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Cadenza

(Rockliffe, #6)

Genre: Historical Romance (Georgian – 1778)

Cover Blurb:

The performance finished in a flourish of technical brilliance and the young man rose from the harpsichord to a storm of applause.

Julian Langham was poised on the brink of a dazzling career when the lawyers lured him into making a catastrophic mistake. Now, instead of the concert platform, he has a title he doesn’t want, an estate verging on bankruptcy … and bewildering responsibilities for which he is totally unfitted.
And yet the wreckage of Julian’s life is not a completely ill wind. For Tom, Rob and Ellie it brings something that is almost a miracle … if they dare believe in it.

Meanwhile, first-cousins Arabella Brandon and Elizabeth Marsden embark on a daring escapade which will provide each of them with a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The adventure will last only a few weeks, after which everything will be the way it was before. Or so they think. What neither of them expects is for it to change a number of lives … most notably, their own.

And there is an additional complication of which they are wholly unaware.
The famed omniscience of the Duke of Rockliffe.

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After five books in her fabulous Rockliffe series, Stella Riley is finally (and sadly) bringing the series to a close.

But what a swan song!  CADENZA has two compelling love stories at its centre. And who knew that, as well as being an historian (English Civil War – more about that later) of some considerable repute, she is also a knowledgeable and talented musician who has quite simply astounded me with her scholarship, research, and personal knowledge of the world of classical music, and in particular, the harpsichord? 

I am a huge fan of this author who is both an eloquent and creative writer, and each time we are treated to a new book there is never any danger of repetition. Cadenza is a feast for the senses and it’s a treat worth waiting for – from the first page to the last. Each book in the Rockliffe series is quite unique, apart from the ever-present, but fascinating characters who have each had their own stories told in preceding books and who are always in evidence and add something extra special as the series progresses.

Cadenza centres around the world of music with the main character, Julian Langham, being a gifted and supremely talented, harpsichordist – a virtuoso in fact. Julian’s character is unlike any other I have ever encountered in Historical Romance. Since he was old enough to reach a keyboard, he has studied and played almost to the exclusion of all else and was destined to be a musician. At the age of twenty-eight and just teetering on the brink of his career, his world of playing and composing is brought to an abrupt halt by a disreputable firm of lawyers who con him into putting his career on hold ‘briefly’ and leaving Vienna to return to the country of his birth to take responsibility for a crumbling, debt ridden estate, and an earldom he neither wants nor even knew he was heir to, so obscure was his claim.

Having lived in the world of music for most of his life, suddenly being faced with the reality of being responsible for his predecessor’s three feral illegitimate offspring and his bewildered tenants, and with debts and problems he cannot ever hope to meet or solve, has the effect on him of being doused by a bucket of cold water, especially when he realises there is no going back. The only tiny (and it is minute) light is a badly abused harpsichord which has been left in a sadly neglected state and is in pieces in the library. At the end of each long, hard day toiling on the estate, Julian begins to painstakingly restore it. Not only is Stella Riley a musician, but she has also carefully researched – with quite remarkable understanding – the inner workings of this instrument which shows in the terminology she uses as she describes Julian slowly beginning to restore it to working order.

Julian may be gentle and slightly vague but he has an honestness, as rigid as a streak of iron, running through his backbone and, although he may not know what to do, he can’t be faulted for failing to do his best – rolling up his sleeves and working alongside his tenants – all the while slowly dying inside without his beloved music to sustain him. His obvious integrity and his determination not to increase rents, even though he desperately needs the money, earns him the respect of the locals and his tenants, not least the local doctor and his wife who befriend and help him as he flounders from one crisis to another. The children, whom he has tracked down and ensconced in the dilapidated nursery, are in turns angry and mistrustful, apart from the youngest, Ellie, who simply accepts him at face value. Tom and Rob are older, and Tom in particular – the twelve-year-old, self-elected protector of the threesome – doesn’t trust his motives. Why should Julian want them? No one has ever cared or wanted them before. Watching him win the boys’ trust, especially Tom’s, is heart-warming. Julian doesn’t employ artifice, he doesn’t know how to – he’s simply himself. In fact, it is his wholly innocent and sincere attitude in his dealings with the children which highlights the kind of man he truly is.

The doctor and his wife realise that Julian needs help, especially with the children and the running of his home, so they propose he employs a housekeeper-cum-governess and set about advertising for a suitable candidate. Elizabeth (Lizzie) Marsden, who wishes to help her family out financially, applies and, after some correspondence, in which she infers a greater age and experience than she has, is offered the position for a trial period. No-one could predict the outcome this action precipitates – a series of events, which once set into motion, escalates and forever changes Julian’s life and those of the children.

Meanwhile another drama is playing out at the home of Arabella Brandon, youngest of the four siblings at Brandon Lacey, where Arabella (Belle) has received the news that she has been jilted, after a three-year betrothal to her soldier fiancé who has not returned from the Colonial wars, instead marrying and settling in America. Her family, in particular her mother, want her to go to London for the season and she is reluctant to do so. She’s far from broken-hearted by the blow her ex-fiancé has dealt her, but, for reasons of her own, is not interested in husband hunting at present. Her closest friend, Lizzie, who happens to be her first cousin, would love a season in London but her clergyman father forbids it, even though the Duke of Rockliffe, a distant cousin of the girls’ mothers’, is happy to sponsor both of them with the aid of his Duchess. Lizzie, a dutiful daughter, realises the futility of trying to persuade her father and has instead begun the process of finding suitable employment.

Belle is the most outgoing and vivacious of the two cousins and I was drawn to her immediately. She is, of course, the one who proposes the outrageous plan which will benefit both of them – she will take up the position Lizzie has just been offered as housekeeper/governess to the children of the Earl of Chalfont and Lizzie will travel to London as the guest of the duke and duchess. The only fly in the ointment being that they must take on the guise of each other. Of course, neither girl gives much thought to the cause and effect of their actions, although to be fair it takes some persuading on Belle’s part. But, eventually realising that it will give Belle some much-needed breathing space, Lizzie agrees and at least she will get her season. After their adventure, the girls will simply return to their old lives – not quite so simple, as we discover.

All goes to plan to begin with. The girls swap clothes, prime Belle’s reluctant lady’s maid and set off together. They part ways some distance from Brandon Lacey as agreed and each travel to their respective destination. Matters start to go awry when Belle arrives at Chalfont and the doctor who meets her is surprised to see how much younger she is than her letter indicated. Even worse, Julian is horrified as she is ‘far too pretty’ and he considers sending her packing. The doctor talks him into giving her a trial period, as she has already won him over with her forthright and practical manner. Julian has had limited experience with the opposite sex and is, quite frankly, terrified of women. He initially appears rude although Belle later realises, with some surprise, that he is simply painfully shy. The truth is that Julian is deeply affected by Belle, much to his consternation. He is the one who thinks her ‘far too pretty’, whereas most people, including the doctor, think her ‘passably pretty’. A clear case of ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. Not only is she ‘much too pretty’ but her warm, infectious laugh ‘does something to his insides’. I loved this and it is mentioned quite a few times throughout the story – he finds himself aware of her laugh and waits for it – it lifts his spirits and he is always affected in the same way. Of course, as a musician with a highly developed sense of hearing, he would notice such a thing whereas most others wouldn’t. The spark between them is definitely there, and Ms. Riley grows it slowly and sensitively until both are equally smitten with the other. Belle has grown up with three handsome brothers and is therefore not immediately taken in by Julian’s undeniable gorgeousness. But he has something rare which she’s drawn to – he’s totally unaware of his own physical appeal. He never attempts to dress up, in fact, most of the time, he’s downright scruffy, his hair overlong and untidy. She is impressed by his innate kindness, gentleness and thoughtfulness and moved by his complete disregard for what others may think of his taking in three illegitimate children and more – actually loving them.

When Belle realises the extent of his musical talent and what the lack of performing is doing to him, she is resolved to do something for him. It doesn’t take her long to learn that he will shrivel up and die emotionally if he is denied his music. She sets her mind to thinking of ways to help him with the estate. Having grown up at Brandon Lacey observing her brothers using tried and tested methods, set in motion during the English Civil War by their Great-Great-Grandfather, Gabriel, she is resolved to beg her eldest brother’s assistance. Extremely astute, Belle realises that to perform – as he must – Julian needs an estate running in the black to free him for what life intended for him. Belle is on a mission and that’s because she’s finally in love. Eventually the two share a kiss, no more, but it is sensual and loving and both realise that something monumental has occurred. Stella Riley does this so well – she can imply sensuality and sexuality without the need for explicit bedroom scenes.

As Belle is settling into Chalfont, Lizzie has a roadside catastrophe when her coach is damaged and she narrowly avoids serious injury obliging her to accept help from a passing traveller. Ralph, Earl of Sherbourne, isn’t too pleased that his journey has been interrupted by a dripping wet maiden in distress. But, being the consummate gentleman, he does what he must. In the end, with the roads impassable because of heavy rain, Lizzie is forced to spend two nights in his company. All goes well and nothing of importance happens, other than Lizzie becoming more and more intrigued by Ralph’s dark and brooding attractiveness, but he is uncommunicative, preferring to read his Greek copy of the Iliad than converse, except when he must. He does nothing that Lizzie could take an exception to. In short, he does not compromise her other than unwittingly and unwillingly having to escort her to safety. Lizzie is unaware that Ralph has a scandalous past and, without warning, it rises up to bite both of them. They are seen by two ladies travelling in the opposite direction who have stopped for refreshments at the same inn; these ladies put two and two together and come up with five. Sparks fly, especially as one of them quite evidently knows him well.

Stella Riley has set herself quite a task, Ralph Sherbourne is not a character I thought to be redeemable. In Hazard he treated his half-sister, Genevieve, quite abominably. However, there is so much more to him than meets the eye and the circumstances surrounding the reasons why society shunned him are revealed, although only in confidence to Rockliffe who consequently has a new respect for him. Plus, against the odds, Lizzie likes him and refuses to believe badly of him. It is this unadulterated acceptance of him which surprises and sees him start to thaw from the austere, unapproachable man he has always been. I sensed his deep, black loneliness, keenly. I felt deeply sorry for him, especially when we see him with the Rockliffe ‘gang’ and he secretly envies the camaraderie they share, something he has never experienced. From detesting him in Hazard, I now wanted him to be happy and it seems that vicarage bred Lizzie could be the one so this was quite a turnabout. Ms. Riley couldn’t make everyone love him – that would have been totally implausible, but she’s done an excellent job in at least beginning his redemption with the help of Lizzie. He is understandably bitter – no one has ever believed in him, especially without knowing the facts of his duel and the reasons for it, which when revealed are quite shocking. I certainly didn’t see it coming. There is one particular scene, which again I can’t go into, but which had me rooting for Lizzie and Ralph as she nails her colours to the mast – superb! Ms. Riley at her best.

By now the fat is in the fire for both girls – their subterfuge has been discovered – how could it not? Rock is omniscient and never misses a trick. Once they are unmasked, there is so much to be sorted out to avoid irreversible damage to the reputations of both girls. I won’t go into how, where or what, as this is such a complex story and so deliciously different. And you, dear reader, need to absorb and enjoy! Let’s just say that, as usual Rock is a ‘rock’. His humour, dry wit and urbanity steal the show (I know I say this in every review, but it’s so true and Ms Riley didn’t name this series Rockliffe for nothing).

I promised earlier to mention the Brandon Lacey connection. Fans of Stella Riley will most probably have read her English Civil War series. If not – please do – you will not be disappointed. I myself have only just completed Garland of Straw in which Gabriel and Venetia Brandon are the hero and heroine of that amazing story and are the Great-Great-Grandparents of the current younger generation and I absolutely adored it. My point is, however, that Gabriel was almost bankrupt himself and, using his common sense, set in motion a method of farming which was highly successful and has by the time of Cadenza been used for generations. Belle persuades her brother, Max, to help Julian. I found the connection fascinating and, if I hadn’t read Garland, would probably have just skirted over it. And, by the way, having just mentioned Belle’s eldest brother Max… oh my! Please, please, Ms. Riley, having given us a taste of this gorgeous man – we need more!

Two compelling romances – although my favourite was Julian and Belle, only because they are a couple like no other. And just wait until you see Julian in musical action. I can say no more, other than, gone is the awkward, self-deprecating man and I can honestly guarantee that your heart will melt.

I believe the author intends to develop the Brandon connection (there are three unmarried brothers). I do hope so because I’m not ready to say goodbye to Rock and co. yet.

MY VERDICT: Another amazing story in this memorable series and one I shall read/listen to over and over and never tire of. Highly recommended.


REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: SUBTLE

 

Rockliffe series (for further details click on the book covers):

The Parfit Knight (Rockliffe, #1) by Stella Riley The Mésalliance by Stella Riley The Player by Stella Riley The Wicked Cousin (Rockcliffe, #4) by Stella Riley Hazard by Stella Riley Cadenza by Stella Riley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Parfit Knight audio 3

(Rockliffe, #1)

Genre: Historical Romance (Georgian – 1762 and 1774)

Cover Blurb:

When the Marquis of Amberley’s coach is waylaid by highwaymen and his coachman shot, he is forced to take shelter at the first house he finds and is subsequently trapped there for a week by a severe snow storm.

Oakleigh Manor is the home of Rosalind Vernon who lives alone but for her devoted servants and an ill-natured parrot, cut off from the outside world by the tragic result of a childhood accident. But Rosalind is brave and bright and totally devoid of self-pity – and it is these qualities which, as the days pass and the snow continues to fall, touch Amberley’s heart.

On his return to London, the Marquis persuades Rosalind’s brother, Philip, to bring her to town for a taste of society, despite her handicap. But the course of Amberley’s courtship is far from smooth. Philip Vernon actively dislikes him; Rosalind appears to be falling under the spell of the suavely elegant Duke of Rockliffe; and worse still, Amberley is haunted by a dark and terrible secret that, if revealed, may cause him to lose Rosalind forever.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

Dominic Ballantine, Marquis of Amberley, is everything a girl could ask for in a husband. Still unattached at 34, he is tall, handsome and wealthy but most importantly honourable. He is universally liked by most of society, envied by a few, and extremely popular with his own set of peers, most notably the Duke of Rockliffe with whom he has a long-standing friendship. If Dominic, aka Nic to his friends, has one fault, and this is debatable depending on the company, he is given to a levity which is occasionally misconstrued as arrogance. It is this inability or reluctance to take life too seriously that has landed him in a hornets’ nest. Artifice not being in his nature, this ‘arrogance’ is merely an indicator that he sees no reason to explain his actions to friend or foe. With oodles of integrity and perhaps naively, he judges others by his own standards, occasionally leaving his actions open to misinterpretation.

Dominic really is well named as The Parfit Knight (Chaucer) – which roughly translates to The Perfect Knight. Early in the story, he sets out to ‘educate’ a young, inebriated buck who persistently inveigles himself into Dominic’s company against the advice of his companion. It is how Dominic handles this situation that leads to a series of misunderstandings of monumental proportions, culminating in apparently irreversible consequences which gather speed and spiral out of control. Worse still, he is unaware of what he has set in motion and how it will affect his own future.

Backtrack twelve years to the beginning of the story (prologue) and Dominic’s chaise is involved in a collision with a ten-year-old girl, the outcome of which he could not possibly foresee, being unaware of the devastation he has unwittingly left in his wake. Half way through chapter two, Dominic is again racing to reach his destination in an attempt to beat the rapidly deteriorating weather. When his chaise is held up by highwaymen and his coachman seriously injured, he must needs seek medical help. He requests help at the nearest house and is given shelter and medical assistance by the occupants, the mistress of which is breathtakingly beautiful…and blind.

As the weather deteriorates further, it becomes clear that Dominic must remain in the home of Rosalind Vernon and he is enchanted by her; she has had no experience of society and yet is gracious, welcoming and beautiful, both inside and out. He spends time in her company over the course of the next week and inevitably falls rather heavily for this courageous and unassuming young woman, who lives in a gilded cage surrounded by loyal servants and only a foul-mouthed parrot for company. And then, to his horror, he discovers exactly how she came to be blind.

After Dominic’s initial shock and his immediate knee-jerk reaction – which is to run back to town – he sets out to coerce Rosalind’s elder brother, Philip Vernon, into introducing his beautiful and charming sister to society. He feels she is more than able, with assistance, to leave her cotton wool prison. And of course, in town he will ensure that he meets her on an equal footing and, after finding a way to tell her of his folly, will hopefully be allowed to court her properly.

As previously mentioned, Dominic has already made enemies, albeit unwittingly, and one of these is Rosalind’s brother, through his dealings with Philip’s friend. Matters go from bad to worse as he blunders along, unaware that his so-called crimes are only multiplying. Once Rosalind arrives in town, Dominic’s courtship runs anything but smoothly, but falling more deeply under her spell, he is determined to court and marry her.

I am always in awe of how Stella Riley develops her characters and relationships. This was more tricky than usual – Rosalind is blind and has been for most of her life. Ms. Riley shows us the obstacles she faces realistically and with great sensitivity. At one point in the story, Rosalind’s worst nightmare is realised and she becomes lost. Her fear is palpable as she thrashes around trying desperately to find her way, whilst also attempting to escape the faceless person who placed her in the situation in the first place. This is so cleverly and astutely achieved that I could literally feel Rosalind’s terror.

There is no doubt that these two people care for each other and are meant to be together and this comes over fairly early in the story. I particularly like how the author has made it perfectly clear that neither Rosalind’s blindness nor Dominic’s guilt plays any part in his attraction to her. Yes, he is appalled by the truth, but he knows he cared for her deeply before he discovers that he is the one responsible for her disability. Rosalind, too, quickly realises that she loves this man who doesn’t appear to allow her disability to affect his attitude towards her, and who makes her feel womanly and attractive. However, Dominic has got himself into quite a tangle which takes some unravelling, but of course Ms. Riley achieves it in an entirely plausible way, that will both please and delight, leaving the reader with a silly grin on their face.

This is simply a beautiful love story with two wonderful protagonists – an excellent start to a stupendous series. Stella Riley begins to introduce her complex and fascinating cast of ‘friends’ who each have their own stories as main or secondary characters in the rest of the Rockliffe series. Fans of the series will know what I’m talking about when I say that those new to the series will soon come to view these people as friends. Not least of whom is Rockliffe himself, after whom the series is named. And for very good reason – he is an outstanding character and one whom I have no doubt you will come to love as much as I do. Rockliffe’s story, The Mésalliance, is the next book in the series and my advice is – don’t miss it.

The author’s legendary wit and humour is very much in evidence too, as we meet Broody, the temperamental parrot, with an ‘interesting’ vocabulary and an ability to spit seeds as well as profanities at his enemies with great precision Even Broody’s obvious love for Rosalind is moving and his jealousy towards her suitors, hilarious. In fact, Broody is one of the most successful ‘animal/bird’ additions to any historical romance I have read, and I defy anyone reading this beautiful story not to be touched by his obvious affection for Rosalind.

Actor, Alex Wyndham, performs the whole of the series and he is just perfect, with his dreamy voice which seems to wrap around one like a luxurious velvet blanket. His range and variety of voices is phenomenal and I cannot praise him highly enough. He is one voice actor who is capable of capturing both male and female alike, adopting the subtle nuances which make them individual and recognisable. He achieves this so effectively throughout the rest of the series that, for instance, I never have any difficulty recognising Rosalind, Amberley or Rock, some three or four books down the line (and I’ve read/listened to the entire series three times). How he does this is an enigma. Call me awestruck or starry-eyed – whatever you wish – but he has the perfect voice for the very real and fascinating people Stella Riley has created.

MY VERDICT: A brilliant start to a memorable series and one which I highly recommend. 


REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: KISSES

 

Rockliffe series (click on the book covers for more details):

The Parfit Knight (Rockliffe, #1) by Stella Riley The Mésalliance by Stella Riley The Player by Stella Riley The Wicked Cousin (Rockcliffe, #4) by Stella Riley Hazard by Stella Riley Cadenza by Stella Riley – to be published 22nd  November 2018

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Hazard audiobook

(Rockliffe, #5)

Genre: Historical Romance (Paris, 1770 and London, 1777)

Cover Blurb:

Hazard: a game of Chance and Luck, made riskier when Fate is rolling the dice.

For Aristide Delacroix, the first throw summons shades from his past. A man he had met, just once, over a card-table … and the lovely girl indirectly responsible for plunging his life into catastrophe.

For Lord Nicholas Wynstanton, tired of waiting for Madeleine Delacroix to make up her mind, it slyly suggests he begin a whole new game with loaded dice; while for Madeleine, it devises a terrifying lesson in missed opportunities and the uncertainty of second chances.

And for Genevieve Westin, hoping widowhood will be happier than marriage, it brings a rude awakening – leaving a single, wild gamble her only option.
A cardsharp turned businessman, a duke’s charming brother, a stubborn, razor-edged beauty and a desperate widow.

Four players in a game of Hazard … all playing for very high stakes.

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Stella Riley has kept my interest from the first page of the first book in her Rockliffe series (The Parfit Knight), which was originally written in her earlier life as a traditionally published author. Three years ago, she took up her pen again as an Indie author and I have not only discovered her (how did I miss her the first time around?) but now eagerly await each new release – three so far, and counting (plus of course, an addition to her superb English Civil War series). Both of her two earlier books are now available in e-format, as well as in paperback AND audio, and all the books in this series have been treated to stunning new covers. The Rockliffe series is rapidly becoming a reader’s favourite; a considerable success considering there are some thirty plus years between the first book and the last, and she has seamlessly continued the series as if that large gap never existed.

Hazard (book five), as the name suggests, is set in part against the backdrop of a gaming club. There are four players (as in the game); two equally spine-tingling romances playing out in parallel, and, as always, the enigmatic, all-seeing, all-knowing and utterly delicious, Duke of Rockliffe (aka Rock) is central to the story and its outcome. Each of Ms. Riley’s fabulous cast of characters introduced over the course of the series (some with books of their own), are in evidence, and as I always say, these men and women feel like old friends after five books.

Two of the main protagonists, brother and sister, Madeleine and Aristide Delacroix, get their HEA, and so too does Nicholas Wynstanton, Rock’s younger brother, who has long been smitten with the prickly Madeleine. By the time we reached the end of The Wicked Cousin, Nicholas was becoming more and more frustrated and Madeleine more difficult. However, fans of the series probably knew that Stella Riley would find a way for this unlikely pair to overcome their difficulties. Aristide’s love interest comes from a totally unexpected quarter and ties in nicely with his earlier life and his connection to Adrian Deveraux, Earl of Sarre (The

One of Stella Riley’s greatest strengths lies in her characterisation. The people she ‘creates’ take on a living, breathing persona and, in Hazard, Nicholas Wynstanton, who has been around as a secondary character since the first book, is fully developed into a larger than life, loveable and honourable man. No longer just the happy-go-lucky, younger brother of a duke, he is now a man not to be trifled with as he sets his sights on demolishing the walls Madeleine Delacroix has erected around her heart. Madeleine’s arguments against the match stem from her own insecurities – her earlier life in Paris where she had lived a hand-to-mouth existence with her brother and mother, and the unrequited, girlish infatuation she had briefly felt for her brother’s friend, Adrian Deveraux (The Player). Being the proud young woman, she is, Adrian’s rebuttal was all the more devastating and she has never fully recovered her composure or confidence with the opposite sex resulting in her unfortunate standoffishness.

Her brother, Aristide, is a cool and quiet man and, with a few well-chosen words the author conjures up a man I can see in my mind’s eye…

long blonde hair, eyes the blue of a cloudless winter sky and neatly tailored bones.

He says little but, through his inner musings, we get a great deal of insight into the man he is – suspicious, frustrated and angry – emotions he keeps carefully locked away. Aristide, on the face of it, seems to be calmly and emotionlessly going about his business, but he too has a bruised heart from which he has never fully recovered. His carefully locked away hurt at the way he believes he was treated by his ‘almost love’ comes back to haunt him. Seven years on he is no longer the tender-hearted, kindly young man working hard to care for his teenage sister and ailing mother, but an affluent, respected partner in one of London’s premier gaming/gentleman’s clubs. We see the cool, carefully cultivated aloofness slowly disintegrate before the onslaught of the attraction he discovers he still feels after the intervening years.

Stella Riley has the sibling relationship between Aristide and Madeline just right. Their character traits suggest a familial relationship; both are reserved as a result of brushes with young, unrequited love and both are over sensitive about their humble beginnings. As a result, they are both wary of allowing anyone to scale the walls of their self-erected defences. An intriguing pair and so the final capitulation to their respective loves is all the more satisfying.

Beautiful and sweet Genevieve has erupted back into Aristide’s well-ordered life after seven years. She has suffered much at the hands of her brothers and her now deceased, dissipated husband. She is aware that society views her with distaste by association and, as a result, she is extremely vulnerable and lacking in confidence and self-esteem. In fact, her very vulnerability and suffering is just what the calmly controlled Aristide needs as a salve to the perceived injustices he believes her responsible for in his past life. He is still the kind of man who needs to be needed, and Genevieve Westin certainly fits that bill and so we watch him crumble. It puts me in mind a little of The Mésalliance (although nothing quite compares to the final chapters of that magnificent story) in which we see Rock lose his legendary ‘cool’. I love these hard to read, mysterious men.

There is a plausible plot running throughout the story which involves most of the main characters but has its roots in Paris and Aristide’s earlier life. Rock always strolls in and takes centre stage at just the right moments – urbane and cool-as-cucumber, he steals every scene he is involved in. With just a few carefully selected words designed to defuse, he delivers a set-down, often without the recipient being aware he or she has been insulted. His character is one of Stella Riley’s triumphs, and this series is well named because Rock’s unfailing omniscience and his ability to always be in the right place at the right time is something I have come to look forward to with much anticipation in every book, and I’m never disappointed.

Hazard follows on within weeks of the end of The Wicked Cousin. Cassie and Sebastian are welcomed back into ‘the gang’ after their recent honeymoon and are evidently very-much-in-love newlyweds. They run the gauntlet of the banter and risqué comments of their close friends. Sebastian’s wicked and naughty sense of humour is very much in evidence, another area in which the author excels; her wit and humour are always lurking in the background, adding another dimension to her intriguing characters and expertly researched Georgian world. As we near the end of the series, it is going to be sad to say goodbye…but not yet. Ms. Riley is busy writing another/final book in the series and I am eagerly looking forward to a further intriguing addition to the Rockliffe series, and maybe Ms. Riley will tie off a few loose ends, such as, will Rock get his heir and let Nicholas off the hook?

I’ve read the book and now I’ve listened to the audio version performed by the talented actor Ms. Riley always employs to perform the books in this series (and two of her English Civil War/Restoration books). I’m always struck anew by Alex Wyndham’s versatility – it’s no easy job, after the many books he’s recorded for Ms. Riley and the large cast of characters he has had to keep track of. Yet, he does. Each person is easily identifiable and one excellent example is the Duke of Rockliffe whose smooth, rich voice is quite unique. When Rock appears in any scene he doesn’t need to be announced and Alex Wyndham has him to perfection using a voice and tone like warm treacle trickling down the spine – soft and loving – soft and menacing or simply in conversation with his peers – there’s no mistaking Rock for any other character. During one particular scene in which Madeleine is a guest of the Rockliffe ‘gang’, the ever, all knowing, all seeing Rock immediately recognises her vulnerability, as a result of her actions, and reacts in the most bone melting way. Reading the words had me sniffing but hearing them, well…have your tissues ready is my advice. As I previously remarked, much of Aristide’s thoughts and feelings are revealed to us through his inner musings. To the outside world, he is the proverbial ‘swan’, calm and unruffled, but paddling away furiously out of sight. Alex Wyndham is taxed with making this work and he does so spectacularly. I suspect that some readers may well have missed the ‘real’ Aristide in the written word – so my advice is to listen to this performer’s delectable French accent and fall in love with Stella Riley’s dreamy Aristide.

A new reader/listener to Stella Riley’s books may be a little overwhelmed by the number of characters in Hazard, but this is book five and therefore many have been introduced throughout the previous books. The writing, research and characterisation is, as always, superb and the book could be enjoyed as a stand-alone, but I recommend beginning with The Parfit Knight or, at the very least, it’s important to read/listen to The Wicked Cousin because Hazard follows on immediately from that book, although Cassie and Sebastian’s story is not left hanging.

MY VERDICT: Another stellar five stars read/listen for me. I might have my favourites in this series, but each book is as well written as the last and I can’t penalise the author for making me prefer one character or storyline over another, and besides which, I love them all.


REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: SUBTLE


Rockliffe
 series so far (click on the book covers for more details):

The Parfit Knight (Rockliffe, #1) by Stella Riley The Mésalliance by Stella Riley The Player by Stella Riley The Wicked Cousin (Rockcliffe, #4) by Stella Riley Hazard by Stella Riley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

 

SENSUALITY RATING: SUBTLE

 

 

Rockcliffe series so far (click on the book cover for more details):

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Hazard - Stella Riley

(Rockliffe, #5)

Genre: Historical Romance (Paris, 1770 and London, 1777)

Cover Blurb:

Hazard: a game of Chance and Luck, made riskier when Fate is rolling the dice.

For Aristide Delacroix, the first throw summons shades from his past. A man he had met, just once, over a card-table … and the lovely girl indirectly responsible for plunging his life into catastrophe.

For Lord Nicholas Wynstanton, tired of waiting for Madeleine Delacroix to make up her mind, it slyly suggests he begin a whole new game with loaded dice; while for Madeleine, it devises a terrifying lesson in missed opportunities and the uncertainty of second chances.

And for Genevieve Westin, hoping widowhood will be happier than marriage, it brings a rude awakening – leaving a single, wild gamble her only option.
A cardsharp turned businessman, a duke’s charming brother, a stubborn, razor-edged beauty and a desperate widow.

Four players in a game of Hazard … all playing for very high stakes.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

Stella Riley’s stunning Rockliffe series has kept me entranced from the first page of The Parfit Knight, the first book in the series, in which she begins introducing her tremendous cast of characters, one of whom is the enigmatic Duke of Rockliffe (aka Rock) who plays an almost patriarchal role in each story. In fact, all of society respect and look up to him, hence the series name. Now with book five, Hazard, we are treated to another addictive page turner and two equally spine-tingling romances playing out in parallel. As its title suggests, the story is set in part against the backdrop of a gaming club, and, as in the game of hazard, has four players. Two of the main protagonists, brother and sister, Madeleine and Aristide Delacroix, at last get their HEA, and so too does Nicholas Wynstanton, Rock’s younger brother, who has long been smitten with the prickly Madeleine. By the time we reached the end of The Wicked Cousin, Nicholas was becoming more and more frustrated and Madeleine more difficult than usual. However, fans of the series probably knew that Stella Riley would find a way for this unlikely pair to overcome their apparent difficulties. Aristide’s love interest comes to him from a totally unexpected quarter and ties his earlier life in nicely with the series and his connection to Adrian Deveraux, Earl of Sarre (The Player).

As always, one of Stella Riley’s greatest strengths lies in her characterisation. The people she ‘creates’ take on a living, breathing persona, and, in Hazard, Nicholas Wynstanton, who has been around as a secondary character since the first book, is developed fully into a larger than life, loveable and honourable man; not just the happy-go-lucky, younger brother of a duke, but a man in his own right, and not one to be trifled with either. Nicholas’ aim is to knock down the walls Madeleine Delacroix has erected around her heart. Madeleine’s arguments against the match stem from her own insecurities – her earlier life in Paris where she had lived a hand-to-mouth existence with her brother and mother, and the unrequited girlish infatuation she had felt for her brother’s friend, Adrian Deveraux. Being the proud young woman, she is, Adrian’s rebuttal was all the more devastating and she has never fully recovered her composure, resulting in her unfortunate stand-offishness with the opposite sex.

Her brother, Aristide, has always been a cool and mysterious figure; even the author’s description of him conjures up mystery… long blonde hair, eyes the blue of a cloudless winter sky and neatly tailored bones. He says little but, through his inner musings, we get a great deal of insight into the man he is, and we are privy to his frustrations and anger, emotions he keeps locked away from the outside world. Aristide, on the face of it, seems to be calmly and emotionlessly going about his business, but he too has a bruised heart from which he has never fully recovered. His carefully locked away hurt comes back to haunt, but also intrigue him. It is this ‘barely there’ love from his earlier life – before his affluence as a partner in one of London’s premier gaming/gentleman’s clubs – that suddenly re-appears, and we see the cool aloofness slowly disintegrate before the onslaught of the attraction he had felt as a younger man and discovers he still feels, albeit reluctantly.  I think Stella Riley has this sibling relationship between Aristide and Madeline just right. Both are a little bruised because of earlier young love and, although nothing to be ashamed of, both are very aware of their humble beginnings and both wary of letting anyone beneath their self-erected defences. An intriguing pair and therefore the final capitulation to their respective loves is all the more satisfying.

The beautiful and sweet Genevieve who has burst back into Aristide’s life after seven, long, eventful years, is a well-rounded and likeable character who has herself suffered much in the interim years and is therefore extremely vulnerable. In fact, her very vulnerability and sufferings are just what the calmly controlled Aristide needs as a salve to the perceived injustices he believes her responsible for in his past life. But, he is the kind of man who needs to be needed, and Genevieve Westin certainly fits that bill and so he crumbles. It puts me in mind a little of The Mésalliance in which we see Rock lose his legendary ‘cool’. I love these hard to read, mysterious men.

There is a plausible plot running throughout the story which involves most of the main characters but has its roots in Paris and Aristide’s earlier life.  As usual the utterly delectable Rock strolls in and takes centre stage at just the right moments – urbane, and cool-as-cucumber, he steals every scene he is involved in. With just a few carefully selected words designed to defuse, he delivers a set-down, often without the recipient being aware he or she has been insulted. His character is one of Stella Riley’s triumphs and this series is well named because Rock’s unfailing omniscience and his ability to always be in the right place at the right time is something I have come to look forward to with much anticipation in every book, and I’m never disappointed.

Hazard follows on within weeks of the end of The Wicked Cousin. Cassie and Sebastian are back in circulation after their recent honeymoon and are evidently very-much-in-love newlyweds. They run the gauntlet of the usual banter and risqué comments which only close friends can get away with. Sebastian’s wicked and naughty sense of humour is very much in evidence, and this is yet another area in which Stella Riley excels. Her wit and humour are always lurking in the background, adding another dimension to her intriguing characters and expertly researched Georgian world. One feels very much a part of this group of close friends and relatives and, as we near the end of the series, it is going to be sad to say goodbye…but not yet! Ms. Riley is busy writing the final book in the series and I am eagerly looking forward to another lovely Rockliffe, and maybe Ms. Riley will tie off a few loose ends, such as, will Rock get his heir and let Nicholas off the hook?

New readers of Stella Riley’s books may be a little overwhelmed by the amount of characters. This is book five and it could be enjoyed as a stand-alone, but my advice would be to start at the beginning. Trust me, it’s no hardship, as I said in my opening chapter, this series is addictive. Now we must wait for Alex Wyndham to work his magic on Hazard and I believe he is busy in his recording studio as I write this review. How will I find the time to listen? Who needs to do housework etc. when there is a new Wyndham/Riley collaboration in the offing?

MY VERDICT: Another stellar five stars read for me. I might have my favourites in the series, but each book is as well written as the last and I can’t penalise the author for making me prefer one character or storyline over another, and besides which, I love them all!  


REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: SUBTLE


Rockcliffe
series so far (click on the book cover for more details):

The Parfit Knight Volume 1 (Rockcliffe) by Stella Riley The Mésalliance by Stella Riley The Player (Rockliffe, #3) by Stella Riley The Wicked Cousin Volume 4 (Rockliffe) by Stella Riley Hazard by Stella Riley

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The Wicked Cousin - Audio

(Rockliffe, #4)

Genre: Historical Romance (Georgian)

Cover Blurb:

Sebastian Audley has spent years setting every city in Europe by the ears and keeping the scandal-sheets in profit. Word that he is finally returning to London becomes the hottest topic of the Season and casts numerous young ladies – many of whom have never seen him – into a fever of anticipation.

Cassandra Delahaye is not one of them. In her opinion, love affairs and duels, coupled with a reputation for never refusing even the most death-defying wager, suggest that Mr Audley is short of a brain cell or two. And while their first, very unorthodox meeting shows that perhaps he isn’t entirely stupid, it creates other reservations entirely.

Sebastian finds dodging admiring females and living down his reputation for reckless dare-devilry a full-time occupation. He had known that putting the past behind him in a society with an insatiable appetite for scandal and gossip would not be easy. But what he had not expected was to become the target of a former lover’s dangerous obsession … or to find himself falling victim to a pair of storm-cloud eyes.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

The Prologue to The Wicked Cousin, the fourth in Stella Riley’s magnificent Georgian Rockliffe series, is moving and poignant, and sets the scene for the string of events which will forever change Sebastian Audley’s life. As the story unfolds and we learn more about the life of this charismatic character, I fell for him hook, line and sinker.

On a scorching August day in 1757 when he was eight years old, Sebastian Audley’s life changed. And though he didn’t know it, that change was to last for the next thirteen years…

It was the day that a distraught child lost his beloved twin brother, the other half of himself; no one understood his grief. The boys had been inseparable – intuitively knowing each other’s thoughts in a way that only identical twins can. But, in Sebastian’s emotionally underdeveloped child’s mind, he believed he had failed Theo when he needed him the most. Locked in his room, he cried out his despair and felt his brother’s pain… and then…the silence…when he knew that part of him was gone forever and, from that moment on, Sebastian’s charmed, carefree life ended. He blamed himself for living when Theo had died, which was only reinforced by the diatribe hurled at him by his eldest sister, Blanche, who had irrationally never cared for the younger of her twin brothers. Theo’s early and tragic death shaped the way the adults in Sebastian’s life treated him, albeit believing they were keeping him safe. Their actions also impacted on the way he himself behaved for the best part of seven years, after finally escaping the strictures imposed on him by his grief-stricken father – actions that this autocratic man was to come to bitterly regret.

Sebastian’s first acts of defiance – refusing to be ‘chaperoned’ by the local vicar’s son, or to study the subject chosen for him by his father – came when he was finally allowed to leave home to study at Cambridge. Instead, he diligently and quietly applied himself to studying the law, which he saw as a way of eventually becoming independent of his father’s claustrophobic control. He obtained an honours degree but never actually had to practise law because an unexpected, small but adequate bequest from a great-aunt left him financially independent and, more importantly, it freed him from familial restraint. During his time at university, he worked hard, denying himself the fun and frolicking other undergraduates enjoyed. Instead, he discovered a love and quite remarkable talent for the intricacies of chess, which he had once enjoyed playing with his twin. This talent was to serve him well in later years.

As sole heir to his father, Viscount Wingham, Sebastian had to be kept safe for the succession at all costs but, by the time he reached his majority, he was determined to escape the suffocating over protectiveness of his family. After years of compliance, Sebastian about-faced and embarked on an extraordinary catch-up of everything that had previously been denied him; his exploits becoming the talk of London society before he disappeared to the continent to continue his outrageous lifestyle. All the girls he had never kissed or bedded became a part of his new life, and his adrenalin seeking exploits were salaciously reported in the gossip rags. Whatever challenge or wager the rumour mill insisted he had accepted – no matter how ridiculous, or even whether fact or fiction – was avidly reported and devoured by the ton. His notorious reputation, coupled with his lauded and extraordinary good looks, bluer than blue eyes, glorious hair of a rich burgundy/garnet and impressive physique, set him apart from his peers.  Sebastian Audley had become a living legend.

After seven years of self-imposed exile, wandering from place to place, and now desperate to escape the determined pursuit of a spurned lover turned stalker, Sebastian’s nomad life had become intolerable. During the last couple of years on the continent, he had already considerably toned down his behaviour and, with little else to do, his beloved chess became his only real enjoyment in life. Time and practice had honed his skills with remarkable results and, in fact, such a talent never did equate with his rakehell reputation, which was more a few years of madness than a character trait.

Though reluctant to return home to his father’s controlling orbit, he still felt a strong sense of familial duty. In all the years apart, he never stopped loving his father, and without fail made the long and arduous journey home once a year to see him. However, the cruel jibes of his sister, Blanche, whose unreasonable dislike of him has not abated with the years, were the catalyst that always drove him away again. Sebastian hides the hurt she causes him beneath a devil-may-care attitude which only serves to compound her dislike of him. One of the many things I love about Sebastian’s character is that he is an honourable young man who always knew that one day he would return to his responsibilities. However, who could blame him for staying away when his sister is the unmarried matriarch presiding over his ancestral home? Eventually, it is an imperious letter from Blanche informing him that his father has suffered an apoplexy that gives him the excuse he needs to return home for good.

Sebastian arrives home to find his father well on the road to recovery, and after spending some private time together, they finally make their peace; his father admitting to his earlier failures with regard to his son.  Sebastian is still not entirely convinced of his father’s ability to let him run his own life, but I began to warm to the viscount as his obvious pride in his son was rather touching. Whether in spite of or because of his reported escapades I’m not sure.

With his father out of danger and the decision all but made to remain in England, Sebastian decides to go to London in an attempt to convince society that he is a reformed character. There he seeks the help of Adrian Devereux, Earl of Sarre (The Player), the two men having met and become close friends whilst both were exiled on the continent. Adrian proposes a plan in the form of a private wager placed in the betting book of his gaming club. With this in place, Sebastian is protected, at least in the short term, from ridiculous wagers by immature young bucks. His first tentative steps are fraught with pitfalls, especially as he has recently gained the moniker of, The Wicked Cousin, courtesy of Olivia Delahaye, the rather silly younger sister of Cassandra (Cassie), whom we met in previous books as a secondary character. Cassie’s father, a close friend of the Duke of Rockliffe, plays quite a prominent part in this story and I liked his quiet, reasonable character and wise council, especially regarding Sebastian. The familial relationship between the Delahaye’s and Audley’s is tentative but nevertheless one in which Olivia is more than happy to bask in among her bevy of young female friends.

Sebastian’s initial, accidental meeting with Cassie is brimming with misunderstandings and only serves to reinforce her pre-conceived opinion of him as an arrogant, feckless, philanderer whom she could never like. However, after several more encounters, Cassie reluctantly begins to see why he is so popular with and intriguing to the men and women of society; he is witty and amusing but in a kindly, non-mocking way, with no apparent artifice and more importantly, he seems genuinely interested in her as a person. Then, with some simple, sweet gestures, Sebastian has Cassie hooked along with the rest of society and by now she is already half-way in love with him. In Cassie’s experience, she has only ever attracted dull dogs and then only because their mothers think her suitable daughter-in-law material. Never in her wildest dreams does she imagine that her feelings could be returned by this gorgeous young man who could, quite frankly, have his pick.

But they are returned because Sebastian is utterly smitten. He sees – through the eyes of a man in love – the beautiful, captivating and interesting girl that other less discerning suitors have failed to see. From the moment the two acknowledge that they are meant to be together, Cassie is loyal to a fault, refusing to believe anything to Sebastian’s detriment and, when his spurned ex-lover tries to make trouble for him, she fights tooth and nail for him regardless of the opinion of others. Charles and Serena Delahaye are nonplussed by the change in their previously gentle, biddable daughter and, in the words of her father:

“You, Mr. Audley, have turned my lovely girl into a damned Valkyrie.'”

Cassie’s parents have always appreciated her worth, never pressuring her into settling for second best. So, when Sebastian requests permission of her father to pay his addresses to Cassie – with her approval – the astute Charles Delahaye is more than happy, especially as his daughter has never sent a young man to him before. Despite Sebastian’s reputation, Sir Charles has always known there were valid reasons for his past behaviour and has some sympathy for the young man.

The Wicked Cousin is very much a beautifully crafted love story, with interesting and likeable characters. I particularly like the author’s unique way of taking apparently ordinary women and showing us that we all have hidden depths and just need the right man to see them as Sebastian does with Cassie. I adored both of these characters; Cassie is sweet, determined and loyal and Sebastian, kind, protective and with a generosity of spirit one cannot help but be drawn to.  His outward carefree attitude hides a depth of grief for his twin that Cassie sees and understands. I thought Stella Riley rather clever in her pairing of these two – so different and yet so right for each other. Sebastian’s rather naughty sense of humour and Cassie’s whole-hearted acceptance of it is amusing and a little risqué, but not too much, because, true to her style, Ms. Riley allows us just enough to wet our appetite and no more.

The unforgettable Duke of Rockliffe (The Mésalliance) again leads the group of friends that Stella Riley has cultivated and grown since the beginning of the series. They are once more in action as they close ranks to protect one of their own. Amusingly, at one point in the story, ‘the friends’ take the normally calm and collected Rock away to entertain him at the request of their wives to give his wife, Adeline, some respite from his fussing as she awaits the arrival of their first child. When, at last the child arrives, my heart just melted. Imagine the perfectly controlled, formidable Rock as a doting papa; Stella Riley is one of only a few authors who can reduce me to mush, and she always succeeds in one way or another:

…his Grace was walking back and forth by the windows holding a small bundle wrapped in a lacy white shawl…

I was very happy to see the return of Adrian Deveraux, one of my favourite characters in this series. His story is told in The Player, which is one of the best and most intriguingly complex stories I have read in Historical Romance, the genius of which is captured to perfection by Alex Wyndham in his splendid audio performance of the various personas and voices of Adrian. I loved seeing more of Adrian and how his marriage to Caroline, his countess, has progressed, but also how he plays such a pivotal role in helping Sebastian and Cassandra attain their own HEA.

As always, the recording of one of Ms. Riley’s books into audio by her chosen narrator, Alex Wyndham, is a treat worth waiting for. Mr. Wyndham has a unique talent whereby he transforms anything this author writes from wonderful to extraordinary. Actor and author are completely in tune as he interprets her words with perfect precision, sometimes bringing something to my notice I had missed in the reading of it.

Every character is easily distinguishable – male or female, old or young. The male cast of friends has become larger and more complex as the series has progressed, yet this appears to pose no dilemma for Mr. Wyndham, as yet again he manages to pull another voice out of his ever-deepening hat. For instance, this is the first we have heard of Sebastian in the series; his ‘voice’ is perfectly pitched to indicate the light, buoyant, slightly amused and occasionally naughty tones of Sebastian, which I imagined when I first read his story. There are a few occasions where Adrian and Sebastian are in conversation and I wondered how Alex Wyndham would deal with these two equally charismatic characters to my satisfaction. How could I question his ability because he flawlessly delineates between the two men, with never a doubt as to which one is speaking, and, all the time, still retaining the exact voice he used for Adrian in The Player.

I can’t complete my analysis of Mr. Wyndham’s performance without mentioning his superior portrayal of Nicholas Wynstanton, younger brother of the Duke of Roxton. In previous books, this young man has been easy-going and ebullient but now, smitten by a young woman who is resisting his advances, he has become grumpy and short-tempered, whilst still remaining very recognisable as himself. Another thoroughly enjoyable and faultless performance from this supremely talented actor.

This series is really addictive and I’m particularly fond of a saga where we see the return of family and friends in high-profile. These people have become so special to us as readers that we feel invested in their lives. Ms. Riley has done this to such great effect that these men and now their women too, feel like old friends.

Ms. Riley infuses the story with her customary wit and humour and I was particularly entertained by the scene where Sebastian ties up his ex-mistress and cuts off her hair (this scene is captured admirably by Mr. Wyndham, who sounded as though he was enjoying himself immensely).

As is the case with any Stella Riley novel, her research is so impeccable that we can be sure she has it right, whether it is the intricacies of chess or the cut and thrust of a tense and exciting fencing match. I highly recommend Stella Riley’s work to the uninitiated because, in my opinion, she is consistently a 5 star writer and each of her stories is special in its own right. I would recommend starting at the beginning of this series, mainly to gain a perspective and understanding of how Ms. Riley has developed her intriguing group of friends and relatives, and to see how their loves and lives intertwine, but more importantly how they all support one another. However, it isn’t necessary, as each story is unique and different to the previous books in the series.

MY VERDICT: The audio of THE WICKED COUSIN, narrated by Alex Wyndham, is a terrific listen and another worthy addition to the author’s fabulous Rockliffe series. Stella Riley never disappoints, and I always look forward with eager anticipation to a new release and with HAZARD, the next in the series, nearing completion, we won’t have long to wait.

 

REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS
 NARRATION REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

 SENSUALITY RATING: SUBTLE/WARM

 

Rockliffe series so far (click on the book covers for more details):

The Parfit Knight Volume 1 (Rockcliffe) by Stella Riley The Mésalliance by Stella Riley The Player (Rockliffe, #3) by Stella Riley The Wicked Cousin (Rockliffe) (Volume 4) by Stella Riley

 

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The Wicked Cousin

(Rockliffe, #4)

Genre: Historical Romance (Georgian)

Cover Blurb:

Sebastian Audley has spent years setting every city in Europe by the ears and keeping the scandal-sheets in profit. Word that he is finally returning to London becomes the hottest topic of the Season and casts numerous young ladies – many of whom have never seen him – into a fever of anticipation.

Cassandra Delahaye is not one of them. In her opinion, love affairs and duels, coupled with a reputation for never refusing even the most death-defying wager, suggest that Mr Audley is short of a brain cell or two. And while their first, very unorthodox meeting shows that perhaps he isn’t entirely stupid, it creates other reservations entirely.

Sebastian finds dodging admiring females and living down his reputation for reckless dare-devilry a full-time occupation. He had known that putting the past behind him in a society with an insatiable appetite for scandal and gossip would not be easy. But what he had not expected was to become the target of a former lover’s dangerous obsession … or to find himself falling victim to a pair of storm-cloud eyes.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

I absolutely love Stella Riley’s Rockliffe series and THE WICKED COUSIN is another wonderful addition to the series.  At its heart is a gentle, heart-warming, funny and beautifully written, traditional love story.

Ms. Riley drew me into the story from the first page with a powerful and heart-breaking Prologue. I could feel the eight-year-old Sebastian’s intense feelings of pain, guilt, anger and bewilderment, following the loss of his beloved twin brother, Theo. His family do not realise just how deeply he has been affected, that, for Sebastian, it was like losing the other half of himself. As the only remaining heir, his father takes every precaution to keep Sebastian safe, wrapping him in a cocoon of overprotectiveness for the next thirteen years. Even at university, where Sebastian hoped to enjoy freedom for the first time, he couldn’t escape his father’s control entirely. So, when the opportunity finally arises, I could perfectly understand Sebastian’s desire to ‘kick over the traces’ and enjoy all the things he had been denied.

The Honourable Mr Audley didn’t give a damn about the gossip and rumours or what anyone said.  After thirteen years in the cage he was entitled to enjoy his freedom and do what the hell he liked.
So he did.

In the next few years, he cuts a swathe across Europe and the gossip sheets eagerly report his daredevil exploits and success with the ladies. However, when he receives a curt letter from his eldest sister, Blanche, advising him that his father has suffered an apoplexy, he is ready to return home as his life of excess had started to pall some time ago. Now he is back in England, Sebastian hopes to live down his reputation with some help from his good friend, Adrian Devereux, Earl of Sarre (The Player).

Despite everything, Sebastian still loves his father and makes annual trips home hoping that his father’s attitude might change, but it never does. He is also subjected to Blanche’s bitter and cruel words which still have the power to hurt, and his trips home over the years have always been brief ones. When Sebastian finally returns home, I was touched by the scene where his father admits that he had only himself to blame for his son’s actions and I liked that they made tentative steps towards a reconciliation. I also enjoyed seeing Sebastian’s interactions with the other members of his family and couldn’t help feeling satisfaction when he took his subtle revenge on his hateful sister, Blanche.

Cassandra (Cassie) Delahaye, the eldest daughter of Sir Charles Delahaye, has always been the perfect daughter; biddable, gentle and demure. Among the ton, she is considered a lady of ‘impeccable behaviour and perfect propriety’ – just the perfect daughter-in-law for all those matching-making mothers with marriageable sons. However, Cassie seems to attract nothing but mild-mannered, dull suitors whom she is constantly having to reject in a kindly way. Her younger sister, Olivia, has been constantly bombarding Cassie with all the latest gossip regarding ‘Wicked Cousin’ (a very distant relative) Sebastian’s exploits abroad, and is in a flurry of anticipation because of his return to London.  Cassie, however, is not at all impressed:

‘If you ask me, all those duels and love-affairs and ridiculous wagers make him sound like an idiot.

Sebastian and Cassie are such engaging characters and watching them falling in love was just delightful. I enjoyed the animated exchanges between them in their unconventional, first meeting, which only serves to confirm Cassie’s opinion of Sebastian as both arrogant and conceited, but she is not completely unaffected by the experience…

As for the interlude in the library … it had been the most peculiar, alarming and exhilarating half-hour of her life and she still didn’t know what to make of it.

As they meet at various functions, Cassie finds Sebastian dangerously easy to like with his charm, intelligence and humour. She also notices his kindness in dancing with Harry Caversham’s cousin, Henrietta, who is in her third season and so often left on the side-lines with the chaperones…not to mention his smile which makes her nerve-ends tingle. Sebastian realises how much he has come to like Cassie and enjoy her company and, unlike the other men, he sees the real Cassie, a lovely, intelligent and witty young woman. It isn’t long before they are both smitten and there is a very moving scene at Theo’s graveside where Sebastian talks about his feelings for Cassie.

She makes me want the things that are meant to go with it; things I’ve never wanted before.  Love, I suppose – though I know damn all about it. All I do know is that I’ve got this all-encompassing sense that she’s mine but nobody knows it, not even her. How stupid is that?’

There is drama in the form of Sebastian’s venomous, former mistress, who has become obsessed with the idea that he still wants her, and a scandalous accusation made against Sebastian. I love how Cassie believes in Sebastian in spite of what the rumours say and is a veritable Valkyrie in her defence of him. I also like how Sebastian is open and honest with Cassie and there are no secrets or misunderstandings between them.

Families are often portrayed as dysfunctional in historic romances and it was refreshing to see such a loving family like the Delahayes. I really like Cassie’s father because he appreciates his daughter’s worth and wants her to marry the man of her choice. He also understands that Sebastian had valid reasons for his wild behaviour and is ready to believe that he can put his past behind him. He is also astute enough to realise the significance of Sebastian being the first man that Cassie has ever sent to him to ask for leave to court her.

One of the joys of reading this series is seeing the characters from the previous books. The wonderful camaraderie and easy rapport between the Rockliffe circle of family and friends always produces some delightful scenes, memorable moments, and witty banter. Among my favourite moments are:

  • Adrian, usually the epitome of sartorial elegance, having to meet his wife’s grandfather for the first time, looking as though he’d been rolling in a ditch.
  • Adrian’s wife, Caroline, giving her odious mother-in-law a well-deserved set-down.
  • The normally sophisticated Rockliffe with his baby daughter dozing contentedly in the crook of his arm.

I am also intrigued by the situation between Nicholas Wynstanton (Rockliffe’s younger brother) and Madeline Delacroix ( Aristide’s sister) and I hope their story is next.

I like how Ms. Riley gives the reader snippets of information which, on the surface, seem unimportant but only later in the story does their relevance become significant.

MY VERDICT: Another beautifully written story from Stella Riley. VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

 

Rockliffe series so far (click on the book covers for more details):

The Parfit Knight Volume 1 (Rockcliffe) by Stella Riley The Mésalliance by Stella Riley The Player (Rockliffe, #3) by Stella Riley The Wicked Cousin (Rockliffe) (Volume 4) by Stella Riley

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the-player-audio

(Rockliffe, #3)

Genre: Historical Romance (Georgian)

Cover Blurb:

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):

The Parfit Knight Volume 1 (Rockcliffe) by Stella Riley The Mésalliance Volume 2 (Rockliffe) by Stella Riley The Player (Rockliffe, #3) by Stella Riley

**I received a free download of this audiobook from the author in return for an honest review**

 

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