This is kind of late in the day, but fear not, I have not forgotten everyone’s favorite weekly feature: Wicked Wednesday. I would have posted sooner, but my husband is out of school and we went to the movies this morning (which I definitely plan to blog about–tomorrow).
But for today, Alex and Caro are about to play a round of pall mall.
To set this scene I should give you some brief information. In his plan to woo Caroline, Alex has invited her to his house to play lawn chess–her favorite game.
Unfortunately, Alex misunderstood what game she liked. It wasn’t lawn chess, but lawn chess–where the board is a huge wooden platform and the pieces are life-size. To salvage the afternoon, Lady Watson (Regina Banks) says that she’s instructed a footman to set up a pall mall course and with her parting words, reminds Alex to be a gentlemen and allow Caroline to use the pink mallet if she so wishes.
And thus begins their game of pall mall:
“What was it your mother said about the pink one?” she asked, reaching out and wrapping her fingers around the handle of the pink mallet.
Instinctively, his hand flew to hers and covered it. The feel of her warm hand under his sent a jolt of desire from his fingers and palm straight to his groin. With a silent curse, he forced himself to let go of her hand. “Go ahead,” he said irritably. Nearly everyone else he knew had heard the story. Why not her, too?
She snatched the pink mallet from the rack and turned it over in her hands. She blinked up at him, her lips twitching. “Why is your name carved into the handle?” The way she was staring at him made his insides uneasy.
He ran his hand through his hair. “It’s a long story.”
She fingered the four letters permanently engraved into the handle of the pink mallet. “I’ve got all day.”
Sighing, he met her gaze straight on. “As you can guess by my mother’s laughter and my earlier groans, this is not a game I enjoy. To say I loathe this game would not be an untrue statement. The reason I do not enjoy this game is partially due to the lack of thinking that goes into playing it. The other reason is, uh, to be honest, I don’t stand a chance at winning.”
“You mean you only like to play games you’re sure you can win?” she interrupted. Her lips stretched into the biggest smile he’d ever seen.
“Doesn’t everyone?” he countered, returning her grin.
“I suppose so,” she agreed. “But that does not tell me how your name found a permanent home on the handle of the pink mallet.”
His face grew warm—hot even. “The rules of the game say you have to hit the ball with the mallet and send it through all the hoops in the least amount of strokes. While the rest of my family can pass through all ten of the iron hoops with scores between forty and fifty strokes each, I usually average about a hundred.” Heedless to his face burning in a way that might suggest it was being licked by flames, he stared at Caroline. She clapped a petite hand over her mouth, failing miserably to keep her laughter silent. He shrugged. In for a penny, in for a pound. “As it is, due to my lack of talent at the game, one of my brothers—I’ve still not determined which—decided because I play like a member of the fairer sex, I should have to play with a mallet painted a color suited for a lady. Since Weenie had a fondness for the red one, that only left the pink one available for them to carve my name into.”
Caroline was no longer able to stifle her laughter with her hand and peals of that happy noise filled the air.
He shook his head. “And yes, everyone has insisted I play with it every time Mother drags us out here to play. And yes, I’ve been asked by many guests who’ve come to house parties as to how my name ended up etched into that mallet.”
“Oh, Alex,” she gasped between bursts of laughter. “I’m sorry to laugh at you. It’s just hard to picture all that. Well, not really since you’re such a nice man. I’d already realized you’d do anything for those you loved. Even play with a pink mallet if they insisted on it. It’s just a humorous story, that’s all.”
And just then, in the span of one second, all the embarrassment surrounding that ridiculous pink mallet and all the emasculating innuendo that went along with it dissolved. She was right. He’d only played with that ridiculous thing to humor his family. They would have never carved his name into it just to be cruel. But only his family knew that. Everyone else who’d seen the mallet had openly questioned his masculinity, but not Caroline. No, she’d seen what the others couldn’t. And for some reason, knowing she could see that unsettled him.
“All right,” he said raggedly. “Are we going to play or admire the game pieces?”
“Let’s play.” She put the pink mallet back on the rack. “I know you said you always play with the pink one, but if you could pick a color, which would it be?”
“Green,” he said without delay, reaching out to snatch the green mallet from the rack.
“How shocking,” she muttered as he picked up the green ball. “I’ll take blue.”
He handed her the blue mallet. Then with the end of his green mallet, he rolled the blue ball off the rack for her. “All right, now as I said, the object is to hit your ball through all the iron hoops with the least amount of strokes.”
He scoffed. “It’s not as easy as it sounds.”
“All right. Who goes first?”
“You can.” He looked around to locate the first hoop. When he found it, he pointed to a patch of grass near a giant tree. “Let’s go over there. That’s where we’ll start.”
“Brilliant. Perhaps while we play we can discuss your experiment. I don’t think this game takes as much thinking as chess does,” she said.
He groaned. “Caroline, let’s not.”
“Why not?” She abruptly stopped her steps.
“I thought we would just have a good time together,” he said hastily.
“And not speak of science at all?” Her eyes were huge.
He chuckled. “I’m going to make an honest attempt at trying to make it through an hour without doing so, yes.”
“Good gracious, people really can change,” she muttered. “All right, fine. But after we’re done with this game, we’re talking about that experiment.”
His jaw clenched. He hated it when she brought up his made-up experiment almost as much as he hated playing pall mall. Every time she referred to his experiment, panic seized him. What if she put the pieces together? What if he accidentally slipped up and said something he shouldn’t? He couldn’t let her continue to talk about his experiment. “Fine. After the game we’ll talk about our campaign.”
“Campaign?” she repeated. “I thought it was an experiment.”
“It’s not. You should know that,” he replied.
She shrugged. “I know. But Marcus told you to think of it as an experiment. And I must say, I rather like thinking of it that way, too.”
“Well, think of it however you wish, but it’s not an experiment. It’s a campaign, and I’d prefer if you called it that.”
She turned to look at him and he glanced away. He was such a cad. Not only was he treating his courtship with her as an experiment, but now he was taking her fun away because he was afraid of accidentally exposing himself.
“Fine. A campaign it is,” she said dully.
“Thank you. I promise before you go home this afternoon we’ll spend at least half an hour speaking of nothing but that.”
“I’m going to hold you to it,” she said.
“I bet you will.”
They walked over to the grass he’d pointed to and she carelessly dropped her ball to the ground. Standing next to her ball, she swung the mallet back so far she almost knocked herself in the head with the heavy chunk of wood on the end. Then she brought it forward with a swing that would have been more appropriate for a links course. The mallet hit the underside of the ball and sent it straight up into the air.
Caroline shrieked and brought her arms up to cover her face as the ball flew back down to earth only ten inches from where it was originally placed.
“Congratulations, Caroline,” Alex said smartly. “You’re ten inches closer to the hoop!”
She made a face at him and he chuckled.
Alex dropped his ball to the ground in the same place she’d started and brought his mallet back only about ten inches or so. Lightly swinging the mallet forward, he tapped the ball and sent it rolling straight ahead. His ball rolled smack into hers, but because it hadn’t been a hard hit, his ball stopped and rolled back about two inches.
“Oh congratulations, Alex,” Caroline said sarcastically. “Your ball is a whole eight inches closer to the hoop.”
“It would have gone further had yours not been in the way,” he returned with a teasing grin.
“Excuses, excuses.” She walked up to their balls with him. “Who goes now?”
“You do,” he said. “We always go in the same order, even if there’s a gap.”
“Oh.” She blinked at the balls that were no more than two inches apart.
He bit back a smile. The head of the mallet was about four inches long, the only way she’d be able to hit that ball was if she either hit it to the side, knocking it off course, or turned her mallet to the side and hit it with the side of the mallet, which would probably only make it roll a half inch away. “Your turn,” he prompted.
She sighed and leaned down to pick up her ball.
“Don’t,” he commanded more harshly than he meant, stepping backward. “It’s against the rules to move your ball.” Not to mention that when she’d leaned down, her shoulder had unintentionally, but still seductively, brushed the fall of his pants.
“What should I do?”
“Put your stick between the two balls and give it a flick with your wrist,” he suggested, feeling grateful nobody else was here to hear him say those words. There were too many ways that sentence could be misconstrued.
She angled her mallet sideways between their balls and hit hers just far enough to get it out of the direct path of his.
“Good work,” he said approvingly as he strode up to his ball. He swung and hit it, sending it about eighteen inches in front of him.
“Nice shot,” she said with a look on her face he couldn’t interpret.
“Thank you,” he said tentatively. “It’s your turn.”
She walked up to her ball and got in position to club it again. “What are you doing?” she squealed as his hands descended on her.
“Helping you,” he murmured in her ear. Covering her hands with his, he stood as close to her as he dared.
“Where did your mother go?”
He froze. “She probably went to check on my father. She’ll be back shortly. Don’t worry, I won’t do anything I oughtn’t.”
“I know,” she said with a swallow.
“Now, the problem is you’re trying to hit it for all it’s worth. That won’t work with pall mall. It’s more about tapping the ball. Just bring it back this far—” he pulled their arms back together until the mallet was only about a foot from the ball— “then, smoothly bring the mallet forward. All right, let’s try it for real this time.”
She nodded and let him help her move her arms back, then swung forward. The ball rolled about three feet. “Did you see that, Alex?” she squealed, his arms still wrapped around her.
“Yes. I might wear spectacles, but I can see,” he teased, fruitlessly willing himself to let go of her.
“Your turn.” She twisted in his arms, presumably to get free.
He let her go. “Right,” he clipped. He walked to his ball and knocked it a good twelve inches.
Paying him and his poor playing no mind, Caroline took her turn and without his help, hit her blue ball so well he had to take a second glance to make sure it had in fact gone through the hoop. Hell’s afire, she truly was a natural.
In less than twenty minutes, Alex crossed through the first hoop and Caroline’s ball sailed through the fifth. They’d gotten in a habit of yelling to the other when they’d finished with their turn so the other could go. More than once, Alex had contemplated picking up his ball and throwing it further ahead when she wasn’t looking. But he’d never cheated at a game before and he wasn’t going to start with pall mall!
Alex stood with his mallet poised behind his ball, waiting for Caroline to scream it was his turn. Instead, her words came out sounding a bit different. Usually she said, “Your turn.” But this time she said, “Wait a second, Alex. I’m going to help you.”
His lips twisted into a snarl. There was only one thing worse than cheating: getting help. He swallowed and swung his mallet back. He didn’t care if he hit the ball in a way that would send it backward. He just wanted to hurry and hit it before she got here to “help” him. Staring down at the ball, he brought his mallet forward to hit his ball when suddenly a purple slipper came into view and settled on his ball.
“What are you doing?” she demanded, hands on her hips.
“Taking my turn. Now, if you’d remove your dainty slipper, I’ll get on with it.”
“Not so fast.” She grabbed him by the lapels. “I said I was going to help you. Didn’t you hear me?”
“Yes. But I don’t want your help, so I ignored you.”
She rolled her eyes. “Too bad. Now stand still.” She came around to stand behind him, wrapped her arms around him, and put her hands on his.
Never in his life had he been torn between feeling two vastly different emotions. On one hand, he was rather embarrassed she was helping him. On the other, lust and desire coursed through him at an astonishing rate as her soft breasts rested against his back. “Perhaps we should back up,” he rasped. With how responsive his body was to hers, when they swung that mallet, her hands were going to feel something else that was long and hard if she didn’t allow him some space.
“Nonsense,” she said, pressing closer to him. “The problem is you’re stiff.”
Yes, I know. But how did you? “Excuse me?” he asked raggedly.
She brought her hands to his shoulders and kneaded his muscles. “You’re body is too tense. Relax.”
He wanted to groan in vexation. As long as she stood pressed up against him like this, his body would not relax.
He let her help him swing, and the ball went about as far as it had when he’d done it alone.
She shook her head. “You’re too rigid, Alex. If you’d soften up and relax, your game would improve.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said dryly. “Now go take your turn.”