Once Upon a Moonlit NightBy: Elizabeth Hoyt
A Maiden Lane Novella
Once upon a time there was a princess who was in search of a prince. Her name was Peony.…
—From The Prince and the Parsnip
* * *
This, Hippolyta Royle thought a little wildly as she struggled up a gorse-covered hill in the rain, was the absolute worst night of her life. Worse than the time she was so sick after eating those clams—she’d never been able to look at shellfish since. Worse than Freddy Ward with his awful bad breath forcing a kiss on her at that ball last month. Worse even than when she’d been stalked by a tiger as a child—and that, really, had been rather terrifying.
Hippolyta made the top of the hill, gasping, the rain dripping in her eyes, only for her right foot to slide out from under her. She half slid, half fell in the darkness, the brambles and bushes and whatever other ungodly things grew on desolate moors in the north of England scratching her hands and legs as she tumbled down the other side of the hill.
She came to a halt at the bottom, cold and wet, miserable and frightened, the rain dashing in her face, the eerie howling of foxhounds rising and falling on the wind.
They were getting very near.
Hippolyta scrambled to her feet. She could no longer see the lights of the little town she was supposed to be heading toward. She wasn’t sure which direction the dogs were coming from. She knew only that if she stayed here she’d be found.
And if she was found she’d be forced to marry the Duke of Montgomery, the most loathsome man she’d ever known.
Her shoes were too large and if there was a path she’d lost it long ago, so she stumbled and tripped through bracken and gorse, but she kept going. No. No, she was not going to be caught by that madman. Not again.
Less than a week ago she’d been asleep in her own room, in her own lovely warm bed, when four masked men had rudely awakened her. They’d bundled her up in a rough blanket—she’d been wearing only her chemise, mind—and carried her out of her father’s house and into a carriage. That had been followed by four days of constant, wretched, terrifying travel in a carriage, guarded by the same men who’d snatched her, only to end at Ainsdale Castle—the seat of the Duke of Montgomery. There she’d been transferred into a tiny stone cell, presumably to stay until such time as she would be thoroughly ruined by her mere stay at Ainsdale alone with the duke. After that she would be forced to marry the duke, for few men would have her—even with the huge dowry Papa meant to settle on her. Why the duke was going to such lengths was a bit of a puzzle. He didn’t actually love or even like Hippolyta, she was sure, and it wasn’t as if he needed a fortune—he had one of his own. In the end she’d decided he was doing it out of pure wickedness.
Everyone knew the Duke of Montgomery was a very wicked, very mad man.
Fortunately, the duke’s housekeeper, Bridget Crumb, was a friend of Hippolyta’s and had succeeded in helping her escape from the Ainsdale Castle dungeons. The plan had been for Hippolyta to ride to the little town nearby and hide until morning, when she could board the mail coach headed to London.
Sadly, that had been before she’d come unseated from the fat little pony she’d been riding.
She splashed through a mud puddle as the horrid bell-like call of the hounds sounded suddenly clearer. Dear God, it felt as if they were right on her heels. She scrambled up another hillock, her breath coming in frantic pants, her chest aching with the cold and panic. Damn the duke! He wanted her only because she was a prize—the wealthiest heiress in England—and perhaps in a twisted way because he knew that she loathed him. What sort of demented madman kidnapped a wife?
She grasped at the heather or whatever the bits of rough shrubbery were, the twigs sliding and cutting her fingers as she pulled herself up the side of the damned little hill. She wasn’t going to be some wretched bridal prize in a tragedy, the sad little wife pushed into a corner and pitied by all until she died, pale and lovely and pathetic.
Hippolyta crawled out onto the hill—and straight into mud, her hands and knees sinking inches deep. She moaned to herself just as she caught sight of lantern light.