The Player is the third book in Ms. Riley’s Rockcliffe series, but it is not necessary to read the previous books to enjoy or understand this book. While the book is set in 1776, it has a regency feel in terms of subtle sexuality that readers who dislike too much erotic displays will enjoy.
Francis Adrian Sinclair Devereux, the Earl of Sarre, comes back to England after a ten year hiatus when his brother and heir dies. After his father threw him out of England for the scandal he caused, Adrian made his way in Europe as both a card sharp and an actor. With a brother as his spare, Adrian never intended to come back. However, fate played its hand and off to England he goes. His first stop is to visit his mother, the Dowager Countess of Sarre. She is loathsome as he remembers and is the first to bring up the scandal. At the age of twenty-two, Adrian was engaged to be married and two days away from his wedding when his betrothed announced that she was breaking their betrothal and was pregnant with another man’s child. His wild fiancée set the stage for this dramatic announcement by leading Adrian to an abandoned part of the castle and dancing along the parapet. It will not shock the reader to learn that she slipped and plunged to her death on the cobblestones below. The man who had gotten her pregnant conveniently shows up as her blood splattered and broken body is still warm on the ground and calls Adrian a murderer. That man just happened to have been Adrian’s friend since he was eight years old – Marcus, Lord Sheringham.
Caroline Maitland is the season’s most wealthy heiress and the granddaughter of a wool merchant. Lady Brassington has fallen on hard times and makes her living presenting young ladies after smoothing out their rough edges. She has taken Caroline under her wing and is ushering her through the intricacies of society. While Caroline has learned how to act like a lady, her younger half-sisters have not; her mother and sisters still retain their harsh Yorkshire accents and ways. Caroline knows it is up to her to take care of her sisters and provide them with their own dowry from the 100,000 pounds her grandfather settled on her as they have little hope of entering society. So while she does not expect to marry for love, she does want some say in how her dowry is spent. When the book opens, Caroline has two bonafide suitors, Lady Brassington’s nephew (a mere mister) and Baron Sheringham. Lord Sheringham is all that is beautiful both in looks and manners, but Caroline cannot rid herself of the niggling feeling that something is off with him. Of course, she is right. Marcus Sheringham wants nothing more than Caroline’s bundles of money. He is one step ahead of the sponge house and his credit is about to be cut off at one of London’s newest and most popular gaming houses – Sinclairs. Of course Marcus has no clue that Sinclairs is partially owned by his nemesis the Earl of Sarre.
Adrian’s main plan upon his return to England is revenge on Marcus (who renews his charge of murder against the Earl). After discovering his interest in heiress Caroline Maitland, he sets out to discover what he can about the young lady. He does this by donning the disguise of Claude Duval, a romantic highwayman from the previous century. Adrian discovers he likes Caroline and does not want to see her fall into Marcus Sheringham’s clutches. He begins to woo her in the character of Claude and as the Earl of Sarre. Of course, deception never ends well and it is not taken kindly by Caroline Maitland in this book.
Riley has a good sense of her setting and I like that she went outside of the traditional regency era to plot her story. Both Adrian and Caroline are fully developed characters with enough depth to make them interesting. The secondary characters in this book were almost as interesting as the main characters and the hero of her second book in this series (the Duke of Rockcliff) is intriguing enough that I now want to read about his story. Her villain is pretty awful, but never descends to a caricature. I genuinely liked both Caroline and Adrian and wanted their HEA.
Riley’s writing is both fluid and filled with wonderful descriptions, and any problems I had with this book were not due to the character of her writing, but its content. I think Ms. Riley overdid it just a bit using two areas that men could pursue to make their living instead of just one. I personally believe she should have just stuck with actor or card sharp, but not both. However, it is not my story to tell. While some readers have commented that they like her reincarnation of the character of Claude Duvall, the romantic highwayman who danced with his victims, I have read enough romance that I have seen this song and dance before. However, the use of this alter-ego is what sets up the main conflict between Caroline and Adrian and therein lies the problem that kept this book from getting a higher grade from me. I did not understand Adrian’s rationale in using his Claude persona to muck up his plans. And once those plans were in motion, it should have taken a fair amount of groveling on his part to win Caroline’s trust. He did grovel, but there is a fairly large leap from forgiveness to love and that part of the book felt too rushed for me.
So while this book did have its flaws, I still enjoyed it very much and would recommend this author to romance readers.