Honor's Players
Author:Holly Newman

T'was I won the wager, though you hit the white; And, being a winner, God give you good-night

—Act V, Scene 1

“Elizabeth! Elizabeth!”

There, she heard it again, louder. It wasn’t a dream! He was here. A surge of strength swept through her body.

“Justin! Help!” she cried out as she rammed the heel of her hand into Tunning's nose. Tunning, bellowing with rage, grabbed her by the shoulders and slammed her head into the floor.

Elizabeth’s head exploded in pain and her eyes blurred, but she doggedly fought him. She couldn’t give up now with help so close. She heard Justin ramming against the locked door. Though her head hurt, her heart sang.

Finally the wood cracked and splintered, nearly coming off its hinges under St. Ryne’s and Thomas’s weight. They ran to the struggling figures on the floor, Thomas waving his gun, trying to get a clear shot.

Tunning in his lust and anger was oblivious to their presence. St. Ryne grabbed him by the scruff of his coat and hauled him off her, spun him around and slammed his fist into his stomach. Tunning fell backward, gasping for breath.

“Elizabeth!” St. Ryne cried, bending to lift her from the floor and cradle her against him. “God, I’ve been so frightened this night.” He held her, stroking her hair as she sobbed weakly against him.

Thomas watched them and smiled the gun loose in his grasp.

Tunning quietly struggled to his feet, his eyes darting from the St. Rynes to Thomas. Damn the Viscount! He swore silently, and damn Atheridge too, for he must have squealed. He’d deal with him later. Right now he’d get St. Ryne and that irksome groom.

With one hand he grabbed for Thomas’s gun while his other hit him in the jaw, sending Thomas reeling backward to hit his head against the wall and sag to the floor. St. Ryne shoved Elizabeth behind him as Tunning brought the gun up, training it on him.

“Keep your hands out from your sides if you don’t want a bullet in you,” Tunning snarled. “I might put one in you anyway for all the trouble you’ve caused, you and her, coming to Larchside and ruining a sweet deal. If you’d just followed my suggestions, none of this would have happened, so know this is on your head.”

St. Ryne kept his eye trained on Tunning’s shaking gun hand. He would have to try to reach what little part of the civilized man might remain. “You should have cut your losses when we arrived,” he said conversationally.

“There wouldn’t have been a need, if it hadn’t been for her.” The look he cast Elizabeth was so full of malevolence that St. Ryne pushed her further behind him. Tunning glanced back at the Viscount, sneering. “Your type never holds interest in land for long, just for what you get out of it.”

Elizabeth edged back toward the fireplace and the stack of wood, hobbling and wincing in pain yet determined. She could not allow him to harm her husband.

Tunning was now well caught up in recounting her meddling. “It’s all her doing, you know. You’re befuddled. She’s nothing but a tease, even propositioned me. I turned her down of course.” His voice took on a self-righteous tone.

Elizabeth stooped to pick up a small log and held it behind her, steadying herself with her other hand against the mantel. Oh, what she would give to have a poker handy! St. Ryne was talking to Tunning softly and calmly, like one would talk to a wild dog or horse, his words commiserating with him on his misfortune. In the corner Thomas groaned. Nervously Tunning spun around to level the gun at him then spun back when he saw St. Ryne take a step forward.

“Don’t move,” he ordered, his voice cracking. He jumped again at another groan from Thomas. “Quiet!” The gun jumped spasmodically in his hands.

St. Ryne slid another step closer, his hand out for the gun.

Horrified, Elizabeth watched Tunning's eyes roll and his hand shake. He was about ready to shoot!

Elizabeth heaved the log at him before his finger pulled the trigger. It caught him in the shoulder just as the gun exploded. She screamed Justin’s name, closing her eyes tight in fear of seeing him stretched out on the floor.

“It’s all right, Bess, it’s all right.”

Her eyes flew open at the sound of Justin’s voice. He stood before her, not a mark on him. “Justin?” she whispered wonderingly. Her eyes searched the room for Tunning. He was lying on the floor, black powder burns on his hand and side of his face, his shoulder bleeding. She clung to St. Ryne, shaking her head dazedly.

“I told you all you lacked was throwing practice,” St. Ryne said, smiling down at her.

“What happened?”

“The gun exploded. You probably saved his miserable life,” he said laughing softly.

“I don’t understand.”

“Got a pair of old dueling pistols from Mannion at the club. Carries them around with him all the time, but they probably haven’t been fired or cleaned in years, so when Tunning pulled the trigger, the gun misfired. Probably would have killed him if you hadn’t struck him with that log, deflecting the gun.”

“Or killed Thomas if he’d—Thomas!” she said anxiously.

“I’m all right, my lady. I’m sorry I didn’t pay better attention to Tunning.” He struggled to his feet and looked down at the former estate agent. “What are we going to do about him?”

“I think you’re going to have to stay here with him while I take the Viscountess back to Larchside. I’ll have the magistrate and a doctor out to see to him.” He looked down at Elizabeth, for the first time noting her torn garments. “That bastard,” he growled, shrugging out of his greatcoat and wrapping her up in it.

Elizabeth laughed weakly. “My clothes, I’m afraid, are the least of my problems. I fear, Justin, I cannot walk; my feet are cut to ribbons.”

St. Ryne looked down at her feet encased in torn slippers liberally stained with blood. His face softened and he gently picked her up. She wrapped her arms around his neck.

“Your courage and strength, my love, unman me.” He lowered his head to kiss her tenderly.

The first faint light of dawn shone on the horizon as St. Ryne placed Elizabeth in the saddle and swung up behind her. Turning the tired horse back toward Larchside, he pulled her close. She leaned her cheek against him. When she heard a low laughing rumble in his throat, she looked up quizzically.

“Do you remember the last time you rode before me?”

“I’m not likely to forget, nor the ice water you set me in when we arrived.”

He grimaced. “That was an accident.” He paused, then went on in a strangled voice: “Thomas said you were planning to return to London. Dare I hope that you were coming back to me? I know I’ve acted the complete ass, but can you forgive me, Elizabeth?”

He sounded so humble and penitent, that even if she hadn’t already forgiven him, she would have done so. She looked into his eyes, her own shining. “Not unless you call me Bess,” she teased. “I find I’ve become fond of the name.”

He laughed. “I did it at first merely to tease, and then I came to think of you as ‘my Bess’ and no other name would do, except maybe ‘love,’ ” he finished softly.

“Let’s begin anew, Justin,” she suggested urgently.

“How so, love?”

“Let’s pretend this is the homecoming ride from our wedding and put the past behind us.”

“All right,” he said, reining in the horse. “But first a kiss to seal our vows properly.” Pulling her tight against him, he lowered his head until their lips touched, softly at first then with increased pressure, their tongues intertwining as each pulled the other closer. The swirl of sensation threatened to drown Elizabeth but this time, instead of allowing the sensations merely to wash through her, she answered his kiss with a tidal wave of passion.

She was light-headed but happy when at last their kiss broke. She reached up a shy finger to trace his face. “I love you, Justin. Let’s hurry home.” She paused, smiling saucily up at him. “I have still to learn what it really means to be the Viscountess St. Ryne.”

He raised an eyebrow, and a small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “And are you eager to do so?”

“Very eager.”

He laughed, hugging her tight, and urged the horse forward to Larchside.