Genre: Historical Romance (Georgian, 1776)
Tragedy drove him into unwilling exile. Death demands his reluctant return.
In the decade between, he has answered to many names and amassed a variety of secrets.
Now the actor known to Paris as L’Inconnu must resume his real identity and become Francis Adrian Sinclair Devereux, Earl of Sarre … a man he no longer knows how to be and whose name, thanks to the malice of a friend turned enemy, remains tarnished by an old scandal.
Revenge, so long avoided, slithers temptingly from the shadows.
Grand-daughter of a wealthy wool-merchant, Caroline Maitland is not finding her Society debut either easy or enjoyable … but, to Marcus Sheringham, she is the perfect solution to his crushing mountain of debt.
Knowing she will be married for her money, Caroline never believed she would find love; but neither did she bargain for a certain charming French highwayman … and a surprising turn of events.
The stage is set, the cast assembled and the Duke of Rockliffe waits for the curtain to rise.
In the wings, Lord Sarre prepares to make his entrance.
He doesn’t expect to be greeted with applause.
Having just completed another listen/read of Stella Riley’s THE PLAYER, third in the Rockliffe series, I am, as always, left wondering what I can say that hasn’t already been said about this author’s exceptional writing skill. From the first word to the last Ms. Riley has me enthralled; whether it’s with this, her Georgian historical romance series or with her meticulously researched and fascinating Civil War series, to which I am addicted.
Ten years ago Frances Adrian Sinclair Devereux was unfairly banished by his father. With his father now deceased and his younger brother having been killed in a riding accident, Adrian (as he prefers to be known) has reluctantly returned from the continent. Tragedy and scandal sent him into exile and he has returned a closed and unreadable man; his outlook on life coloured by his family’s betrayal and lack of faith in him. The easy going and popular young man he was at age twenty-one, forever gone. Whilst in exile Adrian has discovered he has some quite exceptional and unique talents which have enabled him to make a more than adequate living. The first is a skill at card playing but the second, and by far the more important, is an ability to act which brings him great pleasure. In fact, he finds he can metamorphose into anyone he chooses on the stage or off it. He astounds audiences at the Comédie-Française with characters so diverse that they are unaware that they are being entertained by a handsome, English aristocrat in his prime.
Before his flight to France, he had led the life of a privileged aristocrat although, as a fairly serious young man, he had never taken that life for granted. Since his banishment, he has stubbornly refused to accept any financial help from his father, preferring to make his own way and learning many hard lessons along the way. Thus, on his arrival back in England, Adrian, now the Earl of Sarre, is in possession of a healthy fortune for which he owes thanks to no one but himself. His unusual talents will serve him well on his re-emergence into the upper echelons of society as, thanks to his gaming talents, he is now also a partner in a successful gentleman’s gambling club. From the moment Adrian sets foot on English soil, he slips into ‘character’ so well that his French batman/friend, Bertrand Didier, has to remind Adrian that he is constantly talking about himself in the third person. The persona he adopts for Sarre is cool and reserved, exquisitely clothed in austere, elegant, French tailoring. His only concession to individuality is his vividly decorated waistcoats; maybe they reveal a little of the man hiding beneath the myriad of characters he portrays. He is so used to acting on the stage, but also in life, that he can no longer remember how to be himself. Perhaps it’s a coping mechanism; a way of avoiding further hurt, because there is no doubt that the gorgeous, tender-hearted Adrian has been deeply hurt, and I wasn’t too far into the book before I felt his bone deep sense of isolation and sadness.
The only real friend Adrian has left from those long ago, carefree days, is Nicholas Wynstanton (younger brother of the Duke of Rockliffe). However, he reckons without the help and influence the incomparable Rock wields. He answers to no man and is, as always, with just a look or gesture, in charge of every situation. The duke makes his appearance early on in the story and, with barely a word, calmly accepts Adrian’s appearance as if he has not been missing for a decade. I just adore the character of the charismatic Duke of Rockliffe; for me he will always be the star of this series. His acceptance of Sarre, without question, opens the necessary doors. There are those who would prefer to cut him if they dared, choosing to believe the old and unproven rumours, but Rockliffe, like the wise man he is, keeps his own council. Rock reappears once more near the end of the story, and again steals the show with his je ne sais quoi, perfect timing, utmost integrity and downright gorgeousness.
Marcus Sherringham, Adrian’s nemesis, and the man ultimately responsible for his banishment, is determined to carry on with his persecution of him. Sherringham, broke and desperate, has his sights set on Caroline Maitland, a young heiress making her come-out. Regardless of the fact that her relatives are common and her money comes from trade, he is determined to have her. Adrian is equally determined to throw a spanner in the works. Caroline is mostly ignored because of her lack of style and appalling dress sense. But still waters run deep and she is no fool and knows that the angelically handsome Sherringham only wants her fortune. She is not impressed by his elegant good look but instead mistrusts him and his motives.
Adrian wanting to discover what kind of young woman Sherringham has in his sights, sees only the reserved and gauche young woman the rest of society sees. He therefore does what he does best and slides into character, this time as a romantic highwayman named Claude Duval… and holds up her coach. He is enchanted by her levelheadedness and lack of fear. But later he is hoisted by his own petard when forced to jump in and out of character several times in order to protect her from Marcus Sherringham. Then the unthinkable happens – the practical and down to earth Caroline begins to fall in love with the fictitious Claude.
Caroline continues to hold Sherringham at bay after promising to think about accepting a proposal of marriage from him. Her social climbing mother is pressuring her into accepting him; she plays for time – but time is something that the desperate Marcus no longer has as his creditors close in.
Adrian has always believed that he will never love again after his first and tragic foray into the emotion ten years previously, but in spite of this finds himself becoming intrigued with the gauche but likeable Caroline. At first, his interest in her is anything but altruistic; he wants to stop her marrying Sherringham at any cost, but later having met her in his disguise as Claude, it is on her own account – and his – that he wishes to stop a match between them. With his astute actor’s eye for detail, he sees beneath the crass and vulgarly dressed exterior, created by her loving and well-meaning relatives, to the very straightforward and desirable young woman beneath.
The talented Alex Wyndham once more brings his phenomenal and versatile acting skills into play, as he gets to grip with Stella Riley’s vast and diverse cast of characters. He has the added layers of inner dialogue to contend with (which I loved) and also Adrian in his many guises. He cleverly conveys, without explanation, when Adrian has slipped between characters and, with a subtle change in intonation, the listener knows that Adrian is now Sarre or vice versa. I loved the scene where Caroline is deeply moved by an act of kindness performed spontaneously by Adrian. It moved me to tears. The scene was tenderly written and beautifully portrayed by Alex Wyndham and this was the moment she fell for him, the real Adrian… kind, thoughtful, deeply honourable and stripped of all artifice. My God, I fell for him myself! There is no doubt that Alex Wyndham has played a blinder in his brilliant portrayal of Stella Riley’s fantastic story, “The Player’.
Stella Riley is a gifted and original writer and there are few who can rival her. She writes clever, moving, poignantly sad, dramatic, witty, and laugh-out-loud-funny moments. such as when Marcus Sherringham makes his addresses to Caroline…this is hilarious. The snotty nosed Marcus is called upon to explain his pedigree to Caroline’s mother with the question ‘exactly what kind of lord are you’? His utter disgust and effrontery at her cheek is perfectly captured by the combined writing/performing talents of Ms Riley and Alex Wyndham.
MY VERDICT: I’m hoping that the author will be behind her writing desk again soon and, in due course, we will be treated to another great story from this fabulous writer. Highly recommended!
REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS
SENSUALITY RATING: WARM
The Rockliffe series so far (click on the book covers or more details):
**I received this audiobook free from the author in return for an honest review. **