After the joyful surprise of The Parfit Knight, which I regarded as a rare perfect tale, this follow-on was, for me, a far more uneven effort. It’s still well-written, it’s still enjoyable, but it suffered from one major problem and a host of minor niggles.
Here’s the premise: the Duke of Rockliffe has reluctantly decided that he needs to marry to fulfil his dynastic obligations, and provide a chaperon for the debut in society of his high-spirited young sister, Nell. While accompanying her to a nightmarish house party and adroitly side-stepping the social climbing daughter of the house, he meets Adeline Kendrick. He already knows her, having met her some years ago at one of his far-flung estates, where he was drawn to her free-spirited semi-wild nature. Now she’s the little-regarded poor relation, hiding her resentment behind a barbed tongue and a somewhat passive-aggressive style of resistance. Rock is just as drawn to the adult Adeline, although not in a romantic way, more a kind of lustful fascination. So when the social-climbing daughter’s machinations go wrong and Adeline is seemingly compromised by the duke, he decides to marry her, because why not?
So here we have the classic marriage of convenience tale, with a lot of similarities to Georgette Heyer’s The Convenient Marriage, with shades of April Lady and a hint of Venetia, too. To start with, things go well, with Rock acting in a gentlemanly fashion to allow his bride to grow accustomed to her role as a duchess. But when they go to London and start to move in society and events from the past rise up to knock them sideways, everything gets more complicated and frankly, the book goes off the rails somewhat.
Let me deal with the major problem first, which is that time-honoured obstacle, the Great Misunderstanding. I have a rule that if a plot difficulty can be resolved if the characters just sat down and talked to each other, that’s an epic fail, and that’s pretty much what we have here. When Adeline encounters a difficulty, instead of just telling Rock all about it and letting him deal with it (as he should), she attempts to deal with it herself and then gradually involves all his friends in the deception. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Naturally the marriage goes from bad to worse as Rock realises she doesn’t trust him, which (given her history) wouldn’t be too bad, except that she seemingly trusts all his friends above her own husband. Foolish girl. And then he gets grumpy about it and flounces off. Naturally, they do eventually overcome the problem and open up to each other, but it all takes far too long.
Of the minor niggles, these are just me and probably wouldn’t bother most people. This being the second book of the series, a number of characters from the first book pop up, often with important minor roles but not much explanation of who they were, so I struggled to remember some of them. I could have done with less of them, to be honest. I found Adeline’s refusal to open up to Rock inexplicable. He’s a lovely character, who’s very gentle with her, woos her romantically and even explains what he’s doing, but even though she’s in love with him, she never gives an inch. I get that she’s built mental walls to shield herself from the world, but she really needed to meet him half way. The villain of the piece is way, way over the top with a hugely melodramatic outburst in the middle of a crowded ballroom, which I found impossible to believe. There were a couple of minor side romances which were quite nicely done, but I could have done with less of them, too. And a really trivial grumble, this, but I cannot take seriously a duke whose given name is Tracy. Even though it’s historically accurate. Just no.
Having said all this, Riley’s writing is so superb and Rock is such an awesome hero overall (apart from that flounce) that this still reaches four star heights for me. For those who prefer a completely clean story, there’s one bedroom scene, quite graphic although tastefully done. I already have the next book in the series (The Player), but I’ll take a break before trying that, I think.