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.
Taking a break from her epic Civil War series, Stella Riley returns to Georgian England for The Player, the third book in her Rocklliffe Series.
Eagle eyed readers of the previous novel, The Mésalliance, may recall mention of a celebrated and hugely talented actor gracing the theatres of Paris, known as L’ Inconnnu (The Unknown). At one point in the story, the Duke of Rockliffe recalls the rumour that this actor is, in fact, an English nobleman whose life has been tainted by tragedy and scandal.
Francis Adrian Sinclair Devereux, now the Earl of Sarre, fled England following the tragic death of his fiancée when he was just twenty-one. Although her death was accidental, Adrian was suspected of murder – even by his father who didn’t want to hear any explanations and ordered him to leave the country or face the consequences. Exiled and practically penniless, Adrian disappeared, cut ties with his family and proceeded to re-invent himself.
But ten years later, he receives a letter that changes everything. Although he was the heir to the title, he was content for his younger brother to assume the reins of the earldom upon the death of their father some years previously. But his brother’s recent death means that Adrian must return to claim his rightful inheritance. He doesn’t particularly want to be an earl, but he does recognise the responsibility he owes to his tenants and the people who depend on the Earls of Sarre for their livelihood.
Deciding that one of the things incumbent upon him is to take a wife, Adrian travels to London in order to re-enter society. He doesn’t expect to be welcomed with open arms considering the rumours that still dog him, so is surprised to find himself warmly accepted by the set which includes the Marquess of Amberley and Lord Philip Vernon (from The Parfit Knight) as well as his old friend Nicholas Wynstanton (the Duke of Rockliffe’s younger brother). He very soon comes face to face with his former best friend, Marcus Sheringham – the man who seduced Adrian’s fiancée and then accused him of murder. Having learned some months before his return that Sheringham is deeply in debt, Adrian is just waiting for the right time to make his move and take his revenge, once and for all.
When he learns that Sheringham is dangling after Miss Caroline Maitland, an heiress with a dowry of one hundred thousand pounds, Adrian hatches a daring plan to keep her out of the other man’s reach. But he misjudges the lengths to which Sheringham will go in his desperation to secure the lady’s fortune and realises there is only one way he can ensure the man’s downfall and at the same time, protect Caroline – whom he has come to like and respect – from marriage to someone who will make her miserable.
Caroline is something of a wallflower at the beginning of the story; her clothes don’t suit her and are overly fussy and she is shy in company, knowing that most of the people she meets in society look down on her because her money comes from trade. Yet that’s not who she really is, and she berates herself for fading into the background rather than asserting herself. She’s clever and perceptive, with a sharp wit and a kind heart; and knows she deserves better than to spend the rest of her life bound by duty, responsibility and Making the Best of Things. Like any young woman, she longs for romance and adventure – never dreaming to find them in the arms of a mysterious, seductively-voiced French highwayman.
Ms Riley’s heroes are always captivating men – attractive, witty, intelligent and ruthless when necessary but with a vulnerable streak that only those closest to them ever see. Adrian Devereux certainly fits that bill – and when we add his rather unique acting skills into the mix, we have another gorgeous hero to fall in love with. He still feels the betrayal of his friend and his family keenly, but more importantly, he’s a man who has spent so long playing a part – a variety of parts, in fact – that he isn’t quite sure who he is any more. Not quite sure exactly who the Earl of Sarre is either, Adrian adopts an austere persona, presenting himself as a controlled, emotionless man as a way of deflecting the gossip that will inevitably accompany his reappearance in society. But he’s struggling to find his true self, and it’s not until Caroline enters his life that he starts to rediscover the man he is meant to be.
The Player is a truly delightful read with a strong storyline, a well-written, tender romance and a cast of well-developed supporting characters. The two protagonists are attractive and engaging, and while the single love scene is fairly tame by today’s standards, there is no lack of heat between them. The undercurrent of sexual tension that simmers between them is delicious, and although their relationship develops over a fairly short period of time, it doesn’t feel rushed or improbable.
The author writes with intelligence and humour, and her customary eye for historical detail is much in evidence in her descriptions of the fashions and customs of the period. She has a lot of fun in this story, creating different characters as played by her actor/earl-hero and taking a tongue-in-cheek swipe at a familiar “hero-in-disguise” trope that certainly made me smile.
If you enjoyed Ms Riley’s other Georgian romances, then you’ll certainly enjoy The Player. If this is your first experience with this author, then The Player works perfectly well as a standalone – but be warned –her books are addictive. Once you’ve read this one, you’ll want to go back and read the other books in this series and then devour everything Ms Riley has ever written!