My very first Judith McNaught book that ended up making me a fan of her books was Almost Heaven (1991). It’s a historical romance set in 19th Century England and the sequel to Something Wonderful (haven’t read that one yet). The heroine, Countess Elizabeth Cameron, finds herself in disgrace with the ton after she is caught in a somewhat compromising situation with a mysterious and enigmatic stranger.
A sexy stranger by the name of Ian Thornton, who is rumored to be the illegitimate grandson of a Viscount. There are many wonderful quote worthy, swoon-worthy, laugh-out loud funny scenes in here but the one I am quoting is one scene that I have remembered vividly, where Elizabeth and her friends are giggling over the stranger behind some hedges, watching him and daring her to go dance with him.
The scene: This is essentially, the first time Ian Thornton, our mysterious, enigmatic hero with “questionable lineage” meets 17 year old Elizabeth Cameron.
Oblivious to her presence for the moment, Ian Thornton walked forward another pace, then stopped near a lighted torch and withdrew a thin cheroot from his jacket pocket. Elizabeth watched him, suffused with trepidation and an unfamiliar, tingling excitement that was due as much to his appearance as to her secret assignment. He was nothing like she’d expected him to be. Besides being older than she’d imagined–she guessed him to be at least twenty-seven–he was startlingly tall, more than six feet, with powerful shoulders and long muscular legs. His thick hair was not blond, but a rich brown-black that looked as if it had a tendency to curl. Instead of wearing the customary bright satin coat and white breeches that the other men wore he was clad in raven black from head to foot, with the exception of his snowy shirt and neckcloth, which were so white they seemed to gleam against the stark black of his jacket and waistcoat.
Elizabeth expelled the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, and the tiny sound made him glance up sharply. His eyes narrowed in surprise or displeasure—Elizabeth wasn’t certain. Caught in the act of lurking in the shadows and staring at him, Elizabeth blurted the first idiotic thing that came to mind. “I’ve never seen a man smoke a cigar before. It–they always retire to another room.”
His dark brows lifted a fraction in bland inquiry. “Do you mind?” he asked as he finished lighting the cigar.
Two things hit Elizabeth at once: His piercing eyes were the strange color of gleaming amber, while his voice was richly textured and deep; the combination sent a peculiar warmth up her spine.
I remember one of the things I loved about McNaught’s stories is the short separations that would occur between the characters. When they meet again – usually that’s the most anticipated scene in the book if done right—it can be quietly intense and explosive. No worries, the separations aren’t felt in real time and the author often leaped ahead. But that’s something I miss in romance today, the sense of anticipation.
Almost Heaven is one of my very favorite books. It was nice going back down memory lane and rereading certain sections again. This is one of Judith McNaught’s best books. I still need to read the one most fans at the time just couldn’t quit talking about – Once and Always.