Mills & Boon, £5.99. ISBN 978-0-263-93307-9
Historical Romance, 2018
The Mysterious Lord Millcroft is the first entry in Virginia Heath’s The King’s Elite series, but it is also a spin-off of the author’s Warriner series. Everyone who is someone knows someone else here, but given that the characters in the previous series remain a blur to me, and I can still understand this one just fine, I suppose this can qualify as a decent standalone story.
Clarissa Beaumont first showed up as the spoiled and shallow younger sister in a previous Warriner book, and I’m initially worried that the author would swat her with the usual “How dare the ho realize that she’s hot and beautiful?” double standard smack down here. To my pleasant delight, though, the same traits in Clarissa that can make some romance readers scream for the pillory are actually portrayed as an integral part of the heroine’s personality – traits that make her fun and even bad-ass.
Here, I learn that Clarissa has always believed that her beauty is all she has going for her. The clock is ticking when it comes to her fifteen seconds, however, and she is fully aware that younger women making their debuts are increasingly given the same accolades that she received herself a while back. She is determined to become the wife of the Duke of Westbridge, but that man seems determined to string her along while turning his charm on the same women that are becoming her competition. Ugh.
Clarissa first meets our hero Sebastian Leatham when she visits her sister, who is married to a doctor, and find him recuperating under the care of her sister and brother-in-law. They talk and flirt a little. She discovers a man who seems rather guarded and aloof, but at the same time, he also seems to see her as someone who is more than just a pretty face, and she likes him very much for that. He finds a beautiful young lady who doesn’t take any sass from him, and she seems to understand how he, as a bastard son of a nobleman, is a fellow who is caught between two worlds (aristocracy and middle class) but never really belonging to any one – and he likes her very much for that. But nothing comes out of this, of course. They are both from different worlds, after all.
And then, months later, they meet again in a ballroom, with him parading himself as Sebastian Millcroft, a lord from the Antipodes. He soon explains that he’s actually a spy, and he is forced to pose as a nobleman in order to ferret out the identity of some nobleman who is being naughty. The thing is, he is never comfortable around blue-blooded people, and Clarissa has a great idea. With her social polish and connections, she can help Seb with his undercover gig. As a plus, she gets to arouse Westbridge’s jealousy at the same time. Everyone wins! Not to mention, it’s quite exciting to be involved in spy stuff.
One thing I notice right away about The Mysterious Lord Millcroft is that the author doesn’t overdo that telling thing. She doesn’t have people hitting me in the head about how misunderstood or good Clarissa is, or how woe-is-me Seb is. Instead, the author lets her characters’ actions and conversations tell me who these people are. No one in this story has to queue up to tell me that the main characters are awesome and should be shagging 24/7. Instead, Seb and Clarissa have their quiet moments to show me how much they innately understand the other person, how their conversations and little actions reveal the chemistry between them, and how they work so well together on equal footing. Best of all, it makes sense that Clarissa turns out to be an asset. She is charming and confident, and she also has no problems lying her head off if she has to, hence she naturally eases into her role of being Seb’s partner in crime around town. I never get any impression that the author is pulling amazing last-minute skills out of her rear end to extricate Clarissa out of a mess. Instead, Clarissa’s character growth as she comes to her own feels natural and believable here. Even with a spy plot, yes – imagine that.
Seb is a cute hero. He’s actually shy around people, and the few women who shared his bed had to make the first move because he is always awkward and reticent around them. There is also some sad baggage in his past: he and his mother were tossed out of their home when he was just a boy and his father died, causing the heir to swoop in and sweep out the embarrassing reminder of the dead man’s indiscretion. But it’s okay, he is a self-made man, he’s good at the more brawn-oriented spy gigs, and it’s just tough luck that he has to play this role when the more suitable guy for the job got hitched. You know how it is in historical romances: having your honeymoon to shag the woman you’ve already shagged at least twice in the last 300 pages is more important than matters of national security. So back to Seb, he loves Clarissa, but since he barely passes Communication 101, it’s actually a wonder that he actually gets those words out in the end. But that’s okay, Clarissa isn’t some silly twit who will insist that she is unloved so long as the hero doesn’t spell it out to her with the subtlety of a smack in the face with a pan, so they will be alright. The author convinces me of this.
The spy subplot isn’t the most interesting thing ever, but it fits perfectly into the story without feeling like some filler material. Also, I smugly assumed at first that the author will do the usual “twists” that everyone can see coming from a mile away, but no. If anything, the spy thing actually allows the romance a platform to be better developed – into something romantic, grand, poignant, with some unexpectedly elegant and sweet scenes as well as lines along the way. Seb may not be a glib Lothario who has seduced every woman in town, but I will confess to melting inside a bit when he thinks poetic of Clarissa all to himself. He’s so adorable.
At any rate, The Mysterious Lord Millcroft is truly an unexpected delight, considering my generally lukewarm response to the author’s books in the past. If I have an issue with it, it’s how things seem to become unnecessarily long-drawn in the last few chapters – I’m impatient to have the whole thing end by that point, as it’s just drama after drama in a rather contrived manner. Still, the story feels genuine and romantic, the main characters are adorable, and the author’s narrative style is almost a thing of beauty in how she beautifully balances show and tell. There’s nothing mysterious about this baby – it’s just marvelous.