Honor's Players
Author:Holly Newman

He that knows better how to tame a shrew, Now let him speak: 'tis charity to shew.

—Act III, Scene 3



A smile flickered on the Viscount St. Ryne’s lips as he approached the club. The bow window set had sighted him, and not all the gentlemen there managed to maintain the sanguine attitude deemed de rigueur for that location. He distinctly noted two viewing him with wide-open mouths rather resembling landed fish, he decided satisfactorily. He had judged his appearance would be tantamount to placing the cat among the pigeons; however, there was the little matter of a bet to collect. If truth be told, he was enjoying putting society on its ear by his inexplicable behavior. As blame had been assigned to the sun in Jamaica for his exploits, he doubted the island would be visited by many for a long while.

His smile broadened as he fairly skipped up the steps and clapped his hand on the shoulder of the Friday-faced porter who opened the door.

“What’s the long face for, my good man? A face like that could set a man off his drink,” he said over his shoulder, shrugging off his driving coat and handing it with his modish beaver to a hovering footman.

“Beg pardon, my lord,” the porter responded faintly. Was it just three weeks since his lordship had entered looking as black as a thundercloud? This new manner of his lordship was as alien to the porter’s mind as the black humor had been.

It was said his lordship recently tied the knot, so that might account. The porter shook his head mournfully. In his considerable experience, such action was not in keeping with a jovial countenance, as leg-shackled gentlemen were likely to be of morose or snappish demeanor.

“Well then, let’s see a smile.” St, Ryne turned to face him, his hands on his hips.

The porter was confused. Gentlemen were always taking queer starts. He viewed the Viscount’s request with a jaundiced eye; nevertheless he weakly opened his mouth in a carved wooden smile.

His endeavor was met with a shout of laughter. “A travesty! I can see I was mistaken. Resume your habitual frown; that smile would curdle milk.”

“Thank you, my lord,” murmured that worthy.

“Ah, St. Ryne, I thought that was you,” a measured, quiet voice floated down the stairs.

St. Ryne turned to the sound, his eyebrows raised in faint inquiry. A small laugh, like a rush of air escaped his lips on recognizing the gentleman at the top of the staircase. He mounted the stairs to his side.

“Well met, Branstoke.”

“Are we? I wonder,” he returned languidly, a speculative gleam in his eyes. “Questions are being raised as to the honesty of our bet.” They fell into step heading toward the card room. “I cannot tell you how boring it is to be the recipient of clumsy hints that we are in league. They sorely lack the proper subtlety and fineness to rise above the plebeian to be truly effective.”

St. Ryne’s lips twitched in appreciation. “How singular,” he murmured. “I imagined they would rather view me as being in league with the devil. Do they view you as one of her minions?”

“I am afraid the masses lack the poetic soul.”

St. Ryne laughed. Damn if he didn’t like this gentleman. There was an unaccounted depth to him and a wry sense of the absurd few would see.

“I must tell you I have a grievance with you, my friend.” Branstoke’s manner was conversational.

“Oh?”

“I’ll have you know you have spiked my game. I must say I knew it was your intention three weeks ago; however, you moved faster than I had accounted.”

“Really? Was it your intention to make a play for Lady Elizabeth?”

“Hardly.” Branstoke waved his quizzing glass casually before him. “I make it a habit to join only the entourages of unattainables. Since La Belle Helene is now removed from that category, I find I must retire from the ranks of her suitors. I considered remaining one of their number a while longer; however, I have noticed her eyes resting on me, weighing my suitability.” He shuddered slightly allowing the quizzing glass to fall back to rest against his chest. “I can think of few worse fates.”

A look of mock surprise crossed St. Ryne’s face. “Is not La Belle Helene a paragon?”

Sir James Branstoke shrugged. “So few are,” he murmured. He slid a glance at St. Ryne. “Totally unlike your own bride,” he continued blandly.

St. Ryne’s eyebrows rose nearly to his hairline in inquiry, but Branstoke only bowed slightly in his direction and wandered away. The Viscount stood in the doorway watching the enigmatic gentleman enter into conversation with others in the room until Freddy Shiperton, spying him standing there, hurried to his side.

“Justin, what are you doing here?” Freddy inquired sotto voce, glancing around furtively to see if any were near enough to hear.

“Really, Freddy, why do any of us come here? For cards, wine, and good company, of course.” He tucked his arm in Freddy’s and led him into the room. “Shall we start a game?”

“Dash it, Justin, you’re supposed to be on your honeymoon!”

“Yes, I know. What makes you believe I am not?” he returned affably, as he looked about the room, inclining his head in recognition of various acquaintances. “Do not look askance, old fellow,” he said, turning back to Freddy. “A honeymoon is merely a state of mind.”

A slightly slurred, unrecognizable voice came from a crowded table: “He must have killed her.” It was rapidly shushed by others.

Freddy scowled briefly before pulling his friend toward a slightly less populated corner of the room. “Dashed if I understand you, Justin. You were never taken to such queer turns.”

St. Ryne laughed. “Do not vex yourself. Come, let’s order a glass and we’ll toast my sweet, gentle bride.”

A look of startled horror captured poor Freddy’s face, causing St. Ryne to laugh louder as he signaled for a passing waiter.

The Viscount St. Ryne accepted with fortitude the plethora of jibes thrown his way when he came to collect his portion of the winnings he gained at his club as a result of his marriage to Lady Elizabeth Monweithe. Unfortunately, that fortitude began wearing thin and in the days that followed St. Ryne was alternately amused and irritated by the sly glances, innuendos, and jokes cast in his direction. Often he found himself wishing he could share with Elizabeth a passing joke or comment he overheard, his mind conjuring up the panoply of emotions that could cross her face along with her answering snubs and witticisms.

Such thoughts of her invariably brought to mind the kiss he’d stolen that rocked his senses while leaving her completely unmoved. Each time he remembered that scene, a niggling question pushed at a corner of his mind for more and more space. Had she truly been unmoved? Would it not, perhaps, been more in keeping for her to struggle against the kiss and rant and rave, calling down abuse upon his head? Instead, she’d played the role of ice maiden, out of keeping with her personality as it was known in the polite world. Yet how much of the picture presented to society was real and how much dissimulation? He had often noted a vulnerability unseen by others yet he persisted in acting like it did not exist.

He began to wonder if he had played the game differently, would he be in London now, a virtual exile from his own home and hearth? It slowly occurred to him that perhaps Elizabeth’s lack of response to his kiss stemmed from lack of experience. What occasion had any man to kiss her? He swore to himself as the idea loomed larger and larger in his mind, causing his good humor on arriving in London to dissolve slowly into studied politeness.

St. Ryne was not a man to easily admit to a mistake. These thoughts skittered in and out of his mind for days, played upon by the amused knowing glances cast his way by Sir James Branstoke. He would return his look with one of quelling hauteur that would only cause that gentleman to purse his lips slightly and nod. Afterward St. Ryne was left feeling the fool, a circumstance to which he was unaccustomed.

One evening at a select card party, after exchanging their dance of innuendos, St. Ryne approached Branstoke demanding to know what was plaguing his mind.

“My mind? My dear St. Ryne, what is in my mind would hardly plague a gnat,” he returned pleasantly, drawing his snuffbox out of his pocket. He studied its intricate design as he went on: “It is your mind which bears contagion.” He looked up at St. Ryne, flicking open the snuffbox with his thumb as he did so. “Would you care for a pinch?” he asked, extending the box in St. Ryne’s direction.

St. Ryne waved it away. “I find your meaning obscure.”

“And here I thought you such a downey fellow.” He shook his head doubtfully before taking a pinch of snuff himself. “Look to yourself.” He brushed a speck of snuff from his sleeve. “You are a man away from his new wife, yet I’d venture to wager she is not away from your thoughts. You have shown no notice of the lovelies who have thrown their kerchiefs your way and are becoming increasingly surly the longer you’re from her side. I understand it to be a serious disease, one perhaps best treated gently,” he suggested, replacing his snuffbox in his pocket.

St. Ryne laughed curtly. “There is much to what you say and don’t say. Unfortunately, the die has been cast.”

“Don’t be a fool, St. Ryne,” grated Branstoke, for the first time revealing any emotion besides boredom.

St. Ryne studied the man before him carefully. “You may be correct.”

Branstoke shrugged elegantly, his famous equanimity restored. “But permit me to divert your mind to another aspect of your play unfolding. First, I have a thirst which needs quenching. Will you join me?”

“Gladly.”

Branstoke led St. Ryne to a side table. “Have you noted where Tretherford’s interests lie now?”

St. Ryne shrugged. “He is not one I honor with my attention.”

“Ah, but you should take note, for it is delightfully in keeping with your play. I believe he and Lady Romella Wisgart, the widow of our piece, appear destined to wed. Now who do you suppose will get the fair Helene’s hand? Freddy, mayhap? They have been seen, you know, reciting poetry to one another.”

“Really? I once accused Freddy of turning poetic; however, that is doing it rather too brown.”

“Be thankful you have not been within earshot of their renditions,” Branstoke said drily. “It is like listening to a young debutante with a tin ear pushed to singing before company.”

“You know, Branstoke, you have a way with words that makes me laugh.”

“I’m glad, for such was my endeavor, my friend, such was my endeavor.”

St. Ryne looked at him quizzically then laughed again, causing several heads to turn inquiringly in their direction. Branstoke, as always, met the world with a bland smile.

Though irritated by Branstoke’s blithe words concerning his feelings for Elizabeth, being a basically honest man, St. Ryne was eventually forced to admit his reaction was part and parcel of his own growing attraction for his wife, an attraction which, quite curiously, appeared to be growing the longer he stayed away from her. After considerable thinking, he decided to return to Larchside on the morrow, determined to change the course of his wooing. The Taming of the Shrew was after all only a play, its characters little more than paper dolls and, as such, woefully deprived of the complexities of flesh-and-blood individuals.

He excused himself early from the select gathering so as to make arrangements for his departure. This time he would bring his valet, horses, and head groom. He wondered how well Elizabeth rode, already anticipating a few enjoyable canters across the fields.

To his surprise, his town house was ablaze with light. That was not like his butler. St. Ryne quickened his pace, taking the steps in front two at a time.

Predmore had been on the lookout for him, agitation plainly written across his features.

“Good God, man, what is it?” he asked, tearing off his greatcoat and flinging it on a hallway chair.

“It is the Countess, my lord.”

“My mother is here?”

“Yes, my lord, installed in the parlor. She arrived with the Earl shortly after you left and says she’s determined not to leave until she speaks to you. She is much distressed, my lord. She has already knocked over the Sevres tea service in her pacing, quite shattering it, and I am afraid the ebony and ormolu table by the fireplace will never be the same. I did contrive to remove other items I deemed fragile when we cleaned up the broken china.”

“Is that you, Justin? I thought I heard your voice.” Lady Alicia Harth, Countess of Seaverness, swept out of the parlor brandishing a newspaper in her hand. “What is the meaning of this?”

“It is nice to see you also, Mother.” He stepped close to her to kiss a heavily scented cheek.

His action set her back apace, yet she rallied quickly. “I’ll have none of your cozening ways! I came here for answers, not mealy-mouthed platitudes!”

“I understand from Predmore that Father is with you. Shall we join him?” he returned urbanely. He leaned close to her ear. “This is unlike you, Mother, to forget servants are present.”

Two high spots of color flared on Lady Alicia’s cheeks and with ill grace she allowed herself to be led back into the parlor.

St. Ryne had difficulty hiding a smile at the picture of his mother much on her dignity. He didn’t give a button for the servants; they’d seen and heard worse in rumor over the past few weeks. His words were meant to serve as a slight respite from the harangue his mother appeared intent on delivering and lending him a moment to gather his wits.

Leading his mother to the sofa, he then turned to the facing chair where his father was seated and extended his hand to his sire. “This is an unexpected pleasure, sir. I had thought you both firmly fixed in Paris for a few weeks more.”

The Earl of Seaverness looked up at his son, a light of amusement in his eyes. “Your mother would have us return. She suddenly discovered a desire for your company.”

With the snap of the latch as the footman slowly closed the door behind them, Lady Alicia once again launched into her diatribe.

“Are you not aware of the insult, the shame we have suffered as a result of your actions?”

“She has suffered,” amended the Earl.

The Countess ignored him. “I own I discounted the rumors of a betrothal when they reached my ears and said as much to anyone with the audacity to question me. But oh, the mortification to read of it in the Morning Gazette! I pushed and harried your father to return and put an end to such outlandishness only to find when I set foot on English soil that the deed was done almost a week past!”

St. Ryne sat down in the chair opposite his father. “Mother, I’m afraid you find me all at sea.”

“Wouldn’t mention sea to her, if I were you, my boy. They don’t get along.”

St. Ryne’s lips twitched as he offered a sideways thank you before continuing. “Prior to your departure for France you told to me that marriage was an event consummately to be desired. Your arguments spoke strongly of duty to the family. It was only my desire to please you that hurried my steps to the altar. "

From next to him came a snort of laughter. He studiously refrained from looking at his paternal parent for fear they would both start openly laughing.

Lady Alicia bristled. “Now see here, Justin, you know perfectly well what I meant. I have taken the trouble to introduce you to any number of eligible young ladies who would grace the Harth name. ”

St. Ryne studied his hands for a moment. “But I am more than a name, and sometimes I believe you forget that."

“Such impudence!” The Countess rose from her seat to pace the floor between the two gentlemen. “I shall never be able to show my face in polite company. The Shrew of London for a daughter-in-law! The humiliation!”

“Humiliation, Mother?” St. Ryne asked, his patience snapping. “Tell me, what exactly is wrong with my wife? Naught that I see. Is it because you did not choose her from your collection of simpering protégés? You’ll catch cold at that! And surely not even you can complain of her lineage—she is, after all, a daughter of an Earl.”

“Who’s been a friend of mine anytime these past thirty years,” his father interposed.

St. Ryne barely spared Seaverness a glance while his wife glared daggers at him.

“And as for being a shrew,” St. Ryne continued, “may I remind you that you are not the one to live with her, I am; and if I don’t consider her a shrew, then such arguments are a moot point.”

“But, Justin, how can you—”

“Enough.” He ran his hand through his hair and took a deep breath, aware of his own chaotic thoughts and emotions.

He sighed. “I regret my anger; however I now put you on notice. If I hear rumor of any aspersions cast upon my bride by you, you will henceforth be refused admittance to any home of mine.”

“He has got you there, my dear,” the Earl told his wife.

“Hush!” She then turned back to her son, her manner conciliating. St. Ryne eyed her warily.

“How did they do it, Justin?”

“Do what?”

“Force you to marry her. Did they manufacture a compromising position?"

St. Ryne ground his teeth in vexation. “I asked her of my own free will,” he said. “If she had refused me, however, I swear to you now I would have willingly compromised her to have her as my bride!” He flung himself out of his chair to stand by the window, staring with blind eyes out onto the shadowed street below.

The Earl whistled through his teeth. “That is a strong encomium, Alicia,” he said conversationally.

St. Ryne was shaken by the truth of his statement. Bile rose in his throat at the knowledge of his poor treatment toward his bride. Branstoke was correct. She was a paragon, a pearl past price, and he was in danger of so carelessly damaging her lustrous soul. He had to see her, show her his kind side. He wanted to learn to laugh and cry with her, to discover the nature of her hidden sorrows and yank them out by the roots, to love her and maybe someday be loved in return.

He turned to face his parents.

“Justin, I—” began his mother, only to be silenced by a wave of his hand.

“Since my return from Jamaica, I have been a damned fool.” He laughed deprecatingly. “The hot sun that shines in that region has been the catch-all for my sins. Perhaps the only truly intelligent action I have taken of late has been to marry Elizabeth. If you two will please excuse me, I must instruct my servants. I will be returning to my bride in the morning.”

His parents silently watched him leave, and then the Earl grabbed his Countess’s hand, pulling her over to sit on the arm of his chair. The Countess struggled briefly against him, her color rising in her cheeks in embarrassment before she relaxed and allowed herself to be so situated. She sat stiffly, only tentatively allowing herself to move her arm around her lord’s neck.

The Earl chuckled. Though he’d not tell her so, his Alicia and Lady Elizabeth were much alike. Both revealed depth only those close to them could plumb. He raised her hand to his lips, bestowing a kiss on her palm. She blushed and nestled closer.





St. Ryne pulled up his team. There was a marked change in Larchside, even from this distance. He studied the grounds and the house at the end of the long sweeping drive, a slow smile widening his mouth then leaping into his eyes. Obviously his Bess had not sat and sulked at his departure. The wide expanse of lawn had been scythed, shrubs had been trimmed, brambles uprooted, and ivy torn away from the windows allowing them to be cleaned, probably for the first time in five years. Now he was anxious to view what wonders she had wrought inside.

He urged his horses forward. He had not sent word of his imminent arrival, and his valet and groom were still an hour behind him. He was surprised when the front door flew open and a young man ran down the steps to stand stiffly, awaiting his approach. When he stopped his horses before the door, the young man bowed quickly then ran to their heads.

“Welcome home, my lord,” the young man said breathlessly. “I’m a footman here now.” He puffed himself up slightly.

St. Ryne raised his eyebrow then recognized the man as the one on the ladder in the dining room the day before his departure. He searched his brain for his name. “Thomas?” The young man’s face lit up with delight. “Thomas, do you think you could play groom to my horses for me? My groom will be here soon, but these beauties need attention now.”

“Me, my lord? Coo! There’s nothing I’d like better!” Excitement was writ large over the young man’s face as he stroked the neck of one of the pair. “I’ll do a good job, I swear to you!”

St. Ryne maintained an air of gravity. “Do you like horses, Thomas?”

“More than anything!”

“Hmm.” St. Ryne descended from the carriage and approached the man. “Better than being a footman?”

Uncertainty captured Thomas’s face. “Well, sir, I mean, my lord, being a footman ain’t bad, especially for my lady, but—”

St. Ryne laughed but when he spoke, his tone was sympathetic. “It’s not the same, though, is it?”

Thomas shook his head, then remembered himself. “No, my lord.”

“Don’t look so glum. My man Grigs is due here within the hour. Tell him I said you’re to have a trial.”

Thomas’s lean face lit up again like a beacon. “Thank you, my lord! I’d best get cracking. I don’t want Mr. Grigs’s first impression to be bad. Excuse me, my lord!”

St. Ryne watched him lead the horses away before he mounted the stairs. It suddenly occurred to him that his wife might not be pleased with his meddling in her disposition of servants. He shook his head ruefully, another sin to atone for.

It was his desire to change the direction of his relationship with Elizabeth, and he knew that it might not be an easy proposition. Nevertheless, he felt confident that his newly discovered love for his termagant wife would guide him to gentle wooing. It was as though the scales had fallen from his eyes and a blind man made to see. Though he had laughed at society for failing to see the parallels to William Shakespeare’s play, he was equally guilty of failing to see Elizabeth’s true nature. No, worse yet, of failing to act upon the gentleness and fragility he did glimpse.

He massaged his brow as he stepped into the hall, pondering his course of action. It was his nose that first alerted him to the extent of the changes within. The house smelled of fresh paint, polishing oils, and strong soap. He lowered his hand and looked around the hall, well satisfied. A smug expression, as if he were solely responsible, spread across his features. To an extent he felt he was, for he had taken to wife the woman who was capable of rendering such miracles in a short amount of time.

He spotted Atheridge coming out of the door under the stairs. “Atheridge! Where is my wife?”

“Oh, my lord! You startled me. We had no word of your coming.”

“I sent none. My wife, please?”

“In the library, my lord. Let me announce you.”

“In my own house? Hardly.” He strode down the hall to the library door, rapped once softly and before waiting for a response, walked into the room.