NOTE: Since it was published and this review written, the author has re-titled and republished this book as SEDUCING A STRANGER
Dark. Tortured. Battle-tested. Deeply scarred. The men of the Victorian Rebels series are scoundrels and blackguards on the wrong side of the law, tormented by demons the world cannot see.
In the first three books in this series, Byrne delivered irresistible antiheroes. Unfortunately, starting with book four, The Duke, the series lost its edge and that’s a shame because now we’ve finally reached Chief Inspector Carlton Morley’s book – and A Dark and Stormy Knight has none of the gritty, darker feel of the early novels. Since he was introduced in The Highwayman, fans have clamored for Morley’s story, but this version of him – who now moonlights as a pseudo-vigilante and is buddies with most of the men he formerly called enemies – is nearly unrecognizable from the man we once knew.
Note: If you haven’t read The Duke with the Dragon Tattoo, there will be spoilers in this review.
Sir Carlton Morley is famed for his dedication to the law and relentless search for justice; in The Duke with the Dragon Tattoo, we finally learned why. Dead Eye Cutter (for his skill with a slingshot) grew up dirt poor on the streets alongside his twin sister Caroline, and the pair did whatever it took to stay alive, including in Caroline’s case, prostituting herself. But Cutter and his best friend Dorian dreamed of one day joining the military, and then providing a home and a life free from poverty and deprivation for her. The dream comes to an abrupt end after Caroline’s dead, bloody, disheveled body is found on the docks. A devastated Cutter takes shelter at a local church and eventually, with help from the vicar, he forges the documents needed to join the army. Carlton Morley emerges from the ashes and wreckage of Cutter’s past.
When ADaSK opens, Carlton has entered the garden of Miss Henrietta’s School for Cultured Young Ladies, acting on information received as part of his hunt for a murderer. On high alert for any threat, he belatedly realizes it’s a brothel, friction and fornication hinted at everywhere, if not flagrantly happening. Carlton isn’t sure how the brothel is linked to his investigation, and, exhausted after stopping to mete out a bit of justice (*eye roll*) on the way, he’s decided to return on a different night when a woman crashes into him and lands in his lap. The obviously high born lady launches into an apology, and then asks him if he’s free for the night. Carlton is confused until he realizes what she’s asking. After several pages wherein he mulls over the morality of fucking a total stranger, he goes for it. And then he sneaks away. Ahem.
The previous morning, Prudence Goode had awoken happily engaged to George Hamby-Forsyth, the sixth Earl of Sutherland. When she inadvertently overhears her eldest sister and best friend gossiping about her fiancé, she discovers George is not only marrying her for money, but also that he has a mistress and several bastard children, and everyone knows it but her. Hurt and humiliated, she stays hidden as their conversation lapses into a discussion of the Stags of St. James, men whom wealthy women pay for pleasure. Prudence decides she’ll pursue her own pleasure before her marriage, too.
Arriving at Miss Henrietta’s School for Cultured Ladies, Prudence is at first too scandalized to pursue any of the men in the garden. Then she trips over a masked man crouching in the hedges, and decides he’s the one. After an awkward exchange wherein he forces her to tell him what she wants, the stranger gives her pleasure beyond her imagination… and then he disappears.
Three months pass as our principal characters pine over the one that got away. Prudence, pregnant after her anonymous interlude, has no choice but to marry. Morley, resigned to never knowing the identity of his lover, searches for a killer. Meanwhile, the daughter of Commissioner Clarence Goode, Baron Cresthaven (Morley’s superior) is getting married, and his attendance is expected. But just before the ceremony begins, he’s summoned by the vicar.
When Morley entered the sitting room, he froze.
Not because of the blood, though it was everywhere. Soaking into the floral carpet, spreading past it onto the grey stone floor. Coloring the bodice of the bride’s cream dress in a dappled spray. Saturating her hem and train where she stood, paralyzed, in the puddle draining from a man’s neck. The dripping knife still clutched in her trembling, blood-drenched hands.
The fucking priest had been right.
Of all the nightmares…
It was her.
In custody, Prudence reveals she’s pregnant. Morley ruthlessly suppresses information about the murder, marries Prudence and installs her in his home while he investigates the murder. Friends, if you hoped for a gripping, romantic thriller as Morley attempts to find a killer (I did!), that isn’t this story. Instead, Byrne mostly sidelines the murder investigation and focuses on the burgeoning opposites-attract relationship between Carlton and Prudence.
Opposites is an apt description for these two. Since we first met him in The Highwayman, Carlton has been something of an enigma. After repressing his hurt and pain after Caroline’s murder, he’s closed himself off from everything but the relentless pursuit of justice. And Justice is a merciless mistress. By day he’s the incorruptible Chief Inspector for Scotland Yard, and at night he’s a vigilante dubbed the Shadow of the Knight by the press. Marriage to Prudence changes him.
Pregnant and charged with murder, Prudence has no choice but to marry Carlton. And any hopes of a fairy tale romance are quickly dashed when Carlton deposits her at his house and then essentially abandons her. Lonely and desperate for any crumb of affection, Prudence turns the tables and investigates her husband. Their one passion-filled night emboldened her to ask for what she wants, and Prudence wants the man hidden behind all the masks – the passionate, tender, vulnerable man he sometimes forgets to hide.
I liked the soft vulnerability of Prudence juxtaposed against the stern intensity of Carlton, and their romance is lovely. Unfortunately, since its genesis is the murder of her fiancé, and Carlton’s investigation is nowhere in sight, it feels as though the author forgot to tell half the story, and instead, we get page after page of Byrne’s purplest prose. The relationship is passionate and tender and sexy, but once Carlton falls in love, we totally lose sight of our crime fighting detective/vigilante. I could maybe get on the ‘Carlton in Love’ train, if not for the buddy-buddy scenes of him with earlier Victorian Rebels. Look, love changes a person… but Carlton, Dorian, Christopher and Ash are sappy shadows of the men we hated to love. And it’s a bummer. I’m not here for that.
ADaSK abruptly goes from swoony to high stakes thriller in a late, last minute plot twist. We also get a brief glimpse of Carlton as the stone-cold, badass lawman we (me) hoped to meet in this novel. Oh, Ms. Byrne, why couldn’t we have more of this guy?! He’s sexy, deadly, and ruthless in defense of the woman he loves; instead, in most of the novel, we get an overload of cringe-inducing deep thoughts from our Dark. Tortured. Battle-tested. Deeply scarred hero.
A Dark and Stormy Knight is romantic. Unfortunately, it’s also kinda dull. I recommend it with reservations.
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