Honor's Players
Author:Holly Newman

Pluck up spirits; look cheerfully upon me.

—Act IV, Scene 1



St. Ryne frowned. Blast it! Would the accursed man never grant him a moment’s peace? For the past three days, everywhere he turned, there was Tunning. His shadowed presence was rapidly giving credence to Elizabeth’s negative impressions of the man, to say nothing of his own nagging disquiet.

His weight shifted and his leather saddle creaked as his mount sidled. He leaned forward to pat the horse’s neck reassuringly, trying to decide if he should wait for Tunning to catch up or pretend he never saw him and canter off along the ridge. The latter was tempting but with a sigh he stood his ground. This coil was of his own making and withal Tunning was a part, he could not slip away. Still, he did wish it was Elizabeth riding so determinedly in his direction.

Elizabeth. Lovely Bess. Now just thinking of her brought a light of humor and affection to his eyes, a light she did not deign to recognize. With awe inspiring tenacity she persisted in the role of the proper chatelaine and, to his annoyance, treated him with great deference.

At first he had devoted his time to being available to her should she need anything. He quickly discovered she was self-reliant and stood in no need of his assistance. He tried then to initiate conversation, and albeit she answered civilly enough, he could neither raise a smile nor spark a fire. For a while he searched his mind for ruses to shock her out of her bloodless attitude only to discard them all; for ruses and games had precipitated his current dilemma. In truth, he was a stranger living on sufferance within his own home, except with Tunning. He did not yet know what Tunning’s game was, but it made him deuced uncomfortable. As he was drawing a bad hand in his efforts with Elizabeth, perhaps it was time to study Tunning and unwind the coil from the nether end.

Tunning was drawing closer, his hat jammed tight on his balding head while his brown coattails flapped in the wind. St. Ryne deliberately turned his eyes away to look out across the valley. From the windswept ridge he could see all of Larchside. It was no rare find; however, it had a certain practicality and comfortable feel. His brow furrowed in thought as he studied the tenant farms from his high vantage point. The differences in condition between the Home farm and the other farms were marked, yet from here one could see they shared the same type of lands. None appeared to suffer from marshy pastures or rock-strewn fields. Why was the Home farm in so much better condition?

He would like to have some time alone with that Humphries fellow, if he could ever get Tunning off his tail. When he was about, all his people were morose and uncommunicative, allowing Tunning to butt in and answer any question he posed. Although the man knew his business, it did begin to appear there was havey-cavey business afoot.

He turned in his saddle toward Tunning as the man rode up the hill to his side. His horse’s sides were heaving, and St. Ryne wondered how long Tunning had ridden about before spotting him on the ridge.

“Did you want something?” St. Ryne did not bother to keep the disgust from his voice.

“Thought you might like some company, my lord,” Tunning said heartily.

St. Ryne turned away from him to look out over the property. “Did you indeed? I wonder.”

“Beg pardon?”

“I’m thinking I shall go have a talk with Humphries. For all that you say, the man is obviously doing something right. Such a fellow could be exemplary to all.”

“But, my lord—”

The Viscount held up his hand to cut him off. “Personally, Tunning, I don’t care what the man’s politics are and if his oratory could cause the others to do as well, then I say, so much the better.” He cast an eye in his estate agent’s direction. “Frankly, I have not seen any great communicative powers displayed. When one considers it, it is very singular,” he went on musingly.

“Oh, no, hardly that, my lord,” Tunning replied bluffly. "These people know their place better than to try to hobnob with the gentry.”

A cold anger swept through St. Ryne, and for a moment he did not trust himself to speak. The man was an insufferable snob, positively medieval. If that was his attitude, it explained the problems plaguing the estate. “Is that what you impart to these people? To know their place?” he asked evenly though he was near trembling with rage.

Tunning looked questioningly at the Viscount only to encounter a blank mask. “If necessary,” he replied slowly, trying to gauge his employer’s reactions.

“Ah-h,” St. Ryne said silkily, gathering up the reins in his hands. “I believe the question now is, do you know yours?” Without awaiting a reply, he put spurs to his horse, turning his head for home.





“Bess! Bess!” St. Ryne strode rapidly into the manor, flinging his gloves on a side table.

“Shall I inform ’er ladyship you desire to speaks with ’er, milord?” a gawky bran-faced young man asked as he assisted the Viscount in removing his greatcoat.

“Who the devil are you?”

“Peter Forney, milord. Your wife—I mean ’er ladyship, the Viscountess, she’s engaged me to be a footman ’ere.”

“Ah, Thomas’s replacement.” He heartily clapped the thin young man on the back. “Splendid. Now, just tell me where I might find the Viscountess.”

The new footman stumbled under the impact of St. Ryne’s hand then stood up straighter. “I believe, milord, she’s consult’n with Mrs. Geddy in the kitchen.”

“Thank you,” St. Ryne acknowledged, turning to walk toward the kitchen. As he neared the door, a sound he had never heard before assailed his ears, the sound of carefree laughter. He hesitated, listening intently. It was Bess and she was laughing as though she had not a care in the world. Suddenly he wanted to witness her mirth, to see how it would transform her features and light her golden eyes. He continued his bold swift stride in hopes of catching sight of a heretofore unknown phenomena.

Hearing the heavy tread of boots on stone, Elizabeth turned swiftly to the sound, a half-peeled apple and a knife in her hand, a wide smile gracing her lips and sparkling in her sunshine eyes. She wore a big apron over her leaf-green day dress, her hair carelessly knotted at the top of her head, straggling wisps framing her face. Before her on the heavy, worn wood table was a pan half full of peeled apples and a basket containing fresh ones. Behind her the golden autumn sun poured through the small windows set high on the wall and flooded the table with an umbrella of light. St. Ryne’s heart constricted for all he knew he was missing and he wished he could have this scene done in a painting by Gainsborough to save forever.

The apple slipped from her grasp, and she fumbled to catch it. “Justin! What brings you back here so early in the day?” she asked breathlessly.

“Tunning.”

“Tunning? I don’t understand.”

“Do you know that man is a blathering snob? Worse, perhaps, than my own mother, if that’s possible.” He reached around her to pick up a fresh apple, nodding acknowledgment of Mrs. Geddy’s presence.

Elizabeth relaxed and laughed softly, laying the knife and fruit on the table. “Haven’t I been trying to tell you something of this?”

“Umm-m,” St. Ryne mumbled, crunching on a crisp bite. “Ought to laugh more often, you know. It is a very pretty sound. All in all, you’re a beautiful woman. Frowns don’t become you. Some women can use a pout or frown to increase their charms, but I’m sorry to have to inform you, my love, you don’t number amongst them.”

Incredulity swept over Elizabeth’s face. “What are you about, Justin?”

The hint of a wry smile twisted St. Ryne’s lips. “Laughter. After spending unconscionable hours in our illustrious estate agent’s company—”

“Questionably illustrious,” corrected Elizabeth placidly.

“What? Oh, all right, questionably illustrious. I suddenly find myself possessed of a desire to hear and see you laugh." He turned to Mrs. Geddy. ‘‘Tell me, ma’am, is it so ridiculous for a husband to wish to see his wife happy?”

“Not at all, my lord.”

“See? I have also decided you are working too hard. What are you doing with these apples?”

Elizabeth blushed. How could she explain that when she saw a bushel of apples in the larder, she had a sudden desire for an old childhood delight? There hadn’t been many happy memories from her childhood, but apple flummery was one. She looked up at him defiantly. “They’re for apple flummery.”

“With clotted cream?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth returned faintly.

“I haven’t had that since I was a boy! When will it be ready?”

Mary Geddy’s warm, cackling chuckle interrupted Elizabeth’s reply. “Now didn’t I just tell you it weren’t so foolish to hanker for a memory? ’Specially a good one. I ever lose sight of the good times God’s seen fit to bless me with, then you might as well bury me. That’s wot I always say.”

St. Ryne bowed formally to the little cook. “Mrs. Geddy, you put all the learned philosophers to shame.”

“Oh, get on with you, my lord,” she said, the red in her cheeks spreading over her face.

St. Ryne gave a shout of laughter. “Mrs. Geddy, you are a gem.”

Mrs. Geddy tsk-tsked and grabbed the pan of peeled fruit from the table. “I’ll finish this. Now off with you both so I can see it’s ready by teatime.” Her voice was gruff and filled with no nonsense, but Elizabeth and St. Ryne didn’t miss the gleam in her eyes. They surreptitiously exchanged knowing looks.

Suddenly embarrassed, Elizabeth stood up to remove the voluminous apron, startled to find St. Ryne’s hand on the material, helping to lift it over her head. Silently he took it from her and laid it on the table then offered her his arm.

“My lady?”

Elizabeth leveled a studying gaze on him, then instead of placing her fingertips on his arm, she hooked her arm in his. Pleased, St. Ryne drew his arm closer to his body then reached out to cover her hand with his other. Though Elizabeth’s color was high, she fought to maintain a coolness she was far from feeling.

Mrs. Geddy, watching from beside the table, smiled approvingly. From all the Viscountess said, it had not been a love match, but if she didn’t miss her guess, it was turning into one for both though they were still too stubborn to recognize it.

“You were saying something about Tunning before,” Elizabeth said calmly as he led her to the newly refurbished drawing room.

“Yes, I was, but right now I find I don’t wish to continue.”

“I beg your pardon?”

He seated her on a small sofa. “Please don’t do that.”

“Do what? Justin, you are not making sense.”

“Don’t freeze up on me, and I find I must disagree with you, my love. I think for the first time I am making perfect sense.”

“What?”

St. Ryne swiftly sat down next to her, taking her hands in his. “You once said I was making a mockery of tradition and you called our marriage a miserable alliance. You were correct and my actions, I am ashamed to admit now, were deliberately cruel. I would like the opportunity to start over.”

“You want our marriage annulled?”

“Good God, woman, no! I want us to put the past behind us and see if we might not be able to make some of those happy memories Mrs. Geddy spoke of.”

Elizabeth withdrew her hands from his clasp. “I— I don’t know. As you said, you were deliberately cruel and it became my understanding that this was to be strictly a marriage of convenience. I will admit I fail to see to whose convenience the marriage is; nonetheless, it is my understanding one may set up certain rules in such relationships and live by them. You may go your way and I go mine.” The color rose in her cheeks, but she went on. “I suppose you will one day wish for an heir and it will be my, my obligation to provide you with one.”

“Shall you hate that so terribly much?”

Her face drained of color then grew brighter again, “However, I will not stand in your way if your heir is some by-blow of a lightskirt that you choose to recognize as your own,” she finished steadily.

“You haven’t answered my question, Bess my love. Would you hate bearing my child so much?”

Elizabeth rose to place some distance between herself and St. Ryne. “I really haven’t considered it,” she said, though inside she knew that was a lie. Thoughts of St. Ryne and their children haunted her dreams at night along with memories of his shattering kisses and visions of his hands running lightly over her entire body.

“Will you consider it?” He came to stand behind her, inches separating their bodies.

“If you would like.”

“May I also ask you to smile now and then?”

“What an odd man you are,” she said in a strangled voice.

He studied the curve of her graceful neck and the casual hairstyle that was threatening to slip its pins. He smiled. “Just blame it on the hot Jamaican sun.”

She turned to look quizzically at him, only to be met by an enigmatic smile. “I’m afraid this conversation has degenerated. Perhaps it would be best if we talked later. If you’ll excuse me, I have some more tasks I’d like to complete before tea.”

St. Ryne watched her leave with mixed feelings. He could have desired a more hopeful response from Elizabeth, but he did note that the ice had not returned to her voice. Perhaps if he investigated Tunning, he’d get her to thaw toward him, though the only thing he expected to find Tunning guilty of was a sense of overweening superiority. He rubbed his hands together in anticipation as he walked toward the estate room.

Locked!

He at first wouldn’t believe it. It must be sticking. He placed his shoulder to the door to give it a good shove. Soon, he was forced to admit that the door was indeed locked against him as it had been to Elizabeth.

“Atheridge!” he bellowed like a wounded bear. “Atheridge, where are you?”

“Here, my lord, right here. Is there something I can do for you?”

“Yes, bring Mr. Tunning’s head up here on a platter.”

Atheridge blanched. “My lord?”

St. Ryne rolled his eyes heavenward. “Preserve us from nodcocks,” he muttered. “You don’t happen to have a key to the estate room, do you? I thought not, for you told Elizabeth you didn’t. Send for Mr. Tunning, for I’d like to see him as soon as possible.”

“Today, my lord?”

“If possible, right now! Move it, man!”

“Yes, my lord, yes, right away.” Atheridge’s spindly shanks scuffled down the hall.

“Justin, what is all the yelling about?” Elizabeth asked as she passed Atheridge in the hall. She had been in the dining room seeing to the placement of a large epergne on the center of the table when she heard St. Ryne shout for Atheridge. His tone had convinced her he was doing more than giving orders so she hurried to his side. The skin around St. Ryne’s lips was white and through his thin veneer of calm, Elizabeth could see white-hot anger.

She shivered slightly. She hoped never to see that type of rage directed at her.

St. Ryne turned almost fathomless dark brown eyes in Elizabeth’s direction as he struggled to capture his anger. “It’s locked.” His voice seethed with suppressed anger.

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows in mock surprise then burst out laughing.

“I fail to see what is humorous in this situation.”

“No, I daresay you don’t,” she managed to choke out before laughter overwhelmed her again.

St. Ryne shot her a look of reproach that she met with a sunny smile and another little titter of laughter.

“I’m glad to see Tunning is being democratic about the estate room. He doesn’t want anyone in that room, not just me. I wonder what has he to hide?” she asked, at last harnessing her laughter though a broad smile remained in place.

A look of consternation and self-disgust swept St. Ryne’s features. “Touché,” he said wryly, giving her a fencer’s salute. “All right, I will accept your reservations on Tunning, but only grudgingly mind you, and endeavor to do some research on my own. Will that mollify you?”

She eyed him consideringly. “Not entirely, but for the time it will do. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do and you have an interview to conduct. I’ll see you at tea.”

When she walked away, she found herself fighting a compulsion to turn around.





“Atheridge hasn’t returned yet?” Elizabeth poured a bowl of tea and handed it to her husband.

“No, and I can’t imagine what is delaying him or Tunning.

“Perhaps Mr. Tunning was out at one of the farms or in the village,” she offered.

“Perhaps.” His frown deepened, creating deep furrows in his forehead. “He should have sent Peter to find him. Young legs move faster.”

“You probably intimidated him with your bellowing. I vow he’s never heard the like.”

A reluctant grin lifted the corners of his mouth. “I suppose I was a bit loud.”

“A wounded animal couldn’t be worse,” she flung back, her own sense of the ridiculous sweeping through her.

“Bess, Bess!” St. Ryne said urgently, coming to sit next to her. “Listen to us. We are enjoying each other’s company. Give us a chance!”

She looked at him archly though her pulse fluttered erratically. “I should hope we could learn to be comfortable with each other,” she said carefully.

St. Ryne’s shoulders slumped and he bit back a scathing retort. “Yes, comfortable. It is more than some have,” he managed to say evenly before returning to his chair. “And where is our treat?”

Elizabeth looked at him quizzically but did not press him. She pulled the top off a silver server. “Right here, and still quite warm.” She handed St. Ryne his plate, laughing at his expression of ecstasy as he took a bite.

“Why is it that this is considered a childhood dessert not suitable once one reaches one’s maturity?”

Elizabeth chuckled as she took a bite. “I don’t know,” she managed to mumble between bites.

“You know, I’d dearly love to see my mother’s face if she were to witness me eating this.”

“Why?”

“My mother is an unusual woman, and that may well be an understatement. She has an arrogant manner one could cut with a knife and is one of the highest sticklers in the ton, yet she is the clumsiest woman, forever knocking over things and breaking them. Father says she adopted her arrogance as a defense for her clumsiness. If she ignores it, it’s like she defies anyone else to notice it. She can be damned infuriating. I don’t know how Father can stand to live with her, but in their own way, they do seem devoted to each other, not that Mother would dare display any such feeling publicly.”

“So why would she react to your eating this?”

“Because she has reached the stage where she has decided I need to become somber, serious, and able to put aside childish things. I must become a paragon of rectitude.”

A trill of uninhibited laughter assailed his ears. “You?” she asked, “a paragon of perfection?”

“So she would have me be.”

“How boring.”

“My thought exactly.”

“At least you have parents who cared. I don’t think my father has ever cared one whit whether I lived or died.”

“Surely you jest!”

“Do I? My father has never forgiven me for killing my mother and refuses, when he can, to recognize my existence.”

“Doing it a little too brown, Bess,” he said severely.

“What do you know of it? You’re much too cocksure of yourself by half. Mama contracted pneumonia after rescuing me from a duck pond. She died a few days later. I was only five at the time; however, Papa blamed me for her death and it was years before he would even look at me, and he never speaks to me unless he has to. The only person who has ever cared whether I lived or died is Hattie, my old nurse.”

“I care.”

His soft words hung between them. Elizabeth ardently wished she could believe them. A look of open vulnerability appeared in her eyes, pulling at St. Ryne.

“Bess—” he murmured, rising.

A light knock halted him. He turned toward the door, then cast one last glance in Elizabeth’s direction before granting permission to enter.

“Excuse me, my lord, Mr. Tunning's here to see you, sir.”

“Show him in.”

“Do you wish me to leave?” Elizabeth asked, color slowly returning to her face.

“No, that’s not necessary,” he assured her. He turned to confront Tunning when he entered. “Where have you been? I sent for you hours ago.”

“Beg pardon, my lord. I was checking on the cost of supplies for the stable. Some of those tradesmen can be real crooks, boosting prices just ’cause they works for gentry. I put them in their place right enough. We’ll not be gulled by any merchants in these parts.”

St. Ryne relaxed a bit at hearing Tunning's explanation. “I sent for you regarding the estate room.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“It’s locked again, damn it! What are you about, locking my own estate room against me?”

“I assure you, my lord, it weren’t done intentionally. I guess locking the estate room has just become habit of late, like I told you when you returned, because of all the strangers about. I assumed you had a key, my lord. I’ll have the smith make up another.”

“Have him make two,” interposed Elizabeth.

Tunning looked from St. Ryne to the Viscountess and back. “Two, my lord?”

“Yes, an excellent idea. You should have one on your ring, my dear.”

“Are you intending to work in the estate room, my lord?” Tunning asked in a strangled voice.

“Yes, about time I acquainted myself with the crops and numbers.”

“I will make myself available to assist you.”

“I think I am capable of reading by myself,” St. Ryne drawled.

“Well, I’ll just be by to answer questions, then.”

“That will not be necessary as my hours in the estate room will no doubt be erratic. Any questions I have will be brought out later.”

“If you’re sure, my lord. . . ”

“Yes, Tunning, confound it, there is no need for you to live in my pocket.”

“To be sure, my lord, no offense meant. Will that be all?”

“Yes— No! Give me your key for now. We will deal with the smith later.”

Reluctantly, Tunning removed a large brass key from his pocket.

“Thank you. You may go.”

“Very good, my lord.”

St. Ryne turned the key over in his hand, blindly staring at it. Suddenly, closing his fist over it, he rose from his chair. “Will you excuse me, Bess? My curiosity is aroused.”





St. Ryne tapped the letter against his hand then went in search of Elizabeth. The letter was franked by her father and appeared to be in his strong hand. Given what Bess had told him of her relationship with her parent, he could not help but wonder at its content. It was a splendid excuse to search her out, something he now tried to do at odd moments of the day.

Their open conversation over the apple flummery was not repeated; however, as they spent more and more time together at tea, over dinner, and in the evening, or at chance encounters during the day, the formality between them began to fade. Elizabeth smiled and laughed more, her eyes sparkling, her cheeks rosy. She began to enjoy St. Ryne’s company, his humor, and his solicitous nature. At times it made her wonder if the early days of her marriage weren’t some nightmare from which she awoke. They still maintained separate bedrooms and nothing seemed to be occurring to change that circumstance. St. Ryne was very careful not to do anything untoward that would upset their fragile budding relationship.

For her part, Elizabeth wondered if St. Ryne would ever be interested in her. She craved his touch but was too afraid of his coldness and disgust if she demonstrated passion.

He found her in the drawing room, working on the chair cover. The new drapes had not yet arrived from London, and consequently the pale sunlight streamed in through the tall bare windows. Elizabeth sat with the sun pouring over her shoulders, shining on the brilliant colors of the canvas in her lap and casting the red-gold aura he had become so familiar with on her hair.

“This just came for you.”

“A letter, for me?” She took the letter from him. “It’s from my father!”

“You act surprised.”

“In truth, I am. I thought he’d washed his hands of me.”

“Well, obviously not. Aren’t you going to read it?”

She stared at the letter. “I suppose I must,” she said ruefully. She broke open the wafer and spread the closely written sheet open on her needlework. Her eyes quickly scanned the contents, then she looked up at St. Ryne. “Oh, come read this, too. ’Tis rich, I vow!”

St. Ryne leaned over the back of her chair, her hair tickling his chin and smelling of jasmine. The letter, in very stilted words, was to inform them of Helene’s betrothal to Frederick Shiperton, Esq.

“Poor Freddy,” they muttered simultaneously then began to laugh until their eyes watered. St. Ryne, his hands resting on her shoulders, dropped a kiss on her head. Elizabeth stilled at his touch then slowly turned her head to look up at him. Silently they stared at each other.

Elizabeth nervously licked her lips. “They want us to come to London for a betrothal ball. It’s to be the last society event before the Christmas season,” she said faintly.

“All right,” he breathed, his head coming inexorably closer. “We’ll leave tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow!” yelped Elizabeth. She turned her head away and with nervous fingers rolled her needlework up and replaced it in the tapestry bag. “Then I must get busy, there are a thousand things to do.”

St. Ryne sighed and stood upright. “Yes, of course, my dear. Let me know if I may be of any service to you.”

“Thank you, Justin, I will. I must find Mrs. Atheridge to supervise the packing and check on the laundry, and then I’ll go see Mary and tell her not to get any more perishables. I’ll need to wash my hair this evening, as well.”

St. Ryne laughed, holding his hands before him as if to ward off a blow. “Enough! I can see I have much to learn about traveling with a household,” he said humorously.

Elizabeth grinned saucily at him. “It’s not so bad as long as one remembers to deal a whip and chain.”

“Baggage!”

Elizabeth merely laughed and skipped out of the room. St. Ryne stared after her, a sardonic smile curving his lips. “Just you wait, my love,” he said to the empty room. “Your time is coming.”