Thursday 6 July 2017

#CBR9 Book 65: "From Duke till Dawn" by Eva Leigh

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Alexander Lewis, the Duke of Greyland has just been jilted by his intended. She eloped with a cavalry officer, but Alex is mainly annoyed that he's going to have to start looking for a new bride. His best friends, the Earl of Langdon and the wealthy Mr. Ellingsworth refuse to let him stay at home and brood and insist on taking him to a new and fashionable gambling club that is rumoured to only stay open for a month. They claim he'll find ample things to distract him there. He reluctantly comes along and to his surprise, sees the woman he's been trying to locate, and unsuccessfully forget, for the last two years. While recuperating in Cheltenham, he'd seen the lovely and impoverished widow at his hotel. After several weeks of acquaintance, the gentile Mrs Blair confessed her troubles to him and he gave her five hundred pounds. They spent one very memorable night together, and afterwards, the widow was gone without a trace.

Cassandra Blake is a con woman. She has successfully used her poor, down on her luck, but very proud widow scam on countless men, but only with Alex did she give into the mutual attraction and actually sleep with one of her victims. Having grown up on the streets after her father died in debtor's prison, Cassandra began by picking pockets until an older man found and mentored her into the beautiful swindler she has become. Now they are working together for one last big score, running a gambling den for one month, planning to make enough money to finally retire. Cassandra is sick of running cons, she wants out of the swindling business. When the Duke of Greyland unexpectedly shows up at the club, Cassandra is able to convince him that the widow Blair was forced to take the job as a hostess, as her money has run out.

When Cassandra suddenly finds herself on the receiving end of a swindle, after her mentor takes all the club's profits and absconds, she has no choice but to seek out Alex for help, even as she knows he'll despise her once he learns the truth about her. Discovering that the woman he had pretty much fallen in love with is nothing but a sham, Alex is heart-broken and furious, but he also understands that Cassandra's life might be in danger if she can't recover the money her partner stole. There were several rather shady investors in the scheme and they do not take kindly to their profits being nicked. Alex promises to help Cassandra, on the condition that she never leave his sight until their mission is done. Of course, spending time in close proximity means he finally gets to see and get to know the real Cassandra, and she is even more enticing than the widow Blair ever was.

I really liked Eva Leigh's first trilogy set in the Regency era, with unorthodox heroines that didn't exactly fit with society's views for what was right and proper for ladies. In her new trilogy, of which this is the first, Leigh has researched the seedier side of London, exploring the criminal underworld from various angles. There are the con artists and swindlers, to which Cassandra belongs, there's an underground sex club that I suspect will feature more prominently in a future book, as one of the Duke's two best friends is unhappily infatuated with the proprietress.

Alexander Lewis has always done what is right and was brought up to do his duty. His parents, as was common for the nobility, were not particularly affectionate, but he wants to do the right thing and find a young woman from a suitable family to bear his children. He doesn't expect any romantic attachment to his wife, especially as he has never been able to forget the enigmatic and beautiful Mrs. Blair. While they only spent one night together, he's spent a lot of time and resources trying to find her (which is of course impossible, since she wasn't an actual person).

He discovers Cassandra's deception when he returns to the club, ready to propose, having been convinced by one of his friends that a man of his standing will easily be able to whether the scandal of marrying a widow of uncertain origins. He overhears her talking to her business partner and realises she's a fraud. Heartbroken and disgusted, he's furious with her, but still can't make himself turn her away when she turns up, desperate and broke in his drawing room shortly after. Soon the proper and thoroughly honourable Duke finds himself visiting locations he barely knew existed, conversing (and beating up) all manner of questionable individuals.

Spending time in close proximity to Cassandra for several days and during many exciting adventures through the London underworld, Alex discovers how sheltered and privileged a life he has actually lived. While he's appalled at the way Cassandra and many others make their living, he begins to understand that a lot don't have a lot of other options. While searching London for her former mentor, Alex also discovers that Cassandra did not, in fact, prostitute herself for the money she conned out of her victims. She would normally hint and promise all manner of things, but run off as soon as she had the money. She made a very notable exception in Alex' case, and has both regretted and cherished the memory ever since.

Cassandra, meanwhile, was ready to give up her "wicked ways" even before she got a taste of her own medicine and discovered how awful it feels to be swindled and betrayed. She just needed enough money to retire quietly to the countryside in peace, and faces quite the crisis of conscience when she has to face Alex, a man she hasn't been able to forget for two years, and own up to all the bad things she's done in her life. She's unapologetic about some of the things she's had to do to survive, but she does regret hurting and lying to so many people. She's a resilient woman, convinced (quite rightly so, considering their huge difference in status) that Alex is miles out of her league. She knows she'll never see him again once she recovers all the stolen money, but decides to make the best of the time they have together.

While Alex keeps wanting to hate Cassandra, he sees almost instantly that no matter how angry he is, he's still incredibly attracted to her. The more he discovers about her past and the life she's been forced to live, the quicker his anger fades. The couple keep fighting their attraction, but this is a romance, of course it doesn't take too long before they give into their feelings.

I liked the unusual setting and the conflict keeping the protagonists apart. There is a fair bit of appropriate action and some very good banter, and I'm very much looking forward to what Ms. Leigh has in store for Alex' friends (who were pretty heavily set up as future heroes) in the next few books in the series.

Judging a book by its cover: Eva Leigh tends to have pretty decent covers, and the dresses the cover models wear always actually appear in the story at some point (I'm not entirely sure how the authors manage it, but I always like it when it happens). I do, however, have several gripes with this cover, the first being the oft mentioned - her gown is unlaced, where are her undergarments? Secondly, why is she sitting at such an uncomfortable angle, backwards on the sofa? Thirdly, how many yards of fabric were needed to make those never-ending skirts - the dress certainly isn't Regency appropriate. Sigh.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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