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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.

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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 Marigold Chain Audio Book

Genre: Historical Romance (17th Century – Restoration England, 1666)

Cover Blurb:

England, 1666; the year when people who take prophecy seriously believe that the world is going to end.

For Chloe Herveaux, marriage to wild, unpredictable Alex Deveril offers escape from a home she hates. For Alex, waking up with an epic hangover, the discovery that he has acquired a bride is an unwelcome shock. But while the marriage remains in name only, other forces are gathering.

England is once again at war with the Dutch and Prince Rupert suspects that sabotage is at work within the fleet. Instructed to find and stop the traitor, Alex enters a dark labyrinth of intrigue – where no life is safe, and nothing is what it seems.

Chloe, meanwhile, navigates the shark-infested waters of Charles the Second’s Court and plots a course of her own aimed at financial independence. But as the intriguing facets of Mr Deveril’s personality are gradually revealed to her, Chloe’s mock-marriage becomes fraught with difficulties – the greatest of which is Mr Deveril himself.

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The Marigold Chain was my very first book by Stella Riley and I loved it from beginning to end, consequently it has a special place in my heart and on my keeper shelf. After my first reading, more than two years ago, its characters, both main and secondary, remain with me as clearly as if I’d just put the book down. I couldn’t have been happier when I heard a whisper that the supremely talented Alex Wyndham was to record it and waited with much anticipation for its release. And, oh my…but it was worth the wait.

Set during Restoration England, The Marigold Chain follows eight months in the lives of Alex Deveril and Chloe Hervaux – a man and woman thrown together by unusual and unorthodox circumstances. The real events unfolding around their seemingly ordinary lives add to the thrill of this wonderfully rich story, in which our couple become well and truly embroiled. The fabulous cast of historical figures are so cleverly interwoven with fictitious characters that it is difficult to know for sure who lived and who is a figment of the author’s fertile imagination.

One night, Alex Deveril is out on a drinking spree to end all drinking sprees, having been rejected by the woman he believes he loves. Alex is outrageous and unconventional at the best of times but, this time, he outdoes even himself. Whilst involved in a card party at the home of Chloe’s step-brother, she is offered as the stake in a game gone too far, when her odious brother runs out of funds to pay his debts. Never one to turn down a challenge, Alex accepts and wins. To be fair to Chloe, she does try to refuse, but her step-brother (no blood relative) is vile and has become a nuisance with his unwanted, and some might say, incestuous advances towards her, and she is desperate to leave his house and her life of drudgery behind. Still drunk beyond reason, Alex convinces Chloe to leave with him in the dead of night and insists on rousing a clergyman, even going as far as shimmying up a drainpipe in order to persuade him into marrying them. Drunk or not, Alex knows what is right and the wedding takes place. While Alex sleeps off his excesses, Chloe has a long night of contemplation and faces up to the realisation that she may have taken unfair advantage of Alex in her haste to escape her brother. She should have refused his drunken proposal, no matter how gorgeous he is or how enticing the prospect of being his wife might be. After discussing the matter, they decide that eventually they will pursue an annulment, although neither is in a hurry to be free, each for reasons of their own.  So, for the time being, their marriage-in-name-only, will remain just that.

The year is 1666 and the country is still struggling and in debt, after years of civil war followed by an horrendous loss of life as a result of the plague. Now, to add to her problems, England is at war with the Dutch and France is about to join in. Alex has recently returned from soldering after fifteen years of fighting, both as man and boy, to discover that his birth right has been stolen during his absence. Always fiercely loyal to the crown, like his father before him, Alex cannot dispel the unfairness of it and, as a result, has become an embittered and acerbic young man. And yet, he retains the respect and affection of his peers who fought with him and know his loyalty and friendship are worth having. Alex’s inner group of friends who remember him as he used to b – charming, witty and reckless – are generally willing to overlook his biting tongue and tolerate his much-changed demeanour.  For his part, Alex does his best to push his friends away, but they refuse to abandon him, although there are moments when they wonder why. Then his occasional flashes of breath-taking charm, ever ready wit and obvious intelligence, remind them that the Alex they knew still exists. Chloe is no different to his friends; she was besotted with Alex from the moment she met him, and still is. However, an inner awareness tells her that her feelings must be kept hidden, not only to avoid his derision, but also because a strong sense of justice tells her that Alex must never feel trapped into staying married to her.

Chloe’s character and person are beautifully drawn – a compelling young woman with an understated beauty and gentle innocence. However, she is no pushover and knows how to run and care for a household on a limited budget, after suffering under her step-brother’s roof as an unpaid housekeeper. Alex may not realise it, but he has met his match… and his love. Chloe tolerates his moods, but only up to a point, and then quietly but firmly puts him in his place. She often risks his displeasure and bad humour by intervening in his plans – for his own good – such as when she realises he is about to embark on something he will later regret. Often, her intervention is done with the collusion of his friends, all of whom fall under her guileless spell and also realise, fairly soon after the marriage, that Chloe could be Alex’s salvation.

Their relationship develops through various phases; at first as strangers, then continuing onto friendship and confidantes and finally to the inevitable and, in true Stella Riley fashion, she grows their love story slowly and sweetly. At first, Alex accepts his wife’s company as just another person around him to be tolerated and often ignored, until without him realising it, she becomes necessary to him. He nicknames her Marigold from the beginning and, at one point, on her first visit to court with him, he presents her with a pretty necklace, the Marigold Chain. Alex has obviously chosen it with care, although he is very blasé about the giving of it to her. Its colour (matching her hair) and simplistic, understated beauty is Chloe to a tee and she cherishes it. I love the classy and unusual titles this author chooses for her books, but of all of them, The Marigold Chain is my favourite, given the special significance of this particular title.

While Alex is well aware of his flaws but unrepentant, he is also a highly intelligent man of unequivocal integrity. His previously proven military prowess has earned him the trust and respect of Prince Rupert, cousin to King Charles II and Commander of the Naval Fleet. Together with his friend Giles Beckwith, Alex is contracted into covertly searching for a possible traitor in their midst. There is no actual proof that a traitor exists, just a few unexplained ‘accidents’ which have cost the English Navy, ships and lives. The ensuing events are fast moving, exciting, and exactly what an adrenalin junkie like Alex Deveril needs to shake him out of the doldrums.

Stella Riley covers so much in this story; a snapshot of warfare, death and injury on board his Majesty’s ships during wartime; the Great Fire of London, where we see the cramped wooden buildings in their narrow lanes, the fire eating its way relentlessly through London and the despair of her inhabitants as they fight fruitlessly to save their homes, and then the final devastating toppling of Paul’s cathedral. The licentious, gluttonous, fashion obsessed court of the womanising, but shrewd and enigmatic, Charles II, and the despair of his Queen as he flaunts his mistresses are all brought vibrantly to life by this talented author, whose love and obvious knowledge of her subject is indisputable. We are not overwhelmed with extraneous historical detail but rather Ms. Riley sets out the facts clearly and precisely and in a way that makes the reader/listener desirous to learn more and filling in the gaps with intelligent probabilities and a delicious romance to boot.

Alex Wyndham has quite a job on his hands as he handles, with great aplomb, the sarcastic, cynical, Alex Deveril. It would be all to easy to dislike this young man, but I loved his complex character.  Alex Wyndham captures him to perfection, showing along the way, with his intuitive interpretation of the author’s writing, that here is a decent and honourable young man who has had a raw deal and only needs that certain someone in his life to redeem him. Alex’s reckless disregard for his own safety sees him hurtling towards his own ruin and his friends, understanding the reasons, do their best to mitigate his behaviour. Alex Wyndham, consummate actor that he is, has to deal with all of this – an Alex Deveril who does not suffer fools gladly and thinks he neither wants or needs anyone, but who then undergoes a lightbulb moment of such epic proportions that he is left reeling from the shock and how to deal with it. A lesser actor could not have pulled off this transformation so effectively and believably.

Mr. Wyndham’s tone of voice undergoes a subtle change, but it is so well done that we are aware that we are still listening to Alex Deveril, an angry young man for the most part of the story, but one who suddenly finds himself again, after a long time in the wilderness. You immediately know that Alex Deveril’s feelings have undergone a colossal change simply by Alex Wyndham’s alteration in inflection while still retaining the recognisable ‘voice’ he has adopted for Alex Deveril. I was so taken by Alex Wyndham’s performance that I listened to this same part a few times just to enjoy and marvel at his expertise. There are a couple of places where he has to deal with Stella Riley at her emotional best – real tear jerkers – I promise – but no spoilers. All I’ll say is that listeners will not be disappointed by Stella Riley’s words or Alex Wyndham’s rendering of them – but have your tissues ready. Oh…and he sings in a couple of places AND quotes poetry – I could go on and on – just sit back and enjoy.

Before reading The Marigold Chain, I’m ashamed to say I knew little about The English Civil War and the Restoration. It was a war which split families apart and ravaged our country for the best part of ten years, and saw an anointed King beheaded. How could I not have been interested? However, this has all changed now because I have become totally hooked by Stella Riley’s world of Cavaliers and Roundheads. I strongly recommend the uninitiated to listen to The Marigold Chain and A Splendid Defiance and to read her English Civil War series, beginning with The Black Madonna which, by the way, is stupendous.

MY VERDICT: I can’t imagine anyone who enjoys superbly researched history, compelling and intriguing characters (fictitious and historical), a fast paced and exciting mystery, coupled with a bone melting romance, not loving THE MARIGOLD CHAIN. And let’s not forget the exceptionally talented, Alex Wyndham, who adds that extra spark of brilliance. Highly recommended.

 

 REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

 NARRATION REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

 SENSUALITY RATING: SUBTLE

 

 

 

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THE FABULOUS STELLA RILEY HAS A NEW AUDIO BOOK OUT, NARRATED BY THE EQUALLY FABULOUS ALEX WYNDHAM.

The Marigold Chain Audio Book

Genre: Historical Romance (Restoration, 1666)

Cover Blurb

It is 1666 – the year when people who take prophecy seriously believe that the world is going to end.

For Chloe Herveaux – twenty years old, half-French and practical – marriage to wild, unpredictable Alex Deveril offers escape from a home she hates. For Alex, it is a refuge of a different kind. But while the marriage remains in name only and both, for reasons of their own, agree to seek an annulment, other forces are gathering.

England is once again at war with the Dutch and Prince Rupert, now commanding the Royal Navy, suspects that sabotage is at work within the fleet. Instructed to find the arch-traitor, Alex enters a dark labyrinth of intrigue – where no life is safe and nothing is what it seems.

Chloe, meanwhile, navigates the malice and scandal of Charles II’s licentious Court and plots a course of her own aimed at financial independence. But as the surprising facets of Mr Deveril’s personality are gradually revealed to her, the long-awaited annulment becomes a double-edged sword.

Absorbed in his search for a traitor, Alex spares little thought for his bride – until a hot June night on the Falcon Stairs when he and Chloe stand united by tragedy.

As the flames of the Great Fire sweep over London, Alex and Chloe face their ultimate test. Their world is at risk … their choices may save it.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

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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.

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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 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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