Desert Isle Keeper
From Duke Till Dawn
From Duke Till Dawn changes the perspective usually seen in historical romance. Most times the story is told through the viewpoint of the rich, where the mansions, ballrooms and men’s clubs of London are standard fare. Author Eva Leigh takes all of that glamour and turns it on its ear to show how isolated from real life that perspective is. Along the way she opens up a whole new side of the city, full of shady characters living by their wits and entertainments that feed the sensual desires of men and women. It all comes together into a story that is intelligent, romantic, and plays by its own rules.
Alexander Lewis, the Duke of Greyland, is normally well above the gossip exchanged throughout the ton like a commodity; however when Alexander is jilted by his prospective duchess his name is the one on everyone’s lips. Reluctantly he drags himself back into the social whirl of the Season, if only to assure people that he’s unaffected by the loss. In truth, Alex is more annoyed he’ll have to start the whole process over again rather than broken hearted at the rejection. Emotion had little to do with the match and hasn’t been a consideration for Alex since he lost the one woman he’d felt connected with. Two years before, while visiting the spa town of Cheltenham, Alex let himself fall for a beautiful widow who was astute, witty and practically perfect. Their time together was short but for Alex it was meaningful enough that he’s been carrying a torch for his Lost Queen even though she left him behind.
While out with friends visiting an exclusive new gambling hell, Alex is surprised to hear the voice of The Lost Queen there in London. Searching the room Alex sees Mrs. Blair in all her splendor but apparently now working as a hostess for the hell’s owner Mr. Hamish. Alex’s surprise at seeing her again is surpassed by his overwhelming feeling that her presence in town is a second chance for them. Mrs. Blair seems skittish but still happy to see Alex so he makes plans to return to the establishment to see if there’s a way to renew their acquaintance.
Cassandra Blake is shocked and a bit dismayed at seeing Alexander again. She knew it was a risk to return to London where she might cross paths with the duke but when her mentor offered her the chance to go legitimate with one last scheme it was something Cassandra had to do. Alex was never supposed to be more than a simple mark, a target that she could swindle once for money before moving on to her next mark. But their short relationship in Cheltenham meant something to her and if Alex were to discover that she’d played him false it would destroy her memories of their time together. Hoping to keep Alex from the truth a little longer Cassandra falls back into her identity as the woeful widow and Alex accepts her regretful story about leaving him. Unfortunately Cassandra’s house of cards begins to fall apart when Alex overhears her talking to her associate about the swindle she played on the unsuspecting duke and he pushes her to take the wealthy peer for even more money.
Things go from bad to worse when Mr. Hamish cleans out the hell’s safe and runs away, leaving Cassandra to face the other swindlers who had invested heavily in the place expecting large returns. Swindlers see betrayal as the worst offense possible and their own code of justice could see Cassandra’s life as forfeit if their money isn’t repaid. With no one else in London to turn to, Cassandra finds herself on Alex’s doorstep to beg for his help to find Mr. Hamish while using his position as Duke of Greyland to protect her from the other swindlers. Alex is incensed that Cassandra would think he’d help her after making him look like a fool; however a small part of his heart still belongs to the beautiful thief. Believing that he can keep himself from falling for her a second time Alex agrees to help Cassandra get back her money but his assistance will cost her some kind of future recompense. She agrees to his terms knowing that the cost is much higher than any small revenge Alex might take on her. At stake is her own heart, forever lost to the duke who saw through her disguise to the woman underneath.
Only the earliest chapters of From Duke Till Dawn are set in the romanticized version of the ton readers will recognize. Once Alex agrees to help Cassandra he falls straight down the rabbit hole into a side of London he’d never known existed. Cassandra and those like her live within a sphere where morality is seen in shades of grey and those who understand human weakness can exploit it for their own greed. This criminal underground has its own rules, hierarchy and even gathering places hiding within plain sight of the assembly halls down the street. Ms. Leigh has great fun creating this alternate city where a swindler is king or queen and a peer is merely a sheep ready to be fleeced. Alex’s wonderment at discovering it all comes at the price that his perceptions and lofty attitudes about his position in the world might be false. In Cassandra’s world, a man earns respect by his actions or by playing the game better than someone else. To protect her, Alex has to dig deep, rediscovering what is important to him personally verses what benefits the Greyland title. It’s an incredible character journey that builds each time he lets the emotional wall crumble between himself and Cassandra.
Cassandra, too. is on a journey of self-discovery about who she is when all of the lies and false identities are stripped away. Living outside of the shadowed world of the underground means owning up to her mistakes and dealing with consequences rather than running from them. When she is betrayed by her mentor it unleashes a flood of empathy for all of the marks whose trust she betrayed in order to survive. Knowing that she hurt Alex gnaws at her constantly and for the first time in her life Cassandra lets someone behind the curtain to see how vulnerable she really is. That Alex sees that other side of her and doesn’t reject her becomes the basis for rebuilding their relationship. Cassandra can be her truest self, the woman who grew up fearing she was always one failed swindle away from falling back into poverty. Alex comes to respect some of the choices Cassandra made throughout her life to better herself. His renewed trust in her is a gift that Cassandra doesn’t accept lightly so she does her best to show him that all of the emotions and feelings she has for him are real.
From Duke Till Dawn feels almost like a road romance, where the goal for the main characters is always ahead of them but the detours and shortcuts taken to get there offer the greatest excitement. I loved seeing Alex’s growth from a closed off individual into a man wanting to experience love for himself. I enjoyed watching Cassandra in action, manipulating each situation skillfully and using her street smarts to amaze Alex at every turn. I highly recommend this story and appreciate Ms. Leigh’s having created two older and somewhat wiser characters who still have fears and flaws to overcome. With a few hints about what parts of the London Underground might be explored next I’m already excited for more from this series.