Anne Stuart’s 1995 novel Nightfall
combines the genres of romance and suspenseful thriller to build an atmospheric and dark mystery that ensnares her hero. The plot revolves around the main character’s irresistible attraction to a convicted murderer who may or may not be guilty in reality. As she tries to piece together what really happened to him, he is using her in his own complex and convoluted plan to protect what he values most.
Cassidy O’Rourke is an editor who has long ago made peace with her flawed, divorced parents. Her mother is an unrepentant alcoholic, while her father, Sean, a renowned author who hasn’t published a hit book in years, is a “classic Irish blowhard, loud, profane, and manipulative” – and now married to his fifth wife. Cassie is happily removed from their drama until Sean calls to tell her that he is gravely ill and would like to see her before he dies. Cassie leaves Baltimore and flies to England, but when she arrives at Sean’s house, he and his current wife, former fashion model Mabry, are off to see the doctor. They suggest that Cassie wait for them in the house, without telling her that she is about to come face to face with notorious murderer Richard Tiernan.
Richard Tiernan has been front-page fodder for months: a handsome and brilliant man, he has just been convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of his pregnant wife Diana. Some believe he has also murdered his children and mistress, whose bodies haven’t been found. Cassie has read about the case, but she didn’t realize that Richard has been allowed to go free on bail while his conviction is being appealed. Although Richard confessed to the murder and has steadily refused to defend himself, instead, acting like a cold, unfeeling psychopath throughout the proceedings, his lawyer, also a lifelong friend, is filing the appeal on his behalf. There is an argument to be made that the original trial was fishy – it was expedited in an unprecedented way because Diana’s father is beloved war-hero and notable political figurehead General Amberson Scott.
In the meantime, Sean has made a bargain with Richard: Sean would post his bail and let him crash in the guest room in exchange for exclusive access to Richard’s story. Richard, seeing a photograph of Cassie on her father’s desk, immediately wanted her; Sean was completely willing to invite his daughter to his house under false pretenses in order to pimp her out to Richard, presumably for sex.
On meeting Richard, Cassie is immediately struck both by fear and desire – the two feelings he will continue to stir in her for the remainder of the novel. On the one hand, she knows that he probably really did kill his wife, since there is a preponderance of evidence pointing to him being guilty. On the other hand, he is just so very hot and seems to be singularly obsessed with her for some reason.
Her dark fascination with Richard wins out, and the sparks fly as they have passionate sex in a variety of locations. At the same time, Cassie keeps trying to learn the truth about what happened the night of Diana’s murder, but Richard refuses to tell her. Instead, he remains creepy and threatening, enjoying playing word games about his guilt and innocence.
At long last, we start to untangle what is actually going on. Of course, Richard didn’t kill either his wife or his children. The real villain is General Scott, who is a serial child rapist. When Diana was a child, her father molested her; that incest continued through her adulthood and into her marriage. The baby she was pregnant with at the time of her death wasn’t Richard’s, but General Scott’s. When Richard found out about all of this, he immediately became terrified for the safety of his own two children, telling Diana that he would file for divorce and full custody. Enraged, Diana attacked him with a butcher knife, but in the struggle, she fell on the knife and was killed. Knowing that he would probably be convicted of her murder, Richard hid his children with an old friend – the woman presumed to be his mistress – and pretended to be a psychopath in order to convince General Scott that the children were also dead. To ensure their safety from his predatory father-in-law, Richard was willing to be executed. At the same time, knowing that someone would have to take care of his children after his death, Richard concocted a complex plan to seduce Cassie, making her fall in love with him so that she would feel happy and obligated to become his children’s parent after he was killed.
In the end, Richard finally tells Cassie the whole truth; the two of them go to General Scott’s house to confront him with what they know. In the middle of a scuffle between General Scott and Richard, Diana’s heavily sedated mother, who has spent her whole life turning a blind eye to General Scott’s depravity and crimes, finally realizes that she has had enough and shoots him dead. Five weeks later, Richard is declared innocent and comes back to Cassie.