The daughter of a French courtesan who was raised in the West Indies, Martinique Neville is an unconventional miss. As a co-owner and heir in the family shipping business, she wishes to marry only if she falls in love. Upon her graduation from finishing school in England, she, her aunt, and uncle plan to spend the holidays with nearby family, where Martinique meets a gorgeous rogue with a notorious reputation who stirs both her heart and her desires, making her throw caution to the wind when he accidentally winds up in her bedroom one night.
Justin, Lord St. Vrain, earned his wicked reputation when he ran away with his own stepmother in his youth. He is a neighbor to the Neville relations and has been engaged in an affair with one of their cousins, but when Martinique arrives, all other women fade into the background next to her incomparable beauty. However, after agreeing to one last liaison with his lover, he accidentally enters Martinique's room instead. When he realizes his mistake, he plays the gentleman, but when she pleads with him to make love to her, it's more than he can resist. Caught in the act, they have few options but to agree to marriage. But can Justin convince Martinique that he's genuinely fallen in love with her, when she feels like virtually no one has ever loved her for herself before?
"After Midnight" is a prequel novella to Liz Carlyle's Neville Family series. Like the other novellas in the The School for Heiresses anthology where it can be found, it is also inspired by Sabrina Jeffries's School for Heiresses series. However, aside from Martinique being a graduate of Mrs. Harris's school and Mrs. Harris herself appearing briefly in the prologue, it has no other connections to that series of which I'm aware. Martinique grew up in the West Indies, but after her parents' deaths, her uncle/guardian sent her to attend school in England. She's just graduated and her aunt and uncle have come to take her to their cousins' home for the holidays. Then the cousins, Lord and Lady Sharpe, will be bringing her out to society during the following season. A strong believer in Mrs. Harris's philosophy and an heiress to a shipping fortune, Martinique has no real desire to marry, though, unless it's for love. At her cousins' home, she meets their neighbor, Justin, Lord St. Vrain, a gorgeous man who immediately catches her eye. Justin, however, has a wicked, rakish reputation and is only accepted at their home because Lord Sharpe's widowed sister has been having liaisons with him for weeks. As such, he has a key to the house and accidentally ends up in bed with Martinique instead. He tries to do the gentlemanly thing, but since she, too, had piqued his desire, he can't resist when she begs him to make love to her. But when they are caught in the act, will Justin be able to persuade Martinique that he's genuinely fallen in love with her and that she should indeed marry him?
Martinique is the daughter of a courtesan of mixed heritage and her French lover, but her biological father basically abandoned them when he decided to marry. Her mother was lucky enough to find another man, an English aristocrat, who fell in love with and married her and adopted Martinique. But her parents were killed in a fire, leaving her stepfather's younger brother as her guardian. He sent her to England to be educated and now the whole family is there, hoping to bring her out next season to find a husband. Martinique is part owner of the family shipping business, though, and after the lessons learned at Mrs. Harris's school, she has no desire to marry anyone except for love. Upon meeting Justin, he instantly arouses her desire, so when he accidentally ends up in her bed, she embraces the moment and her own sensuality, asking him to make love to her. But when they are caught together, her uncle insists on a marriage. Although Martinique has fallen in love with Justin, she isn't sure he feels the same way. She also feels unlovable herself and worries that even if he professes to love her now, he may grow tired of her in time like she believes nearly everyone else in her life has, so she'll have to find a way to overcome her concerns before she can truly accept his suit. Aside from feeling she's not lovable, Martinique is a confident, independent young woman who has admirable aspirations of becoming a businesswoman and will only marry if she finds the right person. It just happens faster than she thinks, when Justin comes along. I liked how accepting she is of his past foibles, and given her own background, she takes his scandalous reputation in stride. I thought she was a very nice, well-rounded heroine.
Justin earned his scandalous reputation when he ran away with his own stepmother almost a decade earlier. She was very young, nearly the same age as Justin, and he believed her pleas of being a damsel in distress. Being young and naive, he thought to be the white knight saving her from his supposedly monstrous father by whisking her away to Paris. They eventually became lovers, but she died in childbirth. With his father now gone as well, Justin has inherited the title of Lord St. Vrain, but he isn't really accepted by polite society. However, after his neighbor's widowed sister, Christine, took a shine to him, they've been secretly having an affair and she also twisted her brother's arm to allow him entree to their home, where he meets and becomes instantly intrigued with Martinique. Feeling his affair with Christine has reached it's end, he tries to let her down easily, but she begs him to come to her one last time. Having no idea that she'd switched rooms, he ends up in Martinique's bed instead. When he realizes his mistake and that he has compromised a virgin, he immediately offers marriage, but when she pleads with him to make love to her instead, he can't resist. After they're caught and the marriage issue is forced, he'll have to convince Martinique that he truly does love her and that this isn't just a shotgun marriage. Justin may have a dark past, but he acknowledges his mistakes and has paid for them dearly. I like that he did the gentlemanly thing and that he didn't push Martinique into marriage, knowing how much she wants to marry for love. Instead her leaves he a possible out, while hoping that she'll come to love him as well.
Being a shorter novella, "After Midnight" is definitely a love-at-first-sight story. These don't always work well for me, but this one was pretty good. Each of the characterizations are fairly well-done despite the abbreviated format. Admittedly Justin and Martinique's relationship isn't as well-developed as it would have been in a longer story, but they did share points of connection outside of the bedroom as they share their respective pasts and show support for one another. Their love scenes are sweet and deliciously steamy as I expect from this author. The story also gives readers a nice introduction to the Neville family. Martinique's aunt, Xanthia, who seems very nice, becomes the heroine of the first full-length book of the series, Never Lie to a Lady. Martinique's uncle and Xanthia's brother, Kieran, Lord Rothewell, already intrigues me. He'll become the hero of the third book, Never Romance a Rake. Overall, "After Midnight" was a respectable start to this new-to-me series that has left me looking forward to reading more soon.
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