Honor's Players
Author:Holly Newman

Where is the life that late I led?

—Act III, Scene 3

It was a feather faintly brushing her nose, a grain of pepper floating in the air; sleepily Elizabeth twitched her nose then turned her head to bury her face deep into the pillow. The irritating tickle remained. After squirming uselessly under the covers for a moment, she raised her head. There appeared to be no stopping it. Her eyes clenched shut, almost tearing from the plaguing irritant.


Elizabeth’s eyes flew open in horrified dismay. Quickly she looked about, her befuddled mind wondering if anyone had been witness to her very unladylike sneeze. Dazedly she surveyed her surroundings. This was not her room. This was not Rasthough Ah-Ah-Ahchoo! House. Then she remembered with sickening clarity St. Ryne, the wedding, the house. She bolted upright in bed, flinging off the bed covers, sending a cloud of silver motes into the air.

Ahchoo! Ahchoo! Sneezes racked her body, her eyes watering. Elizabeth fumbled for the reticule she had discarded so casually the day before, searching frantically for the square of linen it contained. How could she ever have forgotten all the dust? Ahch— She jammed the handkerchief tightly to her face and closed her eyes thankfully when the threatening sneeze stopped. As quietly as possible, she blew her nose until the tickle subsided then slumped down in relief on the edge of the bed.

Dust. Even in the morning dimness of a room shut off from the outside, dust was evident everywhere. Only her fatigued state, shattered nerves, and the flickering shadows cast in the candlelit room the evening before had prevented her from noting how thick the bedchamber was with dust. Reluctantly she rose and crossed to the terrace windows, dragging the heavy curtains back to let strands of pale autumn sun into the room. For a moment she just stood, her face turned up to the sun, feeling the warmth seep into her body. She looked out the windows onto the grounds of the park below.

Silver dew clung to bushes and branches, glinting off the tangled growth. There was a strange beauty to the park, a sense of unreality. Was this all a dream, some nightmarish incantation to lure and confuse? Childishly, Elizabeth pressed her face up to the glass. The cold touch sent her shivering back a step though her eyes never left the peace she perceived in the tangled growth below.

Rounding the corner of a wild overgrown hedge came St. Ryne, sending a shimmer of water droplets flying as he brushed past. Instinctively Elizabeth drew away from the window, not wanting to be seen yet by her husband. She didn’t understand the events of the previous day. Her dreams had been fraught with confusion and anguish. She needed time to sort through her myriad emotions and experiences. Curious, she stood to the side of the curtain and watched. He appeared to be talking to someone. A rotund gentleman followed from behind the bush. He wore brown buckskin breeches and a brown homespun coat and vest. The top of his head was bald and shiny in the morning sun, while his fringe of hair at the sides was thick and unfashionably long. He held his hat obsequiously in his hands before him. She saw St. Ryne glance up to her windows while absently nodding to something the gentleman said. The man continued to speak, gesturing in the direction of the stables. Finally St. Ryne rounded on him, his expression full of exasperation. Then, with an arrogant wave of his hand, indicating the fellow should follow, he led with quick strides toward the stables.

Elizabeth watched until they were out of sight, not realizing how hard she had clenched the edge of the curtain until she slowly uncurled her fingers and an agony of released tensed muscles brought her to her senses. Sighing, Elizabeth turned away from the window to face the room, the sun at her back illuminating its woebegone appearance.

A simmering anger swept her. Now fully awake, she took in all the details around her while replaying the events of the previous evening in her mind. She looked toward her dressing room, a delicate eyebrow raised. “All right,” she muttered wrathfully. “If it’s a housekeeper you want, it’s a housekeeper you’ll get. No more, no less.” She stalked over to the bell pull, giving it an imperious yank, and then entered the dressing room to contemplate her choice of attire.

Mrs. Atheridge arrived as she was struggling with the hooks of a dun-colored gown. Elizabeth heaved a sigh of relief. Though the gowns St. Ryne provided were in color and basic styling all demure, some, she discovered to her dismay, did need assistance from an outside source.

“Mrs. Atheridge, would you get these hooks, please?”

“I ain’t no lady’s maid.”

Shocked, Elizabeth rounded on her. “Believe me, Mrs. Atheridge, there are a number of things I am aware you are not.” She paused, drawing her dignity about her. “The question of a lady’s maid shall be remedied immediately, nonetheless, until such time as this household is properly staffed, you shall provide any services I deem needing to be completed by your person.” Her voice was low, almost pleasant; however, the gold metal glint in her eye told another tale and Mrs. Atheridge took a step backward.

“Of course, my lady,” she returned sweetly.

Elizabeth squelched a rising desire to throttle her.

The swish of the housekeeper’s skirts as she approached reminded Elizabeth of the silk petticoats hiding beneath. A twinkle brightened her eye. It was time this black beetle crawled.

“Our want of proper staffing will, I am afraid, increase our burdens. This house is an insult to my husband’s rank and, of course, we cannot let it remain in such a condition. We shall begin work following breakfast, that is if you have anything decent to serve.”

“Bread and a mite of cheese, is all.”

Her deletion of a title of respect was quite obvious. “That will do. I shall request Atheridge to go down to the village to see if there are any people available for day labor.” She rooted through her portmanteau for a kerchief. “Some women and perhaps some young men for the heavy work, I think, if they can be spared from their normal labors. You will gather as many buckets, mops, rags, and assorted cleaning paraphernalia as may be had,” she said, draping the kerchief over her hair and tying it behind her head. “If necessary, we will also send Atheridge to buy or borrow additional supplies.”

Mrs. Atheridge nodded sourly and turned to leave.

“Mrs. Atheridge!”

“Yes, my lady,” she said sullenly, turning back to Elizabeth.

“I suggest you remove the silk petticoats.”

Affronted, the housekeeper stood up straighter, clasping her hands crisply before her. “My lady?” she asked in feinted bewilderment.

Elizabeth noted her eyes shifting slightly. “With all I have planned, they will become quite ruined, you know. That will be all.”

“Oh, do be careful, Thomas.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Elizabeth anxiously watched the young man standing on the tall ladder unhook the glass pendants from the chandelier. “Though it is a fright now, I daresay it will be lovely when properly cleaned. Can you get it down?”

“I think so, ma’am, if we removes these bobbles first.”

"My Lady, to you, young man,” screeched Atheridge, entering the dining room with more rags in hand.

Elizabeth frowned, though she ignored Atheridge’s words. He dumped the rags at the foot of the ladder, scowled up at Thomas, and turned to shuffle out of the room.

She and Thomas exchanged speaking glances. Throughout the morning, her doubts and concerns about the butler and housekeeper had magnified. She found them trying to hinder everything she desired to do. Atheridge only went to secure the help she needed to clean the manor after she threatened to go herself. Mrs. Atheridge tried to claim a lack of proper buckets and cleaning utensils until Elizabeth suggested she go to the stables, collect the unused buckets there, and proceed to scrub then until they were fit to carry clean water. Miraculously four buckets were found within the house. Though her blood boiled at the obvious duplicity, Elizabeth pretended a delighted surprise which she was far from feeling. What puzzled Elizabeth was the reason for their obstructive actions. Despite the lack of cooperation from the Atheridges, the work commenced.

The shadows were lengthening, and it was near teatime. By this hour Elizabeth knew the shelves and cupboards in the kitchen and the fitted stone floor had been scrubbed, and all cobwebs swept away from dark corners. Fresh, simple foods had been fetched from the village and filled clean pantry shelves. The dining room, though not completely clean as yet, no longer revolted her appetite. The rotted drapes had been removed revealing beautiful mullioned windows. The furniture, while unfashionably heavy and dark, took on a rich warm hue when cleaned and oiled. Elizabeth was convinced that once cleaned, the chandelier above would sparkle and cast rainbow lights into the room. If the restoration of the master bedroom and the library were going half as well, she would be pleased. She should check on the workers’ progress since it was time to send them on their way. She hoped they would return on the morrow.

Elizabeth drew the back of her hand across her forehead, brushing an escaping lock of dark hair out of her eyes. She was bone-tired, yet strangely it felt good. She had worked beside the village help, pulling down musty curtains and wall hangings, shifting furniture about, attacking cobwebs. She had been too busy to think about her marriage and St. Ryne’s actions, which suited her perfectly. A brief frown creased her brow. He would most likely be returning soon, if he hadn’t run from his mockery of a marriage as he had from their conjugal bed, a circumstance, she admitted, not without favor. Her stomach rumbled. She clamped a hand to her middle as if to still the vulgar sound while she watched Thomas carefully take apart the chandelier.

St. Ryne stood quietly in the doorway of the dining room. The manor was a veritable beehive of activity. It would appear half the village had come to help clean Larchside, undoubtedly out of curiosity more than any other reason. Were they sated? What stories would be passed over a mug of ale, in the shops, and on the road? He watched Elizabeth directing the efforts of a strapping young man removing the chandelier. She was concentrating intensely and a small frown played across her features. The hem of her gown was black, the large cook’s apron she’d tied on over her dress was streaked with gray, and a smudge graced her cheek-bone. A hideous kerchief covered her glorious hair, though a few wisps escaped to curl and cling to her damp brow. Shadows were lengthening, and it would soon be too dark to work. St. Ryne felt a curious tightening in his chest as he watched her. Was this his shrew? His Katharine?

He saw her press her hand to her middle. Was she not well?

“My lady.” His voice sounded rusty and harsh to his ears.

She whirled around to face him, a slight flush creeping up to stain her cheeks. He cleared his throat, but the tightening in his chest seemed to have affected his voice as well.

“St. Ryne?” she queried, a watchful wariness in her voice.

“It appears all the dirt of Larchside has been transferred upon your person.” He managed a slight smirk to cover his confusion.

Elizabeth stepped toward him, a self-mocking smile upon her lips. “It is not to be surprised.”

“How so? Are there not servants to attend to the manor?”

Her smile vanished. “Nay, sir, there are not! These are good village folk, come to help clean this wretched sty, and come more out of curiosity than for coin.”

St. Ryne’s eyes flew to Thomas poised on the ladder, listening intently to their conversation.

Elizabeth caught his glance and flushed anew.

“Thomas,” she said carefully, drawing herself to her fullest height, her hands placed primly before her. “I fear it is too dark to do more today. We may cause the chandelier to fall if we work in fading light. Will you come tomorrow?”

“Certainly, my lady.” Thomas scampered down the ladder, his inquisitive eyes capering between the Viscountess and Viscount.

“Thank you. Please convey my thanks to the others and ask that they return tomorrow as well, if they please.”

“Yes, my lady.”

After Thomas left, Elizabeth smiled, recalling her day’s labors. St. Ryne, seeing her secret smile, wished he knew her thoughts and fleetingly regretted she did not smile so for him.

“They worked hard today,” she said softly. She glanced ruefully down at the soiled apron covering her dress. “I could not begin to direct their labors without knowing what must needs be done myself.”

St. Ryne raised an eyebrow. “To judge what must be done requires doing?”

“To judge what will stay and go, to examine long-closed rooms and shut-away items, in short answer, yes.” She rounded on him, tiring of the smirks and innuendos she perceived. He would not again get the best of her in a verbal duel. “Lest you would desire to live in a sty or stable. If that is the case, I can in good conscience recommend the stable. I haven’t sent anyone to clean there.”

“Pray, don’t.”

“Why ever not?”

“In truth, I am debating the merits of removing the structure entirely and building anew.”

“Ah, I comprehend the matter,” she said, nodding sagely. “The best for one’s horse, forsake the rest. Or am I to remove there when it is completed? No, forgive me, my tongue runs away with me. I am not a mount you choose to ride.”

Appalled at her words, Elizabeth turned hastily from St. Ryne, missing entirely that gentleman’s wide-eyed surprise and delight. His bride’s words suggested an agitation of spirit and perhaps chagrin as well. He was not ill-pleased. It would appear Petruchio’s formula drew merit.

In a flurry of embarrassment, Elizabeth opened the dining room doors and hurried down the hall to the library where she had assigned Mrs. Atheridge to work. St. Ryne followed at her heels.

“Mrs. Atheridge!” she called out in a cracking, flustered voice. “Mrs. Atheridge, have the villagers all left?”

“Yes, my lady,” she grudgingly acknowledged.

“Will they return tomorrow?”

“Yes, though you should have relayed that request through me, not through that snip of a lad!”

“Mrs. Atheridge,” Elizabeth began quellingly.

St. Ryne laid a hand upon her arm. “She was in conference with me and it was expeditiously done. As we lack proper retainers, form, my dear Mrs. Atheridge, bears no form.”

Mrs. Atheridge sniffed and sketched a curtsy. “Beg pardon, my lord.”

Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed upon her. She was incensed at St. Ryne’s drawing her fire. Mrs. Atheridge was well due for a dressing down. Her eye ran over the housekeeper’s figure; her dress hung limply about her stocky frame, the silk petticoats dispensed. A measure of self-satisfaction filled Elizabeth and she found herself speaking with a quiet tongue. “Bring tea to the library, please. Afterward you may begin the dinner preparations.”

Elizabeth continued into the library, without sparing the housekeeper a glance to see if her orders were obeyed. For all her obstructionist tactics of the day, Elizabeth felt sure she would not dare a blatant disregard for a command, particularly with St. Ryne present. She could not say, however, that she envisioned an appetizing dinner. Replacing Mrs. Atheridge in the kitchen would be one of her first concerns.

She moved gracefully into the room to stand by the fireplace and critically scan the room. It would do. All traces of grime had been removed from the wainscoting and furniture and some pieces had already received a fresh coating of wax or oil. Half of the books were cleaned and replaced in their shelves, the rest stood in stacks upon the floor. There remained a musty smell about the room, but with time and care she felt it could be banished. She studied the chairs and drapes, contemplating replacement fabric. She entirely forgot St. Ryne’s presence until the sound of a chair being dragged across the floor roused her from her reverie.

St. Ryne placed one of the wing chairs by the fireplace, gesturing that she should sit. He then drew up the other for himself. A nervous flutter traveled through Elizabeth.

“Am I amiss in setting to rights my settlement?” She spoke coolly, refusing to acknowledge the flutters in her body or to consider their source.

“No-no. Not at all. But, Bess, must you look so-so—”

“Common? Bourgeois?” she asked archly, indicating her attire.

“Common?” St. Ryne laughed. “You, my dear, could never be common. In that attire, though, you appear entirely too menial for a Viscountess.”

“They say pride doth come before a fall. May I be so bold as to remind you that, aside from the coating of dirt and this apron, my appearance is precisely how you framed me when you ordered my, what would you call it? My trousseau?”

St. Ryne had the grace to blush. He clenched his teeth tightly until the muscle in his jaw jumped. There were no quotes or phrases from Shakespeare to cover this encounter. It occurred to St. Ryne that the bard left out a good bit of interchange between Petruchio and his Katharine for brevity’s sake. His bride was sharp-tongued and sharp-witted; this, coupled with her dark beauty, caused his pulse to quicken considerably. There were no rules or guidelines, no lines save of his own invention. So be it. It was no great matter to postulate Petruchio’s reaction under like circumstances and act accordingly.

He pulled his wife to her feet, drew her into his arms, and kissed her.

Elizabeth’s astonishment was lost in a sea of sensation crashing in upon her, crumbling rock hard walls of preconceptions and attitudes. She stood pliant under the pressure of his lips, alive to his breathing, her own heartbeat, his scent of woods and horse, and to a sudden dizzying warmth in the room. Her eyes shut, her senses savoring the kiss as one would sample and savor a well-laid-out feast. She could neither move nor speak; she could merely absorb. For the first time since she was a child in Hattie’s care, she felt tenderness. She responded as a crocus would to winter’s thaw.

St. Ryne slowly raised his head. She opened her eyes to meet his fathomless dark ones intent upon her face. A small sigh, a gentle release of air, escaped her lips, lost in the crack and pop of a log as it broke and fell into the fire sending forth a rain of sparks. A flare of red touched her cheek, blending with the rosy glow cast by the fire. St. Ryne dropped her arms and walked to the desk.

He ran a finger over its polished surface then sat down in the chair behind it. A hooded expression claimed his features, making them as noncommittal as the hands he folded and placed before him on the desk.

“My lady, wife.” He paused. Every ounce of fortitude he possessed was harnessed to maintain his air of calm. The kiss he had bestowed in masculine arrogance as a lesson made him the student. For him, touching Elizabeth was like touching a spark to dry tinder. Yet she remained unmoved.

Egads! How could a cold wench ignite such hot fires within him? There had to be a fiery passion buried within her. How else could her temper flare so? His skin still tingled from touching her while she stood there impassively as if nothing had occurred.

His knuckles whitened as he twisted his fingers together in frustration. Patience. It would take patience. While Shakespeare’s play was over in a matter of hours, he could not expect his rough wooing to have a desired effect in so short a time.

He looked at her steadily, his voice exactingly neutral. “Enough frivolous dalliance for the moment. We have business to discuss.”

“Friv-?” She blinked rapidly in shocked surprise. Her entire world had just turned upside down, and he sat there as if they had just been discussing the weather. A scream of vexation clogged her throat while a shimmering veil of tears blurred her vision. How dare he mock her further! She could stand no more.

Wildly, she looked about. Her eyes lighted upon a china dog placed on a mantel during the day’s cleaning. It was a horrid, hulking beast. She grabbed it up quickly. The thought that it and St. Ryne were a fitting pair came moments before the object left her hand on its way to his head.

He ducked it easily enough and the figurine crashed harmlessly against the bookcase sending slivers of china flying. He glanced at the shattered statue then rose from his chair to come around the desk toward her. Elizabeth backed away from his silent approach. Reaching blindly behind her, she sought for other items to grab, with a desire to ward him off rather than to vent her frustrations. She did not like the implacable look in his eye. It sent a chill of alarm through her body.

Her searching hand met a candlestick. It also fell harmlessly past him. Next she grabbed a heavy tome to hurl at his head only to have him clasp her wrist and wrench the book from her hand.

“No! No! Let me go!” she cried, twisting and turning in his grasp.

He caught her with his other hand and hauled her thrashing body toward him.

“Enough!” he grunted suddenly and an oomph sound whistled through his teeth when she caught him in the stomach with her elbow. “Elizabeth!” he roared, shaking her like a rag doll.

“No! Leave me alone!” Her struggles weakened. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

“Elizabeth—Bess, love—listen to me!”

“No!” she cried wildly then flung herself on his shoulder, sobbing. He had kept her off balance and confused since their first meeting with his odd fits and starts. Now, all the pent-up emotions she’d gathered came spewing forth. With the tension released, there was no dam to halt the outpouring.

She heard him murmuring, but the words came from a long way off, without coherent meaning.

When she settled down to gulping sobs, she pulled away from him, staring down at the worn carpet. Without a word she turned toward the fireplace. Like the china dog, her pride lay shattered at her feet. She supposed the outburst had been inevitable. She remembered that yesterday she had wished for a new beginning with this wedding. Was it so recently? It seemed forever. A rush of self-pity consumed her, angering her for she would not be its slave.

“My word,” she managed shakily, “I’d heard a new bride was wont to be weepy.” She laughed tightly. “I had not imagined I would as well.” She wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand then turned defiantly to face St. Ryne.

“Mrs. Atheridge should have been here by now,” she said calmly. “I shall go check on tea.”

Her eyes still glistened, and her color ran high but she did not have a blotchy complexion as most women did after a bout of tears. To St. Ryne she looked more gloriously beautiful than ever before.

After she left, he eased himself into one of the winged chairs by the fireplace and stared broodingly into the flames. He didn’t understand the reason for her outburst of temper and tears; however, he was not disgusted by the display as he would have been from another woman. He realized if he could rouse her to such emotional heights in anger, then there was a possibility of doing so in passion as well. Perhaps he needed to squelch the anger avenues as Petruchio had done with his Kate, thereby leaving passion as her solace for release.

He looked up when the door opened, watching through heavily hooded eyes Elizabeth’s fluid movements as she directed the placement of the tea tray. A plan for handling his Kate in this next match slowly jelled in his mind. He smiled at her and murmured a thank you as she handed him a cup and saucer.

“We will need new paint, wallpaper, drapes, and upholstery if we are to put this pile of rubble to rights. I shall have craftsmen and samples sent to Larchside from London when I am in town.”

“Wouldn’t it be faster to write?” she asked coolly, content to follow his conversational gambit. Her outburst of emotion had left her drained and sick with remorse.

“Not at all. I shall be returning to town tomorrow, myself. You may look for the first of the craftsmen and samples to arrive as early as the day after.”

“You’re leaving?”

“Yes. I have asked Tom Tunning, the estate agent, to step around after dinner so you may meet him and discuss your household needs and expenses while I am away.” He studied her dispassionately. “You know, you have shown me on two occasions now that you have no appreciation for the value of money.”

“What?” Her cup clattered down on the tray.

“Your penchant for throwing and breaking objects proves your lack of respect for money. Therefore, I have decided that you will have no allowance and all requests for money, no matter what for, must be made before commitments are contracted. There will be no credit extended. I will inform tradesmen to this effect.”

“How dare you? You’re insane!”

He took a sip of his tea before calmly continuing. “While I am away, Tom Tunning will have control of all discretionary funds.”

Elizabeth surged to her feet, her entire body trembling, with anger and her eyes glowing like molten gold. She struggled for words, her lips moving soundlessly. St. Ryne expectantly awaited her entirely justifiable tirade, but she closed her mouth abruptly. When finally she did speak, her voice was low and controlled: “Excuse me, I need to freshen up before dinner.”

Head held high, she regally quitted the room in her frumpish, dirt-streaked frock.

St. Ryne slumped down in his chair. He wished he saw his way clearly. He had hoped to push her to anger and then sweep her into his arms again, channeling her anger to passion. She fooled him by the tight check she maintained on her temper. He sighed and set down his cup. Once again his course was set, and he would see it through. What would be the outcome of this latest turn of events? Surely Petruchio’s way was not so dark and twisting. He rubbed his temples, willing the throbbing there to cease. Wearily he rose to go change for dinner.