My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...
Gina Conkle’s historical romance series, Midnight Meetings, is based on little twists on well-known fairytales. And they’re well-written too, as I’ve come to expect from her in the past years. I do love a good story with a little Cinderella-twist and #2, The Lady Meets Her Match, is one those books that’d leave you craving for more. I had a grand time throughout!
Book 1, Meet the Earl at Midnight, was based on the long cherished tale of the Beauty and the Beast. The Beast being “The Greenwich Recluse”, “the Enigma Earl”... Edward, the Earl of Greenwich. Nerd-extraordinaire, he grew up as the spare, rather than the heir so he had other plans for his life. He wanted to be an explorer, his interest being in anything scientific, most especially the botany-kind. It all changed when his elder brother, Jonathan, died suddenly, leaving him the heir instead. With that Edward’s life’s plan was inevitably altered. Edward didn’t like mingling with people, so socializing is his least favorite thing to do. But there’s a twist there too. On a long ago voyage to some faraway country, he was attacked. Though he barely escaped alive, a side of his face was scarred forever. That was another reason why Edward chose to become a recluse. Now, he has a plan; another voyage to be precise. But, due to his circumstances, he can’t just up and leave anymore. What if he doesn’t return? The Earldom needs to be secured with an heir, and soon. That is where Lydia comes in. She was ‘given’ to Edward by her slimy stepfather who had a huge debt. Edward was looking for a fast escape route in the form of a fast marriage because his ship sails soon and he had no time for courting any debutante. In fact, he never had any interest in those debutantes! Though Lydia is nowhere near the nobility Edward’s perfectionist mother would endorse, he had no other choice. After seeing Lydia for the first time, he doesn’t want any other choice. Edward’s completely taken with her and only Lydia will do as his wife, to much dismay and disgruntlement of the dowager.
There are some conflict along the way since Edward was way too adamant (for my and Lydia’s liking) to leave for this voyage, from where there’s every possibility that he might not return. He was going to leave Lydia alone with a child, so I was very sympathetic towards her plight. And God, he tried his best to tamp down any attraction they might’ve shared, seeing it only as a hindrance to his plans. But as fate would have it, somewhere along the way, they fell in love nevertheless. Lydia wasn’t hiding it, but she was helpless because of Edward’s obstinacy. Her desperation led her to do something so that Edward can’t leave. It leads to the ultimate misunderstanding… In the later parts of the story, he got to strew in the misery of his own making too. He just needed to be reminded what he’ll be missing if he leaves Lydia here all alone; a chance of finding true happiness.
Now, book 1 doesn’t really connect book 2 but for the fact that we met the H, Cyrus and h, Claire in it. Claire was, at that time, a housekeeper to Greenwich Park. She is young and very beautiful, and for that, came under Lydia’s scrutiny more than once because she was jealous. Edward was way too polite and rather affectionate of her than anyone should be of their housekeeper. Not to worry since there was nothing untoward in that relationship. It was resolved soon, with Lydia finding a friend in Claire. It’s then, we’re hinted at her having a ‘past’ of sort, without any further explanation. Cyrus, on the other hand, was a mysterious and distant figure that I didn’t think until the last moment, would be getting his own book... with Claire.
In book 2 we find that Claire has already left Greenwich Park in search of a better life. Her independent streak brought her to London with a hope to make an honest, if laborious, living. She has been trying open up a coffee shop, yet had been unsuccessful, actually more rebuffed from the landlord than unsuccessful in business. She won’t be given the proprietorship because she’s a woman. Unfortunately, the Man of Commerce, the rich and famous, Cyrus Ryland owns her shop (the entire portion of that area), who doesn’t seem to have any big illusions about a woman’s capabilities when it comes to business, or so his man would tell Claire. But she can’t just stand back and watch her dreams die an immature death. This is her only way of an honest living, so Claire plans on something drastic, and pretty dangerous by any measure. She only needed a signature of Mr. Ryland to show his approval, which she’s going to obtain somehow.
And the Cinderella was born. That night, a masked ball was being held at the Ryland House. Claire knew the housekeeper, who agreed on helping her. With the help of her French modiste friend, Juliette, she is able to manage a pretty gown to show off her best aspects too. All she has to do is to be brave, march in (or snick in whatever suits the occasion), go to his library, make a copy of his signature and leave through the back entrance.
Would that things were as simple as it sounded.
Claire gets caught by none other than the man himself, who was having a horrible time with people he can barely tolerate and decided to escape to have a moment all to himself. But she had her mask on, so Cyrus couldn’t identify her and thought the same of her. Yet, that Cinderella-ish meeting in that library and the subsequent, surprisingly friendly, chat turns out to be something far more meaningful. It starts out light with flirtation as both were attracted to each-other on spot. Claire could see the big and muscular Cyrus with quicksilver eyes pretty well. She had seen him in Greenwich Park on occasion as he’s an acquaintance of Edward. Cyrus, on the other hand, was smitten with whatever he could see without the mask; the beautiful skin, the flaxen hair and those blue-green eyes. Not to mention her quick wit that showed she wasn’t scared of him. Oh most were scared of Cyrus’s size, the reason I’ll reveal later. But it had to be the fact that both came from a working class background, so they connected on a level that Cyrus knew he couldn’t have with someone from the Ton he’s trying to be a part of. He, at first, deems Claire as someone’s mistress... then she wasn’t... then they dance and flirt some more... yet when the clock struck midnight, she was gone, running out of his door, completely bend on never revealing her identity. Cyrus is hurt and angry. For the first time, he found someone with whom he clicked, yet it was very apparent that she didn’t think of him that way. He even makes inquiries, hiring runners to search her but came up with nothing. It’s as if she had disappeared into the thin air!
Cyrus had no noble blood in his body. But years of hard labor and later, well-thought-out investments had made him as rich, if not more, as Croesus. His parents died when he was younger and was left to take care of his brood of sisters all by himself. Why I said people were scared of his size, is for the fact that Cyrus is big. And his favorite sport used to be bare-knuckled fighting. He used to take part in matches, earned from it, until when he got rich and had no time beyond his work and investments. Besides, by then, his target was to make a place in the Ton by maintaining a pristine reputation. His remaining unmarried sister, Lucinda, also needed to be married off well. He had plans for her too that included furthering his ambitions. But no matter, Cyrus can definitely use his size and intensity to intimidate someone if needs be. Yet, the Cinderella, who only introduced herself as ‘Claire’, wasn’t intimidated. Not in the least. His visceral reaction to that unknown woman completely baffled him, and so, Cyrus needed to find out who she was as soon as possible.
I was thankful that the author didn’t drag on this search as a plot-twist because I’d be horribly frustrated if it was. Cyrus soon discovers Claire, very much in flesh, even though it was a co-incidence. He went into this new coffee shop, the New Union, with a pal and was struck dumb by the fair hair proprietress. Even with her back turned, he knew he had seen her somewhere. And when a few strands of that lustrous hair escaped her mobcap, Cyrus had the same visceral reaction. He knew it was her. He just knew. That shade of hair is very uncommon in the throng of heads with the powder and polish. Cyrus just needed to have a look at Claire’s face to know he was right. That expressive face couldn’t hide a thing, though she tried her best. I was struck dumb myself when Claire gives up all pretense and up and tells Cyrus exactly why she was in his house. It goes to show that the chat they had in the library was pivotal to their relationship, though they still were virtual strangers to each-other. A connection was forged, built on trust. Instant trust that I couldn’t deny. Claire knew Cyrus won’t bring charges against her, which he had no plans of because Cyrus was too taken with her beauty and intelligence to even bother. He trusted Claire enough to let it go. But as the very devil (or the landlord, however one sees it), he tempts her with a challenge; pay your first bill timely to win my approval. Cyrus knew one thing; what lovely Miss Mayhew can’t disregard is a challenge. Oh boy, here we go! *grins*
From there on, it becomes a battle of wit and charm, both Cyrus and Claire trying to hide their feeling for practical reasons, yet not quite succeeding in the process. From her past experience, Claire was aware that mingling with someone way out of her bounds would only bring heartache, while Cyrus was trying to figure out what to do with this attraction. He wanted her so much, yet there were those plans he’d made to realize his ambitions. But that didn’t deter Cyrus from sending out thoughtful gifts to win Claire over, to what I definitely thought some sort of courting. Both kinda knew that they’d probably end up together sooner or later, the chemistry so sizzling between them. The more days passed, the harder it become ignoring what’s between them.
Amidst all these, Claire was still trying to keep her business afloat, and there was a piece of jewelry that marked her ‘downfall’ in Greenwich. It was authentic and her only piece of security if you can say so. Claire held no emotional attachment to it any longer, not any more than her own independence, and escape from her ruined reputation and sad past. She was determined to pawn or sell it as needed, until one day it goes missing from its secret hiding place. And with that, one of the boys who were helping out in the shop, Nate, also goes missing. Claire’s shop was very auspiciously run by a few down-on-luck peeps; Anne, the former prostitute who was forced into that trade until she escaped somehow. Nate and another boy, both were pickpockets and guilty of small thievery at one time or the other in their young lives. But it seemed they were quite grateful to Claire for giving them a chance at a better life. Annie admired Claire, while Nate was pretty protective of their beautiful proprietress. Claire returned their affection just as much, yet when the implication of Nate’s disappearance struck, she was hurt at his betrayal. I was a bit surprised that she immediately though it was Cyrus who probably paid Nate to prove his point (there was a scene where Cyrus pays Nate to keep an eye out for Claire, which she, from inside of the shop, interpreted as something else). That she as a woman and can’t keep a business running. What she still didn’t know that Cyrus had a tremendous change of heart since he met her. So, an angry and desperate Claire goes out in search of that devilish man, straight to Ryland House. Uninvited, dripping wet from the rain, because she refused to give up.
There though, the moment Claire’s eyes clap on Cyrus, she knew how futile and odd her demands sound. When Cyrus tells her he has no idea what she’s talking about, she knew he’s telling the truth. But she didn’t want to bring charges against Nate, hoping to find the boy and make him understand. At that same library, they also share a few scorching kisses; as if to reminisce of their time in that masked ball. Claire and Cyrus both knew they were in trouble. That their mutual attraction had come to a point where there’s no turning back. After that comes one of the best scenes of the story. When a dejected Claire prepares to go to bed at night in her lonely shop, Nate returns. When he tells her that it wasn’t him who stole the jewel, and that the thief can no longer be apprehended, Claire trusts him too. But her trust was put to test when Nate asks her to follow him somewhere, in the middle of the night and bring in every single coin she had. Apparently, he has a plan to save her shop; all he wanted was Claire’s trust in this.
In a rundown part of London, near the docks, Claire finds herself in a big warehouse, which seemed full of all sorts of men at that hour of the night. Soon it’s explained too. Secret bare-knuckled matches are held in this warehouse with insane bets flying all over. If you win, it’d make your day for sure! Claire still had no idea what’s Nate playing at, but that he’s asking her to give up all her coins to place a bet against someone called the Stretford Bruiser. He’s also the popular one having majority of the bets on his side. This is madness, Claire thought, yet she was also very intrigued, never having been present in a match like this. They slog through the throng of people to the front where she can view the fighters and one, whose back was turned to the spectators, catches her eyes instantly. And oh my, the description of his bare torso, even from behind... hot, Hot, HOT! Claire was mesmerized by that man, and that silky fall of hair at his back, tied with a black ribbon. While Claire was hyperventilating, feeling all hot and bothered, I had this feeling I knew what’s going to happen next. Then, when the man known as the Stretford Bruiser turns towards the crowd, and her, she’s completely taken aback. Oh yes, yessss! It was none other than Cyrus Ryland; the rich and famous Man of Commerce also apparently takes part in illegal matches held in dingy warehouses! It was then Nate puts his plan to motion, the ultimate weapon to bring the Bruiser down. All he had to do was to push Claire forward and reveal her beautiful hair and face at the right time... And it was done.
I LOVED that scene and how Cyrus was literally brought down on his knees... er, back. It was just... inevitable. Cyrus was coming to realize that Claire already has that power over him. As the reigning champion he was sure to have won and this match was his last match before retirement. He couldn’t risk his ‘other world’ finding out about his not-so-gentlemanly nightly activities. When he came to, finding Claire taking care of him... it was close to haven for Cyrus. He understood Nate and admired the boy. He obviously cared for Claire enough to take this risk and Cyrus certainly appreciated it.
On their way home, Claire and Cyrus have a chat about their past. We finally come to know what happened to Claire and how Cyrus became so very successful and rich from the son of a pig farmer. I felt for Claire because her regard for Jonathan, Edward’s elder brother, was totally genuine. But the match was doomed from the start and Jonathan, though he took her virginity with aplomb, apparently wasn’t strong enough to see his promises through. It only served to ruin Claire in the end. I already knew that if it wasn’t for Edward’s support, she probably couldn’t even live in Greenwich for as long as she did. Cyrus’s story, on the other hand, had its own ups and downs and the dark sides, yet very admirable for a teenage boy who was forced to take big responsibilities at such a young age. He was forced to grow up and do things to save his family. He has carried enormous guilt inside for not being able to be there to save his father from that accident but Cyrus has, in the end, become a man one can look up to with adoration. Claire certainly did! And she did her best to assure Cyrus of his self-worth.
Yet, the danger for them comes from that same world of so-called aristocrats, in the form of a desperate old coot, the Duke of Marlborough. He wanted to snare Cyrus for his only daughter to save his rundown Dukedom from financial ruin. To him, it was as if Cyrus should’ve been grateful for this ‘opportunity’ and should’ve already started pouring out all his money on queue! When that didn’t happen, he resorted to something more degrading. The the a$$ already knew about Claire. Knowing Cyrus might be getting out of reach for a ‘nobody’, she becomes his target for blackmailing Cyrus. Cyrus didn’t really do anything to hide his association with Claire which told me plenty of his regards for her, just as Claire never denied that she had the hots for him. He was a complete goner, so much so that when he gets the wind of trouble and that Claire also might be in danger, his first thought was to protect her at all cost, reputation be damned! It also seemed that their long anticipated dance of seduction was finally going to be consummated. That scene was hot!!!
Even though there was another misunderstanding in the end, I knew nothing could keep Claire and Cyrus apart. They were just meant to be together, their connection to each-other was that good. I was so glad that didn’t drag through, hurting both Cyrus and Claire (and me) in the process. Absolutely adored the epilogue, so yah, I finished The Lady Meets Her Match with a great big contended sigh, grinning all the way. :D
I’m still not sure who is getting the next in the series, but whoever it is, I’ll be eagerly waiting to find out what tricks Gina Conkle has up her sleeve for us. 4.5 stars and totally recommended!
I received this ARC, courtesy of Sourcebooks Casablanca, via netgalley which didn’t influence my review and rating in any way.