Floating on happiness, Miss Polly Kent decided to risk the censure of her chaperone and headed back through the dark garden in search of her lost slipper ribbon. She retraced her earlier steps, the gardenia-scented air wafting against her heated skin, the stars a scatter of diamonds overhead. She had a mad desire to skip along the winding maze of hedges.
Tonight, Lord Thomas Brockhurst had kissed her. Not only that, but she’d told him her secret—and although he’d been shocked, he hadn’t pushed her away.
Can he truly accept me? Joyful heat nudged behind her eyes.
She still couldn’t believe that Lord Brockhurst had any interest in her at all. She was a plain wallflower whilst he was a handsome, sought after young buck. Last month, when he’d first approached her as she stood at her usual place at the back of the ballroom, she’d been flummoxed. In fact, she’d looked left and right to be sure that he meant to ask her to dance and not someone else. Only when he’d asked again had she unknotted her tongue enough to say “yes.”
Since then, he’d paid her attention—nothing to raise brows—but tonight he’d taken things a step further. He’d suggested that they meet out in the garden. And there, sheltered by flowering hedges, she’d received her first kiss.
Her heart sighed. It had been beautiful.
What was more beautiful was that he’d felt their connection, too. Polly wouldn’t have believed this but for the fact that she could see his attraction to her… literally. For she had a strange and inexplicable acuity when it came to the feelings of others, a sort of sixth sense. When she was in close proximity to a person, she perceived a subtle glow around them. The aura—a play of color, texture, and light—revealed their emotional state.
Polly’s perceptions had first begun after an accident at age five. Trying to follow her older (and more agile) sister Violet up a tree, she’d slipped, plunging head first to the ground. When she’d regained consciousness, she’d found herself in bed, her family gathered around her, and, to her dazed eyes, they’d literally glowed with relief.
Although her family accepted her odd new ability (they loved her unconditionally after all), they’d cautioned her not to disclose the fact of it to others who might not understand. Polly had promptly forgotten their advice and confided in her best friend at the time. The news of her freakishness had spread like wildfire through the village. Even now, her throat tightened as the childish jeers rang in her head.
Watch out for Peculiar Polly,
or she’ll see what’s in your head,
Steer clear of Peculiar Polly,
or she’ll curse you in your bed.
No matter how she’d tried to explain that she couldn’t read thoughts and certainly didn’t have any magical powers—that all she could see were auras of emotions—the damage couldn’t be undone. Peculiar Polly she was, and Peculiar Polly she’d remained.
An object of ridicule. An outcast.
By the time her family had moved to London five years ago, she’d long since adopted the habit of hiding her abnormality—and herself. She avoided attracting attention as much as possible. She’d succeeded too… until that ball when Lord Brockhurst had taken notice of her.
He’s a miracle, she thought giddily.
Not just because of his handsome looks and polished manners, but because he’d listened without judgement as she’d falteringly confessed her dreadful affliction. Even though she’d been terrified of his rejection, her sense of honor made her tell him. Being a Kent, she believed that honesty and love went hand in hand, and since Lord Brockhurst had kissed her (which clearly indicated that he meant to court her), he deserved to know the truth.
Although his aura had reflected shock and disbelief, he hadn’t rebuffed her. Relief had flooded her as he’d thanked her for telling the truth, kissed her hand, and told her, “Go in before anyone catches us. I promise to call on you tomorrow.”
Now, as she turned the corner, she spied her red ribbon lying on the graveled path just ahead. It really is my lucky night, she thought with a smile. As she went over to retrieve the frippery, the murmur of conversation filtered through from the other side of the hedge. Her pulse gave a wayward leap at Lord Brockhurst’s familiar tones—so cultured and smooth. She heard two other voices as well, which she identified as belonging to his cronies, Mr. Severton and Lord Eghart.
“It appears you’ve won the wager, Brockhurst,” Severton’s distinctively nasal voice pronounced. “I’ll admit I didn’t think you could peel that paltry bloom off the wall, but I was wrong. I’ll have your blunt on the morrow.”
The ribbon crumpled in Polly’s fist, a cold seed planting in her belly.
“You’d have to pay me more than a hundred quid to consort with that quiz of a female.” Lord Eghart gave a braying laugh. “Do tell, Brockhurst, what was it like? Was her kiss as odd as the rest of her—or do still waters run deep, eh?”
Icy vines twisted over Polly’s insides.
“A gentleman does not kiss and tell,” Brockhurst replied.
“What are a few details amongst friends?” Severton wheedled.
“My lips are sealed.”
Numbness spread and spread. Dazed, Polly didn’t know whether to be grateful for Lord Brockhurst’s discretion or to weep at his betrayal. He kissed me to win a wager. I’m the biggest fool…
“Your lips are—but were hers?” Eghart sniggered.
Nausea surged, and Polly wished for the ground beneath her feet to open up and swallow her whole. The earth tremored; for a feverish instant, she thought her prayer had been granted. But no, it was merely the approach of newcomers on the other side of the leafy partition. She knew she should make her escape, yet her limbs remained paralyzed.
Severton’s voice went from haughty to toadying. “I say, well met, Lord Revelstoke.”
Despite her tumultuous state, Polly started at the name. What was the Earl of Revelstoke doing here? According to her sister Rosie, an expert in ton gossip, he was the most eligible bachelor in London, despite his marked disdain for polite society. It was a strange social paradox that the less he cared about the opinions of others, the more they revered him. Wherever he went, it was said that ladies pursued him and gentlemen wanted to be him.
In other words, Revelstoke was the polar opposite of Polly. He topped the social ladder whilst her place was on the bottom rung. In the special section reserved for feather-wits who deluded themselves into thinking that they could win a gentleman’s love… when all they’d ever have was his scorn. Her throat swelled. How could I have been so stupid?
“Gentlemen.” Revelstoke’s deep, gravelly voice was impatient. “I believe you know Lady Langley?”
Hasty greetings followed, to which a languid female voice replied, “The Kitburns ought to be congratulated on their consistency, if not talent. Their affairs are always the biggest bore.”
“I couldn’t agree more. Which is why we’ve had to concoct our own amusement,” Severton said smugly. “A little wager, if you will.”
“Oh, do tell,” Lady Langley said.
Within her gloves, Polly’s hands grew clammy.
“Severton,” Lord Brockhurst said in warning tones.
“Don’t be modest, Brockhurst. You won, after all. You succeeded in luring the most awkward chit of the Season into the garden and getting a kiss from her,” Severton gloated.
“How naughty, Lord Brockhurst.” Lady Langley’s sultry laugh belied her reprimand. “With such exploits, you may give the God of Revelry here a run for his money.”
“What do you say, Revelstoke?” Lord Eghart said eagerly. “Prime prank, eh?”
There was a pause, as if everyone was awaiting the earl’s judgement on the matter of Polly’s humiliation. Her fingers curled; her breath stuck in her throat.
“You’d do as well to kick a half-dead mongrel.” Revelstoke’s voice dripped with contempt. “Seducing a wallflower—what’s the sport in that?”
The words branded themselves on Polly’s brain, waves of pain and anger scorching through her. To be compared to a mongrel—a half-dead one—was the final straw. Revelstoke had reduced her shattered hopes to naught but sport… and not even a worthy competition at that. Right then, she didn’t give a damn if he was the most popular rake in all of Christendom—she hated him. Despised the earl and his ilk with every part of her shamed and bleeding soul.
If only I could hate Lord Brockhurst, too. A sob rose suddenly in her throat; she pressed both hands over her mouth to contain it.
Lady Langley purred into the tense silence, “You have no interest in virgins, darling?”
“If I did, would I be with you tonight?” came Revelstoke’s cool reply.
The ensuing titters and guffaws finally penetrated Polly’s shock. She jerked back from the hedge. Cheeks wet, clutching her red ribbon, she dashed out of the maze, leaving the ashes of her dreams behind.