London, 1939. Beautiful and ambitious Eva Harlow and her American best friend, Precious Dubose, are trying to make their way as fashion models. When Eva falls in love with Graham St. John, an aristocrat and Royal Air Force pilot, she can’t believe her luck—she’s getting everything she ever wanted. Then the Blitz devastates her world, and Eva finds herself slipping into a web of intrigue, spies, and secrets. As Eva struggles to protect her friendship with Precious and everything she holds dear, all it takes is one unwary moment to change their lives forever…
London, 2019. American journalist Maddie Warner, whose life has been marked by the tragic loss of her mother, travels to London to interview Precious about her life in pre-WWII London. Maddie has been careful to close herself off to others, but in Precious she recognizes someone whose grief rivals her own—but unlike Maddie, Precious hasn’t allowed it to crush her. Maddie finds herself drawn to both Precious and to Colin, her enigmatic surrogate nephew. As Maddie gets closer to her, she begins to unravel Precious’s haunting past—a story of friendship, betrayal, and the unremembered acts of kindness and of love.
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The plane jolted and bumped down the runway at Heathrow, the usual rain of a gray London morning spitting on the windows, a timid sun doing its best to push aside the clouds. The plane finally rocked to a stop and its travel-weary passengers stood in the aisles and began pulling cases from the overhead bins, the sound of zippers and latches filling the rows like a choreographed routine to signal the end of a journey. I remained in my seat, my recent dream still lingering, recalling the images of the old magnolia tree and the large white columns of my aunt Cassie's house and the red flowers she planted along the front steps each year in memory of my mother.
A polite throat clearing brought my attention to the aisle, where the line of passengers waited for me to exit. I nodded my thanks, grabbed my backpack from beneath the seat in front of me, and headed for the exit, my thoughts still clinging to the place I'd called home for the first eighteen years of my life and where, if pressed, I'd still tell people I was from. Which was stupid, really. I'd been living in New York for seven years and hadn't been back to Georgia for the last three, with no plans to return anytime soon.
I turned on my cell phone as I made my way toward the baggage claim. My phone dinged with five texts: one from my father; one from my stepmother, Suzanne; one from my sister Sarah Frances; one from Aunt Cassie; and the most recent from Arabella, my friend from my junior year abroad at Oxford and the reason I was in London now.
I opened my phone to read Arabella's first, smiling to myself as I saw that she'd been following my flight on her phone app and knew I'd landed and that she was waiting in the short-stay car park. I was to text her when I'd passed through passport control so that she could meet me outside Terminal 2. It was typical Arabella, the kind of person whose organizational skills were simultaneously helpful and annoying. Despite her thriving career as a fashion editor at British Vogue, her main job seemed to be organizing the social calendars and lives of her large circle of friends.
I tossed my phone into my backpack, deciding the other texts could wait, and joined the throngs of people walking through passport control and customs, then began texting Arabella as I made it outside. I had barely typed my first word when I heard the rapid beeps of a car horn. I looked up to see my friend in a red BMW convertible-a hand-me-down from her mother that she'd driven while in college. The top was lowered despite the threatening skies, so I could see her curly hair creating a blond halo around her pixielike face. She looked like a Barbie doll, an image she liked to cultivate if only because it hid her sharp wit and killer intellect.
I did a quick double take at the large animal sitting in the driver's seat, my mind processing the image before I could remember that the British drove on the wrong side of the car and the wrong side of the road and realize that the dog wasn't actually driving.
"Maddie!" my friend shouted as the car screeched to a stop, her door opening at the same time. She ran toward me with very un-British-like enthusiasm and threw her arms around me.
"It's been ages!" She hugged me for a long moment, then smiled brightly as she held me at arm's length. "Still gorgeous, Maddie. And still wearing your same uniform of jeans and button-down shirt."
I pulled back, grinning. "You're just jealous because it only takes me five minutes to get dressed in the morning."
"Oh, Maddie," she said in the prim-and-proper accent that I loved mimicking almost as much as she enjoyed imitating my Southern accent. "What am I to do with you?" She looked behind me and frowned at the small suitcase sitting by itself. "Where's the rest of your luggage?"
I took in her leopard-print jumpsuit and stilettoes with grudging admiration. I loved trendy clothes-as long as someone else was wearing them. My toes ached in sympathy as I estimated the height of her heels. "My laptop and camera are in my backpack, and my clothing is in the suitcase. Don't worry. All the jeans are clean, and I brought one dress. You said it shouldn't take more than a couple of weeks, but I brought enough underwear for three just in case."
"Yes, well, Jeanne Dubose modeled for Coco Chanel in Paris. She might be an easier subject if you dressed as if you cared."
"I do care-about the story and writing it to the best of my ability. Not about what I'm wearing when I'm interviewing a subject. Besides, Jeanne Dubose is ninety-nine years old. I doubt she'll even notice."
Arabella opened the trunk of her car, still frowning. "Whatever you do, don't call her old. It doesn't suit her. I've known her all of my life, and even as a child, I never thought of her as old. But she's your relation, so you probably already know that."
"A very distant relation, and I've never met her, remember? Her side of the family moved to Tennessee from Georgia right after the American Civil War, so I can't say our families are close. In fact, I wouldn't even know we were related if my sister hadn't done one of those ancestry searches and found them. Miss Dubose is my fourth cousin twice removed or something like that, which means I'm already forgiven for referring to her as old because we're not just family but Southern. She'll say, 'Bless your heart,' and move on." I lifted my suitcase and placed it in the tiny trunk, keeping my backpack with me.
"Yes, well, I've never heard her say, 'Bless your heart.' I have heard her say, 'Are you sure you want to wear that?' more times than I'd like to admit." Arabella shut the trunk. "You must be exhausted. Let's get you to Miss Dubose's flat so you can have a quick lie-down. I wanted you to stay with me, but Miss Dubose was insistent. She's got a large flat, and she rarely leaves her suite. She has full-time nursing care, so there's nothing you have to do except to interview her about her modeling days and the gorgeous vintage clothes we've pulled together from storage. And there's a lovely desk in the front room you can use to write. The museum exhibition isn't until July, and I'd like to run the article concurrently with its opening. It's not exactly crunch time, but I'd rather not wait." She paused. "Maddie, Miss Dubose isn't in the best of health, so I thought the sooner the better. I already have a title for the exhibition and the article, but you're the writer, so you can change it if you don't like it." She cleared her throat. "'Furs, Gowns, and Uniforms: The Changing Role of Fashion in a World at War.'"
"It's a little clunky, but it has a certain ring to it," I said, moving to the side of the car. "I won't know until I interview Miss Dubose and start writing. But it sounds like I'll have lots of peace and quiet without interruptions while I'm there, so I should be able to get it done in no time. I've cleared my calendar and turned in a few other projects early so I won't feel rushed."
"Splendid. Although there is one thing . . ." She stopped, smiled.
"One thing?" I prompted.
"Yes, well . . ." She moved to the driver's side and slid in while I was left staring at the large animal in the passenger seat-either a horse or a dog; I couldn't tell-whose lolling tongue kept me at a respectful distance.
"Should I sit in the back?" I asked around the dark brown head.
"Oh, gosh, sorry." She turned toward the beast. "Come on, George." She reached around and patted the leather of the rear seat.
The dog gave what sounded like a sigh before forcing its girth over the console and between the seat backs to perch itself on the ridiculously small backseat.
"George?" I asked, crawling inside with my backpack and putting on my seat belt.
"After Prince George-they're the same age apparently. Colin thought that the little prince and the dog had similar expressions."
"Colin?" I asked, unprepared for the jolt of surprise his name registered. "Your cousin Colin, our schoolmate? Colin who avoided me?"
"Technically, I think he's my second cousin. His grandfather David-his paternal grandmother, Sophia's, husband-and my grandmother Violet were siblings." She avoided looking at me, focusing instead on the gear shift. "And don't be daft, Maddie. Colin only avoided you because you made it clear you wanted nothing to do with him. You two just . . . Well, you were a bit like chalk and cheese, but I think that was just a matter of two people being separated by the same language."
"Ha. As if I were the one with the accent."
Arabella sent me a sidelong glance. "Admittedly, he was a bit miffed that you didn't say good-bye to him when you left Oxford. He thought you owed him the courtesy of a farewell."
I sucked in my breath. "I don't say good-bye to anyone-it had nothing to do with him. I only said good-bye to you because you drove me to the airport. I doubt he remembers that now-or me. It's been seven years."
"Yes, well, he's been in Devon-Salcombe, actually, a nice little resort on the coast-on holiday with friends for the week, and he asked me to watch George. And since . . ." She stopped as if suddenly aware of what she was about to say.
Arabella made a good show of focused concentration as she pulled out into traffic, nearly sideswiping a taxi. For our survival, I allowed her to wind her way out of the airport traffic, waiting until she was on the A4 before repeating, "And since what?"
She was silent for a beat and then allowed the words to rush out, as if speaking quickly would hinder my interpretation of them. "Since Colin lives with Miss Dubose, I thought I'd kill two birds with a single stone and deliver both you and George at the same time."
A cold sweat erupted over my scalp. "Excuse me? Colin lives there? In the flat I'm going to be staying in?"
"Yes. They're very close-Miss Dubose has always been like a grandmother to him. She just dotes on him-he even calls her Nana."
I couldn't imagine stony-faced Colin calling anyone by such an endearment. I, for one, had always been Madison to him, a solid brick wall I wasn't ever likely to scale.
Arabella continued. "Sophia, Colin's grandmother, owned the flat. When she died, Colin's parents inherited it. But even when she was alive, Sophia allowed Miss Dubose to live there. They were great friends since before the war. Miss Dubose never married, you see, or had children, so she more or less adopted her best friend's family as her own. When she went into hospital last month and her doctors told us to prepare for the worst, she asked that Colin move in so that they could spend more time together and he could help get her finances all settled. That's his specialty, so it made sense."
"You said she wasn't in the best of health. So she's ill?"
"No specific illness, but she's ninety-nine. Her heart is weak, and her doctors say her body is beginning to shut down. She looks rather good, however. One would have to examine her very closely to agree with them."
"So Miss Dubose, the nurse, Colin, and I will all be living in the same flat. Together."
"Precisely. And George, too, don't forget. It's a very large flat, and Colin works extraordinary hours, so you'll probably never run into each other." She stopped talking as if there wasn't anything else she needed to explain.
"And you didn't think to mention this to me before-like when I agreed to come here in the first place? What did Colin say when you told him?"
Arabella kept her eyes on the road in front of her and remained silent.
"Seriously? You didn't tell him it was me?"
"I told him that a freelance journalist I'd hired to interview Miss Dubose would be staying in one of the spare bedrooms for a fortnight or so. He didn't have a problem with that."
"But you didn't tell him it was me."
She shook her head. "It didn't come up."
"Imagine him not jumping to the conclusion that it would be someone he knew during his university days." I rolled my eyes even though she couldn't see me.
Her shoulders sagged slightly under the leopard-skin print. "It's just that Miss Dubose was so insistent that you stay with her, and it would have been too complicated asking Colin to leave. It's only a couple of weeks-maybe more if you'd like to stay longer. Surely you two can be cordial for that long."
I pressed my head against the back of the seat and briefly closed my eyes. "Hopefully, he won't remember me. I haven't even thought about him in the last seven years." That wasn't completely true, but I would never tell that to Arabella. She had one of those overactive imaginations that created stories where none existed. I always told her that she was unsuited to her role as an editor and should have been writing cozy mysteries instead.
"So Colin has no idea that I'm about to show up on his doorstep."
"It will be such a surprise, won't it?" she said.
I shook my head with emphasis. "No, it will be a disaster. I think he dislikes Americans. Or maybe it's Southern Americans."
Arabella laughed. "Don't be daft. Miss Dubose is a Southerner, too, remember-and Colin adores her."
I didn't want to admit that I was intrigued by this Southern centenarian and the fact that we were distantly related and would be meeting for the first time in London. I didn't want to know that Colin adored her and called her Nana. I wanted to turn back to the airport and return to the stable, uneventful life I'd made for myself in New York City, following in the footsteps of my aunt Cassie. Although she was in advertising and I was a freelance journalist, we'd both wiped the red clay of small-town Georgia off the bottoms of our shoes to start new lives in the big city. She'd lasted ten years, and I had every intention of breaking her record.
Reading Group Guide
The Last Night in London by Karen White
1. What do you think of the ultimate sacrifices both Eva and Precious make? In their position, would you have lived life the way they did?
2. Both Eva and Precious try to change their lives by moving to London—Eva also changes her name and her whole identity. Why do you think they chose to reinvent themselves? Was it in part owing to the time period? Their stations in life? Or their hopes for their future?
3. Eva and Precious have to make very difficult decisions—decisions that betray the dearest person to each of their hearts. Do you sympathize with them about the decisions they made? Or do you think they could have had made different choices?
4. Maddie has a hard time facing the truth. Do you think she addressed her dilemma in a way that others would have? What words of encouragement would you have given her?
5. What is it about war—especially World War II—that causes us to reflect on the human condition?
6. Why do you think Precious wanted the truth to finally be told? After all those years, why did she want the secrets to be revealed?
7. For most of her life Eva lived a lie. Who do you think Eva hurt most by living this way? Or do you think she didn’t hurt anyone at all? Did she even hurt herself?
8. Maddie has to deal with the possibility of dying young from cancer, as her mother did, and doesn’t want to have any serious relationships because of her fear. Do you agree with the choices she makes based upon this fear?
9. The things that separated Eva from Graham were very hard to bridge, especially in England before World War II: money, social class, education, family background. Do you think their relationship would have survived if Eva had told Graham the truth about her identity?
10. Do you think Colin’s response to Maddie’s fears is adequate? Do you believe that he is sincere in his promises to her?