In her shallow youth, Miranda Pardew teased and taunted those who didn't fit her model of perfection. She set her cap for the handsomest gentleman in the ton, but once she won him, her seemingly perfect match quickly tarnished. After enduring a terrible marriage for eleven years, Miranda finds herself widowed and penniless, her husband having gambled away his fortune and left her with nothing. Over the years, Miranda drastically changed. She learned to hold her head up high and do what needed to be done in order to survive, and this time is no exception. Rather than suffer living with her boorish brother-in-law and his grasping wife, Miranda decides to seek employment as a governess.
At his first ball eleven years ago, Barnaby Traherne instantly fell for the beautiful Miranda Pardew, but the shy young man almost as quickly found himself the butt of the cruel lady's jokes. Her brutal cut left him devastated but determined never to let it happen again. Now a successful grown man, Barnaby is traveling by stagecoach to his brother's home for the Christmas holiday, and is shocked to find Miranda as one of his traveling companions. She obviously doesn't remember him at all, but still stinging after all this time, Barnaby sets about being nearly as rude to her as she was to him. Still, as he becomes reacquainted with her, Barnaby can't help wondering if she really has changed and what has happened to her over the years to cause her to lower herself to the position of a servant. Soon Barnaby finds himself in the confusing position of falling in love with a woman he can't stand, but will he be able to forgive her past transgression before it's too late?
Winter Wonderland is a sweet Traditional Regency romance that got off to a good start. It begins with a prologue where the author gives us a look back at the incident between the then-nineteen year-old hero and heroine which in many ways shaped Barnaby's life. Then it quickly fast-forwards eleven years to a much more mature heroine who has seen a great deal of hardship since then and a hero who has changed from a painfully shy youth into a man who, while no longer bashful, is still on the reserved side and described by many of the young ladies of the ton as forbidding. They chance to meet up again as both are traveling to Barnaby's brother's house, he for the holidays and she to become their new governess. The early chapters where they are journeying by stagecoach, robbed by highwaymen, and then stranded alone together for a couple of days at a small inn were delightfully warm and witty with just the right amount of emotion. Once Barnaby and Miranda were found by Barnaby's brother, Terrence, and returned to his home, I felt like some of the magic they had shared began to fade. Also, the misunderstanding drug on a little too long, really for the entire book, which I usually don't care for, because in my opinion, it takes away from the intimacy that could be building between the characters while they are instead holding themselves at arms-length.
I felt so sorry for poor Barnaby in the opening pages. The cut Miranda gave him at his first ball no less, was absolutely brutal. Having been timid in my youth like Barnaby and the butt of much teasing and jokes as well, I could really relate. In the moment, it was completely devastating to him, but immediately after, he vowed never to let something like that happen again. Since then, he has apparently enjoyed a rather storied career in the military and now works for the home office as a diplomat. Although his sister-in-law seems to be constantly playing matchmaker, Barnaby doesn't appear all that interested in marriage. In fact, he's been scaring away the young ladies with his cold and daunting frowns. When he meets up with Miranda again, Barnaby immediately recognizes her as the girl who humiliated him, and finds that he's still holding a grudge about it. In spite of him still stinging from Miranda's set-down all those years ago, I liked that Barnaby managed to behave like the proper gentleman he was, kindly saving her from both the unwanted advances of their fellow coach passenger and the highwaymen. Also, when they were stranded at the inn, and he got worked up into a pique of temper and was rude to her, he had the decency to feel badly about it later. During these parts, I found Barnaby to be quite funny, because it was obvious that he still liked Miranda and was very attracted to her, but wasn't about to admit it to himself or anyone else. After that though, I thought he allowed his resentment to go too far, even to the point of proposing to another woman just because he was too closed-minded to let himself believe that Miranda could have changed. At this point, I started to loose some respect for him. I know that he had been very hurt by Miranda in the past, but it was obvious to almost everyone but Barnaby that she was a very different woman than she was in her youth. At least, he made something of a comeback at the end, so I still generally liked him after all.
The way Miranda cut Barnaby in the prologue was so rude and obnoxious I wasn't sure I'd ever be able to warm up to her, but the author did an excellent job of making me forgive her almost instantly. It seems in the last eleven years, she has had to eat a huge slice of humble pie. Any happiness she might have had in the marriage she thought would be perfect, was in actuality very short-lived. She herself felt the constant sting of humiliation as her husband gambled away their fortune and ran through a succession of mistresses until he ultimately died in a duel with a husband he'd cuckolded. The uncaring lout didn't even leave Miranda a penny in his will, so after her year of mourning was up, she had to turn over all property to her brother-in-law who was the rightful heir to her husband's estate. He and his wife were going to allow Miranda to stay with them, but it turned out to be a backhanded offer with the wife in particular behaving insufferably toward Miranda until she knew she had to get away from them by making her own way in the world. She had already learned to live with a skeleton staff, doing many of the household chores herself, so applying for a position as a governess didn't seem like much of a stretch. Even the few meager possessions that Miranda called her own were cruelly taken from her, so she definitely was a sympathetic character in spite of her inauspicious beginning. I liked her determination to make lemonade with the lemons life had handed her. She ended up being very good with Terrence and Delia's children even though she had no real experience with kids. I also liked her willingness to sincerely apologize to Barnaby when Delia finally reminded her of her transgression, and that she was properly horrified by her former behavior. I think it all showed that she truly was a changed woman.
Winter Wonderland has a colorful cast of secondary characters, primarily Barnaby's brothers and their wives who seem to have a penchant for meddling in his life to the point of driving Barnaby to distraction. Being the youngest of four brothers by ten years, Barnaby's siblings have essentially lavished him with fatherly affection since he was born, and have always been overprotective of him, never allowing him to fight his own battles. Barnaby's sisters-in-law, especially Honoria, have a penchant for matchmaking. Honoria seems to think it her sworn duty to find him a wife, and she believes she found the perfect mate for him in sweet little Livy, a comely but timid girl who appears to be having trouble finding a husband due to her shyness. I liked Livy through most of the story and was hoping that as the third wheel, she wasn't going to get left out in the cold. I needn't have worried, because as it turns out, she already had a suitor waiting in the wings. Her mother simply thought the man wasn't good enough for her and Barnaby would be a better catch. I wholeheartedly believe that Livy ended up with the right guy, but I do wish that she had shown a little more backbone when making her choice. Her indecisiveness left me with a little doubt about her HEA. Then there were Barnaby's nephews, of whom the youngest, Jamie, reminds Barnaby of himself at that age. The boy is kind of on the shy side and like Barnaby is coddled by his older brothers, so Barnaby tends to show Jamie special attention.
Overall, Winter Wonderland was a pretty good read. The beginning really drew me into the story, and I thought it might end up becoming a keeper for me. It probably would have too, if it hadn't been for Barnaby's grudge and the misunderstandings resulting from it dragging on too long for my liking. He kept going back and forth between being Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and wouldn't communicate with Miranda at all about the incident that left him "scarred for life." Not being a fan of anger turned to passion moments, their first kiss didn't do much for me either. However, both Barnaby and Miranda were pretty likable characters, and their "starting over" scene was really cute and romantic as was the epilogue, so in the end it balanced out fairly well for me. Elizabeth Mansfield is one of the better Traditional Regency authors I've read, so I'm looking forward to checking out some of her other non-Christmas-y works. Winter Wonderland can be purchased as a separate book or as part of the two book anthology A Christmas Kiss and Winter Wonderland.
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