Once Upon a Moonlit Night
I love the Maiden Lane series, though I thought Sweetest Scoundrel was a bit of a misfire. But then came Duke of Sin. Easily my favorite of the series, I tore through it in one evening. So when I heard Ms. Hoyt was releasing a novella to tie up loose ends from Duke of Sin, I couldn’t wait to read it. Once Upon a Moonlit Night is entertaining, romantic and TOO SHORT. As a standalone, or if you are new to the series, I think the novella is a success. But if you – like me – looked forward to Hippolyta Royle’s story, I think Ms. Hoyt let her heroine (and Maiden Lane fans) down. Once Upon a Moonlit Night is a nice, if too short, addition to the series.
When last we saw her, Hippolyta was on the run from the Duke of Montgomery, having been helped to escape by his housekeeper. To confuse anyone tracking them, the housekeeper and Hippolyta have split up – Hippolyta is on her own in ill-fitting clothes, in the mud, and it’s a cold rainy night. Desperate, she flags down a passing carriage and begs a ride to escape the hounds on her trail. She doesn’t care who owns the carriage or where he/she is going – she just wants in. Her reluctant (and handsome) savior is Matthew Mortimer. Based on her appearance (and stench), he assumes she’s a beggar but might be a very convincing actress – she continues to assert she’s a wealthy heiress who was kidnapped and escaped. Matthew doesn’t believe her, but against his better judgement, he agrees to take her as far as the closest village.
Before he arrived in England, Matthew was a scientist living abroad, most recently in India. He’s only returned home after inheriting the crumbling/debt ridden earldom of Paxton. When he picks up Hippolyta, he’s on his way to London to speak to his solicitor about his inheritance and unhappily contemplating the mess awaiting him. Despite her adamant assertion that she’s a wealthy heiress, he’s in no mood to indulge her. He thinks her name is ridiculous, her clothes are wet, filthy and they stink, and her story is so incredible it must be false.
Matthew and Hippolyta travel through the night and she wakes in the morning resting against his chest. After he awakes, they share an awkward moment as she disengages herself. In the light of day both are more aware of the other – though neither has any desire to admit it. Matthew is as good as his word and despite misgivings, leaves her at an inn in the next village they pass. He regrets the decision not long after and orders the carriage to return for her. The timing is fortuitous – when Matthew finally locates her in the stables (where she was banished because of her appearance and smell), Hippolyta is surrounded by a group of intoxicated men. He rescues her, bundles her into the carriage and informs her he will see her to London.
The witty back-and-forth between Matthew and Hippolyta during their journey to London is the highlight of Once Upon a Moonlit Night. Forced into close proximity in the carriage, they end up sharing their history with one another; and Ms. Hoyt slowly but surely builds the attraction between them. Things come to a head sooner than either of them want or expect when, at a stop to change horses, they are spotted by Hippolyta’s father, who has been searching for her. Realising immediately what the discovery could mean for the lady’s reputation, Matthew asks for her hand in marriage.
Up until this point, I thought Ms. Hoyt got everything in this novella right – the pacing is good, the chemistry between Matthew and Hippolyta is hot, and the dialogue is sharp.
I enjoyed the rest of the story, but from this point on, it feels hurried and forced. I had no problem with how Matthew and Hippolyta ended up quickly married to one another – she is compromised, and he offers for her. Fans of historical romance are familiar with this convention, and Ms. Hoyt’s use of it to quickly bring them together works in the context of the story. Unfortunately, after the slow burn and delightful crescendo of their attraction to one another, their first night together fails to deliver on all that promise and passes much too quickly. Then, right on the heels of this disappointment (literally the next morning), Ms. Hoyt introduces an unnecessary plot twist that only undermines all the qualities we liked best about Hippolyta, turning her from a feisty, brave single woman with a secret, to an insecure, weak and tearful wife with one. Based on what we knew of Matthew from their carriage rides, a simple conversation would have nipped this conflict – and Hippolyta’s worry about her not so secret, secret – in the bud right away. Instead, it drags on until Matthew finally asserts himself and shows Hippolyta the strength, compassion and kindness of the man she married.
The resolution is a bit too easy – but the bond it forges between Matthew and Hippolyta is sweet and true. I liked Matthew from start to finish, and in past Maiden Lane novels, I was always curious about Hippolyta and the secret she was keeping. I wish Ms. Hoyt had given both of these likeable and interesting characters the full-length novel they deserved.
Ultimately, the ending – with too many conflicts resolved too quickly and too easily – detracts from a promising start. Once Upon a Moonlit Night was good, but not great.