As I have mentioned, I have a big ol weakness for “I don't want to like you, I don't want to like you, I can't stop thinking about your hair DAMMIT” romance. I love when a character has a Definite Reason to avoid getting involved with someone he or she desires. I love when the Definite Reason is deeply embedded in the person's character, when acting on the impulse that draws one person toward another means breaking a tightly held self-promise. I love when the tension stems from one person desiring another, and the other person feeling that desire and attempting to squish it down because it would be better for everyone if nothing ever happened.
Most of all, I love when the Definite Reason, when revealed, is not utter piffle, not meaningless twaddle that isn't nearly sufficient enough to have held back all that pent up and denied desire.
“A Lady By Midnight” contained all of those things I loved. A hero denying to himself how much he adored the heroine. A heroine who didn't understand why he rejected her but attempted to persevere anyway. And Definite Reasons why the hero made himself so miserable, reasons that, when revealed, revealed more about him and about her. It's delicious.
I first read this book as an ARC in late May, and tweeted about how much I loved it, then promptly felt like a royal douche because it wasn't on sale until late August. This was one of the rare ARCs that I was given which I did not file and wait until closer to the release month to read. I wanted to read this so badly, I broke my own rules and read it as soon as I received it.
And while writing this review I've almost read the whole thing again twice. The writing is terribly easy to be swept into, and the charged dialogue that's piled with ripping tension between Kate and Thorne is difficult to put down.
Kate Taylor is the music teacher in Spindle Cove. She was raised an orphan in a boarding school and has been alone since she left the school when she came of age. Kate has a port wine birthmark on her temple, and feels ugly and self conscious as a result. Kate harbors a secret fear that she isn't lovable, that no one will ever want her, and the book opens with a confirmation of how cruel life and certain people have been to Kate.
Samuel Thorne of the Spindle Cove militia has made an art form of avoiding, rejecting and otherwise escaping any time spent with Kate. He is keeping a very big secret about Kate that he refuses to reveal, not to Kate nor to the reader, because doing so will likely compromise Kate's standing in the community. He is also trying to withstand the powerful attraction he feels for Kate. He's twice as rude and boorish out of the effort to hide how much he yearns for her. Thorne is a very smoldering hero.
And of course, any man who is in the midst of pretending fiercely that he isn't the least bit interested in a woman must therefore find himself in a sham-engagement to that same woman. It's like romance novel LAW or something, right?
I liked Kate and her determination to be happy, and to make the best of any situation she found herself in, even though she had ample reasons to be miserable. I loved that she wanted to see people accurately, to understand them and their true selves just as she wanted people to look past her birthmark and see Kate.
I also liked that her perception about other people meant that, within the responsibilities of her job as a music tutor, Kate would help other women who were feeling afraid or self-conscious using music and performance. Kate, who is intimate with both of those feelings, has so much empathy and desire to help others feel better, which is remarkable the more the reader learns about Kate's life before she came to Spindle Cove.
Thorne is dark and moody and not sure at all what to do with himself where Kate is concerned, save push her away and reject her as much as possible. She is the spot of vibrant disordered chaos in his otherwise very ordered and monochromatic life. He can't look away and he hates himself for his weakness where she is concerned, because he is convinced that she is better off in every way without him in her life.
The story is a mix of silly and emotional, happy and wrenching that really worked for me. Even the ending, which diverts from the expected, almost traditional romance conclusion (I can't get more specific than that, I'm sorry) was a surprise, and revealed more about Kate and her contentment with herself.
I think that was one of the best parts of Kate's character, really: she fought for happiness and contentment, and held on to it through her own force of will. She had a lot to be unhappy about, and she refused to be sad. Her resilience isn't blithe ignorance or avoidance of her problems. She is determined to be happy, to be thankful for what she has, with the hope that one day, she will have the family and love she most wants.
Two things bothered me, though. First, when a mysterious set of visitors arrive, it's like a carriage full of sequel-bait shows up. The individuals aren't so much individual as they are at times like an assembly of future characters and convenient plot devices. Contrasted with the complexity and depth of Kate, Thorne, and the other residents of Spindle Cove, the new arrivals' role as Possibilities and Plot Conflicts to stand between Kate and Thorne is sometimes clunky, like the difference between a piece of music played after hours and hours of practice, and a new piece played only a few times.
The other problem…well, I've written this sentence several times and I can't think of a way to describe my problem without spoiling things that are integral to the plot. One of the people in the carriage full of sequel bait has what on the surface appears to be a justifiable reason to dislike Kate and Thorne's engagement, but upon further reflection, his reason is ludicrous compared to the Much Larger Examples of Surprising and Socially Challenging Behavior that are in the carriage with him. My reaction was, 'Dude, really? That's the best reason you can give as to why they shouldn't marry?'
But the scenes between Kate and Thorne make up for the arched eyebrow I held for the carriage of sequel bait. Here are some examples of the passages I highlighted, just because I liked them so much.
A year's worth of avoidance and intimidation, all shot to hell in one afternoon, thanks to that wrongheaded, stupid, goddamned glorious kiss.
“Look at me.”
He leaned forward and braced his hands on the stone wall, confronting her face to face. Daring her; daring fate. If she was ever going to recognize him, it would be now.
As she took him in, he did some looking of his own. He drank in the small details he'd denied himself for long months. Her sweet pink frock, with ivory ribbons threaded through the neckline like little dollops of confectioner's icing. The tiny freckle on her chest, just below her right collarbone. The brave set of her jaw, and the way her pink lips crooked fetchingly at the corners.
Then he searched those clever, lovely hazel eyes for any hint of awareness or flash of recognition.
“You don't know me,” he said. Both a statement and a question.
She regarded him now: arms crossed, face hard, eyes glazed with ice. He was a living suit of armor. If she listened hard enough, she might even hear him creak as he walked.
He wouldn't surrender any secrets willingly. If she wanted to know what was truly inside the man, she would have to crack him open to find out. It seemed a dangerous proposition, and a sensible, clever young woman – a “Kate” – would turn and run the other way.
But she wasn't a “Kate” to him. He'd called her Katie. And Katie was a courageous girl, even in the face of her fears.
The best parts are the dialogue between Kate and Thorne, but if I tried to grab one piece of it, I found myself transcribing too little or too much. Kate and Thorne and their difficult and sharply entertaining courtship made for a wonderful afternoon of reading. I can't tell you how happy I am that everyone can enjoy this book now.