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There was nothing quite as exhilarating as a man who knew how to handle his stick. Mercedes Lockhart put an eye to the discreet peephole for a second glimpse, separate trills of excitement and anxiety vibrating through her. Rumour was right, he did have an amazing crack.
Outside in the billiards hall, that crack would sound like a cannon. But here in the soundproof peeping room, she could only watch and worry about what his presence in her father's club meant.
There's someone I want you to meet. The phrase rang through her head for the hundredth time. When fathers said that to their daughters it usually meant one thing: a suitor. But those fathers weren't billiards great Allen Lockhart. He was more likely to bring home a gem-studded cue than a suitor. Perhaps that was the reason she'd been so surprised by the summons. 'Come down to the club, there's someone I want you to watch,' he'd said. It had been a long time since he'd needed her in that way. She didn't dare refuse. So, here she was, ensconced in the 'viewing room', eye riveted to the peephole, taking in the player at table three.
He was a man she'd have noticed even without her father's regard. Most women would. He was well built; broad shouldered and lean hipped, an observation made inescapable by the fact he was playing with his coat off. At the moment, he was bent at the waist and levelling his cue for the next shot, a posture that offered her a silhouette of trim waist and tautly curved buttock, framed by muscled thighs that tensed ever so slightly beneath the tight fawn of his breeches.
Her eyes roamed upwards to the strong forearms displayed tan against the rolled back cuffs of his white shirtsleeves, to the taper of lean fingers forming a bridge through which his cue stick slid effortlessly, expertly as he made his shot.
He straightened and turned in her direction, accepting congratulations on the shot. He pushed back the blond hair that had fallen over his face. Mercedes caught a glimpse of startling blue eyes; a deep shade of sapphire she could appreciate even at a distance. He was confident, not cocky in the way he accepted the congratulations of others. There was no doubt he handled his cue with ease, his playing strategy sound but straightforward, his use of the 'break' progressive and in line with the new style billiards was starting to take.
But Mercedes could see immediately there wasn't a lot of finesse in it. It was understandable. A player with his skill likely didn't see the need for finer machinations. That was something that could be improved upon. Mercedes halted her thoughts right there. Why? Why should she improve him? Is that what her father wanted her opinion for? What interest did the legendary Lockhart want with a handsome young billiards player? The anxiety that had plagued her trilled again. Was he a suitor for her? A protege for her father?
Neither option sat well with her. She had no intentions to marry although she was aware of her father's ambition for her to wed a title. It would be the final feather in his cap of self-made glory—Allen Lock-hart's daughter married to a peer of the realm! But she had other goals and neither a suitor nor a protege was among them.
Mercedes stepped back from the peephole and scribbled a short note to her father, who sat in the main room in plain sight. There was no skulking in private viewing chambers for him, she thought with no small amount of frustration. It hadn't always been like this: spying through peepholes and pretending she didn't exist. It used to be that she had the run of the place. But she'd grown up and it was no longer seemly or prudent, as past events had proven, for her to roam the halls of Lockhart's Billiards Club, no matter how elegant the setting or how skilled the player. The bottom line was that men didn't like to be beaten by a woman. Thus had ended her career of playing in public. For now.
This was why the thought of a protege met with her disapproval. If there was to be one, it should be her. She'd honed her own skill at her father's side. When she'd shown some aptitude for the game, he'd taught her to play as only a professional can. She'd learned his secrets and developed her own until she was on par with the best. Then she'd committed the crime of turning seventeen and her freedoms had been curtailed; in part by society and in part by her own headstrong judgement.
It was something of a curse that the one thing she was good at—no, not merely good at, excellent at—was a talent she did not get to display. These days she practised for herself, alone in the privacy of their home and she waited, forever ready if the chance to prove herself came her way.
Mercedes folded the note and sent it out to her father. She bent her eye to the peephole one last time, a thought occurring to her as she watched the man pot his final ball. Maybe he was her chance. Her earlier excitement started to hum again. She'd been waiting five years for her opportunity, alert for any possibility. In all that time, she'd never thought her chance would come in the form of a handsome Englishman—she'd had her fill of those. But if her father could use him, perhaps she could too.
Slow down, she cautioned herself. A good gambler always assessed the risk and there was risk here. If her father intended him to be a protege and she assisted with that, she could effectively cut herself out of the picture altogether. She would have to go carefully. On the other hand, it would be a chance to show her father what she could do in a situation where he would be unable to deny her talent.
It was a venture that could see her exiled or elevated, but she was nothing if not her father's daughter; a gambler at heart who knew the risks and rules of any engagement and chose to play anyway.
Gamblers of any successful repute generally acknowledged the secret to luck resided in knowing three things: the rules, the stakes and when to quit. No one knew this better than English billiards legend, Allen Lockhart. He couldn't remember a time when the stakes hadn't been high—they always were when all one had to risk was a reputation. As for quitting—if there was a time to quit, he hadn't discovered it yet, which was why the usual ritual of a brandy with long-time friend and partner, Kendall Carlisle, did not fill him with the usual satisfaction on this dreary March afternoon.
Normally this time of day was his favourite. It was a time when he could sit back in one of the club's deep chairs and savour his domain. His domain. Carlisle managed the place, but it had been his billiards money that had built this and more.
Across from him, oblivious to his restless observations, Carlisle took a swallow of brandy followed by a contented sigh. 'This is the life, Allen. Not bad for two junior boot boys.'
Allen smiled in response. It was a well-loved reminiscence of his. The two of them had done well over the years kowtowing to the rich gentlemen in the subscription rooms of Bath for shillings. They'd watched and they'd learned, eventually establishing their own small empire. Now they were the rich gentlemen. Now they ran the subscription rooms, not in Bath, but in more lucrative Brighton. They earned much more than shillings from customers these days. At the age of forty-seven, Allen Lockhart took great pride in having used the rules of billiards to rise above his poor beginnings.
From their grouping of chairs by the fire, Allen could hear the quiet snick of ivory balls on baize, the unmistakable sounds of lazy-afternoon billiard games going on in the room beyond him. Later in the evening, the club would be crowded with officers and gentlemen, the tables loud with the intensity of money games.
Allen felt his hand twitch in anticipation of the games to come. He didn't play in public often anymore, not wanting to tarnish his image by making himself vulnerable to defeat. A legend couldn't be beaten too often without damaging the illusion of being untouchable. But the desire was still there. Billiards was in his blood. He was the legendary Allen Lockhart, after all. He'd built this club on his fame. People came here to play, of course, but also to see him. It wasn't enough to be good at billiards; one also had to be a showman.
He knew the power of a well-placed word here, a timely stroke tip there. It was heady stuff to think people would talk about a single sentence from him for months in London. 'Lockhart says you have to hit the ball from the side' or 'Lockhart recommends African ivory for balls'. But lately, the usual thrill had faded. Such excitement had become de rigueur. He was restless.
The resounding crack of a hard break shattered the laconic atmosphere of the room. Allen briefly acknowledged it with a swift glance towards table three where a young officer played before turning back to Kendall. 'I hope you're coming up to the house tomorrow for the party.'
'I wouldn't miss it. I'm looking forward to seeing the new table.' Carlisle raised his glass in a toast. 'I hear Thurston has outdone himself this time.'
Lockhart grinned broadly like a proud first-time father. 'Slate tables with rubber bumpers are the way of the future. They're fast, Kendall.' Another loud break from table three interrupted. This time Lockhart spared the table more than a passing glance. 'Good Lord, that lad's got some power.' He chanced a look in the direction of the secret viewing room and wondered what Mercedes would make of it. Kendall hadn't lied when he'd said the lad could play.
Their chairs were angled to take in the expanse of the elegant club if they chose. Both men fell silent, focusing on the game, looking out into the well-appointed billiards floor. Long windows let in enormous amounts of light for quality shots. Subtle forest-green wallpapering with matching floor-to-ceiling curtains gave the room the air of a sophisticated drawing room. This was no mean gambling hall. This was a place meant to invite a higher class of gentleman to engage in the noble sport of billiards and right now table three was heavily engaged.
The 'lad' in question was not a boy at all, but a blond-haired officer with the broad-shouldered build of a handsomely put-together man. A confident man too, Lockhart noted. Effortless charm and affability poured off him as he potted the third ball and proceeded to run the table. Affable and yet without any feigned humility.
'He reminds me of you back in our salad days,' Carlisle murmured after the officer made a particularly difficult corner shot.
'How old do you think he is?' Kendall would know. Information gathering was Kendall's gift. His own was using it. The combined talent had been invaluable to them both over the years.
'Mid-twenties. He's been in a few times. His name's Barrington. Captain Barrington,' Kendall supplied as Lockhart had known he would.
At that age, he and Kendall had been living on the road, Lockhart thought wistfully. They'd played any money game they could find in just about every assembly hall between Manchester and London. They'd run just about every 'angle' too—plucking peacocks, two friends and a stranger and a hundred more.
'He's bought a subscription,' Kendall volunteered.
'On half-pay?' Any officer in town these days with time for billiards was on half-pay. But on that salary, a subscription to his fine establishment was a luxury unless one had other resources.
Kendall shrugged. 'I cut him a fair deal. He's good for business. People like to play him.'
'For a while.' Lockhart shrugged. Barrington would have to be managed. If he was too good, players would tire of getting beaten and that would be just as bad for business. He didn't want that to happen too quickly.
'With the big championship coming up in July, I thought he might generate some additional interest,' Carlisle began, but Lockhart's mind was already steps ahead. Perhaps the Captain could be taught when to lose, perhaps he could be taught a lot of things. Carlisle was right. The young man could be very useful in the months leading up to the All England Billiards Championship. The old thrill began to course.
'Thinking about taking a protege?' Kendall joked.
'Maybe.' He was thinking about taking more than a protege. He was thinking about taking a trip. For what reason, he wasn't sure yet. Perhaps the urge was nothing more than a desire to walk down memory lane one more time and relive the nostalgia of the old days. Perhaps he wanted more? His intuition suggested his restlessness was more than nostalgic desire. There were bigger questions to answer. At forty-seven, did he still have it? Could the legend make a comeback or was the 'new' game beyond him?
'Is that all you're thinking?' He felt Kendall's shrewd gaze on him and kept his own eyes on the game. It would be best not to give too much away, even to his best friend, if this was going to work. A footman approached with a folded note. Ah, Mercedes had announced her verdict.
Lockhart rose, flicking a cursory glance at the simple content of Mercedes's note and made his excuses, careful to school his features. Kendall knew him too well. 'I've got to go and see about some business.' Then he paused as if an inspiration had struck suddenly. 'Invite our young man up to the house tomorrow night. It might be fun for him to see the new table and I want him to meet Mercedes.'
If he was going to try this madcap venture at all, he would need her help. She'd already consented to the first bit by coming down today. The hard part would be convincing her to try it all on. She could be deuced stubborn when she put her mind to it. With any luck, he wouldn't have to do the convincing. He'd leave that to a certain officer's good looks, extraordinary talent with a billiards cue and a little moonlit magic. He knew his daughter. If there was anything Mercedes couldn't resist it was a challenge.