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‘Five berries equal the five separate kisses I challenge you to steal.’
Notorious rake Henry Stuart, Earl of Redbridge is certain he’ll win his Christmas bet – until he learns he’ll be stealing Lady Elizabeth Wilding’s kisses. A woman who refuses to be charmed!
Once jilted, Lizzie must guard her heart because the ton is unaware of her scandalous secret – her son! Despite their increasing attraction, she can’t risk the persistent Hal bringing down her defences. But, when her former fiancé returns Lizzie realises that perhaps Hal’s the one man she can trust – with her heart and her son…
If you only read one Christmassy historical romance this year, I’d strongly advise you to make it this one. His Mistletoe Wager is simply delightful from start to finish; it’s funny, it’s sexy, it’s full of warmth and tenderness – and in Hal Stuart, Virginia Heath has created one of the most swoonworthy heroes I’ve read all year.
The story opens with a prologue set five years before the book proper begins, with Lady Elizabeth Wilding awaiting the arrival of her bridegroom, the Marquess of Rainham. She’s blissfully happy, deeply in love with her fiancé and can’t wait to tell him the news that she’s to bear his child – but her hopes for a bright future are dashed when her brother arrives at the church to tell her that Rainham isn’t coming. He has run off with the Duke of Aylesbury’s daughter and her large fortune.
Five years on, and we learn that Elizabeth – whose aloofness and icy demeanour have earned her the nickname “sullen Lizzie” – is still moving about in society, having had her child in secret with the full support of her family, which is a refreshing change from so many stories where a heroine “in trouble” is disowned. Her father, a prominent member of the government, is eager for Lizzie to marry, and has, over the past few years, paraded suitor after suitor in front of her in the hopes that one of them would take her fancy – but to no avail. Lizzie is determined to remain unwed for the sake of her son; she has no desire to surrender her independence to a man who might take Georgie away from her or mistreat him, and she certainly has no desire to fall in love. In fact, though she knows it will break her father’s heart, she has made plans to retire to a small village in Yorkshire where she can live as a widow and allow Georgie to grow up without the need for secrecy and where he will be able to have a normal life among other children. She hasn’t yet had the heart to tell her father of her plans, but she is holding fast to her intention to depart after Twelfth Night.
Having inherited his title around a year earlier, Hal Stuart, the Earl of Redbridge is surprised to discover that he rather enjoys all the things that go along with being an earl. He’s got a talent for spotting good investments and has already substantially increased the family fortune, he is a good landlord and estate manager and he likes being involved in politics, things he never in a million years thought he’d actually enjoy after having spent his youth rebelling against his unpleasant, authoritarian father.
Even more worrying for Hal – who has rather a devilish reputation as a ladies’ man – is that he hasn’t felt much like sowing any of the wild oats he’s certain that, at twenty-seven, he still has in abundance. He’s not sure exactly what’s wrong with him, and right now, between escorting his mother to various seasonal entertainments and dodging the eager match-making mamas and their equally eager debutante daughters, Hal doesn’t really have the time to work it out. But he’s certainly not himself, and is pondering the problem of his absent libido with his best friend and brother-in-law, Aaron Wincanton (who married Hal’s sister, Connie in Her Enemy at the Altar) suggests that perhaps Hal is just missing the thrill of the chase now he’s got women throwing themselves at him. In an attempt to pull Hal out of his funk, Aaron suggests a wager. His interest piqued, Hal listens as Aaron outlines the details of The Mistletoe Wager (their silly wagers always have names), which is that Hal must steal five kisses in five different locations from a lady of Aaron’s choosing before Twelfth Night. No prizes for guessing whom Aaron chooses 😉
Daunted but not defeated, Hal quickly realises that the best way to approach Lizzie is to make it clear he’s not interested in her at all, but rather that he is taking advantage of her formidable reputation as an ice maiden to repel all boarders and hide from the barely-out-of-the-schoolroom-chits who keep trying to corner him. Surprised at such an approach, Lizzie finds herself sympathising with his plight and before she can help herself, tells him she’s in a similar situation vis-à-vis her father’s eagerness for her to marry. Hal immediately sees a way for him to be able to spend time in Lizzie’s company and suggests they can help each other out. If they pretend to be interested in each other, the debutantes will leave Hal alone and Lizzie will be able to refuse the attentions of the gentlemen her father continues to hope she will favour.
At first, Lizzie is appalled at the idea. But when the smarmy Lord Ockendon approaches her and makes a number of cryptic comments that seem to indicate he knows something damaging about her, Lizzie changes her mind and agrees to Hal’s suggestion that they act like a courting couple until the Redbridge ball on Twelfth Night.
Yes, we all know where this is going, but Ms. Heath has fashioned a story of surprising depth and emotional complexity behind the whimsical set up and title. Hal is still of the opinion that he’s far too young to be thinking about settling down, but it’s clear from the start that he’s no longer the hellion he was and is already making the transition from wild youth to responsible adult. He keeps telling himself he isn’t ready for marriage, but his actions towards Lizzie, his thoughts and feelings about her – feelings he steadfastly denies are born of anything other than the enjoyment he finds in her company – reveal he’s most certainly ready and more than that, he’s well over half-way head-over-heels in love. He’s witty, clever and gorgeous; and more to the point, after an initial mis-step, takes the truth of Lizzie’s situation in his stride and wants to help and protect her however he can.
Lizzie could have been the rather stereotypical ice-maiden who guards her heart after being disappointed in love, but in Ms. Heath’s hands she’s more than that; she’s a woman determined to protect her son at all costs, even going so far as to give up all hope of personal fulfilment and happiness. She’s young and beautiful, and should have been enjoying the thrill of a stolen kiss, a first waltz or a harmless flirtation, but thanks to Rainham’s faithlessness, she has missed out on all those youthful pleasures, taking refuge instead behind the emotional walls she has erected.
Ms. Heath develops their relationship splendidly, showing two mature, like-minded people trading quips and intelligent discussion enjoying each other’s company and coming to know each other. Before long, spending time with Lizzie has become far more important to Hal than the wager, and Lizzie, who had sworn never again to be taken in by good looks and charm, realises that there is far more to Hal than a pretty face and that there’s an intelligent and well-informed man behind the rakish exterior.
Of course there are a few road-bumps along the way to true love and happiness. The threat to Lizzie is nasty and is extended to those she loves, and Ms. Heath thankfully doesn’t opt to go down the Big Mis route. Lizzie knows she can’t handle it alone and confides in her father and in Hal, who really does leave no stone unturned in order to help her.
His Mistletoe Wager is romantic, funny, poignant and will charm you completely. If you’re wondering what to give yourself for Christmas… it’s the perfect seasonal treat.