Honor's Players
Author:Holly Newman

Come on, a God’s name; once more toward our father’s.

—Act IV, Scene 3

“Justin, it is not necessary for you to accompany me!” Elizabeth expostulated, drawing on yellow kid gloves.

“Indulge me, Bess. It is my intention to make amends for that questionable trousseau I gave you.” He drew her arm through his and led her down the steps before their London town house.

“So you admit to its unsuitability?”

“It was a quixotic gesture, except perhaps for that gray dress,” he said reminiscently, a hint of a smile curving his lips.

Elizabeth dimpled up at him. “It did have a certain charm, didn’t it?”

“I believe it wasn’t its charms that caught my attention,” St. Ryne said drily. “Why haven’t you worn it since?”

She blushed. “It served its purpose,” was all she would answer in return.

St. Ryne laughed and pressed her arm closer to his side.

“So whose establishment are we to grace with our custom?”

Elizabeth’s brow wrinkled in thought. “In truth, I am still considering. I refuse to visit any of the modistes my aunt frequented. They would likely parade before us fabrics and dresses such as my aunt preferred. I desire something very different. ”

“May I make a suggestion?”

“You?” she queried archly.

“Aside from my wretched choice for a trousseau, I am aware of the niceties of feminine fashion.”

“Ah, supported the high-flyers, did you?”

His mouth gaped then snapped shut, his eyes dancing. “Hush, you silly widgeon! No need to broadcast our conversation to all of Bond Street. As to your supposition,” he continued with mock dignity, “may I remind you I have been on the town for ten years now, and since clothing is something women discuss incessantly, a gentleman is bound to pick up a thing or two.” He waved his free hand airily.

Elizabeth compressed her lips against a laugh. “Just so.”

“My lady, I believe you are laughing at me.”

Elizabeth opened her golden eyes wide and batted her eyelashes in feinted innocence. “I, my lord and master?”

“Ah—ha! Finally she has the right of it.”

She wrinkled her nose up at him in playful disgust. Abruptly she realized she was flirting with her husband. She looked up at his teasing visage, aware that she enjoyed his company.

No, more than that; she loved him. The realization shook her to the core of her being, and a soft blush rose in her cheeks. She looked away, taking note of their surroundings, allowing her face to cool. They had been walking in their own private world, oblivious to their location or the people they passed. Several members of the ton were eyeing them with open curiosity. Elizabeth laughed gaily, a heady euphoria brightening her countenance.

“Justin!” she exclaimed, tugging on his arm. “Have you noticed, we are the object of close scrutiny and speculation,” she said conspiringly.

St. Ryne looked up briefly, a wry smile twisting his lips “Let them speculate, it is their bread and wine. What matters is what we know.”

“And what is that, Justin?” she asked softly.

For a moment he was bereft of an answer. How can a man tell a wife he has virtually married in jest that he has fallen in love with her? “That you are a siren and I the unlucky creature to hear your call,” he answered lightly.

“Oh—annoying creature!”

He laughed, halting her before a dressmaker’s shop “Here is Mme. Marie Vaussard’s establishment. I’d wage your aunt never shopped here, and I think Mme. Vaussard would appreciate your coloring and could turn it to good effect.” He opened the shop door and led her inside.

The reception room, decorated in the Grecian style, was white and gold with pale green hangings and upholstery. Tall mirrors in simple gold frames hung on one wall appearing to double the room’s size. The shop exuded quiet refinement and elegance and not, as Elizabeth had feared the ostentation of establishments frequented by the Fashionable Impures. A little woman as neat as wax came through a green curtained doorway on their left.

“Milord! It has been a long time, no?”

St. Ryne grabbed one of the woman’s tiny hands and guided it to his lips to bestow a courtly kiss. “But I always return, Mme. Vaussard, and manage to make my way into your delightful company.”

She quickly withdrew her hand and wagged a finger at him. “Flatterer. If I listened to a Soupçon of what you said I would never get anything done and would be a poor, broken woman. Now, who is your charmante companion in this hideous attire?”

St. Ryne laughed. “You have never been one to mince words. I think that is one of your charms that has me returning to your side.”

Mme. Vaussard sniffed. “I am waiting.”

“A thousand apologies, but it is my great honor to introduce you to my wife, the Viscountess St. Ryne.”

“Your wife! Oo-lala, I am overwhelmed. I had heard stories—but—but—"’

“Precisely,” St. Ryne interjected causing Elizabeth to purse her lips in suppressed laughter while her eyes danced gleefully.

Mme. Vaussard did not miss the Viscountess’s reaction, nor the caress in the Viscount’s tone when he introduced her. It was a wise businesswoman who kept an ear to the society rumor mill and Mme. Vaussard was no one’s fool. She had heard of the Viscount’s wedding and knew the reputation of the former Lady Elizabeth Monweithe. It appeared society was about to have its aristocratic nose put out of joint. It was an endeavor Mme. Vaussard was glad to aid.

“So, you wish a new wardrobe? One befitting a Viscountess?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth answered, “immediately. I need a ball gown to wear to my sister’s betrothal ball. Unfortunately, her ball is only two days away.”

“Two days? Mon Dieu, what am I? A witch to conjure up a stunning, and of course, totally unusual, for thus it must be, ball gown?”

“More likely a fairy godmother.”

The modiste looked down her narrow nose at him, pursing her lips. “And you, milord, are an arrogant jackanapes. Come, my dear, let us go in the back and see what we have.

Where do you think you are going?” Mme. Vaussard asked St. Ryne as he made to follow them.

“With you.”

"Non. This time you will sit out here and wait while Madame La Viscountess and I consult. You are de trop now,” she relented.

She escorted Elizabeth to a back room filled with jewel toned materials, partially made gowns, and a scattering of drawings. “You certainly knew how to handle Justin," Elizabeth said once they were in the privacy of the back room.

Mme. Vaussard shifted bolts of material aside. “All gentlemen are basically leetle boys at heart, so, if one talks to them like their old nurse or governess, they just crumble. Now let us see what we can do for you.” She looked up from the piles of fabric and pinned Elizabeth with a considering eye. “Hannah! Hannah! Bring more candles!”

“Yes, Madame,” called a small voice from upstairs, and a moment later Elizabeth heard the clatter of footsteps on the stairs. The creature who appeared at the bottom was a slim young girl of some fifteen or sixteen summers clutching two candelabra and a fist full of candles to her flat chest.

"Parfait, mon chou. Now, place them high. One on the highboy I think, and the other on the pedestal where the plant is. We will create the feeling of the light at a ball," she explained to Elizabeth. “I have two fabrics here which I wish to drape you in. Here, Hannah, hold this one up against her ladyship like so. It is called Cote de I’Azure for the sea in the south of France.”

Elizabeth stared, spellbound at the cascade of blue material. It was a gloriously rich and vibrant color.

“Too remote,” came a clipped voice from the doorway.

The three women in the room turned with a start.

“Milord,” began Mme. Vaussard repressively.

“Dash it, woman, I’ll not sit kicking my heels in your charming little reception room! I’d like some say in how my own wife appears at this ball.” He looked at Elizabeth, his expression softening. "It’s important to us.”

Mme. Vaussard snorted delicately but made no further argument to his leaving. “You don’t like this material?” she asked instead.

“It’s beautiful, but not for this dress. Dressed up in that, she’d appear too cold and remote, like some damned doll on a pedestal.”

“Justin, please,” implored Elizabeth, laughingly embarrassed by his forthright language.

Mme. Vaussard tapped her forefinger against her chin. “You want heat, a touch of passion? Perhaps the Italian Rosi—Hannah!”

“Right away, Madame,” the child said, gathering up the blue silk. In its place she draped a rose-colored silk shot with gold thread.

Elizabeth’s eyes opened wide. It was a stunning material but it made her feel uncomfortable. “I don’t know, Madame,” she said hesitantly.

“It’s beautiful for you,” St. Ryne said. “It reflects the pink of your cheeks and the gold in your eyes.”

“Monsieur le Viscount is correct, cherie. ”

“Yes, but I don’t think I care to be quite that—that conspicuous.”

“May I make a suggestion, Madame?” Hannah asked timidly. Mme. Vaussard raised an eyebrow yet bowed her head in consent.

Hannah took a deep breath. “Two days ago I unpacked a new shipment of material, and there was one I think would be perfect for her ladyship. Let me get it—” She scurried over to a cupboard. “There wasn’t a lot of it, probably only enough for one gown,” she went on, her voice muffled among the fabrics. “Here.” She pulled out a bolt of gold silk. With reverent hands, she draped the cloth against Elizabeth.

For a moment, no one said a word. The material shimmered, changing from dull to brilliant gold in the candlelight. It brought out the gold highlights in Elizabeth’s dark hair and reflected the splendor of her guinea-gold eyes. Mme. Vaussard nodded solemnly, St. Ryne leaned against the door frame, grinning, and Elizabeth breathed an awed “Yes!”

“You have sound instincts, my child,” Mme. Vaussard finally said to her assistant. Hannah glowed pink with pleasure. “Now, as to style,” Mme. Vaussard went on, “I think simple with just some gold embroidery and knots of love ribbons. We will dispense with the rouleaux or bouffants. For a headdress, may I suggest a toque—”

“No,” St. Ryne said, straightening. “Not a toque.” Elizabeth looked at St. Ryne in surprise. “But gentle women wear such hats.”

“We didn’t spend all this time choosing material just to have you look like every other blasted female at the ball and join the dowager set. I think an aigrette with some beads or flowers would be appropriate, not some enveloping toque.”

Mme. Vaussard shrugged. “It will do, and mayhap give you your own style. Now, milord, I really must ask you to leave. We are to measure her ladyship and get to work if you wish a gown to be made in two days! Sacre Bleu! What am I about in promising such things?” She shook her head dolefully while she shooed him through the curtain.

Elizabeth looked uncertainly at Mme. Vaussard. “Can you have this dress finished in two days?”

“It will be my pleasure, milady. But you must promise to come see me afterward and tell me all about this ball. Me, I think it will be the affair of the leetle season and keep tongues wagging until spring. Non?”

Elizabeth held out her arms and turned, obedient to the gentle nudges of the little dressmaker. “I hope so, Mme. Vaussard, I sincerely hope so.”

True to her word, Mme. Vaussard finished the ball gown in two days and had it delivered to St. Ryne’s town house the afternoon of the ball. It was with slightly trembling fingers that Elizabeth lifted it out of its nest of tissue and laid it upon the daybed in her dressing room. Her maid cooed with delight and babbled on about how her mistress would be the belle of the ball. Elizabeth scarcely heard her, her own thoughts drifting into dreams filled with anticipation. Absently she requested her maid to draw a bath and scent it with jasmine. The ball might be in her sister’s honor, but to Elizabeth it was her own debut as the Viscountess St. Ryne and the official burial of the Shrew of London.

Since coming to London, she and St. Ryne had become closer, sharing an easy camaraderie and sometimes exchanging touches that bordered on caresses. Their manner toward each other raised eyebrows when they went for a drive in the park or a walk in the metropolis, yet they assiduously refused invitations to parties or group jaunts, preferring each other’s company. Nevertheless, though virtually living in each other’s pocket, there remained a reserve between them, a formal courtesy that precluded more than a chaste kiss. It was as if each was afraid of the other, afraid their feelings would not be matched, and therefore they were denied.

Ruefully, Elizabeth saw this and recognized it for what it was. It was her fervent hope that while this ball was her debut as the Viscountess St. Ryne, it would also mark a new turn in their relationship. Many times at night she’d look across the wide empty bed in which she slept, wistfully desiring to become acquainted with the mysteries of marriage. Her mind conjured up the image of Justin as he stood in his bedchamber without a shirt, her hands remembered the rough texture of the hair on his chest, and a warm blush would suffuse her face.

Of late she had been confident he was not indifferent to her. His solicitude on the day of their shopping excursion, his insistence on the best materials, items, and workmanship, all bespoke a caring husband, but most of all, his manner in regard to her father still amazed her.

St. Ryne had known she would be skittish about seeing her parent again, and from what she had revealed in conversation, he knew she had just reason. He felt it advantageous for both to meet privately at least once prior to a public meeting at the ball, so he invited his father-in-law to visit.

Elizabeth, seated in the drawing room with her needlework and laughing over some quip of St. Ryne’s, was surprised when Predmore announced the Earl of Rasthough. Her beautiful golden eyes opened wide, a fine brow arching quizzically in her husband’s direction.

St. Ryne’s calm instructions to show him in were met almost immediately with the Earl’s presence for he had been standing nearly at Predmore’s elbow. Predmore, sniffing superiorly at what he considered a gross lack of manners, bowed his way out of the room, closing the double doors with a decided snap.

“Got your note,” Lord Monweithe said warily. He had heard Elizabeth laughing and found he could not remember hearing that sound before. He slid a look from the Viscount to her and back. She looked in fine fettle and nary a frown marred her brow.

“Please, sit down, Father,” she said smoothly, though as he crossed in front of her to take a chair, she exchanged a saucy glance with her husband. He assumed an air of innocence, forcing her to compress her lips in restraint. “How are things at Rasthough House?”

The Earl grunted. “It’s a madhouse, that’s what. Helene changes her mind ten times a day on the decorations, and that’s only when that fiancé of hers isn’t by. Together, they sit and spout lines of poetry at each other, and it’s enough to turn a man’s stomach. Your Aunt Romella’s no help, either. Daresay you haven’t heard yet, well, stands to reason you haven’t for they’re keeping it all quiet, but Romella’s going to marry Carlton Tretherford tomorrow morning by special license. Intends to hang on the coattails of Helene’s party for her own announcement, penny-pinching female.”

“Tretherford!” Elizabeth exclaimed.

“So she got him, did she? When I last left London, bets were being taken in the clubs with odds in her favor,” St. Ryne said.

Elizabeth laughed and shook her head in wonder. “You gentlemen will bet on anything.”

“Much more interesting than a card game,” he drawled, the light of humor in his eyes.

Lord Monweithe looked from one to the other in surprise. It did seem marriage was the making of Elizabeth. He never remembered seeing her look so good or be in such high spirits. He studied her covertly. She had the laughter and manner of his dear departed wife, to say nothing of her startling eyes. Gone was the pale sullen wraith of his memory. “So, how are you, Elizabeth?” he asked tentatively.

She turned her wide, golden eyes to him, her face carefully blank. The expression she saw on his face caused her to falter and relent, a soft smile curving her lips. “I’m fine.”

St. Ryne looked complacently from one to the other. “If you both will excuse me, I have some correspondence to finish which I have put off far too long. I will send Predmore in with some refreshments.” He rose from his chair, aware that two pairs of slightly frightened eyes were turned in his direction. He leaned over to plant a reassuring, feather-light kiss on Elizabeth’s brow then turned to leave the room.

Silence fell between father and daughter. “Fine fellow, your husband,” Lord Monweithe finally said into the void.

“Yes, yes, he is, isn’t he?”

Another silence fell, each looking about the room. A small frown descended over Elizabeth’s features.

“Don’t,” said the Earl.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Don’t frown like that. You have your mother’s beautiful smile. It lights your face just like it did your mother’s.”

“I—I thought you didn’t like it when I resembled Mother.”

The Earl grunted and shifted uneasily in his chair. “That was foolishness. Your mother was a fine woman, and I should have been proud at the resemblance instead of trying to deny it and shoving you away. You were such a taking little tyke, full of the devil and the angels, too.”

“You hated me!”

“No! Don’t say that, child! Please don’t.” He raked his hand through his thin gray hair. “I don’t rightly know how to explain myself. When I lost your mama, I was like a madman, lashing out at the world. I said some awful things, things in my heart I knew were wrong. It weren’t right to blame you for your mama’s death. I know that now, knew that anytime these last ten or twelve years.” He spread his hands deprecatingly. “When I came to my senses, it was too late. I’d hurt you badly and didn’t know how to undo what I’d done. I suppose Lady Romella didn’t help matters for she was always jealous of your mother and since you resembled her, it brought to her mind all the perceived inadequacies she felt compared to her. She’s a good woman in her own way.” His voice trailed off just before Predmore knocked on the door.

Elizabeth was silent, contemplating her father’s words as Predmore served them.

“Will there be anything else, my lady?”

“No, thank you, that will be all,” she returned softly, her eyes never leaving her father’s face.

Lord Monweithe took a sip of the sherry the butler handed him then set the glass down on a small table and rested his elbows on his knees, letting his folded hands dangle between his legs. “Look at me, child. I weren’t ever much of a catch, but your mother loved me, little though I deserved it, and I worshiped the ground she walked on. Can you find it in your heart to forgive an old codger like me just a little? I know it’s years too late, years that can’t ever be mended, but I’d like to try to be the parent you never had, and maybe, well, maybe be a doting grandfather,” he suggested tentatively.

Elizabeth blushed to the roots of her hair at his last comment. She would like to give him the opportunity to be that loving grandfather, if she and St. Ryne could ever stop circling each other. She possessed high hopes for the future of her marriage; it was only right she should set her past to rest if she wanted to have a chance for future happiness. She thought that was perhaps what St. Ryne was trying to do by arranging this meeting with her father and clumsily giving his excuses for leaving them alone.

Suddenly her eyes were watering though a broad smile shone on her face. She rose from the couch and crossed to her father, sliding down to the floor to sit by him. The old Earl looked questioningly at her. She grabbed one of his hands and raised it to her face.

“I’d like that, Papa. I’d like that so very, very much.”

“Papa,” he repeated wonderingly. “You haven’t called me that since you were such a little tyke.”

She looked up at him. “Hold me, Papa, please?”

He gathered her up in his arms. “Oh, Elizabeth,” he choked and soon there were tears on both of their cheeks.

Elizabeth’s eyes misted again at the memory of that interview. Suddenly she was filled with anticipation for the ball. She wanted to make her father proud of her and show the beau monde the Earl of Rasthough had an oldest daughter of whom he could be proud.

When her father finally left, she’d sought out Justin, her heart full of love. He knew, without her saying anything, what had occurred. He wanted to draw her into his arms and claim her for his wife in truth, but he held back. He felt she needed time to come to terms with her thoughts and feelings and he wanted her to turn to him for himself, not just because she was feeling happy with life for a change. He had decided, that day they were in Mme. Vaussard’s little shop, that the night of the ball, which he hoped to be a turning point in her life, he would claim his Bess as his own.