The Mysterious Lord Millcroft
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.