How can a Stella Riley book be so indigestible? I loved the previous three books in the series, and this has its moments, but it’s totally bogged down by the weight of characters from previous books, who are just not adequately explained. I don’t object to the reappearance of one or two, if they’re relevant to the plot, but please, please, please introduce them AS IF they’re new characters. And there are so many of them…
Here’s the premise: Sebastian Audley has spent the last few years lighting up the scandal-sheets with his outrageous exploits. We know right from the start why: his twin died in childhood and, as the sole remaining heir, Sebastian was wrapped in cotton wool and thoroughly coddled, to the point where he had no life at all. The result was that, as soon as he came of age, he slipped his shackles and took off to indulge in all the wild exploits he’d been forbidden before. But after a few years, and with his father in ill-health, Sebastian returns to England, minded to settle down. Trouble is, a reputation like his is hard to live down, and while the gentlemen try their very best to provoke him to into his old ways, the ladies set out single-mindedly to entrap him in other ways. It all gets rather tedious for him.
Cassandra Delahaye is far too sensible to be interested in a rake and ne’er-do-well like Sebastian. So obviously, they’re going to fall in love, right? Well, of course they are, and since he’s the heir to a title and a very pretty fortune, and she’s of impeccable lineage and reputation… wait a minute. What exactly is the obstacle to their courtship and marriage? There isn’t one, of course, but no self-respecting Regency romance can let that pass. There has to be an obstacle. Cue the thwarted and vindictive ex-mistress.
If you groaned at this point, believe me, so did I. Stella Riley is an awesome writer, and the first book in this series was breathtakingly original (a blind heroine! How wonderful is that?), so it’s incredibly disappointing to find this story propped up by such a tired old trope. And because it’s such an unworkable trope, the ex-mistress inevitably becomes more and more unhinged, leading to some ridiculous situations. Yes, it was very dramatic, but no, not in the least plausible.
The previous books in this series were terrific, so I’m going to set this down as a misstep that simply didn’t work for me. The writing is excellent, as ever, the romantic moments were lovely and if you have a better memory than me, or you read the books in rapid succession, then maybe the deluge of characters from previous books will enhance your enjoyment of this book. But for me, Riley’s brilliance notwithstanding, the over-the-top ex-mistress and the hard-to-follow ensemble cast keeps this to three stars for me.