Once Upon a Devilishly Enchanting Kiss – Bree Wolf

Anne, you look as though you’re about to faint,” Lady Louisa Beaumont, second eldest daughter to the Earl of Whickerton, commented upon seeing her cousin’s whitish, pale face and her huge, round eyes staring at the crowded ballroom as though facing a firing squad. “This is your first ball, not your execution.” Chuckling, Louisa squeezed Anne’s hand reassuringly. “You’ll be fine.” Whether or not Anne believed her was unclear as she continued to eye her surroundings with wary caution, her shoulders tense and her steps all but steady. Turning her head to look at her younger sister—by only one year, mind you—Louisa whispered over her shoulder, “She looks worse than you did, dearest Leo.” A sisterly snicker followed. For a short moment, Leonora all but ignored Louisa’s comment. Then she remarked in a mere observational tone, “I comported myself in a perfectly appropriate fashion.” Louisa nodded, unable to keep a grin from stealing onto her face. “Yes, you did, and you looked awfully uncomfortable the entire time.” Leonora sighed and then looked past Louisa at their cousin. “Do not look at all those you do not know,” she advised. “Seek out those you are acquainted with and remind yourself that you’re not alone.” She moved to Anne’s other side and took ahold of her hand.

“We are here.” For a moment, Anne closed her eyes and inhaled a deep breath. Then she nodded, a hesitant smile coming to her lips as she looked at her two cousins affectionately. “Thank you for being here for me.” “What are cousins for?” Leonora smiled warmly. “To tease each other mercilessly?” Louisa asked mockingly as she gently patted Anne’s hand. “Not today!” Leonora stated, a warning tone in her voice and a rather authoritative look in her blue eyes. Louisa nodded. “Very well.” She let her gaze sweep the crowded ballroom.

“On the lookout for acquaintan—” Louisa flinched when Tobias Hawke all but materialized out of nowhere in front of them, his chocolate-brown eyes fixed on Anne as he held out his hand to her. “Care for a dance?” Sighing, Anne seemed to relax on the spot, and her hand slipped into his without thought. When Anne’s childhood friend pulled her onto the dance floor, a few whispered words left his lips and that endearing half-smile of his once more curled up the corners of his mouth. Louisa moved closer to her sister, both watching the two of them stand up for the next dance. “There’s a couple in the making,” she remarked with absolute certainty. “Mark my words; this is Anne’s first and last Season.” “You cannot know that,” Leonora objected, a slight frown upon her face as she regarded the young couple. “They’ve been friends for years and—” “That is precisely what I mean,” Louisa interrupted her sister, wondering how to explain to Leonora the magic that could exist between two people; not that Louisa herself had ever felt it. Since her own debut two years ago, she had frequented balls and picnics, concerts and plays, hoping to find the one man who would melt her heart. All she had found had been disappointed hopes.

At least so far. Still, Louisa understood well the smile she often saw on their parents’ faces when they caught each other’s eye across a crowded room. After over thirty years of marriage and six children born to them, Lord and Lady Whickerton were still as smitten with each other as on the day they had first met, at least according to Grandma Edie. Of course, Louisa and her siblings had not been born at the time so could not speak from experience. But they all believed Grandma Edie; the woman had never been known to be wrong. Ever. Younger than Louisa by no more than a year, Leonora, however, had never been able to grasp the effect love could have upon one’s life. She had a very rational way of looking at the world, even when it came to emotions. She was not cold or unfeeling, not at all; she possessed a truly watchful eye—not unlike Grandma Edie’s—and knew how to spot the first sparks of love or the pangs of heartbreak. Still, for Leo, it was hard to calculate with something as unreliable as emotions.

Yet, she was fascinated by them, perhaps even more so because they could not be added up like two and two. Louisa, though, was the opposite in every way. Like fire and water, day and night, the two sisters could not be more different. Where Leonora was rational and calculated, Louisa was passionate and spontaneous. She followed her heart, loved to feel the sun upon her skin and the sensation of twirling in the open air until her head spun. Balls meant delightful company, dancing until dawn and people she cared for sharing in her joy. They also allowed her to mingle with eligible gentlemen, whispering of a match not unlike her parents’. That had been Louisa’s dream ever since… …ever since she could remember. A man who would set her world on fire with a single look. A man who— “Lord Barrington is looking at you,” Leonora remarked with no more than a slight suggestion in her voice; indeed, for her, it was merely an observation.

Nothing more, and nothing less. Or was it? Louisa had to admit that sometimes she was not certain what hid behind Leonora’s dark blue eyes. At her sister’s words, Louisa stilled, then carefully glanced in the direction Leonora indicated. Of course, Louisa had taken note of him the second they had stepped into the ballroom. Of course, she had. She always did. Tall, with raven-black hair and devilishly dark eyes, Phineas Hawke, Viscount Barrington, was an imposing man. Often, one could find a bit of a wicked grin upon his face and hear a daringly teasing remark fall from his lips. Elder brother to Mr. Tobias Hawke, Anne’s childhood friend, Louisa had known him for years; however, they had never spent much time in each other’s company.

Lately, though, she had felt his gaze linger upon her. As it did now. Louisa inhaled a slow breath as his dark gaze swept over her face before seeking hers with bold curiosity. Something in her stomach began to flutter, excitedly, teasingly, deliciously. “Do you welcome his interest?” Leonora asked curiously beside her as she brushed a dark curl behind her ear as though it was obstructing her view, hindering an accurate observation. Louisa sighed, then forced her gaze from Lord Barrington’s. “What interest?” she asked, displeased with her sister’s watchful attention. “He’s merely looking in our direction.” Leonora’s gaze narrowed before she turned to observe the man in question more thoroughly. Louisa wanted to sink into a hole in the ground.

“Do not stare at him!” she hissed at her sister, urging her over to the side where two large refreshment tables were set up. “Then you do care for his attention,” Leonora concluded, her blue eyes settling on Louisa before they narrowed once more. “What bothers you? Your interest in him? Or the fact that I observed it?” Louisa sighed loudly, “Both. Neither.” She shook her head. “Would you mind seeing to Grandma Edie for a little bit so Jules can have a chance at dancing? The woman will end up an old maid with our dear grandmother glued to her side.” Leonora nodded and hurried away to where their beloved grandmother sat on the fringes of the ballroom with their eldest sister Juliet—or Jules as their family called her. While Grandma Edie still possessed as sharp a mind as ever, her body was slowly failing her. While Lord and Lady Whickerton had been blessed with six children, five of them were girls, which was a bit of a curiosity among the ton. Indeed, most believed that after welcoming a son, Troy, as their first-born, they had sought to provide a spare after procuring the heir without any difficulties at all.

However, five girls had followed and even today Louisa sometimes saw a bit of a pitying glance from an old matron here and there. Of course—as usual!—people could not be more wrong. Carefully, Louisa glanced over her shoulder back at Lord Barrington to find him in conversation with another gentleman. A small stab of disappointment settled in her heart that surprised Louisa. Never had she thought of herself as dependent upon a man’s attention; nevertheless, the temptingly dark look in Lord Barrington’s gaze had never failed to stir her heart. Truth be told, she wished she were better acquainted with him. Perhaps Anne would help her in the matter. At present, though, Anne was following her childhood friend out of the ballroom, a wide grin upon her face as he whispered something in her ear. Louisa smiled, seeing her prediction all but confirmed. If only she could say with the same certainty how the man’s elder brother thought of her.

Gathering her courage, Louisa sidled across the ballroom, doing her utmost to appear inconspicuous. She smiled left and right, exchanged a word with an acquaintance here and there and accepted a glass of punch, her hands grateful to have something to occupy them. And then, she had reached her destination, her feet coming to stand no more than an arm’s length from where Lord Barrington was conversing with a friend. With her back to him and his to her, Louisa hung on every word as she pretended to observe the dancers. “How is life treating you these days, Barrington?” the other gentleman inquired, the tone in his voice suggesting the answer to his question was not of great interest to him. “As expected,” Lord Barrington replied. “And yourself?” The man sighed before he shuffled on his feet, turning back toward the dancers. “Is something wrong, Lockton?” Lord Barrington asked, and Louisa noticed him shift from one foot onto the other out of the corner of her eye. She wished she could turn and look at him more directly; that, however, would reveal her interest, and at present she was not quite ready to do so. “Are you looking for someone?” Lord Barrington asked his friend, a hint of exasperation in his voice as the man failed to answer.

“A moment ago, she was across the ballroom…” Lord Barrington chuckled, a teasing, slightly dark sound that snaked its way down Louisa’s spine. “It is about a woman then? Who pray tell caught your eye?” Lord Lockton sighed, “The Lady Louisa.” Louisa stilled. He couldn’t possibly be talking about her, could he? Nevertheless, only moments ago, she had been across the ballroom… “Lord Whickerton’s daughter?” Lord Barrington asked to clarify. “The very one,” the other man confirmed, warmth in his voice. “She is remarkable, is she not?” Louisa could barely keep herself from turning to look upon the gentleman’s face, who held her in such high esteem. His voice did not sound familiar, and she had only just caught his name. Could she have made such an impression on someone she did not even know? “Are you acquainted with her?” Lord Lockton inquired then. Lord Barrington inhaled a slow breath. “A little,” he replied, his voice somewhat tense as though he wished to say more but did not dare.

Louisa felt a cold chill sneak down her spine. and her hands tensed upon the glass of punch she had all but forgotten. The other man seemed to have noticed Lord Barrington’s reservations as well, for he asked, “Do you object to the lady?” Again, Lord Barrington sighed, his shoulders rising and falling in a shrug. “I know you to be a man of many intellectual interests, which is why,” he sighed yet again, “I must advise you place your attentions elsewhere, yes.” Louisa’s jaw clenched harder and harder until it felt as though it would break clear off. “Although she is a beautiful woman,” Lord Barrington continued, “her mind deserves less adoration.” He cleared his throat and leaned toward the other man, his voice dropping to a whisper. “To be frank, she is a pretty head with nothing inside. I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t know how to read.” “I had no idea,” the other man exclaimed in astonishment as Louisa felt her insides twist and turn painfully.

Tears shot to her eyes, and her jaw felt as though it would splinter at any moment. The delicious flutter in her stomach had turned to a block of ice, and without another thought, Louisa fled the scene. Her feet carried her out of the ballroom and into a deserted hallway where she sank down in a puddle of misery, the glass of punch still clutched in her hands. Fortunately, no one came upon her there, giving her a much-needed moment to collect herself. Still, the words she had overheard would forever be burnt into her memory for Lord Barrington had spoken the truth. As much as it pained her to admit it—even if only to herself—Louisa did not know how to read. She could write her name, but not much more than that. Never had she been able to make sense of letters and words and their meaning. Still, to this day, no one knew. No one had ever suspected.

Until now. Until Lord Barrington. How had he discovered her secret? Or had it merely been a lucky guess? Whatever it had been, it had shattered Louisa’s delicate, little world. Somehow, she had found a way to stand tall even without the skills that everyone took for granted. She had developed ways to distract others where reading and writing were concerned. Somehow, she had always found a way. She was clever and ingenious and prided herself on her quick wit. Still, deep down, Louisa had always thought of herself as inferior. In every other regard, she and her siblings were simply different. Different in many ways.

Each had their own special talent. Each possessed a unique way of looking at the world. Each used their mind in different ways. In this one regard, however, Louisa was inferior. She had always known it, and now Lord Barrington’s words had confirmed what she had always known to be true. Never would she forgive him for this off-hand remark. Never. Never again would she be able to look at him and not remember this crushing feeling of loss and disappointment. To be considered wanting. To not be worthy of another.

To be inferior.

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