Melting the Snow Queen
A liight, fun Regency fairytale from Mary Lancaster.
Once Upon a Kiss
They call her the Snow Queen…for no man can thaw her frozen heart.
Lady Alba Snowden lost her first love when she was seventeen. Since then, no man has touched her heart – until the summer she encounters wild, fun-loving Russian Prince Yuri Volkov, who is visiting London with the Tsar.
Dazzled by Alba’s beauty, Yuri follows her to her country home, determined to melt her frozen heart. In the process, he helps her family out of several scrapes and falls in love. But summer is not their time, and Alba and Yuri separate over misunderstandings and the ill will of others.
Without Yuri, Alba’s heart ices up in the winter cold, until she seems to no longer care for anyone or anything. Only her young brother and sister see the danger and set in motion a reckless plan to reunite the couple.
Read an excerpt below
Lady Alba had no warning that fate was about to interfere with her journey.
Having finally obtained her father’s permission to return to Winbourne, she set off before he could change his mind. She had summoned the carriage for six o’clock in the morning, and by one minute past, the bleary-eyed footmen were stowing her luggage on the roof. Before ten minutes more had passed, the carriage, containing Alba and her maid, turned out of Grosvenor Square and onto Grosvenor Street, which is where her plan went horribly wrong.
One of the reasons she had set out so early was to avoid all the extra traffic that plagued the capital during the current victory celebrations, which included the visit of the famously young and handsome Russian Tsar. But Alba’s carriage had only got halfway down the street before coming to an abrupt halt.
Alba frowned. “Now what?” she exclaimed to Siddons, her maid. “Surely there is no traffic to speak of at six o’clock in the morning!”
Siddons pulled down the window and peered out. At once, the ruckus from the street became apparent. Alba could hear the clash of steel, various male shouts of encouragement, and even laughter.
“Oh, my,” Siddons said breathlessly. “It’s a duel, my lady! With swords! Or maybe they’re just practicing. At any rate, they’re all over the road and there’s a crowd of young bucks cheering them on.” She sniffed. “In my view, they’re all intoxicated.”
“At this time of the morning?”
“Probably haven’t stopped all night.”
John Coachman shouted down, “Tell her ladyship we’re going to turn around.”
“Nonsense!” Alba exclaimed. “Drive through the louts. I don’t see why they should be allowed to discommode us!”
“You won’t like it,” John said bluntly. He had known her all her life and never minced his words.
“I shan’t deign to notice,” she retorted.
The horses began to trot forward again. Siddons closed the window hastily and sat back down.
Despite her disdain, Alba couldn’t help looking through the window. The young men seemed to have spilled out of one of the houses on the right, for several[KY1] sat on the front steps with bottles and glasses. One appeared to be collecting money and making notes in a book.
“They must be wagering on the winner,” Siddons remarked.
“Idiocy,” Alba said with a curl of her lip.
Others stood around, talking excitedly and gesticulating or walking back and forth, presumably observing the fight more closely as they yelled out advice. On either side of the street, various windows had opened and people in nightcaps were threatening the Watch and other dire retribution. Except one man with a tousled head who seemed to want to lay “A pony on the Russkie!”
The fighters hurtled into view, one being driven back by the force of the other’s sword, which he parried on his own. They fought in pantaloons and shirt sleeves. One looked like Lord Rawley, whom Alba had met at several parties. He frowned with deep concentration as he defended himself against the fierce onslaught of his opponent—who appeared to be thoroughly enjoying himself. Black hair wild, eyes alight, he was actually grinning with delight, even when Rawley evaded him and drove him back.
“Leg it!” came a warning yell from behind Alba’s carriage. “It’s the Watch.”
“Later, sir!” Rawley panted and simply ran.
“Oi!” his opponent protested, letting his arm fall. “What…?”
“Run, Volkov!” yelled the tousled man from the first-floor window.
Miraculously, the young men and their bottles had vanished from the front step and the street had emptied, leaving only the carriage and the solitary dueler, who looked around in bafflement. His gaze landed on the carriage, focused on Alba.
Her heart gave a funny little lurch.
The carriage rolled forward. As though suddenly understanding what was happening, the dueler glanced up the street. Alba was sure she heard a breathless shout of laughter as she lost sight of him.
But then, suddenly, he was there again, sprinting beside the carriage. A moment later, he jumped, wrenching open the door, and flew inside, slamming the door closed behind him.
Siddons launched herself in front of Alba. “Don’t you dare touch my lady!”
“I would not dream of it,” the young man assured her, all but falling onto the opposite seat, his sword pointing to the floor. His accent was exotically foreign, his voice deep and pleasing. But with him had blown in an unmistakable smell of alcohol and an alien atmosphere of violence and debauchery that had never before confronted Alba. “Forgive the intrusion, my lady. I believe the Watch is after me, and if they catch me…well, I shall embarrass more than myself.”
Alba pushed Siddons aside and regarded him haughtily. Although her heartbeat had quickened, she was not consciously afraid. “If you are embarrassed by brawling in the street —which you should be—then you should not have done so in the first place.” She sat forward, reaching for the speaking tube through which she could instruct John to stop and eject their unwanted guest.
“I am at your mercy, of course,” the foreigner said.
For some reason, that made her pause. She stared at him. “I have no mercy.”
He smiled, at once teasing and cajoling, “Of course, you do.” His dark eyes somehow sparkled with merriment, inviting her conspiracy.
And she very nearly smiled back. Fortunately, she stopped herself in time by biting her lip, an act which, for some reason, intensified the smile in his eyes. Her breath caught as his gaze and his smile lingered.
The carriage slowed once more—not for the Watch but for the toll gate at Hyde Park Corner. And quite suddenly, their unwanted guest sprang to his feet, dragging with him the blanket from under the seat.
“There, I knew you were merciful. Thank you.” Even before the coach had halted, he opened the door, jumped down without stumbling, and loped off toward the park, wrapping the sword in the folded blanket as he went. He presented a very strange figure in his smart boots and shirt sleeves, carrying an oddly shaped burden. But the streets were quiet and no one stopped him.
It was two o’clock in the afternoon before Captain Yuri Ivanovich Volkov returned to the house on Grosvenor Street. The servant sighed and let him in. “His lordship’s asleep, sir, but if you care to leave a note—”
“At this hour?” Volkov interrupted. “Then it’s time he was up.” Without further invitation, he simply sprinted up the stairs, his sword clanking at his side, and tracked down Lord Rawley’s bedchamber by following the smell of stale alcohol.
His lordship sat bolt upright in bed, clutching his head and staring at Volkov. “Not now,” he groaned. “Don’t you ever sleep?”
“Between eight and twelve,” Volkov replied, throwing himself into the chair in the corner.
“Please go away,” Rawley begged. “I promise I’ll finish our wretched duel tomorrow, if you insist. But frankly, I can’t even remember what we were fighting over.”
Volkov waved that aside. “It doesn’t matter. It was only fun.”
“Fun?” Rawley repeated, raising his head from his hands to stare at his visitor. “Fun? You damned near killed me! Several times!”
“No, I didn’t,” Volkov scoffed. “I was nowhere near that drunk. Besides, I count you a friend. I’ve come about another matter entirely.”
Rawley regarded him with a mixture of hope and suspicion. “Oh?”
“The carriage that bowled down the street while we fought. Whose was it?”
“How the devil should I know? I didn’t exactly have time to look.”
“It had a coat of arms on the side,” Volkov prompted.
Rawley frowned as if the words had jogged some memory. “So, it did. It might belong to Ruthin.”
“Ruthin?” Volkov prompted.
“The Duke of Ruthin. God, I hope I’m wrong for he’s a fiercely proper old bird and if he doesn’t hand me to the law, he’ll jaw me to death next time we meet.”
“Oh, no, this was no duke. A duchess, perhaps. Young, fair, the most dazzlingly beautiful woman I have ever seen.”
“Ah,” Rawley said with an air of understanding. “Not the duchess, but the Snow Queen herself.”
“The Snow Queen?” Volkov repeated, even more intrigued.
“Ruthin’s eldest daughter, Lady Alba Snowden.”
“And why do you call her the Snow Queen?”
Rawley shrugged. “Partly, a play on her name. Alba, meaning white. And Snowden. But mostly because, despite the legions besieging her hand, her heart remains encased in ice. Yours was a rare sighting. She doesn’t go out in society much now.”
“I can only suppose we bore her,” Rawley said ruefully. “Which is, in fact, sadder than all that dowry going to waste. Plus, the fortune she inherits in her own right.”
“Snowden,” Volkov repeated, frowning. He stood up and paced to the window and back. “Don’t I know that name?”
“You know Lord Oscar. Captain Snowden. He was here last night.”
“Oscar!” Volkov brightened at once. “Of course! Where do I find him?”
“At Ruthin House, just round the corner in Grosvenor Square. But if you’re looking for an introduction, it will do you no good. She’ll dismiss you with one flick of her elegant eyebrow.”
“A man must try,” Volkov said with a grin.
“You really think you can melt the Snow Queen’s heart, where the rest of the country has failed?”
“Well, I am not of your country.”
“Why would that be in your favor? A hundred says you don’t even get close enough for a kiss.”
“Done,” Volkov said promptly, though he wasn’t truly listening. It was simply his habit never to refuse a wager.
“She has to kiss you, mind. No stealing.”
Volkov, already on his way to the door, scowled over his shoulder. “What do you take me for?”
“Don’t get in a miff,” Rawley said hastily. “Just laying down the rules.”
Volkov curled his lip and left. Clattering down the stairs, he let himself out and strode up the length of Grosvenor Street to the square. He discovered which house was the Duke of Ruthin’s by the simple expedient of asking and was soon waiting on the doorstep of one of the largest town houses.
When the door was answered, he presented his card and asked for Captain Lord Oscar Snowden. Almost to his surprise, he was admitted right away and conducted across the hallway into a rather sterile reception room. He couldn’t imagine encountering his Snow Queen here, but his heartbeat quickened at the thought that she could be in the house.
Hasty footsteps crossing the hall heralded the entrance of Lord Oscar in civilian dress. Apart from his somewhat bloodshot eyes, there was little sign of last night’s excesses.
“Volkov!” Snowden held out his hand with casual amiability. “Very glad to see you. Drink?”
“Not yet, but don’t let me stop you.”
Lord Oscar shuddered. “I wish you’d stopped me last night.”
“About last night,” Volkov pounced. “Or, at least, early this morning. There was a carriage in the midst of my fight with Rawley.”
Snowden shuddered again. “I know. Why do you think I bolted back into the house? Even before the Watch came.”
“Then it was your family’s arms on the side?”
“Oh, yes. The only blessing is, it was far too early to be my father.”
“There was a lady inside.”
“Alba. My sister. She’s gone to the country.”
Volkov was aware the blow of disappointment was quite out of proportion to the situation. Perhaps he was still drunk. “I’m sorry to hear that. I was hoping to give her my apologies and my thanks in person.”
A frown dragged down Lord Oscar’s brow. “Apologies? For what?”
“I’m afraid I leapt into the coach and stole a ride to Hyde Park.”
Snowden’s suspicious frown vanished. Instead, his eyes widened in clear surprise. “And she let you?”
“Drunk, improperly dressed and waving a naked sword around,” Volkov said ruefully. “She probably didn’t think she had much choice in the matter.”
“You didn’t frighten her, did you?” Snowden demanded.
“She didn’t look frightened. In fact, she told me off.”
A quick grin flickered across her brother’s face. “Yes, that’s Alba.”
“You see my need to apologize. And I stole a blanket from the coach to wrap my sword in.”
“Don’t worry about it. The blanket is a gift. For the rest, I’ll let Alba know you’re a friend of mine and pass on your apologies.”
Volkov hesitated. “I suppose you will be joining your sister in the country?”
“God, no. My stepmother’s there.”
“But you are on an extended leave, are you not? You look as if you could do with the recuperation time.”
“Thank you,” Snowden said dryly. “I wish I could say the same to you. I don’t know where you Russians put it.”
“We are born so miserable that it takes twice as much even to reach the stage of mellowness, let alone happiness.”
Lord Oscar snorted. “You? You’ve never been miserable in your life.”
“I assure you, I can be the most miserable of men to walk the earth…for example, if I never lay eyes on your sister again...”
“Oh lord,” Snowden groaned. “You’re not barking up that tree, are you? They don’t call her the Snow Queen for nothing. Besides, I’m pretty sure you’re not the kind of fellow my father wants dangling after her.”
“Russian?” Volkov said dangerously.
“Debauched,” Snowden retorted.
“But you surely do not doubt I am a gentleman?”
Snowden sat on the arm of the nearest chair. “No. I think you’re an honorable soldier who has been through hell in the last two years. Trust me, you do not need my sister messing up your life. She probably won’t even speak to you, anyhow, if you invaded her carriage.”
Volkov, who treasured the moment he was sure she’d been about to smile at him, shrugged that off. However icy her outward manners, she was not without humor. “Allow me to see for myself. Take me with you to your country home.”
Snowden blinked. “Neither of us has the time.”
“You are on extended leave, are you not?”
“Yes, but you’re not. You are at the Emperor’s beck and call.”
That was a fair point, in theory at least, though Volkov’s duties had been very few and far between. Volkov suspected he was there merely to swell the Tsar’s entourage and add to His Imperial Majesty’s consequence with his fellow monarchs. “If I can make it right with the Tsar, shall we go?”
“You’ll be bored in the country,” warned Snowden.
“I was brought up in the country. I love it.”
“You love everything,” Snowden grumbled. “Just don’t love my sister. She’s left a trail of broken hearts across most of the country.”
“Did she care for none of them?”
“Not one jot. Well…” He hesitated, then shrugged. “She was engaged to be married once, five years ago when she was just seventeen. He died two weeks before their wedding. She’s never really been the same since. She is not cruel or deliberately unkind—she doesn’t flirt or jilt or toy with anyone’s affections. I just don’t think she’ll ever care for anyone but him.”
How sad… What a waste of such beauty, such spirit.
But then, Volkov had always relished a challenge.