Alistair Carsington really, really wishes he didn’t love women quite so much. To escape his worst impulses, he sets out for a place far from civilisation: Derbyshire- in winter, where he hopes to kill two birds with one stone: avoid all temptation, and repay the friend who saved his life on the battlefields of Waterloo. But this noble aim drops him straight into opposition with Miss Mirabel Oldridge, a woman every bit as intelligent, obstinate, and devious as he – and maddeningly irresistible.
Mirabel Oldridge already has her hands full keeping her brilliant and aggravatingly eccentric father out of trouble. The last thing she needs is a stunningly attractive, oversensitive and overbright aristocrat reminding her she has a heart – not to mention a body he claims is so unstylishly clothed that undressing her is practically a civic duty. Could the situation be any worse? And why does something that seems so wrong feel so very wonderful?
She began unbuttoning her pelisse. “I am one and thirty years old,” she said. “I should like to gather my rosebuds before the petals shrivel up and fall off.”
Really, this book ought to have been titled “MISTER Wonderful”, because its hero, Alastair Carsington is an absolute dreamboat. He’s handsome, witty and charming – of course – but beneath the surface veneer lurks the heart of a true romantic, a kind, generous man who is troubled by a past he can’t remember.
At twenty-nine, Alastair has cost his father, the Earl of Hargate, a small fortune over the years because of a number of “episodes of stupidity” (all of them because of his tendency to fall in love too easily), and has, ever since his return from Waterloo two years earlier, lived a highly extravagant lifestyle for which the earl has been footing the bill. But now Hargate has had enough, and gives his third son an ultimatum. He has six months in which to find a way to either find a way to support himself or he must find an heiress to marry. If he does not do either within the allotted time, the earl will be forced to sell the two properties he had set aside to provide an income for his two youngest sons in order to continue to support Alastair in the style to which he has become accustomed.
Alastair may be many things – extravagant, flippant, even odd – but he loves his family, and the thought of robbing his brothers of their inheritance is enough to finally spur him into action.
Shortly after receiving his father’s ultimatum, Alastair travels to rural Derbyshire on business. He and his closest friend, Lord Gordmor, are partners in a canal-building venture that has hit a snag in the form of Lord Oldridge, whose opposition to their scheme could see their plans come to naught and their finances ruined. Gordmor – Gordy – had planned to go himself, but is unwell, and sends Alastair to find out what is going on.
Mirabel Oldridge is thirty-one, opinionated, determined and, as Alastair is soon to discover, a formidable adversary. She is completely opposed to the building of the canal, and makes no bones about voicing that opposition. Given Alastair’s notoriety as a war hero and his status as a highly eligible bachelor and the son of an earl, all the other families of standing in the area (especially those with unmarried daughters!) have welcomed him with open arms, their previously voiced resistance now melting away. Yet Alastair isn’t willing to ride roughshod over Mirabel’s opposition even though, as a woman, she has no say in local affairs. His sense of honour demands that, as she is the de facto manager of her eccentric (and frequently absentee) father’s estate, she should have a voice, and he wants to know why she is opposed to a plan which will eventually bring many benefits to the local people.
There is much to love about this story, not least of which is the humour and wonderfully witty repartée that zings between the hero and heroine. Loretta Chase’s turn of phrase when it comes to the deadpan really is second-to-none, yet she’s as at home writing a deeply emotional character-enlightening or heartrending moment as she is with bringing the funny; in short, she can have you in tears one moment and laughing your head off the next, and that’s rare.
Mirabel is one of those heroines who takes care of everything and everyone around her, yet has never had a shoulder to lean on. Having experienced love when she was younger, but given it up in order to care for her father and his estate, she is more or less resigned to her spinsterish existence, until Alastair Carsington comes along and turns her world upside down. She can’t afford to be beguiled by a man – and especially not this man – and tries her damndest not to let him turn her head. But his kindness, his intelligence, his wit and his willingness to take her seriously very soon prove completely irresistible.
Knowing of his tendency to fall in love at the drop of a hat, Alastair isn’t especially surprised with himself when he’s attracted to the lovely yet atrociously dressed Miss Oldridge. His episodes of stupidity are all behind him and he reminds himself – repeatedly – that he can’t afford to fall for the woman with the potential to ruin him and by extension, his younger brothers. Yet, in spite – or perhaps because – of her terrible bonnets, out-moded dresses and untamable hair, she fascinates him more and more with each passing day.
Outwardly, Alastair is urbane and sophisticated, yet he lives with the knowledge that he hasn’t been quite right since Waterloo. He has big gaps in his memory and there is even talk that he’s not right in the head. His actions on the battlefield have earned him a reputation as a hero – but he can’t remember anything about that day, and feels like a fraud. But he pretends to remember, just as he pretends he hasn’t noticed the change in himself since his return. This vulnerability is one of the things that makes him such an attractive hero. He’s a man struggling to find his place in the world who knows it’s past time for him to grow up and stop relying on others to solve his problems.
Miss Wonderful is a terrific read, although it does have a few small flaws. Alastair and Mirabel make a great couple, and their romance is sensual, tender and full of warmth and humour. But Mirabel is difficult to like at times because she’s so unwilling to consider another point of view and, in her desperation to thwart the canal scheme, she resorts to some pretty underhand tactics. And there’s a sub-plot introduced quite late on into the story concerning a disgruntled former employee which feels a bit “tacked on” and didn’t really hold my interest, because by then I was so taken up with rooting for Alastair and Mirabel to work things out that I got impatient with anything that took time away from the romance.
But that’s a minor point, because the book is a delight from start to finish, and one that’s definitely going on my keeper shelf.