Alternate Title: Um, Actually the Original Title Just About Does It.
The Chick: Elizabeth Cameron, Countess of Havenhurst. When she embarked upon her first Season, her beauty and lineage gave her an excellent chance of marrying well, paying off her debts, and saving her ancestral home from the auction block. However, a fated meeting with handsome, but untrustworthy gambler Ian Thornton left her ruined. A year and a half later, she's managed to save her estate (barely) through severe economical compromise, but her miserly uncle threatens to cut off his financial support unless she agrees to meet with the suitors he's found for her.
The Rub: One of those suitors is none other than Ian Thornton, the man responsible for her tarnished reputation.
Dream Casting: Kristen Bell.
The Dude: Ian Thornton, Marquess of Kensington. A year ago, he fell in love with a beautiful woman and recklessly proposed marriage to her - only to find out she was already engaged, with a trigger-happy brother to boot. Convinced she was just a shameless flirt, he bid good riddance to bad rubbish.
The Rub: Thanks to a mistakenly sent invitation, Elizabeth Cameron winds up on his doorstep. Unaware of her circumstances, Ian has no idea why this supposedly wealthy, titled, and spoiled little hussy is so desperate to stay.
Dream Casting: Brandon Routh.
Elizabeth's Uncle: I've found you some suitors, girl. Try to impress them or I'll cut you off!
Elizabeth: WHAT? But one of these suitors is Ian Thornton!
Flashback to a Year Ago...
Elizabeth: Oh, hi, my name is...
Ian: Marry me!
Elizabeth: Wait, what?
Elizabeth's Brother Robert: Unhand her, you fiend!
Back to the Present
Elizabeth: Well, crap. Hi Ian, it's been a while!
Ian: What the hell? Why is this supposedly wealthy, spoiled brat in need of my help? She has everything!
Ian's Uncle: Um ... until you ruined her life.
Ian: Oh .... Awkward. Marry me now?
Elizabeth's Brother: Psst! Your husband's secretly an evil, evil dude and we need a last-minute climax! Run away with me!
Ian: *SHUN* I want a divorce!
Elizabeth: No you don't.
Ian: Oh alright, I don't. I am so whipped.
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Rakish Hero of Uncertain Lineage
1 Soiled Dove Heroine
Several Big Misunderstandings
1 Ne'er-Do-Well Brother
1 Ruined Reputation
1 Hostile Butler
1 Scandalous Murder Trial
The Word: This book languished for quite a while on the bottom of my TBR pile - not for any particular reason, but just because there were other books I wanted to read first. I'd heard a great deal about how good Judith McNaught's books were, however, so whenever I came across other books of hers at bookstores with their beautiful covers, I was very tempted to break one of my cardinal book buying rules - which is, never buy more than one book by an author I haven't read yet. No matter how good I think a book will be, I'll never really know how good an author is until I actually read her stuff - and there's nothing worse to me than reading a truly hateful novel only to realize I'd jumped the gun and now have two more hateful novels on my TBR pile.
Well, as I mentioned before, I broke that rule with McNaught at the library book sale, but after reading Almost Heaven it seems I won't have to worry about negative repercussions and am now rather glad I already have another McNaught on my TBR pile (Something Wonderful).
Elizabeth Cameron, despite being an aristocrat of near-unparalleled beauty, lives a reclusive existence on her ancestral estate of Havenhurst. She lives on strict economy, with a reduced staff, and almost no furniture, but thanks to her cunning financial skills and bargaining techniques, she's kept her accounts out of the red. While she relies on her resentful and penny-pinching uncle's reluctant financial support, in two year's time she's set to inherit a small legacy that will truly allow her to support her estate on her own.
Trouble is, her uncle's patience is wearing thin, and without her knowledge, he contacts several of her former suitors offering a sizable dowry if they'll take her off his hands. When three men accept, Uncle Scrooge orders Elizabeth to visit each one of them, with every intention of handing her off to the man with the best offer. If Elizabeth refuses, he'll cut her off, and she'll lose her beloved home. Elizabeth's humiliation is only heightened by the fact that the third man on her uncle's list (next to an elderly perv and a shy but amiable hunting enthusiast) is none other than Ian Thornton, the man responsible for all of her troubles.
A year and a half ago, Elizabeth had the world at her feet. True, her estate was already heavily in debt thanks to her father and brother's gambling habits, but her exquisite face, social bearing, and ironclad bloodlines all but guaranteed her an advantageous match to the wealthy bachelor of her choosing. With no fewer than fifteen suitors vying for her hand (and one already on the cusp of signing the paperwork with her brother) her future seemed assured.
However, a chance meeting with Ian Thornton, a reckless and untitled gambler, destroyed everything. While they experienced an instant and powerful mutual attraction, Elizabeth was not the risk-taker that Ian was - Havenhurst depended on her, and living with her father and brother's debts understandably prejudiced her against gamblers. Unfortunately, the choice was taken out of her hands when a malicious prank delivered her into a compromising position with Thornton. With her reputation shattered, all offers dried up, her brother skipped town, and her family's creditors swooped in.
Two years later, after skillfully managing to deflect her first two suitors, Elizabeth lands on the doorstep of Ian's cozy Scottish cottage with a mixture of fury and confusion - she still has no idea why the ruiner of her life would accept an offer of marriage.
Ah, but there's the trouble - Ian didn't. An incompetent secretary sent an invitation by mistake and Ian is just as appalled and outraged to find Elizabeth in his home. Two years ago, Ian genuinely fell in love with her and proposed marriage, but when he obeyed a note supposedly written by her to meet him in a greenhouse, he discovered a) she was actually a countess (and out of his social sphere), b) that she was already engaged and c) that her brother really doesn't like him and prefers to solve problems with a well-aimed bullet.
Heartbroken, he threw himself into his work and subsequently remained oblivious to Elizabeth's changed circumstances. Elizabeth, meanwhile, is too proud to enlighten him upon that matter, and so the two circle each other warily, separated by several layers of misunderstanding and hurt but still bound by inexplicable attraction.
Ian believes Elizabeth invited him to that greenhouse all those years ago, and, still thinking she's wealthy and privileged, is convinced she's a scheming, pampered, manipulative little slut who probably had one affair too many which is why her uncle is pimping her out so enthusiastically. Elizabeth, meanwhile, thinks Ian invited her to the greenhouse because he's a heartless, deceitful libertine. Mistaking Ian's dilapidated hunting cottage as his actual residence, she still thinks he's poor, doubtless from all of his unwise gambling.
The greenhouse incident left each protagonist with a deep-seated belief in the other's black character, but their renewed proximity to each other continues to confound the beliefs they'd painstakingly concocted in order to soothe their own betrayed hearts. Elizabeth wants to believe Ian is a cruel, impoverished seducer because it makes her look like less of a fool and supports her reservations against marrying him two years ago. Similarly, Ian wants to believe Elizabeth is a manipulative, shameless, spoiled and promiscuous flirt because it pardons his own emotional vulnerability and weakness (he did propose marriage after knowing her for only a day, after all).
There wasn't a single aspect of this novel I completely disliked. Elizabeth occasionally irritated because she does tend to lose her shit without a lot of provocation, but otherwise she was an enjoyable and heartfelt character. Ian Thornton was yummy as well, but really all the characters had understandable foibles and well-developed motivations and flaws - even the novel's so-called villains. Although the plot revolves around the Main Misunderstanding that tore Ian and Elizabeth apart (that is, the forged note each supposedly received from the other), it was a misunderstanding that was supported by other concerns and character flaws, such as differences in status and financial obligations, that kept the plot from being instantaneously solved by the revelation that both parties were tricked.
All of the drama is this novel made sense and emerged realistically from the events of the narrative as well as the conflicting personalities of the characters. Refreshingly, neither of the protagonists suffered from Those Three Little Words syndrome - they were able to deduce the other's feelings from their actions and when they felt the same, they said so without any contrived hand wringing about emotional vulnerability or the belief that love doesn't exist.
The main emotional conflict between Elizabeth and Ian is their tendency, even after they admit their love for each other, to make sure all their bases are covered to protect themselves if the relationship goes south again. The greenhouse incident that forced their initial separation hurt them both very deeply, and even though they realize neither was to blame, neither wants to risk that pain again. They continue to secretly maintain insecurities, misgivings, and suspicions about the other as they openly enjoy each other's affection. As their relationship blossoms, they both build themselves emotional escape tunnels, without realizing they weaken and undermine the relationship itself. The events of the novel's climax eventually force the protagonists to understand that they cannot truly love a person while simultaneously maintaining an exit strategy. Ultimately, they have to wholeheartedly throw themselves into the other person's life, essentially making the ultimate gamble.
Thankfully, it pays off. Thank goodness Something Wonderful's now on my TBR pile.