The Art of Kissing Beneath the Mistletoe – Tanya Anne Crosby

“Ben!” The single word was, indeed, a rebuke, but rather than hold in its timbre any true censure, it was gentle, forbearing, and filled with good humor. “You simply cannot go about dangling mistletoe from your greasy fingertips,” she said. “Tis… unseemly.” “Why not?” “No respectable lady will ever accept such a rude proposition—most certainly not your precious Amanda.” Alexandra Huntington had known Benjamin Wentworth for most of his life, and despite that he looked like a man, at sixteen, he was hardly more mature than a fiveyear-old—mischievous and easily bored, endlessly seeking the mysteries of life in a bowl of Plum Pudding. In response, he turned his top hat over, careful not to allow the contents to spill onto her mother’s carpet. “This,” he said, “is a hat—H.A.T.” He assumed the tone of a staunch professor. “Fingers…” He wiggled his digits in front of her. “…have an entirely dissimilar sort of form, like this,” he said. “You must really learn this if you intend to depict them.” He tried to peek at her sketch, and she shielded it from him, rolling her eyes. “Really, Ben.

I am not drawing any part of the human anatomy.” She lowered her nose to her sketch book, trying desperately not to notice that impish twinkle in his eyes. “I am attempting to represent something else entirely.” “What’s that?” he asked with a note of disdain. “Flowers?” Alexandra twisted her lips into a grimace, and her delicate brows pinched in disapproval. “Perhaps,” she said. A lifetime of watching Ben tease his sister for her bluestocking tendencies had taught Alexandra to keep her own predilections well hidden. And it wasn’t merely Ben she had to worry about. She daren’t ever flaunt her passions for fear that her mother and father would empty their bookshelves. According to her father, it was not within a woman’s purview to trouble her pretty head with matters of academia.

And, according to her mother, there were more important matters to be concerned over—namely, the full and tireless pursuit of making certain one was not left upon a shelf. Although Alexandra did know a few fortunate young ladies whose fathers had agreed to allow them tutors or private schooling, she was not one of them, and the closest she might ever come to any particular scholarship was through her friendship with Claire. However, despite that Claire’s father and mother had been quick to allow their offspring to do whatsoever their hearts desired, Ben was not quite so merciful with his sister. Yes, indeed, she was drawing flowers, but it was not for the reason Ben might suppose. She had a keen interest in botany and horticulture, and someday, she desperately hoped to convince her father to build a proper conservatory. But really, it wasn’t that she didn’t find such great delight in the thought of kissing Ben Wentworth, it was this: There was only one reason he was harassing Alexandra for a kiss, and it wasn’t at all because he loved her. And here was the hopeless dilemma: Lexie did love him. Desperately, incontrovertibly, and without reason. Silly though it might seem, she often dreamt about having Ben’s babies—all the while she sat listening to him prattle on and on and on about Amanda Butterfield’s soft, golden hair and her all-too-kissable lips. “Flowers are boring,” he said in complaint.

“Go bother Claire.” “She is reading.” “So?” “She will box my ears.” Alexandra began shading a leaf. “And so will I.” “No, you won’t.” “I will,” Alexandra said, trying very hard to ignore his diablerie, but it wasn’t easy. She returned to her sketch, reinforcing the serrated edges of her rose leaf. Sadly, this was supposed to be the Red Rose of Lancaster she was depicting, but you couldn’t tell its color shaded only with pencil. However, it didn’t matter, because unlike the White Rose of York, which was quite distinctly white, the Rosa Gallica Officinalis, the Red Rose of Lancaster, was really quite pink—as pink as her cheeks must be this instant, with Ben staring at her so intently.

“Go away,” she demanded. “Only one,” he reasoned. “Please!” “No.” “Please, Turtle Dove! I should very much like to kiss you.” Alexandra stopped drawing, leveling him a look. “Why?” “Why what?” “Why do you wish to kiss me?” For a very, very long moment, the cat seemed to have caught Ben’s tongue. He thought about it at length, then drew out a sprig of mistletoe to inspect it. “Why not?” he argued, and he shrugged. “Really, if you never wish to do it again, you might simply go wash your lips, and never think of it again.” That was hardly true at all.

One kiss might ruin her for years to come. “It’s not me you wish to kiss,” she told him smartly. “And, at any rate, there must be rules for kissing beneath the mistletoe and you are disregarding every single one.” She tilted her head, studying the Viscum album, elsewise known as common mistletoe. The transparent little drupes weren’t truly berries at all. The plant was entirely hemiparasitic in nature—like more than half of London—depending on a host to survive. Although… she tilted her head to better examine it… she did wonder why they were so transparent, and what medicinal qualities they possessed. In another life, she would have dearly loved to have been an apothecary, although, alas, women were not afforded such opportunities. Ben’s look was utterly defiant. “What rules?” “Just rules,” she said, hitching her chin.

“Bloody Norah! There are no rules,” he argued, plucking up the sprig of mistletoe and wiggling it about so that all the berries jiggled. He grinned. “We shall make the rules!” Alexandra couldn’t help herself. She giggled—mostly because Ben was delightfully enthusiastic over the prospect of kissing her. And, at this point, he had already leapt out at her behind a plant, hung his mistletoe over her head under his father’s top hat, ushered her into a corner where he’d pinned a sorry sprig to a lamp, and she could plainly see that he wasn’t going to give up. Really, what harm would there be in a simple kiss? Much harm, according to her mother. It could be her ruin. She was very nearly a woman now, with a woman’s form. And Ben, too, was changing, his body firming, his shoulders widening, his whiskers sprouting, and his eyes so full of yearning that it spoke to Alexandra in very, very private places… places she dared not even allow her thoughts to linger. And yet… this was Ben.

What, after all, was her greatest desire? “Come on, Turtle Dove… it’s only a kiss,” he argued. “One wee kiss. No one need ever know, and truly, don’t you want to know what it feels like to kiss a man?” Alexandra gave him a little smirk. “You are not a man yet, my Lord Wentworth. You are still only a very annoying boy.” The youthful mischief in Ben’s stark green eyes transformed mysteriously, filling with dark promises that gave lie to her words. “Think so, do you?” Dangling his mistletoe, he dared her, and for an instant, Alexandra wasn’t sure… Benjamin Wentworth certainly didn’t behave like any grown man she’d ever met—not at all like her ill-tempered father. He was eternally curious, waggish, and if she pretended to be so blithe as he, it was only because she very desperately craved a lasting connection with him. And nevertheless, to date, he wasn’t all that different from the young boy she’d come to know and love—quite unlike his sister Claire, who’d gone directly from being a baby to a very sober adult, leaving Alexandra and Ben to be silly together. “Very well,” she said, with a feigned sigh, and she put her sketchbook down on the settee, then laid her pencil atop it.

“Only one,” she declared. “And then you’ll leave me be?” Ben’s brows lifted waggishly, but he nodded, very clearly delighted. His eyes shone with a devilish joy that made her heart skip two beats and flail like a turtle on its back. Abandoning her drawing altogether, Alexandra stood, smoothing her hands down over her skirts, suddenly feeling very timid, when in fact she had never been so at odds in Ben’s presence, ever. Her palms grew damp, her tongue suddenly felt too thick for her mouth, and it stuck like fish glue to the roof of her mouth. And then, despite Ben’s insistence over this kiss, he stood looking like a bump on a log, and for the longest time, they stood together, staring… neither breaching the distance between them. Ben daren’t look away. Swallowing convulsively, he stood drinking her in—the delicate freckles atop the bridge of her nose, the sparkle in her whiskey-colored eyes. If he spoke incessantly about Amanda Butterfield, it wasn’t because he liked her. In truth, he thought she was a witless chit.

And though Alexandra often had her head in the clouds, speaking to him about the silliest of things, he very much liked the way her mouth moved, no matter what she was saying, and he could watch her talk for hours. In fact, he liked everything about her… the way those flecks in her eyes seemed to twinkle like fairy dust whenever she was happy, the way her nose scrunched whenever he revealed things that were only meant to shock her, the way—he swallowed—her breasts rose and fell when she was even the tiniest bit breathless… precisely as they were doing… right now… It was all Ben could do to keep his eyes on her face. “Well?” she said, and he dropped the hat in his hand, never bothering to hang the mistletoe over her head. She’d said yes, and the last thing he intended to do was lose the chance to kiss her over some stupid ritual. Rules, or no rules, when it came right down to it, this was Ben’s first kiss as well, and he didn’t know what to do. He liked Alexandra. He liked her so much, and he’d liked her ever since he’d come aware that she was not a tiny little boy. Whilst Lexie and Claire might be the dearest of friends, he and Lexie had far, far more in common, and there were times he liked to believe that she was only his sister’s friend so in fact she could be his as well. He swallowed hard, afraid to move, thinking that the instant he turned eighteen he intended to speak to her father. If Lexie would have him, he would marry her tomorrow.

Pretending a fearlessness he didn’t quite feel, he reached for Alexandra, swallowing convulsively as he slid an arm about her waist, pulling her close as he’d watched his father do with his mother. Only then, once he had her fully in his arms, he didn’t know how to proceed. It hardly seemed masculine to get up on his tippy toes to kiss her, and he could feel her body trembling against his palm. The moment was magical, sensational, surreal. Alexandra’s breath left her in a rush as Benjamin’s firm, warm fingers settled upon the small of her back, pressing her close, until, in the space of a heartbeat, the two stood nearly shoulder to shoulder. He sighed then, and the sound of it filled Alexandra’s ears, like a beguiling song. Standing far, far too close, she could feel every single contour of his body—oh, my! Ben tilted his face up, and she instinctively tilted hers as well. Their lips hovered, never quite touching, and she marveled over the minty taste and scent of his breath. They were standing so close now that she could taste it like salt mist in the air. Had he been nibbling on genus Mentha from her mother’s kitchen garden? Whatever the case, this was the most enthralling, scintillating, wonderful moment of her life… every nerve in her body coming aware.

Every breath she took came labored. And then there was that strange, but exciting tingling in her breasts. And that naughty appendage—that very thing a proper lady mustn’t ever consider—hardened like steel between them. At long last, his lips found hers, pressing softly, only awkwardly at first, but then warm and velvety, sliding gently over her tremulous lips… wet, hot and sweet… Alexandra lifted a trembling hand, perhaps thinking to push Ben away, but it landed squarely upon his chest and her fingers splayed against his shirt. The feel of his heart beating beneath her palm sent her pulses skittering and blood singing through her veins. Looking perfectly drunk, he lifted his gaze, fingers pressing her close, as he whispered, “Lexie… I—” “What for the love of God are the two of you doing?” Came her mother’s shrill voice. Alexandra and Ben parted at once—like oil and water—but not before her mother leapt at Ben, seizing him by the ear. Alexandra gasped aloud as Lady Eveline pinched Benjamin’s ear, jerking him away. Without a care that she might be hurting him, she bent to pick up the mistletoe he’d dropped on her carpet, and said, “The devil’s own instrument in my own house—never again, young man!” Once again Ben howled over the pain she inflicted upon his ear, but nevertheless, he didn’t fight her. Red-faced, he allowed Alexandra’s mother to lead him away, all the while railing.

“We’ll be sending you and your sister home at once—this very day!” she said. “And when your mother asks why, you must say it is because I said she raised a goatish little boy!” Stunned over having been discovered in such a ruinous predicament, Alexandra could only watch as Ben was dragged away. He gave her a sad backward glance before disappearing through the doorway, and long after Benjamin was gone, Alexandra remained standing precisely where they’d parted, lifting a hand to her breast… Only then, once there was no one about to see it, and even despite that she knew the holiday was over, her lips curved into a secret grin. Someday, indeed, there would be another opportunity. And when that opportunity arose, she wouldn’t say no again. In fact, when that day arrived, Alexandra was certain to teach Benjamin Wentworth the subtle a r t o f kis sin g b e n e a t h t h e mis tle t o e , a n d t h e n h e mig h t n ’t e v e r t hin k o f A m a n d a B u t t e r field a g ain.

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