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A LADY'S LESSON
by Meredith Duran

Genre: Victorian Period, England, Historical Romance

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After laboring through endless etiquette lessons, Nell requires a night off. When Simon puts the choice of the evening’s activities into her hands, she decides to show him up in a game she knows she won’t lose.

The white ball cracked into the red, sending it spinning into the top pocket. Nell straightened with a broad grin. She had an unlighted cigar clamped between her teeth, and as she cast down her cue, her hand went to the glass of whisky she’d balanced on the table’s edge. “Three more strokes to me,” she said. She plucked the cigar from her mouth and pointed it at his eye. “How’s that feel, laddie?”

“I’m trembling,” Simon drawled.

“As you should be.” She winked at him, then tipped back her glass for a long, unfeminine swig. Simon’s gaze wandered down the line of her throat to the low neckline of her golden gown. The lean, graceful tension of her bare upper arms fascinated him. He regretted the long white gloves that disguised the tender curve of her inner elbow. Uncreative schoolboys might dream of orgies featuring nuns, but the truly precocious dreamed of a woman like this: bohemian and endlessly surprising. Self-possessed and quick-witted enough to keep any man on his toes. 

Generally boys grew up to realize that such women existed only in dreams. Finding one in his billiards room somewhat took his breath away. 

Her swallow was noisy. She smacked her lips as she set down the glass. He’d invited her to behave without a care for propriety, and she’d spent the last half hour testing the sincerity of his offer. “A dead heat,” she said gleefully.

He retrieved his cue, grabbing a length of sandpaper to roughen the leather tip. “Not for long, of course. But by all means, enjoy it while it lasts.” 

“Oh, I expect it won’t be long,” she said comfortably. “You’ll be fouling, this next strike.”

He snorted. “My dear, misguided twit, you’re playing the top scorer in the Oxford-Cambridge matches of seventy-five and seventy-six. I never left St. James’s Hall that I wasn’t carried out shoulder-high.”

 “Oh ho, a sharper!” She retrieved her glass to make him a toast. “My sympathies on your coming defeat, then, boy-o. Bound to be bitterer than your whisky.” 

He laughed as he exchanged sandpaper for chalk. She was a sharp-toothed tiger wrapped up in silk. “I think I’ll make you pay for that taunt.”

“Will you, now! And what price for your arrogance, me pretty lad?”

He looked up from the chalk, smiling slowly. “I am pretty, aren’t I? High time you noticed.”

Color rose in her face, but she did not look away—not even as she returned the glass to the small shelf behind her and placed her cigar beside it. Eyes remaining on his, she came padding around the billiards table in her stocking feet. 

It was he who broke the gaze to look downward, to the white silk stockings that revealed glimpses of the slim shape of her toes. Her small feet flexed gracefully, the arches deep, her ankles trim—she was lifting her skirts higher than her short steps required. 

He felt his smile deepen. Oh, he knew what she was on about, here. 

As she arrived at his side, the delicate scent of lilies reached him. Somebody, the French maid, had put perfume on her, and it seemed to spread tendrils that twined into his brain and tightened around it, strangling his good sense.

Her breasts brushed his arm as she leaned past him to set the red ball at the billiards spot. “You’re going to lose,” she purred, glancing up at him from beneath her long, dark lashes. “In that dining room, you may know what’s what, but this is my sort of table.”

“Hmm.” He held her eyes, arrested by the glint in them. That glint invited him to commit mischief: she wasn’t the only one intending to misbehave. “Perhaps we should make a wager on it.”

(Author’s note: this is a wager he will soon regret…much to his own delight!)