The Determined Lord Hadleigh (King’s Elite #4) by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

He’s got iron control…

But she might be his undoing!

Part of The King’s Elite. Haunted by Penny Penhurst’s courage on the witness stand, meticulous barrister Lord Hadleigh offers her a housekeeper position at his estate. Despite trying to stay detached, Hadleigh is charmed by her small child and surprised by how much he yearns for this proud woman! Can this he break through his own – and Penny’s – barriers to prove he’s a man she can trust…and love?

Rating: A-

As there is an overarching plotline running through this series, there are spoilers for the earlier books in this review.

This final book in Virginia Heath’s enjoyable King’s Elite series shifts focus somewhat and concerns itself mostly with the aftermath of the unmasking and apprehension (in the previous book) of The Boss, the head of a widespread and dangerous smuggling ring that was channeling funds to Napoléon and his supporters with a view to restoring him to power. The Determined Lord Hadleigh rounds the series out nicely and follows a thoroughly engaging central couple on their sometimes rocky path to happiness.

The eponymous gentleman describes himself as an honorary member of the team of crack government spies knows as the King’s Elite, which is fair enough, as unlike them, he’s not an agent working for the Crown, but rather is the man whose job it is to prosecute and help convict those they apprehend. He’s a brilliant barrister, a fair and honourable man, and a friend of the other members of the group – and now it’s his turn to step into the limelight. Hadleigh appeared briefly in the other books in the series, and now it’s up to him to make sure the Crown’s case against the Boss is watertight. When the novel opens, he is in the midst of the trial of Viscount Penshurst, one of the Boss’ closest associates, and is questioning his current witness, the young Lady Penshurst, whose honesty and quiet dignity in the face of the nasty gossip and blatant scorn of the public impresses him and whose story strikes a chord deep inside him. Hadleigh sees many similarities between the life the viscountess describes and that endured by his mother, who was abused and then killed by his father a decade earlier – and he still carries the guilt that he didn’t do enough to protect her. That guilt engenders a protectiveness made all the stronger when he learns that the viscount’s title, wealth and estates have been transferred back to the crown, meaning his innocent wife and son will be left with nothing.

After the trial and her husband’s death in prison, Lady Penshurst changes her name and takes lodgings in Cheapside with her not-quite-two-year-old son, Freddie. Her closest friend Clarissa – who is married to Seb Leatham (The Mysterious Lord Millcroft) – has offered to house them both for as long as Penny wants, but Penny is insistent that she wants to stand on her own two feet. After three years trapped in an abusive marriage with a man who wanted to control her every move, she’s determined to slough off the easily cowed, powerless and subservient woman she became during those years and to find herself again, to take back control of her life. So when she discovers that someone has been helping her out behind the scenes, paying bills and rent, she’s furious. Her first thought is that Clarissa has gone behind her back and asked Seb to do it, but when Clarissa assures her that she values their friendship too much to go against her express wishes, Penny believes her. Worried that perhaps one of her late husband’s associates has done it as a way of intimidating her, Penny asks Clarissa to find out what she can about her mysterious benefactor.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Disgraceful Lord Gray (King’s Elite #3) by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A spy on a mission…

Until he meets this heiress!

Miss Theodora Cranford’s learned to keep her impetuous nature locked away. She won’t be deceived by another man who can’t see past her fortune. She wants an honourable, sensible sort – not a self-assured scoundrel like her new neighbour, Lord Gray. Although she’s sure there’s more to him than meets the eye… But after that first captivating kiss, she’s certainly left wanting more!

Rating: B

Virginia Heath bounds back into form with The Disgraceful Lord Grey, the third book in her King’s Elite series about group of gentlemen spies charged with putting a stop to the activities of a particularly elusive and dangerous smuggling ring with links to Napoléon. With the ring’s operations now brought to a halt, all that remains is to cut off the head, so to speak, and unmask the person who’s been pulling the strings, known only as The Boss.  The investigations of the King’s Elite have narrowed this down to one of two people – and in this story, Lord Graham Chadwick – Gray – travels to Suffolk accompanied by Lord Fennimore, the head of the King’s Elite, in order to infiltrate the small social circle of Viscount Gislingham in continuance of the investigation.

Unfortunately, however, he doesn’t get off to the best of starts when Gislingham’s niece happens upon him cavorting naked in the stream on the estate – and then his huge dog, Trefor (Gray is of Welsh descent, or at least he grew up there) knocks her in as well.

Oops.

Miss Thea Cranford has lived with her uncle and aunt since the death of her parents, and at twenty-three, remains unmarried.  She’s heiress to an enormous fortune and a youthful infatuation for a man whose affection turned out to be for her money and not for her has made her very cautious when it comes to men, and guilt over her impulsive behaviour in the past has caused her to lock the side of herself she terms “Impetuous Thea” in a box and throw away the key.  Her closest friend, the widowed Lady Harriet Crudgington – who is vivacious, funny and intent on living life to the full – regularly encourages Thea to loosen the tight rein she has on herself, but with little (or no) success.

Virginia Heath turns the spirited-heroine-meets-buttoned-up-hero trope on its head here, as Thea tries to maintain a show of indifference to Gray while everything in her yearns to respond to his gentle flirtations and humorous banter.  He’s a truly charming hero who, while being an inveterate flirt, is never pushy or overly familiar with Thea; he’s kind, compassionate and very level-headed and self-aware in a way few romantic heroes are.  An incredibly irresponsible action a decade earlier ruined him financially, caused a huge scandal and as a result, he left England and travelled the world on merchant ships.  Older and wiser now, he recognises that those events were the making of him and even though he can’t deny he’d rather not have beggared himself and been disowned by his family, he’s not one for brooding over the past and things he can’t change.

When Fennimore suggests that Gray’s scandalous past may be just the thing to recommend him to the subject of their investigation, Gray is surprised to find himself somewhat dismayed at the idea of having to play up to his reputation as a bit of a ne’er do well, especially given Thea’s obvious reluctance to have anything to do with him. He’s smitten with her and he knows it – and the last thing he wants is for her to believe him to be the sort of reprobate she’s had dealings with before, a man interested only in her money… but that’s the part he’ll have to play if he’s to uncover the identity of The Boss, impress Fennimore, and earn a much desired promotion.  He must put aside all thought of Gislingham’s gorgeous – albeit repressed – niece and get on with the job at hand.

The Disgraceful Lord Gray is an entertaining, very readable historical romance featuring a pair of attractive, well-matched characters, a strongly drawn supporting cast, a secondary romance and a large and affectionate dog (!)  in which Gray is – as he should be – the star of the show. He’s a thoroughly decent chap, he’s comfortable in his own skin and he’s learned from his mistakes; he’s funny, insightful and a little bit naughty (as all good heroes are!) and refreshingly different from all those damaged, darkly brooding heroes we’re so  used to in the genre.

Thea, on the other hand, is a little generic, although I liked her sense of humour and her intelligence.  I did find her tendency to refer to herself in the third person –  “Impetuous Thea” –  a little irritating, but that’s a really minor niggle, and not something that detracted from my enjoyment of the novel as a whole.

Virginia Heath’s agile, witty and insightful writing shines once again, and I’m pleased to recommend this latest King’s Elite novel to fans of character-driven historical romance.

The Uncompromising Lord Flint (King’s Elite #2) by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Imprisoned by her past

Set free by her enemy!

Charged with high treason, Lady Jessamine Fane is under the watchful eye of icily calm Lord Peter Flint. It’s a task this spy won’t be swayed from, no matter how alluring his prisoner! Only it’s not long before Flint realises that tenacious Jess hides a lifetime of pain. With so much at stake, can he afford to take a chance on their powerful attraction?

Rating: C

Virginia Heath’s first historical romance was published just over two-and-a-half years ago, and in the time since, she’s published a dozen more novels, maintaining a high standard of writing and characterisation that earned places on my keeper shelf for quite a few of them.  She’s one of my favourite authors and none of her novels has received anything lower than a B grade from me – until now.  Much as it pains me to say it – because I’m a big fan of her work – The Uncompromising Lord Flint, the second book in her current King’s Elite series, doesn’t really hit all the bases and was – dare I say it – even a bit boring in places.  It has an intriguing plot and a strongly drawn heroine, but the romance is rushed and the hero never really came to life for me.

The King’s Elite series has an overarching plotline concerning the search for The Boss, the person behind a widespread smuggling ring whose profits are being channelled into the campaign to free Napoleon from his prison on Elba.  Each book in the series – judging from the two published so far – is progressing that particular plotline; in The Mysterious Lord Millcroft, the identities of several members of the English aristocracy involved in the smuggling ring were uncovered, and The Uncompromising Lord Flint sees the eponymous hero on the trail of one of the key players in the French side of the operation.

Lord Peter Flint has been detailed to escort a very valuable prisoner to London where she will be interrogated, tried and very likely convicted of treason.  Lady Jessamine Fane has lived in France since the age of twelve, taken away from her home when her mother absconded with her lover, the Comte de Saint-Aubin-de-Scellon. Disowned by her father, neglected by her mother, Jess has, to all intents and purposes, been alone for all of her adult life, living in captivity and in constant fear of St. Aubin’s cruelty, a fear that has only grown in the years since her mother died and Jess was forced to take her mother’s place as ‘secretary’ in St. Aubin’s smuggling/espionage ring.  She has a detailed knowledge of his vast network of contacts and his many illegal operations, and knows that sooner or later, that knowledge will get her killed – so she has very carefully been sending encoded hints and information across the channel, and waiting for her opportunity to escape.  Jess is clever, resourceful and resilient, she’s survived emotional and physical cruelty only to be facing death at the hands of the people she’s trying to help. And while her frustration with their refusal or inability to realise the danger they face from St. Aubin, the trouble is that Jess is so secretive that it’s no wonder they don’t believe a word she says, and unfortunately, that secretiveness goes on for way too long.

The characterisation of the hero is… off. Ms. Heath normally creates wonderfully attractive, witty, sexy heroes, but here, Flint fades into the background somewhat, and I had real trouble buying him as an elite super-spy because he comes across as so ineffectual.  Jess is the driving force in this book, and she overshadows everyone else (except maybe for Flint’s mother).  We know little about Lord Peter Flint other than that he’s the only male in his immediate family of mother and five sisters (who are all, naturally, nagging him to get married) and that he made a huge mistake with a female prisoner in the past which almost cost his father his life – a mistake he’s determined NEVER to repeat, and which makes him doubly cautious when it comes to Jess. Even though he isn’t, because right from the off, he somehow intuits she isn’t a traitor and ignores his own warnings to be circumspect. He’s fairly bland, and hasn’t stuck in my memory in the way that many of Ms. Heath’s other heroes have.

Sadly, the romance between Jess and Flint is underdeveloped and feels rushed; there is little chemistry between them, and there is more telling than showing going on, which was another disappointment; Ms. Heath normally excels at creating terrific sexual tension and showing readers her protagonists falling in love, but neither of those things happened here.

It’s never pleasant to be writing negatively about a book by a favourite author, but I’m afraid The Uncompromising Lord Flint was a disappointment.  Still, a run of a dozen successful, highly-rated books is an incredible achievement for any author, and I suppose everyone is entitled to the occasional misfire.  This book may not have worked well for me, but I’m still invested in the King’s Elite series and am looking forward to the next instalment.

The Mysterious Lord Millcroft (King’s Elite #1) by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Life as a duchess…

Or something much more dangerous..?

Constantly told her beauty and charm is all she has to offer, Lady Clarissa is intent on marrying a duke. And intriguing spy Sebastian Leatham will help her! Only first she’ll assist him with his new assignment—playing the part of confident aristocrat Lord Millcroft. Sebastian awakens a burning desire within Clarissa which leaves her questioning whether becoming a duchess is what she truly longs for…

Rating: B+

The ever reliable Virginia Heath kicks off her new King’s Elite series with The Mysterious Lord Millcroft, which pairs a daring, courageous spy who is hopeless around women with one of society’s reigning beauties, both of them characters we’ve met briefly before in the author’s Wild Warriners series.  Ms. Heath spins a thoroughly entertaining yarn featuring two engaging principals who have to fight their own insecurities while working together to uncover the identity of a traitor, keeping the romance front and centre as they discover they’re capable of more than they ever thought possible.

Sebastian Leatham works alongside Jacob Warriner (A Warriner to Seduce Her) as part of the group of agents working to shut down a smuggling operation that is channelling funds to Napoléon.  Injured in the course of his most recent assignment, Seb is recovering from a gunshot wound at the home of Jacob’s brother Doctor Joe Warriner, and his wife, Bella. He is chafing at his enforced idleness and desperate to get back to his assignment of tracking down the man he and his fellow agents know only as ‘The Boss’, the leader of the smuggling ring.

If you’ve read A Warriner to Tempt Her, then you’ll likely recall Lady Clarissa Beaumont, the beautiful debutante with whom Joe was briefly infatuated before he fell in love with her sister.  In that story, Clarissa came off as rather shallow, a social butterfly interested only attracting a high-status husband.  When we meet her again here, she’s still pursuing that aim, but we’re quickly shown that there’s more to Clarissa than it at first seemed; she’s a beauty, yes, but her perfectly poised veneer hides some deep-seated insecurities. She’s very well aware that her status as the reigning toast of the ton is a fickle one, and that time is running out if she’s to garner a proposal from the handsome young Duke of Westbridge, who has been half-heartedly courting her over the past two years, but has not yet proposed. Now, however, another – younger – lady appears to have caught his eye, and Clarissa is having to work harder than ever to keep his attention.

Tired and worn down by the continual falsity and back-stabbing of London society, she needs a few days away from town to regroup and flees to her sister’s Nottinghamshire home, desperate to be able to drop her mask and stop pretending for a little while.  She’d forgotten Bella had a guest, so is unprepared to come face-to-face with a stranger, let alone a handsome one who appears to be able to see right through her.

Seb hasn’t expected another guest, and his first sight of Clarissa renders him speechless. Literally.  He might be intelligent and brave when it comes to his work, but the presence of women renders him tongue-tied and clumsy; beautiful ones make him even moreso and  Clarissa Beaumont is the most exquisite thing he’s ever seen.  His typical reaction to his inadequacy is to attempt to cover it with a gruffness that borders on the unfriendly – but it doesn’t take him long to realise that Clarissa’s perfect, vibrant exterior is an extremely well-constructed façade… and to want to know more about the real woman behind it.

Some weeks later, Seb is back in London and is not at all pleased with his latest assignment.  The King’s Elite has received information that two members of the nobility may be involved with the smuggling ring, and Seb is instructed to attend Viscount Penhurt’s upcoming house party in order to gather information on the man’s activities.  Seb’s normal method of working is to keep to the shadows and disappear into the background, and the idea of having to be so visible makes him apprehensive. In addition, the thought of having to mix with the aristocracy brings to mind many self-doubts and insecurities, but his objections are brushed aside. He’ll be posing as the recently-arrived Lord Millcroft, a gentleman of large fortune and unscrupulous reputation who has spent most of his life in the Antipodes and is now looking for investment opportunities in England.

The Penhurst house party offers Clarissa’s last chance to land her duke.  She’s convinced that once she’s a duchess her deficiencies – she is unable to read very well, and thus believes she must be stupid – will no longer matter as she’ll have a title and an army of servants to hide behind.  She’s surprised to encounter Sebastian Leatham there, however, and even more surprised when he’s introduced to her as Lord Millcroft. Realising there must be something afoot, she refrains from exposing him, and having listened to his explanation, offers her help.  Spending time with and appearing to be smitten with the dangerously handsome lord whose aloof, confident persona has set the ladies a-twitter will be the perfect way to make her duke jealous, and giving Seb her ‘seal of approval’ will go a long way towards ensuring his acceptance amongst the aristocratic guests, thus enabling him to go about making the acquaintance of the men he’s been sent there to investigate.

Ms. Heath does a great job of combining the romance with the espionage plotline, and never sacrifices the development of the one in favour of the other.  Seb and Clarissa have both spent most of their lives hiding behind masks, and I loved the way they gradually reveal their true selves to one another and in doing so, come to realise that many of the things they’d believed about themselves are wrong.  They’re smitten with each other from their first meeting, but Clarissa’s belief that she needs to continue to hide her shortcomings behind an illustrious title at first prevents her from realising the depth of her attraction to Seb and the true nature of her feelings for him, while Seb’s anxieties about his illegitimacy and his unpolished manner – which Clarissa finds a refreshing change from all the pompous, puffed-up men she normally encounters – hold him back from seeing himself as a proper match for a diamond of the first water like Clarissa. Seb finds Clarissa “sharp and funny and hugely entertaining”, and helps her to realise there’s more to her than her pretty face; Clarissa shows Seb that his birth and his background don’t matter and that his kind, caring and honourable nature make him more than equal to any lord.

The one thing that dinged the book for me is the contrived misunderstanding towards the end.  It’s not hard to see it coming, and given Seb’s insecurities, it’s just about plausible that he might believe the falsehoods he’s told, but it’s a close-run thing; and his refusal to speak to Clarissa to clear things up straight away just adds to the implausibility of the whole situation.

Even so, I’ve yet to read a book by Virginia Heath that has disappointed me, and she’s one of the few writers of historical romance currently writing who really stands out from the crowd.  2018 has been a particularly disappointing year for the genre, but Ms. Heath is somehow managing to buck the trend, having published ten novels over the past couple of years that have all earned B grades or above (including several DIKs) from me, which is quite a feat.  The Mysterious Lord Millcroft, is a tender, sensual romance wrapped around an intriguing plot, and I’m looking forward to reading more about the King’s Elite.

A Warriner to Seduce Her (Wild Warriners #4) by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A sensible schoolmistress…

Awakened by the notorious rake!

In this The Wild Warriners story, schoolmistress Felicity Blunt feels old beyond her years―and desperately dull. Meeting confirmed rake Jacob Warriner brings her gloriously alive, and yet no matter his allure she must remain immune to his obvious charms and unashamed flirtation. But is Jacob merely a mischievous scoundrel? Or is there much more to this Warriner than meets the eye…?

Rating: A-

This final book in Virginia Heath’s thoroughly enjoyable series featuring the four Warriner brothers focuses on the youngest, Jacob – or Jake, as he is more commonly known.  We’ve met him in the previous books in the series, and unlike his siblings – Jack, the Earl of Markham and head of the family, Jamie, a former soldier and Joe, a doctor – he’s a bit of a wastrel and spends most of his time amid the hedonistic delights of London, where he’s acquired quite the reputation as a ladies’ man.

Ms. Heath has dropped the odd subtle hint that there’s more to Jake than meets the eye, and in A Warriner to Seduce Her, we find out exactly what that is.  While his brothers eye him with fond exasperation and despair of his ever marrying and settling down, the truth is that Jake was recruited by the British Government when he left Cambridge and has been working for them ever since.  A member of a small team known as the King’s Elite, Jake and his colleagues have been tasked with discovering the identity of the man behind a large-scale smuggling operation that is trying to destabilise the British economy by flooding the market with illegal goods and channelling funds to an organisation determined to return Napoléon from exile.  But in spite of their best efforts, the identity of the lynch-pin remains as elusive as ever.

The last few months have been exhausting and Jake is looking forward to heading home to Markham Manor for some well-earned leave.  He’ tired, he misses his family a great deal and longs for:

Three months of being himself, no hidden agendas, no danger, no responsibilities and no web of lies.

(Except the one.)

… and feels keenly the gulf that has opened between himself and his brothers in recent years because of the secrets he has to keep.  So he’s none too pleased when his boss tells him that his leave is cancelled because there’s a new lead in their search for the boss of the smuggling ring.  Suspicion has fallen upon Lord Crispin Rowley, whose fortunes have recently taken  a sudden and unexpected upturn – and Jake is tasked with the seduction of Rowley’s niece, a country miss fresh out of Sister Ursuline’s School for Wayward Girls in Cumbria who will surely be an easy target for his masculine charms.

The letter summoning twenty-five-year-old schoolmistress Felicity Blunt to London came completely out of the blue.  It seems that her uncle, Lord Crispin Rowley, had finally decided to fulfil the promise he made her dying mother to give Fliss a Season – but she isn’t interested.  She doesn’t want a Season and she doesn’t want a husband, but Sister Ursuline insists she should travel to London and have an adventure – which has, so far, proved to be a huge disappointment.  Rowley hasn’t taken Fliss anywhere she wants to go, insisting instead on dragging her to boring balls and parties, but being leered at and squinting at blurry figures (Rowley insists she leave off her spectacles) from the sidelines of a ballroom isn’t exactly the type of adventure she had in mind.

Jake is pleasantly surprised when he discovers that the lovely woman he’d been observing from his vantage point at the edge of the ballroom at Almack’s is none other than the woman he’s been instructed to seduce.  He’d been expecting a dowdy, nunnish-type, not a lush beauty with honey-gold hair, a spectacular figure and a dry sense of humour, who is nowhere near as impressionable as he’d been led to believe.  They converse amiably for a short while, until Jake, still tired and annoyed at the cancellation of his leave, makes a misstep and attempts to soften her up too quickly. Fliss’ warm, friendly manner evaporates and she makes it clear she’s seen through Jake’s practiced charm and hackneyed compliments and has no further interest in conversing with him.

Jake is – reluctantly – impressed.  And intrigued.  And just a bit ashamed. For the first time, he feels an element of distaste about the fact that he uses sex as a means to extract information – although he can’t allow himself to dwell on it as he still has a job to do.  Fliss’ summary dismissal of him may have stirred the first genuine interest he’s felt in a woman in years, but he can’t lose sight of his mission; so over the next few days, he contrives to encounter her on several occasions in an attempt to wear down her resistance and to see what she can be induced to tell him about her uncle.

Fliss can’t deny that she’s been attracted to Jake since the first time they met, but she’s not interested in charming, sexy and gorgeous, she wants respectable and dependable.  She is determined to steer clear of him, but somehow, he’s always there when she needs help, and keeps turning up at the social events her uncle insists she attend… and the more time she spends with Jake, the more Fliss can’t help liking him.  She sees something – very occasionally – behind the suave, rakish façade that interests her, the possibility that there lies a man of more substance than he is willing to reveal to the world; he’s amusing, self-deprecating and genuinely charming, and she can’t help falling for him.

Jake is similarly smitten, finding Fliss’ lack of artifice totally refreshing and admiring her honesty – she’s “Blunt by name and blunt by nature” – even if it is a but brutal at times.  He finds it harder and harder to reconcile his growing feelings for her with his instructions to use her in order to get close to her uncle, but Rowley is obviously up to his neck in something both nefarious and dangerous, and Jake has no choice but to continue with his deception.

One of the many things I’ve really enjoyed about all the books in the Wild Warriners series is the family dynamic the author has created between the brothers.  They’ve not had it easy, courtesy of generations of scandalous, spendthrift relatives, and until recently, they’ve struggled to make ends meet – yet the love they bear towards each other is unstinting and permeates all their scenes together.  In the book’s prologue, we learn of a long-buried and painful secret Jake has carried since childhood, which has set him apart from his brothers to an extent and has obviously shaped the man he has become.  Ms. Heath doesn’t allow it to turn Jake into one of those ‘woe-is-me’ overly brooding types, but it has obviously informed many of his choices as an adult, and she very skilfully brings us full-circle towards the end of the novel as Fliss and Jake’s brothers finally help him to overcome it and put it to rest.

Boasting a strong plotline, two attractive central characters with scorching chemistry and a wonderful cast of secondary characters, A Warriner to Seduce Her is a superb end to an excellent series, and is the third (or fourth?) novel of Ms. Heath’s to grace my Keeper shelf.  And there’s more good news;  her next series, featuring Jake’s colleagues from the King’s Elite, is on the way – I can’t wait to meet The Mysterious Lord Millcroft in August.

A Warriner to Tempt Her (Wild Warriners #3) by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A shy innocent

She’s wary of all men.

In this The Wild Warriners story, shy Lady Isabella Beaumont is perfectly happy to stay in the background and let her sister get all the attention from handsome suitors following a shocking incident. However working with Dr Joseph Warriner to help the sick and needy pushes her closer to a man than she’s ever been before. Is this a man worth trusting with her deepest of desires..?

Rating: A-

Shall we take a moment or three to appreciate that cover? *sigh*

In the three years or so that she’s been a published author, Virginia Heath has gone from strength to strength, having produced coming up for ten novels, all of which I’ve read, enjoyed and rated highly.  A Warriner to Tempt Her, the third book in her Wild Warriners series, takes place around five years after the events of A Warriner to Rescue Her, and in it, we find Joseph – the third of the Warriner brothers – qualified as a doctor and working in Retford, not too far from the family home.

Readers of the previous books in the series will recall that the brothers – the eldest of whom is the Earl of Markham – haven’t had an easy time of it.  Thanks to their father and grandfather, who ran up debts, drank, gambled and chased skirt to excess, the current generation – while nothing like their debauched forebears – has been very much tarred with the same brush, and the locals are wary and keep their distance.  In spite of the family’s tarnished name, however, Joe is kept busy treating Retford’s less well-off denizens, the ones who can’t afford the services of the pompous – and old-fashioned – Dr. Bentley.  Joe is forward-thinking, dedicated, hard-working…  and a bit of a romantic at heart; he is nursing a crush on the beautiful Lady Clarissa Beaumont, eldest daughter of the Earl of Braxton, even though he knows he has no chance with her whatsoever and has to content himself with worshipping her from afar.

Clarissa is an Incomparable whose blonde curls and sparkling blue eyes ensure she is fêted wherever she goes, but her sister Lady Isabella is a different matter entirely.  Just as lovely, but dark where Clarissa is fair, Isabella is a bit of an enigma, and in spite of himself, Joe is intrigued. They have crossed paths occasionally at the children’s home run by the Countess of Markham (Joe’s sister-in-law), where Isabella volunteers in the infirmary, but Joe finds her awkward, standoffish and sometimes outright rude.

Isabella is really none of those things, but a violent assault she suffered around a year earlier has left her much changed. The physical scars have long since faded, but the mental ones are ever present, and she hates that her memories of that night have turned her into someone she doesn’t recognise as Isabella Beaumont.  Her family did what they thought was best for her, and she was subjected to the sort of remedy that was believed, at the time, to be efficacious in the treatment of mental imbalance – such as being strapped to a chair and doused with icy water – but when that didn’t work (there’s a surprise!) she asked her family remove from London for a time, hoping that a change of scenery would help her to move on and find her true self again.

And she does feel that little by little, she’s moving forward.  For a while after what her family has termed the incident, Isabella couldn’t bear loud noises or crowds and didn’t leave the house, but her fears are gradually receding.  She is still wary of men and still finds it difficult to go out alone, but when Clarissa sullenly refuses to accompany her on her visits to the children’s home any longer, Bella screws up her courage and makes the journey by herself.  Unfortunately, however, her first solo foray ends badly when she is crossing the town square and, courtesy of a cartload of spilled vegetables, sprains her ankle.  In spite of her protests, she finds herself carried to the nearby surgery of the handsome Dr. Warriner (by the handsome doctor himself, no less) who swiftly ascertains that her sprain is nothing worse.

Their conversation is stilted and Joe is once again irritated by Bella’s rudeness, but when he pays a visit to check on her a couple of days later, he begins to think that perhaps she’s not rude, but shy; and after she returns to her work in the infirmary, he is surprised to discover that she reads medical journals and is knowledgeable about current treatments and medical matters in general.  Increasingly impressed by Bella’s keen mind and her capacity to learn new skills and apply them, Joe offers to teach her as much as he can.  Women at this period in time were not permitted to become doctors, and young ladies of Isabella’s status were not expected to undertake work of any sort, but she clearly has a talent for healing and it would be a shame to let it go to waste.  For Bella, working at the infirmary has become a life-line of sorts, and with each passing day, she begins to feel more and more like her old self.

Joe is increasingly drawn to Bella and she to him, although she is still skittish around him, and Joe finds it difficult to reconcile her sudden and inexplicable retreats from him with the compassionate, approachable young woman he is beginning to see more and more often.  Bella is both surprised and relieved to discover that the ability to feel attraction and desire weren’t taken away from her, but while she recognises the need to conquer her fear of physical intimacy – she isn’t sure if she can.

I am always a little apprehensive when I read that a character in a book has suffered a horrible trauma, because sometimes characters are SO damaged (in order to create drama) that it’s hard to believe they can recover during the span of the book.  Here, however, I’m happy to say that Ms. Heath has done a splendid job with Isabella, whose thought processes make perfect sense. Her fears are understandable, as is her impatience with herself and her worries that if she doesn’t ‘get back to normal’ soon, she will be subjected to more horrible and invasive treatments.  Bella knows that the answers lie within herself and that she’s the only one who can break down the walls of self-protection she built up after the attack. She has begun the process through her work at the infirmary, and with each new experience and with the benefit of Joe’s unwavering support and belief in her, we witness Bella taking back her self, a little bit at a time.

Another thing that impressed me about the story is the amount of research Ms. Heath must have done into the medical practices and extent of medical knowledge of the time.  These aspects are very skilfully and subtly integrated into the storyline without making the reader feel as though they are being subjected to a lesson or pushing the romance aside; Joe and Isabella are clearly dedicated medical practitioners and not just characters in a book who pick up a stethoscope now and again.

In A Warriner to Tempt Her, Virginia Heath has created a gorgeous slow-burn romance, two attractive, likeable protagonists and an absorbing storyline infused with lots of interesting historical detail.  It’s not necessary to have read the earlier books in order to enjoy this one, but I’d recommend them all (especially as one thoroughly unpleasant recurring character finally gets his comeuppance here!) and am eagerly awaiting the final book – Jake’s story – in the coming months.

His Mistletoe Wager by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

‘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…

Rating: A

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.