Hippolyta Royle is running for her life. Pursued by hounds on a cold rainy night, the heiress flags down a passing carriage and throws herself at the mercy of the coach’s occupant. Whoever this handsome traveler may be, he is her only hope to escape a terrible fate. But should he agree to escort her to safety, he’s in for much more than he bargained for . . .
At first Matthew Mortimer doesn’t believe Hippolyta’s story, that she’s a fabulously wealthy heiress who’s been kidnapped. He assumes she’s a beggar, an actress, or worse. But once his new travel companion washes the mud from her surprisingly lovely face, and they share a breathtaking kiss, there is no turning back . . .
Readers of Duke of Sin, the recently released tenth book in Elizabeth Hoyt’s hugely popular Maiden Lane series will recall that one of the many nefarious plots engineered by the Machiavellian Duke of Montgomery was the kidnapping of Miss Hippolyta Royle, the wealthiest heiress in England. In that book, she was freed by the Duke’s housekeeper, the enterprising Bridget Crumb, who helped her to escape onto the moors – and then we heard nothing more of her. I admit, that loose plot-thread did seem rather strange, but fortunately, anyone wondering what happened to Miss Royle after she fled Ainsdale Castle can put their minds at rest, as her fate is revealed in the novella, Once Upon a Moonlit Night.
She stumbles into the path of an oncoming carriage, which – fortunately – stops so that its angry occupant can ask her what the hell she’s playing at. Dirty, bedraggled and smelling of sheep rather than roses, Hippolyta’s assertion that she is a wealthy heiress is promptly dismissed by Matthew Mortimer, explorer, cartographer and newly minted but improverished Earl of Paxton. He’s tired from his journey home from the Indian Ocean, disgruntled because he had to make it at all and in no mood to humour a down-on-her-luck actress/thief/tart.
The first part of the novella is a road-trip romance in which the two protagonists get off on completely the wrong foot but, during the course of a few days, come to realise that perhaps there is more to the other than meets the eye. The sparks fly from the get-go and the air between them crackles with sexual tension, even though Matthew is pretty abrasive for the first part of the journey and makes no bones about the fact that he believes Hippolyta to be a whore. By the second day, however, they really start talking to each other and he starts to wonder if perhaps he’s misjudged her. But before he can really make his mind up, the two of them are discovered in the yard of a coaching inn by her father who is outraged at the idea that his daughter has spent several days unchaperoned with a man, leaving Matthew with little option but to ask for her hand.
The story then fast-forwards a couple of weeks to the hasty wedding – and the wedding night – and the reappearance of a figure from Hippolyta’s past who threatens to expose a buried family secret (that isn’t much of a secret to anyone who has read Duke of Sin) which could ruin her in society.
Once Upon a Moonlit Night is an entertaining, quick read that is as well-written as one would expect from this author, but it does suffer from “novella-itis” in that it feels rather rushed, especially in the second half. The central characters are reasonably well drawn, and while Matthew is a bit of a grouch to start with, in his favour, he’s the type of hero who, once he realises what he wants, doesn’t dither or deny, he goes for it. But I couldn’t quite work out what happened to Hippolyta, who has been an intriguing, exotic figure in the earlier books in which she has appeared. She begins this tale as spirited and able to give as good as she gets, but then turns into a wimpy damsel in distress immediately after her wedding night. She receives a blackmail note and just runs off instead of having a simple conversation with Matthew, and I thoroughly disliked the use of such an obvious contrivance to create dramatic tension.
Ultimately, this is a story of two … not quite halves. The first, in which the author develops the relationship between Hipployta and Matthew and skilfully brings the sexual attraction between them to the boil gets a B, but the second, which is a bit of a let-down, gets a C, hence my overall grade. I enjoyed the novella and I’m glad Ms. Hoyt took the opportunity to tie up the loose ends of Hippolyta’s story, but I think it needed a bit more time and space in which to play out.