Narrated by Alex Wyndham
Those two names up there in the review header should be enough to tell you why you need to go and buy this audiobook at once. The combination of Ms. Riley’s wonderfully intelligent writing and Mr. Wyndham’s extraordinary skills as a narrator is always a delight to experience, and in The Wicked Cousin, book four in the author’s Rockliffe series of Georgian-set romances, both author and narrator are at the top of their game.
Following the death of his twin brother, Theo, at the age of eight, young Sebastian Audley, now the only son and heir of Viscount Wingham, spends the best part of the next thirteen years chafing at being wrapped up in several layers of cotton wool and over-protected to the point of suffocation. So naturally, as soon as he is able to do so, he sets about raising merry hell, which he does up and down the length and breadth of Europe with such great success that his exploits become the stuff of legend and his name regularly appears in the scandal sheets.
After a few years of this, however, Sebastian realises that he’s had enough of that way of life and that it’s time to move on and start to learn the things he needs to know for when he eventually inherits his estate and title – but the problem of having a reputation such as his is that it’s incredibly difficult to shed or live down. When he receives word that his father is ill and that he needs to come home at once, Sebastian decides to take the bull by the horns and make the attempt to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of society. But it won’t be easy. He knows that the minute he sets foot in England he’ll be besieged by young bucks wanting to make ridiculous wagers, young women interested in flirtation and young matrons and bored widows interested in much more than flirtation. To coin a phrase – the women want him and the men want to BE him – and Sebastian is going to have to tread very carefully if he is to achieve his goal of retiring into relative anonymity.
The news of Sebastian’s arrival back in England spreads like wildfire and speculation as to when and where he will make his first appearance in society runs rife. It’s too much for Cassandra Delahaye however, who is thoroughly fed up with hearing her younger sister and friends sighing and mooning over the reputedly gorgeous and thoroughly wicked Mr. Audley – who happens to be a very distant sort of cousin. Cassie is trying to work out how to delicately but decisively reject the proposal she suspects is coming from yet another suitor who most likely wants to marry her because she is sensible, well-bred and even-tempered; in short, exactly the sort of girl a gentleman should marry. She isn’t stupid; she doesn’t expect to be swept off her feet or to fall madly in love, but she would at least like a husband who has chosen her for herself rather than because she is “suitable”.
When Sebastian and Cassandra meet for the first time, it isn’t an auspicious encounter. He thinks she’s pursuing him and she, while admitting he’s undoubtedly the most handsome man she’s ever laid eyes on, thinks he’s conceited and arrogant. Subsequent encounters, however, quickly lay those bad impressions to rest as Cassie comes to realise that Sebastian is neither arrogant nor conceited; he is clever, witty and kind, his conversation is interesting and enlightening and, best of all, he is genuinely interested in her thoughts and opinions, the first man ever to see and appreciate her for herself, rather than as the eminently proper Miss Delahaye – and she is quickly and thoroughly smitten.
Sebastian is similarly drawn to Cassandra, whom he finds charming, intelligent and utterly delightful. In love for the first time in his life, he knows he faces quite the challenge if he is to convince her father that he can be trusted with his daughter’s hand and heart. Nevertheless, he is determined to win her and dutifully approaches Charles Delahaye, fully prepared to lay out the truth of his past and set on convincing him that he really has changed and that he will do everything in his power to ensure Cassandra’s happiness.
Perhaps unusually for historical romance these days, The Wicked Cousin is the story of a traditional courtship. Sebastian is careful to do things by the book, as it were, knowing that it’s important if he is to gain permission to marry the woman he loves. That doesn’t, however, mean that the romance is without heat; this couple might not be sneaking off for secret trysts in libraries, conservatories or deserted hunting lodges, but there is no lack of romantic and sexual tension between them whenever they are together, and there’s no question that they share a strong emotional connection.
Among the many things to enjoy in this story is the relationship that exists between Sebastian and one of his oldest friends, Adrian Devereux, Earl of Sarre (hero of The Player). Ms Riley excels at writing male friendships, between individuals or groups, and I was delighted at becoming reacquainted with a number of characters from previous books – Amberley, Rockliffe, Philip Vernon, Aristide Delacroix – all of whom have parts to play in supporting Sebastian’s “rehabilitation.
The familial relationships are well done, too. It’s very refreshing to have a heroine who comes from a loving family who obviously care for her and have her best interests at heart, and even though Sebastian’s relationship with his father is strained, I really appreciated the way that we are shown that there is sufficient affection and respect between them for a full reconciliation to take place at some future date.
The one – small – criticism I have of the book is that while Cassie is Sebastian’s perfect match, she is perhaps overshadowed by our hero, who is so charismatic, so vital and so downright gorgeous that he steals practically every scene he’s in. For a hero-centric reader and listener like me however, this isn’t a problem ;) And one other thing I should mention, because I know some people are not fond of it, is that the book contains an “evil other woman” plot; a former lover of Sebastian’s – who is obsessed with him almost to the point of madness – has followed him to England determined to rekindle their affair, and when rejected, hatches a scheme to ruin his name and reputation. I’m fairly ambivalent about it as a plot device in general, and it works here to show that Sebastian has come to understand and regret many of his past, less well-thought out actions, as well as to inject some external tension into the story.
What can I possibly say about Alex Wyndham’s performance here that hasn’t been said before? Every time I listen to him, I am bowled over by his intelligent and insightful interpretation of the author’s words, his incredible skill as a vocal actor and his thorough command of the technical aspects of audiobook narration. Every single character – and there is a large secondary cast in this book – whether male or female is given their own distinct vocal characterisation and that’s quite a feat, given there must be something like eight prominent male cast members in addition to Sebastian and Adrian and four or five ladies in addition to Cassandra. His portrayal of Sebastian is spot on; charming, witty and sexy, his tone light and airy a lot of the time but with a hint of steel when required and a rather lovely vulnerability when Sebastian is unsure of himself and surprised to find himself falling in love. There’s a moving scene which takes place at Theo’s graveside when Sebastian talks to his brother about Cassandra which is a perfect illustration of this, and is absolutely beautifully done.
This is a terrific addition to the growing number of audiobooks available from this wonderfully talented author/narrator team. A gorgeous hero, an admirable heroine and a deliciously romantic story… The Wicked Cousin has it all and I can do nothing but recommend it very strongly indeed.
TITLE: The Wicked Cousin
AUTHOR: Stella Riley
NARRATED BY: Alex Wyndham
GENRE: Historical Romance
STEAM FACTOR: Glad I had my earbuds in, but at the tame end
REVIEWER: CazBuy The Wicked Cousin by Stella Riley on Amazon