Review by Em
Stella Riley’s writing – the period detail, the mannerisms, the settings – and wonderful storytelling – plots, dialogue, characters – are par excellence. Her Rockliffe novels are particularly smart and engaging with multiple plots and storylines that run throughout the series, and feature a terrific cast of primary and secondary characters. Hazard is no different – although this time we get double the love with two relationships that develop in tandem as the story progresses. Meanwhile, an intrigue set in motion after a moving prologue simmers along in the background, only reaching its climax as the three narratives intersect. The ending is neat, tidy and mostly satisfying… but although the novel is well paced and the story is engrossing, the intrigue that ties together the principles at the novel’s conclusion lacks urgency, and the underdeveloped characterization of one of Hazard’s more intriguing principals, Aristide Delacroix, is disappointing.
Years ago whilst living and working as a lowly secretary in Paris, Aristide also taught French to Genevieve Harcourt, the step-daughter of an English diplomat. Beautiful and carefree, sixteen year old Genevieve loved to tease her tutor , and despite their age gap and decidedly different stations in life, Aristide was captivated by her – the only light in his otherwise grey existence. Which is why, when Hazard begins, he finds himself crouched in the bushes outside of the Hôtel Fleurignac waiting for her maidservant. After discovering her English half-brothers are plotting to marry her off to an elderly, but very rich suitor, she beseeches Aristide to carry a note to the friend she hopes will save her. He agrees, but begins to despair of the maidservant ever appearing, and he’s anxious to leave. His sister Madeleine is waiting at home for him to arrive with medicine for their sick and dying mother; if he waits any longer, the apothecary will close. Suddenly, Genevieve’s half-brothers grab him – believing him to be the intended recipient of Genevieve’s love note – and they beat him within an inch of his life and leave him for dead.
Madeleine Delacroix is frantic. Her mother is dying and she’s out of the medicine that helps her to breathe. She’s waited all day for her brother to arrive and her mother’s condition is worsening. She prays for help but her pleas fall on deaf ears. Aristide doesn’t come; no one does. Desperate, heartbroken and sick with worry over her brother, Madeleine sobs as her mother dies in her arms.
Fans of the Rockliffe series will recognize Aristide and Madeleine from earlier novels – the pair (along with secret partner Adrian Devereux, Earl of Sarre), own and manage Sinclair’s, an exclusive London gaming club. They’re also friends with the Duke of Rockliffe, his brother Lord Nicholas Wynstanton (who’s pined for Madeleine since The Player), and the other couples who make up the Rockliffe set. Hazard picks up seven years after the events of the prologue when two (problematic) figures from Aristide’s past make surprising reappearances in his life. The first, Sir George Braxton, spots Aristide on the floor of Sinclair’s and publicly accuses him of cheating at cards three years ago in Paris. The second, Genevieve Westin, is newly widowed (she married impulsively to save herself from her half-brothers) and trying to shake off the taint of her depraved husband, who was murdered after rumors of his proclivity for children and adolescent girls became known. Meanwhile, Madeleine is dealing with problems of her own – well, one problem in particular. She’s in love with Lord Nicholas but doesn’t believe she’s worthy or deserving of his affections. Nicholas disagrees and is determined to have her. As Hazard unfolds, he devises a long game to finally claim her heart.
Ms. Riley slowly spins the various plot threads that comprise Hazard, and it’s a complicated and intricate stew of lust, love and treachery. Braxton is fixated on Aristide – determined to regain the two thousand pounds he lost in Paris. His accusations threaten Sinclair’s and although they’re (sort of) true (ha! You weren’t expecting that were you?), he’s an arrogant ass with secrets of his own. He’s a thorn in Aristide’s side throughout the novel; Braxton’s behind the scenes machinations add a dark undercurrent to the two relationships at the forefront of the story. Although Aristide is determined to undermine Braxton and his accusations, he’s distracted by the not-so merry widow Westin who doesn’t appear to recognize him or remember what happened to him seven years earlier.
What often sets Riley’s novels apart from the pack are the marvelous characters who inhabit the pages of her books. The Rockcliffe series is no different. Friends, the Duke of Rockcliffe is yummy – and so are the men who comprise his small group of friends and confidants (yep, they’re all sexy, smart and supremely likeable). The women are similarly great – loving wives, devoted, loyal and kind friends. And although I sometimes feel like this cozy group is a bit too good to be true, it’s always enjoyable to spend time with them. Hazard’s principals – a mix of new (Genevieve) and old (Aristide, Madeleine and Nicholas) – are particularly compelling. Unfortunately, with four of them – and George Braxton – vying for our attention, no one gets quite the attention they deserve. We never learn what happened to Aristide and Madeleine in the intervening seven years – only that they were poor and desperate and that the two thousand pounds he won from Braxton provided their stake to open Sinclair’s. When he becomes acquainted with Genevieve, he’s sophisticated, urbane, and an enigma to everyone – including his friends. Madeleine is sophisticated and savvy when it comes to business, but internally she’s a mess of nerves and self-doubt, and Nicholas struggles to overcome her defenses. Ms. Riley never fills in the gaps in their history – and it’s frustrating. We know a bit more about Nicholas from his appearances in earlier novels – and Hazard simply reinforces how awesome (and frustrated) he is here. But Genevieve and her family are the most intriguing and underdeveloped of all. Her husband was a pig (truly) and Genevieve suffered at his hands – but once Genevieve meets Aristide, her story is subsumed into the relationship that develops between them. Her life is illustrated through the prism of his effect on it – I liked her, but I don’t feel like I know her, and I was puzzled by her relationship to her eldest brother. He seems to hate her… but I’m not sure I totally understood why.
As I mentioned earlier, Ms. Riley is a master storyteller. Hazard’s three seemingly unrelated storylines eventually coalesce into a surprising and romantic conclusion. It’s a challenging novel to review without spoiling other twists/pleasures, and I wondered how she would bring events to a climax – suffice to say, I was surprised by the precipitating event. But I also felt the ending was a little too abrupt after the slow pace of the novel and I think the author sacrificed some of the romance between her couples in order to bring about a resolution of their relationships. Although much of the physical intimacy is implied and/or takes place off the page (the Rockliffe set is a lusty lot), it supplants the emotional intimacy I wanted and needed from both couples and I missed it.
In spite of those criticisms, however, Hazard is compelling from start to finish. Fans of Rockliffe and his friends and family will find much to love in this novel – and two happily ever afters to sigh over. Romantic and clever, Hazard is another wonderful addition to the Rockliffe series.
Publisher and Release Date: Stella Riley, February 2018
Time and Setting: London, 1777
Heat Level: 1.5
Genre: Historical Romance
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.