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The “Staunton” style of chess pieces, required for formal competition, was created by a man named Nathaniel Cooke, an editor of the Illustrated London News in the mid-nineteenth century. Cook’s chess columnist was Howard Staunton, and it was he who gave his name to the patented design.

Original Staunton chess pieces. Photo: Wikimedia.

I have always preferred the Staunton pieces to fussier, more elaborate chess sets, although I confess to a weakness for the famous Lewis Chessmen, whom I wrote about in Chapter 34.

This chapter includes adult content (yes, they play a game of strip chess).

48. Black’s King

The next afternoon, Tabitha got a call at work. Surprised, she picked up the phone. Nobody ever called her at work. “What are you having for dinner tonight?” asked Rúairí.

“I don’t know,” she said. Her heart responded to the sound of his voice, drumming ecstatically against her chest. “Probably nothing special.”

“I’ve made a pot of Dublin coddle, a bacon-cheese tart and curried parsnip soup. Snorri’s on a vegetarian kick, and he won’t have anything to do with the coddle or the tart, though he sampled the soup and said it was good. I thought I might bring it all over and see if you have more of a taste for Irish food.”

“What’s coddle? It’s not kidneys or anything, is it?” Her one experience of kidney pie had left Tabitha unenthusiastic.

“No, no, it’s just potatoes with sausage and bacon.”

“Okay. Why don’t you come at seven? That’ll give me time to do some cleaning and set the table. I’ll contribute a bottle of Chablis.”

“Brilliant.” He hung up.

“You’re grinning like the village idiot,” commented Nigel, walking by her desk. “Good news?”

“I hope so.” Suddenly she realized that her bedroom looked like a laundromat after a tornado. “I think I’ll leave early today, if that’s okay with you.”


Rúairí’s Dublin coddle turned out to be a braised potato dish, rich with fat from the sausage and bacon. “Irish comfort food,” he said proudly as he heated it up, and the savory aroma spread through her hastily-cleaned apartment. The tart was warming in the oven, and the soup was in the microwave. “We specialize in comfort food. Have you ever had champ? Potatoes mashed with green onion slivers, and a big pool of melted butter in the middle. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

“Sounds delicious.” She opened the wine and poured it. “Sorry my place isn’t much to look at. I haven’t had time to shop for new furniture yet.” Inevitably, she thought of the bed in the next room, and its fresh sheets. The way he looked at her, with a slow smile, made her wonder if he could read her mind.

“Have you heard anything from James about Cissy’s phone?” she asked, knowing that the two men kept in touch.

“As a matter of fact, yes. James looked into it, with the help of the lads from the crime section at the Messenger. They said that Delta Dunne’s father is no petty criminal. He’s a thug, but he works for the Lucchese family. Organized crime.”

“Did they arrest him?”

“No. Apparently James gave the information to Galen, who said he wanted to handle it himself.”

Tabitha shivered. Galen was a powerful man, but she couldn’t imagine him pitting himself against the Mafia. “What about the phone?” she asked. “It had GPS. Why couldn’t the police just track it and find the thief?”

Rúairí shook his head. “No, it’s quite simple to fence an iPhone. All they had to do was run it through Jailbreak or a similar program. It erases all the identifying information.”

They talked about Rúairí’s beginning Latin classes, and the BeanFest, and Snorri’s budding romance with Caiolfhionn Flaherty, Cissy’s personal assistant. “Perhaps she would have liked your food,” said Tabitha casually.

“No, no, she’s a devout vegetarian. And she’s made a convert of Snorri. He’s even sworn to give up some Swedish food called lutefisk this Christmas.”

“Hardly a sacrifice, given that lutefisk is fish jello. I had a Swedish-American professor who served it once. They take dry planks of salt cod and soak them in tubs of water, then in lye, and then in water again. It’s dreadful.”

“It’s his favorite holiday food,” said Rúairí. “As a matter of fact, that sounds like a dish my family used to eat on Christmas eve. We had dried salt cod that my mother soaked to get the salt out. But we didn’t do the lye part.”

“Hmm. Maybe it’s a Viking invention!” she teased him.

“Or maybe it goes back before the Vikings.” He poured her another glass of the Chablis. “I think Snorri’s in love. Nothing else could explain his winning that bet.”

“It’s a beautiful name, Caiolfhionn. All these Irish women’s names are so romantic.”

He looked up from cutting his food and said, “Yes, but Tabitha is a lovely name too. Unusual. It means gazelle, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, it’s in the Bible. Aramaic, I think. But I never thought it fit me. You may have noticed that I’m not very graceful.”

He set down his knife and fork. “What are you talking about? I love the way you move. Especially the way you walk.”

She shook her head. “I’m very self-conscious about that.” As a matter of fact, she had in-toed as a child because of something called a femoral anteversion. Melinda had been convinced that she walked that way on purpose. If she would only remember to point her feet outward, like a ballerina, the problem would go away. Of course, she never visited an orthopedist until after, when Gran took her. For a while, her life had seemed an endless round of visits to doctors and psychologists. Even though she could already read, everyone had been worried that she was too immature to begin school, too undersocialized.

“Tabitha?” said Rúairí. “What are you thinking about?”

“Just that it’s nice to hear a compliment. Nobody ever said that about my walk before. In fact, I was walking up a staircase once, and a man asked me if I needed help.”

“I’d like to see you walk up a staircase,” said Rúairí. “From behind. The way your hips sway… it’s very attractive. To me.” He held her gaze until she looked down, smiling. His intentions for the evening were clear enough.

She asked, “What goes through a man’s mind, when he watches a woman’s backside like that?”

“He thinks about what it would feel like, to bury himself right in the center of that swaying pelvis.”

“Oh.” The wine was nearly finished. She got up to clear the dishes, and he quickly rose. He took her in his arms and put his lips to hers, lightly at first, then increased the contact. Their tongues touched, a little, and as he dropped a hand to the small of her back and began to press her body close, she broke the kiss, breathing harder. This didn’t feel like her encounters with Mark, which were casual and free. Her desire for Rúairí was so strong that it frightened her. It surrounded and held her fast. It was like… like Emer, what she feels for her beloved.

“That was good,” she told him. “But we’d better slow down.”

He took this with a good grace, and helped her do the dishes and stow the leftovers in the refrigerator.

“I’ve got 12-Year Redbreast,” she offered. In fact she had bought it on the way home.

“I’d love some,” he said, looking around her living space. The walls were lined with crate bookshelves. She had a small collection of jazz CD’s and a boombox. Her furniture was thrift-shop deluxe. The one truly fine piece she possessed was a table with an inlaid chess board. It was an inherited Victorian antique, with a mahogany base and alternating rosewood and satinwood squares. “This is stunning,” he said. “Let’s have a game. Do you have pieces for this?”

“Sure. They’re in the wooden box on the shelf.” She opened the new bottle of whiskey and hunted for two small glasses that matched. By the time she brought them out, he’d popped in a Coltrane CD, and was busying himself setting up the wooden Staunton pieces. They were a gift from Gran, and a rather expensive one. Each was pleasingly weighty in the hand, even the pawns, and the set was larger than the standard tournament size.

They drew up two mismatched stools, and an extra one for their drinks. “This game will have special rules,” said Rúairí, “if you agree.”

“Why do you want special rules?”

“After the beating I took the last time we played, I have to get my own back.” He looked into her eyes. “And then some.” In the low light of her apartment, Rúairí’s eyes were a dark green color, but she could see flecks of gold in them. She thought of Sétanta’s strange, swirling irises, one of the signs of his divine ancestry. My dreams aren’t real, she reminded herself. There are no gods, no heroes.

“If I capture one of your pieces, you have to take something off,” he said.

“And you’ll do the same?” She chuckled. “Oh, Mr. Lafferty, prepare yourself. I’ll have your kit off in no time. Or is it your tackle? I can never remember which is which.”

“Errm, try to leave the tackle in place. I hope to use it later.”

“Actually, this could be complicated,” she observed. “It means we have conflicting goals. One is to capture pieces, but that’s not always the best strategy for a win. Normally the goal is to mate.”

“That’s definitely my goal,” he agreed.

“You know what I mean. Checkmate. And what about pawns? There are too many.” She looked down at herself. She was wearing a good pair of jeans, a long sleeved shirt, loafers and socks, with a couple of pieces of jewelry. He was in a similar case, with a watch, a sport coat over his Oxford shirt and a belt on his trousers, but no tie.

He looked at the board. “Capturing a pawn… let’s say it means you have to take off something insignificant, like a shoe or sock or bracelet. If those are all gone, the pawn carries no penalty.”

“What about your belt?” she asked, allowing herself to stare at his belt buckle for a couple of seconds.

He saw the direction of her gaze, and smiled. “Same category. You know, Tabitha, it occurs to me that this is the best kind of foreplay for a woman like you.”

She held two pawns behind her back, then brought them forward, one hidden in each fist. “Why do you say that, Rúairí?”

He tapped the right fist and she opened it. Black. He seated himself before the black pieces. “Because it requires mental combat. You’re a woman who has to be won.”

“Oh really? And what if I win?” she asked, moving her king’s pawn to e4.

He brought out his king’s pawn to meet hers. “I’ll take that as a sign that you’re dying to get my kit off. So you see, me darlin’ lass, I can’t lose.”

She moved her knight to f3 and he answered with a knight to c6. The standard Scotch opening; it began with an exchange of pawns. Each of them won a pawn and had to remove a shoe. Rúairí set his bishop on c5, black’s correct move for this opening, and she raised an eyebrow.

“Surprised that I know what I’m doing?” he asked.

“Not at all. Last time, on the plane, I could tell you were… an accomplished player.”

“And these aren’t even my best moves.” He sipped his whiskey and concentrated on the board.

After another twenty minutes, they were both barefoot, and Tabitha’s bracelet rested on the table just behind Rúairí’s line of pieces. She captured another pawn and held out her hand for his belt.

“You want it? Take it,” he told her. She rose, her mouth feeling slightly dry in spite of the whiskey, and knelt between his spread legs. He had a noticeable erection. She slid a hand to the tongue of his belt, and slowly drew it through the polished brass buckle, then looked up at him.

“Jaysus, Tabitha,” he breathed. She pulled the belt through the loops and rolled it in her hands, then got up a bit unsteadily and returned to her stool. After that, her play was erratic. Belatedly, she realized that the whiskey was a mistake. After a half-bottle of wine and a glass of Redbreast, she felt decidedly inebriated, but Rúairí seemed unaffected. She tried to form a coherent strategy to win, rather than to capture pieces. In the process, Rúairí lost his sport coat and his shirt. He wasn’t wearing an undershirt. He took a bishop and smiled expectantly. Unavoidable, she thought, unbuttoning her shirt. The alcohol made her less self-conscious about sitting across from him in her bra. Now it was his turn to be distracted.

“Stop fondling that king of yours,” he growled.

She grinned, running the fingertips of her right hand along the shaft of the white king. “This is a club set. Do you know what that means? It means the pieces are bigger than tournament size. The king, for example. It’s a full six inches.”

“A clever gambit, Tabitha.” He moved his rook to threaten her queen. “But I’m about to pin you down.”

She studied the board, and moved a knight instead of the queen.

“What’s this?” he said, surprised. Quickly he replaced the queen with his rook and met her gaze. “Now the jeans, if you please.”

“No. I get to pick what to take off.” She let the straps of her bra fall loose over her shoulders, then reached behind to unhook it as he stared. She handed him the bra and he raised it to his face to inhale its scent, his eyes still on her breasts.

“Checkmate,” she said then, making the final move. He stood abruptly and held out his hand for hers, then led her the few steps into the tiny bedroom, where he stripped off the rest of his clothes as she watched, fascinated. He laid her back against the pillows and buried his face in her chest, grasping a breast in each hand and covering them with kisses. Only then did he pull off her jeans and panties. His lovemaking was intense, but tender. The sweet intimacy of it was like nothing she had experienced before. At the last, a pair of tears trickled down her cheeks.

Satisfied, Rúairí lay with her in his arms. They were both naked on the crumpled sheets. Her building was unrenovated, and the draft from the window cooled the moisture on her skin. She would have felt chilled, had it not been for Rúairí’s abundant body heat. “I’m falling in love with you, Tabitha,” he said. “I wanted to tell you in London, but I couldn’t.”

“I thought you needed an Irish girl.”

He kissed her hair. “So did I, but it doesn’t matter. I love you. Do you feel something for me?”

“Yes. I wanted to be with you, and now… I can’t imagine not being with you.”

“When we were making love, you cried out.” He hesitated. “I think you said Sétanta.”

“Did I? I don’t remember that. All I remember is you.”

“Did you dream of him last night?”

She nodded against his chest. “He’s fighting a terrible battle against the army of Medb, all by himself. He and Loeg came away to rest for a night, and he slept with Emer.”

“Hmmm.” He gripped her more tightly. “Is his king bigger than mine?”

“Good grief, Rúairí! He was covered with wounds. Emer wasn’t thinking about his king.” Not as much as his wounds, anyway. He didn’t relax his hold, so she said, “As a matter of fact, no. It isn’t.”

A deep sigh came from Rúairí, and his arm muscles relaxed. “That’s all right then.”

Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss

Notes: I have never actually played “strip chess,” but I thought it would be fun to write about. (It was.) I would not fare well in an actual match, since my chess skills have atrophied. The last time I played the (standard) game, my opponent was my teenaged nephew, and he beat me easily.

I looked online for references to strip chess and found these rules. I also found that Hugh Grant played strip chess with Alicia Witt in the movie Two Weeks’ Notice, which I haven’t seen. I couldn’t find a picture of the chess scene, but I did find this photo of Hugh in the ugliest tie I have ever laid eyes on.

No wonder he looks so sad.