How the Game Is Played (14/141)

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Nik was an indifferent billiards player at best. He’d had some practice at carom billiards, but in the pocket billiards variant that Justin played, Nik couldn’t even remember which maneuvers scored how many points without a refresher. Justin, Secretary Haskill, and both Laverts were keen to play. “To two hundred points, my lord?” Mrs. Lavert asked, selecting a cue stick.

“Certainly. Ten marks a point as usual?” Justin said, blandly.

The Laverts and Secretary Haskill agreed without hesitation. Nik did his best not to look appalled.

“We’ll just watch,” Lady Dalsterly said firmly, leading her great-granddaughter to seats along the wall. A disappointed Miss Dalsterly whispered something to her elder relation.

“We can play in teams,” Justin offered.

“That’s quite all right, my lord.” Lady Dalsterly answered, polite, firm, and unmoved by her descendant’s pleading look. Mrs. Haskill likewise declined.

“Would you like to alternate games?” Secretary Haskill asked Nik.

“Oh no.” Nik gave an easy smile that belied his relief. “Keeping three lovely ladies company while watching others do all the hard work is far more my style.”

Justin chuckled. “Suit yourself.” The four players divided among Justin’s two billiards tables, winners to play winners and losers to play losers after the first game. Nik amused himself bantering and flirting with the three women, although he reserved his most outrageous lines for the elderly Lady Dalsterly, who took them as seriously as he offered them.

Miss Dalsterly watched the game – or more accurately, Lord Comfrey – with transparent longing. Everyone politely pretended not to notice. Nik wasn’t sure whether he wanted to wish her luck, offer his condolences, or warn her off. It was certainly no hardship to watch Justin move gracefully about the billiard table, extending his tall, powerful frame to full length for the occasional shot. As with everything he put his mind to, Justin played well. Between turns, he would laugh and tease his guests, but his attitude when making a shot was concentrated and intent. He won his first two games, at which point Lady Dalsterly took the opportunity of the hour and the timing to excuse herself and her great-granddaughter, leaving only Nik and Mrs. Haskill remaining on the sidelines.

Mrs. Haskill, a stout fortyish woman with handsome Newlanture features and a pleasantly rounded figure, had consumed enough wine to shed her veneer of stuffy reserve. She proved an attentive companion when she had Nik to herself, full of interested inquiries about how his Blessing worked, as well as cheerfully returning his banter. After a couple more games, her husband begged off from further play to take his wife home.

“But it’s not even eleven-thirty yet,” Mr. Lavert protested. “Surely you can stay for another game?”

“We can’t leave now, while Lord Comfrey still has our marks,” Mrs. Lavert added.

They’re not your marks any more, Nikola thought. They’re his. That’s how it works.

“I don’t mind watching, Brennan,” Mrs. Haskill said diffidently. But Secretary Haskill resisted all entreaties and took his wife’s arm to depart.

You’re not leaving, are you, Lord Nikola?” Justin asked, with a small smile.

Nik could see where this was leading. He could leave, or he could get roped into playing a game he had little skill for at stakes he could not afford. With the other bystanders and their fourth player gone, his excuse for sitting on the sidelines had evaporated. He tried anyway. “I’ll stay for the company, but I don’t care to play.”

“Oh, come now, Lord Nikola,” Mrs. Lavert wheedled. “It’s easy. You don’t want to make one of us sit out while only two can play, do you?”

Yes, I do. “I’m afraid I’ve not the funds on me to match your stakes. If you’d care to play without the wager…?”

“Then how would we recoup our losses?” Mr. Lavert said with a grin.

“It’s no fun if there’s nothing at stake,” Mrs. Lavert added.

“Oh, don’t trouble yourself over that, Lord Nikola,” Justin said airily. “I’ll cover your wagers.”

The Laverts looked pleased by this solution. “Very generous of you, Lord Comfrey,” the husband said.

Nikola gritted his teeth. I don’t need your charity, Justin. But there was no graceful way to escape it after that, so he acquiesced with as much good humor as he could muster.

The following games went much as he’d expected. Nikola tried not to keep track of how much of Justin’s money he was losing, although he had the keen sense that it was more than enough to offset Justin’s own winnings, since they paid by the point instead of the game. Now and again, he would catch Justin watching him as he made a shot. At one point, Justin laid a hand on Nik’s shoulder as he was eyeing his cue ball down the length of the stick. “You’re too tense, Lord Nikola,” he murmured. “Relax.” He loosened the tight grip of Nik’s right hand on the cue stick, and leaned close to reposition Nik’s left hand lightly on the table, before settling the cue’s tip between Nik’s knuckles again, then stepped back. “Breathe.”

Nik closed his eyes and inhaled, the tense line of his mouth relaxing, breathing in the faint musk of Justin’s cologne, feeling the lingering warmth where their bodies had touched. Justin gave his shoulder a reassuring pat. Nik opened his eyes and took the shot. His cue ball struck the red object ball, ricocheted it into a corner pocket at the opposite side, then continued on to glance against Lavert’s cue ball. Lavert’s rolled into the side pocket, while Nikola’s rolled slowly to the far corner. It poised on the brink for a moment, and toppled in. All three balls struck in the correct order and pocketed, for the maximum score on a single shot. “Oh, well done,” Lavert said in appreciation.

“See?” Justin gave Nik a smile as he straightened. “Not so hard.”

“Anyone can get lucky,” Nikola retorted. But he felt better nonetheless.

At midnight, Justin had the servants refill the decanter of wine and bring up a plate of bite-sized pastries for snacks, before dismissing them to their beds: “I’ll show my guests out when they depart.”

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