Nicola Cornick’s Mistress by Midnight is the brand-new third installment in the rather ponderously-named ‘Scandalous Women of the Ton’ series. I have not read the two earlier books, but after finishing this one I think I might at least pick up the first, which is the story of Merryn’s oldest sister Joanna, who I liked immensely; the second book is about Garrick’s half-brother Ethan, who appeared only briefly in Mistress and who I have little interest in reading about.
Lady Merryn Fenner is a rather oddly-named¹ Society bluestocking, the unmarried and eccentric youngest child of the late Earl of Fenner. When not attending scientific lectures or propping up the wallpaper at tonnish events, Merryn secretly assists working-class investigator Tom Bradshaw, gaining entry through her title and connections to houses and paperwork that Bradshaw would otherwise be unable to access. Her ongoing pet project has been to investigate the death of her brother, Stephen, who was allegedly killed in a duel some twelve years prior; Merryn doesn’t believe the official story and intends to uncover the truth and seek the ruin (and possible execution) of his killer.
Garrick Northesk, the nineteenth Duke of Farne, and whose surname never appears besides the second paragraph of the book, has spent the last decade haunted by the betrayal and subsequent murder of his best friend, forced to keep the true events of that day a secret. He returns to London after his father’s funeral to find his home – and bedchamber – occupied by a certain bluestocking, who had taken advantage of the absences of Garrick and his father to rifle through the old duke’s study for incriminating paperwork.
Garrick’s curiosity is piqued when the lady flees, and he becomes downright intrigued when he discovers that she is the youngest sister of the man he killed so long ago. Will he act on his attraction, or will Merryn find what she seeks and earn Garrick the hangman’s noose…?
When a disaster traps Merryn and Garrick together, white-hot desire stirs between the two sworn enemies. Merryn’s reputation is utterly compromised and she is forced to do the one thing she cannot bear; accept the scandalous marriage proposal of the man she has vowed to ruin.
I was a little annoyed to discover that the ‘disaster’ mentioned as the plot-hook on the back cover didn’t happen until just over half-way through the book. The disaster in question was the London Beer Flood of 1814, which the author mentions in the foreward. Normally I try to avoid giving plot spoilers beyond the first few chapters, but in this case I don’t think it counts, as the information is revealed before the actual story even starts.
During the beer flood, our intrepid heroine and her reluctant counterpart are trapped together in a collapsed. This in itself is not so bothersome as part of the ‘token drama’ in a typical regency romance, but I do object to the appearance and disappearance of the ‘flood waters’, if you will, and several other inconsistencies besides. When Merryn first wakes she comments on the smell, but later on, still trapped in the enclosed space with a large quantity of beer, both parties comment on how the other smells – Merryn like “the faint scent of flowers mixed with dust and beer”, and Garrick like “lime cologne”. There is a reference to the ‘soaking material of [Garrick's] pantaloons” but Merryn seems to be perfectly dry, despite being dunked at least briefly in the beer before they were trapped together. Even if she’d been dry to begin with,, her skirts should be soaking up liquid like a sponge. And no one’s boots are uncomfortable or squishing.
While not major issues, these definitely threw me out of the story and made it less ‘realistic’. My parents used to own a pub, I’ve been around a lot of beer, and there’s just no way they could not be smelly and sticky and unable to notice anything but the strong, rather sour smell of beer in any quantity.
Well, maybe if it were Miller Light or something like that, but I guarantee you’re not going to find that in nineteenth-century London.
From the description, I was expecting the compromising and marriage proposal to take place much earlier in the story, and for the conflict between them to arise during their marriage. This was not the case. I won’t say that I feel precisely cheated, since I did enjoy the book, but I do wish that publishers would be less creatively artistic with the blurbs and actually describe the story.
I also have a fondness for ‘mistresses’ in historical romance, and after the promising title I was quite disappointed that Merryn does not become Garrick’s actual mistress at any point during the story. That’s a spoiler, too, I suppose, though not a terribly important one.
Merryn and Garrick were both quite single-minded – Merryn was determined to ruin Garrick despite her attraction to him, and Garrick was determined to act on his attraction to Merryn. There was definite chemistry between the two of them, and the sex scenes were well-written.
I particularly enjoyed Merryn’s sisters, Joanna and Tess, and seeing her relationship with them and how it evolved over time. Garrick didn’t really have anyone except for Merryn to interact with, though he mentioned his brother in passing and briefly spent time with someone who I think is a friend of the brother. It would have been nice to see more of Garrick’s interaction with Society in general, and with people besides Merryn and his butler.
While I had my issues with the scene itself, the incorporation of the London Beer Flood into the story was novel, and I do like the idea. The rest of the drama in the book was rather more of the typical romance novel fare, with some unnecessary additions from Mr. Bradshaw to round things out.
Overall, this was an enjoyable read, and if you are willing and able to overlook the continuity issues I have mentioned I would recommend it.
¹While Merryn is a name, it was historically a male name. Much like Leslie, Beverley, Robin, Ashley…