Do I like a bad boy? In real life – no way, but in fiction yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Beverly Barton says in the afterward to this book, that the redeemable bad boy is one of her favorite characters. She has done some really good ones in her Silhouette titles and Johnny Mack Cahill in After Dark is certainly a mucho macho bad boy. He may have been redeemed in the end, but for me he was maybe a little too bad to be totally sympathetic. As a young man, Johnny Mack wasn’t just a Duke of Slut – he was the Emperor.
Noble’s Crossing is a small southern town with a social heirarchy more rigid than that in any traditional Regency Romance. The two main families are the Nobles and the Grahams. Families such as theirs rule the town and most of them are snobbier than the entire House of Lords. They look down on most of the other people in town, especially the “white trash” who live in the trailers on the wrong side of the tracks. However, some of the upper crust are not above consorting with some of dwellers on the wrong side, especially if they are pretty women. Johnny Mack Cahill is the son of the most important person in town – John Graham.
Johnny Mack grew up with bitter resentment toward the ones who looked down on him because of who he was. He had one asset – he was stunningly handsome so he set out to seduce every woman in town (especially the rich ones) and pretty well succeeded. There was one woman though, whom he respected and liked – Lane Noble. Unlike the rest of the town, she and her father treated him with kindness and not condescension. He loved her, but thought her too far above him. Lane loved Johnny Mack in her immature way but marriage with him was simply impossible.
One day, a group of men led by Kent Graham, Johnny Mack’s half-brother, waylaid and beat him almost to death as payback for tomcatting around with his betters. Lane found him, rescued him, and nursed him back into shape. As soon as he was able, he left town, moved to Houston and channelled his energy into business. Johnny Mack is now a multimillionaire. Lane married Kent Graham as their families wished and they adopted a son, Will. As the book begins, Johnny Mack has received a note telling him to “Come home, your son needs you”.
When Johnny Mack comes back to Noble’s Crossing, he comes back to a real mess. He has a son he never knew about. Kent Graham has been murdered – who did it? The two main suspects are Lane and Will, who is suffering from selective amnesia. One of the men who beat Johnny Mack so badly years ago is now the police chief. How will that sway the investigation? And Edith Graham, whose husband fathered Johnny Mack years ago is still a major power in town, still vindictive and hiding some deep dark secrets. Finally, the boyish attraction Johnny Mack felt for Lane is still very much alive and stronger than ever and it looks like she reciprocates his feelings as well.
After Dark is a big novel with lots of incidents, larger than life characters and hot love scenes. When southern writers go for the melodramatic, they don’t hold back. Remember the tiger that killed the rapists in Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides? Remember Temple Drake who ran off and fell into the clutches of the gangster Popeye who raped her with a corncob in William Faulkner’s Sanctuary? True to the southern melodramatic tradition, Beverly Barton gives us adultery, rape, abuse, amnesia, incest and secrets and lies galore. It’s great over the top reading and kept me happily turning the pages.
Lane was my favorite character in the book. She is sweet and feminine with a backbone of steel – especially in her protectiveness toward her son. Johnny Mack was not easy to like. His childhood was hellish in the extreme, but Lordy! What a slut he was. If he met a woman – any woman – he would try to get into her pants. Of course once he came back to Noble’s Crossing and met Lane again, he did not look at another woman, but still his initial sluttiness colored my perception of him through the whole novel.
After Dark is not elegant and smooth, but it’s written with lots of vigor and zips along quite nicely. There are times when I long for an old-fashioned, lush Southern gothic melodrama and After Dark filled the bill perfectly. Fans of Linda Howard’s Shades of Twilight and After the Night will love this one.