Beverly Jenkins’ eighth novel offers a bit of something new. Her two most recent romances, The Taming of Jessi Rose and Always and Forever, were spinoffs of my sentimental favorite, Topaz. In Before the Dawn, the author has created an entirely new set of characters and placed them in different locales.
Before the Dawn begins in Boston where Leah Barnett runs the Black Swan tavern. History buffs will recognize the name of the tavern as one shared with nineteenth century singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield. The first African-American concert singer, Greenfield was nicknamed “The Black Swan.”
A pall is once again cast over the Black Swan. Leah took over the establishment after the death of her mother who died a year before the novel opens. Louis Montague is near death. For most of her life, the kindly man had been her late mother’s companion. As his life is ending, Louis wants to do the right thing for several people in his life. He wants to secure Leah’s future and his time is too short to adopt her. So, he convinces her to marry him in order to inherit his estate. As weddings and honeymoons go, the Montague nuptials leave a lot to be desired. The groom is dead before sunrise.
The widow Montague and her late husband’s best friend soon head off to Colorado to settle Louis’ estate. When Leah arrives in Colorado, nothing is as she expects. Louis has creditors from failed business dealings, enemies who lost relatives in the collapse of his mine, and a tarnished reputation. Leah also comes face-to-face with her two studly stepsons - Seth Montague and Ryder Damien. The half-brothers despise each other and locals say Louis killed both their mothers.
No good deed goes unpunished. As Leah thinks things couldn’t possibly get worse, they do. The creditors have taken her to court to recoup their losses. The debt is $90,000; the estate is $75,000. The judge seizes the estate and gives Leah 48 hours to make restitution for the remainder or be sentenced to the women’s territorial prison.
Seth has no assets and fewer scruples. Ryder, an outcast as a result of his illegitimate birth and mixed Native American and African-American heritage, owns Damien Mining Company and much of the town. He is hated and feared. Ryder has made assumptions about Leah’s relationship and marriage to his father. He is drawn to her but repulsed by her connection to his father. Ryder has convinced himself that Leah is a “fancy woman” who married a man thirty years her senior for his money, so he feels justified in making her a proposition. He will settle her debt if she will live with him and become his mistress. Nothing is as it seems and Ryder and Leah make several startling discoveries, including their love for each other.
Beverly Jenkins has indulged her love of mysteries to add another dimension to her writing. She has included a murder to be solved. The addition of the mystery has altered the flow of Before the Dawn somewhat. African-American history, a strong component in the author’s work, generally serves as an important secondary character that adds definition and depth to her stories. While history has not been reduced to a backdrop in Before the Dawn, the historical portions are not as strong as in previous novels. The dateline - a constant in all Jenkins’ works - to establish time and place is missing from this romance. As a result, readers struggle to establish a timeline within nineteen century Colorado.
Before the Dawn is also proof that you can’t judge a book by its cover. The artful cover suggests a more contemporary story. It is further vindication of my position that while, cover artists should not necessary have to read the book, they should be required to read the author’s description of the main characters.
Which brings me to Leah and Ryder. While Leah Barnett Montague is as feisty and strong as other Jenkins’ heroines, Ryder Damien is a different kind of hero. He is dark and brooding. The author has done a good job of conveying Leah and Ryder’s passion and misgivings. She has assembled a strong cast of secondary characters who play well off the main characters and lurk as possible suspects in the murder.
While Before the Dawn is not classic Beverly Jenkins, I have no qualms about recommending the novel for its strong relationship between Ryder and Leah, its humor and its intrigue. It’s worth a look.