Choosing an Anne Stuart book is like ordering pizza at a new restaurant: you know basically what you're going to get and that you're probably going to like it, but will it be your everyday tasty slice or something sublimely spicy and melting?
Originally published in 1995, and now available digitally, Nightfall is authentic New York pizza with Neapolitan crust. It's everything you expect from Stuart, at her most compelling:
The Hero. He'll be dark, dangerous…and deadly? Unlike some of Stuart's outright assassins, Richard Tiernan is even more chillingly ambiguous. He was convicted of murdering his wife, his young children are missing… and all we know for sure about him is that he has a plan, one which involves Cassidy Roarke. “He was going to use her. Sacrifice her, if need be, for his own needs.”
The Heroine. She's relatable, dependable, and vulnerable—though she may not realize it. “Five feet nine and well-rounded [Cassidy] had never considered herself shy, nervy or little in her entire life.” Although she might be surprised to learn how Richard sees her: “Everything about Cassidy Roarke was profoundly sensual, from her blaze of flyaway hair to her ripe luscious body, to her innocent face.” The mere sight of her long, narrow, bare feet makes him crazy with lust.
The daughter of a charismatic, severely narcissistic writer, Cassidy is sick of being manipulated in the name of love; she deliberately gives herself “a life of safe routine, where no one needs her or makes impossible demands.” Until she meets the even more charismatic Richard and despite her suspicions, finds herself unable to stop thinking about his haunted eyes, and “the elegant, tortured grace of his body.” Soon, her life because one big impossible demand.
The Suspense. Did Richard kill his wife? Is he going to kill Cassidy? Will she care if he does? The plot grows ever more taut as the harrowing truth about Richard's past and motives gradually reveals itself; meanwhile Cassidy is torn between her deepening attraction and fear, desperately trying to hold onto sane behavior while feeling as if “her brain and all her self-protective instincts short-circuited.” To make it all even more disturbing, we know that everything that happens between them is startlingly deliberate, orchestrated by Richard:
Events had turned him into a conscienceless sociopath, and he accepted that truth with a certain grim satisfaction. He could trust no one, nothing. Not noble resolve, not friendship, not justice. He could only work with what he had. And the only thing he trusted was obsession.
The Sex. It's always the most powerful weapon in a Stuart's hero's arsenal, and one Richard uses ruthlessly:
Now all he had to do was bind her to him, and that was relatively simple.
He needed to get her on the bed, where she wanted to be. He needed to get between her long, wonderful legs and make her feel things she'd never felt before. He needed to make her come, again and again, until she couldn't think, couldn't breathe, couldn't do anything but what he wanted her to do.
'So what's your answer, sweet Cassidy?' he murmured, moving closer to her. Her bra fastened in front. Thoughtful of her. He brushed his fingertips against the clasp. 'Or if you prefer me to be more exact. Now? Or later?'
All of this inexorably leads to:
The Surrender. A Stuart hero is trouble, and a Stuart heroine is always smart enough to know it. The peak of their romance will be the heroine's surrender to overpowering feeling despite her better judgement. Cass's surrender doesn't come easily — her ability to fight is part of what Richard needs in her. But it come it does, and with it, the inevitable discovery that the surrender is mutual:
He closed his eyes, his strong teeth bared in a grimace, and she watched him. And she knew she owned him, as much as he owned her."
It's crazy, it's unhealthy, and thank God it's fiction, but that shared passion between them is thrilling.
Nightfall is a breathtaking trip into psychologically murky waters. But though much that happens is horrific, and our hero is manipulative, ruthless, and at best morally ambivalent, it's not a nihilistic or amoral story. Just perfectly burnt around the edges.