Honor's Players
Author:Holly Newman

The fouler fortune mine, and there an end.

—Act V, Scene 1



“Tunning! What are you doing here?” Atheridge softy screeched, looking about nervously. He hated these woods at night when every shadow held imagined menace and terror. He wrapped his arms around himself as much to ward off fear as cold.

“I’ve come to settle a score with that trollop,” Tunning ground out, his dark presence looming like some monster of the night.

“The Viscountess?”

“Yes.”

“No, no, Tunning, I can’t let you do that!” Atheridge backed away.

Tunning grabbed him by his coat lapels and hauled Atheridge’s face within inches of his own. “Listen, you maw worm, you’ll help me or St. Ryne will know you were active in bilking the servants of wages and taking payments from merchants for buying shoddy wares at premium prices.”

“But that was you,” protested the quaking butler.

“Yes, with you turning a blind eye at first then taking your own cut. You want the fine Viscount to know that? I have a ledger that details it all, and if it were to come into his hands...” he trailed off, dropping his hands from Atheridge’s coat.

“No! No,” he faltered weakly. “What is it you want?” His shoulders drooped.

Tunning laughed crudely. “You’re going to help me kidnap her. I’ll make that hoyden whimper while I await a handsome ransom from her husband. Who knows, he may consider himself well rid of her, and then I’ll just have her for my own bit of fun. Either way, she’ll pay for her disrespect towards ol’ Tom Tunning.”

Atheridge licked his lips nervously. “W—When are you going to do this?”

“Tonight. You’ll leave the front entrance open and signal an hour after everyone’s abed by waving a lit taper from the gallery windows.”

“And that’s all?”

“You will of course help me tie up our dear Viscountess and carry her out. I’ll have a carriage waiting. That is unless you would like to have a turn with her, too,” Tunning suggested, leering.

Atheridge shuddered.

“I thought not,” he said with another laugh, “but you’ll be missing a prime bit of fun. I’m looking forward to riding that one and taming her to my bridle.”

“Where will you take her?” Atheridge asked timorously.

“The old Havelock Manor.”

“I thought that was gutted by fire.”

“The west wing’s still intact and has its own entrance.”

Atheridge nodded in understanding. Suddenly an owl hooted from somewhere deep in the woods, and he jerked spasmodically. “I must get back before I’m missed.” His words came out in a rush, his eyes darting.

“Yes, do that,” drawled Tunning, amused at his cohort’s apprehension. “But remember, one hour after all is quiet or the ledger goes to St. Ryne.”

“Yes, yes, I’ll remember,” he vowed, casting one last fearful glance around before scurrying back toward the lights of Larchside.





“Oh, mistress, the Lunnon staff were all at sixes and sevens this morning, running around, tripping over each other to get out of my lord’s way. And he, my, he was bellowing like a stuck pig, then holding his head in his hands.” Ivy lifted a dress out of the trunk and shook it out, clucking her tongue at its wrinkled condition before hanging it in the wardrobe.

“Mr. Cranston,” she continued, turning back to the trunk, “he tried to lay a cool cloth on his head, but he wouldn’t have none of it and fair knocked Mr. Cranston senseless. It were all truly comical.”

She scratched her head through her mobcap a moment and sobered. “You know, it occurred to me, and please don’t get angry, because people is people, rich or poor, anyway, it did seem to me that his lordship was truly aggrieved to find you’d gone and very worrit, too.” Ivy placed her hands on her hips and sternly eyed Elizabeth sitting on the daybed indulging in a fit of sullens. “Fact is, he seemed like a man with a broken heart, he did.”

“Ha!” Elizabeth bit out. “The only thing broken was his head.”

Her maid went back to work, her voice airy. “Kept mumbling on, saying things like, ‘oh, my love, where are you?’ and ‘love, forgive me.’ ”

“I’m sure his word stemmed merely from habit.”

“Strange habit for a man to develop, I say, unless he meant it. Most men find the words just sticks in their gullet and most nearly needs to be pried out.”

Elizabeth laughed mirthlessly. “His is a glib and well-oiled tongue.”

Her maid shrugged. “He weren’t too happy with me for not telling him you’d up and left, but he were relieved to find Thomas accompanied you, saying at least someone in his household showed sense.” She shook out another dress.

“You know, beggin’ your pardon, my lady, but I think you’re being just a mite too hard on his lordship. Oh, I’m not saying he didn’t do wrong, he did you mortal wrong. It’s just that that’s the way of men. They gets a bee in their bonnet like and hangs on to it for no reason. And truthfully, ma’am, they’re all like babes and need to be led by us and just as tykes do mischief and need punishing, they also need forgiveness or the misdeeds just get worse.”

Elizabeth lifted her head, carefully regarding her maid. “What did you just say?”

“About what, ma’am?”

“That last bit, about children doing mischief,” she said impatiently.

Ivy looked bewildered. “I just said as how children that’s been bad need love as much as punishing.”

“Yes, or the misdeeds just get worse,” Elizabeth finished for her, trailing off. She closed her eyes, remembering her own childhood with her struggles for love, how she’d turned to misdeeds and adopted a vinegary tongue to try to gain some form of attention. Were she and St. Ryne doomed to repeat the errors of her youth? No! They were a grown man and woman with the intelligence to rise above such pettiness, they had to be.

“Ivy!” she cried, bounding off the bed to hug her maid. “Repack everything. We’re returning to London tomorrow!”

“Oh, my lady, are you sure? Yes, yes, at once!” the little maid happily exclaimed. She didn’t rightly know what she said to turn about her mistress’s expression, but happy she was to see it. “And afterwards, I’ll tell Thomas to have the carriage ready first thing.”

Elizabeth laughed. “Good, but don’t tarry too long, for you’ll have to be up be’times in the morning.”

“My lady, as if I would!” Ivy disclaimed, though she blushed furiously.





Elizabeth lay on her bed, nestled among soft pillows, her eyes open, though staring unseeing at the gray and black forms and shadows of the room in the night. Idly her left hand stretched out across the expanse of empty bed next to her and a small smile curved her lips. Her eyes drifted shut, imagining, as she had in the past, the wonders to be learned from sharing the bed with her husband. The difference now was her intention, for she vowed to herself she’d be the Viscountess St. Ryne in more than name even if she had to seduce Justin. A blush, lost in the dark yet warming her skin, crept up her neck and cheeks.

Tomorrow she would return to London to forgive and cry quit to the comedy they played, and perhaps to ask for a drama instead, a drama of their making together without secrets and subplots. She would not repeat the errors of her childhood nor willingly throw away a chance for happiness, no matter how tenuous the chance. How many chances was a person given in life? Too few, to judge by those she saw in society. If she turned her back on St. Ryne in pique, then she was no better than those she would disdain. Worse, she could be called a fool for only the fool denied the heart for hollow pride. It was cold comfort, not a warm bedfellow.

Sighing, she pulled the covers higher then turned on her side, curling to hold in the heat of her body. Her mind clear, her plans made, she drifted to sleep while a small smile hovered on her lips.

An odd, high-pitched creaking woke her. In the night stillness it raked her nerves. She listened, noting that it bore an almost measured cadence.

Puzzled, she rose from her bed and shrugged on a wrapper, pulling it close about her, then slipped on thin slippers. She rounded the bed, stopping again to listen. It was getting louder, and with it could be heard a faint clump; then whispering, indistinct and rapidly hushed. Someone was creeping through the manor.

Elizabeth’s hands reflexively clenched in anger. The Atheridges, she thought with disgust. No telling what manner of mischief they could be about. She grabbed a candlestick from the bedside table, taking it over to light by the fireplace, and then glided to the door. The furtive sounds were getting louder, like they were nearly outside. She yanked open the door.

“Atheridge!” she scolded, spotting his spindly frame by the light of her wildly wavering taper. “What are you doing about?”

He gaped at her then stuttered soundlessly, looking back over his shoulder.

A hulking black shadow, like a feral animal, separated itself from the shadows by the wall to come toward her and the circle of light she held.

“You.” The single word pushed past her lips on an expelled breath. “What do you want? What are you doing here?” Her words were high, strident—and superfluous, for with gut wrenching clarity, she knew why he was here. Her eyes opened wide with knowledge. She turned to flee.

He lunged, knocking her to the ground, the candle spinning out of her grasp, its light dying, plunging them into darkness. But not before she saw his leer, a demon with revenge reflected in his eyes. She twisted wildly under his weight, her nails seeking skin to gouge. A scream died in her throat and she choked and gagged when he stuffed a handkerchief into her open mouth.

She bucked, thrashing at him with her arms. He grunted and grabbed her hands, holding them out from her sides. He lowered his face to within inches of her own.

“I shall enjoy taming you as we wait and see if that fine husband of yours is willing to pay for your return.” His breath was redolent of porter and overripe cheese. Elizabeth turned her head away from the smell. He laughed, pressing the outline of his swollen member tightly against her body.

He looked up at Atheridge. “The rope, you idiot! Help me tie her up. ”

Quaking, Atheridge dropped to his knees, handing him the rope. “D—did you get a carriage?”

He knotted the rope about her wrists, pulling it cruelly tight when she attempted to flail at him. “From the stable,” he answered shortly.

“Here? Her own carriage? If Thomas finds it missing—” he trailed off miserably.

“That’s why you’ll have to come with me to see it’s brought back before he’s about.” Tunning grunted as he deflected a kick.

“Me!”

“Know anyone else whose neck threatens to be stretched if he don’t?” He quickly captured the errant leg and bound the two together. He sat back on his heels and studied her bound figure. “Are you sure you don’t want a tumble?” he asked Atheridge.

He laughed at Atheridge’s choked denial. “Well, help me get her out of here.”

Elizabeth shuddered as they grabbed her, squeezing her eyes shut to close out his gloating image. She was terrified but knew she must master her terror if she was to have a chance to escape.





“Oh, Thomas, quit now. Mind your manners,” Ivy said, playfully batting at the grinning youth nuzzling her neck.

“It’s you I’d rather mind, in all manner,” he mumbled into her soft skin.

“To be sure, you rascal,” she said, pulling away and adopting a prim mien as she straightened her clothes.

Thomas sat back, laughing. “You’re a saucy miss. It would serve you right if I left you to those London wolves. ”

He stood up and stretched. “Speakin’ of London reminds me I’ve a harness to mend afore morning. Be a pet and walk me to the door.”

“Walk you to the door? Get on with you now,” she said pertly.

“’Tis a cold, cold night; I could use a kiss at the door to warm me,” he said glibly.

“You do tell a tale,” she protested. “Well, come on now if that’s your payment, let’s be about. My lady’s fired to patch things with my lord and would be mighty unhappy if we couldn’t be off first light. But let’s go quiet like, I don’t fancy runnin’ across Atheridge or that hatchet faced wife o’ his.”

He nodded his understanding as he grabbed his coat off the peg and opened the door to his room. They stood listening at the doorway then slowly stepped into the hall, grimacing as a floorboard creaked. They exchanged quick, warning glances. Thomas grabbed Ivy’s hand and led her stealthily toward the back stairs and down two flights to the butler’s pantry.

“What was that?” Ivy tugged on Thomas’s arm to halt him. “Listen!” she hissed. She crept toward the dining room then on through to peek out its open doors into the foyer hall.

She nearly gasped aloud, quickly clamping a hand across her lips to still any sound. She beckoned urgently for Thomas to come look.

Mrs. Atheridge stood by the front door, holding a small lantern while Atheridge and Mr. Tunning, hunched over, descended the stairs. They appeared to be carrying something between them. Thomas squeezed Ivy’s shoulder when they saw the dark bundle move.

Tunning laughed softly. “Your struggling just fires my blood. Think that fine husband of yours will take back soiled goods?”

“Sh-h—” hissed Mrs. Atheridge, glancing about the hall.

Thomas and Ivy ducked out of sight. Ivy, biting her lip, looked up at Thomas anxiously, silently asking him if they should intercede. Slowly he shook his head. The devil was in Tunning, right enough, and no telling what he was liable to do if they rushed to save the Viscountess. Tentatively he looked into the hall again, in time to see Tunning sling her over his shoulder while Atheridge opened the door and his wife held the lantern high to guide their steps.

In the wavering lantern light, the Viscountess’s face was ashen yet bore resolute courage. Thomas knew she would not submit easily to Tunning. Through the open door he saw the horse and carriage from the stable. A silent whistle passed his lips at the kidnappers’ audacity. He smiled suddenly when he remembered the worn harness. In the hands of a driver like Tunning, it wouldn’t last long.

He pulled Ivy back into the butler’s pantry and on into the kitchen.

“What are we going to do?” wailed Ivy softly, clutching at his sleeve.

“You’re going to go to your room and stay there till I return,” he instructed, gently disengaging her grasp.

“I—I couldn’t!”

“Yes you can. I’m going to ride hell-for-leather to London for his lordship.”

“It will take too long!”

“Not if I ride cross-country, and remember, they’re driving with a bad harness. But standing here jawin’ ain’t helping. Watch out for hatchet face. I’m off.”

“Thomas, wait!”

He turned back to her, about to protest, when she stood on tiptoe to kiss him.

“That’s to ward off the cold and speed you on your way,” she said softly.

He grinned, swooping to pick her up and give her a hearty kiss, then he sped for the stable.

By the light of day, at a carriage trot, Larchside was situated two hours out of London. At night, with only a faint half moon to guide a horse by, it should have taken longer. Thomas reached London in little over an hour. He sent up a prayer of thanks to his maker as he made his way to the house on Upper Brook Street and added a request for the Viscount to be home. He wasn’t.

Thomas swore softly as he guided the tired horse to St. Ryne’s club. Somewhere on the road to London every minute began to feel like hours, and the hearty confidence he’d shown Ivy dwindled away. Perhaps he should have gone directly to the magistrate, or maybe roused the Humphries. Lines of worry etched his brow as he pounded on the club door. He rudely, pushed past the porter into the hall.

“See here, man, what do you think you’re about?” demanded the porter.

“I’ve got to see the Viscount St. Ryne,” gasped Thomas, heading for the stairs.

Two burly footmen barred his path.

“You’ll wait outside and we’ll inform his lordship when he’s free,” pronounced the porter as the two footmen grabbed his arms and hustled him to the door.

Thomas savagely twisted free and ran up the stairs followed by the footmen while the porter shouted from below. The footmen caught up with him on the landing when Thomas paused in uncertainty as to which way to proceed.

The hue and cry caught the attention of several gentlemen who immediately began to place bets among themselves as to the young stranger’s success against their footmen. Thomas’s desperation giving him strength, he landed several flush hits engendering a smattering of applause from his audience and a renewal of betting activity. But he was becoming winded.

“I’m for St. Ryne, they’ve got her ladyship!” he blurted out before a punishing left deprived him of breath.

One gentleman in the group straightened. “Hold!” he commanded. The footmen and Thomas reacted instinctively to his voice. The man strode forward briskly to fix Thomas with a quelling stare. “What is this about the Viscountess?”

Thomas swallowed convulsively. “Mr. Tunning and Mr. Atheridge, sir, they bound her and took her. Mr. Tunning don’t mean well by her neither.”

The gentleman swung around to one of the footmen nursing a sore jaw. “You,” he ordered, “go round to my stables and have them saddle my two fastest horses and bring them here.” He pulled off a signet ring from his little finger. “Use this ring as authority. Have them here in less than fifteen minutes and there’s a gold crown in it for you.”

“I say, Branstoke, what is this all about?” asked one of the sprigs of fashion ogling the fight.

“Stanley! Fetch St. Ryne immediately, even if you have to drag him here.” Branstoke’s voice thundered, a far cry from his habitual languid tones.

Young Stanley reacted instinctively to the voice of authority just as Thomas and the footmen had and trotted off to discover in which room St. Ryne sat.

Beyond seeing that he did as ordered, Branstoke scarcely paid him heed. He turned back to Thomas, dragging him out of hearing of the curious. “All right, lad, tell me what happened.”

The words tumbled out of Thomas’s mouth as he explained what he and Ivy saw. Branstoke’s brows drew together as he listened and a crowd began to gather, filling the hall.

“Thomas! Stand aside. Let me pass!” St. Ryne’s voice came from the far side of the crowd where he was rudely shoving his way through his fellow club members, ignoring their disgruntled oaths.

“My lord!” gasped Thomas, when he saw him finally push his way through.

“What’s going on? Stanley babbled something about Elizabeth.” He grabbed Thomas by his coat, nearly pulling him off his feet.

“Kidnapped, she was, my lord, by Mr. Tunning.”

A small uproar surged through the crowd. St. Ryne ignored them, his attention on Thomas. “When? How?”

Branstoke laid a hand on St. Ryne’s arm. “I’ve sent for two fast horses. Your man can give the details on the way.” He clapped Thomas on the back. “Will you be all right, lad? You’ve been through a lot already.”

“I’m fine, sir. ’Sides, I’d do anything for her ladyship.”

“Enough! We haven’t any time to lose,” snapped St. Ryne, heading for the stairs, Thomas and Branstoke following.

“But, I say, St. Ryne, you’re in your evening dress!” protested a town tulip, eyeing him through his quizzing glass.

“I’d go buck naked if it would get me to her faster!” he called back over his shoulder.

“Wait, you’ll need weapons,” said Branstoke.

St. Ryne stopped short. “Blast! There’s no time, and in the temper I’m in I could rip Tunning to pieces with my bare hands.”

“What about Mannion’s poppers?” suggested a gentleman from the top of the stairs.

“He’s right,” Branstoke admitted. “Mannion’s carried dueling pistols with him anytime these past twenty years.”

“I’ll rouse Mannion,” another offered.

“No time, he’s passed out in the library. Porter! Fetch Lord Mannion’s greatcoat, they’re probably in the pockets. Get St. Ryne’s as well!” Branstoke called after him.

The front door burst open. “Sir, I brought the horses,” huffed the footman.

“Here they are, my lord!” exclaimed the porter, trotting back into the hall. “They’re in the pockets like you said.” He pulled out an old flintlock from a deep pocket.

In two strides St. Ryne was at his side, relieving him of the pistols and slinging his own coat over his shoulders.

“Thomas, can you handle one of these?” he asked, handing him a pistol. Thomas nodded. He turned to Branstoke. “Thank you for the horses. I don’t know when—”

“Say no more. Just save her and don’t ever let her go again.”

St. Ryne nodded once curtly then reached out to squeeze his shoulder, silently thanking him for all his efforts on their behalf. “Give my compliments to Mannion,” was all he said, then he followed Thomas out the door.

After Thomas related the events of the evening, the ride to Larchside was hard and grimly silent, each man alone with his thoughts. For St. Ryne it was the longest ride of his life. If what Thomas said was true, then Bess must have forgiven him. Why else would she plan to return to London?

Oh, Bess, he silently called, don’t give up.

What a consummate fool he had been. He remembered the Amblethorp rout when he first saw her and thought she looked fragile. She didn’t appear the shrew until he goaded her. He had been blind to the clues as to her real nature, so intrigued was he to play Petruchio. Now he could only hope that her shrewish mask would again give her strength.

They were surprised, when they turned into the drive leading to Larchside, to see the manor ablaze with lights. Without a word they laid their heels into their mounts and galloped up the drive. St. Ryne was off his horse and running for the door even before the horse stopped. The door flew open before he reached it.

“Oh, my lord, thank heavens you’re here!” Ivy exclaimed. “We got the Atheridges locked in the kitchen pantry.

“And Bess?” St. Ryne asked anxiously.

“Tunning still has her.”

“Who’s we?” asked Thomas, tethering the horses.

“Peter and me. We forgot he were here, too, Thomas. After you left I got to worryin’ and thinkin’. Then I remembered Peter so I roused him and told him all. Together we captured ol’ hatchet face and when Atheridge came creeping back, we bagged him, too.”

St. Ryne grabbed her. “Can Atheridge tell us where Tunning’s taken her?”

“Already done that, leastways where they’re headin’. You were right, Thomas,” she said looking past St. Ryne. “That harness did break, not three miles from here. Caused a devil of a fight atween ’em, says Atheridge.”

“Damn it, woman,” roared St. Ryne, “where’s Elizabeth!?”

“Hav—Havelock Manor.”

“Where’s that?”

“About seven miles by road,” said Thomas. “But I thought that burned down.”

“Atheridge said one wing’s sound and Tunning's takin’ her there, but they had to go the last four miles on foot on account one horse ran off when it were unhitched and the other come up lame.”

“Come on, Thomas,” ordered St. Ryne grimly, swinging around to the horses.

“Have a care!” Ivy called after them.





Tunning shoved Elizabeth and she stumbled, falling onto the makeshift bed. She drew her cut and bleeding feet close to her body as she huddled in the corner, silently watching him as he laid a fire in the massive hearth.

She was cold, colder than she had ever been before, but she refused to let Tunning see her weakness. At first, during the long walk, he delighted in prodding her and laughed when she fell. He even removed the gag in an attempt to goad her to speech, but she doggedly remained silent, only glaring at him.

As the miles stretched and the cold penetrated their bones, he became quiet and morose, occasionally muttering to himself as he was now. At the moment, she feared him more, for it seemed there was little left of the civilized man. His mind was captured by the notion of revenge upon her.

He turned his head from the fire he built to look at her and laughed. The sound sent shivers down Elizabeth’s spine. She wondered how long he intended to toy with her. She moved her hands, testing the bonds, drawing in her breath sharply to prevent crying out when the rough rope bit into her chafed wrists. She relaxed. Even if her hands were free, she doubted she could have escaped, so damaged were her feet. As the piercing cold eased, she felt her feet burning and sharp pain shooting up her calves. She doubted her legs and feet could even bear her weight.

“Trollop,” Tunning said. “The veriest trollop you look, fit for the London stews.” He walked toward her. “Perhaps that’s where I’ll drop you when I’m through,” he said consideringly. He dropped to his knees beside her and reached out.

She flinched away from his touch.

“I only want to untie those pretty little hands so they can get warm. Got to be warm to touch me like I want.”

Elizabeth bit back a denial and allowed him to untie her. Even if her legs failed her, perhaps with her hands free she could find a way to protect herself. She began to study the room covertly, searching for likely weapons. Tunning must have moved here directly from the estate cottage. There was a pile of clothes by the window, some crockery and food on a rickety table by the door. Nearby was a stack of logs, a few ledgers, and a keg of ale. The candelabra on the mantle were silver and beautifully wrought. Probably originally from Larchside.

When her hands were free Tunning rose, drew himself a mug of ale, and shuffled back to the fire, swearing against the cold. Elizabeth stroked her chafed wrists and attempted to move her legs. They screamed in agony but she forced her muscles to respond. She couldn’t afford for them to stiffen and cramp.

Draining his mug and wiping his mouth on his coat sleeve, Tunning turned his backside to the fire, relishing the warmth. He saw Elizabeth moving on the bed. He licked his lips and shifted his feet to ease the pressure on the swelling in his pants.

“In a moment, pet, in a moment,” he said.

Elizabeth’s eyes flew up to him. Too late she realized what her gentle squirming on the bed caused. She had been so caught up in studying the room she hadn’t been paying any attention to Tunning. Now she saw the sweat break out on his forehead and the lust in his eyes.

“No.” The word fell from her lips. Oh, Justin, she wildly prayed, help me, please! But she knew her prayer to be useless for he was in London, and no one would know of her disappearance until morning.

Tunning slowly advanced, rubbing his hands together, then reached out toward her, his fingers flexing like talons. A triumphant grin carved his face into a demonic semblance of a man. Elizabeth shifted warily to her knees, her pulse pounding. She eyed the distance to the table where the crockery sat, some heavy enough to bludgeon him with, if she could make it that far. He moved in front of her, blocking her view of the table.

He chortled at the fear he saw on her face. “Yes,” he murmured, “ol’ Tom Tunning's spear will pin you to that bed, squirming.”

He lunged. Elizabeth screamed, throwing herself off the end of the bed. Tunning's hand caught the fabric of her clothes and she heard it rip when she rolled away. She scrambled, crablike, as he came after her, his face convulsed with rage. He fell on her. Her nails raked his face, her legs kicking wildly, as they rolled on the floor. His hand found the neckline of her gown, ripping it. Her terror threatened to overwhelm her.

She screamed Justin’s name, imagining she heard her name called in return.