The Chick: Lady Isabella Mackenzie. Once the scandalous young debutante who eloped with a younger son, her passionate marriage burned up before its time and she now lives separate from her artist husband.
The Rub: Despite their separation, she still cares enough about him to approach him about a possible imposter - even if it means risking a renewal of affection.
Dream Casting: Bryce Dallas Howard.
The Dude: Lord Roland "Mac" Mackenzie. Once a passionate, hard-living artist, he's sloughed off his shallow, enabling friends, weaned himself off alcohol, and has avoided scandal in order to show his wife he's worthy of being her husband again.
The Rub: He knows he has to move slowly to keep from scaring her off, but it's hard to be patient when there's a murderous imposter on the loose.
Dream Casting: Ewan McGregor.
Isabella: Someone's impersonating you and selling paintings under your name!
Isabella: Wait, what?
Mac: I mean, whatever. Guess I'll totally have to hang around you making flirtatious comments and reminding you of the happy days of our marriage. You know. To protect you and stuff.
Isabella: This concerns me...
Evil Imposter: I am evil! And I look like your husband! Mwahahaha!
Isabella: Wow, this totally makes you look nicer and more responsible in comparison.
Evil Imposter: *shoots Mac* *dies*
Isabella: Oh no! You almost died! That totally makes me forget all our marital problems. Let's remarry!
Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Bitter Separation
3 Sexy Brothers
1 Artistic Wager
4 Asshole Former Friends
3 Erotic Paintings
1 Violent Impersonator
1 Fake Secret Baby
The Word: The second in Jennifer Ashley's series centering on a scandalous, wealthy family of manly, red-headed Scottish peers (the first being the excellent The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie), the one thing I worried about before I started reading this book is, "How is she going to top Ian Mackenzie?" The first novel was well-written and lovely but it also had a killer hook - a hero with autism. Isabella's novel is a Marriage in Trouble romance, and while there are many, many ways to have a searingly beautiful, heart-tugging Marriage in Trouble romance (just ask Eloisa James), they aren't exactly thin on the ground. So how would Jennifer Ashley make this romance stand out?
Lady Isabella's marriage certainly was scandalous - she eloped with the wealthy, artistic Lord Mac Mackenzie on the very night of her debut. While her family disowned her, society embraced her, and Mac and Isabella showed every sign of being passionately in love with each other. Passion is a double-edged sword, however, and after three wearying years of thrilling highs and devastating lows, Isabella left Mac and requested a separation.
When the novel opens, Isabella willingly seeks out her husband's company for the first time in years, to inform him that someone has been impersonating him and selling forged paintings
under his name. While Mac is initially dismissive of the idea of an impersonator (he paints for the joy and satisfaction it brings him, not for fame or wealth), he seizes on this new opportunity to ease his way back into Isabella's life and hopefully reconcile with her. He's given up his drinking and carousing and wants to show her that he's ready to take life seriously.
However, while Isabella still loves Mac very deeply, she has no desire to return to a marriage as unstable and one-sided as theirs was. Mac is loving and loyal now, but he's always had those moments - until he gets bored and the fighting starts and he flees to paint in a foreign country and send her apologies by postcard. That's not the type of life she wants and she has no way of knowing whether Mac's change of heart is a true change or merely him in a good mood.
The things I liked? Isabella and Mac - I loved the interplay between them. Mac is playful without being thoughtless, Isabella is strong-willed without being tiresome. While there may be disappointment and bitterness, there is no hatred between them or in their interactions. Their antics are an intriguing mixture of old and new - they clearly know each other very well and are familiar with their tic and habits, yet at the same time, the ways they've evolved during their separation continue to surprise them.
Also under the "Good" List are Mac's brothers, who once again manage to participate in the story without acting like Walking Trailers For Their Own Books.
The things I didn't like? The whole suspense plot was completely unnecessary. We could have easily done without the Crazy Impersonator Who Makes Trouble and Illegitimate Surprise Babies, especially coming on the heels of Debra Mullins' To Ruin the Duke, which had a near-identical plot. Crazy Impersonator's antics leave little to no impact on the rekindled romance itself, except perhaps to help spook the protagonists back together faster. Because nothing restarts the Love Machine like the threat of violent murder.
That being said, does this book have the same kind of killer hook that Ian did? No. It takes the Julia Quinn route, actually - taking a pretty realistic, down-to-earth obstacle (a fractured marriage rekindling), and portraying it in a realistic yet romantic and wholly satisfying way.