Playing the Game
Lily’s fingers toyed with the knight. She glanced toward the timer, and a wicked smile spread across her lips. A lot of people thought chess a dreary pastime. Not true. If you understood the strategy behind the game, a well-played match could keep you on the edge of your seat.
“Checkmate.” With a flourish, she moved the knight in for the final blow. “Sorry, Gramps. I had to do it.” She gave the old man a smile. Her grandfather had taught her to play when she’d been “no bigger than a minute,” as he used to say. She loved him dearly, but lately his game had been a bit off.
He sighed and shook his head. “Now, see there, Lily, that’s your problem.”
“What are you talking about?” Folding her arms, she stared across the table at him. “I don’t have any problems, Gramps.”
“No? It’s Friday night, and you’re here playing chess with me. I’d say that’s a mighty big problem for a pretty young woman.”
“I just haven’t found --“
“The right fellow,” he finished for her. “I know. You’ve told me that more than a few times. But you know why you can’t find him?”
Lily sighed. Her grandfather was about to tell her, whether she liked it or not.
“You can’t find the right fellow, honey,” he went on, “because you’re too intent on winning.” He rose and his weary, old bones creaked. “Back in my day, girls knew how to play the game. They knew that sometimes you win more by losing now and then.”
“Your day is long gone, Gramps.” She came around the table and pecked his cheek. “Women don’t do that sort of thing anymore. Besides, love isn’t a game. “
Lily gathered up the chess pieces and placed them into their box one by one, gave her grandfather another kiss, then headed home to her dark, lonely apartment.
Someday I’ll find the right fellow, she thought as she unlocked the door and stepped inside. It wasn’t her fault he hadn’t yet come along. Fate simply hadn’t seen fit to bring true love into her life...only a long string of losers.
She fixed a cup of hot cocoa, curled up on the couch, and threw an afghan over her lap. Another gray winter’s night lay ahead of her. Earlier, she’d planned on coming home and catching the romantic movie playing on Channel 7, but she didn’t feel quite in the mood for love. Maybe she should call a friend, have a long chat, maybe even invite Samantha or Jillian over. Yes, the three of them could have a great time, giggling, gossiping, and acting like schoolgirls again.
Except that Jillian and her fiance were busy making wedding plans.
And Samantha was still seeing that adorable man she’d met last spring.
Her friends had lives of their own and loves of their own.
And what did she have? She tugged the afghan closer and let out a slow breath. She had a problem, all right, just as Gramps had told her.
On Monday morning, she caught up to Jillian as they walked toward the bus stop.
“Listen, I have to ask you something, and I want the truth.” The words shot out in rhythm to the fast pace of her steps. “Do you think I’m too intense? With men, I mean. Am I too over-bearing? I always thought confidence was a good thing, but --“
“Whoa, slow down.” Jillian came to a halt. “What brought all this on?” She narrowed her eyes. “Are you seeing somebody I don’t know about? I know I’ve been busy with wedding plans and all, but have I missed out on something?”
Lily shook her head. “No, nothing’s going on in my life. That’s what this is all about.” She quickly filled in the details of her most recent Friday night. “I know what Gramps is saying, but I can’t see it.” They began walking again, and Lily’s frustrations tumbled out in a heap. “ I can’t imagine throwing a game, letting a man win just for the sake of pleasing his ego. Seriously.” She rolled her eyes. “I mean, really, do men still expect that sort of thing?”
Again, Jillian stopped. For a moment, she remained silent, all the while giving Lily a look that mixed sympathy, amusement, and years of friendship into one heartfelt expression.
“Yes,” she finally whispered. “Men are delicate creatures, their egos have to be stroked, and your grandfather is right, Lily.” She chewed at her lower lip, obviously uncertain whether she should proceed.
“Go on. Say it.” Lily folded her arms and waited.
“You are too intent on winning all the time, always wanting to be the best at everything. It’s not just chess. It’s your whole life.”
“But --“ She blinked, trying to take it in. Wasn’t a person supposed to do their best, use their talents, try to succeed in all they did?
“Take Josh, for instance.” Jillian wagged a finger at her.
“Josh was a loser.”
“Josh was a great guy, and the two of you had a lot in common, but you kept correcting everything he said. OK, so he doesn’t know the difference between less and fewer, and maybe he said further when he should have said farther, but who cares, Lily?”
“Well, I think proper grammar --“
“Is for spinster schoolteachers like Miss Everly. Remember her?” She raked Lily with a piercing gaze. “Is that who you want to be someday?” Not waiting for an answer, she fired off another question. “And what happened between you and Scott? Care to talk about that?”
For a time, she’d truly thought Scott might be the right man, but he’d ended the relationship after only a few months.
“He was too insecure.” Lily shrugged.
“No, he got annoyed at how you kept pushing him.”
“I was only trying to help.”
“By telling him he was stuck in a dead-end job? By nagging at him about going back to school? And all the while pointing out how successful you’ve been?” Jillian planted her hands on her hips. “Yeah, Lily, you’ve done well in your life. You’ve worked hard. You’re a real winner. We all know that. Just once, maybe you should let someone else feel like a winner.”
The following Friday evening, Lily smiled at her grandfather. “I’m so glad you’re here, Gramps. I’ll make you proud, I promise. She led him to a chair near the front row. "I have to go now,” she whispered. “The first match starts in a few minutes.”
She hurried to take her place among the other competitors. Reaching the finals of the regional tournament had been a long-cherished dream. Only a few games to go and she could be the one accepting that tall, gleaming, silver-plated trophy.
Glancing toward her grandfather, she saw him mouth the words: Good luck.
No, luck had nothing to do it with. Chess was not a game of chance, but a game of skill and strategy.
One by one, she claimed each victory, moving onward and upward in the standings until, at last, the long-awaited moment arrived.
“Ladies and gentlemen, may we have quiet, please? The final match is about to begin. Lily Jensen versus Thomas Harriman. Winner will be determined by best --“
The voice droned on with the usual official statements. Lily wasn’t listening. Instead she was studying the competition. Observation was a key component of good strategy. Know your opponent. Figure out his weaknesses. Look for his imperfections.
Lily gulped in a breath of air. She couldn’t see any imperfection in Thomas Harriman.
Thick brown hair fell playfully over a well-formed brow. His strong, square jaw gave him a determined look that shone from hazel eyes flecked with grays and greens and blues. Dazzling eyes. Lily felt lost.
She quickly refocused her attention, moving her gaze from his eyes to his sensuous mouth. Instinctively, she licked her lips.
Get your mind back where it belongs, girl, or the game will be over before it begins.
Sucking in a deep breath, Lily made her first move.
But what game was she playing? As her heart pounded harder each time she peered across at Thomas Harriman, she knew beyond a doubt that something miraculous was happening. Love at first sight. She’d heard about it before. About how, when it was right, something in your heart just knew.
At long last, it had finally happened for her. She’d found the right man.
Unfortunately he was seated across the table from her in the final game of the final match of the most important chess tournament she’d ever played.
Lily’s lips went dry and she licked them again. Her hands shook each time she reached out to jump her knight across the board, to march her rook forward, or to glide her bishop on toward victory.
Thomas frowned as he studied the board. When he looked at Lily, those multi-hued eyes seemed to plead for mercy. His mouth opened slightly and an audible breath slipped out.
Men are decliate creatures. Their egos need to be stroked. Maybe, just once...
Lily sighed. Yes, she could do it. She’d won more than enough chess matches to last a lifetime, and a silver-plated trophy which would quickly tarnish was worth little when compared to the shining prospect of ever-lasting of love.
And Gramps? She flicked a gaze toward him and smiled. He’d be so pleased to know she’d finally learned how to play the game. Her smile broadened and she reached for her queen. With one wrong move, it would all be over. She would sacrifice her queen and let Thomas Harriman claim victory. Afterward, he would claim her heart. His sultry gaze affirmed it.
She touched the chess piece and took a deep breath then exhaled with a rush as she moved the queen swiftly into place.
“Sorry, Gramps,” she whispered, tearing her gaze away from Thomas Harriman. For all the love in the world, she could not throw the match. Lily looked up. “Checkmate.” Her voice rang out loud and clear.
Applause burst forth, a throng gathered around her, and although Lily tried to smile as she accepted the trophy, her heart felt heavy and sad. She looked around. Thomas Harriman was nowhere to be seen.
She whirled around, caught offguard by the deep, masculine voice. “Mr. Harriman?” Her heart pounded anew. “I thought you were gone.”
“I stepped aside. Didn’t want to steal your spotlight.” He extended a hand. “Congratulations. You’re an exceptional player.”
“Yes, well --“ She looked away, suddenly unsure what to say. “I suppose I should go.”
“Wait, please.” Thomas hurried after her.
He stood before her, tall and strong, yet vulnerable, too. Maybe his ego needed stroking, Lily thought. Her fingers ached to reach out and stroke all of him. Feeling suddenly flushed, she lowered her gaze.
“I’m not usually so brash and bold,” Thomas said, his words circling around her like a warm afghan on a cool winter’s night, “but I don’t want to miss this chance. I do that a lot, you see. I let opportunities go by because I don’t speak up, but this time, at the risk of making a complete fool of myself, I’m going to do it.”
She knew she had a silly, lovestruck look on her face, but Lily couldn’t do anything more than stand, mouth agape, and stare.
“Are you seeing anyone?” he asked. “Or do I have a chance? Would you be willing to go out with me? Could we get to know each other?” He grinned. “Sorry. I know I sound like an idiot.”
Wild thoughts jumbled up inside her head. “Wait, are you serious? It doesn’t bother you that I just defeated you for the title?”
“You played well. You deserved to win.” He laughed again. “If my ego can’t handle losing a few games of chess, I wouldn’t be much of a man, would I?”
Lily didn’t know quite how to respond. One thing was certain. Thomas Harriman was all the man she could ever want.
“You know,” he went on, “I like a challenge, and I have a feeling you’re the same way. I can tell you’re not the sort of woman who thinks she has to play games with a man.”
“Unless that game happens to be chess,” she bantered back. “In which case, I’d love to play a few games with you.” She blushed, thinking of a few other games she’d enjoy playing, too.
She laughed. “How about tonight?”
“I was hoping you might say that.” Thomas smiled.
Lily felt lost in those dazzling eyes all over again. She snapped back to reality when she heard her grandfather calling her name.
The white-haired old man came toward her, waving and smiling. “I’m so proud of you, Lily,” he said when he reached her. “Now, when we get back to my place, I suppose you’re going to beat the daylights out of me, like you always do.”
“Actually, Gramps, I’m not. I’ve got something else I’m going to do tonight.” Lily handed him the trophy. “This is for you.” As always when they parted, she pecked his cheek. “Thanks for everything.” She turned back to Thomas. “He taught me all I know about the game of chess.”
But not about the game of love, Lily thought, as Thomas took her hand in his.
Maybe she was too intense at times, and maybe some men had faltering egos. No doubt, she still had a lot to learn about life and love, but maybe she and Thomas could figure the rest of it out together.
Lily smiled. Without a doubt, she’d made the right move.