Genre: Historical Romance (Georgian)
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.
After reading The Mésalliance, I was especially intrigued by the actor known as ‘L’Inconnu’, whom Rockliffe recognises at the Comédie Française. Ms Riley subtly hints that a nasty scandal forced this man to flee England eight years earlier and I knew then that this mystery man was destined to have his own book.
The Player is the third book in Stella Riley’s fabulous Rockliffe series and we discover that ‘L’Inconnu’ is, in fact, Francis Adrian Sinclair Devereux, Earl of Sarre. Ms Riley excels in writing the most gorgeous heroes and Adrian is no exception. I also love the fact that he is such a complex character.
The 21-year-old Adrian, then Viscount Eastry, is about to marry Evie Mortimer, the woman he is head over heels in love with. Life seems perfect but suddenly everything changes; his fiancée is dead and there are accusations that Adrian murdered her. Though he professes his innocence and wants to clear his name, his father refuses to allow the family to be besmirched by such a scandal and eventually Adrian is forced to flee the country.
Angry and hurt over his family’s rejection, Adrian is determined to make a new life for himself in Paris. Discovering his aptitude for acting, he soon builds a career as a successful and renowned actor in the Comédie Française. His unique ability to ‘count cards’ and adopt various guises to cover his real identity ensure success at the gaming tables. For the past two years, he has also been a partner in Sinclair’s, an exclusive London gaming-club, with his friend Aristide Delacroix .
However, after an absence of 10 years, circumstances force him to return to England to assume his responsibilities as the Earl of Sarre, knowing that society will not be welcoming and all the old rumours and accusations will resurface.
He wasn’t going back because he wanted to. He was going because his presence had suddenly become an unavoidable duty.
He doubted if anyone would welcome him.
As the granddaughter of a wealthy cloth merchant with no great beauty and an appalling wardrobe, Caroline Maitland is realistic enough to know that her large dowry is the only reason any titled gentleman would be interested in marrying her. At the age of twenty-two, she sees her life as…
…a humdrum existence of Duty and Making the Best of Things; years and years of being sensible and responsible and never, even briefly, knowing what romance felt like.
Despite everything, she secretly dreams of being swept off her feet by a dashingly handsome fellow.
Adrian wants revenge on his onetime best friend, Marcus, Lord Sheringham, the man who betrayed him and destroyed his reputation all those years ago. He has been keeping tabs on Sheringham over the years and knows that he is deeply in debt, with creditors nipping at his heels. Discovering that his nemesis has Caroline and her dowry in his sights, Adrian sees it as the perfect opportunity to exact his revenge by ruining Sheringham’s plans. But first he wants to discover Caroline’s true character and if she is worth saving from Marcus’s clutches. So, he dons one of his disguises and becomes the dashing highwayman, Claude Duvall, not knowing that the tangled web he is about to weave could cost him the one thing he wants most in the world.
Adrian is such a wonderfully complex character. I could understand his sense of hurt towards the family who basically disowned him, and I could feel the anger and bitter resentment boiling beneath the surface during the fraught meeting with his unfeeling mother.
Over the years, he has played so many different roles that he no longer knows who he really is.
“I’d become a rag-bag of all of them; a collection of miscellaneous bits and pieces –so many that, somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten who I really was.”
In so many romances, there is an instant spark of attraction when the hero and heroine first meet and it was refreshing to see a very different scenario in this story. Adrian’s initial opinion of Caroline is that she is garishly dressed and socially inept while Caroline sees Adrian as cold, unsmiling and emotionless. It is only when Adrian is in his guise as Claude Duvall that he glimpses a very different Caroline…a woman of character, intelligence, quick-witted and stubborn. In fact, as he is in search of a wife, he could do worse than marry Caroline. However, without giving too much of the plot away, there are complications in the shape of a very determined Marcus Sheringham and it seems that Adrian might just have burnt all his bridges when Caroline discovers his deception.
I could sympathise with Caroline’s anger and disappointment at discovering Adrian’s duplicity, particularly as Claude Duvall had been the handsome, dashing hero she had always dreamed of. But she is not one of those heroines who refuses to see the reality of the situation, accepting that Adrian had never intended for matters to go this far or for her to be hurt. I also like her logic in reasoning that, if she enjoyed Claude’s kisses, and he and Adrian are the same person, there was no reason to suppose she wouldn’t enjoy Adrian’s kisses too!
Caroline also begins to see that there may be a very different Adrian lurking beneath that cloak of icy reserve.
He’s different, somehow. Is this what Bertrand meant? Am I being allowed a tiny glimpse of the man behind Lord Sarre? If so, it’s interesting. But though I’d like to push it further, I’d better stop before he realises what he’s doing and crawls back into his igloo.
When he reinstates two formerly dismissed servants, she realises that it is not just an act of responsibility, but he truly cares about them…that he has kind and loving heart which he doesn’t want anyone to see.
The romance is sweet and heart-warming and their gradual falling in love seems so natural. They complement each other perfectly; Caroline helps Adrian discover the man he was meant to be while Adrian sees Caroline’s inner strength and beauty. Their declarations of love are positively heart-melting.
“…there’s been a … a sort of void inside me for years. A dark empty place that I’d become so used to, I no longer noticed it was there. And then you came along and, in some way I can’t explain, you made me whole again. So I don’t just care for you, my darling. I need you and want you and … love you.’
‘I love you. I love your honesty, your unfailing kindness and the fact that –though you’ve had precious little of it yourself or perhaps because of that –you have a passion for justice. I think you are the most remarkable man I’ve ever met and utterly beautiful, both in body and spirit. And your smile doesn’t just make me sigh, Adrian. It steals my breath and lights the world.’
The Marquis of Amberley (The Parfit Knight), the Duke of Rockliffe (The Mésalliance) and Lord Nicholas Wynstanton, Rockliffe’s younger brother, all prove welcome allies for Adrian and I love their scenes together because, beneath their banter, there is always a sense of the close bond between them. I love Rockliffe…so unflappable even under the most extreme of circumstances.
I adored Adrian’s factotum, Bertrand, who is more friend than servant. Knowing Adrian better than anyone, he is the one who provides the impetus for Caroline to think that there might be more to Adrian than appears on the surface. Bertrand also provides some humorous moments with his broken English and questioning of Adrian’s actions.
I was certainly intrigued by the exchanges between Nicholas and Aristide’s sister, Madeline, and I do hope they get their own book.
Just reading this book is an absolute pleasure, but listening to the audiobook narrated by the sublimely talented Alex Wyndham takes the enjoyment to another level entirely. He brings Ms Riley’s wonderful story vividly to life and captures all the details and personalities of each individual character perfectly. He particularly excels in voicing authentic sounding women’s voices.
MY VERDICT: Stella Riley’s brilliant storytelling combined with Alex Wyndham’s superb narration is sheer magic! VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS
SENSUALITY RATING: WARM
Rockliffe Series so far (click on the book covers for more details):
**I received a free download of this audiobook from the author in return for an honest review**