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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 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.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

The Prologue to THE WICKED COUSIN, the fourth book in Stella Riley’s magnificent Georgian Rockliffe series is, without doubt, one the most poignant I have ever read. I defy any reader not to be deeply moved or fail to be intrigued by the opening, captivating sentences and, as the story unfolds and we learn more about the life of her charismatic character (who is more sinned against than sinning), not to fall hook, line and sinker in love with Sebastian Audley.

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 not only his twin, but his beloved brother; the other half of himself. No one understood his grief. The boys were two halves of a whole, knowing each other’s thoughts in the intuitive way that only twins can. In Sebastian’s emotionally underdeveloped child’s mind, he believed that he was failing Theo at a time when he needed him the most. Locked in his room, he could only cry out his despair and feel his brother’s pain…. and then…. the dreaded silence… when he knew that part of him was gone forever. It was also the time that Sebastian’s charmed, carefree life ended; the time when he began blaming himself for being alive when Theo was dead; a conviction reinforced by the diatribe hurled at him by his eldest sister, who had irrationally never cared for the younger of her twin brothers. Theo’s early and tragic death shaped the way the adults in his life treated him, albeit believing they were keeping him safe, but worse still, ultimately because of their actions, the way he himself behaved for the best part of seven years after finally escaping from his cotton wool straight jacket. They were actions that his autocratic but grief-stricken father was to come to bitterly regret.

Sebastian’s first acts of defiance came when he was finally allowed to leave to study at Cambridge, refusing to be ‘chaperoned ‘ by the local vicar’s son or to study the subject chosen for him by his father. Instead, he diligently and quietly applied himself to studying law which he saw as a way of eventually becoming independent of his father’s claustrophobic control. Although he obtained an honours degree in law, he never had to take up a profession because an unexpected bequest from a Great-Aunt made him independently secure. During his time at university, he did not indulge in the fun and frolicking other undergraduates enjoyed, but did re-discover a love and quite remarkable talent for the intricacies of chess, which he had once enjoyed playing with his twin. This talent would serve him well later in life.

As sole heir to his father, Viscount Wingham, Sebastian had to be kept safe at all costs and, by the time he reached his majority, he was more than ready to escape the suffocating over protectiveness of his family. After his years of sobriety, he was eager to face the world head on, firstly by setting London alight with his outrageous exploits and then disappearing to the continent to further kick over the traces of his years of solemnity. All the girls he had never kissed or bedded became a part of his life, his adrenalin seeking exploits becoming legendary, and salaciously reported in the gossip rags. Whatever the rumour mill insisted he had done – no matter how ridiculous, or even whether it was 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 colour and impressive physique set him apart from his peers.

After seven years of self-imposed exile, wandering from place to place and with a desperate need to escape from the determined pursuit of a spurned lover turned stalker, Sebastian’s nomad life had become intolerable. In the latter couple of years on the continent he had already toned down his behaviour and with little else to do, his beloved chess became his only real enjoyment in life. With time and practice he honed his skills with remarkable results. Later in the story we learn just how remarkable – in fact, such a talent never really did sit well with his rakehell reputation which was more a few years of madness than a character trait; his outrageous behaviour born out of a need to be free. Reluctant to come back into the controlling orbit of his father, he nevertheless has a strong sense of familial duty, and one of the many things I liked about Sebastian is that he is a loveable and honourable young man who knew that one day he would return for good to his responsibilities.

In all the years apart, he has never stopped loving his father and, without fail, he annually made the long and arduous journey home for a short stay, mainly driven away again by the cruel jibes of his eldest sister, Blanche, whose dislike of him has not abated. He tries to hide the hurt she intentionally causes with a couldn’t-care-less attitude, but this only compounds her dislike of him. Is it any wonder he never wishes to remain long in his ancestral home when she is the unmarried matriarch residing over it? Ironically, it is a letter from Blanche informing him that his father has suffered an apoplexy that gives him a reason to return home for good.

After a long and arduous journey, he arrives home to find his father well on the road to recovery and, after spending some private time together, they finally make their peace. Maybe it was his brush with death that finally opened the viscount’s eyes to his mistakes regarding Sebastian. Whatever the reason, he admits to his son that he should have treated him differently and acknowledges that he clipped his wings. However, Sebastian is still not entirely convinced of his father’s ability to let him run his own life. I found the viscount’s pride in his son rather touching, whether despite of, or maybe because of his reported escapades, I’m not sure.

Sebastian decides to go to London to attempt to repair some of the damage to his reputation and convince society that he is a reformed character. There, he seeks the help of Adrian Devereux, Earl of Sarre (The Player), the pair having met and become firm friends whilst both were exiled on the continent. Adrian proposes a plan in the form of a private wager which sets out to protect and ease Sebastian back into society in a civilised manner. With this secret wager in place he is protected from further ridiculous challenges by silly young bucks. Sebastian’s first tentative steps are fraught with pitfalls, including the fact that he has been given the nickname, 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. Cassandra’s father, a close friend of the Duke of Rockliffe, plays quite a big part in this story and I admired 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

Sebastian’s initial, accidental meeting with Cassie is less than auspicious 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 formal encounters, Cassie reluctantly begins to see why he is so popular and intriguing to the men and women of society; he’s witty and amusing but in a kindly, non-mocking way with no apparent artifice and seems genuinely interested in her as a person. Then he seals her approval with some simple but honest gestures and, whether she realises it or not, she is already half way in love with him – and who could blame her? So was I! She is flustered by her own reaction, never in her wildest dreams imagining that her feelings could ever be returned; in her experience, she’s only ever attracts dull dogs – whose mothers like her for goodness sake!

But they ARE returned. For his part, Sebastian is utterly smitten. He sees the beautiful, captivating and interesting girl that other foolish suitors have failed to appreciate and releases the butterfly from her chrysalis, transforming a previously – on the surface at least – sweet but unexceptional girl into the attractive and desirable young woman he has seen almost from the beginning.  Charles and Serena Delahaye do not recognise their daughter as she turns from gentle doe to protective tigress in defence of her man….in the words of her father – ‘You, Mr. Audley, have turned my lovely girl into a damned Valkyrie.” I just loved that statement! From the moment the two admit that they are meant to be together, Cassie refuses to believe anything derogatory about Sebastian and, when his spurned lover tries to make trouble on more than one occasion, Cassie fights tooth and nail for him.

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 with her choice, especially given that his daughter has never sent a young man to him before and must therefore be ‘in love’ at last. Despite Sebastian’s reputation, Sir Charles has always known there are valid reasons behind his behaviour and has some sympathy for the young man.

THE WICKED COUSIN is very much a character driven, beautifully crafted love story, with interesting and loveable characters. Their love story plays out in the most wonderfully romantic way. 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 these characters; Cassie with her sweetness, determination and loyalty and Sebastian with his kindness, protectiveness and generosity of spirit. Cassie sees beyond Sebastian’s carefree attitude to the still damaged, grieving little boy inside. It’s particularly warming to see Sebastian’s unconditional love bringing Cassie to the peak of her beauty. 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 grown and cultivated 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, they take the normally calm and collected Rock away to entertain him, mainly 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. And when at last the child arrives – my heart just melted! Just imagining 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:

Mr. Audley handed his card to the Duke of Rockliffe’s butler and after a short wait, was shown into the drawing room where his Grace was walking back and forth by the windows holding a small bundle wrapped in a lacy white shawl while the duchess was engaged in pouring tea.

I was also thrilled to see the return of Adrian Deveraux, arguably my favourite character in this series. His story is told in The Player which is, in my opinion, one of the best and most intriguingly complex stories in the genre. I loved seeing a little more of how his story and marriage to Caroline, his countess, has progressed.

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 all become so special to us as readers THAT we feel invested in their lives. Ms. Riley has done this to great effect making these men and now their women too, feel like old friends.  My imagination has been stirred further by the prospect of another book in the series. I have come to know Ms. Riley’s little foibles; she tells us the story in its entirety – so no worries there, as each story stands on its own – but she always gives us a clue as to whose book might come next. I hope it’s Rock’s younger brother, Nicholas Wynstanton, the only unmarried member of his select group, and hopefully his courtship of Madeleine Delacroix, Aristide’s prickly sister. And while we’re on the subject Ms. Riley – please don’t forget Aristide.

As 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. In addition, her blending of fact and fiction is so seamlessly done that the lines invisible.

If you haven’t already read any of Stella Riley’s work, then I recommend that you do. She is consistently a 5-star writer in my opinion and each story she writes is special in its own right.  I would advise starting at the beginning of the series, mainly to gain a perspective and understanding of how she has developed her intriguing group of friends and relatives, and to see how their loves and lives interweave, 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 WICKED COUSIN is just wonderful, with a fabulous cast of characters, good and bad as is usual with this author. She always injects some wit and humour into her novels and the scene where Sebastian ties up his ex-mistress and cuts her hair was particularly entertaining! Stella Riley never disappoints and I always look forward with eager anticipation to a new releaseHIGHLY 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 (Rockliffe) (Volume 2) by Stella Riley The Player (Rockliffe, #3) by Stella Riley The Wicked Cousin (Rockcliffe, #4) by Stella Riley

 

**I received a complimentary copy of the book from the author in return for an honest review**

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A Splendid Defiance - audio

Genre: Romantic Historical Fiction (English Civil War, 1644-1646)

Cover Blurb:

Justin Ambrose, dashing cavalier and close companion to Prince Rupert, was bored with life in the Royalist garrison in Banbury, until he met the sister of a local merchant. Famous for his romantic conquests, Justin had never before let a woman touch his heart.

But Abby was no ordinary woman. She was beautiful and she was brave. She was also young and terrified of her brother, a religious fanatic and self-sworn enemy of all Royalists.

When the rebel army unleashed its might on the castle, Justin fought tirelessly to break the siege. But even his closest friends did not know what tormented him. And Abby, as she sat with the rebel commanders at her brother’s table, dreamed of a man she could not, must not love…

♥♥♥♥♥♥

It’s fair to say that I’m a huge fan of Stella Riley. She can do no wrong in my eyes and I’m running out of superlatives to adequately describe or do justice to her writing. Nevertheless, I will try my best to initiate new readers/listeners and show what an absolute treat they have in store with this superbly performed version of A SPLENDID DEFIANCE.

If you are an historical fiction or historical romance fan, then you must read or listen to Stella Riley’s work, and a good place to start is A Splendid Defiance. It was this story and another of the author’s books, The Marigold Chain, that initially piqued my interest in this turbulent period in England’s history. Both books are superbly researched, standalone stories and each is eminently enjoyable. I couldn’t imagine improving on my enjoyment of the original print version of A Splendid Defiance but, by employing the superbly talented actor, Alex Wyndham, to narrate her powerful story, Ms. Riley has done just that. Mr. Wyndham brings her exciting, historically accurate, wonderfully romantic, feast of a book to multi-dimensional life.

Captain Justin Ambrose has been banished following an ill-advised comment he made about one of the King’s favourites, which unfortunately reached that officer’s ears. Justin is now moodily kicking his heels at the Royalist controlled garrison of Banbury Castle in Oxfordshire, apparently indefinitely. A career soldier of considerable experience, he has earned a formidable reputation and naturally feels resentful at being stuck in the Puritan backwater of Banbury. His generally acerbic and sarcastic tongue is even more prominent as the prolonged inactivity begins to take its toll on his temper.

Abigail Radford (Abby) is a young, sweet and innocent seventeen-year-old when this story begins. She lives and works, along with her mother, younger brother, Sam, and sister-in-law, Rachel, in the home and drapery shop of her elder brother, Jonas. But this is no happy household, for Jonas is an autocratic, over-bearing bully of a man, whose hatred of the Cavaliers at the castle is topped only by his religious fanaticism.

Justin is a man of integrity, honesty and honour and a Royalist to the core. Completely dedicated to his King and cause, there is no room in his life for love and marriage. In his first encounter with Abby – during which he saves her from being ravished by a couple of his subordinates – he doesn’t even see her as more than a terrified girl. It takes several more encounters before he even remembers her and then only fleetingly. It takes several more unplanned meetings before he notices that, beneath the extreme plain clothing and, unflattering white cap, there is a rather sweet and attractive young woman. Any possible developing of interest on Justin’s part – for Abby is already clumsy and tongue-tied in his presence – is further delayed by the arrival of a large Roundhead contingent, the senior officers of which take up residence at the home of Jonas, being the most prominent Banbury citizen and the first siege of the castle begins.

I admire the way Stella Riley grows her love stories in all her novels, but particularly in this one, where it is understated and plausible and entirely in keeping with unfolding events. The historical aspect of the story is all important; Banbury castle was a strategic holding and central to the Royalist cause. Three hundred and fifty men held Banbury castle against almost impossible odds, nearly starving in the process.

After the first siege is over, the Parliamentarians ousted, and on the run after Royalist re-enforcements arrive, the Garrison can breathe again and life returns to some semblance of order. Ms. Riley then continues to develop the interaction and slowly growing attraction between Justin and Abigail, throwing them together in various situations which further advances their apparently ill-fated friendship. For how can two people on opposing sides of a civil war ever have a chance at mutual happiness?

Justin is a multi-layered character with many deep, dark secrets; even his closest friends know little about him, other than he has a well-deserved reputation with the ladies. He is such a believable character, especially when you find yourself getting cross with him because he’s given Abby an undeserved tongue lashing, upsetting her to the point that it feels as if he’s kicked a puppy. But then, conversely, you find yourself going all gooey over him when he’s being particularly charming – and my goodness, he can certainly turn it on when he chooses!  Then it’s clear to see what a terrific job Stella Riley has done in bringing us the very memorable Captain Justin Ambrose because he’s gorgeous – seriously flawed -but still gorgeous, and we love and castigate him in turns.

Abby’s character grows over the course of the story from a timid Puritan to an attractive young woman with a lot more oomph than she had to begin with. Justin sets out initially – not entirely altruistically – to help her stand up to and defy his nemesis, the odious Jonas. In the end, however, he is hoist with his own petard as he finds himself drawn more and more to her quiet, unassuming and undemanding presence. Eventually, Justin realises that she is the only person in his life who has ever cared for him or gives a damn what happens to him, and refreshingly requiring nothing from him in return. Their eventual acceptance of the love between them is heart-warmingly tender and all the better for the waiting. As is the norm with Stella Riley, she doesn’t need to resort to explicit love scenes. Instead, sensuality and tenderness is the order of the day, and I was left with a warm glow as she found a way to bring these two lovely characters together against all of the odds.

As usual, Alex Wyndham’s performance is stupendous. There are few performers who could tackle such a varied and wide cast of characters and fool the listener into feeling as if they are listening to a rather superior radio play, rather than one man’s narrative of a story. Obviously, as this is a story set in war time, it is top heavy with a large cast of men who are often in a multi-character conversation. This holds no difficulty for Mr. Wyndham who switches between a variety of accents, tones and timbres, giving each character a distinct interpretation. Artistically, his performance is faultless, and there is really nothing I could criticise in his portrayal of Stella Riley’s fabulous cast of characters, male or female. While listening to his performance, I discovered that Alex Wyndham has another interesting addition to his repertoire…a very pleasing, rich baritone singing voice. Rarely have I experienced a voice actor/narrator able to perform in this way and certainly none so well.

MY VERDICT: I cannot recommend this audio book highly enough because it has everything that I look for in an historical romance; living, breathing people and so well does Stella Riley blend her fictitious and non-fictitious characters, that it is impossible to see the seams; atmospheric, superbly researched historical content and spine tingling romance. A SPLENDID DEFIANCE is a Stellar 5 stars for both content and narration and another winner for this phenomenal writer/narrator team. 


REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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a-splendid-defiance

Genre: Romantic Historical Fiction (English Civil War, 1644-1646)

Cover Blurb:

Justin Ambrose, dashing cavalier and close companion to Prince Rupert, was bored with life in the Royalist garrison in Banbury, until he met the sister of a local merchant. Famous for his romantic conquests, Justin had never before let a woman touch his heart.

But Abby was no ordinary woman. She was beautiful and she was brave. She was also young and terrified of her brother, a religious fanatic and self-sworn enemy of all Royalists.

When the rebel army unleashed its might on the castle, Justin fought tirelessly to break the siege. But even his closest friends did not know what tormented him. And Abby, as she sat with the rebel commanders at her brother’s table, dreamed of a man she could not, must not love…

♥♥♥♥♥♥

Since reading her fabulous Rockliffe series, Stella Riley has become one of my top favourite authors and it’s no surprise that I was eager to read more of her books.

In A Splendid Defiance, set during The English Civil War between the Royalists (Cavaliers) and the Parliamentarians (Roundheads), Ms. Riley weaves a wonderful story of love blossoming between a sarcastic, cynical Royalist captain and a young, innocent Puritan girl.

The story takes place in the town of Banbury in Oxfordshire where, while the town itself overwhelmingly supports the Parliamentarians, Banbury Castle is held by a small garrison of 360 Royalists, including Captain Justin Ambrose. One of Prince Rupert’s top cavalry officers, Justin has been ‘exiled’ to Banbury Castle as punishment for criticising a Royal favourite. He deeply resents not being in the thick of the action, which often makes him short-tempered and sarcastic.

The war was being won or lost elsewhere while Justin dealt in bread and coin and barrels of powder; a merchant, a carrier and sometimes a thief –but only infrequently a soldier.

However, he’s also honourable, loyal and trustworthy with a deep sense of duty. Secretive about his past,  it becomes evident, during the course of the story, that something happened that hurt him deeply.

Abigail (Abby) Radford lives a joyless existence.  Every aspect of her life is controlled by her fanatically religious older brother, Jonas, even to choosing the man she will marry – a man who makes her skin crawl.  She is constantly criticised and lectured by Jonas’ overbearing wife, Rachel

‘Well?  What are you waiting for?  There’s the table to be set for supper and Betty to be watched if she is not to burn the meat.  Do I have to tell you everything?’

Her only friend is her younger brother, Samuel (Sam) who has always been her closest companion.

I love how Ms. Riley takes the time to build the romance between Justin and Abigail showing the gradual changes in their relationship and making their falling in love seem natural and believable. There is no great spark when they first meet; Justin treats her with polite indifference and Abigail has no wish to linger with this shameless Cavalier. Gradually an unlikely friendship develops between them and they meet secretly once a week.  I like how they talk and enjoy each other’s company but there is a growing sense that this is more than just friendship and I could feel the deep attraction and growing sexual tension between them.

Initially, Justin’s motive is to encourage Abigail in small acts of defiance against Jonas whom he dislikes intensely but…

…their Tuesdays had become a part of his life –a part he looked forward to –and he didn’t want them to end.

Strong emotions have never been part of his life, but he finds he has a compulsion to protect Abigail and the thought of her being hurt by her bully of a brother is unbearable.

In her earlier meetings with Justin, Abigail sees beyond the irascibility and cursing to a man who is kind, trustworthy and makes her feel safe.  He is also attractive, witty and very sexy, a combination any woman would find hard to resist.

He was attractive and dangerous and he had the power to completely shatter her peace of mind.

It’s a journey of self-discovery for both of them. Justin shows Abigail a world beyond the rigid confines of a life controlled by her brother and gives her the courage to defy him and pursue her own life. Even if she never experiences it again, she has known what love feels like.

Abigail has given Justin – the kind of peace and warmth he had not known in twenty years and had not thought he needed. But she had shown him the myth of that.

It is difficult to see how they can ever find happiness when so much conspires against them -the war and its aftermath, Jonas’ religious zeal and a dark secret from Jonas’ past that threatens Abigail’s life. There is a heart-breaking scene where it seems that their happiness hangs in the balance until Justin realises…

However honourable, sensible or right, he could not bring himself to part with the only good thing life had brought him in a decade; a warm, beautiful girl who, incredibly it seemed, wanted nothing but him and who he loved beyond anything he had ever imagined.

This is a wonderful blend of history and romance and Ms. Riley’s extensive research is evident in the realism she brings to the story. I felt as if I was there in Banbury, experiencing the emotions of the townspeople and what it was like to be one of the defenders in the besieged castle.

Fire-hooks and buckets!’ he yelled.  ‘If the next one hits, it could –’
‘I know.’  Justin gestured curtly to where his troopers were already drenching the thatch of the outbuildings.  ‘But I’ll wager a bottle of claret that the next one is –’ His words were drowned by a whining crescendo that culminated in a deafening, earth-shaking blast.

Many of the secondary characters really existed but the fictional characters are so well drawn that it was difficult to distinguish the real from the fictional.

MY VERDICT: A beautifully written romance with fascinating characters and an engrossing story, rich in historical details. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

 

REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

 

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Wendy and I have discussed how we should go about producing our ‘best of’ list for 2016 and settled on ten but we have each bent the rules a little by including some series. Not all the books selected were actually published during 2016.


CAROL’S SELECTION (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER)

Rockliffe series by Stella Riley

I was introduced to Stella Riley’s books by my friend and guest reviewer, Wendy Loveridge, and Stella has fast become one of my top favourite authors. I read the first three books in the Georgian set Rockliffe series (a fourth is a work in progress) during 2016 but it was impossible to choose just one book in the series for my list because I loved them all.

The Parfit Knight (Rockliffe, #1)
the-parfit-knight-list
This is a captivating romance between an honourable, kind-hearted rake, the Marquis of Amberley and a lovely, courageous, blind young woman, Rosalind

The romance between Rosalind and Amberley is so beautifully written and I could see how perfect they are for each other and watching Rosalind blossom under Amberley’s influence was one of the highlights of the book for me. I defy you not to fall in love with Amberley just as Rosalind does. One of my favourite scenes is where Amberley teaches Rosalind to dance and realises he has fallen in love with her. Inevitably, the course of true love does not run smoothly as past secrets, misconceptions, a malicious schemer and Rosalind’s implacable brother threaten their happiness. I feel that Ms. Riley resolved the conflict in a most satisfactory way and it was so refreshing to see a heroine willing to love the hero regardless of past tragic events. I am really impressed with Ms. Riley’s writing whether it is her wonderful descriptive flair, her ability to convey real emotion or the moments of humour.

This is the book that set me on the road to being a huge Stella Riley fan.

The Mésalliance (Rockliffe, #2) – Audiobook
the-mesalliance-audio
This lovely and deeply emotional romance tells the story of a marriage of convenience between the handsome, elegant, sophisticated Duke of Rockliffe (Rock) and the totally unsuitable, acid-tongued Adeline Kendrick.

Rock’s desire to win Adeline’s love, his protectiveness, patience and consideration, all make him such a gorgeous hero. These two are perfect for each other which makes it all the more heart-breaking to see their marriage slowly deteriorate beneath the weight of Adeline’s secrets and her unwillingness to trust and confide in Rock. The scenes between Rock and Adeline are so powerfully written and Ms. Riley captures all the raw emotions of anger, fear, hurt and frustration. The scene where everything finally comes to a head was a real tour-de-force and seeing the normally unflappable Rock completely lose his control is definitely the highlight of the book for me.

Narration: I felt as if I was listening to a radio play performed by several actors instead of just one person because Alex Wyndham gives each character such a distinctive and easily identifiable voice and listening to his superb performance definitely enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

Ms Riley weaves an intricate and compelling story which Alex Wyndham brings superbly to life.

The Player (Rockliffe, #3) – Audiobook
the-player-audio
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. In The Player, the identity of ‘L’Inconnu’ is revealed as 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 wonderfully complex character. I understood his feelings of anger and hurt towards the family who basically disowned him, and over the years, he has played so many different roles that he no longer knows who he really is. 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.

Narration: Just reading this book is an absolute pleasure, but listening to the audiobook narrated by the sublimely talented Alex Wyndham takes that 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.

Stella Riley’s brilliant storytelling combined with Alex Wyndham’s superb narration is sheer magic!

The Perfect Rake by Anne Gracie
the-perfect-rake
This is my first book by Anne Gracie and I will certainly be dipping into more of her books, based on how much I loved it. It’s romantic, funny and full of characters who totally captured my heart. There are some darker moments, but they never overshadow the lovely, heart-warming feeling I had after finishing it.

Oh, Gideon is such a wonderful hero. Wickedly charming, amiable and flirtatious, he hides a vulnerable heart beneath his frivolous rakishness and it was refreshing to see Gideon falling hopelessly in love first and being open and honest about his feelings for Prudence. Reading about the abuse Prudence and her four sisters suffered at the hands of their grandfather, a bitter, hate-filled old man, is chilling and discovering the extent of his cruelty towards Prudence is truly heart-rending. I love the humour which runs throughout the story and acts as a counterpoint to the darker moments.

A lovely gem of a book!

A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant
a-lady-awakened
This was Cecilia’s Grant’s debut novel in 2011 and, while the premise bears similarities to other books I have read, it is Ms Grant’s unique voice and wonderfully flawed and interesting characters that make this book exceptional.

What I love about this book is the understated way in which Ms. Grant builds the relationship between these two complete opposites. Theo is charming, funny and good-natured while Martha is serious, stubborn, and highly principled. Their ‘afternoon appointments’ are awkward and totally unsexy but, as an unlikely friendship slowly turns into affection, admiration and finally love, Ms. Grant cleverly shows their evolving relationship through subtle changes in their sexual encounters. I also like how the secondary characters add depth to the story and highlight the ways in which Theo and Martha grow and change during of the story.

I’m currently reading, A Gentleman Undone, the second book in this series, and it is just as original and engrossing.

The Hunter by Kerrigan Byrne
the-hunter
I love an author who is willing to push the established boundaries of historical romance and Kerrigan Bryne does this in her Victorian Rebels series with her dark, gritty, compelling stories and dangerous, tormented anti-heroes. Although I read both The Highwayman and The Hunter during the year and loved both books, there is just something that drew me to Christopher Argent, the cold, ruthless assassin in The Hunter.

I started this book with doubts that Ms. Byrne could make me sympathetic towards a stone-hearted killer like Christopher but, from the moment I finished reading the powerful and gut-wrenching Prologue, my heart ached for the young Christopher. No-one could endure everything he did and retain any shred of humanity. Meeting Millie has him confused and unable to understand what is happening to him because, until now, he has cut himself off from all human emotions. Watching him struggle with his newly discovered feelings was so compelling.  I like how Ms. Byrne doesn’t try to redeem Christopher, because nothing could ever erase his past deeds, but rather offers him a chance to be a better man and use his skills as a force for good.

If you enjoy reading something compelling and intense with a suspenseful plot, fascinating characters and a darkly emotional romance, then I can highly recommend The Hunter.

The Earl Takes All by Lorraine Heath
the-earl-takes-all
I have been a huge Lorraine Heath for many years and she never disappoints and once again, she enchanted me with this beautifully written and deeply emotional love story. It takes an exceptional writer to make such a challenging and potentially unpopular plot line work and, although I know some readers might disagree, I think she does it brilliantly. For me, the success of this book hinged on Ms Heath’s ability to make me see Edward as a worthy hero and Julia’s words to her daughter seemed to echo my thoughts precisely.

“Do you know what I think, Allie? I think the weasel— who is supposed to be the villain of our tale— may just turn out to be the hero.”  (the weasel reference makes sense when you read the book)

Slowly but surely, Ms. Heath reveals Edward to be an honourable, responsible, compassionate and caring man. Seeing him so gentle and tender with his little niece just melted my heart. The moment Julia discovers Edward’s deception is all the more heart-breaking because the changes Julia has seen in her ‘husband’ since his return makes her falling more deeply in love with him. Ms. Heath writes with such emotional intensity that I felt her pain and, at this point, I couldn’t see any way that their relationship could ever be salvaged but Ms. Heath gradually brings them back together again. There is still one apparently insurmountable obstacle to overcome, but I found that Ms. Heath’s note at the end of the book, in which she highlights her research into this aspect, not only provided some interesting historical background but also a believable path to Edward and Julia’s Happy Ever After.

A complex, captivating and beautiful love story that I can highly recommend.

Marrying Winterborne by Lisa Kleypas
marrying-winterborne
After being somewhat disappointed by Cold-Hearted Rake, I loved this book! It reminds me in so many ways of Lisa Kleypas’ wonderful Wallflowers and Hathaways series.

Helen is so much like Evie in The Devil in Winter. At first, she appears sweet and shy but soon reveals an inner strength and I love how she is more than a match for Rhys in her own quiet, determined way.  Ms. Kleypas writes some of the dreamiest self-made heroes in Historical Romance and I’m adding Rhys Winterborne to that illustrious list. I love how, from the moment he meets Helen, this big, arrogant, ruthless Welshman is totally crazy about her and complete putty in her hands. He is surprisingly romantic and I love the way he treats Helen with total adoration, woos her and shows such tenderness and caring. I enjoyed all the smaller details we discover, like Helen’s love of orchids and Rhys’s love of peppermint creams and, living in Wales, I adore the Welsh endearments Rhys uses like “Cariad” and “Bychan” and, being English, I appreciated the glossary provided in the Author’s Note. There is a wonderful cast of secondary characters who enrich the story and are all deserving of their own stories.

Ms Kleypas seems to have recaptured her old magic with this captivating, romantic and passionate love story.

The Luckiest Lady in London by Sherry Thomas
the-luckiest-lady-in-london
My first book by Sherry Thomas, this is beautifully written with layered, complex characters and real emotional pull.

The passion between these two fairly leaps off the page and I love the witty and often risqué banter which only serves to heighten the sexual tension and Ms. Thomas is brilliant at creating the most erotic moments without sex ever taking place.  The emotional journey Felix and Louisa travel and the difficulties they overcome kept me turning the pages but Felix is the one who undergoes the most significant changes. His fear of emotional involvement and losing control lead him to act like a complete jackass towards Louisa, understandably earning her distrust. Knowing he loves her, Felix is desperate to win her back and I love the epiphany moment when he realises that the entire aim of his adult life has been about getting what he wants, exactly the way he wants it, but now he must put Louisa’s needs before his own. But of all the things Felix does, it is an unselfish act of kindness that reveals the true Felix both to Louisa and the reader.

I will certainly be reading more books by Sherry Thomas.

Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake by Sarah MacLean
nine-rules-to-break-when-romancing-a-rake
I’m not sure why I waited so long to read Sarah MacLean’s debut novel because friends have constantly recommended it to me. Well, I’ve finally read it and I absolutely loved it! Ms. MacLean brings something refreshing to the much used “rake falls for wallflower” trope and I was impressed by her writing and the way she brought her characters to life and made me really care about them.

I adore Lady Calpurnia “Callie” Hartwell because she is someone I could relate to. Instead of drop dead gorgeous like so many heroines, she is a plain, slightly plump, lace-cap-wearing, 28-year-old spinster with a pristine reputation and the same insecurities I’m sure many of us share. She is also such a lovable person…intelligent, kind-hearted and funny. Gabriel is charming, devastatingly handsome and one of the most notorious rakes in London, but he also has a strong sense of family. Gabriel and Callie are such a wonderful couple with great chemistry and I loved every moment spent with them. They are both on a journey of self-discovery. Gabriel believes himself incapable of love but Callie slowly but surely steals his heart while Callie has always believed herself to be plain but Gabriel shows her that she is beautiful in all the ways that count.

This is an utterly delightful novel and the rest of the series is firmly on my reading list for 2017.

My Lady, My Lord by Katharine Ashe
my-lady-my-lord
I love this first book in Katharine Ashe’s Twist series. What a charming, creative, funny and entertaining story!

It may not appeal to Historical Romance purists but I love the unusual “Freaky Friday” twist because the scenes where Ian and Corinna are having to live in each other’s bodies are so well written and often funny. It also allows them to truly see each other for the first time without their judgement being coloured by mutual animosity. Once they return to their own bodies, they are consumed with all sorts of emotions they have never felt before and Ms. Ashe captures all their emotions so well that I could feel their confusion, doubts, anguish and passion. I was really rooting for them to confess their love for each other.

A thoroughly entertaining and refreshingly different story.

Roxton Series by Lucinda Brant

Lucinda Brant is another author recommended by Wendy and has since joined the ranks of my top favourite authors. Once again, it was impossible to choose just one book, but I have not included the second book, Midnight Marriage, because I read that during 2015.

Noble Satyr (Roxton Series, #1) Audiobook
Noble Satyr
Noble Satyr is a charming, passionate and compelling May/December love story.

I love the Georgian setting with all its elegance, opulence and decadence and I felt just as if I was stepping back in time to a world of powdered wigs, panniers, quizzing glasses, and sedan chairs. I thought the romance between Roxton and Antonia was so well-written because the pairing of the dissolute Roxton with the much younger, innocent Antonia could have been the recipe for disaster but Ms Brant pulls it off brilliantly. Antonia may be young and virginal but, having lived in the licentious court of Louis XV, she is certainly not naïve in the ways of the world and has no illusions about Roxton. Bored with the world of excess around him, it is easy to see why Roxton would be enchanted by Antonia’s intelligence, openness and spirited nature.

Narration: Alex Wyndham is superb in his narration of the story with each character instantly recognizable – male or female, old or young, noble or servant. He portrays Roxton perfectly from his quietly spoken air of authority to the subtle softer tones as he falls in love with Antonia. Alex also conveys Antonia’s naïve exuberance for life so well and her French accent is delightful.

Autumn Duchess (Roxton Series, #3) – Audiobook
autumn-duchess-audio
The third book in this series is a lovely, poignant second chance love story.

I was totally captivated by Antonia and Jonathan’s love story and enjoyed the older woman/younger man aspect. I absolutely love Jonathon who, having lost his beloved wife in childbirth many years before, understands Antonia’s grief better than anyone and is the perfect person to reawaken her to the joys of living. I love his dogged pursuit of her regardless of the consequences and his acceptance that “Monseigneur” will always have a place in Antonia’s heart.  The inner conversations he has between his Business Brain, Heart, Stomach and Vital Organ are so funny! I felt for Antonia’s son, Julian, who wants so desperately to help his mother overcome her grief but doesn’t know how and his actions often seem cruel, unfeeling and misguided.

Narration: Once again, Alex Wynham’s narration was superb and his rich, smooth voice was perfect for the deliciously gorgeous Jonathon and his narration of the passionate, romantic scenes made my toes curl.

A beautiful and deeply emotional love story superbly narrated by Alex Wyndham – it doesn’t get any better than this!

Dair Devil (Roxton  Series, #4) – Audiobook
Dair Devil
Dair Devil is another beautifully crafted, deliciously romantic love story.

I totally fell in love with Dair and Rory and watching their romance gradually unfold was a delight… unashamedly romantic but with just enough hurdles confronting the couple to maintain an element of tension. Rory sees through Dair’s devil-may-care façade to the vulnerable man beneath, whose childhood experiences, especially the reason for his fear of water, are truly heart-breaking. Dair sees past Rory’s disability to the wonderful woman she is and realises how much she has changed his view on life.

Narration:  It is impossible to think of superlatives to describe Alex Wyndham’s performance that have not already been said. He literally breathes life into Ms. Brant’s characters making listening to her books such a wonderful experience.

Another winner from the magical team of Lucinda Brant and Alex Wyndham.


WENDY’S SELECTION (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER)

So here goes – my creme de la creme list of 2016.


Rockliffe series by Stella Riley

I have had an absolute binge on Stella Riley’s books and audio books last year. Having only discovered this hugely talented British author within the past two years, I cannot get enough of her writing. Ms. Riley had an extremely prolific year, with the eagerly anticipated addition to her Civil War series being published in May, plus no less than four audio books being recorded and released too. Sheer bliss – especially as the audio books are performed by the supremely talented, Alex Wyndham. So, I’ll kick off my list with Stella’s series/books:

The Parfit Knight (Rockliffe, #1) – Audiobook
the-parfit-knight-spotlight-cover
All Stella Riley’s main characters are out of the ordinary and her unique talent for developing believable friendships and camaraderie between her male protagonists is one of her great strengths. In The Parfit Knight, we meet the first of the ‘friends’, Dominic, the Marquis of Amberley. He is an honourable and likeable man with a propensity for levity which is captured perfectly by Alex Wyndham, who has the knack of injecting a smile into his voice.  Rosalind Vernon was tragically blinded in childhood but is completely devoid of self-pity; she is also utterly beautiful and without guile, attributes which completely captivate Dominic. The two meet having been thrown together by unforeseen circumstances and the attraction between them is instant. Ms. Riley has clearly shown her own empathy in the way she has developed Rosalind’s character, demonstrating an understanding of the dilemmas experienced by someone living with blindness. And then there’s the parrot – Broody! Hilarious! I’ll say no more on that subject except that I defy anyone not to be amused. In this story, we also meet the incomparable Duke of Rockliffe, for whom the series is named, and who makes regular appearances. It’s no secret that I love his character!

The Mésalliance (Rockliffe, #2) – Audiobook
the-mesalliance-audio
The Duke of Rockliffe’s story, a super duper angsty tale where the gorgeous ‘Rock’ meets his lady and because of her, completely loses his legendary cool in an eventual public confrontation that had me on the edge of my seat. Here I must add that Alex Wyndham gives an amazing performance as he deals with Rock’s increasing agitation and loss of control   in what is an intensely moving scene, and all of this in a myriad of different characters’ voices.

The Player (Rockliffe,#3) – Audiobook
the-player-audio
My favourite of this tremendous series so far – but only by a whisker. My reason – it’s such a clever and original story with the intriguingly secretive and complex character of Frances Adrian Sinclair Devereux at its centre. The story is so well crafted and developed that I wondered where such a uniquely brilliant idea came from. And, of course, the gorgeous Rock is back in his usual cool, debonair, omniscient guise after his brief departure from it in the previous book. I must admit to a conflict over which of these two characters I love the most. It mostly depends on which book I’m listening to at the time – but probably Rock as he figures prominently in all three.


Civil War Series by Stella Riley


The Black Madonna (Roundheads and Cavaliers, #1)
the-black-madonna
I read and loved this terrific first book in the series. which ha at its centre the most intriguing and unusual male character I think I’ve ever met in a book. I read it to get some background information on the characters before I read and reviewed:

Lords of Misrule (Roundheads and Cavaliers, #4)
lords-of-misrule-2
Stella Riley’s long awaited and highly anticipated fourth book in the same series. It has a brooding, disillusioned hero, questioning his own actions and the war he has been involved in for so long. Colonel Eden Maxwell has sworn never to love again (in book one he is badly hurt) but he reckons without determined, independent widow, Lydia Neville. I adored it from start to finish.

This series has everything I love – thoroughly and accurately researched historical content (which the layman has no problem understanding), subtly developed, spine tingling romance and flawed but likeable/loveable characters. What I particularly like about this author’s telling of the Civil War, which divided our country, is that she sets out both sides of the conflict in a completely unbiased manner. Her heroes and heroines come from both sides of the divide, showing us how families became splintered because of their beliefs and loyalties and, more importantly, how they resolved those differences.

And finally, just before the year closed, we got a gorgeous extra Christmas present from Stella Riley – the stand-alone:

A Splendid Defiance
a-splendid-defiance-audio
This was released in audio, and all I can say is – WOW! It tells the story of the holding of the Royalist Banbury castle during the English Civil War against almost impossible odds. The fictitious characters are blended so expertly with actual historic characters that one cannot see the seams. I shall listen again before I review but already know that this is off the scale as far as grading goes for both content and narration. A Splendid Defiance is quite possibly my favourite ‘listen’ of 2016 and, if not, it’s certainly on a par with one other listed below for the sheer listening pleasure that it brought me.


Salt Hendon Collection: A Georgian Historical Romance Boxed Set and audio
by Lucinda Brant
salt-hendon-collection
Lucinda Brant has also had a tremendous year, with three new publications. I’m going to cheat here so that I can squeeze another favourite in (the boxed set and boxed audio set will count as one). Ms. Brant also employs the talents of the incomparable Mr. Wyndham so, whereas I have always loved her writing since discovering her, I now love her writing and figuratively speaking, her chosen narrator too!

I read the Salt Hendon Boxed Set when Ms. Brant re-published it in June 2016 with the addition of the prologue and novella and loved it all over again after previously reading Salt Bride and Salt Redux individually. Then, when later in the year, Alex Wyndham recorded it at the request of the author and her fans, we had the pleasure of almost 24 hours of listening bliss as he lead us through the machinations of the evil Diana versus the beautifully portrayed love story of Salt and Jane. With all  this, and Lucinda Brant’s exquisitely researched and detailed descriptions of life in Georgian England, we were truly spoilt. The Salt Hendon boxed set is one of my two top reads/listens of the year and I was hard put to take my ear-buds out.

Dair Devil (Roxton Series #4) by Lucinda Brant
dair-devil-kindle
This series is just superb. Each book gives us a surprise. one area in which Lucinda Brant excels. I did not see this jaw-dropper coming and its delivery by the tiny tornado, Antonia, whom we have all come to love, is perfection. And, of course, Alex Wyndham’s performance is so powerful that we forget we are actually listening to a man rather than a very female, pocket sized French firebrand!  This story has a redeemed ‘bad boy’ who was never really bad in the first place, but that’s what Ms. Brant does so expertly; she leads us up the garden path and leaves us with our mouths gaping and wondering why we hadn’t picked up on it. The burgeoning and apparently impossible romance between Dair and physically disabled, Rory, is touchingly beautiful. There’s more of this fascinating Georgian family to come with Dair’s sister, Mary, hopefully in the spring of this year.

I had the pleasure of meeting the iconic, Lorraine Heath in the autumn of last year at HRR and, as she is one of my favourite Historical Romance authors, it was a huge fan-girl moment. I quickly realised, on getting to know her better, how it is that she unerringly writes such empathetic and poignant tear-jerkers each and every time; it’s because she is, quite simply, a warm and caring person and it shines through in her writing. Having had the benefit of spending time with her, I decided to read her entire latest series again – my two favourites of that series follow:

The Earl Takes All (The Hellions of Havisham, #2) by Lorraine Heath
the-earl-takes-all
This was a very tricky premise and I wondered how Lorraine Heath would handle it in a way that her readers would believe in it – obviously she does, hence my 5* grading. It is an absorbing story with loads of angst and emotion. I loved it and think that Ms. Heath pulled off a real coup with her very original storyline and outcome. Her stories are never boring which is one of the reasons her books are so popular but she always integrates issues (health and otherwise) which we experience in the present day.

The Viscount and the Vixen (The Hellions of Havisham, #3) by Lorraine Heath
the-viscount-and-the-vixen
What a terrific ending to the series and I just had to include it in my favourites, especially when I read where the inspiration came from. Suddenly everything made sense – a real penny-dropping moment! The Marquess of Marsden was based on Miss Havisham of Great Expectations fame. But the ‘mad marquess’ wasn’t really mad at all, it was just how he wanted to be seen. When lucidity was called for he was amazingly sane, as readers of this novel will have seen from his devious machinations! Fabulous, Ms. Heath! I just loved your series – every tender, tear jerking moment of it.


A Gentleman’s Position
(Society of Gentleman #3) by K.J. Charles
a-gentlemans-position
K.J. Charles was a new-to-me author in 2016 and a departure from my normal comfort reads. Still historical romance, but this time m/m, not something I’ve ever considered reading and, until recently, didn’t even know existed. But I’m so glad I found this author because I loved her entire Society of Gentlemen series and, in particular, A Gentleman’s Position. This is such a clever, cunning story and it takes place in a time when gentlemen could be executed for their predilections. But it’s about so much more than that, and the way the author develops the plot and brings it all to a satisfactory, shocking and plausible conclusion is skilful indeed. The romance between her characters is tender and believable and the historical content, in-depth, accurate and fascinating.

Another author I had the pleasure of meeting and interacting with at the HRR in Spokane last Autumn was the superstar of Historical Romance, Mary Balogh. She is a lovely, quite fascinating lady and spending time with her and discussing her books and characters was a real eye opener into the way she thinks – a wonderful experience for me. Ms. Balogh doesn’t rely on complicated plots to sell her books, rather her strengths are subtler and lie in her many years of writing and obvious life experience, which always comes across in her writing and character development.  I am never disappointed and look forward with eager anticipation to everything she writes.

Someone to Love (Westcott, #1) by Mary Balogh
someone-to-love

In her usual understated manner, Ms. Balogh had me hooked from the first paragraph of her new series which begins with the story of Anna Snow, an orphaned girl who is traced by the lawyer of the family she did not know existed. She arrives at her late father’s will reading to discover that she is his ONLY legitimate child and her discovery has disinherited her three half siblings and their mother, whom he married bigamously. I loved this premise and the way the story is told is entirely believable. The love story between Anna and Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby is gentle and moving, with hidden depths to the hero which we discover as the story unfolds. We learn that Avery is no pushover and I found his very unusual, out of the ordinary character, to be quite captivating.


Simply Love
(Simply Quartet #2) – Audiobook – by Mary Balogh
slmply-love
Every time I read a Mary Balogh novel, new or old, I am struck anew by how much I love her work. She has covered every conceivable subject/ scenario in her long and highly successful career with empathy and a deeply insightful understanding of human nature. In Simply Love, she highlights the issues and prejudices surrounding a single mother and her illegitimate child in Regency England. With great understanding, Ms. Balogh immerses us in the life of Anne Jewell, her nine- year- old son, David, and that of Sydenham Butler, a horrifically scarred veteran of the peninsula wars. Mary Balogh tells their love story in an entirely plausible and empathetic manner not making an easy read of it or skirting over the problems they face and we see them experiencing.

Just recently some of Ms. Balogh’s books have been released on the UK audible market and most of them have been recorded by the supremely talented, Rosalyn Landor. I can’t praise her performance highly enough in the telling of this beautiful story which always, no matter how many times I read or listen, brings a catch to my throat and a tingling down my spine. As I said, I love everything this author writes but, if I must choose an absolute favourite, then Simply Love is the one.

The Autumn Throne (Eleanor of Aquitaine #3) by Elizabeth Chadwick
the-autumn-throne

One of my greatest reading pleasures has always been historical fiction and, in particular, books about the Plantagenets, my favourite historic family. There are no historical fiction writers that I enjoy more than Elizabeth Chadwick and The Autumn Throne, the third and final book in her fascinating Eleanor of Aquitaine series, is quite simply superb. Ms. Chadwick’s knowledge and scholarship of the period is mind-boggling. All her books are eloquently written with exceptional attention to detail, but this series in particular really struck a chord with me and I finished it with a thirst to learn even more about this fascinating character, if indeed, there is anything left to learn after Ms. Chadwick’s extensive research.
 

What were your own personal favourites for 2016?

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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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the-mesalliance

(Rockliffe Series, #2)

Genre: Historical Romance (Georgian, 1767 and 1775)

Cover Blurb:

The Duke of Rockliffe is 36 years old, head of his house, and responsible for his young sister, Nell. He is, therefore, under some pressure to choose a suitable bride. Whilst accompanying Nell to what he speedily comes to regard as the house-party from hell, he meets Adeline Kendrick – acid-tongued, no more than passably good-looking yet somehow alluring. Worse still, her relatives are quite deplorable – from a spoiled, ill-natured cousin to a sadistic, manipulative uncle. As a prospective bride, therefore, Adeline is out of the question. Until, that is, a bizarre turn of events causes the Duke to throw caution to the wind and make what his world will call a mésalliance.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

This is the second book in Stella Riley ‘s Georgian  Rockliffe series and the hero, the Duke of Rockliffe (Rock), played a significant secondary role in The Parfit Knight. He was such a fascinating character that I was intrigued to meet the woman who would capture his heart.

Handsome, elegant, sophisticated and assured, with a wry sense of humour, Rock is a hero to set any woman’s heart aflutter. He is aware of his duty to marry and provide an heir but has postponed the inevitable, hoping to find genuine love. Having reached the age of 36, he realises the truth of the situation.

…if, in all this time, you had not found what you sought, it was probably because it did not exist.

Since being orphaned, Adeline, now 24 years old, has lived a life of drudgery with her uncle and aunt, Sir Roland and Lady Franklin. Treated with indifference and resentment by her aunt, despised by her beautiful cousin, Diana, and mistreated by her aunt’s brother, Richard Horton, Adeline built a defensive wall around herself. Gradually, she discovered ways of fighting back.

…she had swiftly progressed to the discovery that it was also possible to fight back in small ways –if one was subtle. And the result was a now flawless technique for combining apparent docility with an under-current of clever, hard to combat acidity.

Rock and Adeline first met briefly eight years earlier and I like how the Prologue offers a glimpse of their younger selves. Rock was  still unburdened by the responsibilities of being a duke and Adeline was a wild, sensitive 16 year old. It is obvious that the meeting left an impression on each of them. When they meet again at the Franklin’s ball, Rock now sees a cold-eyed woman with a barbed tongue but is still drawn to her like a moth to a flame. She has a rare quality he can only describe as allure. Of course, although Adeline is everything Rock is looking for in a prospective bride – attractive, intelligent, desirable and won’t bore him to distraction – she is totally unsuitable both in social standing and family connections. However, when Adeline’s cousin Diana’s scheme to compromise Rock into marriage is thwarted, there are unforeseen consequences as Rock and Adeline are caught in a compromising situation and Rock proposes marriage, something he doesn’t appear too upset about.

My difficulty has been that, among all the young ladies of birth, breeding and beauty, I cannot find one who wouldn’t bore me to death in a week – and that, as you know, is the one thing I can’t tolerate.   You, on the other hand, don’t bore me at all; moreover … if you will pardon the indelicacy … I find myself experiencing an increasing desire to take you to bed.’ 

Adeline welcomes the marriage of convenience as a way of escaping her dreadful relatives.

I love the scene where Rock shows his protectiveness when he makes veiled threats to Lady Franklin about treating Adeline with the respect due to her as a duchess. Desperate to win his wife’s love, he is even willing to do something he has never done before – woo a woman. He also shows patience and consideration by allowing Adeline time to adjust to her new circumstances before consummating the marriage. However, I could sense his frustration as time goes on.

It was heart-breaking to see the marriage slowly deteriorate beneath the weight of Adeline’s secrets and her unwillingness to trust and confide in Rock. While I understood Adeline’s fear of losing Rock and her desire to protect him and his family from scandal, it was frustrating watching two people who obviously love each other descend into “a chilly state of impersonal courtesy”. The scenes between Rock and Adeline are so powerfully written and Ms Riley captures all the raw emotions of anger, fear, hurt and frustration.

The scene at the Queensbury Ball, where everything finally comes to a head, is a real tour-de-force and seeing the unflappable Rock finally lose control was definitely a highlight for me!!

Ms Riley always gathers a colourful cast of secondary characters who are all essential to the story. Rock’s friends, Amberley, Harry Caversham and Jack Ingram are only too ready to provide unwanted advice and some much-needed humour; the Franklin family could be described as the family from hell, particularly the malicious, scheming Diana and sly, sadistic Richard Horton.

I enjoyed the secondary romances between Harry Caversham and Rock’s sister, Nell and Jack Ingram and Althea Franklin, the only likeable member of the family. They played out in the background and never overshadowed the main romance.

Every time I listen to Alex Wyndham narrating a book, I close my eyes and it’s as if I’m listening to a radio play performed by several performers rather than just one. Each character has a distinctive and easily identifiable voice and Alex slips between the different characters so effortlessly that I am never in doubt as to who is speaking. It must be hard for a male narrator to voice female characters realistically but Alex succeeds brilliantly.

MY VERDICT:  An intelligently and well-written story with unforgettable characters and a deeply emotional romance, brought vividly to life by Alex Wyndham’s superb narration. A must read/listen to!


REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: SUBTLE

 

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

The Parfit Knight by Stella Riley The Mésalliance by Stella Riley The Player by Stella Riley

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

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