‘No, absolutely not,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘I’m too full to run—and not in these heels. It wouldn’t be a fair contest.’
In the light from the chandeliers his features didn’t look so hard, so at odds with each other, as he held her gaze. ‘If you keep those heels on, the disadvantage would be entirely mine.’
She felt her skin grow warm. ‘What about a game of snooker?’ she said quickly. She had spotted the table during yesterday’s brief exploration. ‘That shouldn’t be too strenuous.’
‘It’s actually a billiard table,’ he said as they walked into the wood-panelled room. ‘Billiards is a great game, but most people treat it like the dull cousin of snooker and pool.’
‘You mean like Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice?’
He shook his head. ‘No. Mr Collins was dull. Billiards is not. It’s simple to learn, but it punishes you far more than snooker or pool when it comes to the fundamentals.’
She bit her lip. ‘And that’s important, is it? Punishing yourself?’
‘Only in as much as it allows you to punish your opponent more,’ he said softly.
Their eyes met and then he handed her a cue.
‘Okay, then. The rules of the game: billiards is played with one red ball and two white cue balls...’
They agreed that the winner would be the first to reach a hundred points.
‘That sounds like a lot,’ she said slowly. ‘But okay...’
* * *
Forty minutes later, Frankie leaned back against the table, biting into her lip.
Arlo laid his cue down on the baize. ‘Frankie Fox,’ he said quietly. ‘Social media influencer and stone-cold, red-hot billiard player.’
She screwed up her face. ‘I was going to tell you, but—’
‘You thought you’d wipe the floor with me instead?’
Her mouth dried up as he walked slowly towards her.
‘No,’ she protested. ‘You just looked so sweet and serious when you were explaining everything. I couldn’t bring myself to stop you.’
‘Sweet?’ He blew out a breath and then he smiled. ‘That’s a new one. So, who taught you how to play?’
‘My brother Harry.’ She blinked. It was probably the first time she had spoken her brother’s name in more than eighteen months, and it scraped inside her mouth. Fixing a smile to her face, she continued, ‘The pub down the road from where he lived at university had a billiard table. If it’s any consolation, I used to beat him and all his friends too.’
Sighing, Arlo shook his head. ‘I suppose I should be grateful we didn’t play for money.’
‘I don’t want your money—’
He was standing so close she could feel his warm breath, could see the metallic gleam and the urgency in his eyes.
‘What do you want?’ he said slowly.
It was a simple question. The answer was not.
She swallowed, shifted, transfixed by the clashing arcs and clefts of his features. It was like looking at a topographic map, and she wondered what would happen if she ran her finger along one of the lines.
Where would it lead her?
Her body was tingling, her heart hammering inside her chest. Everything looked and felt different—more there, more sensuous. The faint scent of woodsmoke...the billiard table pressing into her thighs...the shimmering chandeliers...
Maybe it was the wine, she thought. But she knew that it wasn’t, and she felt something stir low down.