich or handsome or…or anything!”
Viola slipped her arm through the younger woman’s and led her to a more secluded corner of the garden.
“He is most definitely something,” she said significantly. She looked around to make certain no one else was nearby. “There is nothing lacking about him when it comes to other qualities one would wish in a husband.”
“What do you mean? Generosity?”
Viola laughed softly. “I suppose one could call it that. Let me just say, he doesn’t lack for passion. I have never felt so wonderful as I did in his arms.”
Lady Sylvia’s eyes grew as round as a millwheel. “You don’t mean to say you’ve...?”
Viola didn’t want to shock Sylvia too much. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be long before Emil would let the secret out, even if he’d been paid to keep it. The man was a born tattle-tale. “Yes.”
Sylvia gasped, then frowned and bit her lip before she intently whispered, “What was it like? Really like?”
“When you’re with a man who cares as much for your pleasure as his own, absolutely wonderful,” Viola answered without hesitation. “Find a good, kind man who loves you, Sylvia, and you’ll know exactly what I mean.”
The gate opened and Melvin stuck his head inside, then grinned and entered. “There you are. Mind if I interrupt?”
“I was, um, just leaving,” Sylvia said, blushing as she hurried away.
“I hope I wasn’t interrupting anything important. I didn’t mean to make her run off,” Melvin said as he gathered Viola in his arms. “Much as I want to be with you, I could have waited a little while.”
“It’s all right,” Viola said, resting her head on Melvin’s broad shoulder. “I think I gave her something to think about when it comes to men and marriage.”
“Speaking of men, Barengar’s gone. Rode off a little while ago. Says he’ll come back for the wedding. I doubt it. His nose might still be swollen and he won’t want a lot of people to see him that way.”
Viola sighed so heavily, Melvin frowned. “What’s the matter?”
“I fear Sylvia won’t be happy if he doesn’t return.”
Melvin’s frown deepened. “I’m not sure he’s the right fellow for her. I’m not sure he’s the right fellow for any lady. Maybe he will be in a few years when he’s had time to realize what’s really important. At least, I hope he waits a few years and doesn’t go rushing into marriage with some pretty girl who’s got a large fortune.”
“Although I’m not pretty, you’re rushing into marriage with a girl who’s got a large fortune,” Viola said softly. “My dowry is twenty-five thousand marks.”
“You are the most beautiful woman in the – wait!” Melvin stopped smiling. “What did you say?”
Melvin looked so startled, Viola had to smile. “I said, you’re marrying a girl with a dowry of twenty-five thousand marks.”
“I had no notion,” Melvin incredulously replied. “No wonder your uncle was so angry this morning. I suppose he thought I was after your money. Maybe I should refuse it. After all, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference to me if you were a pauper.”
Viola knew he was speaking the absolute truth and embraced him tightly. “Melvin de Courcellet, I do love you! You truly are the most wonderful man I’ve ever met.”
“As you are the most wonderful woman, Viola. I love you with all my heart,” he said before he kissed her with all the passion and love in his kind, courageous heart.
Note: This novella is PG13. With the exception of GWYNETH AND THE THIEF and THE WASTREL, MM's books are usually steamier.