Once Upon Moonlit night
By Elizabeth Hoyt
Maiden Lane series by Elizabeth Hoyt has officially ended in 2017 after 12 full-length novels under its belt. The series also got some novellas of secondary characters thrown in between. I've been with this series since 2011-which originally started publishing from 2010-and have been following the publication of every book ever since.
"Once Upon a Maiden Lane" is one of the last 2 novellas that bid adieu to Maiden Lane. I bought both but saved them to savour in my leisure when I feel like going back to the Maiden Lane universe. It's the story of Mary Whitsun, a lesser known character who made appearances in the first couple of instalments of the series. I'll not go to the storyline of the original series because TBH, this novella can be read as a complete standalone. Even in such a short space, the author brilliantly gives you info that you need to enjoy the story but it doesn't connect to any of the instalments as Ms. Hoyt's books usually do.
The original Maiden Lane Makepeace siblings ran a foundling home in St. Giles that was later upgraded into a full facility orphanage when they all came into money, mainly by marriage and patronage from peers who had wanted to contribute to their cause. They inherited it from their father. Mary Whitsun was one of those foundlings, found as an infant, on a Whit Sunday, at the door of the old home. Mary has been a part of the home ever since until Temperance, the 3rd Makepeace sibling (eldest brother and sister married and living separately, taking no responsibility of the orphanage), found love with Lord Caire in book 1, "Wicked Intentions". She'd taken Mary with her since she had grown too fond of the child. Mary had been trained to become a babysitter and had loved being with the family because they all loved her back, never treating her as an inferior like most peers do to their servants.
Here's a fun fact before I go any further: the orphanage, which now has a long official name I never quite remember, had a formula or so to speak, of naming children that came to them nameless. Many were too young say their name let alone remember it, sometimes month-old infants. All the girls were named as 'Mary' accompanying with a surname that connects them to the circumstances of how they were found. Same goes for the boys, only they're named as 'Joseph'. And they were called by their full name to differentiate between who is who. Alongside Mary Whitsun, there was another character, Joseph Tinbox, who unfortunately had been largely forgotten. I wish we could read his story but that's not going to happen I guess. :(
Now 20yrs. old, Mary has been taking care of Temperance's 2 children, appreciating her good luck when many children born to her circumstances aren't that lucky. Most don't even survive to adulthood. She earns enough, and a day off each week, when she can go check out books in her favourite bookshop and buy something she'd been eying for a while. That's how she comes to meet the viscount who confuses her with his fiancée. When Viscount Blackwell called her 'Lady Joanna', Mary was dumbfounded. What kind of a joke was it? Mary was already largely wary of other aristocrats, knowing their tendency of being a fool and/or playing with their servants. To say she wasn't impressed would be an understatement.
However, Henry, above mentioned Viscount Blackwell, actually did think her as Joanna, his long time fiancée! Their resemblance with each-other was so eerie it'd taken Henry aback. It was only when he realized that the woman in the bookshop is not wearing anything fashionable and pricey, as Lady Joanna being an Earl's daughter would most certainly do, also the fact that said lady was too silly to bother with books and reading, is when Henry knew he'd made a mistake, unless Lady Joanna was dressing up as a servant to meet him. But why would she? Henry was supposed to meet her around here for an outing, but he was quite sure this girl wasn't his fiancée. Yet, this new development intrigues him to no end. Why a servant or a governess, the girl in question would looked to be, would look so insanely similar to an Earl's daughter?
Mary was quite blissfully unaware of what Henry was thinking. She dodges every attempt he made to know more of her identity and leaves in haste. She was already feeling out of sorts, mostly because she realized she was attracted to this blue-eyed, handsome scoundrel with dimples. This was so NOT a good news for her. But Henry wasn't letting go of her so easily. He makes sure to find a way to have her followed because he had a suspicion so strong that he may needed to find her again...
Within a few days, Mary's life is quite literally turned upside down when Henry shows up with 2 Ladies in toe - a countess and her mother, who was a marchioness. The Countess of Angrove takes one look at Mary and calls her 'Cecilia' which leaves her utterly confused, even when Henry's presence made her breathless. Mary was still in the dark about it all until Henry begins explaining himself and the situation as a whole. Apparently, many years ago, the Earl and the Countess of Angrove lost their twin daughters to a kidnapping. One child was found later found, who is now called Joanna. The other, Lady Cecilia, was never found. Henry has been engaged to Joanna for a long time, almost from the cradle though he was *supposed* to be engaged to Cecilia, the eldest twin. Henry enjoyed his banters with Mary so much, and seeing how much she resembled Joanna, he was sure he made the impossible discovery; he'd found his true fiancée! The Countess's confirmation only made it stronger.
It's not like Henry hated Joanna. But his regards for her was quite brotherly. He was just used to the idea of marrying her all his life, that's all. Don't think he ever thought beyond that. Thankfully, as we learn later, Joanna felt the same and didn't really want to marry him. She had someone else in mind too. Just as Joanna, being the heir to an Earldom himself Henry had to abide by that match. But what he instantly felt for Mary, now Lady Cecilia, is way different than what he felt for Joanna. And he was uncommonly happy with the sudden change of circumstances. In fact, he was quite looking forward to the marriage now, so smitten he was with Mary AKA Cecilia!
On the contrary, Mary was finding it quite difficult to manage a life she'd never even dreamt of having, let alone a handsome devil of a fiancé who not only gives her butterflies in the stomach, but also a peer of the realm! How odd, yet it felt so good!! With trying to adjust to the new life which comprised of training to become a lady before the ball that'd be thrown to formally accept her into the family in two weeks, Mary was also getting to know Henry better. He was surprising her at every turn. Henry was not the happy-go-lucky rake she thought of him initially. He's very thoughtful, a gentleman to boots and he loved his family, especially his mother and 2 younger sisters.
Apart from the chaos that was her life now, Mary found that the Countess was really a kind woman, so maybe she'd be able to call her Mother one day. Her supposed grandma was a Dragon but she could be kind on occasion too. And she was already fond of her twin sister who welcomed her with an open arm. However, it seemed that the Earl himself wasn't happy with the discovery. In fact, on one occasion, he blurts out that he doesn't think the child survived, indirectly telling Mary he didn't believe she was Cecilia. It does disappoint Mary and worries her a bit. But overall, the whole thing was too overwhelming for her to actually feel any real slight.
But it'd be the day of her acceptance ball is when Mary's world will be tilted from its axis, once again, with another discovery. And boy oh boy, that was quite the revelation, totally took me by surprise! I sure as hell wasn't expecting it!! But this sudden change of plans will again leave Mary sad and overwhelmed... but mostly, with the understanding that it may mean she'd lose Henry, whom she'd become fond of. Maybe she'd even fallen in love with him. But what can she do? At that point, even bigger question was, will Henry do anything about it? Does he even feel anything for her to take that step?
Of course there is happily-ever-after for our lovelorn heroine and the gallant hero. Personally, I thought the whole story was utterly adorable. It felt neat and complete, which is a difficult task to acquire in novellas IMO. I had no doubt that Henry and Mary were meant to be together. Did I want to read a few more chapters with Henry and Mary together? Of course I did! But that didn't hinder my enjoyment. The only thing that slightly disappointed me was the fact that, like Alf whose story can be found in the "Duke of Desire", Mary's background also remains a mystery. But whereas it bugged me too much about Alf, didn't bug me nearly as much about Mary. 5 stars and very much recommended. As mentioned above, this can be read as a standalone. And while you're at it, why not give the series a try? :)
Punya H Rashid is a professional reviewer