Hazard (Rockliffe #5) by Stella Riley

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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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The Marigold Chain by Stella Riley (audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

England, 1666; the year all the prophecies said the world would end. For Chloe Hervaux, 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 at war with the Dutch, and Prince Rupert suspects that sabotage is at work in the fleet. Instructed to find and stop the traitor, Alex enters a dark, secret labyrinth of intrigue – where no life is safe and nothing is what it seems.

Chloe, meanwhile, navigates the shark-infested waters of Charles 11’s licentious Court and plots a course of her own aimed at financial independence. But as the diverse facets of Mr. Deveril’s personality are gradually revealed, her mock-marriage becomes fraught with difficulties – the greatest of which is Mr. Deveril himself.

Absorbed in his search for a traitor, Alex spares little thought for personal matters and less for his bride. But as the flames of the Great Fire sweep over London, he and Chloe face their ultimate test. Their world is at risk…their choices may save it.

The Marigold Chain is a richly-woven tale of intrigue, danger, and love set against a backdrop of Restoration England during the year expected to be Doomsday.

Rating: Narration – A: Content – A

The Marigold Chain is one of Stella Riley’s earliest published works, and, as it’s a long-time favourite of mine, I’ve been waiting not-at-all patiently for it to make an appearance in audiobook format. I first read it in the mid-1980s and loved it; for me, it ticks all the boxes. A brilliant, gorgeous, sharp-tongued hero enters into a marriage of convenience with a practical, quick-witted heroine who doesn’t take any of his crap; set that against the backdrop of the politics and intrigue-laden Restoration court of Charles II, and you’ve got another winner from a writer who really knows how to put the historical into historical romance while at the same time creating a tender, sensual love story. With the exceptionally talented Alex Wyndham once more at the microphone, there’s no question The Marigold Chain is a fabulous audio experience – so just sink into your favourite chair, lock the door, take the phone off the hook and let the world look after itself for a few hours while you get stuck in!

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Wicked Cousin (Rockliffe #4) by Stella Riley (audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon

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.

Rating: Narration – A+ Content – A-


Those two names up there in the review title should be enough to tell you why you need to go and buy this audiobook at once. The combination of Ms. Riley’s wonderfully intelligent writing and Mr. Wyndham’s extraordinary skills as a narrator is always a delight to experience, and in The Wicked Cousin, book four in the author’s Rockliffe series of Georgian-set romances, both author and narrator are at the top of their game.

Following the death of his twin brother, Theo, at the age of eight, young Sebastian Audley, now the only son and heir of Viscount Wingham, spends the best part of the next thirteen years chafing at being wrapped up in several layers of cotton wool and over-protected to the point of suffocation. So naturally, as soon as he is able to do so, he sets about raising merry hell, which he does up and down the length and breadth of Europe with such great success that his exploits become the stuff of legend and his name regularly appears in the scandal sheets.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

In Celebration of June Is Audiobook Month

To mark June is Audiobook Month, I and my fellow AudioGals have been choosing some of our favourite audiobooks in our favourite genres, and this week it was my turn to choose my Top Five Historical Romance audios. Which wasn’t easy. Last week saw Kaetrin picking her Top Five Contemporary Romances, and the week before that, BJ chose her Top Five Urban Fantasy/Paranormal listens. There’s still time to enter the giveaway for earbuds and downloads – head over to AudioGals and scroll down to the bottom of this week’s post for details.

In the meantime… my Top Five.

I might as well say this right now. I am utterly HOPELESS at choosing favourites. The minute anyone says to me “what’s your favourite (something)?” my mind goes completely blank and I struggle to think of ANYthing, let alone the ones I’d rate above all others. Then after the initial panic has subsided, I can think of too many. But because, when it comes to audiobooks, I’m someone who always places the narrator ahead of the author in terms of importance when it comes to choosing the ones I want to listen to (sorry, authors!), choosing five audiobooks I think would be a good introduction to historical romance in audio for someone who wants to take the plunge but doesn’t know where to start didn’t prove too difficult. My choices are therefore selected by narrator first; and as such, feature my “Fab Four” – four narrators I would quite happily listen to if they were reading the phone book.

You can read the rest of my list at AudioGals.

The Wicked Cousin (Rockliffe #4) by Stella Riley

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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.

Rating: A-

The Wicked Cousin is the fourth book in Stella Riley’s Rockliffe series of historical romances set in Georgian England, in which she once again presents readers with a gorgeous hero, an admirable heroine and a well-written, strongly developed romance that simmers with sexual tension and is deliciously, well, romantic. Add to that a delightful cast of familiar secondary characters, witty dialogue, wonderfully written friendships and a gently bubbling secondary romance with great potential for a future book… and Ms. Riley has another winner on her hands.

The eponymous cousin is the Honourable Sebastian Audley, only son and heir of Viscount Wingham. Following the tragic death of his beloved twin brother at the age of eight, Sebastian was wrapped up in several suffocating layers of cotton wool, mollycoddled and over-protected to such an extent that when he was finally able to, he went more than a little wild in his determination to experience life to the full. There was no wager too risky, no lady too unattainable and no bottle too undrinkable for Sebastian, and tales of his exploits as he cut a dash through Europe have spread far and wide, shocking (but secretly titillating) the ladies and entertaining the men, most of whom think Sebastian is a jolly fine fellow and would gladly slap him on the back if ever he stayed long enough in one place to allow them to do so.

The problem with a reputation of such magnitude, however, it that it tends to be both inflexible and impossible to dislodge, as Sebastian quickly discovers when, after an absence of several years (barring his annual and very quiet flying visit) he returns to England for good when he learns that his father has suffered an apoplexy and that his life is in danger.

Truth be told, Sebastian’s hellraisng lifestyle has begun to pall and at the age of twenty-eight he is ready to embark on another phase of his life – to start to learn how to manage the family estates and to ready himself to take on the responsibilities that will be his when he eventually inherits his father’s title. But he knows that he faces quite the task in terms of convincing society that he has thrown off his hellion ways and wants to settle down; the minute he is known to be in London, he’ll be besieged by young bucks vying for his attention and attempting to get him to wager on the most outrageous things, and while he isn’t going to agree to any of them, it’s going to be difficult to keep on turning them down without causing offence.

Fortunately, Sebastian’s good friend, Adrian Devereux, Earl of Sarre (The Player) comes up with a solution to that particular dilemma. If they make a private wager, it will preclude Sebastian from accepting any others, thus giving him a legitimate reason for declining any others offered him.

Sebastian is therefore set for his re-entrance into London society which, given he’s handsome as sin and twice as charming, welcomes him with open arms.

Miss Cassandra Delahaye, whom we met in The Player is getting tired of hearing of very little other than the wicked Mr. Audley – who happens to be a very, very distant relation of her family – from her younger sister and her friends, all of whom are swooning over the tales of his exploits printed in the scandal sheets. While constantly hearing about the dashing, handsome rake, Cassie is trying to work out how to gently reject yet another suitor who has asked her to marry him simply because she’s exactly the sort of girl one marries – pretty, sweet and well-bred. She’s not silly enough to expect to be swept off her feet and fall madly in love with the man she will eventually wed, but she would at least like to be chosen for herself and not just because she is regarded as “eminently suitable”.

Her first – accidental – meeting with her so-called wicked cousin is not an auspicious one and at first she thinks him arrogant and conceited. But she is forced to concede her error when further encounters prove him to be neither of those things; he’s funny, kind and clever and she finds herself enjoying both his company and his conversation, which is interesting and enlightening. But even more than that, he is probably the first man to take an interest in her opinions and what she has to say; in short, to see and appreciate Cassie rather than the demure Miss Delahaye, and it isn’t long before she is thoroughly smitten with the genuinely decent man she is coming to know.

For the first time ever, Sebastian is in love, and, in a touching and beautiful scene at his brother’s graveside, talks to him about the strength of his feelings for Cassie and the task he faces in convincing the woman he loves that he is a changed man. More difficult than that, however, he is going to have to prove to her father that he can be trusted with his daughter’s heart and happiness. But Sebastian is not one to give up easily and is determined to win Cassie’s hand.

The Wicked Cousin is a character-driven romance which has, at its heart, a tender and romantic courtship that is not without a few heated moments. But there is a lot more to enjoy as well, not least of which is meeting characters from the previous novels. We get to see the Duke of Rockliffe as a besotted new father, to witness Caroline, Lady Sarre, giving Adrian’s mother a well-deserved set-down and Adrian’s first, sartorially-challenged meeting with his wife’s bluff, yet kindly grandfather. We catch up with Amberley and Rosalind, Rock’s sister, Nell … and there is still something brewing between his younger brother Nicholas and the lovely Madeleine Delacroix (sister of Adrian’s business partner, Aristide). It’s also incredibly refreshing to read a story in which the heroine’s family is kind, fond and well-adjusted, and while Sebastian and his father have clearly butted heads over his life-choices in the past, Ms. Riley has very wisely opted not to have them at each other’s throats, and to show instead that there is affection and respect between them and to point the way towards an improvement in their relationship.

That’s not to say that everything in the garden is rosy, however. Sebastian’s relationship with his oldest sister, Blanche, is very strained and has played some part in his estrangement from his family; and his rakish past comes back to haunt him in the form of one of his past lovers, who is obsessed with him and refuses to believe he is no longer interested in her. The “evil other woman” plotline can be a difficult one to pull off and is one which I know some readers dislike, but it works well here, clearly showing how Sebastian has changed and become aware of the inadvisability of many of his past actions, while also injecting a bit of drama into the story.

If I have a criticism of the book overall, it’s that while Cassie is a lovely heroine and perfect for Sebastian, she is somewhat overshadowed by him. She’s not a shrinking violent by any means – she’s charming, intelligent and not afraid to stand up for herself – but Sebastian is so vital and charismatic that he steals pretty much every scene he’s in. But for a hero-centric reader like me, that’s no problem at all, and I was more than happy to be completely charmed by him in all his red-headed, blue-eyed glory.

All in all, The Wicked Cousin is a delightful read and one which is sure to please fans of intelligently written, strongly characterised historical romance. It’s a self-contained story, but as it’s the fourth book in a series, characters from the previous books are mentioned and many make cameo appearances, so if you haven’t read the others you might want to familiarise yourself with who is who. Or just read the first three books, which are every bit as enjoyable as this one.

More, please, Ms. Riley!

My Best Books of 2016 – at All About Romance

best-of-2016-covers

Over the past week or so All About Romance has been publishing the team’s lists of their Top Ten books read in 2016. The vast majority of these are books published in 2016, although a few are books published previously that have been read this year.

All my choices are 2016 titles, and as usual, it was a tough list to compile. I’ve had a good reading year (I’ll be taking a look at my stats at some point and posting about those) and at AAR, have awarded a good number of B Grades and up, indicating that I read many more books I enjoyed than books I didn’t, which I count a definite plus.

Pinning it down to ten books was TOUGH, as was picking an outright “book of the year”, because this year (unlike last), that moniker could have been applied to practically every book on my list. But being I’m a bit of an angst-bunny, I went for the book that ripped out my heart and stomped on it a few times, AND which I’d been most eagerly anticipating.  Click on the link and all will be revealed!

My Best of 2016

A Splendid Defiance by Stella Riley (audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham

splendid-defiance-audio-cover-1-2

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

For two years, England has been in the grip of Civil War. In Banbury, Oxfordshire, the Cavaliers hold the castle, the Roundheads want it back and the town is full of zealous Puritans. Consequently, the gulf between Captain Justin Ambrose and Abigail Radford, the sister of a fanatically religious shopkeeper, ought to be unbridgeable. The key to both the fate of the castle and that of Justin and Abigail lies in defiance…but will it be enough?

A Splendid Defiance is a dramatic and enchanting story of forbidden love, set against the turmoil and anguish of the first English Civil War.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A

Anyone who – like me – appreciates Historical Romance that has a firm emphasis on the “Historical” will find a great many things to enjoy in this new audiobook version of Stella Riley’s A Splendid Defiance.  Set during the turbulent years of the English Civil War, the novel tells the true story of the small garrison of around three hundred and fifty men who held the strategically important Royalist stronghold of Banbury Castle in Oxfordshire in the face of overwhelming odds, and many of the characters who grace its pages are people who actually existed.

Skilfully interwoven with the story of the castle and its defenders is the glorious (but fictional) slow-burn romance between Justin Ambrose, a cynical, acerbic captain in the King’s army and Abigail Radford, whose brother, Jonas, is a leader of the local community and a die-hard Puritan.  The romance starts very slowly – so anyone who expects the first kiss between the hero and heroine to happen in chapter three is going to be disappointed – but builds steadily throughout and is all the more believable as a result.  Justin and Abigail begin the story as strangers and the author allows their relationship to develop in a manner that feels perfectly realistic, considering he’s a serving army officer with duties to perform and Abby lives a very restrictive life controlled by her harsh zealot of a brother.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals