My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...
Gina Conkle is fast becoming one of my favorite authors just because her tone and storytelling ability is refreshingly different, especially in the arena of Historical romance. But I had a tough time rating Meet the Earl at Midnight, book 1 of the new Midnight Meetings series. On one hand, I enjoyed many aspects of this story, on the other, it had its frustrating moments too. Let me see if I can elaborate.
Late one night, our heroine, Lydia finds herself out of her comfy bed and on her way to an urgent midnight meeting, on the request of her stepfather. At first, she thought her younger brother has gotten into one scrape or the other, and her stepfather being a good-for-nothing, wants her to help out, as usual. But what she finds when she arrives at her destination not only shakes the sleep off of her eyes, but also makes her dumbstruck. Apparently, it’s her stepfather who has gotten into trouble. In return, he has reached an understanding with the offended party; by ‘selling’ her to this... stranger who wouldn’t even show his face as he comes to claim his ‘prize’. The man seemed to be a nobleman, if his clothing and cultured tone says something. And it’s apparent that he wants a MOC with her ASAP, and wouldn’t shy away from using her mother’s ill health and the fear of ending up in workhouse to acquire what he wants.
Soon though, as her stepfather slinks away leaving her alone at the mercy of this stranger, who takes pity on her by revealing half of his face and his identity. It’s the Enigma Earl, the reclusive Earl of Greenwich! What the hell? Lydia has no idea what she’s just gotten herself into, no thanks to her POS stepfather. For now though, the Earl wants her to go with him where she can be comfy at his house and ponder upon her latest predicament.
The morning reveals to Lydia the grandeur of Greenwich’s estate and the sudden, and significant, change of her own state of being. She’s lived her life in rather humbly, so Lydia doesn’t know much about money. She’s given a grand room to stay, grand food to eat. But what she wants is to meet the Earl and state her case again, to see if she can get out of this predicament without the hasty marriage. She finds the Earl at his usual workplace, the greenhouse. Apparently, the Earl is a botany enthusiast. Not that Lydia knows anything about his habits since he’s such a recluse that all everyone seems to read or hear about him is gossip. But it’s very apparent that the Enigma Earl doesn’t care to hold up his social obligations as his stature requires.
... And it’s all because Edward has no interest in society, nada! He was not even the heir to begin with. All of Edward’s passion since his childhood revolved around things of scientific nature, especially botany. Yep, he’s a complete nerd. He has had the opportunity to nurture his passion too, until his elder brother died so unexpectedly, leaving the Earldom without any heir. And now, Edward is the heir, and he must beget one... and soon. You see, he has been planning this great expedition for long years now; something that’d take him to the ends of the world in search of exotic plans, or to places like the Far East. Edward even has his own ship so that his expedition goes smoothly. Unfortunately, when his brother died, he took all of Edward’s freedom with him to the grave, burdening him with the numerous responsibilities of the Earldom. Now he needs to marry and SOON before he can leave for this journey. Who knows what this journey to the unknown would hold for him. He might not even return alive, so he must make sure he leaves an heir to carry on with Greenwich name. Though his mother, the Dowager, is adamant he marry one of the fresh young things out of school, very much wanting to thrust one or the other in his face, Edward wants the marriage in his own term. He wants his bride to know the truth of this marriage so that there’s no misunderstanding later. But what he never counted upon was to be completely taken aback by one Miss Montgomery. One look at her midnight hair and the fire in those beautiful blue eyes, and Edward’s mind was set. In due time, she’d be his bride. Time that he can’t waste any longer.
His ‘formal’ introduction to Lydia went rather less than stellar. Edward knew he had to face his soon-to-be fiancée on the broad daylight. But Lydia finds him in his hiding place aka Greenhouse all by herself. And she seems completely unfazed by the scar on his face that he likes to hide away, thanks to another long ago expedition gone wrong, leaving him with a scarred body as well. Edward doesn’t consider himself handsome, not at all. His amorous endeavors, up till now, remained few and far between since his first, and only love, has been science. But boy he’s tempted to kiss and touch Lydia whenever she’s near. Her body language tells him that the attraction is very much mutual, which is a very good thing, even for a MOC. But when the time comes, would he be able to break this attraction and tell her that she’d probably be a widow even before the year is over? That she’d have to carry a child and rear it alone because he wouldn’t be around? That is something begins to eat at Edward, though he remains very adamant about leaving for the expedition. Everything is set in motion, he just can’t back off now.
Lydia finds the blonde, tall, muscular and very nerdy Edward attractive no doubt. The mark on his face doesn’t bother her. Though she, at first, doesn’t know why this rush to the altar, Lydia is willing to consider the proposal. And though her welcome from the Earl is rather chilly, Lydia finds friends in the servants of the manor. Edward, on the other hand, definitely doesn’t like people around when he’s working. Though now she knows why he doesn’t want to be in the society, Lydia is also pretty adamant of knowing more about the mysterious Earl of Greenwich that everyone talks about, but no one has ever seen! To make a place for herself, Lydia proposes to do the drawings for Edward’s notes on the plants and whatnots. She does a pretty good job of it too, and Edward has no way but to let her work with him. Not good for his peace of mind, but he didn’t want her out his sight either.
Now, this is what frustrated me the most. This ‘introductory’ part for Lydia and Edward took too many pages IMO. I’d go as far as to say nothing interesting happened for at least 150 or so pages. My ARC copy had around 400 pages, and it’s not because I wasn’t enjoying it. I wanted them to connect a little better and not presume things, then act on it. There were some misunderstandings that made me shake my fist in the air. Sometimes it was Edward, the other times, Lydia. And that ‘goal’ for which they came together. Oh boy, it took them quite a long time to get to that! Maybe it was me because their chemistry was great. I couldn’t wait for them to get to that part.
Truth be told, Lydia was a far cry from what Edward’s perfectionist mother would consider a perfect Countess for him. When she comes down for a visit, she’s horrified by this commoner bumpkin lumbering about the house, more so when Edward makes it clear to her that ONLY Lydia will do. He never bothered about Lydia’s commoner status before and he’s not changing his mind now. The uppity dowager, seeing no other option, takes it on to herself (rather resigned) to ‘train’ Lydia to become the perfect Countess, already assuming all her work would go down the drain. This ‘training session’ brought up some hilarious moments with dresses, books, eggs... er, don’t even ask! But by now, Lydia was also falling for the elusive Earl, so she wanted to make him and his mother happy. So each morning, off she went marching to her skirmishes with the venerable dowager.
Lydia learns of Edward’s plans quite early in the story. And though she didn’t agree on it, she thought that in due time, she’d make him change his mind. But Edward is as stubborn as they come. The more time he spends with Lydia, and those kisses they exchange, the more he feels that his resolve to go away is weakening. But science is his true calling, and he must sacrifice for it! Though I understood Edward’s single-minded determination, I more sympathizing with Lydia. She didn’t entangle herself into this mess by herself, and now that she’s gone and fallen in love with the oaf, he’s doing everything to break her heart. I especially felt sad for her when she thought about the whole thing; about losing Edward and then rearing their child all on her own scared the living daylights out of her. She didn’t want that kinda life, without Edward by her side.
And this, became the issue at hand, the issue for misunderstanding. Even though they marry and seems to be having a grand time after that, Edward’s dogged determination about going away wears thin on Lydia. At one point, with her MIL’s blessing who didn’t want to lose her only living son, Lydia does something to slow down Edward’s journey. When revealed, this ends in a serious fight. Lydia is then forced to leave when an angry Edward loses his temper over the whole matter. I didn’t like it but Edward needed this kick on his own arse to see things clearly. Obviously he was in love with his wife, but nothing, it seems, could veer him away from it. I could see Lydia was plain desperate to change his mind, which ends in a disaster. Her heart is now broken after all.
The separation for months seems to bring some new perspective into this relationship. It was obvious that both loved and missed each-other dearly, but the misunderstanding carried on. Lydia, of course, was trying to live the life of an acclaimed artist, albeit under a pseudonym, her talent finally acknowledged by the Ton. Her status of that of a Countess estranged from her husband also bringing in interested men around her. Edward, on the other hand, was stewing into the mess of his own making. Though he was still making arrangements for his journey, his mind was whirling more around his doomed marriage, and his beautiful wife’s ‘betrayal’ (I don’t mean cheating, there was NO cheating in the story). He couldn’t help keeping track of what she’s been doing, to know how she’s been even if from the cutting on the gossip sheets.
After a very insightful conversation with his mother, and his friend and confidante, Mr. Bacon, understanding dawned on Edward. He begins to realize that though he held science so dear to his heart, it’s not nearly as dear as to what he’d be leaving behind when he sets sail for the unknown; his Lydia. But he wouldn’t know if he had another chance with her unless he’s the one to take that first step and undo the damages that he wrought in the first place. And so, our Greenwich Phantom finally decides to show his face in the public, at a viewing of Lydia’s artwork, in hopes to win his lady back. If the scar on his face and body never bothered his lovely wife, to hell with society!
The epilogue was so heart tugging! I loved seeing the whole family together and Edward not really having to give up on his dream as they journey together for that expedition. Or so I assumed. The arrival of the new Greenwich heir only made the journey sweeter for them.
Overall, despite the initial frustration, I enjoyed this story a lot. Gina Conkle’s writing style remains as excellent as ever. Meet the Earl at Midnight has an inherent beauty and the beast theme that’d definitely appeal to the lovers of Historical Romances. 4 stars.
I’d love to see the secondary characters like Mr. Bacon having their own stories. Already psyched about the next installment, The Lady Meets Her Match, which would be Edward’s beautiful housekeeper Miss Mayhew and his investor friend, a businessman named Cyrus Ryland’s story. Lydia was initially jealous of Miss Mayhew due to her looks and the suspicious nature of her employment. But don’t worry, nothing untoward happened between her and Edward, as Lydia later discovers, finding a friend in the housekeeper. Miss Mayhew definitely has a ‘past’. There were scenes here hinting that she and Ryland have this thing going on. Glad to see their book is coming along so soon!
This ARC was provided to me by Sourcebooks Casablanca via netgalley which didn’t influence my review and rating in any way.