A Lady by Midnight
Avon / August 28, 2012 / $7.99 print, $5.99 digital
A temporary engagement, a lifetime in the making . . .
After years of fending for herself, Kate Taylor found friendship and acceptance in Spindle Cove—but she never stopped yearning for love. The very last place she’d look for it is in the arms of Corporal Thorne. The militia commander is as stone cold as he is brutally handsome. But when mysterious strangers come searching for Kate, Thorne steps forward as her fiancé. He claims to have only Kate’s safety in mind. So why is there smoldering passion in his kiss?
Long ago, Samuel Thorne devoted his life to guarding Kate’s happiness. He wants what’s best for her, and he knows it’s not marriage to a man like him. To outlast their temporary engagement, he must keep his hands off her tempting body and lock her warm smiles out of his withered heart. It’s the toughest battle of this hardened warrior’s life . . . and the first he seems destined to lose.
A Lady by Midnight is the third novel in Tessa Dare’s Spindle Cove series. (There’s also a novella between the first two books.) Spindle Cove, for those who have not read the earlier books, is a seaside village where well-bred families in Regency England send their daughters who don’t fit society’s idea of what a young lady should be because they are sickly or shy or scandalous. Spindle Cove allows them to be themselves. It was essentially a manless village until the first book when Lieutenant Colonel Victor Bramwell, the new Earl of Rycliff, came to the village to organize a militia. The characters in Spindle Cove, male and female alike, are in the process of defining themselves and/or claiming their place. While I was expecting the hero and heroine of A Lady by Midnight to follow the pattern, I found it fascinating that these two are literally marked as misfits.
Kate Taylor, an orphan, grew up in the Margate School for Girls where her physical needs were met, but there was little to nourish her emotionally. But she found solace in music, in the feeling that once she was loved, and in the memory of a voice saying “Be brave, my Katie.” Kate has spent the four years since she left school teaching music to the women of Spindle Cove. Blessed with a sunny nature, she has found friends and community in Spindle Cove, but she is determined to uncover the secrets of her origin and hopeful of finding family. Kate bears a port-wine birthmark on her temple. Early on, the reader learns how the birthmark affects Kate’s interactions with people.
Kate was accustomed to awkward eye contact. Whenever she made new acquaintances, she became painfully aware that people saw only the bold port-wine splash on her temple. For years she’d tried to obscure her birthmark with wide-brimmed bonnets or artfully arranged ringlets of hair—to no avail. People always stared straight past them. She’d learned to ignore the initial hurt. In time, she went from being just a birthmark in their eyes, to being a woman with a birthmark. And eventually they looked at her and just saw Kate.
Kate’s acceptance of the mark that sets her apart is a measure of her optimism and maturity. It seems fitting that when she does find family, that mark becomes an indentifying link. It is, after all, a heart-shaped mark.
Samuel Thorne’s is a darker story, and the marks that set him apart from the common run of humanity are hidden from the world, but serve as visible reminders to him of his shame and unworthiness. Even before the marks are revealed to Kate’s eyes—and to the reader’s—Thorne is described in beastly terms. He is large; he looms. Kate assures a shy piano student who is intimidated by his presence, “He might be brutish, but I don’t believe he bites.” When Thorne suffers PTSD episodes, the animalistic descriptions intensify. The first one; “He forced a strange growl through his clenched teeth. The sound was inhuman.” In the second, more dangerous one: “An inhuman growl originated somewhere low in his gut, building strength as it clawed its way up through his chest.” He even thinks of himself in those terms. Being with Kate evokes in him “some memory of the humanity that had long since been beaten, starved, and flogged out of him.” When he tells Kate about the effects of military service on him before he met Bram, he says, “I was more beast than man.” He dreams of going to the American frontier because “It’s where I belong now. Out in the wilderness, with the creatures that howl and claw and snarl. No social graces necessary.”
The first turn in the story occurs when Kate begins to see Thorne differently, just as people have been able to see her rather than her birthmark as they come to know her better. After Thorne saves Kate from being stranded in a neighboring town: “In her mind’s eye he went from forbidding and stern, to protective and strong, to . . . Handsome.” Her voice and her touch have the power to recall him to himself when the war-crazed animal takes over. But Thorne is no prince in beastly disguise. It is not magic but the reality of inhuman treatment that has made him the man he is, and he bears the marks of that treatment on his flesh in the form of “twisting, branching scars” and tattoos.
There was an abstract design of some kind on his upper right chest, encircled by a medallion just smaller than her palm. On his shoulder was a tiny, crudely drawn flower—rather like a Tudor rose. A row of numbers marched up the underside of his left arm. And on the side of his rib cage, she found a pair of letters: B and C.
Thorne sees each of these marks as identifying him: the rose that identified the boy to his gang of poachers brands him a thief; the numbers a fifteen-year-old engraved in his own skin to mark the day of his release from prison so he wouldn’t forget as the years passed mark him forever as one who was imprisoned; the medallion that is a souvenir of a soldier’s drunken night in a Portuguese tavern identify him as a drunk; and the letters, standing for Bad Character, that were nailed into the flesh of soldiers “drummed out of their corps for criminal offenses” speak for themselves.
But this is a romance, after all, and love does heal and redeem. Even love can’t erase the marks, but it can in Katie’s case make a port-wine stain a reminder of parents who loved one another and her. In Thorne’s case, B and C can become living marks of love. If that last bit doesn’t make sense, read the book. It’s a wonderfully crafted addition to a strong series.
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.