Honor's Players
Author:Holly Newman

... And where two raging fires meet together

They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.

—Act II, Scene 1



During the next four days, Lady Elizabeth Monweithe made a concerted effort to be absent from her home for the greater part of the day. She shopped at Harding, Howell and Company in Schomberg House, resting to partake of tea and sweetmeats in their first floor restaurant; patronized the new Soho Square shopping bazaar where the stalls were run by female relatives of soldiers lost in the Napoleonic wars as a means of income; browsed through Hatchard’s bookshop in Piccadilly; duly admired the artifacts to be found in the Egyptian Hall; visited the Royal Menagerie at Exeter Exchange; strolled through the Botanic Gardens; and spoke of an intent to visit an exhibition at the Royal Society of Arts in Somerset House only to be told the exhibitions would not begin again until May.

For the first two days, when she returned to her home feeling tired, dirty, foot-sore, and irritated, her casual question of callers was met with the usual list of her fair sister’s coterie. By the third day, she had begun to wonder if the Viscount had set spies after her and so knew not to call. By the evening of the fourth day, her temper was very uncertain and there existed an unfamiliar pain around the region of her heart. Her explorations of the city’s shopping haunts and marvels would, on another occasion, have filled her with delight and awe. But such was the determinedness of her efforts that her maid was sadly heard to say to her peers below stairs (as she soaked her feet), that her mistress had taken leave of her senses and muttered darkly as to the causes for her mistress’s queer start.

On the morning of the fifth day, Lady Elizabeth remained at home—her manner pugnacious, her attire elegant—half willing half defying the Viscount to make an appearance. He did not. For once, Lady Elizabeth acknowledged as she stared broodingly out her bedroom window into the small garden at the back of the house that gave way onto the mews, someone had fought against her infamously rigid guard and had managed to score a hit. She knew from the first moment she saw St. Ryne standing before her that he personified the embodiment of her closely held and jealously guarded dreams. Sadly she wished she could have returned his comments with gay and witty sallies designed to entrance. But she could not. She could only cut because it was safer to strike the first blow than to leave oneself open for the populace to destroy.

He told her he would come to call and to ask her papa for his consent to marry. Lady Elizabeth twisted uncomfortably in her seat. He had not. She leaned her face against the cool glass, her breath misting before her. She frowned heavily as her temper mounted. She’d show him, she thought. She’d show him she didn’t care a jot whether he claimed her.

She groaned. Why was she even thinking such thoughts? Marriage was not for her. It left one too vulnerable and—and out of control. The whole situation was entirely too ridiculous. She was merely being made the butt of some joke, most likely spurred by a bet in one club or another. At that sickening thought, her anger soared once more and with a very unladylike oath she sprang to her feet, twirled, and flounced out of the room with a swish of her skirts.

The upstairs maid saw her and shook her mob capped head slightly as she resumed dusting the picture frames in the hall.

The Viscount St. Ryne had not made an appearance at the Monweithe residence the next day, nor in the succeeding days, because he was not in London to do so.

Early the next morning, following that fateful rout at the Amblethorps’, he directed a couple of portmanteaux be packed for a visit of indeterminate duration, horrifying his valet with his expressed wish of traveling alone and dispensing with that gentleman’s daily service. He ordered his horses put to his carriage and while waiting told his people, quite casually, that he was off to tour his holdings. In truth he was, but with an express purpose in mind. He was looking for a particular type of holding.

His perusal of William Shakespeare’s famous play had sparked a commitment and determinedness every bit as strong as Elizabeth’s avoidance, yet his approach was with casual excitement, in the spirit of attending a particularly rousing sporting event. Though he could not envision himself wreaking havoc at table or in the bedchamber, as Petruchio had, he could attempt to find as disreputable a holding as possible to carry his bride to. This proved no easy task; he soon discovered his personal wealth and the loyalty of those he employed precluded shabbiness and dirt and he came to realize the condition of his library in London to be an exception. It was in his mind, after an exhausting whirlwind tour of his holdings flung throughout the southern portion of England, to perhaps purchase a suitable property from some impoverished member of society, when fortuitously he found his choice honeymoon home for Elizabeth. Furthermore, it was, to his delight, located a scant two hours outside London.

It was called Larchside, a prosaic enough name for what was a minor property in his holdings. It had passed—heretofore unwanted—into his hands shortly before his departure for Jamaica. The estate had been willed to him by Sir Jeremy Redfin, a distant relative, who ignominiously departed the world after falling down the main staircase in a drunken stupor, breaking his neck.

Sir Jeremy had lived as a recluse the last five years of his life after his youngest son and only surviving offspring died fighting a duel in Ireland over an accusation of tampering with a horse’s saddle by placing burrs under it prior to a race. This was an accusation that St. Ryne, remembering his cousin, could readily believe. Consequently, the estate which before had generated the tidy sum of 10,000 pounds per annum, had been allowed to go into ruin due to repair deferments. The greater portion of the estate was tied up with the banks; therefore, when St. Ryne drove up to the red brick, higgledy-piggledy styled manor house covered with ivy, he saw ill-tended grounds, lack of paint, and even a broken window on the second floor.

When no groom or stable hand came running to take his horses, St. Ryne tethered his team to a scraggly bush, glad it wasn’t his fractious grays yet wondering how this job team would deal with a stray paper or dead branch blown across their path. He frowned, and for the first time a small chink appeared in his confidence in his chosen course. He turned from his team to study the house before him just as the badly weathered oak door creaked open on rusty hinges. A skeletal apparition of a man with drawn tight skin stood in the doorway.

“This is private property, so you’d best get back in that fancy rig and be off with you.”

St. Ryne raised his eyebrows in a haughty manner designed to depress pretension. He drew off his driving gloves, slowly mounting the steps before the house. His unknown employee stepped backward nervously, his hand on the heavy door as if to slam it in St. Ryne’s face.

“And just whose property might this be?” he inquired silkily, slapping his gloves in his left hand.

“This here’s the property of the Viscount St. Ryne,” he said shrilly.

“Precisely, and I do not tolerate disrespect from any of my employees.” He smiled wolfishly as the man stumbled backward into the hall and he followed.

“Beg pardon, your lordship!” the man gasped. “I meant no disrespect! We do at times get strangers coming by trying to make trouble and we’ve had no word of your coming.”

The man would have babbled on, but St. Ryne silenced him with an impatient wave of his hand as he surveyed the hall. Most of the furniture was draped with Holland covers on which dust was thick. The walls showed scorch and soot marks from cheap candles, and the drapes looked as if a mere touch could shred them. On the whole, everything was drab and gray, and St. Ryne couldn’t have been more pleased. A boyish grin split his lips as he turned back to his employee.

“Your name, please,” he commanded.

“William Atheridge, if it pleases your lordship. My wife and I, we were butler and housekeeper to Sir Jeremy, milord.” He scurried to a doorway under the stairs. “Mae! Mae, come here!” he called then scurried back to St. Ryne. He bobbed again. “She’ll be here presently, she will.”

“What are you fratch’n about now?” came a high, gravelly voice from the direction of the stairs.

Both men turned toward her voice, and St. Ryne found himself facing a dour-faced woman with deep lines bracketing her mouth who was as stout as her husband was thin. Her eyes narrowed slightly when she saw an unknown gentleman in the hall, then her mouth stretched out into a travesty of a smile.

“Milord, this is my wife, Mae. My dear, this is the Viscount St. Ryne," he said, stressing the name.

Mae Atheridge approached them and bobbed a curtsy, her eyes sliding sideways to meet her husband’s.

“How do you do,” St. Ryne said absently, giving her only a cursory glance before dismissing her from his mind, his attention centering once again on the house. “So, Atheridge, as I’m here, what do you say to a tour of this holding of mine?”

Atheridge blinked rapidly. “Of course, your lordship. This way, please,” he said, gesturing his hand forward.

Atheridge, his pasty complexion as gray as the dust on all surfaces, quavered and shook like a leaf in the wind as he conducted St. Ryne around. Mae Atheridge followed silently behind save for the swish of her long black skirts. Wringing his hands nervously, Atheridge begged pardon for the condition of the house, saying they received money only for their wages from Mr. Tunning, the estate manager. The lines around Mae’s mouth deepened, her brows sinking over deep-set eyes.

St. Ryne merely laughed. “This place is splendid! Better than I had hoped to find.”

Atheridge looked at him bemused. “B-beg pardon, your lordship?” he stammered.

“Do not change a thing. Do not clean anything. I dare swear the chimneys will smoke if lit. Best have the master bedroom chimney swept. The estate agent, what did you say his name was? Tonning?”

“Tunning, my lord.”

“Yes, tell this Tunning fellow I said to have it done and he’s to see it’s paid for. Oh, best have the library done, too. No other rooms mind you. I want it just as it is,” the Viscount said, grinning broadly as he looked about him. He began to laugh. “Yes, just as it is.”

The Viscount hurriedly declined their offer to ready a room for him, saying he would stay at the inn in the village and left, still grinning as he wiped a trace of cobweb off his coat sleeve.

“Well, that’s done it for us,” Atheridge said heavily to his wife.

“Hush, Tom Tunning will cover for us or it’s his neck, too,” Mae said sternly, her mouth set in a straight line and her hands clasped primly before her ample form. Silently they stood together on the front steps and watched the Viscount bowl down the avenue, turn the corner, and disappear from sight behind wildly overgrown hedges at the front gate.





St. Ryne returned to London early the next day and immediately began a round of meetings with his solicitors and bankers. These worthies had served the Earl of Seaverness’s family for many years and had heard many an unusual request. Though they were delighted to receive news of St. Ryne’s planned nuptials, they were aghast at his settlement requests; yet they drew up the paperwork and opened the accounts as he requested, each silently bemoaning their tasks and wondering, as others had before them, if the tropical sun hadn’t indeed affected his lordship.

St. Ryne’s friends quizzed him unmercifully concerning his week long absence, coming as it did hard on the heels of his encounter with Lady Elizabeth Monweithe. He only laughed but admitted the events were not unrelated; more they could not wrest from him.

“Pray, cease!” he implored when he was particularly besieged one afternoon at White’s.

“Well, old fellow,” Freddy said laying a companionable hand on his shoulder, “what is the story?”

“Freddy, Freddy, not you too?” St. Ryne asked looking over his shoulder. “All right, though I find this sudden interest amusing,” he said turning back to take in all those gathered around. “I tell you all, I merely went on a tour of my holdings. I have been away a year and I need hardly tell you the necessity of looking after my own.”

“Particularly if one has specific goals they wish to achieve,” Sir Branstoke drawled.

St. Ryne turned to look quizzically at him, but Branstoke only smiled as he bowed his way out of the group. Watching that enigmatic peer withdraw, St. Ryne’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Shrugging slightly, he turned back to the group before him and suggested a game of faro in order to bend their inquisitive minds elsewhere.

One crisp bright morning shortly thereafter, Freddy Shiperton paid a morning call on his friend to request his company on an excursion to Tattersall’s. There was a good looking gray there that he had his eye on and wanted St. Ryne’s opinion for he was a known connoisseur of good horseflesh. He arrived at St. Ryne’s home to learn from his butler that the Viscount was still dressing and had not yet descended. Freddy’s brows rose. It was not like St. Ryne to be so late about. Entrusting his hat and greatcoat to the footman, he informed Predmore he would announce himself.

He loped easily up the staircase taking two steps at a time before Predmore had an opportunity to object. He found St. Ryne in a distracted mood, yet dressed very elegantly in a jacket of blue Bath superfine with fawn-colored breeches. He was snapping at his valet to remove a piece of fluff from his jacket sleeve. That little gentleman, who had been with his lordship since he’d come down from Oxford and had even endured the hardships of a year away from civilization by attending his lordship in Jamaica, this particular morning looked extremely harassed and frazzled.

“I say, Justin, what’s this?” Freddy asked, waving his walking stick in Justin’s direction to indicate his attire.

“I have an important engagement this morning.”

“Eh?”

“An engagement, Freddy my boy,” St. Ryne repeated then stopped and grinned as the double meaning of what he said registered.

“But I need you to come to Tatts with me. They’ve got this handsome gray I need your advice on. Looks a prime ’un, but I’ll be the first to admit I ain’t got your eye,” Freddy said, not seeing how anything else could be more important.

“My apologies, I am resolved. It must be this morning and no other. Tell you what, why don’t you take La Belle Helene for a walk in the park this morning.” A thoughtful look crossed his face. “Yes, just the ticket. I’ll walk over with you and renew my acquaintance with the Earl of Rasthough while you spirit your beauty away.”

Freddy’s face brightened. “Dash it, that’s good of you, St. Ryne. Hard to get her out from under the Dragon Lady’s or her father’s nose. ” A frown creased his delicate brow for a moment. “Thought you said you had an appointment.”

St. Ryne waved his hands nonchalantly. “On the way. Besides, anything I can do for a friend.” He smiled engagingly before turning to take his hat, cane, and gloves from his waiting man. “Come, this should prove an interesting and entertaining morning.”

Freddy looked at him blankly for a moment but refrained from further comment, his mind pondering the strange behavior of his friend. Sadly, he thought Tretherford was correct; St. Ryne had spent too much time in that damned tropical sun.





The Earl of Rasthough was greatly surprised and curious upon hearing the names of the visitors awaiting him in the parlor. Shuffling papers aside and combing his thinning hair back with his fingers; he arose from his desk and scurried out of his library to join his guests. He remembered the Viscount St. Ryne as the gentleman who’d danced with Elizabeth two weeks before. He could hardly forget. Elizabeth, always difficult to manage, had become impossible during the last two weeks. Although he knew the Viscount had upset her, he never learned how, for Elizabeth remained reticent about the meeting, a circumstance her father viewed with trepidation.

When he opened the parlor door, he was in time to see the Viscount rising elegantly from a bow over his daughter Helene’s hand and saw that young lady smile brightly up at him while his sister-in-law looked on benignly. He groaned inwardly, another conquest.

St. Ryne turned immediately at the sound of the door opening and smiled lazily at the Earl, then turned an inquisitive eye to Freddy who was staring steadily with doglike devotion at La Belle Helene. Catching St. Ryne’s eye upon him he looked up, flustered, glancing from his friend to Lord Monweithe and back before he recalled himself to a sense of duty and hurriedly stumbled through appropriate introductions.

“So you’re St. Ryne. Known your father anytime the past twenty years. How is he, by the way? Don’t get much to town these days, do he?” Lord Monweithe asked jovially.

“He is well, sir, but prefers his books to a rackety social life, as he calls it. That is, unless it is hunting season.”

Monweithe laughed. “He always was a neck-or-nothing goer in the field. That’s how I met him years ago when you were barely out of leading strings. I remember him telling us one evening how you wanted to come with him, but your little pony weren’t fast enough to keep up.”

St. Ryne’s answering smile bore an odd twist at the corner. “Ah yes, I remember the incident. Did he tell you, too, that I followed anyway and became lost? When I finally found my way home, it was very late and my parents were extremely distraught. That Christmas, however, I received a hunter as a gift from my father.”

The Earl guffawed heartily. “Forced his hand, did you? Well, well, can’t say as I blame you.”

St. Ryne inclined his head and smiled lazily. “As you say—”

“Oh-h!” Lady Helene cried, clasping her hands before her, her pale blue eyes wide. “What a frightening experience for a child!”

St. Ryne studied her closely. He was amazed to discover her quite sincere. “Perhaps,” he allowed slowly. “I really can’t recall,” he admitted. “What I do recall is the lesson in obedience it engendered.”

Freddy gave a snort of laughter. “Aye! I can, too!”

The Viscount raised a quelling eyebrow at his friend. “That will be enough, Freddy.”

His friend glanced down at his boots, stifling an urge to laugh. He was one of a select few who knew the truly scapegrace background of the elegant Viscount St. Ryne, a background seemingly at odds with his ton persona.

Lady Romella Wisgart sniffed audibly. “Well, I should hope it was compensatory with the crime,” she announced stentorianly.

“Quite,” St. Ryne agreed shortly, bowing his head in her direction. He turned toward Lord Monweithe. “But come, sir, let us retire to your library, if we may, and leave these two to have a nice stroll through the park. I have a request to make which we should discuss.”

“Not without a chaperone!”

“Naturally, sir,” St. Ryne returned, feigning surprise.

“I’m sure Freddy expects Lady Wisgart’s company as well.”

Freddy threw a surprised look at St. Ryne but recovered quickly. He discerned what St. Ryne desired was his cooperation in removing Lady Helene and Lady Wisgart. So much for spiriting his beauty away! “Uh-h, quite so!” he said, darting sideways glances at the Viscount. He bore a lively curiosity as to his friend’s sudden interest in Old Monweithe and determined to have it out with him before long for dealing him such a backhanded turn.

“Lady Wisgart,” he said rising elegantly and making a leg, “may we have the pleasure of your company? It is such a clear crisp day, not in the least bit damp,” he said engagingly.

“A short one, mayhap,” she said in a condescending tone. “I have heard mild exercise in such weather is invigorating for the constitution. Still, we must dress warmly. Come, Helene.”

St. Ryne bowed as they left before turning again to the Earl. “Your library, sir,” he reminded, gesturing before him.

Lord Monweithe frowned a moment; he did not like the idea of Helene going out with Shiperton. No sense building any expectations among the young bucks who squired his youngest daughter. St. Ryne put him in an awkward position. He was curious to know his request and to deny the outing now would be boorish. He saw St. Ryne regarding him with that lazy, sleepy-eyed smile of his. Damn, if he didn’t think St. Ryne had arranged the entire situation, but he couldn’t say no now.

“Certainly, this way,” he said leading him toward the door. There he paused for a moment to turn back to Freddy Shiperton. “Don’t be gone too long,” he admonished.

“Just a little jaunt, sir, and thank you, sir!” Freddy managed to stumble out.

The Earl of Rasthough only frowned again and followed his distinguished guest out of the room.

“You don’t approve of our Freddy,” St. Ryne observed as they crossed the hall to the library.

“Don’t approve or disapprove. No sense filling their heads with fancies. I’ve said it before and I say it now, my eldest daughter is to be married first.”

“Precisely.”

Monweithe looked at St. Ryne sideways, not understanding what he meant, and then continued, “Daresay people think I’m crazy, but my mind’s made up. Love that little gal but I guess I say I got my duty.”

St. Ryne nodded as the Earl ushered him into his library.

“You are to be commended, sir.”

“I am? Well, I only do as I feel right,” Lord Monweithe said gruffly, lowering his bulk into the leather chair behind his desk. “But sit down, sit down and tell me what’s on your mind.”

“It’s quite simple,” St. Ryne remarked, crossing his legs and leaning back into the green plush chair before the desk. “I want to marry your daughter,” he explained, watching his host closely.

“What?!?” that gentleman exclaimed, rising from his chair and leaning across the cluttered desk, his face turning dangerously red. “I just told you Elizabeth is to be married first. Don’t think just because you stand to become an Earl that you’re going to be any different from any other gentleman who’s courting Helene, because I tell you now it ain’t going to be so! Asides which, you’ve never called or spoken to her before today.”

St. Ryne’s face froze and he regarded the Earl of Rasthough coldly.

“Have you so little love or respect for your eldest daughter that you must assume any gentleman soliciting your daughter’s hand in marriage means Helene?”

“But, but— What are you saying, man?”

“Frankly I find Helene no different from a dozen other insipid debutantes of the season such as my mother has tried to put in my way. I have heretofore ignored them all,” he stated, nearly gritting his teeth, his face white under his tan.

Lord Monweithe blinked uncertainly and slowly resumed his seat while staring bemusedly at St. Ryne.

The Viscount went on: “The only woman I could possibly consider marrying is your daughter Elizabeth. Do not cast aspersions on her character to me!” The strange rage consuming him burned out suddenly, and once again he relaxed in his chair. “She’s had enough,” he muttered to himself. The strength of his own emotions stunned him.

Lord Monweithe caught the last of what he said very faintly and wondered if he had heard right. He was amazed and knew he must recover himself.

“Now, now, easy lad. No harm meant.” He laughed with false joviality as he warily studied St. Ryne’s shuttered expression. ‘Now, would I say my Elizabeth must marry first if I didn’t care for her? Well now? Sorry I misunderstood you, but you know we were discussing my daughter Helene as we came in the room, and then you took me by surprise, that’s all, my boy.”

St. Ryne neither smiled nor responded and the broad smile on the Earl’s face faded slightly.

“So you want to marry my Elizabeth, do you? Well, well, I’d be proud to welcome you to the family.”

The twisted smile reappeared on St. Ryne’s face. “Thank you, sir,” he said wryly.

Monweithe leaned back in his chair. “Ha, ha. I saw you dancing with my gal at Lady Amblethorp’s. Love at first sight, was it? Fine gal, fine gal. And handsome, too.” He looked keenly at St. Ryne. “Daresay you’re just the man to handle her too, from the tales I’ve heard.”

St. Ryne stiffened slightly, but the Earl, reaching out for the bell pull, did not notice. Almost immediately his summons was answered by the appearance of his butler at the door. So prompt was that worthy’s appearance, St. Ryne wondered sardonically if Elizabeth’s reputation was not perhaps due in large measure to servants listening in keyholes. “Jovis, ask Lady Elizabeth to join me in the library.”

“Very good, my lord.”

“Let us have a toast,” Lord Monweithe suggested to St. Ryne, rising from his desk and going to the sideboard where there stood a decanter and several glasses. “Always like to have a little to hand,” he explained, pouring two glasses of a deep tawny port. “Here, lad—a toast to Elizabeth.”

St. Ryne raised his glass in silent salute.

Jovis returned a moment later, coughing softly to gain the Earl's attention.

“Well, where is she?” Lord Monweithe asked, irritated, nevertheless keeping a wary eye on his prospective son-in- law.

“Beg pardon, my lord, but the Lady Elizabeth says as how she is doing some mending, she cannot come.”

“What! You tell that—” Monweithe started to exclaim but stopped in confusion seeing the shuttered look come over St. Ryne’s face. He looked at St. Ryne helplessly.

St. Ryne put his glass down and rose from his chair. Bowing to the Earl, a slow trace of a smile began to cross his face. “It is always best to get over heavy ground as lightly as possible. May I have your trust, sir?”

“Ah, of course lad. No need to ask.”

“Good. Then I shall start as I mean to go on,” St. Ryne stated. He turned to Jovis. “Please conduct me to the Lady Elizabeth.”

Lord Monweithe looked carefully at St. Ryne then nodded his consent.

St. Ryne followed the butler upstairs to a small parlor at the back of the house, forestalled his announcing him, and signaled the man’s dismissal with a jerk of his head. Smiling to himself in anticipation of the encounter, he opened the door.

The room was shabbier than the rest of the house but its tall windows let in the streaming sunlight. Seated with her feet tucked up under her on a small, faded gold sofa by the windows, a stack of mending by her side was the Lady Elizabeth Monweithe. She was wearing a much worn, faded blue gown that was tight across the bodice. Her long dark hair was pulled back and held by a silk ribbon. The sunlight shining on her hair showed glowing red and gold highlights. When she looked up as the door opened, her expression was one of exasperation at being disturbed yet again, but when she saw who stood there in the doorway, her color rose.

“You!”

Justin’s smile broadened. Closing the door, he leaned against it.

“What, my Elizabeth speechless again? For shame. Well, I’ll promise not to tell, we can’t spoil your reputation now.”

“What are you doing here?” she asked coldly while her heart fluttered wildly in her chest. He came!

“What? Here? Standing— You haven’t asked me to sit yet,” he said easily as he avidly drank in her appearance. She was more beautiful than he remembered.

“Don’t play games,” she ground out. “Why did you come to see me?”

“Now we are getting conceited, aren’t we? And just after one dance.” He watched her bite her lip in exasperation and laughed. “Actually, I came to visit your father.”

“My father?” Her voice shook.

“Certainly. It still is considered necessary for a suitor to ask the parents of a young lady if he may solicit her hand in marriage, isn’t it? At least, it was when I left for Jamaica. Personally,” he went on reflectively, “I’ve always thought the principals should decide such things among themselves first; however, I am in the minority so I bow to convention.”

She sneered at him. “So, another of little Helene’s conquests.” A steel band tightened around her heart.

He cocked his head to one side as he regarded her. “That is exactly what your father thought. Perhaps I overreacted. No, you silly widgeon, it is your hand I asked for.”

The color drained from Lady Elizabeth’s face and she slowly raised her hand to her throat. Her stomach somersaulted. Swallowing convulsively, she stared up at him. The silence in the room was suffocating.

Lady Elizabeth took a ragged deep breath. “How dare you. I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man alive. Get out!” she rasped, rising unsteadily from her seat and pointing toward the door. She could not take his teasing her. She knew of her reputation as a shrew. No gentlemen approached her. It was cruel of him to play with her in this manner.

In two strides St. Ryne was before her with her hand held securely between his.

“Thank you, my love. Since I know I am not the last man alive, nothing may stand in my way.”

Elizabeth sputtered, “S-s-swine! Trading on your birth as a nobleman.” She tried to wrest her hand away by pushing on him with her other. “A common cit is a better man! Let me go or I’ll scream!”

“Please do, my love. Though I must admit it is an unconventional method of saying, ‘Yes, I will marry you.’ I would never want my Bess to be conventional. Of course, if you really want to be in a more colorful compromising position, I’m sure we can arrange that, too.”

Elizabeth glared at him then slapped him with her free hand. St. Ryne froze for a moment then slapped her back. Lady Elizabeth’s cheeks burned with the audacity of her action and his unexpected reaction. She raised a shaking hand to her cheek.

“Get out! I don’t know how you weaseled your way up here and I don’t care, just leave!” she rasped, her voice rising, catching painfully in her throat. “I-I won’t marry you. Is that plain enough?”

“My lady, you will marry me because you really don’t like being the laughing stock of society. You are a beautiful, gentle, sensitive young woman and you have lived a lie in order to protect yourself,” he soothed, dropping her hands. “Only now the chickens have come home to roost and it no longer protects you. As each day passes, you are becoming more and more frightened. ”

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. It was on her lips to deny him, but the truth shone out from her face and she felt naked and exposed. She turned from him to stand in front of the window, grasping the frame with a white-knuckled hand. Sunlight glowed around her like a halo.

St. Ryne walked up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. It was within him to feel compassion for this woman, but she still needed her strength and anger to see her through the next week. He did not want her broken, just the wildness contained yet always burning within her.

“Don’t worry, my Bess. Though you are a hell-born brat, I don’t hold that against you. I shall look forward to the fires you’ll ignite in our bed. Now don’t be petulant just because you’ve finally met someone stronger than you. I know you are already aching for my caresses, but we can’t have too much of a good thing too soon. That is a way to get sick.”

Elizabeth whirled around to glare at him and move away from his disturbing nearness only to find she had backed herself into a corner. She tried to push him aside, but his arms were like iron and resisted her.

“You already make me sick.”

“Ah—see? We progress.”

“Get out of my way.”

“I am not in your way, I am your way,” he said softly, leaning toward her.

Just then Lord Monweithe slowly opened the door, his curiosity getting the best of him since he had not heard much yelling. St. Ryne turned his head toward the door with an easy smile on his lips, still keeping Elizabeth pinned in her corner. He took one of her arms and lightly twisted it behind her back.

“We shall be wed next week at St. George’s in Hanover Square by special license. I leave it to you to make all the arrangements. By the by, I find the stories of your daughter’s temper all a hum. We shall do very well together, won’t we, my sweet?” he said, glancing down at her to be met by a look of pure venom in return. “Oh, I know you must continue to rant and rail against me for appearances’ sake, and dig in your heels against the wedding because you are such a playful puss.” He looked back to the Earl. “But she knows, sir, that will ye, nil ye, I’ll have her. But come, we have much to discuss downstairs and all of us have much to do before next week.”

St. Ryne let go of the Lady Elizabeth’s arm, backing away quickly before he could be slapped again. Elizabeth merely rubbed her abused arm, her mind in a turmoil, her tongue cloying to the roof of her mouth. Her eyes blazed at him but she knew she had no way of dinting his armor. As he went to close the parlor door, some of her normal energies returned. Glancing around quickly, her eyes lighted on a vase on the table next to her. She picked it up, throwing it at his head. The vase sailed past him, crashing into the door. She trembled at her own audacity when St. Ryne turned to look back, and then down at the vase on the floor.

He grinned. “Practice, my dear, practice,” he suggested, and closed the door.