Once Upon a Christmas Eve

By: Elizabeth Hoyt

A Maiden Lane Novella




Chapter One



Now once upon a time there was a prince who was handsome, vain, and really rather full of himself.

His name was Brad.…

—From The Frog Princess



December 1741

Upper Hornsfield, England

Adam Rutledge, Viscount d’Arque loathed Christmas. The banal cheerfulness. The sly demands for charity. The asinine party games.

Oh, and the obligatory journey to the countryside.

The last was the reason he found himself in his present predicament. Late at night. In a snowstorm. In a wrecked carriage. On some godforsaken road. With his grandmother, Victoire Moore, Baroness Whimple.

His grandmother loved Christmas.

And Adam loved his grandmother.

“Hal informs me both the wheel and the axle are broken,” Adam said as he tucked the furs more securely around the delicate skin of Grand-mère’s chin. She’d been trying to hide a cough from him for the last several days. “The heated bricks should keep you warm. I’m taking one of the horses and striking out to seek refuge. I pray for a fat country squire with buxom daughters—or at least good brandy.”

His grandmother snorted. “Attempt not to be so distracted by the buxom daughters that you leave your grandmother to freeze.”

“Never, darling.” He leaned down to kiss her on her creped cheek, glanced at his grandmother’s elderly maid, sleeping beside her, and then turned and swiftly left the carriage.

Outside, the wind drove fine, icy flakes of snow into his face as he trudged to Hal and the two footmen.

Hal, the driver of the wrecked carriage, looked up as he neared. “We’ve got ’er un’itched, m’lord.”

Adam nodded. “Good. You’ve your pistols?”

Richard, the elder of the footmen, nodded. “Yes, m’lord.”

“Stay with my grandmother,” Adam ordered. “I doubt there’ll be any highwaymen out on a night like this, but be ’ware in any case. I’ll return as soon as I can.”

Richard gave him a leg up on the mare, and then Adam was off.

They’d passed the light of a house not that far back—two miles, maybe less, according to Hal—but he was riding into the wind, without a saddle, and could see only a few feet in front of the nag’s nose.

His main concern was making sure he stayed on the road. The land dropped off a bit on the right, and if the horse wandered in the darkness they’d take a tumble that would be rather a bother—especially if he broke his neck.

He bowed his head against the wind and nudged the mare onto the road.

A half hour later Adam had managed to coax the mare into a jolting trot and was just beginning to wonder if his fingers were completely frozen when he caught sight of glowing lights.

Thank God.

He wanted Grand-mère out of that carriage and in front of a roaring fire as soon as possible.

Stone pillars marked a drive, which was a good sign—a country residence of some standing, then. He turned the mare’s head, and they made their way down a winding approach that might’ve been scenic. At the moment he could see naught but the blinding snow and the growing glow of those lights.

The drive ended abruptly before a massive mansion. Lovely. Hopefully he hadn’t seduced the country squire’s wife in London during his rather checkered past—or at least, if he had, he hoped the country squire wasn’t aware of it.

Adam dismounted his gallant steed—with less grace than usual owing to the fact that his feet appeared to have turned to ice—and climbed the front steps. He pounded on the door—and continued pounding until it was opened by a coldly unwelcoming face.

The man, though untitled, was from one of the oldest aristocratic families in Britain. He was tall, wore a gray wig, and regarded Adam over a pair of half-moon spectacles. Many people might think the man standing in the doorway benign and boring on first glance.

Many people would be bloody wrong.

Damn. This was worse than a cuckolded country squire.

“Yes?” said Godric St. John.

Adam affixed a genial smile to his lips, though he wasn’t entirely sure it worked because he couldn’t actually feel his lips. “St. John. How fortuitous. My carriage has wrecked on the road several miles back and I wonder—”

“Has it?” interrupted St. John rudely.

Adam narrowed his eyes, his smile still in place. Or at least he hoped so—frozen lips and all. “Yes, my grand—”

“Who is it, Godric?”

And here came the reason for St. John’s boorishness. Dark-brown curls tumbling down from a haphazardly made coiffure, pink cheeks blossoming sweetly, brown eyes alight with curiosity, one small brat on her hip and—good God—another swelling her belly to alarming proportions, Lady Margaret St. John sailed into the hall behind her husband. Flirt with a man’s wife once—quite innocently!—and he never seemed to forget it.

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