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The wind had picked up outside, so the fairy-lights on the patio were abandoned and the dinner service was brought indoors. Chef Pastille prepared a smoked turkey with cranberry dressing, along with all of Lexi's favorites. She had been floating on cloud nine since her win on the croquet field, and she didn't even mind when her dad seated her next to James from Portland.

Luke quickly snatched the seat across from Lexi, which gave her some reassurance. He had gone quiet after his congratulatory handshake, although Lexi suspected he was ready to engage her again as he grabbed a water pitcher and filled her glass. As soon as he met her gaze, James from Portland leaned in, beating Luke to the punch.

"You made a good showing on the lawn today, Lexi," James said. "I don't play croquet, but I was able to pick up the gist of the game. There's a lot of strategy involved, not unlike backgammon. Do you play backgammon?"

"Yes. My brother and I used to play a lot before he started working for the man. Namely, my dad. I take it you play?"

"At least three games a day. I have a backgammon app on my phone. Can I interest you in a game after supper?"

Lexi sipped from her water glass as she considered James' offer. Three challenges in one day had to be a record. "Sure, why not. I appear to be on a roll today."

James raised his glass to toast her. "Well, birthday girl. Let's hope the dice rolls in your favor."

His clever wordplay had Lexi grinning while everyone busied themselves with food. A few seconds in, she felt someone tap her leg under the table. It was Nora, who tilted her head subtly at Luke. Lexi glanced up in time to see him shoot James a fiery look while stabbing his turkey breast mercilessly. Did Luke have a problem with James? Had something happened between them? She knew jealousy couldn't be blamed. Lexi wasn't foolish enough to believe that. Although she could hope.

Lexi took pity on Luke, pushing the gravy boat toward him. "You should try Chef Pastille's gravy. He uses buttermilk to thicken it. C'est magnifique."

His focus snapped to Lexi in a movement so swift, she would have missed the transition if Nora hadn't clued her in. "Thank you, Lexi. Your chef is a credit to his profession. I will offer my compliments after the meal."

He took the gravy boat, brushing his fingers against hers, and she almost felt sparks as the exchange was made. If only he knew what his touch did to her. How her skin tingled and her hormones raged when his gaze drifted to her. He would have no need for jealousy.

The meal was finished with a watermelon and strawberry sorbet served with lemon wafers, leaving everyone properly sated, and a procession of guests retired to the living room for after dinner drinks. Luke waited expectantly next to Lexi's chair and offered his hand as she stood.

"I had hoped you would introduce me to your fine Chef Pastille," he said. "I'd like to give him my compliments."

Luke's comment didn't seem to register with James, who nudged Lexi in the hip as he made his own request. "C'mon, Lexi. Let's set up the backgammon board before all the seats are taken."

Lexi turned from Luke to James then back again, assessing the urgency of their expressions and tasking her brain with finding an answer that would appease both. She had been a beast to all the boys since the weekend started, and she needed to be civil to at least one of them. James had earned a few points making it through dinner without annoying her, but Luke was, by far, her favorite, and he had taken a terrible blow to his ego on the croquet field, which she wanted to nurse back to health.

Ultimately, it was her dad's advice Lexi decided to take. If you try to please all of the people all of the time, you end up pissing everyone off. She smiled at Luke.

"I would love to introduce you to Chef Pastille. And I know he would appreciate it if I gave him time to clean the kitchen before I brought in a guest. So, if you don't mind waiting through a game of backgammon, I will take you on a tour of the kitchen and any area of the estate you want to see."

Luke grinned as he inclined his head. "Well played, once again. You appear to have your father's gift for diplomacy. The kitchen tour can wait."

Riding the waves of success, Lexi retrieved the backgammon set and assembled it on a high-top table next to the wet bar. James slipped onto a barstool across from her, looking expectant, while Luke took a seat on the couch to talk with Nora. Based on their amused expressions, she had him well entertained. Lexi would expect no less from Nora. She was clever and worldly, exactly the reasons Lexi liked her. So, why was she imagining Nora on a horse taking a lone ride on the trail? 

While Lexi watched Luke enjoy Nora's company, James moved deftly across the backgammon board, leaving her struggling to keep up. "You're distracted, Lexi," he said, staring across the table at her. "You've barely looked at the board."

"I'm sorry." 

"It's obvious you're into that guy...Luke. So, if you don't want to finish the game and just give him a tour of the kitchen..."

Lexi finally looked at James, feeling all the blood rush to her face as she recovered her manners. "No, no. It's unforgivably rude of me to neglect you, James. Carry on."

"It's your turn."

"Oh, of course." Lexi rolled the dice and surveyed the board, shaking her head at the terrible position she had put herself in. Dion would have eaten her alive by now. He was much better at backgammon than croquet.

Lexi made her move and willed her eyes not to stray to the couch where Nora's tinkling voice lilted above the drone of conversation. James picked up a checker and tapped it against the rim of the board as he studied his options. This gave Lexi a chance to study her opponent. Something she should have done from the get-go.

James was precisely the kind of boy she would go for if she weren't already infatuated with someone else. His dark blond hair swooped over his forehead without the aid of sticky products, and his eyes were wide and intelligent, complimenting strong cheekbones. A fine specimen for any romance novel. It was a credit to Luke's overwhelming sex appeal that Lexi had missed James from Portland.

Alas, Lexi's obsession with the sexy Luke Carrington had caused her to break her streak, and James played the winning move. But rather than gloat, he appeared apologetic as he reached his hand over the table to congratulate her.

"You're a tough competitor, Lexi. I'd hate to go up against you on the croquet field. Would you like something to drink?" 

"Actually, yes. I'll take a glass of Riesling." Lexi glanced at the clock on the wall to confirm the second hand was still ticking toward midnight. "Three hours until I'm eighteen. I'm entitled."

While James visited the bar, Lexi packed up the backgammon set and put it away. She kept expecting Luke to appear at her shoulder, but he remained seated next to Nora, who had turned her body to face him, exposing enough leg to make any man take notice. Maybe someone needed to interrupt their private party.

James returned with Lexi's wine before she talked herself into something she might have regretted. He had ordered an ample pour of amber liquid in a lowball glass, and the familiar scent wafting from the rim came at her like a blast of strong cologne. She studied his face for any age lines she might have missed.

"Are you drinking Scotch whisky?"

"Yep. Your dad has a well-stocked bar. This happens to be my favorite brand."

"If you don't mind me asking... How old are you?"

James chuckled but he didn't seem offended. "I'll be twenty in November. I go to school in Oxford, England, so I've been drinking for a couple of years already."

"You attend the University of Oxford? I'm applying to that school. I want to study philosophy and modern languages."

Lexi sipped from her glass while James did the same, and they shared the gaze of two people realizing they had something in common. Who would have thought?

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