Honor's Players
Author:Holly Newman

Go, get thee gone, thou false deluding slave . . .

—Act IV, Scene I

Elizabeth sat at the desk, a sheaf of papers before her and a quill in hand, determinedly deceiving herself with the motions of busy employment. Unfortunately, rather than the columns of numbers and their calculations to ascertain the fabric yardage necessary for the drapes and hangings in her bedroom, her hand seemed more inclined to absent circles and squiggles bearing, with some little imagination, all the character of a field of flowers.

Now that she was intimately acquainted with the condition of Larchside, she spent considerable time at the desk planning the manor’s refurbishment. She’d spent the morning choosing the fabrics for various rooms from the samples the linen drapers supplied. Most of the work was being done in their London workshops, but Elizabeth had decided to have her room done locally. Mary informed her there were women in the village who could sew a neat seam and could use extra money, for signs indicated a harsh winter to come. It would also, they decided, nicely sabotage Tunning’s effort to distance her from the local people. Elizabeth smiled briefly. She and Mary were fast becoming as thick as inkle weavers, much to the Atheridges’ chagrin and Tunning’s rage.

A bold line slashed across the page as her smile faded. St. Ryne had absented himself for a full week now, and she was beginning to feel restive. It wasn’t so much that she missed him as she missed the strange feelings he had introduced in her breast. She found herself contemplating different scenarios for a repeat of those ephemeral feelings. Then a sudden fear would grip her for they seemed such consuming feelings, and she was not at all certain she should allow such powerful emotions to engulf her. It could not be considered ladylike and would likely give St. Ryne a disgust of her.

She chewed her bottom lip as she considered her situation. Her questions might be moot if the Viscount failed to return or if Mr. Tunning’s vicious, oily tongue held sway. She had never liked the estate agent and her experiences in the past week only served to harden her dislike. It was a pity, however, that she had not been able to still her tongue during their last interview.

As she sat behind the desk, she vividly remembered the confrontation for she had been so situated when it occurred. It was caused by her hiring Mary Geddy. She’d known engaging Mary would be tantamount to adding fuel to a burning fire; however, she felt confident of her ability to face Tunning down. She knew, with wry irony, she had signally failed to take the true measure of the man for he was not above fighting dirty. When he heard from Atheridge the identity of her new cook, he came storming into her house without waiting to be announced, his face dangerously red.

“What are you about, employing that Geddy witch? You were to consult me on any hiring!”

“I never remember agreeing to that.”

He pounded his fist on the desk. “I told you those Humphries were a bad lot. A bad lot.”

“I beg to differ with you,” Elizabeth returned coolly, her eyebrow rising in quelling hauteur. “I found the Humphries to be pleasant company, but that is entirely beside the point. I did not hire them, I hired Mary Geddy. Furthermore, Mr. Tunning, I would not have done so if you had presented me with qualified people rather than the pathetic souls to whom you could pay less and pocket the difference. I am paying top dollar, Mr. Tunning, and you’re going to see that everyone I hire receives their proper wages.” Her accusation was a shot in the dark, but she was amply rewarded by the rapid flush on Tunning’s face.

“Are you accusing me of stealing estate funds?” he gritted.

She crowed silently while she considered him. “Outright stealing? No, I grant you more intelligence than that, Mr. Tunning,” she admitted serenely. “I think it more likely you take your pound of flesh from everyone you deal with.”

“That is a lie!”

“Is it?” A triumphant smile played upon her lips. Tunning's eyes narrowed, an ugly sneer twisting his features. He leaned over the desk and Elizabeth found herself shrinking into her chair. “Ah, I see the way of it now, you’re angry with that fine husband of yours for leaving the purse strings in my hands.”

“Ridiculous!” she snapped, yet an uncomfortable feeling nagged at her.

Tunning pressed his advantage. “I’ll not be the victim of a vengeful, frustrated virgin.”

“How dare you!”

He straightened, his pudgy hand fingering his watch chain. “Asides which, you’ve got no proof,” he continued malevolently.

Elizabeth drew a deep breath while her fiery eyes burned through Tunning. “No, I don’t. You saw to that when you locked the estate room and terrorized the local people,” she seethed. “But I’m giving you warning, do not play ducks and drakes with other people’s money again, or I’ll see you on the first ship bound for the penal colony in Australia!”

“Don’t you go threatening me,” he snarled, rocking back on his heels. “I know all about you now that I’ve done some investigating. They call you the Shrew of London, and it’s rumored St. Ryne won a tidy bundle in the clubs by wedding you.”

“You insolent cur!”

“Same as you. I’ll bide my time for now, but when the Viscount returns, I’ll see that Geddy witch out on her ear, mark my words.”

“You mark mine, Tom Tunning. Stay out of my way or you may see just how much of a shrew I can be. You’ll rue the day you crossed swords with me.” Her fingers closed around the inkstand, her fingers itching to throw it in his face.

“Oh, I think not, my fine lady, I think not,” he snickered, turning on his heel and slamming the library door shut behind him.

Elizabeth still shuddered when she considered that interview. She should have maintained an icy calmness, but her famous temper had once again betrayed her. The truth was, she did not know who St. Ryne would believe. His last words to Tunning before he left indicated a faith in her, but how much of that was real and how much pretense to ease the sting of his actions? She might be tilting at windmills and be as helpless as Tunning inferred.

She leaned back in her chair. She was tired, and a replay of that awful interview was not conducive to creating peace of mind. A wry smile twisted her mouth then crumbled into a tremulous frown. Life had not been fair to her since she was five, why should it change now?

Because I wish it to!

She lowered her head into her hands as a slow trailing of tears slid down her cheeks despite her determined silent protest against them.

St. Ryne stopped mid-stride when he saw his Bess. She jumped from her chair, his name a bare breath of air on her lips. She quickly flicked a tear from her cheek but not before he noted its course and a similar track on the other cheek. He continued forward to grab her hands and guide her around the desk, his warm smile offering humor and friendship. Elizabeth eyed him warily.

“Bess, what is this?” he asked, searching her face carefully.

Embarrassment flooded her cheeks. “Nothing, my lord, I assure you. It is merely fatigue’s cruel gesture, womanly nonsense.”

She withdrew her hands, a mantle of coldly formal reserve settling over her. She glided past him to sit stiffly erect in a chair by the fire. “We were not expecting you.” Suddenly seeing St. Ryne rocked her senses. She drew a steadying breath. “I’m afraid there is still much to do here. We are not yet prepared to provide all the comforts you would wish.”

St. Ryne looked quizzically at the stiff little marionette Elizabeth had become. “What do I care of comforts? As it is, my dear, you have already wrought miracles.” He took the chair opposite her.

Elizabeth refused to look directly at him, her eyes focused just to the side of his head. “The dining room and hall are complete save for draperies and upholstery,” she recited colorlessly. “I am assured the drawing room will be completed tomorrow. I had a bedroom for your use prepared in the event of your return but have not as yet ordered new fabrics for its refurbishment. The grounds have been manicured, though perhaps not perfectly, but this will do until spring. I took the liberty of cleaning out the stable and laying fresh straw. You are correct, it is a ramshackle structure but one, I surmise, which must see us through this winter. I have begun the process of engaging servants; however, it is a slow project. It appears there is considerable hesitation amongst the people here to work at Larchside on other than a contract basis. So far I have engaged the services of a cook, a chambermaid, and a footman.”

“We don’t have a footman any longer.”

“What?” Elizabeth’s head snapped around in surprise.

St. Ryne’s mouth quirked sideways then he struggled to adopt a tone as formal as her own though his eyes danced. “At least, I don’t think we do. It does depend on what Grigs says.” That caught her attention quickly enough, he thought.

“Who is Grigs? What are you talking about?”

“About Thomas, the young man you engaged as a footman. He’s horse mad, did you know? I’m giving him a chance to be a groom if Grigs, my head groom, approves him for training. Grigs should be here within the hour along with Mr. Cranston.”

“Mr. Cranston?” she returned feebly, knowing somehow she’d lost her advantage.

“My valet. Have you found a suitable lady’s maid yet?”

“No, though tomorrow I interview Ivy Murchison, a young woman who, Mary tells me, is quite clever with her hands and eager to enter the profession,” she said, dazed.

“Who is Mary?”

Elizabeth struggled to recapture her reserve. “Our new cook. It has been through her good offices that I have even been able to hire anyone.”

A mock grimace crossed St. Ryne’s face. “My stomach recalls only too well other meals served here. Can this Mary truly cook?”

“Excellently. That does remind me, I must tell her to expect one more for dinner.” She rose regally from her chair. “You must want to freshen up before dinner. I will have Atheridge conduct you to your chamber.” She glanced at the large clock on the mantle as she pulled the bell. “We keep country hours here. Dinner will be served in one hour.”

Elizabeth’s determined wintry disposition effectively cooled St. Ryne’s homecoming enthusiasm and convinced him his road would be rougher to travel than he had imagined. Rather than rail at her icy formality, it would do well to get over this rough ground lightly by accepting it without question. Her carefully controlled neutral demeanor had slipped once, so perhaps it wasn’t an easy attitude to maintain. If that were the case, he would do nothing to antagonize her into insuring its continued maintenance.

He listened to Elizabeth instruct Atheridge, her tones measured and correct yet lacking emotion. Perhaps he should first discover what had occurred at Larchside in his absence, for with his wife’s London reputation, there may be bellows to mend with the locals. She had already spoken of difficulty in engaging servants. Some diplomatic maneuvering might be in order.

St. Ryne’s thoughts were pensive as he followed the butler. The meaning behind Elizabeth’s care for his room was not lost on him. He had not joined her in bed on their wedding night or the night after, therefore she did not expect him to in the future, and most likely would vehemently protest any attempt on his part. He could demand his conjugal rights, although that was definitely not what he wanted from his Bess. He wanted her to want him as much as he was discovering he wanted her. In retrospect, it amazed him what a mull he’d managed to make of his marriage. His actions were those of a man puffed up by his own conceit. It would take time to rectify his many errors. Time, he grimly decided, he would take.

“Your chambers, my lord.”

Atheridge’s rusty voice interrupted his reverie. “Thank you.” He looked about with interest at the room Elizabeth had assigned him. It was decorated in bilious green. St. Ryne thought wryly that its current color scheme probably figured in her selection. He’d wager it was also scheduled to be the last room she redecorated. Actually he was pleased; such a choice was calculated with vengeance in mind, tempered with black humor. If she was as bloodless as she was attempting to portray, it was more likely she wouldn’t have cared where he slept or else would have taken the simple expedient of choosing a room that was the farthest from her own.

“Atheridge,” he said suddenly before the man could leave, “how has life been here at Larchside since I left?”

“Beg pardon, my lord?”

St. Ryne frowned, forming his words carefully in his mind. “I left before my wife had the opportunity to properly acquaint herself with Larchside.”

“Yes, my lord”

“I trust there have been no problems?”

“None, though Mr. Tunning and the mistress do not see eye to eye.”

“In what way?”

“Well, not that it’s for me to say, but it did seem she completely disregarded his personnel suggestions and, forgive me my lord, she has sometimes gone so far as to forget her position with the tenants, if you know my meaning,” he explained austerely.

St. Ryne’s brow descended and he nodded his understanding. “Thank you, Atheridge, that will be all. Oh, you can expect my man to arrive shortly, so please see him situated then conduct him here.”

“Very good, my lord.” Atheridge bowed himself out, pleased with his accomplishment. He’d show Tunning he was not the only one who could be needle-witted. Soon that Viscountess would be property tethered, and Larchside would be her gilded perch. Then they could go about feathering their nests as they’d done for years. There was a fair amount of money put away; he’d once asked Tunning if it weren’t time to cut their losses and retire the scene. But the wily estate agent had been confident there were still funds to be milked from the estate and the people serving it.

Alone, St. Ryne shrugged out of his coat, waistcoat, and shirt, shivering slightly in the cool air. The fire laid when he arrived had not caught sufficiently to heat the room. Absently he picked up the poker to stoke the flames, his mind on Atheridge’s words.

It appeared his fears were well founded; Elizabeth had been up to her London tricks and had already managed to terrorize the neighborhood. He should not have left her in so uncertain a temper. She was bound to take some misguided action. He pitied his tenants, especially those whose life looked unnaturally harsh. He wondered what actions he would have to take to sooth ruffled feathers and hurt feelings. It was no surprise that she was having difficulty engaging servants; she probably terrorized all applicants. Tunning must be tearing his hair out, he mused, with her ranting and raving.

A soft knock on his door was met with a distracted command to enter.

Elizabeth hesitated, her hand a hair’s breadth away from the latch. In all honesty, she failed to remember precisely why she stood there, her errand superfluous in her own mind. She steeled herself to resume her cool, withdrawn mien and briskly opened the door.

“Justin—” His name died on her lips, her breath coming in a ragged gasp. He stood in the flickering glow cast by the fire, naked from the waist up. His smoothly muscled back was to her as he bent forward, stirring the embers.

She had never seen a man without his shirt save in statues and paintings. She blinked rapidly in surprise.

St. Ryne jerked up at the sound of his name, turning swiftly, poker in hand.

A sensual heat pumped erratically through Elizabeth, suffusing her face, running down through her loins, stirring up a maelstrom of emotions from deep within. She felt unaccountably light-headed. The light and shadows cast by the fire sharply defined the muscles in his arms and shoulders and glinted off the curling mat of dark hair spread across his chest and descending in a V to his flat stomach. Her hand slowly rose from her side with a mind of its own and a desire to touch his chest; her nails aching to graze his naked shoulders as he’d promised at that fateful Amblethorp rout. Like waking from a drugged sleep, she lifted her eyes from his chest to his face to find her surprise mirrored in his eyes.

Very slowly he set the poker down by the hearth, moving as if afraid to startle a bird to flight. He glided to her side, his heart pounding in his chest. “Bess,” he whispered, for he recognized the desire and confusion in her eyes. He felt giddy, as if he should be shouting for joy, but he contained himself for this exotic bird could still take flight. He grabbed her shoulders, pulling her close to him. Her hands settled tentatively against his chest.

His head bent, slowly closing the distance with hers. In panic she realized he intended to kiss her. “No!” she moaned, all too clearly remembering when last they kissed, fear of her response to him rapidly supplanting the desire in her eyes. Her fingers curled into fists and weakly her eyelids fluttered shut.

She felt his lips lightly settle on her temple then withdraw, her hands falling from his chest as he stepped away. She swayed slightly, then her eyes flew open to see him pick up his discarded shirt to slip it on. Two bright spots of color stained her cheeks.

“I—I came to inform you the grooms’ quarters in the stable are quite uninhabitable. Your groom will have to sleep in the servant rooms here in the house. I have directed Mrs. Atheridge to have a room prepared but I didn’t know how many to expect. I normally wouldn’t bother you with servant details; however, Mrs. Atheridge seems incapable of independent thought.” She was babbling and she knew it. She compressed her lips tightly for her husband was studying her with a thoroughly masculine, arrogant smile slashing across his face.

“Just Grigs and Cranston at the moment. I have already spoken to Grigs on the condition of the stable, and though he sniffed like a superior butler, he is prepared to accommodate himself as necessary.” He answered lighty but his eyes remained intent upon her.

“Very well, I’m sorry to have disturbed you. I’ll leave you now and see you at dinner.”

Elizabeth, calmer, appeared to have regained her dignity. St. Ryne watched her leave, pleased with the encounter. He discovered to his delight that his lady wife was not completely the mistress of her emotions for he’d glimpsed the edges of suppressed passion. Patience would come easily now, he decided, for he was sure of success. A sudden frown pulled at the corners of his mouth. There was still the problem of her shrewish temperament with other people. On that problem it would bode well to step carefully.

Once out of the suffocating proximity of St. Ryne, a new iron determination to distance herself emotionally from him swept through Elizabeth. She paced her room restlessly. She hated the realization that he could make her knees weak with a touch or a look while he felt nothing. He acted the large cat playing with its prey. Why had he come back, to complete her humiliation? For all her shrewish sins of the past, did she deserve such treatment?

The only time she had felt confident dealing with St. Ryne was the evening she came down to dinner in the altered gown. Her eyes widened. Of course, how stupid she was to forget! Justin was not completely immune to her charms for she’d proven it to herself that night. Poor Hattie told her often enough that a body caught more flies with honey than with vinegar, but her words had fallen on deaf ears, until now.

Her wardrobe was stuffed with her gowns from home. Impatiently she sorted through them. The insipid white muslins she should discard. She must remember to ask Mary if there were any young girls in the area in need of such dresses. Unfortunately the rest of her gowns were not much better. There were, perhaps, two gowns that offered promise: a red velvet that had been made up for a theater excursion that she had bowed out of at the last moment pleading a headache, and a dark blue watered silk which, after it was delivered, Lady Romella had decided was too dark a color for an unmarried woman. Though neither neckline was as vulgarly low as the one she’d fashioned for the gray gown, the colors did her better service. She chose the blue silk, deciding the red may yet be too strong a color. Her campaign must start subtly, she thought with a small smile.

“That repast, my dear, was as good as any prepared by a London chef,” St. Ryne praised as he conducted Elizabeth to the library after dinner. “You are to be congratulated.”

“Yes, I believe we are fortunate in Mary.”

He guided her to a chair then turned to pour after-dinner drinks. “Where did you find this paragon?”

“At one of the tenant farms.” She pulled some needlework from a tapestry bag by the chair.

“The tenant farms?” He had inferred from what Atheridge said that she did not get along with their tenants.

“Yes. You seem surprised.” She threaded her needle and bent her head to the canvas.

“Oh, no, not at all. What are you about there?”

A faint smile traced her lips. “This is a seat cover for a chair in the hall.”

He set a glass of Madeira on the table at her elbow, staring down at her a moment.

“Justin, please, you’re in my light.”

“I beg your pardon.” He walked away to the other chair then swung around to the mantle to remove the candlestick and place it by her side. “You need more light for that work,” he muttered before taking his seat.

Elizabeth thanked him serenely.

St. Ryne found himself well contented to sit and watch her sew by candlelight. A warm glow surrounded her, and St. Ryne was struck by her exquisite beauty. Perhaps Branstoke was correct and he did indeed hold a pearl beyond price in his hand. She did not seem to be a woman who would rant and rave at innocents, rather the tigress that would defend her cubs. Lamentably, he knew he had much to learn; he hoped it wasn’t too late.

In the distance they heard the sharp rap of the door knocker. They exchanged glances.

“Bess, were you expecting someone?”

“No, unless—” she paused.

“Excuse me, my lord,” interrupted Atheridge, “but Mr. Tunning is outside desirous to see you.”

“Have him come in.” He looked at Elizabeth. “Do you know what Tunning wants?”

She laughed mirthlessly. “I have a few ideas.”

Before he could question her further, the man was shown into the room. Tunning coughed deprecatingly, turning his hat round in his hands. He had not expected to see the Viscount and Viscountess so comfortably ensconced together.

“Excuse me, my lord, but seeing as you’ve been away awhile, I just thought you might like to see me on your return, to catch up on our accomplishments as it were.”

Though St. Ryne was annoyed by Tunning's interruption of his first evening with Elizabeth, he had to judge the merit of his words. It rankled to know that Tunning did not trust his wife to apprise him of the improvements. To the estate agent’s mind, however, he was probably acting efficiently. “I concede your point,” he allowed reluctantly.

Tunning shifted nervously, bringing a smile to Elizabeth’s lips at his discomfiture. “Shall we repair to the estate room, as all the books and papers are there?”

St. Ryne sighed and rose from his chair. “Will you forgive me, Bess?”

“Of course,” she acquiesced, nodding her head slightly.

She owned herself disposed to wonder at the success of Tunning's venture and found herself considering the meeting a weather vane for the success of her marriage. Justin did not appear anxious to quit her side; if such a feeling extended to questioning the veracity of Tunning's word over hers, she would be well content and inclined to bend in her attitude toward her husband in return.

The needle she plied struck her thumb smartly, recalling her to her task at hand.

“It’s good to see you back, my lord,” Tunning said, easing himself ponderously into a plain wooden chair.

“You seem almost relieved. Have there been problems?” St. Ryne rounded the table to sit, irked to realize Tunning sat before him and without permission.

Tunning reached for a port bottle from a nearby tray and poured two glasses. “Oh no—leastwise, not overt like, but it’s building. Them Humphries are bad business. They’re too independent, not following my advice or letting me handle the sales. They’re also disruptive.”

St. Ryne accepted the glass wordlessly, though silently he wondered what a port bottle and glasses were doing in his estate room. Tunning seemed to take it for granted that this was his domain. He took a sip of port before speaking and leaned back in his chair to study the estate agent through lazily hooded eyes. “In what manner?” he finally asked.

“Insolent, my lord.”

St. Ryne thought of his wife’s sharp manner and Atheridge’s comment on the time she spent with the tenants. “To whom have they been insolent? My wife?”

“No, my lord. It’s too busy toad-eating her, they are. She’s always down there and even went so far as to hire that Mary Geddy when I expressly told her the Humphries are a bad lot.”

St. Ryne sat forward in his chair, pushing a stack of ledgers away from the place before him to clear a space for his arms. He suddenly felt his understanding of the situation at Larchside crumbling. “What has Mary Geddy to do with the Humphries?”

“She’s Mrs. Humphries’s mother and a very insinuating woman, she is.”

“Mrs. Humphries’ mother? Does she live with them?”

“Yes, for about five years, now, I’d say.”

“Mrs. Geddy is an excellent cook.” St. Ryne looked steadily at Tunning. “Can you say you know of better?”

Tunning squirmed. “Not precisely, my lord. But it does no good to encourage them,” he returned roundly. “I don’t trust them and I’d watch out for the Viscountess with them, bad influence, that.”

St. Ryne crossed his arms over his chest, sinking his head down in thought, a brooding pout on his face. “I understand none of the servants who have been hired have been of your choosing.”

“No, and that’s a fact I also wanted to discuss with you but didn’t rightly know how to bring up.”

“I’m giving you your opportunity. Speak.”

Tunning coughed and shifted his feet before responding. “I’ll not wrap it up in clean linen, my lord. The Viscountess don’t like me, and that’s a fact.”

“Why?” The question shot out between them, hanging over the table.

“Now, my lord,” he cajoled, mopping his brow, “there’s no pulling the wool over my eyes. I’m up to every rig and row invented.” He leaned toward the Viscount, the look of state secrets to sell upon his face. “I’ve heard stories about the Viscountess, stories that would curl your hair, beggin’ your lordship’s pardon.”

St. Ryne’s hackles rose though he managed to wave his hand dismissingly. “Stories mean nothing. You would be wise to remember that if you wish to remain in our employ,” he slowly replied, pinning him with a quelling stare.

Tunning was disconcerted. “Well, to be sure, to be sure,” he placated quickly. “But it still don’t change the fact that the Viscountess is resistant to my advice.”

“You’ve traded words with her?”

Tunning laughed weakly. “Yes, and that’s a fact, but I’d say we’ve got each other’s measure now, my lord,” he hastily assured St. Ryne.

“Indeed? If that is the case, I wonder who is really being insolent to whom?”

Tunning's smile dimmed and he fidgeted with his watch chain.

“Why don’t we call in Elizabeth to discuss the servant situation?”

“Now that you’re home, my lord, that’s not really necessary.”

“Oh, but I insist.” St. Ryne rang the bell for Atheridge who responded with suspicious alacrity.

“Atheridge, ask the Viscountess to join Mr. Tunning and me in the estate room, please.” St. Ryne did not wait for Atheridge’s bow, but adroitly changed the subject and began speaking to Tunning of a proposed meeting with Grigs to discuss the condition of the stable and whether it could be remodeled or if it needed to be completely rebuilt.

“Are you planning to settle here permanently, my lord?”

“Hardly, I have other properties, some of which are considerably larger than Larchside.” St. Ryne rose and began prowling the small room as he talked. He peered at the dates on the ledgers in the bookcase.

“Then, begging your pardon, my lord, why are you fixin’ the place up? To sell?”

“I can’t do that, Tunning. You see I settled Larchside on my wife when we married.” He turned back to the table. “So, I will be depending on you to turn this property around and make it more than marginally profitable.”

“I understand.” Tunning's thoughts chased around in his head. Perhaps if he could show periodic improvement in the revenues and property condition, he would still be left to run Larchside and could easily arrange to continue his side earnings. It may well be that the faster repairs and improvements were made, the faster would he see the backs of the Viscount and his interfering wife.

Atheridge coughed from the doorway. “Excuse me, my lord.”

St. Ryne swung around. “Yes, where is the Viscountess, my wife?”

“She says, my lord, as the estate room has been locked to her the entire time you’ve been gone, she takes that to mean it is a room she’s not to enter and therefore begs you’ll come to her.”

“Locked! Didn’t you give her all the keys, Atheridge?”

Atheridge looked nervously to Tunning for support.

“Now, my lord, with all the strangers coming in and out, I weren’t sure we could trust them all so I kept the door locked,” Tunning explained easily.

“I suppose there is merit is that,” the Viscount allowed grudgingly. He could see he would have to lay down new ground rules as to how the estate business would be handled in the future. It appeared this man had controlled the estate like a ruling despot. It probably worked fine under Sir Jeremy Redfin, but he did business differently. Two changes he would institute quickly were the practice of locking the estate door from the inside and the maintaining of a port bottle.

“Then, too, my lord,” Tunning went on, failing to note the Viscount’s pensive attitude, “women really don’t need to bother their pretty little heads with numbers.”

St. Ryne raised an eyebrow. “I begin to see why you and the Viscountess do not get along. Enough for this evening. We will talk again tomorrow.” St. Ryne rose from his chair, anxious to return to the library. He now knew all his suppositions as to what exactly had transpired during his absence to be worthless. It gave him an uneasy feeling he couldn’t quite capture.

Elizabeth forced herself to continue her needlework and refrain from looking up when St. Ryne entered the library. She knew it was merely a fit of pique that caused her to respond to his summons as she did. Almost the moment the words were out of her mouth she’d regretted them. Only an overwhelming desire to deny herself Tunning's company kept her in her seat.

When her husband didn’t address her, she risked a quick peek up through her lashes to see him refilling his port glass. Her pulse suddenly throbbed as he settled himself in the chair next to her.

“Why haven’t you been willing to follow Mr. Tunning's advice?” His tone was neutral.

“If he gave good advice, I’d have followed it,” she said, copying his tone.

“How do you know his advice is bad?” St. Ryne probed, attempting to understand.

Elizabeth sighed and leveled an intent stare at him. “Have you approved of the servants I engaged? The improvements I’ve made?”

“Of course! I told you when I arrived that you have worked miracles here and the last few hours have only confirmed that observation. But that doesn’t answer my question.”

“Doesn’t it? None of the changes I’ve made have met with Mr. Tunning’s approval,” Elizabeth said disgustedly. She stuffed her needlework into its tapestry bag; she was no longer calm enough to work.

“What? But Tunning says—”

“Oo-oo!” Elizabeth surged to her feet, unwilling to hear words she felt certain would be said in Tunning's defense. “Your precious Tunning is a scoundrel and a thief. If you bothered to open your eyes, you’d see that for yourself. He may have been successful in keeping me from seeing the books, but I know what he is up to! Now if you’ll excuse me, my lord,” she said, the honorarium dripping acid, “I will go to bed for I suddenly find myself bored beyond measure. Good night!” she said, slamming the door shut behind her.

St. Ryne dolefully shook his head. He was somehow managing, quite nicely, to muff his good intentions.

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