This romance is loosely based on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. Luke grew up on the streets, part of a children's gang of thieves run by a man named Feagan. His bond with his fellow thieves has always been thicker than blood; so much so that when Luke was fourteen, he murdered a man who raped his friend Frannie, and was caught and tried for the murder. However, he was spared from judgment or retribution when an old gentleman stopped the trial and announced that Luke was his long-lost grandson, Lucian Langdon, who had disappeared at the age of six when his parents were murdered by a gang of ruffians. Luke has no memory of this, but played along because he figured it was better to masquerade as an earl's heir than to hang.
Now all grown up, Luke lives an intensely lonely and alcohol-fueled existence, plagued by debilitating headaches. He is snubbed by the aristocracy, who doubt the legitimacy of his claim the earldom he has now inherited, but he is also set apart from his childhood friends, who treat him differently now that he is one of the aristocracy. He longs to marry Frannie, but she is afraid to accept his suit because the world he inhabits is so foreign and intimidating to her.
Enter the Lady Catherine Mabry, who has heard of "the Devil Earl's" reputation for murder, and believes he is the only man who can help her save her best friend from her husband, an abusive brute whose two prior wives died under suspicious circumstances. She attempts to engage Luke's services for the contract killing (though Catherine will not, at first, reveal the target of her murder plot). Luke, with some reservations, agrees so long as Catherine will teach Frannie what she needs to know to feel comfortable as his countess.
Thus we have two of my least favorite plot devices: amnesia (Luke's suspiciously missing childhood memories), and the I'll-help-you-win-another-though-it's-obvious-you-should-be-with-me trope (is there a better name for that?). The latter is especially frustrating because it creates so many tetchy moral issues: whenever Luke kisses Catherine, he betrays Frannie, yet his growing attraction to Catherine is so strong and so obvious that his advances to Frannie feel wrong, too. Thankfully, the reader understands long before Luke does that Frannie's feelings for him are platonic, and the only reason she hasn't rejected his suit is that she doesn't want to hurt his feelings -- which makes the dilemma only slightly more palatable. (After all, Luke doesn't know Frannie doesn't want him, so as far as he knows, he's being unfaithful.)
Even so, I like this book -- and this series -- fairly well. It's nice to escape the endless social whirl and stifling tearooms and ballrooms so common in historical romance, and read about characters less concerned with their reputations and with making good marriages. Luke, Frannie, and the rest of the now-grown Gang of Thieves had a background far removed from the ton, which makes their stories more interesting than the usual Regency fare.