Reluctantly, the Duke of Rockliffe is in the market for a wife. His requirements are simple; a lady who will occupy her position with well-bred grace and chaperone his sister, Nell – but who will not bore him to distraction. He is acquainted with a number of ladies who could fulfil the first two but none who can achieve the last. Then, whilst accompanying Nell to what he speedily comes to regard as the house-party from hell, he meets Adeline Kendrick – acid-tongued and by no means beautiful, yet somehow alluring; a combination that Rockliffe finds infuriatingly provocative. Worse still, her relatives are quite deplorable – from Cousin Diana, a spoiled and ill-natured beauty, to manipulative and devious Uncle Richard. As a prospective bride, therefore, Adeline is out of the question. Until, that is, a bizarre turn of events cause the Duke to change his mind and make what his world will call a mésalliance. Once back in London, Nell, plays fast and loose with the affections of Harry Caversham, Rockliffe – whilst attempting to woo his elusive bride – begins to scent a mystery and Adeline finds herself confronting a family skeleton which emerges, without warning, from the closet. Intent on averting a scandal and unwilling to burden her husband with the secret, complications and misunderstandings inevitably ensue. But his Grace of Rockliffe is neither a fool nor a man to be easily defeated and his stylish Duchess, no milk-and-water maid. How all their difficulties are resolved and the mésalliance proved to be no such thing, is told in this lively sister-novel to The Parfit Knight.
I love a good Marriage-of-Convenience story – and this is a very good Marriage-of-Convenience story. In The Mésalliance, we are re-introduced the Duke of Rockliffe, who previously appeared in a supporting role in The Parfit Knight, along with some of the other characters in that story, including Dominic, Marquess of Amberley and his wife Rosalind, Jack Ingram and – of course – Broody, the irascible parrot.
I’ve said before that Stella Riley has a real gift for creating wonderfully attractive heroes, and she continues that winning streak here. It’s not just that her heroes are handsome and aristocratic – they are also highly intelligent, possessed of a rapier wit and a degree of charisma that could power a small city; while also being intuitive, honourable and loyal.
Tracy Wynstanton, Duke of Rockliffe is all of those things. He frequently adopts a veneer of world-weariness and affectation, but no-one could ever mistake him for a fop. When push comes to shove, he’s the man you’d want fighting your corner. He encountered Adeline Kendrick eight years before the events of the novel take place, when she was just sixteen. Since that time however, Adeline has been living with her aunt and her absolutely atrocious cousin, both of whom treat her as “the poor relation” and has, as a result, developed a thick skin and an acerbic tongue as a way of both protecting and asserting herself. Rockliffe is intrigued by her, having an idea that they could deal well together, but Adeline, realising how easy it would be to fall for him, finds her instinct for self-protection is hard to set aside.
The story is a simple one. The hero and heroine are found in a compromising situation and must marry. Both are attracted to each other, but too wary to express their feelings in case they are not returned, and there is a Big Secret in the heroine’s past which threatens to ruin her and which she tries to hide from her husband.
On the surface, that’s a fairly common plotline, but I have no problem whatsoever with common plotlines, as long as the resulting stories have something more to offer, and that is definitely the case here. One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about Stella Riley’s novels is the way she can take a romantic stereotype and add that something “extra” so that it remains fresh. I don’t mean that necessarily in terms of the plot – this one is nothing out of the ordinary – but more in the way she fashions the narrative and weaves the other characters in and out of it and of their own stories in such a satisfactory way that nothing seems contrived and everything seems to happen just as it should – even the things that make you feel as though your heart’s been ripped out and stomped on.
As with her other novels, there is a splendidly rounded-out supporting cast in the book. As well as the characters we have already met, we are introduced to Rockliffe’s headstrong younger sister Nell, and – briefly – to his disapproving elder one, Lucilla. There are Adeline’s relatives, too – her aunt, her beautiful twin cousins, one of whom is a shrinking violet, the other a total harpy, and her unscrupulous uncle, to name but a few.
The Mésalliance is well-written, the characterisation is excellent and consistent; and although there are no raunchy sex-scenes, there is romantic tension by the bucket-load. In that way, I suppose it’s very much an “old-skool” romance, although it completely outclasses most of the others of that ilk I’ve read recently. Above all, I want to read a well-developed central relationship, one that I can see progressing through various stages before arriving at a deeply felt, mutual understanding; and if that’s your preference, too, then you need look no further than this.