Honor's Players
Author:Holly Newman

At last, though long, our jarring notes agree; And time it is, when raging war is done,

To smile at scrapes and perils overblown.

—Act V, Scene 1



The dinner party before the betrothal ball was purported to be of a select nature, yet by gazing upon the invited people filling the drawing room of Rasthough House awaiting the call to dinner, it bore a striking resemblance in size to one of Prinney’s famous Carlton House banquets. In truth, an invitation to the dinner had become a social necessity to any with pretensions of position and was regarded dearer than an admittance card to Almack’s.

Gentlemen, pressed by their wives and their pockets because of the side bets placed in the clubs on Lady Elizabeth’s comeuppance, jovially importuned the Earl of Rasthough for invitations. Widows flirted shamelessly with him to the same effect or turned to Lady Romella Wisgart, so sweet in their congratulations. Still others sought invitations from the betrothed couple with warm compliments and subtle, or not so subtle, hints that an invite would be welcomed.

Lady Helene Monweithe and her swain, the Honorable Frederick Shiperton, naively took it as their due. They were sadly mistaken, for society’s interest was grounded solely in their knowledge that the Shrew of London would be in attendance. Gossip concerning the new Viscountess St Ryne had risen to a fevered pitch since her return to the city. Those who had chanced to see her with her husband on the street or in the park rushed to others to speak of their observations and huddle together over tea or a glass of port to speculate on the exact meaning of their sighting.

It could not be said that the Viscount and Viscountess St Ryne were oblivious to the speculation they raised or that they had not expected it; however, when they entered the drawing room to join the party forming there, they were amazed at the scope of the interest in their actions and the contrivances of society to be present. They exchanged brief stunned glances before they pulled the blank masks they'd practiced so well on each other into place and entered the swarming mass of curiosity.

They, however, were not the only ones stunned. From that collective mass of bon ton there was a momentary sharp hiss of intake of breath, followed by an unnatural silence for a gathering of that size and scope. The universal surprise was not at seeing their prey, but in seeing their prey. The Viscountess St. Ryne was beautiful and almost unrecognizable save for the richness of her antique gold eyes and lustrous dark brown hair. Mme. Vaussard was truly either a witch or a fairy godmother, for the gown she conjured for her new client was gorgeous; it was designed to create the image of a living gold flame, a Phoenix risen from the ashes.

When sound returned to the room, it swelled, softly a first, then gathered momentum and volume until it crashed upon the St. Rynes, buffeting them like an ocean wave. Steadily they entered the sea of humanity, standing all smiling, and nodding to their acquaintances as if nothing untoward had occurred. St. Ryne spied Freddy leaning against the mantle and gently guided Elizabeth in that direction, the sea inexorably parting in their path. The humor of their situation percolated up through Elizabeth, her eyes bubbling with suppressed laughter while her lips thinned over her teeth and curved upward as she strained to contain her mirth. She did, however, retain her regal stature as she glided through the room on her husband’s arm.

With part of her mind Elizabeth conjured up a vision of herself attending such a party before she met Justin. Her eyes drifted to the right. She would most likely be standing there, by the windows and behind the chairs, her expression sullen, daunting and a trifle sad, her gown a ridiculously frilled white muslin creation, and her hair dressed in a tight coronet of braid. From there she would watch the dance of society, glaring at anyone who veered close to her, fearing they would speak and expect some answer in return. But that corner was empty; the imagined ghost of her past fading even as she thought of it.

She turned her face toward her husband, a radiant love shining from her eyes. He must love her, he had to, else how could she love him so much? He was treating her gently, too, like an exotic fragile flower. She had to find a way to show him she was not made of glass but was a flesh and blood woman with, she admitted to herself, flesh and blood passions. She would make him proud this day and then claim her prize by her good intentions for she bore a fierce desire to be the Viscountess St. Ryne in more than just name.

St. Ryne, feeling her luminous gaze upon him, cocked an eyebrow in teasing inquiry while he reached across to squeeze her hand resting on his other arm.

“Justin!” Freddy exclaimed, uncrossing his lanky legs and straightening up to offer St. Ryne a hand in greeting. He gave Elizabeth a perfunctory bow, wary of her despite the rumors in society as to her new docility, then turned back to St. Ryne. “What do you say to all this? Shocking squeeze, ain’t it? Haven’t seen the like since Princess Charlotte’s wedding, but she being royalty and all, that’s expected.”

St. Ryne gave a languid sweeping survey of the party before turning back to Freddy. “You are to be felicitated It appears you have kept half of London in town rather than decamping for the country for the remainder of the season for those intolerable holiday house parties.”

“Talk about shocking squeezes,” Elizabeth murmured slanting a glance in his direction through sweeping dark lashes.

“And sneezes,” St. Ryne responded adroitly, “spreading illness among one and all.”

She laughed softly, enjoying their easy bantering. “Don't forget ill will.”

He inclined his head toward the assemblage behind him “How could I?”

They grinned like children exchanging a secret code, smugly content that their minds were in harmony.

“What are you two nattering about?” Freddy asked looking from one to the other in confusion.

“Pardon, Freddy, a married folk habit,” St. Ryne explained.

“Well, leave done,” he said petulantly.

“What’s the matter, Freddy, feeling bereft? Where’s you lovely bride-to-be?”

“Off somewhere on her father’s arm. Say, what occurred at your town house yesterday? Monweithe’s been deuced silent since his return. Not morose, you know, just quiet."

Elizabeth blushed while St. Ryne laughed easily. “I guess you could say he learned the error of his ways.”

Freddy scratched the back of his neck above his high neck cloth. “Dash it, Justin. Seems like I only understand one word in ten you say these days.”

“I believe only a tenth of what anyone says is worth understanding,” Sir James Branstoke drawled softly, joining them.

“Well met, Branstoke,” St. Ryne said warmly.

“Yes, but I tell you straight out, I have come to pay my respects to the ravishing creature at your side.” He took Elizabeth’s hand in his and bestowed a kiss upon her fingertips. “My lady, you are a star to put stars to shame and I welcome the sight in this firmament.”

Her eyes danced with mischief. “Delightfully said, sir, but I admit to confusion, for I do not know what tenth of your words are worth understanding.”

“Hoisted on my own petard. Very good. St. Ryne, your wife possesses wit, beauty, and assurance. Beware, my friend, she is a woman to be reckoned with.”

“I ain’t as dashed eloquent as Branstoke, but I guess I’ll be happy now to call you sister, even though I lost a bit of blunt.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Freddy!” St. Ryne exclaimed.

A pained expression briefly crossed Sir James Branstoke’s face before he hooked his arm in Freddy’s. “Come, Shiperton, I have yet to pay my respects to your bride-to-be, and as a fallen suitor, it is only proper, wouldn’t you agree? Be a good fellow and conduct me to her side.” Bowing and murmuring polite apologies, Branstoke led Freddy away.

“Justin, what did Freddy mean?”

“Some of the young bucks placed small bets as to our marriage ever taking place,” St. Ryne said off-handedly. “I guess I did not inspire Freddy with confidence.”

Mollified, Elizabeth let the subject drop, though part of her still worried over the idea for Tunning had said much the same thing. If Tunning knew of the bet or bets, could they be small and inconsequential'? And what of St. Ryne’s participation? She shivered slightly. How crass and demeaning to be the object of wager.

St. Ryne noticed his wife’s distracted manner. In light of the promise of intimacy between them, it would have been churlish to fail to remark her disquiet. A stab of remorse for the wild machinations of his wooing cut through him. A play was merely that, a distortion of reality for entertainment and edification. He had treated The Taming of the Shrew like a lady’s household management journal containing a new recipe when he should have known characters in a play were puppets for the playwright. Elizabeth was no puppet; she was a living, breathing, vibrant woman. He was thankful he had the opportunity to repair the damage he caused with his conceit.

He looked about the drawing room. It appeared all eyes were surreptitiously still upon them, and some guests were deciding to beard the lioness. He observed Lady Jersey quitting her circle of cohorts to make her way to their side. He did not think he was ready for Silence and her piercing questions. Adroitly he guided Elizabeth toward the door where her father stood.

“There you are, Elizabeth!” To the surprise of the assemblage, the Earl of Rasthough leaned toward his daughter to bestow a chaste kiss upon her cheek. His bluff heartiness alone was sufficient to raise eyebrows, the public kiss, not often condoned in the best of instances, moved witnesses again to silence. The Earl, grinning complacently, remained oblivious to the company’s reaction.

He tucked her arm in his and drew her close. “As Romella has gone and gotten herself leg-shackled today, I’d like you to be my hostess.”

A delicate pink of pleasure flooded Elizabeth’s cheeks “I’d be honored.”

“Sorry, St. Ryne,” Monweithe said, pointing a finger at St. Ryne’s stomach, “you’re to be sacrificed to the dowagers.”

“Such is the fate of the married man,” groaned St. Ryne theatrically. In truth, he did not care where he sat, for this was his wife’s night to shine. He was moved by his father-in-law’s gesture to make her his hostess. It was certain to go far in establishing her credit with society.

Elizabeth was about to twit her husband on his marital fate when the butler announced dinner. The words died on her lips though a mischievous twinkle lurked in her eyes as she allowed her father to conduct her to the dining room.

Dinner was a lively affair as far as formal dinners went. Discourse was loud and freewheeling as the company came to accept Elizabeth. Protocol notwithstanding, she found herself answering questions put to her by people other than those seated to the right and left of her. Even those known to be the highest sticklers were seen conversing volubly with others two or three removed from them.

When the last of the plates was removed, Elizabeth gracefully rose from her chair to lead the ladies back to the drawing room while the gentlemen enjoyed their port. To her surprise, her aunt walked with her.

“Lovely gown, my dear. You have carried yourself well this evening.”

Elizabeth’s lips twitched. “Thank you, Aunt Romella.”

“I always said you merely suffered from a deplorable want of management. It appears the Viscount is to be commended,” her aunt went on austerely.

“So kind,” Elizabeth murmured though her brows rose at Lady Romella’s effrontery.

“Nonsense. He has done a fine job with you. I trust I shall be equally successful with Carlton.”

“I wish you joy.” The words were nearly strangled in her throat. “Please excuse me now, Aunt. In my duty as hostess I must see to the other guests.”

It amazed Elizabeth to consider how she could have ever been hurt by Lady Romella Wisgart, or the Honorable Mrs. Tretherford, as she must now consider her. The woman was no more than a comedy and as such deserved pity. Elizabeth wished her well in her marriage and gave her credit for realizing she should contrive to ensnare a husband. With both Helene and herself married, her father would have no use for her, and she would most likely be given a small cottage somewhere with a small but adequate pension to add to her widow’s jointure and would thus be thrust out of society.

Nodding and smiling politely to those she passed, Elizabeth made her way to a sofa where a small group was aiding two old harridans in the disposal of their voluminous shawls and the positioning of fire screens. To her amusement she soon learned that the old considered themselves above the conventions of society. There was nothing mealy-mouthed about her two elderly guests for they lighted on her like hawks to their prey, asking questions and making observations that put those around them to blush. As little time as three weeks ago she would have flared white hot and retorted with some remark in kind. That evening she took their words with forbearance, for truthfully her mind was not on the guests or the party, but on the unspoken promise she had seen in St. Ryne’s eyes. She listened to the women with only half an ear to catch the verbal clues that warned her some remark or answer was expected, but blithely took no insult from their callous words.

All her life Elizabeth had felt apart from society, never sure of her existence within its framework. Now she felt beyond society, capable of laughing fondly at its foibles and loving it warts and all. That her new attitude stemmed from her love for her husband and her confidence in his love for her was inconsequential. She felt right with the world and glowed with an inner contentment.





The gentlemen remaining behind in the dining room were also wont to spare no bones with their comments. No sooner had the last skirt swished from sight and the doors closed following the ladies’ exit, than they felt free to loosen their tongues.

It was a circumstance St. Ryne grudgingly accepted in his mind but was uncertain as to his course. Casually he signaled for his glass to be refilled and leaned back in his chair.

“Amazing,” drawled one sprig of fashion, absently dropping the quizzing glass he held up to observe the ladies’ departure. Several gentlemen echoed his sentiments, emboldening him to preen and continue. “St. Ryne, I admit to myself I am nonplussed. Miracles do occur.”

“Ha! With that one, I vow it took more than a miracle unless miracles are engendered with the judicious use of a riding crop to a fair backside,” sneered another from the other end of the table.

“Now hold there!” blustered Monweithe, rising slightly out of his seat.

He was forestalled by St. Ryne. “It is you who need the riding crop for you have the manners and mind of a cur.” He pinned the offender with a malevolent eye. “No, do not think to call me out while I am in my father’s house. In truth, you are the knave who gives insult,” he said softly. His gaze swept the party. “Be it known, gentlemen, I do not countenance slurs cast upon my wife.”

Carlton Tretherford sniffed and scratched the side of his nose. “Perhaps it is not she who has been tamed. More likely her calmness stems from satisfaction at training you to run tame like a cursed lap dog.” He picked up a nut to crack.

“And I must perforce call you Uncle,” murmured St. Ryne, watching him contrive a child’s trick of cracking the nut between his fingers. “Gentlemen, can none of you accept the concept of wedded bliss?” he asked expansively, waving his wineglass before him.

“Confound it, Justin,” complained Freddy, “you’re doing it too brown. We ain’t gudgeons and we all know Lady Elizabeth.”

St. Ryne took a sip of wine then shook his head in mock sadness. “Freddy, I find your lack of confidence appalling.”

Sir James Branstoke leaned back in his chair, elbows resting on its arms as his hands contemplatively formed a steeple. “Do not be hasty. I believe there is unexposed truth to Freddy’s words,” he mused.

Tretherford harrumphed and bent forward, strands of lank gray hair falling onto his face. “Talking don’t pay toll. I propose a test. The Viscount here is cocksure the demon’s been driven out of the woman.”

“Tretherford, I warn you!” thundered Monweithe, only to be over born by the roaring enthusiasm of the others at the table and the multiple exhortations for Tretherford to continue. St. Ryne crossed his arms over his chest and a dark scowl descended over his features though he nodded continuance.

Tretherford sneered at Monweithe then turned back to encompass the gentlemen at the table. The footman and butler standing by the door strained to hear.

“I propose a test of the Viscountess’s new docility. A simple test. Have him bid her come here. For surely if she is a dutiful wife and properly tamed, she’ll come.” He looked about the company, a smirching smile on his lips as gentleman after gentleman voiced approval.

“All right, we are agreed. And to make it sporting, I wager one hundred pounds she will not come when sent for.”

A clamor of agreement rose from the others at the table despite St. Ryne’s scowl.

Freddy jumped up onto his chair, holding his glass high. “And I’ll bet the same that my sweet Helene comes. What do you say, Tretherford, willing to put your money where your mouth is, too?”

Tretherford surged to his feet, shaking his fist at Freddy. “I’ll have you know, you arrogant jackanapes, a lady such as my Romella always knows her place and just what’s expected of her, too. To be sure I make the same bet.”

“Well, what do you say, Justin?” Freddy asked, teetering on the chair.

“A hundred pounds?” St. Ryne queried in low-voiced disgust. “Is that all you gentlemen are willing to wager on your wives? I make such bets on my dogs or horses, but on my wife? Nay gentlemen, I’ll wager you one thousand pounds she comes!” Looking triumphantly into their stunned faces he raised his wineglass and drained it.

“Don’t worry, I’ll cover you, lad,” Lord Monweithe assured St. Ryne.

“I’ll stand in no need of assistance, sir.”

Freddy called for pen and paper to record the bets and the other side bets made by the company. Branstoke came to St. Ryne’s side, laying a hand upon his shoulder. “Your play is over. In God’s name, man, have done!”

At first St. Ryne failed to comprehend Branstoke’s words, then as their meaning filtered through, a dark red suffused his face. “I had not thought—”

“This was not planned?”

“No, I’ve vouchsafed the play anytime this past week.”

“Does she know of the play?”

“To my knowledge, she has not fallen to it yet, though she is a bright woman and one who could.”

Branstoke squeezed his shoulder. “I pray she stays in ignorance a while longer.”

“You think it would matter?”

Branstoke eyed him pityingly. “I know it would.”

“Ready, Justin,” Freddy called out gaily as he sanded the document he’d contrived.

“After you, gentlemen,” he said suavely.

“As you proposed the bet, Mr. Tretherford, I suggest it is only right you issue the first summons,” Branstoke suggested as he settled back in his seat.

“Done.” Tretherford turned to the door where the butler was stationed, hooking his thumbs in the small pockets of his waistcoat while throwing his shoulders back. “You, sir, bid my wife, the Honorable Mrs. Carlton Tretherford, to come here.” He turned back to the company, a smile on his face and a slight swagger in his step.

The butler returned swiftly. “Pardon, sir, but she says she is busy at the moment.”

A shout of laughter sealed Tretherford’s discomfiture. He flung himself into his chair, murmuring imprecations upon his new wife’s character.

“Now to you, Freddy.”

“Jovis, entreat my lovely bride-to-be to join me now.”

“Entreat, yet. Surely she will come,” St. Ryne teased.

“Entreated or not, more than I can say for yours,” snapped Tretherford.

Raucous laughter followed Tretherford’s denouncement with quips as evidence of ready wit traded among the gentlemen. It was several moments before anyone noticed the butler’s return.

“I’m sorry, sir, she will not come as she is repairing a torn flounce.—"

“A fair answer,” Freddy said.

“—but demands—”

“Demands? Oh worse and worse,” St. Ryne exclaimed. “My dear Freddy, how will you endure it? No matter, rest assured you will have things straightened by the nuptial event. Jovis! Tell my wife I desire her company.”

“I know her answer,” claimed one of the gentlemen from the end of the table.

“What?”

“Save your desires for the sheets, she will not come.”

Elizabeth observed the butler leaving the room for the second time. Why would he visit Aunt Romella and Helene? What did he want? Did someone send him?

“Excuse me, Lady Jersey,” she said, “I must speak with my sister a moment.”

“Yes, you do seem a bit preoccupied and no doubt find my chatter boring.”

Elizabeth swiveled round to face Lady Sally Jersey again, realizing she was on the verge of making a tremendous social gaff with one of the lights of society. “Oh, no, I beg your pardon, it’s just that—you see I must—” a garbled explanation fell from her lips.

“Oh, run along, my dear. My bark is often worse than my bite. I shall just go harass some of the matchmaking mamas who are here. I enjoy watching them maneuver to secure cards to Almack’s.”

Elizabeth laughed, thanked Lady Jersey, and sped to her sister’s side. “Helene, what did Jovis want?”

Helene was fingering a lace ruffle on her gown. “What? Oh, it was just some message from Freddy asking me to come to the dining room. Probably to receive a toast, but I just couldn’t go, what with this torn ruffle and for all times for it to occur.”

“Well, run upstairs and have it repaired before the rest of the guests arrive instead of standing there moaning about it.”

“I would expect you to say something heartless like that!”

Elizabeth sighed. “I’m not heartless, just practical. Excuse me, I must speak with Aunt Romella.”

Lady Helene pouted prettily at her sister’s retreating figure then swished her skirt back into place and headed for the stairs.

“Aunt Romella, excuse me, please,” Elizabeth said breaking into a conversation between her aunt and a prominent widow who it was known was on the make for another husband. Fleetingly it occurred to Elizabeth that her aunt wasn’t above lording it over the poor woman for her success. “What did Jovis want?”

“Really, Elizabeth, you’re no better than ever. Carlton merely requested my presence in the dining room. I of course declined, and mean to educate him on the impropriety of such a request.”

“Of course. Thank you.” She turned in time to see Jovis once again enter the drawing room. For some reason, she knew she was the object of his visit this time and so stood patiently waiting for him to approach.

Jovis cleared his throat. “Um-hum, my lady, your husband sent me to desire you to come to him in the dining room.”

She smiled pleasantly at him. “All right,” she said starting for the door.

“You’re coming?” All of the butler’s studied impassiveness failed him.

“Yes, why not?” she replied, though truthfully she wasn’t as calm as she portrayed. The gentlemen were playing some game, that was obvious. She intended to get to the bottom of the matter. She admitted to a lively sense of curiosity as to the root of this queer start but knew conjecture to be worthless.

The raucous noise emanating from the dining room could be heard in the hall. Elizabeth raised an eyebrow in question though she calmly waited for Jovis to open the dining room door. A sudden quiet descended upon the room.

“The Viscountess St. Ryne!” announced Jovis stentorianly.

Elizabeth, her head held high, the candlelight glowing on her like liquid gold, glided into the room. St. Ryne slowly rose from his chair, a mingled expression of disbelief, chagrin, and love all on his face. He slowly circled the table to her side.

The cry “A hit! A hit!” swept the room.

“You sent for me?” she asked softly, her heart touched by his expression.

“Yes, my love, and I thank you. I am unworthy of you or your care.” He raised her hand up, turned it gently over, and planted a kiss on her palm. A flurry of catcalls and whistles greeted his gesture, but Elizabeth was deaf to their sound. She curled her fingers into her palm as if to hold on to his kiss. He put his arm around her waist. “Gentlemen,” he said, turning to the table, “enough jests and tests. It is time we joined the ladies.”

With alacrity, Branstoke rose, encouraging the gentlemen to do so as well. “I think, St. Ryne,” he drawled, “we all could do much worse than to follow your lead. Gentlemen, the ladies await.”

Elizabeth allowed herself to be conducted from the dining room while maintaining a gracious manner. This attitude was severely tested as one after another of the gentlemen made their way to Justin’s side to clap him on the shoulder and offer congratulations along with sly winks and thinly veiled innuendos. Question after question leapt to her mind, all crowding forward to be asked but she held her tongue, smiling graciously at all. Imagined answers also came forward with painful clarity, answers she wished to ignore for if they were the truth, then her fragile happiness would shatter, it being born into her that perhaps her entire marriage stemmed from bets made over cards and cups for sport.

Valiantly she tried to deny her foreboding, her smile becoming brittle as she watched gentlemen approach knots of ladies, whisper in shell-like ears until their auditors turned to stare at her with snickers and swallowed laughter.

Slowly, like grains of sand in an hourglass, Elizabeth’s euphoric happiness eroded to be replaced by a gripping fear. She thought she had been on the verge of ultimate happiness; still, she was no longer the impetuous, ill-mannered young woman determined to strike a blow first before one could be leveled at her. She would not overreact. She would uncover the truth.

Somehow she made it gracefully through the interminable hour she stood by her sister and father in the receiving line before the ball. When she was excused, she fled to the refreshment table for a glass of punch and an opportunity to clear her head. Her temples throbbed slightly. She placed a cool hand on one side to massage away the pain. Her spirits rose as she saw St. Ryne leave a small contingent of his cronies to come to her side. She smiled wanly up at him.

“Bess!” he cried, taking her hands in his and leading her to an empty alcove. “Are you feeling all right? You look pale.” He searched her white strained features, concern evident in his eyes.

She settled onto the sofa with obvious relief. The mere thread of a laugh escaped her lips. “Too long standing, too many people, and stuffy air have all taken their toll on me. I shall recover directly,” she assured him, touched by his solicitude.

“May I get you anything?”

“I was intending to get something to drink. If you could—” she trailed off.

“Of course, my love.” He strode away with purposeful strides.

Freddy, standing at the edge of the dance floor while another lost suitor claimed a dance, wandered over to Elizabeth’s corner.

“Saw St. Ryne hurrying off. Nothing wrong is there, ma’am?”

She held out her hand. “Call me Elizabeth, please! It wouldn’t do for a brother to be too formal, would it?”

He laughed and, pushing the tails of his elegant coat back to avoid crushing them, sank down on the sofa beside her. “Stab me but you’ve got the right of it, and since I’m in the way of being a brother, you can tell me truthfully, did you and Justin plan that dining room coup?” He shook his head, chuckling. “If you did, I don’t begrudge the sum I dropped. Should have known Justin wouldn’t back a loser. Truth is, shouldn’t have doubted him that month and more past when the fellows all were bettin’ against the chances of any gent claiming you to clear the way for Helene. That Justin though, he’s something else. The only one who seemed to know what he was about was Branstoke, and he’s an odd nut to crack.”

“I trust you didn’t lose excessively,” Elizabeth said faintly, her mind in a whirl.

“Don’t worry, I won’t be visiting the gull gropers, but I’ll have to abstain on wagers till quarter day,” he said heartily. He frowned, suddenly serious. “About time I laid back from gambling. Going to be a married man now and can’t have my wife denied her little fripperies because I’ve gambled away the blunt, you know.”

“How commendable. Helene is truly to be felicitated at securing such a caring husband. But tell me, in what way was the little dining room bet proposed—only curiosity you understand.”

A puzzled expression captured his fair features. “Well, I don’t quite know what you’d call it except maybe in the manner of taming a shrew—sorry, you know, but you did ask. Say, you won’t take any offense, perhaps I shouldn’t have said—”

“No, no, Freddy, you did perfectly right. Oh, the dance has ended and I do believe I see Helene looking for you.”

“Really? Where? So sorry to rush off, really must go, she hates it if I wander too far, you know,” he said, laughing again.

Elizabeth was glad to be quit of him, for now her mind churned with the implications of what Freddy had so glibly let fell from his lips. So, the bets she feared were real and in the manner of taming a shrew. She shuddered. She knew she was referred to as the Shrew of London. But taming sounded so much like breaking a horse to bridle or—

Another instance in which that particular phrase was used came to mind, and she froze. No, it couldn’t be, she silently wailed. It was all there, however, clear for any to see. Had anyone? What a fool she had been! Her entire courtship, marriage, and now this blasted ball—nearly straight from Shakespeare’s famous play and she an unwitting player since he had come to ask for her hand and had turned everything she said to compliments. The wedding should have truly tipped his hand, what with his late arrival, slovenly dress, and refusal to stay for the wedding breakfast. She wondered how hard he had worked to find a suitable property, to say nothing of his behavior at the dressmakers when he’d vetoed the purchase of a cap such as married women wore.

Her eyes misted, and she fought the threat of tears with an angry shake of her head. What she saw as love in him was no doubt satisfaction at his accomplishment: a calm, dutiful and worshiping wife. Faugh! He had much to learn. Her heart was breaking; however, she was well used to disappointments in life and would weather this as well.

She looked up to see him approaching her, carrying two glasses of punch. Her lips twisted cynically; so he’d thought to tame a shrew, she mused, a hard metal glitter in her yellow eyes. She rose and swished the gold material of her skirt back, a tight smile turning up one corner of her mouth in the enigmatic manner of Mona Lisa. Two bright spots of color flared on her cheeks, and she raised her chin bravely.

“Here, my love,” he said handing her a punch glass, his attention on watching Freddy circle the room with Helene on his arm. He slowly turned his head back to her. “That was good of Freddy to keep you company while I—” he broke off, too late noting her expression to anticipate her actions. This time the punch hit him full in the face.

“Perhaps if I had been successful last time I would have been spared this marital farce!” she exclaimed shrilly, watching with satisfaction as the punch dripped down his suddenly implacable features to stain his neck cloth and waistcoat. “You have had your fun, Justin. Now you’ll rue the day you studied to be a shrew tamer and took a character in a play for your model.” She tossed her head grimly to fight the tears that threatened to overflow. Through the blur she saw him reach for her and murmur her name. She evaded his touch, her control held in place only by a silken thread.

She turned away from him to run from the ballroom, pushing aside those who did not move readily from her path. Dancers faltered in mid-step, and the orchestra screeched wrong notes then fell silent. A shocked hush filled the ballroom.

“Elizabeth, no!” shouted St. Ryne, then his head swung around to pin Freddy where he stood, his face black as thunder. Slowly he took a handkerchief from his pocket to mop his face, and then he stalked over to Freddy.

“What did you say to her?” he gritted.

“Easy, St. Ryne,” Sir James Branstoke murmured, coming up to lay a hand on his arm.

He shook the hand off, continuing to glare at Freddy. “Damn it, man, what did you say?”

Freddy gaped at him a moment before words could tumble out of his mouth. “Nothing! I—I mean we were just discussing bets.”

“What?!”

“She-she acted like she knew, commiserated with me on my losses and just asked what type bets they were.”

“And?”

“I—I said they were bets on taming the Shrew of London.”

St. Ryne clenched his fists to his side and closed his eyes briefly. “Oh, no,” he whispered.

“I warned you, St. Ryne,” reminded Branstoke. “What are you going to do?”

St. Ryne turned empty eyes on him. “Get down on my knees and beg forgiveness,” he said simply. His face was bleak as he crossed the ballroom. The guests, catching sight of his face, slid out of his way without a word. At the doorway Lord Monweithe stopped him. St. Ryne looked into the tortured expression of the other man and laid a hand upon his shoulder for some small measure of reassurance. “I know,” he murmured, “I love her, too.”

In the hall Jovis confirmed his fears. She had demanded her cloak and had fled without waiting for her carriage to be called. Grimly he set off after her, praying the cold weather kept those who would prey on the unwary off the streets. He remained alert, his eyes darting down alleys and streets, his ears sensitive to sounds of struggle, though his mind continually recited a litany of self-condemnation. It was with relief he saw his town house. The door opened before he could mount the steps and a white-faced Predmore stood in the lighted opening.

“Oh, my lord, I’m so relieved to see you. Her ladyship, she’s in a dreadful temper,” he said, hurriedly closing the door after he entered. “She near cuffed poor Willy here senseless when he reached to take her cloak.” He waved his hand toward the unfortunate footman who stood in the hall nursing a sore jaw. “Then she tore up the stairs shouting for her maid. They’re up there now, sir, and I don’t like to think how that little maid is faring for we’ve heard two crashes.”

“Fear not, she won’t hurt the maid. Her anger is well directed,” he said wryly. “I will talk to her.” He slowly mounted the stairs, his steps measured and apprehensive. From her room he heard sharp murmurings, rending of fabric, thumps, and small crashes. He winced, then tentatively raised his hand to knock on the door.

“Go away, I do not want anything,” came her voice sternly through the closed door

“Bess, I have to talk to you.” He inclined his head toward the door listening for her response.

“You! What happened, did I cause you to lose a bet, or are you upset I failed to know my lines?”

“Listen to me. It’s true, at first I was enacting Petruchio’s role and thought to treat you like Katharine. I studied the play carefully and even went so far as to make notes.”

“You have done a masterful work. I’m sure someone will commend you for it,” she ground out.

“My family had been importuning me for the past year to marry and fulfill my obligations yet all they would recommend for wives were meek little paragons while I desired a woman of personality. If I wanted a meek wife to mouth words of duty to her husband and would call him lord and master, I would have married one of the women my family put forth.”

“There would be no sport in that and no monetary gain save for a dowry,” she snapped back.

He sighed and ran a distracted hand through his hair. “I would have done it without the bets. Please let me in so I can explain and won’t have to stand here baring my soul to the entire household.”

“It will do you good, perhaps even give you a bit of character, if you’re lucky.”

“Bess!”

“No!” Her voice turned low and harsh. “I have played the fool and thought to grab a chance at love. Love, ha! A cat’s satisfaction at catching its prey. This prey is prey no longer, and I’ll see you the fool before I play jester for your cronies’ entertainment again.”

“Bess, I love you too. That’s the damnable thing about this entire mess. I love you to distraction and was hoping to show you this night the proof of my affections.”

“That you have done full well, thank you. I don’t need your kind of affection.”

“Bess, please!”

Inside the bedroom Elizabeth cringed at his call. He was such a good actor. He should have trod the boards. She had waited so long to hear him say he loved her that even now, even with the knowledge of his deceit, his manipulation, and falseness of his feelings, she was still moved by his words. The silken thread of her control snapped, allowing the tears she’d bottled inside her to flow. With a strangled sob she threw herself on her bed to muffle the sound as copious tears fell.

St. Ryne strained to hear her answer, wondering if that was a sob he heard. He banged on the door impatiently and shook the lock, yet the door remained closed to him. In disgust he flung himself away and stumbled back down the stairs to his library and a brandy bottle.

Ivy, Elizabeth’s little country maid, clucked her tongue and shook her head at the carryings on of gentry. She crossed to the bed to sit beside her mistress and stroke her head in comfort for when all was said and done, whatever be a person’s class, true suffering was the same.