Thursday, March 3, 2011

I'll Believe What I Want To Believe: "Mistress by Midnight" by Nicola Cornick

A wicked duke's bed is no place for a lady . . .

Lady Merryn Fenner is on a mission to ruin the Duke of Farne. A beautiful bluestocking with a penchant for justice, Merryn has waited ten years to satisfy her revenge against sensual, mysterious Garrick Northesk. Her family name has been tarnished at his hands, her life destroyed. And now she intends to return the favor--by finding the true heir to the duke's title and disinheriting Garrick.

Yet when disaster traps Merryn and Garrick together, white-hot desire stirs between the two sworn enemies. Her reputation utterly compormised, Merryn is forced to do the one thing she cannot bear: accept the scandalous marriage proposal of the man she has vowed to ruin.

Lady Merryn is the youngest of three sisters and she is, for her time, an independent-minded, academic woman who enjoys books, loves museums, engages in charitable causes, and really has little interest in marrying. She is also a rare woman of her time who can keep her own counsel--no one, including her sisters with whom she lives, knows what she is really up to. Having been hired as a private investigator of sorts, she has spent two years trying to dig up dirt on the Duke of Farne, having been hired by a man she believes desires justice when in truth he has much more sinister motivations for using Merryn as his "front." As a part of her plan to find clues to the duke's real guilt in her brother's death, she finds herself caught red-handed in the duke's bedroom when he returns unexpectedly to his family home in London, a house he hates and which has been the primary residence of his father before his death. He ultimately learns that the mysterious woman hiding under his bed is the sister of the man he shot over a decade ago. His attraction to her is instant.

Garrick is a man who is troubled to the core of his being. He did indeed kill Stephen Fenner but few if any know the whole truth of what happened that night. He is not about to reveal the truth to Merryn, no matter how he might desire her, because too many people stand to be hurt if they knew the facts. Better to fight the attraction and move on with life. But Lady Merryn herself makes this impossible in so many little ways, and through a set of unforeseen circumstances they are caught in what is known in history as the Great Beer Flood. It may be that they both thought they would fail to be rescued or like so many people, when caught in a desperate situation, they threw caution to the winds and found comfort in each other's arms. But as in real life, that didn't make the basic upset between Garrick and Merryn go away. It only put her into an even greater social dilemma--without marriage to Garrick her life as she knew it was ended.

This is a complicated story that is full of interesting--no, fascinating people. Garrick comes across as a kind and honorable man, one who is willing to life with far less than most men emotionally if it will protect those to whom he has given his word. Merryn is a woman of great depth, one who would, in our day, have been demonstrating, carrying a placard or some sort, or been doing serious things for social justice. She is creative and inventive, finding ways to pursue her concerns even in the restrictive society of the ton. Her sisters are delightful women, willing to bow to many of the social requirements, but still managing to maintain their own individuality. Tom, Merryn's employer at the investigative agency, is a true scoundrel and feels no conscience in using anyone and everyone to get what he believes to be his. There are others who flit in and out of the story, but I found that no matter how brief their appearance, they still managed to make an impression. That's really good writing and story telling.

Ultimately this novel is about truth, about the injury that unfeeling, unthinking, self-centered people do not only to those in their immediate circles, but their perfidy is far reaching. Lives are changed and relationships are altered. And in the pressure cooker of crisis, true friendship, true regard, true affection is revealed. It is in such a pressure cooker of events that Garrick's and Merryn's true character shine. Both are people of worth, who feel deeply and who often put the well-being of others before their own. Even in a fictional work such self-sacrifice, whether small or great, is instructive about the way it is possible for human beings to live.

I liked this book very much for many reasons: I liked the genuine goodness of Garrick and Merryn; I liked the array of characters that gave depth and breadth to the story; I like Merryn's sisters and their gutsy individualism; and I found the historical context interesting. Ms Cornick has established herself as a writer who knows how to tell a darn good story, and she doesn't disappoint here. The romance is edgy and the suspense over the true nature of events surrounding Merryn's brother's death adds even more interest to the story. I think this is a book historical romance fans will really like. I give it a rating of 4 out of 5.

This novel was released by Harlequin Books in November, 2010.

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