Desert Isle Keeper
His Mistletoe Wager
Virginia Heath’s winning streak of rich, thoughtful romances continues with her latest release, His Mistletoe Wager. This holiday story is an early gift for readers and the season’s joy fills every moment as a young woman’s damaged heart is healed by the kind of man she swore never to trust again.
It was very easy for Lady Elizabeth Wilding to fall in love with the handsome Lord Rainham. Despite the rumors of his rakish ways, Lizzie was charmed when he told her his heart beat only for her as well as by his attentions at each dance and his playful way of stealing kisses. Their wedding day is planned down to the smallest detail and will hopefully be the envy of her peers. It is also to be the day that Lizzie shares the wonderful news that their family of two will soon become three. Unfortunately Lizzie’s dream of becoming a wife is crushed when her groom never arrives at the church.
Five years later, Lizzie has sworn off marriage and closed off her heart. Her love is saved for her young son, George, who has been raised out of public sight in her father’s house. Lizzie knows isolating George forever is impossible and she’s made plans to leave London behind and begin anew in Yorkshire as a widow raising her child alone. She’s been reluctant to reveal her plans to her father who protected her from the fallout of Rainham’s abandonment and who still hopes that Lizzie will marry. Lizzie has been patient with her father’s matchmaking while she put her plans together, but with her home in Yorkshire all set-up, this Christmas season will be her last in London. All she needs to do now is attend the high profile functions in town, dance with a few of her father’s acquaintances and then quietly disappear forever. She doesn’t expect to be swept off her feet by another scandalous gentleman.
Lord Henry Stuart – Hal to his friends – has been dreading the Christmas season and the gatherings he’ll have to attend in his role as the new Earl of Redbridge. In years past, Hal could make a quick exit from an event to gamble at one of his clubs or spend the evening with whichever willing woman caught his eye, but lately those vices haven’t had the same appeal. Most of his shocking behavior was to provoke his father or to act contrary to the autocratic values the late Earl held dear. Now, having held the title himself for a year, Hal has discovered an appreciation for his responsibilities and his love of his old pastimes has palled. Hiding outside during a St. Nicholas’s Day ball, Hal is contemplating his lost libido when his brother-in-law, Viscount Ardleigh (hero of Her Enemy at the Altar), finds him. The pair have always been close and Hal is fairly candid about how uninterested he is in women looking at him either as a marriage commodity or a passionate thrill for a night.
Ardleigh is certain Hal just misses the challenge of seducing a woman who isn’t throwing herself at him and he offers Hal a wager to get his blood racing. Using a sprig of mistletoe and its berries to count down the stakes, Hal must steal five kisses from a woman of Ardleigh’s choice before Twelfth Night. Hal agrees to the Mistletoe Wager without really thinking about whom he might have to kiss. He doesn’t count on Ardleigh picking the only woman at the ball that has no interest in any man who crosses her path: Lady Elizabeth Wilding. Seeing her sitting alone in a hidden part of the ballroom, Hal strikes up a conversation by stating clearly that he’s not interested in her. His blunt talk intrigues Lizzie enough to continue their discussion rather than brush off the impertinent man. Hal senses that Lizzie is listening to him and finds they have a similar desire to keep their admirers from getting too close. Inspired with a way to get past her coolness, Hal suggests they help each other by pretending to be a courting couple during the Christmas season.
Lizzie is shocked by Hal’s idea and immediately declines, but when the irksome Lord Ockendon begins to show an interest in in her she rethinks the plan. Finding Hal a day later, Lizzie informs him that she’s willing to play the smitten woman until the evening of his own Twelfth Night ball. To Hal that’s all the time he’ll need but as he gets to know Lizzie he finds that his plans to seduce her take a back seat to enjoying their time together. When Lord Ockendon presses his suit and uncovers a way to manipulate Lizzie into marriage, Hal’s protective nature overrides his need to win a wager. Instead it becomes his mission to show Lizzie that there are still honorable men in the world who care for a woman’s welfare above their own selfish desires.
A title like His Mistletoe Wager inspires visions of a light holiday tale but it actually disguises the complex and emotional read inside. Lizzie has built up her defenses so high to protect herself and George from being hurt that it is now almost impossible for her to break them down on her own. It takes Lord Ockendon’s threats to figuratively push Lizzie into Hal’s arms but she cannot forget Hal’s reputation as a scandalous rake. The shift from being wary of Hal’s attention to welcoming it develops as they talk and she comes to know the man he is now as opposed to the one he was years before. Hal’s persistence charm gives Lizzie the first chance in five years to experience simple pleasures like a dance or a stolen kiss, things she’d come to see as painful because of Rainham’s betrayal. Lizzie is a practical thinker and her love for George guides her every decision; however when she accepts that her heart has room to love Hal too, it’s an incredible moment of self-awareness where everything changes for her.
Hal thinks of himself as a rake but he’s so much more and it shows in every action he takes to protect Lizzie and in how he courts her, even if he believes it’s just to serve the wager. At twenty-seven, the farthest thing from Hal’s mind is to settle down, get married and assume his role as earl; however from his first scenes with Lord Ardleigh we see that his mindset is changing to desire those very things. Meeting Lizzie and finding that he enjoys their conversations sparks something deep within Hal that gets stronger the more he learns about her. There’s a need inside him to share in her burdens when her problems seem insurmountable, or to go beyond casual friendship into something more permanent. Hal isn’t without some flaws but he’s ultimately the kind of man who would move mountains for those he cares for. Once he understands he cares for Lizzie it’s wonderful to watch him handling everything so that her path is cleared and she has the freedom to decide if she’ll continue to walk alongside him.
His Mistletoe Wager is a beautifully crafted story that can be enjoyed year round. The surprising character moments, period perfect setting and satisfying ending for all makes this a Christmastime story that I’m happy to recommend.