Hazard (Rockliffe #5) by Stella Riley

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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.

Rating: A-

Hazard is the fifth book in Stella Riley’s Rockliffe series of Georgian romances, and in it the author does something a little bit different by writing a ‘double romance’ in which two separate couples eventually find their respective HEAs. There can be a danger in this type of story that one couple will feature more prominently than the other, but I’m pleased to report that isn’t the case here. Because one of the couples is one we’ve been watching dance around each other ever since they first appeared in book three (The Player), I never felt short-changed when the focus switched to the other romance, or that the familiar couple were being edged out in favour of the newer pairing. Ms. Riley gets the balance just about right between the continuing romance and the new one and achieves a satisfying ending all round – although not without a few lumps and bumps along the way.

The novel opens with a prologue set in Paris in 1770, in which we are introduced to a brother and sister in difficult circumstances, and a young woman, the step-daughter of an English diplomat, who is being forced into a marriage she doesn’t want. In desperation, she asks her step-father’s young under-secretary – who has also been tutoring her in French – to carry a note to the man she hopes will save her, but her brothers intercept the missive, and brutally beat her messenger, leaving his sister to keep a lone vigil at their dying mother’s bedside.

Seven years later, we arrive in London at Sinclair’s, the popular gaming club that is jointly owned by Adrian Deveraux, Earl of Sarre, and his friend and business partner, Aristide Delacroix. On this particular evening, a disgruntled patron, Lord Braxton – who has been losing heavily – points out Aristide to a friend, and very loudly accuses him of having cheated him out of a large sum of money three years earlier. Things get heated as Braxton refuses to back down, and the situation is only diffused when the Duke of Rockliffe and his brother, Lord Nicholas Wynstanton, calmly suggest Braxton stop making ridiculous and unsubstantiated accusations.

Braxton storms out after this, but Aristide is concerned. Sinclair’s has a reputation for fair-play, and such allegations from a peer of the realm – albeit one not especially well-known or liked – could do a lot of damage. It seems, however, that Braxton’s rants aren’t being taken seriously, and Aristide and Adrian don’t have anything to worry about – but unfortunately, Braxton is determined to get his money back and make Aristide pay for his humiliation. Furious, scorned and in need of cash, he decides to exact his revenge by nefarious means.

Nicholas Wynstanton and Aristide’s sister, Madeleine, have been dancing around their attraction to each other for some time now, and things came to a head in The Wicked Cousin when Nick, tired of ‘making a cake’ of himself over her, gave her an ultimatum: tell him she’s not interested or allow him to pay her his addresses.  Madeleine, who is clearly deeply smitten, feels her station in life is so unequal to his as to make any respectable relationship between them impossible – but she can’t tell him to walk away.  In spite of Nick’s protests that he doesn’t care about society’s opinions, Madeleine is difficult and prickly, and continues to use her sharp tongue and quick temper to push him away at every available opportunity, but Nick, now he knows that she’s far from indifferent to him, can be patient, and determines on a long game in order to win his lady.

While Nick and Madeline continue to take one step forward and two steps back, Aristide is surprised to encounter someone he’s never forgotten, but had never thought to meet again – Genevieve Harcourt, now the widowed Lady Westin.  Aristide still recalls the sobbing girl from the garden of the Hôtel Fleurignac, while she doesn’t recognise him at all when they encounter each other at a party held by the Earl and Countess of Sarre.  Aristide is quietly furious – how can she possibly not know how her brothers beat him so savagely that he was unable to leave his bed for weeks?  But even his fury can’t stop him from noticing her lovely face and lush figure – and that only infuriates him even more.  The woman nearly got him killed, so lusting after her is not an appropriate response… yet there’s no question her body calls to his as no woman’s has ever done.

It’s not until a couple of days later, when her brother, Viscount Kilburn pays Genevieve an unwanted visit that she remembers who Aristide is, although she can’t reconcile the elegant, coolly poised and handsome gentleman she met with the youth who had tried to help her.  Not long after that episode, Genevieve was married off to a man whose disgusting sexual preferences and debauched lifestyle were widely known, and whose reputation was so terrible that his wife was also shunned by society.  Now a widow, Genevieve had been looking forward to a degree of independence, but it seems that even widowhood cannot protect her from the men in her life. Kilburn tells her that the money set aside for her in the event of her husband’s death is gone because another of her brothers had used it to make unwise investments and announces that he is looking for another husband for her.  Unwilling to be sold into marriage, Genevieve conceives a daring plan…

Hazard is a well-paced, multi-faceted story in which Ms. Riley confidently, and with great skill, pulls together her plotlines to culminate in a climactic event that brings things to a head for one of our couples.  As someone for whom a marriage of convenience plotline is like catnip, I was particularly engaged by Aristide and Genevieve’s story; she has a lot of emotional baggage as a result of her first marriage, and Aristide’s motives for marrying her are not at all altruistic, but the way the author gradually develops their emotional connection and shows Aristide’s growing appreciation and admiration of his new wife is extremely well done and the level of honesty between them is entirely refreshing.

If I have a criticism, it’s one that boils down more to personal taste than anything, which is that, much as I’ve enjoyed the push-and-pull between Nick and Madeleine and have been rooting for them to get together, the ‘I am not worthy so I will not allow you to make the terrible mistake of marrying me’ is a plotline I tend to dislike; it always feels as though one party is telling the other they’re wrong and don’t know their own mind.  It’s a pet peeve – others may not mind it – and it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book; Nick and Madeleine’s HEA is hard won and well-deserved, and it’s entirely possible I may have emitted the odd happy sigh as I read.

One of the delights of this series is the way that the recurring characters feel like old friends rather than for-the-sake-of-it cameos.  Ms. Riley excels at writing close male friendships, which is one of the things I so enjoy about her novels; there’s no question these men, no matter how much they tease and joke at each other’s expense, would do anything for one another – and for their ladies.  The downside of this – if it can indeed be said to be a downside – is that there’s a danger that the new reader may be a bit bewildered by all these names popping in and out.  Each novel in the series is self-contained, but if you’re thinking about picking up this, or any of the other books in the series, I’d recommend starting at the beginning with The Parfit Knight and reading in order.  They’re all terrific reads, so it should present no hardship.

Hazard is a fabulous addition to this thoroughly enjoyable series of Georgian romances.  Ms. Riley’s writing is sharply focused and elegant, her characters are strongly drawn, the chemistry between the leads is undeniable and both romances are brought to immensely satisfying conclusions. It gets a very strong recommendation.

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