Once Upon a Moonlit Night – Elizabeth Hoyt

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. She ran. 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. No. Oh, no no no no. She started to cringe, to try to hide herself somehow, here in the open, when she realized that the lantern was on a carriage. She looked down. The mud…she was kneeling on a road. And that carriage—coming toward her at a leisurely crawl in the rain—had only two horses and two men on the box. It didn’t look like anything the duke would own.

Hippolyta scrambled to her feet and ran to the center of the road, holding her arms above her head. “Stop! For God’s mercy, stop!” For a moment nothing happened. The horses continued plodding toward her, the rain continued splattering in her face, and the dogs continued baying closer. Then the driver grunted and jerked, calling out, “Whoa! Whoa there, lads, whoa.” He was hunched in a sodden greatcoat, streams of water running off his battered tricorne. Beside him sat a smaller man or boy, miserably huddled in a coat thrown over his head. The driver squinted at Hippolyta in the carriage’s lantern light, his eyes disappearing into slitted lines. “Now be a good lass an’ clear the way, do.” “Please,” Hippolyta said, “you must ask your master or mistress to take me with you.” “Ow,” the driver said in what seemed to be some sort of odd exclamation.

“Now, that’s as may—” But the dogs were so close now. Hippolyta drew herself up and fixed the man with a stern eye. “At once, please.” The driver sighed and banged with his fist on the side of the carriage. “Oi! Matt! ’Tis a daft wench in th’ road says as we must take ’er up—” Hippolyta ran around to the side of the carriage and pounded on the door. “Please, sir, please!” The door abruptly swung open. A young man, his long hair in wild dishevelment about his face, thrust his head out. “What in bloody hell is it?” Hippolyta threw back her shoulders and looked earnestly into his rather startlingly green eyes. “I am Hippolyta Royle, the wealthiest heiress in England. I’ve been kidnapped by a scoundrel bent on forcing me into marriage.

If you bring me safely back to my father in London you shall be richly rewarded.” The man blinked as a raindrop ran down his nose. Then he burst into laughter. Matthew Mortimer, who had been called back from a two-year sailing exploration of the Indian Ocean by the tedious news that three of his cousins had succumbed to various ailments and that he’d thus inherited the earldom of Paxton, worked to control his guffawing. It was hard. The mad creature outside his carriage was glaring at him as haughtily as if she were the Queen of Sheba, despite the fact that she was drenched, covered in mud, and wearing a patched and ragged cloak. Sopping black hair, the hood of the cloak, and mud obscured her features, but from her bearing and voice she couldn’t be too old. Perhaps she was an apprentice running away from a master or a beggar traveling the road. Well, it was a cold and wet night after all, and he had a bit of a soft spot for scamps who could tell a cock-and-bull story with such a straight face. Matthew yawned and dragged a hand through his hair.

“All right, sweetheart, get in. I can take you as far as the next town, and then you’ll have to tell your tale of woe to some other poor sod.” Her eyes narrowed at him and for a moment he had the oddest feeling that she was going to tell him to go to hell. Then the bugle call of hunting hounds came from over the moors. She started and scrambled into the carriage, forcing him back, and bringing with her the distinct stench of wet horse, swamp, and mildew. Jesus! What had she been rolling in? The woman settled across from him, a sodden, smelly heap in the dark carriage, and said, still in an affected aristocratic accent, “Well? Shall we go?” Lovely. Matthew rolled his eyes, slammed the carriage door shut, and thumped on the roof as a signal to Josiah that they were ready. The carriage lurched into motion. He settled back into his mound of blankets and furs. He’d been dozing when she’d waylaid the carriage.

They should’ve stopped in the last village, but the inn had been full and Matthew had decided to go on. And then of course it had started to rain. He was never going to hear the end of it from Josiah and wouldn’t be surprised if the old sailor drove them off a cliff just to spite him. “I’m not lying.” The woman across from him suddenly spoke, her voice sounding husky in the darkness. Also outraged. He sighed. It had been a long day and he’d had a late start from his old professor’s country home. “I let you in my carriage, didn’t I? Perhaps you should simply leave it at that.” He swore he could actually feel her stiffen.

“I thank you for your kind assistance—” Assistance? “—but I dislike being taken for a liar. I know that my dress is not of the most—” Oh, for God’s sake. “Sweetheart, the next time you decide to hoodwink a gentleman, try a different name for starters. Hippolyta Royle? No one names a child that. Sounds like an actress’s name. Come to think of it, that’s probably what you are, aren’t you? A down-on-your-luck actress? Well, let me give you some help: Moll Jones. Simple, and more importantly, forgettable. You’re very welcome. Moll.” Across from him was silence.

Well. Silence save for irate female breathing. She said very precisely, “How charming of you to elucidate your theories on the matter.” He grinned. “I like to be of service.” “Quite.” It sounded as if she were snapping her teeth together. He hoped she didn’t chip one. “One would almost think you were yourself a person given to trickery and deception.” He snorted.

“No, I’m not. I’ve no need in my business. Well”—he remembered an incident a year ago when implying to local villagers that he held passage papers from the maharaja had gotten him out of a rather risky situation—“not usually.” “Indeed.” He’d never heard one word drip with such disbelief. “And what business is that?” Matthew opened his mouth…and then shut it. He’d spent the last two years exploring India and the Indian Ocean because he was a member of the aristocracy and could. But he wasn’t such a fool as to let a little beggar by the road know who and what he was. “I’m a scientist and a cartographer. That means I make—” “Maps, yes, I know,” she snapped, still in those prissy accents, as if she were a bloody princess.

“You know what a cartographer is.” He squinted, but of course he couldn’t see her. “Really.” “Yes, really.” His mouth curved sardonically at her haughtiness. “Matthew Mortimer, cartographer, at your service, Your Highness.” “Well, then I suppose I’m Moll Jones until such time as we find a town with a mail c…c…coach,” she said. She might’ve sounded haughty had it not been for the convulsive chatter she gave on the last word. Damn it. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me you were cold?” “I w…would’ve thought it was—” But he wasn’t waiting for the end of her snotty little snipe.

He reached over and pulled the wet cloak off her. Or tried to. She was clinging to it as if it were the crown jewels. “W…what are you about?” “Your cloak is soaked,” he growled. “You’ll never get warm with that thing on.” “But—” “Let go, damn it!” He yanked hard and the thing came off her with an audible rip. The cloak hit him in the face with a disgusting wet smack. The woman squeaked and tumbled across the dark carriage and into his arms. “Sodding hell,” Matthew muttered, narrowly avoiding an elbow to his nose as he pushed the damned cloak to the floor. “Stop wriggling, will you?” “Unhand me, sir!” “I’m trying to help you,” he roared, aggrieved beyond all endurance as he tried to control her flailing limbs.

“I’m not interested in ravishing a mud-covered, stinking, and no doubt pox-ridden strolling actress!” She froze, every line of her body stiff with outrage, and despite his words he couldn’t help but notice that the arse in his lap was plump and the tits shoved against his chest were nice and fat. Exactly as he liked them. “Oh!” she said, her voice breathless with what he was certain was rage rather than the passion it sounded like. “Oh…you…I…” “Right,” he shot back, pulling her under the blankets and throwing the lot over them both. “Me. You. Keeping warm. Just for tonight. In my bloody carriage. And in the morning we’ll be well rid of each other and never have to meet again.

Thank God.”

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