Years ago, the Duke of Greyland gave his heart—and a princely sum of money—to a charming, destitute widow with unparalleled beauty. After one passionate night, she slipped from his bed and vanished without a trace. And just when he’s given up hope of ever seeing her again, Greyland finds her managing a gaming hell. He’s desperate to have her… until he discovers everything about his long-lost lover was a lie.
In truth, Cassandra Blake grew up on the streets, picking pockets to survive. Greyland was a mark—to be fleeced and forgotten—but her feelings for the duke became all too real. Once he learns of her deception, however, the heat in his eyes turns to ice. When her business partner absconds with the gaming hell proceeds—leaving unsavory investors out for blood—Cassandra must beg the man she betrayed for help.
Greyland wants compensation, too, and he’ll assist her under one condition: she doesn’t leave his sight until her debts are paid. But it’s not long before the real Cassandra—the smart, streetwise criminal—is stealing his heart all over again.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed about other books by this author is the way she manages to create strong, intelligent heroines who are assertive and independent while still continuing to function in a society that essentially thought women were lesser beings and wanted to shove them into a corner marked “seen, not heard”. It’s a difficult line to tread; if you go too far, your heroine is shrewish and difficult to like, if you don’t go far enough, your heroine may be too much of a doormat to appeal to a modern audience. But Eva Leigh manages to get the balance just about right, mostly because she writes about women who are not just decorative ornaments; her heroines often have to make their own livings and have learned the hard way that the one person they can always rely on (until they meet their hero, that is!) is themselves – and she does this without making them so modern as to require too much suspension of disbelief that they could exist in Regency England. Cassandra Blake, her heroine in From Duke Till Dawn is one of those women, someone who has used her wits and intelligence to make a life for herself in a hostile world.
Alexander Lewis, Duke of Greyland has been brought up to be perfect. The perfect duke. The perfect gentleman. The perfect… everything. Even at thirty-eight, he still hears his father’s booming strictures about the importance of duty and responsibility, and he has done everything possible to live up to his sire’s expectations. But he’s hit a snag in terms of fulfilling one of the most important duties to his dukedom in that the demure and very eligible young lady to whom he had betrothed himself has just run off to Gretna Green with another man. While there’s nothing Alex would rather do than slope off home to lick his wounds in solitude, he knows he has to put on a brave face and be seen out in society to show that the young woman’s actions have not affected him. In truth, they haven’t much – Alex wasn’t in love with the girl, he’s just annoyed and embarrassed at being jilted.
He’s in this morose state when his two best friends find him and insist on taking him to the newest gambling den in London. Alex’s heart isn’t in it, but he goes anyway – and is astonished when he hears a voice he’d thought never to hear again, the voice of the woman he’s nicknamed his Lost Queen. Two years earlier while in Cheltenham, Alex met and fell for a lovely widow named Cassandra Blair, a woman possessed of a quick mind as well as great beauty, and felt a intensely strong connection to her. She disappeared after their one night together, and although he never expected to see her again, Alex has never forgotten her. Yet now, here she is, as beautiful and poised as ever and Alex is smitten all over again.
Cassandra Blake is shocked at seeing the Duke of Greyland again and berates herself for returning to London where she’d known she would run the risk of meeting him again. But when her old mentor, Martin Hughes, offered her a job in which she could earn enough money to leave her life of swindling behind her and go legitimate, she couldn’t turn it down. She’s tired of the constant dishonesty and wants to live honestly – but first needs to be able to afford to do so.
Alex was supposed to have simply been a mark, a rich man she could take for a few hundred pounds, yet their brief time together meant something to Cassandra, so she falls back into her role of the beleaguered widow and makes up a story to account for the fact she left Alex so precipitately. Naturally, however, secrets such as these will out, and when Alex overhears Hughes suggesting that Cassandra try to fleece him again, he is furious and hurt by her betrayal, swearing to make her pay for her crimes.
Cassandra is completely unprepared for the visceral hurt she experiences at the disgust and betrayal in Alex’s eyes, but she has done what she has done in order to survive and doesn’t back down in the face of his angry accusations. She can’t help being afraid of his threats of retribution; but when she discovers that Hughes has done a bunk with all their money, she has more pressing concerns to face. Hughes borrowed a lot of money from a lot of shady characters in order to set up the club, and the moment news of his disappearance gets out, Cassandra knows her life will be worth less than nothing if she remains alone and unprotected. Terrified, she realises that she knows only one person in London she can trust absolutely – but he hates her and may well decide to leave her to her fate.
Alex is astonished when Cassandra arrives at his home begging for his help and has half a mind to have her thrown out – but then he realises that she is genuinely distressed, and while he is still deeply hurt by her deception, he certainly doesn’t want her dead. Believing that now he knows the truth he will be able to stop himself falling for her all over again, he agrees to help her to find Hughes, and in the process, discovers much about himself and the sort of man he really is and wants to be. I loved this aspect of the story and watching Alex gradually become his own man in truth, shedding much of his reserve and preoccupation with propriety and perfection, while retaining the parts of his character that make him a truly wonderful and memorable romantic hero.
Cassandra, too, finds her perceptions changing, her mentor’s betrayal finally opening her eyes to the truth about the hurt she must have caused those she had targeted and stolen from in the past. More than that, though, now that she is no longer part of the underground criminal community, she is forced to deal with her mistakes and face the consequences rather than running from them and jumping into the next con.
Ms. Leigh’s depiction of London’s criminal underworld is one of the book’s many strong points. Once Alex agrees to help Cassandra, he is plunged into a world he had never really known existed, one which has its own rules and pecking order, where morality is fluid and where nothing is ever black and white. It’s a real eye-opener for Alex, who soon discovers that he has to set aside some of his most deeply entrenched beliefs if he is to protect Cassandra, and ends up asking himself some difficult questions about what is truly important to him as a man versus the Greyland title.
Alex and Cassandra’s romance is imbued with sensuality and a palpable longing which builds deliciously to a fever pitch and some nicely steamy love scenes. But their emotional connection is strong, too, with both of them gradually lowering their defences to allow the other to see them as they truly are. There’s a real sense of honesty between them once they start to work together, with Alex even coming to respect and understand some of Cassandra’s choices while she recognises this new blossoming of trust for the gift it is.
From Duke Till Dawn is a terrific read, and one I’m happy to recommend most strongly. I thoroughly enjoyed my journey through the London Underground, and I’m eagerly looking forward to more.