Honor's Players
Author:Holly Newman

Your honor’s players, hearing your amendment,

Are come to play a pleasant comedy:

For so your doctors hold it very meet,

Seeing too much sadness hath congealed your blood,

And melancholy is the nurse of frenzy:

Therefore they thought it good you hear a play

And frame your mind to mirth and merriment,

Which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life.

—Act 1, Scene 2 The Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare

Gentlemen, content ye; I am resolved.

—Act I, Scene 4

The Honorable Viscount St. Ryne was in a foul mood. As he crossed the sidewalk to ascend the steps before his club in St. James’s, he glared balefully at fellow members seated at their leisure by the bow window embrasure overlooking the entrance, deriving cynical enjoyment from the unwritten rule dictated by Beau Brummell during his heyday that no member may recognize anyone walking in the street below. On entering he barely nodded to the porter, surprising that worthy for the Viscount could always be counted upon for good word. Of course it had been nigh on a year by his reckoning since his lordship had last crossed that threshold, he conceded as he consigned his lordship’s high-crowned beaver and greatcoat to a waiting footman. He shook his head sadly as he watched St. Ryne mount the stairs. In his experience dealing with the town bucks that frequented the club, such pronounced change in a gentleman could only be engendered by one of two things, money or a woman. He wondered what his lordship’s particular demon was.

St. Ryne continued up the stairs, oblivious to the speculation he aroused. Attaining the first floor landing, he started for the book room with long purposeful strides, checked, then swung back toward the card room. After ordering a bottle of port from a hovering waiter, he sank into a winged armchair in the far corner away from the general activity. Crossing one gleaming Hessian boot across the other, he leaned back in the chair and surveyed his surroundings. A few who chanced to see him raised a hand in greeting and would have come to his side had he deigned to recognize them. His thoughts were black and turned inward, and it was sometime before he could even assimilate his own presence in his favorite haunt.

He was still scowling when some moments later the waiter returned with his requested bottle of port and a cut crystal wineglass on a silver salver. An absent flick of his wrist dismissed the waiter as St. Ryne stared broodingly about the room, slowly willing the sharp claws of depression to release their hold. Though he had been away for nearly a year, nothing seemed to have changed. He wondered why he’d thought it would. Twirling the stem of his goblet idly between long, well-manicured fingers, he noted Farley in attendance with a new lamb for the fleecing and old Mannion already in his cups. His lips curling, St. Ryne silently saluted the latter with his wineglass. Sardonically, he thought in a short time he would be joining that worshiper of Bacchus. After the scene he had been through that day, it would be a blessed release. The Countess of Seaverness was a strong-willed woman; however, so was her son, a fact the Countess continually failed to understand. He acknowledged that his mother’s position as eldest in a numerous family had predisposed her to a domineering manner; however, he’d be damned if he was going to dance merrily to her piping. At thirty he was conscious of what was due his position despite his mother’s fears to the contrary.

St. Ryne shook his head, causing one dark lock to fall and curl across his brow. Taking a sip of port, he continued his perusal of the room. His brooding frown lifted slightly when he spied Freddy Shiperton. Freddy was a sad rattle yet just the sort to divert his mind. The Viscount’s frown descended again momentarily when he noted his companions. Freddy was in attendance with Carlton Tretherford, a veritable old rug merchant to St. Ryne’s mind, and Sir James Rudger Branstoke. St. Ryne did not know Branstoke all that well, though the man’s airs were decidedly too languid, certainly at odds with his Corinthian appearance. Those two men were not good company for Freddy, and it appeared they were embroiled in some altercation. Odd, for Freddy was one of the most likeable young bucks in town, hardly one for any disagreement. St. Ryne had known him all his life for their family estates in Wiltshire marched upon one another.

From his shadowed corner the Viscount watched them for a bit. Finally his curiosity overcame him, and he rose to saunter over to the mismatched party.

“No sense cutting each other up over La Belle Helene if none of us has access to her,” Freddy was saying affably, rocking back on his heels. Ever the town tulip, he was resplendent in yellow pantaloons and bottle-green coat, his guinea-gold hair waved back off his narrow countenance.

Branstoke sighed. “Well, we must work together to effect one thing in all events,” he said, removing a small gold-enameled snuffbox from his vest pocket, flicking it open with a practiced one-handed motion and delicately taking a pinch of its contents.

“What’s that?” Tretherford asked querulously, his ruddy face beginning to take on a choleric hue as the Viscount joined the group.

“Justin!” Freddy exclaimed, breaking in before Branstoke could speak. Grinning broadly, he pumped St. Ryne’s hand vigorously, oblivious to Tretherford’s scowls at the interruption.

“Well met, Freddy,” St. Ryne said smiling warmly in return, at last banishing the black thundercloud that had so captured his features. Freddy was just the nostrum needed to restore his spirits. He turned to Freddy’s companions, inclining his head slightly. “Servant, Tretherford, Branstoke.”

“When did you return, St. Ryne? I heard you were in the Caribbean somewhere,” Branstoke drawled as he gave St. Ryne two fingers.

“I was, in Jamaica to be exact. Been in the country a sennight.”

“Mother wrote to say she saw you at Harth. I was wondering when you’d make it to town. Or should I say, wondering when you could get away?” Freddy amended jovially, clapping him on the back.

“Drove in this afternoon. But excuse the, I. hope I am not interrupting a private conversation?” he asked, his eyebrows arching quizzically.

“Nonsense,” Freddy assured, still grinning. “We were merely bemoaning a common problem.” He shook his head dolefully, leaning his lanky body against an empty green baize table, crossing his ankles.

“Oh?” St. Ryne inquired politely as he looked around the small group.

“You’ve been away a bit, so daresay you’ve never met Lord George Monweithe, the Earl of Rasthough. He lived pretty much in the country until last season.”

“Monweithe—Monweithe, the name’s familiar. I believe he’s an old hunting crony of my father’s. Has a place out in Devon, I think.”

“Ay! That’s the one,” Freddy said eagerly, straightening up. “He also has an angel personified for a daughter, La Belle Helene.”

“Ah,” St. Ryne acknowledged, sneering slightly.

“The sweetest, gentlest lady one could ever hope to meet,” Freddy went on, sighing.

“And one of Lucifer’s angels for an eldest daughter,” Branstoke observed drily.

“Indeed?” St. Ryne said, raising his wineglass to his lips.

“Yes. And old Monweithe has decreed no one may court Helene until Elizabeth, the elder, is wed,” Freddy moaned, his face falling.

Thinking at once of The Taming of the Shrew, one of the few Shakespearean plays he had enjoyed, St. Ryne was intrigued. He cocked an eyebrow and said, “I didn’t realize Monweithe was of a theatrical bent.”

“What? No, he ain’t, sporting man, rides to the hounds,” Tretherford said irritably, raking a knobby hand through his stringy hair. He turned to eye Branstoke. “You was saying we should do something and you had an idea. I’d like to hear it,” he said, shifting from one foot to the other.

Branstoke regarded Tretherford’s hopeful visage through hooded eyes, a sneering smile curling his thin lips. “It’s very simple, my good man. We need to find a husband for her sister.”

“Bah, I thought you had an idea,” Tretherford scoffed, his hopes dashed. He turned to stump back and forth between the tables. “What we’d need is a devil. Monweithe may be rolling in the ready and given her a handsome dowry, but I ask you, is any man fool enough to be married to Hell?”

Branstoke shrugged. “We may not be, but there are gentlemen around who would take her with all her faults for a dowry like that at her back.”

Tretherford snorted. “I’d as lief take her dowry with the condition I be horsewhipped every day!”

St. Ryne, who had been listening to the conversation as he sipped his wine, took a sharp intake of breath at hearing Tretherford’s comment and started to choke. The Taming of the Shrew complete to the characters and lines! It was outside of enough for the Earl of Rasthough to set his daughters up as Katharine and Bianca, but to hear Tretherford and Branstoke mouth words akin to Gremio and Hortensio was outside of enough!

Freddy thumped him heartily on the back. “Easy, Justin ol’ boy.”

Branstoke appeared mildly amused and looked speculatively at St. Ryne as he brushed a speck of lint from his coat of blue superfine.

“Thank you, Freddy. I’m all right now. I merely was reminded of a line from Shakespeare.”

“Shakespeare! In the middle of the afternoon?” Tretherford exclaimed sourly. “I always said too much sun was harmful.”

Freddy sputtered indignantly at the implied slur; however, St. Ryne laid a staying hand on his friend’s arm and laughed thinly. Inwardly he seethed, wondering at the vagaries of society that permitted such nodcocks as Tretherford to retain their place in the Bon Ton over a person whose hands may have been dirtied by trade but who bore better social graces.

“You may be right, perhaps my brain is still a bit addled from the hot Jamaican sun. One can only hope the fresh air of England may bring me to my senses,” he conceded, bowing slightly to Tretherford. “Come Freddy, join me in a hand. If you gentlemen would excuse us—” He took Freddy’s arm to lead him away.

“Justin, how can you swallow Tretherford’s insult? I’d have called him out in an instant!”

“And after you had killed the noddy, you would be forced to flee the country and live in exile. No thank you, Freddy. I have just spent a year out of England and am devilishly glad to have returned.”

“I concede all that. But, still, Justin—”

“Really Freddy, Tretherford is not good ton and not worthy of consideration. However did he become a member?” he asked as they crossed the room.

“Cousin of the Marquis of Alwinly, I believe, and he’s such a nice fellow no one questioned him. Think the marchioness pushed him to it, nasty woman that. Tretherford’s some cousin or other.”

“Hmm, that explains it,” St. Ryne declared, sitting down and gesturing to Freddy to join him. “But tell me more about Monweithe and his two daughters. I admit I am intrigued.” He signaled for the waiter to bring another glass, and then turned again to Freddy.

“Not much to say,” Freddy said. “He introduced the two at the beginning of the season and La Belle Helene has been the jewel of my heart ever since. Would you believe it? I’ve taken to writing poetry about her; she has that kind of an effect on a fellow. ”

“What about the other,” St. Ryne asked as he poured a glass of port for Freddy, “I think you called her Elizabeth?” He glanced up briefly. “Is she ill-favored?”

Freddy scowled, creating deep furrows in his fair forehead. “Not in looks, quite lovely I guess, if you like ’em dark. Though she don’t do much to fix herself up. Got the strangest eyes in a female though. Kind of gold like,” he mused, “and when she gets her temper up, they’re like fire to sear a fellow’s soul.”

St. Ryne laughed shortly. “You have indeed turned poetic. If she is not plain or ugly, what would you call her?” he asked with studied casualness, setting his wineglass down on a small octagonal table between them. “A shrew perhaps?”

Freddy slapped his knee delightedly. “Stab me, that’s it exactly,” he said eagerly. “The Shrew of London, that’s what they call her!”

“Tell me, since my curiosity is aroused, how might I meet this termagant?” St. Ryne asked, leaning back negligently in his chair. His eyes glinted through the lashes of his lazily hooded eyes, and a small smile tugged at his lips.

“Meet her? Stab me why you’d want to do that. All the fellows make a practice to steer clear of that one!”

“But I am not all the fellows and, as your-ah-friend pointed out, I have been out of the country for a good while in a climate that does not leave one with a well-ordered mind,” St. Ryne reminded him softly, a smile ghosting his lips.

Freddy shook his head. “You don’t know what you’d be getting yourself into.”

“Leave that to me.”

Freddy fidgeted in his chair. “All right. She’ll probably be at Amblethorp's rout tonight. Her father makes her go everywhere with Helene, though they don’t care for each other much. Not that Helene would ever say anything.” He sighed. “She’s so good.”

“Undoubtedly,” St. Ryne murmured leaning back in his chair, his hands forming a steeple of his fingers as he gazed off into the distance. The germ of an idea grew in his mind. It would enable him to fulfill his familial obligations and put a spoke in his mother’s wheel. Across the room Branstoke was motioning to the waiter and a small crowd had gathered around him. Young Stanley came running up to Freddy, his round cheeks flushed and his eyes glinting with excitement.

“Freddy! Freddy! Branstoke’s called for the betting book! He’s betting 1,000 pounds that Elizabeth Monweithe will be wed before the year is out! Tretherford, Farley, and the others are all taking him up on it! Come on!”

Freddy jumped out of his chair. “What? Egad, what manner of whimsy is this? The fellow’s gone mad!” he cried as he hurried after Stanley.

St. Ryne raised an eyebrow, a sardonic smile curling his lips as he looked toward Branstoke. That gentleman noted his attention and bowed slightly in his direction before he was recalled to those clustered about him. So, it appeared one Sir James Rudger Branstoke was a sapient gentleman behind his languid airs, St. Ryne thought grimly. Did he hope to flush out a Petruchio to do them service? Mayhap it behooved him to cultivate his acquaintance. He lightly drummed his fingertips on the arm of the chair for a moment then rose leisurely and, picking up his wineglass, sauntered toward the boisterous crowd surrounding Branstoke, all clamoring to bet against him with rude jests flying at the Lady Elizabeth’s expense. He frowned for a moment.

“St. Ryne?” someone called out, “What about you? How do you bet?”

His brow cleared and he smiled laconically. “Why, I agree with Sir James,” he said, saluting that gentleman with his glass. “She will be wed before the year is out.”

“Justin!” Freddy exclaimed, grabbing his coat sleeve. "You don’t even know her yet. How can you bet? Best not do so till you see what I’ve been telling you is true.”

St. Ryne gently removed himself from Freddy’s clasp. “Call it a sporting bet or intuition if you will,” he suggested. Bending over, he signed his name with a flourish, fleetingly considering that signing Petruchio would be more apropos. When he finished, he glanced up to find Branstoke regarding him closely, a slight smile playing upon his lips. Meeting St. Ryne’s eyes, Branstoke raised his wineglass in a salute.

“To Kate,” he said softly.

Justin Harth, the Viscount St. Ryne, met his gaze steadily as he tossed off the remainder of his glass of wine.