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

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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

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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

Lords of Misrule (Roundheads and Cavaliers #4) by Stella Riley

Lords of Misrule March 2016

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Still tied to his desk in the Intelligence Office, Colonel Eden Maxwell has become increasingly disenchanted with both Oliver Cromwell and his own daily existence; and with the advent of new Royalist conspiracies, he despairs of ever getting away.

Then a brick hurled through the window of a small workshop sets in motion a new and unexpected chain of events. After all, who would want to hurt Lydia Neville – a young widow, giving work and self-respect to maimed war veterans considered unemployable elsewhere? But when the assaults in Duck Lane escalate, threatening the life and remaining limbs of some of Eden’s former troopers, finding the culprit becomes a personal crusade.

At their first meeting, Lydia finds Colonel Maxwell annoying; by their second, having discovered that he had arrested and questioned her brother in connection with the Ship Tavern Plot, she mistrusts his motives. On the other hand, it swiftly becomes plain that she needs his help … and has difficulty resisting his smile.
Solving the increasingly hazardous mystery surrounding Lydia is not Eden’s only task. Between plots to assassinate the Lord Protector and a rising in Scotland, he must also mend the fences within his own family and get to know his son. Life suddenly goes from mind-numbing boredom to frenetic complexity.

With reckless Cavaliers lurking around every corner and a government still struggling to find its way, Lords of Misrule is set against a time of national discontent and general failure. But readers of the previous books in the series can look forward to catching up with old friends as well as meeting new ones … while, against all the odds, Eden and Lydia find danger and reward in equal measure.

Rating:A

Stella Riley’s Roundheads and Cavaliers series of books set during the English Civil Wars is an absolute treat for those who enjoy well-researched historical fiction AND historical romance. Each book in the series is grounded strongly in historical fact and the stories Ms Riley layers atop her chosen background are cleverly constructed and closely interlinked with the events of the day, often so skilfully that it’s difficult to see the join. As well as immersing the reader into the world of seventeenth century England, she puts a strongly written and sensual romance at the centre of her books, creating attractive, believable protagonists who really seem to act and think like men and women of their times.

Each book can be read as a standalone, although there are a number of recurring characters throughout and given that the historical events are followed chronologically, I’d advise reading them in order. The first book, The Black Madonna opens in 1639, which is when we first meet Eden Maxwell as a hopeful, optimistic young man of twenty or twenty-one. He is desperately in love with the daughter of a neighbouring family, Celia Langley, and determined to marry her in spite of the warnings of friends and family who say she is wrong for him. Sadly for Eden, they are right. Celia is beautiful, vain and selfish and only agreed to marry him because he was so thoroughly besotted with her that she believed he’d be easy to manage and because she liked being so adored.

Eden’s troubles did not end there, however, for when civil war broke out, the Maxwells and the Langleys were on different sides of the conflict and even though Celia was now his wife, her sympathies were with the Royalists. She bore Eden a son, Jude, and some years later, a daughter Eden knows is not his. Celia eventually ran off with a Royalist officer, leaving her children at Eden’s family home of Thorne Ash, while disillusioned and embittered, Eden concentrated on his army career and rarely returns home.

Lords of Misrule opens in late 1653, around four years after the execution of King Charles I and more than a decade after the start of a series of bloody civil wars that divided England and its people. But regicide has not solved any of the problems that beset the country, and in fact things seem to be getting worse. While there were many factors that led to Charles’ trip to the executioner’s block – unpopular taxes, expensive wars and Charles’ insistence on his divine right to rule – England is still in political and social turmoil, so much so that many of Cromwell’s supporters have begun to ask themselves just what exactly they had been fighting for.

Lords of Misrule opens in late 1653, around four years after the execution of King Charles I and more than a decade after the start of a series of bloody civil wars that divided England and its people. But regicide has not solved any of the problems that beset the country, and in fact things seem to be getting worse. While there were many factors that led to Charles’ trip to the executioner’s block – unpopular taxes, expensive wars and Charles’ insistence on his divine right to rule – England is still in political and social turmoil, so much so that many of Cromwell’s supporters have begun to ask themselves just what exactly they had been fighting for.

Colonel Eden Maxwell is one of those people. A highly trained and skilled officer, he has risen through the ranks and is now a trusted member of Cromwell’s inner circle. He is currently working for the Secretary of State, John Thurloe, as an intelligencer and cryptographer, but as the days pass, finds being chained to his desk increasingly frustrating. His repeated requests for a leave of absence have been denied and he is stuck in London buried under the mounds of paper generated by reports of unrest, possible insurrection, royalist plots and a myriad of other dull, fruitless tasks – until he receives information of a more plausible plot against Cromwell’s life (there were several at this point in time). One of the suspected conspirators, Sir Aubrey Durand, leads Eden to the citylorinery run by his widowed sister, and in the course of his investigations into the plot, Eden uncovers far more than he’d initially been looking for.

Lydia Neville was contented in her marriage a man several decades older than herself. On his death, she inherited all his property, including the lorinery, which she continues to run successfully and in spite of the constantly expressed disapproval of his relatives, all of whom invade her home on an almost daily basis to try to persuade her to give it up. But Lydia is no shrinking miss and makes it clear each time that she will do no such thing – although her assurances fall upon deaf ears and do not dissuade them from their latest scheme to marry her off to her late husband’s smarmy cousin.

When Eden visits the lorinery, he is pleasantly surprised to find some of his former comrades working there, for the business employs invalid ex-soldiers who would not otherwise be able to find work, regardless of which side they fought on. He is quite impressed by Lydia – or perhaps “impressed” is the wrong word, although she certainly makes an impression upon him by virtue of her strength of character, quick mind and sharp tongue. But what Eden has learned from the men concerns him. Someone has been making threats against Lydia, and those threats have started to get serious. Although she has tried to dismiss them as the prejudice any woman in business might expect to encounter, deep down she knows this is not the case and that she needs help if she is to be able to get to the bottom of them before anyone is seriously hurt – or worse.

Anyone who has read any of Stella Riley’s other books won’t need me to tell them that her plot is impeccably constructed, her characterisation is superb, her research is detailed and extensive and that she writes the most exquisitely ‘romantic’ romances in which the sexual tension between the hero and heroine is built gradually and subtly. There is no repetitive mental lusting and no insta-lust, just a wonderfully developed relationship between two people who are obviously attracted to each other but who have to function in the real world around them and can’t just drop everything while they moon over the object of their affections.

Ms. Riley’s greatest strength – and she has many – is probably characterisation. She has the knack of creating the most gorgeous heroes, men who are physically attractive, of course, but who are also intelligent, honourable, kind and quick-witted with a dry sense of humour and possessed of the kind of competence and confidence which is extremely sexy. Eden is no exception, and readers who have been waiting for his story for the last couple of decades certainly won’t be disappointed now that he’s the centre of attention. His unhappy marriage and the strain it put on his relationship with his family – especially Jude, who is now a teenager – play an important part in the novel, and I loved watching the gradual reconciliation between father and son. It’s not easy for either of them and Ms. Riley wisely shows that there is still a way to go; but what we are shown is touching and very believable. Lydia is a great heroine, a woman in a man’s world who refuses to bow to outside pressure but who has sense enough to recognise that she needs help and isn’t too proud to accept it. There is one time when she makes an unwise decision – even though she’s been warned against it – that leads to near disaster, but otherwise, she’s strong, independent and very likeable, a good match for Eden, in every way.

There is a very strongly-drawn set of secondary characters in the book, some of whom, like Eden’s younger brother, Toby, and his house-guest, Sir Nicholas Austin, we have met before. Toby is a real scene-stealer – handsome, charming, roguish and forever having to step over the pile of women who fall at his feet – can we have a book about him next, pretty please? Fans of Gabriel Brandon from Garland of Straw will be very pleased to encounter him again as he travels to London to take up a seat in Parliament, and at the continuance of the strong friendship between him and Eden. One of those other many strengths of Ms Riley’s I mentioned is her ability to write thoroughly convincing male friendships; and that talent is showcased here in both Eden’s relationship with Gabriel and in his interactions with Toby, which are often funny and, for want of a better word, very brotherly.

I’ve only scratched the surface of what readers can expect to find in Lords of Misrule. There’s a well-conceived and well-executed mystery, a tender, sensual romance, and a fascinating historical background which never feels like too much information or as though one is being given an history lesson. If you’re tempted to start here, I think you could probably do so with minimal effort, but ultimately, all the books in the series are such damn good reads that I’d suggest starting with The Black Madonna. Before you’re half-way through, you’ll want to turn off your phone, ignore your kids/work/friends, lock yourself away and not come out until you’ve finished them all.

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The Player (Rockliffe #3) by Stella Riley (audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham

The Player audio

This title is available to purchase from Audible via Amazon.

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.

Granddaughter of a wealthy wool-merchant, Caroline Maitland is not finding her society debut either easy of 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.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – A-

Keen-eared listeners may have already worked out the identity of the hero of this, the third book in Stella Riley’s series of Georgian romances. In The Mésalliance, the Duke of Rockliffe mentioned seeing an actor at the Comedie Française in Paris who bore a striking resemblance to one Francis Adrian Sinclair Devereux, Earl of Sarre, who was the subject of a terrible scandal some ten years earlier.

That scandal concerned the death of his fiancée, who fell to her death from a rooftop and whom Adrian was subsequently accused of murdering. A day or two short of his twenty-second birthday and their wedding, distraught at the death of the girl he loved to distraction, Adrian protests his innocence, but all his autocratic father cares about is that there is no way of proving it and he immediately hurries Adrian out of the country to try to mitigate the scandal.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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The Mésalliance (Rockliffe #2) by Stella Riley (audiobook) – narrated by Alex Wyndham

The Mésalliance audio

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon.

The Duke of Rockliffe is 36 years old, head of his house, and responsible for his young sister, Nell. He is, therefore, under some pressure to choose a suitable bride. Whilst accompanying Nell to what he speedily comes to regard as the house-party from hell, he meets Adeline Kendrick – acid-tongued, no more than passably good-looking yet somehow alluring. Worse still, her relatives are quite deplorable – from a spoiled, ill-natured cousin to a sadistic, manipulative uncle. As a prospective bride, therefore, Adeline is out of the question. Until, that is, a bizarre turn of events cause the Duke to throw caution to the wind and make what his world will call a mésalliance.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – A-

Originally published in 1990, The Mésalliance is the second book in Stella Riley’s series of Georgian romances, which began with The Parfit Knight and continues with The Player . Substantially revised since first publication, the book is a superb compromised-into-marriage story which sees the suave, sophisticated and unflappable Duke of Rockliffe meeting his match and getting his happy ending; although not without a journey through the emotional mangle – for both himself AND the listener – along the way.

As listeners of The Parfit Knight will already know, Rockliffe is the epitome of gentlemanly elegance, good breeding and excellent manners. He is also fiercely intelligent, loyal to his friends, thoroughly honourable and seemingly omniscient, somehow knowing everything worth knowing about everything and everyone. In the hands of a lesser author, such a paragon could have been priggish or irritating, but Rock isn’t either of those things. Beneath the carefully cultivated and highly polished exterior is a man of character, a man who would do anything for those he cares about and a man of rare insight and depth of feeling. And I defy anyone not to have fallen in love with him by the end of the book!

The story starts simply. Rockliffe is handsome, wealthy, and, at thirty-six years old, fully sensible of the fact that it’s time he did his duty and found himself a wife. Unfortunately for him, the one woman he has so far met who doesn’t bore him silly was already in love with his best friend by the time he met her, so seeking a suitable duchess from the remaining crop of debutantes and society ladies isn’t a particularly appealing prospect. Rock also has a younger sister who is in need of a steadying, female hand, a factor which is as important as Rock’s decision to marry as his eventual need for an heir.

Committed to attend a two-week house-party at the home of the Franklin family, Rock is resigned to a fortnight of doing the pretty among the simpering misses, and is surprised to see a familiar face among the guests. Adeline Kendrick is the Franklins’ niece, and it is soon clear to Rockliffe that while she is family, she is treated little better than a servant by them, especially by her lovely, but utterly spoiled and selfish cousin, Diana.

Although not a beauty, there is something in Adeline’s quiet strength and defiantly waspish tongue that intrigues Rockliffe and draws him to her. He is astonished to discover how much he wants her, but being a man of honour, knows there is nothing to done about it. Fate has other ideas however, because when Adeline discovers that Diana has hatched a scheme to entrap him, thwarting it places the two of them in a compromising position instead and there is nothing for it but for Rockliffe to offer marriage to Adeline – which he does with a lack of dismay about the situation that surprises him.

Things move quickly after that, but Adeline, taught by life to be cautious, isn’t willing to risk revealing the true nature of her feelings to Rockliffe and asks him for time to accustom herself to marriage before they consummate their union. Being the gentleman he is, her new husband agrees – not without difficulty – and decides to give Adeline the courtship their hasty marriage denied her. Unfortunately, however, it’s not long before Adeline’s slime-ball of an uncle, Richard Horton, insinuates himself into her life by telling her something unpleasant about her past and threatening to reveal it to Rockliffe if she doesn’t pay him to keep quiet.

From here on in, the tension in the story really ratchets up. Adeline, knowing how much Rock has done for her in marrying her can’t face the prospect of being responsible for tarnishing his good name and reputation, and the tissue of lies and misunderstandings between them spiral out of control until they eventually reach a point where it seems almost impossible that they will ever be able to work things out.

I have to say that I am not overly fond of the Big Misunderstanding in romances, but I’ve been a fan of Stella Riley’s for almost thirty years, and I knew that if anyone could pull it off she could. And she does. While it’s certainly frustrating that Rock and Adeline don’t – or can’t – talk to each other about their problems, Adeline’s reasons for not wanting to do so are perfectly understandable, as is Rockliffe’s withdrawal when he believes her to be uninterested in him; and the all the roiling emotions concealed beneath the surface are skilfully realised. It’s wonderfully angsty and beautifully written, and the characterisation of Rock is superb. In the latter part of the story especially, the author brilliantly conveys the sense of a man on a tight rein and close to coming completely undone. Adeline is perhaps a little harder to like because of what she puts Rock through, but she’s nonetheless the sort of heroine one can root for; strong and determined, she has had to grow a thick skin and learn to look after herself given the treatment she received at the hands of her uncaring relatives.

Without wishing to take anything away from the author, who has written a tremendous story, the narration by the supremely talented Alex Wyndham takes The Mésalliance to a whole new level of excellence. He has a real affinity for and understanding of the material, and his ability to get under the skin and into the heads of the characters is exceptional. His interpretation of Rockcliffe is simply stunning, so much so that the word “performance” seems an inadequate description for what I was listening to. He captures the essence of the character absolutely, adopting a soft, always precise manner that leaves the listener in no doubt as to Rock’s incredible self-possession while also hinting at a deeply buried vulnerability. I can imagine that portraying a character who prides himself on maintaining his sang-froid at all times, and then having him gradually abandon that control while at the same time keeping him completely in character must have presented a challenge – but if that was the case, one would never know it, because Mr Wyndham ‘s performance in those parts of the story is sublime.

Another thing that impressed me hugely is the way he handles the large supporting cast with such aplomb. Every single one of the numerous secondary characters is voiced distinctly so that, even in the case of those who don’t appear very often, they are immediately recognisable and there is no question of confusing them with anyone else. And those who do appear regularly, such as Amberley, Jack Ingram and Harry Caversham are easy to distinguish from one another and everyone else, while Richard Horton’s pinched, nasal drawl is the perfect match for the malevolence of his character.

I can’t do anything other than recommend the audiobook of The Mésalliance most strongly to fans of the genre and romance audiobooks in general. Ms Riley writes with intelligence and charm, and has the knack of creating the most delicious heroes and cracking sexual tension between her protagonists. If you’ve listened to Alex Wyndham before, then you’re not going to need much convincing to listen to him again. His performance here is possibly his best yet, and even though I can’t imagine how he could possibly improve on it, I have no doubt he will prove me wrong when The Player is released in a few weeks’ time.

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