A Rake’s Midnight Kiss
We first met Sir Richard Harmsworth, sophisticated, charming and devastatingly handsome man-about-town, in the previous novel in this series, Seven Nights in a Rogue’s Bed . Like his friend Jonas Merrick, the hero of that story, Richard is similarly tainted by the slur of bastardy; although in Richard’s case, he is legally entitled to his baronetcy as his mother was married to Sir Lester Harmsworth at the time of Richard’s birth, and Sir Lester formally acknowledged Richard as his heir. Unfortunately, however, it’s public knowledge that Sir Lester was out of the country at the time of Richard’s birth and conception, so while he is technically legitimate, in the eyes of society, he’s still a by-blow.
But whereas Jonas opted to hide away from society’s prying eyes, Richard has grown up in front of them, and has developed an iron-clad defence mechanism, presenting himself as a “lazy, even-tempered man who cared for little”. He has cultivated an emotional detachment that allows him to maintain the pretence that the behind-hands sneers and whispered scandal don’t bother him, whereas underneath he’s a seething mass of resentment.
In an unguarded moment one evening, he vows to seek out the famous “Harmsworth Jewel”, an ancient artefact that has been passed down through the generations and which is always possessed by the holder of the title and his heirs. After six months of searching, Richard discovers the jewel’s whereabouts. His aunt Amelia, a noted devotee of Mary Wollstonecraft, had bequeathed it to one Miss Genevieve Barrett, a young lady with whom she had struck up a friendship, with firm instructions that under no circumstances should she allow the jewel to find its way into Sir Richard’s hands. I admit, when I thought this book was going to be a treasure hunt/adventure yarn, I felt a bit peeved. But it wasn’t long before I realised that it wasn’t like that at all, and what I was reading was in fact a warm, witty, character-driven romance.
Genevieve Barrett is twenty-five, beautiful, and possessed of a brilliant mind. As far as the world knows, she is her father’s amanuensis, helping him to produce and publish a large number of highly regarded and scholarly papers and articles about Medieval History. But what the world doesn’t know – and which Richard works out almost immediately – is that Genevieve is actually the author of those works. Her father had promised to give her co-authorial credit, but it has never happened and she can’t help feeling aggrieved. Even though she loves him, she is not blind to his faults, having realised over the years that his affable and distinguished exterior in fact hides a selfish, weak man.
Genevieve is currently – and unbeknownst to her father – writing an article about the Harmsworth Jewel which she intends to publish under her own name in order to kick-start an academic career. Richard has offered to purchase the jewel for much more than it is worth, but she has refused to part with it, so he resorts to subterfuge.
Obtaining an introduction to the Reverend Barrett courtesy of his friend the Duke of Sedgemoor, Richard, calling himself Mr Christopher Evans, and styling himself an interested amateur in the field of English Medieval History, undertakes a period of study under Barrett’s guidance.
The sparks fly the minute he and Genevieve set eyes on each other. Genevieve is immediately suspicious of the handsome charmer who is determined to flirt with her, and tries everything she can think of to put him off. The problem is that she doesn’t realise that her put-downs and obvious displeasure in ‘Mr Evans’’ company have exactly the opposite effect on that gentleman and only make him even more determined to succeed in his quest to “charm the jewel out of her”.
I like an adversarial couple in a romance, but it’s not every author who can pull it off without making the banter seem arch or artificial. Fortunately, Ms Campbell is one of those who can make it work, and the exchanges between the urbane Mr Evans and the frustrated and often snippy Miss Barrett were delightful, as he gradually begins to break through her defences and win a grudging acceptance.
Even though Genevieve is a ‘feisty’ bluestocking heroine, she never rubbed me up the wrong way as so many feisty heroines do. I think it’s because she reacts to things in a manner that is completely in keeping with her character as it has been established. Her suspicion of Mr Evans is natural, given her inexperience with men – especially very agreeable, very good-looking ones; and is even more so when one considers that her own father has, in effect, betrayed her trust in the matter of the co-authorship. There’s also the fact that one of her father’s cronies, the smarmy Lord Neville, has designs upon her and frequently tries to assert his claim to her in the face of Richard’s obvious interest by attempting to dictate her actions. I thought her reaction to the way ‘Mr Evans’ invades every corner of her life – from the parlour at the vicarage to her secret hideaways, leaving her feeling as though she no longer has anywhere to call her own – rang very true.
Of course, the longer she spends in Richard’s company, the more Genevieve begins to perceive that there is more to him than at first appears. In spite of her wariness, she finds him to be good company, intelligent and perceptive – and although she fights it, she senses he is a man she can trust.
For Richard’s part, he finds that he rather likes being ‘Mr Evans’ – discovering a new and unlooked for freedom that comes from feeling unfettered by his past, and which enables him to allow his true self free rein. It was a moment of great poignancy when he admitted to Sedgemoor that he liked himself far more as Evans and that Harmsworth was a “scurvy fellow”.
I thought this novel provided a near-perfect balance of romance, character development and plot. The emphasis is on the former two, yet the third is neither neglected nor too prominent. Both Genevieve and Richard grow as characters throughout the story – her horizons are broadened as she admits the possibility of a life that encompasses more than dusty books and parchments, yet she loses none of her fierceness and tenacity. When he assumes a different identity, it’s immediately apparent that there is so much more to Richard than the world-weary and self-centred dandy he presents to the world (which, to be fair, was apparent in his willingness to aid Jonas in the first book), and he finally grows into the decent, kind and loving man he was always meant to be.
Finally, a note about the epilogue, which – fortunately – didn’t include characters from other books cropping up with their broods of children while Richard gives a heavily pregnant Genevieve a foot-rub. No, the epilogue here was worth reading because it provides the final piece in the jigsaw of Richard Harmsworth’s past, finally allows him to make his peace with it and to begin to rebuild his relationship with his mother.
Although I have read the previous book in the series, you don’t need to do so in order to enjoy this one. Richard and Genevieve are a thoroughly likeable and well-matched central couple and their romance is well-developed and full of tenderness and affection. Ms Campbell writes with intelligence and humour and I’m definitely looking forward to reading Cam’s story in the next book.