Honor's Players
Author:Holly Newman

Thus have I politicly begun my reign And 'tis my hope to end successfully.

—Act III, Scene 3



A Mona Lisa smile curved Elizabeth’s lips when she viewed her décolletage neckline. The effect was alluring and shockingly fast.

A little more than an hour had passed since she entered her dressing room in an impotent rage, her anger and frustration given vent in a wild frenzy. How could he be so unforgivably rude, so cold-blooded? It was certainly bad enough that she played the unaccommodating shrew in society; however, to quit one’s spouse within days of exchanging vows was an insult difficult to swallow. Duels were fought with far less provocation. Angrily she ripped the dresses St. Ryne had supplied her from the wardrobe and flung them about the room. They fell, scattered, like wilted weeds yanked from a garden. Afterward, her anger spent, Elizabeth sank to the floor.

It was through a veil of tears that she first noted the sliver of white silk. In the candlelight, with tears blurring her sight, the white fabric glowed. Curious, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and crawled to the discarded dress. Picking it up, she shook it out, and then laid it flat. It was a half-mourning gown. Likely it had been a modiste’s model or an unclaimed order, for it was unlike any of the other dresses. Elizabeth wondered at the dressmaker’s reaction to St. Ryne’s wardrobe request and silently applauded the wily merchant who caged an opportunity to sell a readymade dress at a handsome profit.

The white silk was a slip covered by a sheer, gray organza overdress. Extra gathering of the sheer material created a misty cloudlike fall to the fabric. Three bands of gray lace ruffles trimmed the hem and each puffed sleeve. A yoke comprised of gray lace over white silk was attached to a narrow bodice and ended in another three tiers of gray ruffles at the top of the high neck. If one were in black gloves, it would be a modest yet elegant dinner gown; suitable, perhaps, for attending a musicale or card party.

Elizabeth fingered the yoke, noting its attachment. Gathering her skirts about her, she scrambled to her feet to search her portmanteau for scissors and a packet of sewing needles and pins. Quickly she set to work picking out the stitching attaching the yoke, removing it, and hemming under the edges of the material at the neckline. Two judicious tucks tightened the small bodice that now stretched across her breasts, just capturing the tips. She then separated the gray lace on the yoke from its white silk backing and with it fashioned a narrow banding as an inset over the low tight décolletage, tying it in a bow at the center.

Elizabeth studied the effect of her ensemble in the cheval glass. Her color rose, her eyes sparkled; and a pleased little smile lifted the corners of her lips. The gown was scandalous, deliciously so. It appeared if one were to untie the strategically placed bow, her breasts would be released from captivity. She finished her attire with a necklace of milky white pearls and dressed her hair in a Clytie knot with curling dusky tendrils falling across her brow and neck. The overall effect of the gown was as daring as could stare. In the past, she would never have contemplated donning such a gown. It amused her to consider how quickly one’s attitude could change given the proper circumstances, her new outlook, she ruefully admitted, prompted her current course of action. If St. Ryne could now remain unmoved, then his disgust of her was deep and insurmountable, or he was not a true man. Regardless, she vowed to maintain a cool, polite demeanor and further determined, if he should attempt to goad her, she would not fly up into boughs.

The small, secret smile remained in place as she descended the stairs for dinner.





St. Ryne had not been pleased with how his interview with Elizabeth ended. Truly, he didn’t wish to return to London. He’d likely be bored to tears or hounded by his friends. Perhaps all was not lost. Circumstances could still arise that evening that would obviate the necessity for his departure. Yet, he reconsidered; perhaps it would be good for him to leave Larchside. At some point during the interview with Elizabeth he had lost control of the situation. No, not some point, he knew precisely when their relationship had suffered a reversal. It was when he had the fool audacity to kiss her as a punishment. The only person punished was himself. Going to London would allow him to regain control of the play.

He tugged at his neck cloth. He had taken extra care with his attire that evening, as extra care as he could without Cranston’s good offices. He missed that gentleman damnably at the moment for it was his desire to show to advantage.

He paced the library restlessly. At a soft knock on the door her stopped. “Yes?”

“Dinner is served, my lord,” said Atheridge as he opened the door.

“Very good,” he said, coming out of the library. "I shall inform the Lady Elizabeth.”

“No need, I’m here, Justin.” The unusually husky voice came from the shadows on the stairs.

Elizabeth’s silhouette glided down the stairs, slowly taking form as she approached the lighted hall. She stopped on the last step, the elaborate candelabrum on the newel post casting its glow on her. St. Ryne silently extended his hand. Elizabeth, equally silent, placed her hand in his, and he formally conducted her to the dining room.

Elizabeth cast a surreptitious glance in his direction, only to find he had done the same. They looked away from each other quickly, but not before Elizabeth noted where his eyes rested. Overwhelming relief flooded Elizabeth. At least he was not indifferent to her as a woman. It was a start, a small start perhaps, but a start.

St. Ryne did not release her arm until they stood by her chair and even then he did not quit her side. He held out her chair and saw her seated, his fingertips grazing her bare shoulders.

Elizabeth looked up inquiringly, only to note with satisfaction the direction of his gaze. His eyes were fixed on her shadowed cleavage.

“Is something the matter, Justin? You seem quiet this evening.”

“No, no, nothing at all.” He cleared his throat and went to pull out his own chair. “Sorry to be wool-gathering, just estate matters and my instructions for Tunning. Nothing to bother yourself about.”

“I see.” A slow smile curved her lips as her lashes lowered to hide the brilliant light of satisfaction in her eyes. “So, how long do you plan to be gone?”

“I don’t know. A week at the most, I imagine.”

Elizabeth nodded her understanding as Atheridge entered. “I trust you will find this evening’s menu to your liking,” she stated politely. "I will own it is simple, but the food is fresh from the village this day. By her own admission, Mrs. Atheridge is no cook so I instructed her to forego any attempt at saucing the food.”

St. Ryne glanced down at the boiled and roasted unadorned food set before him. A wry half smile touched his lips. It appeared no more appetizing than the meal set before him the evening before and only slightly more edible. It piqued him to be following Petruchio’s lead continually, without intervention.

A strange disquiet settled over him and he looked up to study Elizabeth intently. He knew he was truly no Petruchio though he now seemed thoroughly caught in the role. Could it be his Bess was no Katharine? She sat there quietly and gracefully erect, her attention centered on cutting her meat into small bits. The light from the candelabra on the table flickered in her hair. In daylight her hair was so dark it almost looked black. Only under the proper conditions could one note it was a rich earthen brown. When light struck it properly, it cast off warm red and gold, encasing her head in a halo aura. Her skin was like alabaster save for the delicate rose tones flaring across her cheeks. It was her eyes, however, that never failed to shake him to the core. The color of old guineas, they flamed like a torch when her ire rose. A tigress, his tigress. What was that poem he once read? Something by Blake.

Tiger! Tiger! burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?



The rest slipped his mind, but the imagery remained. He clenched his fist around a knife. He would wake the slumbering passions within her. He had to. He just needed patience and proper planning. He would keep her slightly off balance and make her come to defer to him. A reluctant smile kicked up the corner of his mouth when he realized that again he was to use Petruchio’s tactics.

Elizabeth looked up suddenly, her finely arched brow rising in polite inquiry at his steady regard.

St. Ryne shifted in his chair and turned his attention to his food. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw her reach for her wine goblet, her milky-white breasts straining against the gray lace. He cleared his throat.

“I don’t recall that particular gown.”

Elizabeth smiled widely, revealing small, pearly white teeth. “You don’t? Well, I must own I did contrive a few minor alterations.”

“Minor?”

“Yes. I must tell you, and I do hope you will not be too offended,” she said patronizingly, “your knowledge of the niceties of feminine attire is lamentable. I’m sure you had the best of intentions.” She reached over to pat his hand soothingly.

He flushed dark red. She had managed to turn the tables on him, and now what had seemed like clever maneuvering came across decidedly flat.

“My apologies,” he said stiffly. “Your own trunks should be arriving in the next day or so. I shall not repeat my error.”

“No, I don’t think you will,” she returned smugly.

He eyed the décolletage again. “Isn’t that a trifle, ahem, too, too—”

"Too what?” she asked serenely.

“Perhaps I should have Atheridge fetch a shawl for you.”

“To what purpose?”

St. Ryne ground his teeth in frustration and would have spoken had Atheridge not entered just then.

“Excuse me, my lord, but Mr. Tunning is here.”

“Ah, yes, we were expecting him.” He glanced askance at Elizabeth. She merely smiled. “Have him conducted to the library. We will join him there shortly.” He watched Atheridge bow himself out of the room before turning back to Elizabeth. Then, scowling blackly, he scraped his chair back from the table, rose, and stiffly offered his arm.

A triumphant light shone in Elizabeth’s eyes. Success! She had finally managed to break down his guard and score a hit. It was a practice she intended to continue. The Honorable Viscount St. Ryne would rue the day he played fast and loose with her.

Elizabeth heard a drawer hurriedly slide shut as Atheridge opened the library door. She looked around in time to see the estate agent scuttle around the edge of the desk.

“Amazing, I never knew as how this old desk would clean up so good.” The man forced a small laugh, his voice tinged with a country accent. He moved his hand uncertainly from the polished surface of the desk to fiddle with his gold watch chain.

Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed. A slight sheen of perspiration showed above the man’s lips. He was nervous! The realization surprised her. What manner of man was this?

“You wished to see me, my lord?” he affected primly, losing his country accent. He had himself well in hand now, Elizabeth noted, even going so far as to maintain a slight swagger as he approached.

“Yes, Tunning. First, allow me to make you known to my wife, the Viscountess St. Ryne.” He guided her toward him.

Elizabeth was put to mind of a reptile by Tunning. A fat toad, she decided, and a strangely frightening one. He made her skin crawl, and she couldn’t help raising her chin haughtily.

St. Ryne witnessed her reaction and frowned. He did not hold with being unreasonably snobbish to the lower classes and her reaction struck him forcefully as unwarranted. The words to rebuke her subtly were on his lips when his glance slid down from her face to her chest and the profusion of exposed creamy flesh. He ground his teeth and owned her expression might be needful as he noted a wide smile spread across Tunning's face. It was just shy of being lascivious.

Tunning bowed; though his head stayed level enough for his eyes to remain upon Elizabeth. He licked his lips. “I am charmed, my lady,” he said smoothly.

Charmed, what an odd word for an employee to use. A chill passed over Elizabeth, and she wished she hadn’t teased St. Ryne so and had availed herself of a shawl.

St. Ryne witnessed Tunning's crude reaction to his wife’s near exposure. Damn the woman, was she lost to all sense of propriety? A curious possessive jealousy flared within his chest igniting a flame of craftiness.

“Here, my dear, you have been on your feet all this day overseeing the cleaning, please sit down.” He grabbed her elbow and propelled her to one of the chairs by the fireplace. With his free hand, he angled the chair away from the light of the fire then gently seated her. Her face was now in shadows, but to his chagrin he noted the light from the single small taper on the table by her elbow cast a glow upon her chest.

There was nothing for it but to emulate his mother. The Countess of Seaverness was the clumsiest woman of his acquaintance, probably in all England, yet through unbounded arrogance she ignored any destruction left in her wake.

“I’ll have Atheridge bring you some Madeira,” he said, swinging around sharply toward the bell pull. His momentum appeared to put him slightly off balance, and his hand shot out to break the imminent fall, knocking the candle off the table in its wake and sending globs of wax flying.

In an instant St. Ryne was on his knees, grabbing the candle and extinguishing its flame. “How absurdly clumsy of me. I do beg your pardon, my dear.”

St. Ryne faced the firelight, his back to Tunning. Elizabeth had no trouble seeing the mischief in his eyes, and her lips twisted to keep from laughing. “It has been a long day for both of us. No doubt we are both much fatigued.”

“No doubt,” he returned smoothly, replacing the candlestick on the table.

Elizabeth was now seated in shadows, and some of the tightness in St. Ryne’s chest released. He turned back to Tunning. “And now, my good man—”

Tunning coughed. “If it pleases, your lordship, I’ve a matter I’d like to bring to your attention.”

“Yes?” St. Ryne’s brow rose. He walked away from Elizabeth to sit behind the desk forcing Tunning to turn away from her as well.

“It’s about one of the tenant families, my lord. I think they should be replaced, they’re nothing but a pack of troublemakers.”

“Who are they? And why didn’t you say anything earlier today when we made the rounds?”

Tunning shifted uneasily, very aware of the fact that St. Ryne hadn’t asked him to sit as well. Maybe he didn’t have as complete an understanding of this dandy as he thought. “It’s the Humphries, my lord.”

“Humphries?” St. Ryne said in surprise.

“Yes, my lord.”

“Aren’t they at the Home farm?”

“Aye, but—”

“That is the only well-maintained and properly running farm on the estate!”

“I know, my lord, and that’s why I didn’t say anything afore. Truth is that appearance is deceptive and rooted in self-interest.” Tunning restively fingered his gold-filigreed watch chain.

“Self-interest!” St. Ryne laughed. “Self-interest like that brings in the rents.”

“Hold a moment, my lord, and let me say my piece,” he burst out gruffly, sweat glistening on the top of his bald pate.

Elizabeth and St. Ryne were surprised by his tone, albeit for different reasons. Elizabeth found the estate agent to be officious while St. Ryne surmised he was genuinely concerned about something.

“They’re rousing up the other tenants. They’ve got queer Republican notions and they’re inciting the others to revolt. Now I know,” he hurried on before St. Ryne could interrupt, “there have been Humphries at the Home farm for generations, but this lot’s bad blood. We’ll have trouble soon if they stay on. ”

St. Ryne frowned. “Why didn’t you mention this earlier?”

Elizabeth stared at him. Was he seriously thinking of turning a whole family out simply on the word of this toad?

Tunning squirmed uncomfortably. “Well, my lord, it was because they keep up a good appearance that I hesitated to say anything and I also didn’t want you to think I didn’t know my business.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes in disbelief.

“Truth is, I went over the books this afternoon and, though I hate to admit my own carelessness, it does appear they may be shorting you on the percentages—leastways in comparison with the other tenants. They’re not giving much more than the others and, as you so noted, my lord, the Home farm is in much better condition.” Tunning had hit his stride now and his words trotted out easily. “Now, I do take the blame for not keeping a tighter rein on things here and of course, if your lordship thinks I should be replaced, I understand.” He spread his hands deprecatingly. “My only defense is the lack of interest exhibited by Sir Jeremy. I guess I slid into assuming that was a common attitude with the gentry. But now I have your measure, my lord, and I guarantee I’ll not be so remiss again!”

Elizabeth laughed silently and turned to St. Ryne to share the joke with him only to find him frowning. Surely he saw through this man!

“I don’t blame you, Tunning. This estate has been mismanaged for quite some time, and I expect it is galling to a man such as yourself to lack the authority to rectify the situation. Nonetheless, the Home farm is paying more than the others, and I’d hate to lose the revenues. This is not a matter to be decided lightly.”

“I concede that, my lord,” Tunning returned grudgingly.

“I am returning to London on the morrow. When I return, we may discuss the situation further.”

“Oh, are you, my lord?”

Elizabeth thought she detected a note of eagerness in Tunning's voice.

“Yes, though the Viscountess will be staying on to oversee the restoration of the manor house. Oh, blast, I forgot to ring for Atheridge. Would you care for a glass of port, Tunning?”

“Aye, that I would.”

“Well, pull up a chair over here.”

Tunning scuttled to obey, his mind churning over the Viscount’s attitude. He was certainly a cautious young buck, more than he’d anticipated, albeit one he remained confident he could manipulate to advantage.

A soft rap on the door preceded Atheridge’s entrance.

“Bring us some port, Atheridge, and some Madeira for the Viscountess,” requested St. Ryne.

“Very good, my lord.”

“Oh, and Atheridge,” St. Ryne added, studiously avoiding trading looks with Elizabeth, “this room is a bit drafty, please have the Viscountess’s shawl fetched.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Elizabeth cast St. Ryne a fulminating glance though truly she did feel chilled, but not, she suspected, from the air. Tunning, now sitting at ease by the desk had cast more than one assessing look in her direction, and she did not care for his intense consideration.

“Now, Tunning, as I said, I will be returning to London tomorrow. While I am gone, various tradesmen and craftsmen will be coming to Larchside. The Viscountess will be directing these worthies in the decorating and restoration of the manor. It will be your responsibility to keep an accounting and see these tradesmen are paid. It will also be yours to see that the estate is not unduly charged for the services received. In fact all bills, whether for Larchside or for the Viscountess’s personal fripperies, shall be directed to you.”

His words set Elizabeth’s teeth on edge. Yes, he had threatened to take such an action, but Elizabeth had taken it for only that, a threat. She looked over at St. Ryne to note him regarding her steadily, a smug smile on his face.

“Surely, St. Ryne, you would not wish to burden Mr. Tunning with such trivialities. I take it from your conversation there are several farms that need his close attention if they are to be made profitable. I should be quite desolate if I hampered his efforts in that direction.”

Atheridge’s return with the refreshments, followed by Mrs. Atheridge bearing her shawl, interrupted her. Elizabeth accepted the shawl with ill grace and draped it around her loosely. She rose to pour, nodding a dismissal to the Atheridges.

St. Ryne had difficulty deciding which shone more brightly in the light of the candelabrum by the tray: the cleaned crystal wineglasses or Elizabeth. He sucked in his breath as she bent to pick up another glass. The hussy was near to falling out of her dress and refused to adequately cover herself with the shawl. He watched through hooded eyes as she first served Tunning then handed him a glass.

Elizabeth smiled sardonically at him then turned to find Tunning devouring her silhouette with avid eyes. A shuttered expression descended over her features. She returned to the serving tray to pick up her glass, casually drawing the end of the shawl over her shoulder and tossing it across her front to drape the other shoulder. She turned to face St. Ryne, the light of the candles haloing her hair. She gracefully lifted the glass to her lips, savoring the taste of the sweet wine.

“As I was saying, St. Ryne,” she said, returning to her chair, “I am perfectly capable of overseeing the affairs of the manor.”

“Nonsense, my dear. We both know how you lack a proper understanding as to the value of money,” St. Ryne returned smoothly. "I have on two occasions witnessed this unfortunate deficit in your education. I must insist Mr. Tunning handle the accounts.”

Tunning looked from the Viscount to his wife and back, secretly crowing. “Now, my lady, don’t fret yourself. It is no burden at all. Accounts are my business, so to speak.”

Yes, I’ll wager they are, Elizabeth thought to herself. She did not like that self-satisfied expression on his face. Before St. Ryne returned she vowed she’d closely examine his account books. If one farm could be as well maintained as they inferred, it struck her as odd that all were not. Then there was the matter of Mrs. Atheridge’s petticoats. There was something about this man she could not like. His eyes held a sneaky shrewdness. She watched him fidget with his ornate watch chain. That, like the housekeeper’s petticoats, was not in keeping with his position.

Elizabeth watched him exchange a masculine, patronizing look with her husband at her expense. It was with sheer determination that she fought an impulse to fly into anger and properly rake him down.

“I’ll come by each afternoon to advise her ladyship. I’ll see she’s not gulled. I’ll also arrange for servants.”

“I prefer to choose my own.” Her voice was rigid, coming out as it did through clenched teeth.

“Well, no offense my lady, but being new in these parts, you’d do well to be advised by me.” He leaned back in his chair and spoke like a grand gentleman dispensing favors. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll arrange that all interviews be scheduled when we have our meeting in the afternoon so you can sit in and give your opinion, too.”

‘What?” She could not fathom this man’s boundless audacity.

“He has a point, my dear,” St. Ryne interrupted smoothly, hoping to squelch the storm he saw brewing in her gold eyes. Damn the man. Though it was his intention to teach his willful wife a lesson by leaving the accounts in Tunning’s hands, he had not meant for this fellow to infer that she was a helpless ninny hammer. He also did not care for his patronizing manner. Then a thought occurred to him, and perhaps it would be another good lesson for Elizabeth.

“Justin!”

Tunning observed the soundless exchange between the Viscount and his wife. There seemed to be little love lost between the two. He’d tell the Atheridges not to fear losing their sweet deal just yet, particularly if he was able to get rid of the meddlesome Humphries who noticed too much and asked too many questions. He was a trifle annoyed that the Viscount would not allow himself to be immediately led by him; however, he considered himself a patient man and it did appear the Viscount was disposed to defer to him, a circumstance that suited Tom Tunning perfectly.

He looked at the Viscountess. There was a morsel that suited him perfectly, too. Highborn ladies were often known to participate in a dalliance with those of other classes, if for no other reason than to cuckold their husbands. If the Viscount was to make a habit of long absences away from his bride, well, Tom Tunning would just have to see what he could do to soothe the poor Viscountess’s frustrations. Several images came to his mind of a nude and writhing young woman lying beneath him. Atheridge said they slept apart on their wedding night, too.

Elizabeth did not miss the smug and hungry look on Tunning’s face and she felt a warm blush suffuse her cheeks. How dare St. Ryne put her in this position!

Elizabeth and Tunning were so caught in their own thoughts that they were startled when they realized St. Ryne was again speaking to them.

“—looks fool you. Though the Viscountess may not have a head for money, she is an intelligent woman. I trust her to choose servants wisely and furthermore, should a problem arise with which you would consult me, please speak to her before sending any messages to London. I trust her to handle even the knottiest problem.”

Elizabeth turned to St. Ryne in surprise.

Tunning grinned fatuously. “Don’t you worry, my lord, I’m sure we’ll get along famously.”

Elizabeth doubted that but kept her lips clamped shut as she contemplated St. Ryne’s last statement.

“I have no doubt of it,” her husband said, rising from his chair. “Thank you for coming, Tunning. I’ll see you on my return.”

At that, Tunning had no choice but to rise also, make his bows, and leave.

Elizabeth looked questioningly at St. Ryne, a slight look of wonder and openness on her face. Suddenly there were so many questions tumbling around in. her mind waiting to be voiced. Unfortunately they faded quickly as memories of the humiliations she’d suffered at his hands also came to mind. She closed her eyes, lifting her hand to her forehead as if to push away the confusion and clear her mind.

“If you will excuse me, Justin, I would retire. It has been, as you stated earlier, a long day.”

“Of course, my dear,” he said, offering his arm to walk her to the door. Pointedly she ignored his gesture, murmured a goodnight, and brushed past him.

St. Ryne crossed to the tray to refill his glass. He had seen her open, avid look and had hoped she was ready to open up to him. Disastrously, he also saw it fade to be replaced by a cool aloofness. Perhaps he was making it too difficult for her to be open with him. That was one of the reasons he was returning to London. Branstoke was correct. He was walking a tightrope, but there was no turning back.





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