Here is an excerpt from Almost Heaven, another classic Judith McNaught book. This one has somewhat of a rough hero who isn’t always heroic but he is still classic Judith McNaught.
Elizabeth Cameron, the Countess of Havenhurst, possesses a rare gentleness and fierce courage to match her exquisite beauty. But her reputation is shattered when she is discovered in the arms of Ian Thornton, a notorious gambler and social outcast. A dangerously handsome man of secret wealth and mysterious lineage, Ian’s interest in Elizabeth may not be all that it seems. His voyage to her heart is fraught with intrigue, scandal, and a venomous revenge. As a twisting path of secrets takes them from London’s drawing rooms to the awe-inspiring Scottish Highlands, Elizabeth must learn the truth: is Ian merely aruthless fortune hunter at heart? “Well-developed main characters with a compelling mutual attraction give strength and charm to this romance set in nineteenth-century Great Britain” (Publishers Weekly).
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Drawing a long breath, Elizabeth clasped her shaking hands behind her back and decided to try for a truce. “Mr. Thornton,” she began quietly, “must there be enmity between us? I realize my coming here is an . . . an inconvenience, but it was your fault . . . your mistake,” she corrected cautiously, “that brought us here. And you must surely see that we have been even more inconvenienced than you.” Encouraged by his lack of argument, she continued. “Therefore, the obvious solution is that we should both try to make the best of things.”
“The obvious solution,” he countered, “is that I should apologize for ‘inconveniencing’ you, and then you should leave as soon as I can get you to a carriage or a wagon.”
“I can’t!” she cried, fighting to recover her calm.
“Why the hell not?”
“Because—well—my uncle is a harsh man who won’t like having his instructions countermanded. I was supposed to stay a full sennight.”
“I’ll write him a letter and explain.”
“No!” Elizabeth burst out, imagining her uncle’s reaction if the third man also sent her packing straightaway. He was no fool. He’d suspect. “He’ll blame me, you see.”
Despite Ian’s resolution not to give a damn what her problems were, he was a little unnerved by her visible fright and by her description of her uncle as “harsh.” Based on her behavior two years ago, he had no doubt Elizabeth Cameron had done much to earn a well-deserved beating from her unfortunate guardian. Even so, Ian had no wish to be the cause of the old man laying a strap to that smooth white skin of hers. What had happened between them was folly on his part, but it had been over long ago. He was about to wed a beautiful, sensual woman who wanted him and who suited him perfectly. Why should he treat Elizabeth as if he harbored any feelings for her, including anger?
Elizabeth sensed that he was wavering a little, and she pressed home her advantage, using calm reason: “Surely nothing that happened between us should make us behave badly to each other now. I mean, when you think on it, it was nothing to us but a harmless weekend flirtation, wasn’t it?”
“Neither of us was hurt, were we?”
“Well then, there’s no reason why we should not be cordial to each other now, is there?” she demanded with a bright, beguiling smile. “Good heavens, if every flirtation ended in enmity, no one in the ton would be speaking to anyone else!”
She had neatly managed to put him in the position of either agreeing with her or else, by disagreeing, admitting that she had been something more to him than a flirtation, and Ian realized it. He’d guessed where her calm arguments were leading, but even so, he was reluctantly impressed with how skillfully she was maneuvering him into having to agree with her. “Flirtations,” he reminded her smoothly, “don’t normally end in duels.”
“I know, and I am sorry my brother shot you.”
Ian was simply not proof against the appeal in those huge green eyes of hers. “Forget it,” he said with an irritated sigh, capitulating to all she was asking. “Stay the seven days.”
Suppressing the urge to twirl around with relief, she smiled into his eyes. “Then could we have a truce for the time I’m here?”
His brows lifted in mocking challenge. “On whether or not you can make a decent breakfast.”
“Let’s go in the house and see what we have.”
With Ian standing beside her Elizabeth surveyed the eggs and cheese and bread, and then the stove. “I shall fix something right up,” she promised with a smile that concealed her uncertainty.
“Are you sure you’re up to the challenge?” Ian asked, but she seemed so eager, and her smile was so disarming, that he almost believed she knew how to cook.
“I shall prevail, you’ll see,” she told him brightly, reaching for a wide cloth and tying it around her narrow waist.
Her glance was so jaunty that Ian turned around to keep himself from grinning at her. She was obviously determined to attack the project with vigor and determination, and he was equally determined not to discourage her efforts. “You do that,” he said, and he left her alone at the stove.
An hour later, her brow damp with perspiration, Elizabeth grabbed the skillet, burned her hand, and yelped as she snatched a cloth to use on the handle. She arranged the bacon on a platter and then debated what to do with the ten inch biscuit that had actually been four small biscuits when she’d placed the pan in the oven. Deciding not to break it into irregular chunks, she placed the entire biscuit neatly in the center of the bacon and carried the platter over to the table, where Ian had just seated himself. Returning to the stove, she tried to dig the eggs out of the skillet, but they wouldn’t come loose, so she brought the skillet and spatula to the table. “I—I thought you might like to serve,” she offered formally, to hide her growing trepidation over the things she had prepared.
“Certainly,” Ian replied, accepting the honor with the same grave formality with which she’d offered it; then he looked expectantly at the skillet. “What have we here?’ he inquired sociably.
Scrupulously keeping her gaze lowered, Elizabeth sat down across from him. “Eggs,” she answered, making an elaborate production of opening her napkin and placing it on her lap. “I’m afraid the yolks broke.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
When he picked up the spatula Elizabeth pinned a bright, optimistic smile on her face and watched as he first tried to lift, and then began trying to pry the stuck eggs from the skillet. “They’re stuck,” she explained needlessly.
“No, they’re bonded,” he corrected, but at least he didn’t sound angry. After another few moments he finally managed to pry a strip loose, and he placed it on her plate. A few moments more and he was able to gouge another piece loose, which he placed on his own plate.
In keeping with the agreed-upon truce they both began observing all the polite table rituals with scrupulous care. First Ian offered the platter of bacon with the biscuit centerpiece to Elizabeth. “Thank you,” she said, choosing two black strips of bacon.
Ian took three strips of bacon and studied the flat brown object reposing on the center of the platter. “I recognize the bacon,” he said with grave courtesy, “but what is that?” he asked, eyeing the brown object. “It looks quite exotic.”
“It’s a biscuit,” Elizabeth informed him.
“Really?” he said, straight-faced. “Without any shape?”
“I call it a—a pan biscuit,” Elizabeth fabricated hastily.
“Yes, I can see why you might,” he agreed. “It rather resembles the shape of a pan.”
Separately they surveyed their individual plates, trying to decide which item was most likely to be edible. They arrived at the same conclusion at the same moment; both of them picked up a strip of bacon and bit into it. Noisy crunching and cracking sounds ensued—like those of a large tree breaking in half and falling. Carefully avoiding each other’s eyes, they continued crunching away until they’d both eaten all the bacon on their plates. That finished, Elizabeth summoned her courage and took a dainty bite of egg.
The egg tasted like tough, salted wrapping paper, but Elizabeth chewed manfully on it, her stomach churning with humiliation and a lump of tears starting to swell in her throat. She expected some scathing comment at any moment from her companion, and the more politely he continued eating, the more she wished he’d revert to his usual unpleasant self so that she’d at least have the defense of anger. Lately everything that happened to her was humiliating, and her pride and confidence were in tatters. Leaving the egg unfinished, she put down her fork and tried the biscuit. After several seconds of attempting to break a piece off with her fingers she picked up her knife and sawed away at it. A brown piece finally broke loose; she lifted it to her mouth and bit—but it was so tough her teeth only made grooves in the surface. Across the table she felt Ian’s eyes on her, and the urge to weep doubled. “Would you like some coffee?” she asked in a suffocated little voice.
“Yes, thank you.”
Relieved to have a moment to compose herself, Elizabeth arose and went to the stove, but her eyes blurred with tears as she blindly filled a mug with freshly brewed coffee. She brought it over to him, then sat down again.
Sliding a glance at the defeated girl sitting with her head bent and her hands folded in her lap, Ian felt a compulsive urge to either laugh or comfort her, but since chewing was requiring such an effort, he couldn’t do either. Swallowing the last piece of egg, he finally managed to say, “That was . . . er . . . quite filling.”
Thinking perhaps he hadn’t found it so bad as she had, Elizabeth hesitantly raised her eyes to his. “I haven’t had a great deal of experience with cooking,” she admitted in a small voice. She watched him take a mouthful of coffee, saw his eyes widen with shock—and he began to chew the coffee.
Elizabeth lurched to her feet, squared her shoulders, and said hoarsely, “I always take a stroll after breakfast. Excuse me.”
Still chewing, Ian watched her flee from the house, then he gratefully got rid of the mouthful of coffee grounds. Elizabeth’s breakfast had cured Ian’s hunger, in fact, the idea of ever eating again made his stomach chum as he started for the bam to check on Mayhem’s injury.
He was partway there when he saw her off to the left, sitting on the hillside amid the bluebells, her arms wrapped around her knees, her forehead resting atop them. Even with her hair shining like newly minted gold in the sun, she looked like a picture of heartbreaking dejection. He started to turn away and leave her to moody privacy; then, with a sigh of irritation, he changed his mind and started down the hill toward her.
A few yards away he realized her shoulders were shaking with sobs, and he frowned in surprise. Obviously there was no point in pretending the meal had been good, so he injected a note of amusement into his voice and said, “I applaud your ingenuity—shooting me yesterday would have been too quick.”
Elizabeth started violently at the sound of his voice. Snapping her head up, she stared off to the left, keeping her tear-streaked face averted from him. “Did you want something?”
“Dessert?” Ian suggested wryly, leaning slightly forward, trying to see her face. He thought he saw a morose smile touch her lips, and he added, “I thought we could whip up a batch of cream and put it on the biscuit. Afterward we can take whatever is left, mix it with the leftover eggs, and use it to patch the roof.”
A teary chuckle escaped her, and she drew a shaky breath but still refused to look at him as she said, “I’m surprised you’re being so pleasant about it.”
“There’s no sense crying over burnt bacon.”
“I wasn’t crying over that,” she said, feeling sheepish and bewildered. A snowy handkerchief appeared before her face, and Elizabeth accepted it, dabbing at her wet cheeks.
“Then why were you crying?”
She gazed straight ahead, her eyes focused on the surrounding hills splashed with bluebells and hawthorn, the handkerchief clenched in her hand. “I was crying for my own ineptitude, and for my inability to control my life,” she admitted.
The word “ineptitude” startled Ian, and it occurred to him that for the shallow little flirt he supposed her to be she had an exceptionally fine vocabulary. She glanced up at him then, and Ian found himself gazing into a pair of green eyes the amazing color of wet leaves. With tears still sparkling on her long russet lashes, her long hair tied back in a girlish bow, and her full breasts thrusting against the bodice of her gown, she was a picture of alluring innocence and intoxicating sensuality. Ian jerked his gaze from her breasts and said abruptly, “I’m going to cut some wood so we’ll have it for a fire tonight. Afterward I’m going to do some fishing for our supper. I trust you’ll find a way to amuse yourself in the meantime.”
Startled by his sudden brusqueness, Elizabeth nodded and stood up, dimly aware that he did not offer his hand to assist her. He’d already started to walk away when he turned and added, “Don’t try to clean the house. Jake will be back before evening with women to do that.”
Tagged: Judith McNaught