As I predicted last year, Book #2 in the Smythe-Smith quartet focuses on the hapless governess who got pulled into the 1824 musicale, Anne Wynter. The book opens in medias res, at that very musicale, when Anne unexpectedly encounters Daniel Smythe-Smith, Earl of Winstead, and brother to Honoria, the heroine of Just Like Heaven. Since she’s never met him, his sudden appearance, lurking in the wings at the musicale, really startles her — and we learn right off the bat that Anne is hiding from someone, and fears that Daniel might be an agent of that person. Daniel’s surreptitious behaviour has a reason: he’s just returned from self-imposed exile and doesn’t want to detract attention from the musicale (much though the guests might have thanked him for doing so). Once Anne realises he’s not out to get her, they have a rather heated moment in the hallway, before Honoria’s story intersects theirs and Daniel storms off to, at least in his mind, protect his sister’s honour. The spark has been struck, however, and Daniel starts finding excuses to visit his Pleinsworth cousins, Anne’s charges, just to spend time with her. When accidents start happening around them, however, Daniel worries that his return from exile might not be as wholly embraced as he was assured it would be. JQ expands on a story we learned about in Just Like Heaven; Daniel got into a drunken duel with his friend Hugh Prentice, and though he meant to fire astray, he accidentally hits Hugh in the leg, crippling him. Though Hugh is inclined towards forgiveness, his father felt differently, and thus Daniel spent three years on the continent dodging the old man’s agents. Only when Hugh tracks him down in Italy to swear that his father has promised to relent can Daniel return to England — but these accidents make Daniel thing that perhaps things still aren’t settled.
Still, that fear doesn’t stop him from pursuing Anne, who has utterly struck him to the core — real love at first sight on his part, and though she tries to put him off, she’s more than a little intrigued by him. We eventually learn that the reason for Anne’s skittishness is not unlike Daniel’s: a man from her past has sworn vengeance on her, and she’s feared for years that he’ll find her and succeed. JQ gives us a flashback to the event, and it’s a little painful for anyone who’s ever been young and stupid and made poor decisions because she was besotted with some guy (so, most readers, I would assume). Anne gives up the prize to a man she thinks will marry her; he has no intention of doing so, but also no intention of giving up his bit on the side. I’ll say, I really thought for a moment that we were going to be dealing with a rape survivor in Anne. It doesn’t quite come to that, though not for lack of effort on the odious George’s part. In self-defence, Anne slashes his face open with a letter opener. This, naturally, causes some problems. In return for not pressing charges against her, George’s father forces her to leave the county, which is why she takes up first as a lady’s companion and then as a governess. George isn’t letting things go quite so easily, however, and vows to make Anne pay for having disfigured him.
One of the things I like about this book is that it sort of deals with the concepts of slut-shaming and victim-blaming, albeit from a Regency-era perspective. The rules for women were different then, even stricter than they are today, and the options a woman had were a lot fewer — but the slurs a woman would hear are still the same. She had it coming. She got what she deserved. She let him sleep with her once, so of course he would assume he gets to again. If she winds up pregnant, it’s only her own fault. JQ brings that up and doesn’t just brush it aside; those words clearly have stuck with Anne and affected her sense of self-worth. I, as I’ve mentioned before, love a non-virgin heroine. I wish we saw more of them — and I do wish we saw more where the circumstances aren’t like they are here, where it isn’t a source of trauma for the heroine, but I recognise that’s asking a bit much of historicals. What we do get, however, is a woman who does know what sensuality is — and who has to reconcile the idea of physical pleasure with having been mistreated, and to learn to trust another man not to treat her the same way the first did. It’s a very grown-up lesson, in a lot of ways, and Daniel is a hero eminently worthy of it. He has a boyish charm and sometimes roguishly oversteps boundaries — but when Anne points this out to him, he stops, and reflects, and apologises. He doesn’t let either his own self-assurance or his passion for her push him too far, he doesn’t ride roughshod over her hesitations — he takes the time to help her deal with them. Then, when he finds out she’s not a virgin, he quite flatly says that he doesn’t care, and he means it.
Overall, I quite enjoyed A Night Like This. It’s a perfectly solid Regency romance, and if it doesn’t have the laugh-out-loud humour of Just Like Heaven or the early Bridgerton books, it has instead a quieter sort of charm. And it does have its moments of JQ’s trademark snapping wit, My favourite:
Harriet let out a delighted gasp. “Maybe she has formed a tendre for one of the stableboys!”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Elizabeth scoffed. “One of the stableboys? Really.”
“Well, you must admit, it would be very exciting if she had.”
“For whom? Not for her. I don’t think any of them even know how to read.”
“Love is blind,” Harriet quipped.
“But not illiterate,” Elizabeth retorted.
There’s also a fair deal of romping while the Pleinsworths are in the country, when young Harriet, an aspiring authoress, writes a multi-act play featuring evil queens, dashing heroes, and wild boars. As ever, JQ does a great job with family-building, and the Pleinsworths are an entertaining bunch. The climax of the book felt a little rushed and a little, well, too adventurous, in comparison to the rest of the book which had not really had that sort of tone to it. This is definitely a book where you can believe in the Happy-Ever-After, though, because Anne and Daniel complement each other so well, and that’s quite heart-warming. While not among JQ’s best (it’s going to take an awful lot to ever challenge Bridgertons #1-4 for that honour, after all), this is still a very strong book and well worth the read. There are ways in which JQ is starting to deal with more mature themes in her books, and mature in a way that has nothing to do with erotica and everything to do with people — with psychological troubles, old wounds, recovering from past betrayals, and the damage that society can do to a person — and I find that very interesting.
Coda: I’m hoping the next book will feature Hugh Prentice as the hero — and if I’ve learnt what I think I’ve learnt about how romance authors tend to work, I believe it will. We get a rather incredible glimpse into his character when he tells Daniel why he knows his father will no longer pursue vengeance: because Hugh has sworn to commit suicide if his father does anything to Daniel. He tells Daniel to be careful and “not get yourself killed in some unhappy accident,” because he would blame his father “and honestly, I’d rather not see myself off unnecessarily” — but there’s clearly a lot going on beneath the surface there. I hope, and anticipate, that JQ is going to let us in on that next year.