Once Upon a Maiden Lane

A Maiden Lane Novella


By Elizabeth Hoyt

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A stand-alone novella from New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Hoyt!

Miss Mary Whitsun is far too intelligent to fall for the rakish charms of a handsome aristocrat. But when the gentleman in question approaches her in a bookshop, mistaking her for his fiancée, Lady Johanna Albright, the flirtatious encounter only raises more questions. Could Mary, a servant raised in a St Giles orphanage, actually be Lady Joanna’s long-lost twin sister? If so, Mary has been betrothed since birthto the rakishly handsome artistocrat himself . . .

Henry Collins, Viscount Blackwell, is far too intrigued by Mary to let her go so easily. He’s drawn to her sharp mind, indomitable spirit, and the fiery way in which she dismisses himladies simply don’t dismiss Lord Blackwell. But as Mary makes her first hesitant steps into society, she can’t help but wonder if she truly has a place in Henry’s worldor in his heart.


Chapter One

Once upon a time there lived a mermaid who was very curious. Her name was Clio.…

—From The Curious Mermaid

Mary Whitsun did not like comely gentlemen. She knew it to be an un-Christian prejudice, but there it was nonetheless: she disapproved of and distrusted them. In her experience—not very extensive, it must be admitted, because she was not quite one and twenty—comely gentlemen tended to be aware of exactly how handsome they were. They were affected and flirtatious when a girl just wanted to mind her own business, and they had a tendency to become irate if she did not respond to their ridiculous overtures.

And that was just common handsome gentlemen. An aristocratic handsome gentleman was far worse should he take it into his head to cast his supposed charms upon a woman such as she.

Aristocrats were not used to hearing the word no—especially from maidservants.

Thus it was with no small amount of vexation that Mary realized that an excruciatingly attractive aristocrat was watching her in her favorite bookstore.

Bugger it all.

It was her one full day off for the week, and she had planned to spend several lovely hours perusing the volumes for sale at Adams and Sons before a frugal luncheon at the nearby tea shop. She'd been saving for weeks just for this day, and she'd really rather not have it ruined by some spoiled rake.

Mary moved behind a shelf, hoping that out of sight might mean out of mind for the fellow. She took down The History of Herodotus and pretended to scan the little book while keeping an eye on the shop door. Perhaps he'd leave the bookshop and then she could continue with—

"Sweetheart, whatever are you about?"

The male voice was soft and deep and murmured in her ear from right behind her.

It was only by the greatest use of self-control that Mary didn't shriek and fling poor Herodotus up in the air.

Slowly she turned and leveled her very best nursery stare at the beautiful aristocrat. It was a stare that made small children immediately put away their toys and ready themselves for bed, but alas, it appeared to be ineffective on males over the age of two.

The one in front of her was at least eight and twenty, and he merely grinned down at her and said, "Is it a wager of some sort?"

When he smiled the comely aristocrat did the impossible and became even more attractive. He already had deep-blue eyes—set off wonderfully by a dark-blue coat, black waistcoat, and snowy white neckcloth—curling jet-black hair clubbed back into a tail, a strong jaw, and a wide, sensual mouth, but when the man smiled, he revealed white, even teeth and dimples on either side of his mouth.


Mary placed Herodotus firmly back on the shelf and turned toward the shop door.


There was no reason for her to stop and look at him at his command, and yet something compelled her to do just that.

The handsome aristocrat wasn't grinning anymore. In fact, he looked a bit puzzled.

No doubt he wasn't used to maidservants walking away from him.

"This is a very odd sort of game," he said.

"I don't consider it a game at all, sir," she replied. "Good day."

"No, but wait," he protested again, this time laying his hand on her arm.

Mary stiffened. "Unhand me, sir."

"If I'd known you liked books, I would've escorted you here myself," he said slowly, searching her face in the oddest manner. His gaze dropped to her gray linsey-woolsey gown and neat white apron. "Although I'm not sure why you've chosen that costume. Rather plain, isn't it?"

Mary frowned up at him. It was early in the day to be intoxicated, but one never knew with beautiful male aristocrats. They tended to be an undisciplined lot. "I'll thank you not to make comment on my person, and I certainly don't need you or anyone else to escort me to the bookshop, sir. Now let me go."

But instead of doing as she asked, he grasped her other arm and turned her so that she faced him. He bent his head, peering at her, black brows drawn together over his startling blue eyes. "Lady Joanna?"

"That is quite enough," Mary said in a firm tone. "You've had your amusement at my expense, sir, but now the jest has grown old. Let me go or I shall be forced to notify my employer. He is—"

"You're not Lady Joanna," he interrupted her, having apparently not paid attention to a word she'd said.

"I'm sorry to ask this, but were you dropped on your head as a child?" Mary inquired sweetly. "Because that would certainly explain the inability to follow a simple conversation."

He grinned. "No, you're not Lady Joanna at all, are you, sweetheart? You're much too fiery."

"I," Mary enunciated with deep disapproval, "am not your sweetheart."

"Actually, that remains to be seen," he muttered under his breath, which did not in any way calm Mary's alarm. "What's your name?"

She stared at him, mutely. Perhaps she could wait him out.

"Stubborn," he said, possibly to himself, since he obviously wasn't talking to her. "Very stubborn, but the eyes more than make up for it. And the wit. Good Lord, this is amazing…"

She narrowed said eyes and opened her mouth to make a very cutting rejoinder, but he beat her to it.

"May I introduce myself then? I am Henry Collins, Viscount Blackwell."

He made an elaborate and showy bow to her as if she were a lady.

By the time he straightened, Mary knew her face was aflame. This was why she hated well-favored aristocrats so: they thought nothing of mocking poor girls for their own sport.

"Are you done now, my lord?" she asked, her voice frozen.

"No, I'm afraid not," he said ruefully. "Look here, I don't suppose you'll let me escort you to…erm…your place of employment?"

She arched an incredulous eyebrow.

"No, naturally not," he murmured. "Has anyone ever told you that you're very, very suspicious?"

"Not that I can remember."

"It's just that I can't let you go without finding out your name and where you live."

She sighed in absolute exasperation. "Why would I ever tell you those things?"

"Because," he said, those damnable dimples coming into devastating play again, "I'm almost certain that we're meant to be engaged."


Henry felt the corners of his mouth quirk up as the little maidservant gave him a narrow-eyed, outraged look that wouldn't be out of place on the countenance of a duchess.

Or, well, the long-lost daughter of an earl.

The girl before him had a very familiar face: large coffee-brown eyes, heavy mahogany hair, an oval face so perfect she could have posed for a medieval Madonna. She looked, in fact, exactly like his fiancée, Lady Joanna.

And there the similarity between them ended.

He'd grown up with Lady Joanna, considered her almost a sister. Lady Joanna was silly, sweet, and sometimes vaguely irritating.

He'd long been used to the idea of marrying her.

This woman caught his attention and held it. She was impatient and sharp tongued, and he had the sneaking suspicion that she disapproved of everything about him—right down to his stockings.

He ought to find her tartness dismaying.

Instead he was intrigued.

He wasn't used to a lady so obviously disliking him. Most had a rather dismaying tendency to fall at his feet, truth be told. In fact, he was so accustomed to feminine approval that he noticed it only when faced with its opposite: a lady who knit her pretty brows at him while frowning down her slim nose.

She was rather refreshing.

"The thing is," he began, only to be interrupted by a great oaf.

"There you are, Blackwell," said the oaf—more commonly known as John Seymour, third scion of Baron Bramston. "Can't believe you dragged me to a bookseller's. Place is full of dust, and there's an old chap behind the counter who looks dead. Let's go—" Seymour stopped abruptly, probably because the maidservant had turned at his voice and he'd finally seen her face.

He stared.


And said, "You're not Lady Joanna."

Which was a bit disappointing, because Henry would've bet his new riding mare that Seymour would be just as taken in by the uncanny resemblance as he.

For the first time the maidservant's brow cleared, and she almost smiled—at Seymour of all people. "No, I'm not, sir."

"However, you're enough alike you might be her sister," Seymour continued.

"Exactly," Henry said. "The Albright twin."

Seymour frowned. "Thought she was dead."

The maidservant huffed and started to walk away.

Henry stepped in front of her, blocking the way, still talking to Seymour. "No body was ever found. And the nursemaid was quite out of her mind."

Seymour turned fully to him. "You can't think…"

"Look at her."

Seymour studied the girl, his somewhat protuberant pale-brown eyes widening. "Good Lord!"

The girl tried to sidestep around Henry. "Do you mind?"

He pursed his lips ruefully, attempting to look solemn. "I'm afraid I do, sweetheart."

"I'm not your—"

"But that's the thing," Henry said. "You might very well be my sweetheart. Can you at least tell me who your people are? Who were your parents? If you were born in the country and have seven brothers and sisters who all resemble you, well, then we're wrong, and I'll apologize and leave you be."

She looked at him, and that was the moment when he truly knew—because she hesitated. "I…don't know where I was born," she said, lifting her chin. "I was raised at the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children in St Giles. I was left on their doorstep when I was a baby—on Whitsunday."

"What year?" Henry asked, holding her gaze. Those coffee-brown eyes were a bit fearful now, and he mourned that—she was such a proud little thing—but he had to know.

She swallowed. "Seventeen twenty-six."

He felt a slow grin curve his lips. "That was the year the Albright twins, the daughters of William Albright, the Earl of Angrove, were stolen from their nursery by a mad nurse. A fortnight later the younger of the two, Lady Joanna, was recovered in good health. The elder, Lady Cecilia, was never found."

Her pretty rose-red lips parted for a moment as she stared at him.

Then she blinked, and her eyes narrowed with what looked like suspicion. "You cannot expect me to believe this ridiculous tale, my lord."

"It's actually rather well known," Seymour said, sounding apologetic. "Was a scandal at the time. I know this sounds like the veriest balderdash, miss, but you do look quite a lot like Lady Joanna. I wonder if you might tell us your name?"

She pursed those luscious lips but finally said, "My name is Mary Whitsun. I'm a nursemaid. And now, if you will excuse me, I would like to enjoy the rest of my day off in peace."

Henry bowed and stepped back. "Certainly. But won't you tell me where you reside? If you don't mind, I would like to call upon you tomorrow afternoon."

Her brows rose. "Do your maidservants usually entertain visitors at your house?"

Her tone had such bite.

He grinned. "This is a special case. I think your employer will be persuaded to make an exception."

"Well, I don't wish to tell you where I live. Good day, my lord." She turned and made her way out of the bookshop.

Henry watched her walk away. The minute she was out the door he was after her.

"What—?" Seymour started, but Henry ignored him.

He opened the bookshop door in time to see that prim back retreating down the busy London street.

Just in front of the shop, a trio of boys of about twelve were loitering.

"Want to earn some money?" he asked them.

The boys came to attention.

Henry quickly explained his needs and gave them each a coin with promise of more should they successfully fulfill their mission.

Then they were off, weaving through the mass of people.

Henry turned to see Seymour by his side.

"What was that all about?" his friend asked.

"She was suspicious of me," Henry said quietly. "I can't simply let her go."

He stared after her, though she'd long since disappeared into the crowd. He had an almost overwhelming urge to follow her, as if she might be lost again. Ridiculous. He'd already set three urchins on her trail.

Besides. He didn't know her. She was a stranger to him. If anything, he should be appalled at the mere possibility that he might be tied to a woman who'd been raised as a servant instead of a lady.

Yet he was oddly eager to find out more about the girl.

He looked at Seymour. "Well. I'd thought to attend the horse auction this afternoon, but I think on the whole we ought to pay a visit to Lady Joanna and the Countess of Angrove, don't you?"

Chapter Two

Clio lived beneath the sea with all the other mermaids, each more beautiful than the last. When the mermaids sang, the waves themselves stilled, and sailors were helplessly enthralled.

Nearby dwelt the Sea King and his seven sons in his gold palace. The youngest of these sons was Triton. He had shoulders like boulders, a complexion the color of coral, sea-green eyes, and hair that waved in the water like black seaweed. Since childhood Triton and Clio had been friends.…

—From The Curious Mermaid

Mary arrived back at Caire House a little after five of the clock—earlier than she'd originally planned, but she'd been unable to shake the silly tale the viscount had told her, which had rather ruined her day. Stolen babies and lords and ladies—what rot.

But what if…?

Mary remembered Lord Blackwell's startlingly blue eyes and the way he'd sparred with her. He'd said she was supposed to marry him, a beautiful, laughing aristocrat.

It was like a fairy tale.

She grimaced and shook her head. A fairy tale indeed. It was too ridiculous to even consider. Just as well that she'd not given him her address. Who knew how far he would've taken his jest?

Mary pushed open the back door to Caire House and walked into the warm kitchen.

The cook, a wiry woman of about five and forty, looked up from kneading a huge mass of dough. "Back early, then, Mary Whitsun?"

"I'm afraid so, Mrs. Green," Mary replied.

"Then I suppose you'll be joining us for supper." The cook jerked her chin at one of the scullery maids. "Mary Giving, make sure to set enough for Mary Whitsun tonight."

"Aye, Mrs. Green," called Mary Giving. She, like almost all the servants at Caire House, had come from the orphanage.

"Thank you," Mary said and hurried from the kitchen.

The servants' stairs were immediately outside the kitchen. Mary climbed the narrow uncarpeted treads. She couldn't stop thinking about Lord Blackwell. He'd been so sure of himself and who he thought she was. So arrogant and easy in his rank and privilege.

And his laughing blue eyes had been surrounded by the thickest black lashes she'd ever seen.

She scoffed at herself. That was the problem with handsome gentlemen: they had a way of distracting one.

She reached the uppermost floor of the house and turned down the corridor. On either side was a row of doors. Hers was the second on the right. Unlike most of the other maidservants she had a room all to herself—a luxury she appreciated after a childhood spent in a girls' dormitory. Her room was small, just under the eaves, but it held a neat bed, a small table with a white stoneware washbasin and pitcher, a chair, and a row of hooks. The chair sat beside a window that overlooked the square at the front of Caire House. Mary liked sitting there at night, her room dark, watching the bustle of London. The city never entirely quieted. At night carriages rolled by, carrying wonderfully dressed ladies and gentlemen on their way to balls and the theater. Drivers arguing and shouting to each other. The night watchmen strolled by with their clubs over their shoulders. Drunken lords and beggars huddled around bonfires. She could see all the world from her little window.

Mary took off her bonnet and hung it on a hook along with her shawl and then went to her bed and sat on it, smoothing the pale-blue coverlet. Above the bed was a small shelf fastened to the wall. On it was her little collection of books, each carefully saved for and agonized over before being bought.

She folded her hands in her lap.

She had lived in this room since the age of fourteen, when Lady Caire had married Lord Caire. Lady Caire hadn't been born to the aristocracy—far from it. Prior to her marriage she'd helped manage the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children in St Giles. Mary had known Lady Caire all her life. Her earliest memory was of Lady Caire picking her up after Mary had fallen and scraped her palms. Mary had buried her face in Lady Caire's shoulder, trying to stanch her tears. The older woman had smelled of lavender and baked bread, and Mary had wrapped her arms around Lady Caire's soft neck and known love.

So when Lady Caire had brought her to Caire House, Mary had been overwhelmed with happiness. She knew very well how lucky she was to find such a good position with a kind mistress—especially since she was an orphan with no family.

Mary sighed and stood, glancing around her simple room. This…this was a good life, and she was content with it. Dreams of living as a lady were nothing but folly—even if they were accompanied by beautiful male dimples.

Nodding to herself, she left her room.

The floor below housed the nursery, and Mary could hear giggling as she walked down the hall.

She came to the nursery room door and peered in, discovering at once the source of the merriment. Lady Caire, usually quite a dignified lady, was on the floor, her brown hair coming undone down the side of her face, her cheeks red with laughter and her two-year-old son perched on her stomach. Beside her, sitting straight-backed on the floor and looking a bit more reserved, was a lady with black hair highlighted by a striking white streak. This was the Duchess of Montgomery—Lady Caire's sister-in-law. In the duchess's lap was a delicate little three-year-old girl solemnly watching the proceedings.

Tobias Huntington—better known to his intimates as Toby—caught sight of Mary in the doorway and clapped his hands. "Mimi! Mimi!"

"It's Mare-ee," his mother enunciated clearly but obviously without any real hope of being heeded. She sighed and smiled up at Mary. "I do hope he's not still calling you Mimi in ten years' time."

Mary shook her head. "I doubt he will, my lady."

Toby was now holding his arms in the air and making urgent clasping motions with his pudgy little fingers. Mary walked over and picked him up, inhaling the scent of clean baby as he smooshed his face into her neck.

"Oof," Lady Caire said, sitting up gingerly. "He may be getting too big to be playing horsey anymore."

"Although it is rather adorable," the duchess murmured, bending to place a kiss on her daughter's wispy blond curls.

Lady Caire smiled at her sister-in-law.

"Mama," said the sixth person in the room, Annalise Huntington, aged eight, who was curled in a chair with her cat, Lord Sneaky, "I don't think you should play with Toby that way. It's not at all proper."


On Sale
Nov 14, 2017
Page Count
100 pages
Forever Yours

Elizabeth Hoyt

About the Author

Elizabeth Hoyt is the New York Times bestselling author of over seventeen lush historical romances including the Maiden Lane series. Publishers Weekly has called her writing “mesmerizing.” She also pens deliciously fun contemporary romances under the name Julia Harper. Elizabeth lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with three untrained dogs, a garden in constant need of weeding, and the long-suffering Mr. Hoyt.
The winters in Minnesota have been known to be long and cold and Elizabeth is always thrilled to receive reader mail. You can write to her at: P.O. Box 19495, Minneapolis, MN 55419 or email her at: Elizabeth@ElizabethHoyt.com.

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