Moonlight On My Mind
by Jennifer McQuiston, historical (2014)
Avon, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-06-223134-5


About a year ago, Julianne Baxter - beautiful, impetuous, and believed herself to be far more wily about men than she actually was - wanted to attract the attention of Eric Channing, the eldest son of the Earl of Haversham, by asking Eric's younger brother Patrick to dance. She and Patrick ended up sharing a kiss, and it was wonderful... and disastrous. You see, Eric and Patrick were never close, and they were always looking for an excuse to fight. So they fought - loudly, angrily - over Julianne, and perhaps shots were fired, as Eric would soon show up dead with a bloodied Patrick standing over his corpse. Desperate to cover up her own actions up to that point, Julianne stammered out the things she saw prior to Eric becoming a stiff, and implicated Patrick as the killer in the process.

Patrick's father maintained that his eldest son's death was accidental, and Patrick retreated to brood like a long-faced mule in a rustic countryside in Scotland. He is busy being Dr Doolittle until this story opens, when Julianne stumbles into the neighborhood looking for him. His father died recently, and without his protection, the eyes of the law are once again on Patrick. Julianne has plenty of doubts about Patrick's involvement in his brother's death, and she wants to make amends... somehow. Her first action on her list is to convince Patrick to come back to London, step into the shoes of the Earl of Haversham, and... well, she's sure something will happen next.

That something is marriage to Patrick. Oh, she's ruined - she travels all the way to Scotland to meet a man without a chaperone, and the neighborhood vicar isn't amused. But while she thinks that marrying Patrick may be a way to help him repair his image, he has something more pragmatic in mind. His BFFs - read their books, darlings - let him know that, as his legal wife, Julianne doesn't have to step into the witness box against him, so getting shackled to this woman may just be the quick fix for all his problems.

Now, Moonlight On My Mind is a pleasant shock indeed. You may have read my reviews of the author's previous efforts, and if you have, then you'd know that I've stepped on stuff on the pavement that smells better than those books. This one, however, has me reading from start to finish without even wincing once, and when I close this book, the first thought that crosses my mind is: "Wait, what just happened?"

I don't know what happened, but hey, I'm glad it happened. This book isn't just a pleasant upgrade from the previous two books, the author also catches me by surprise when she displays some unexpected finesse when it comes to impressing her characters' emotions onto me. On paper, Julianne can easily be described as "feisty and impulsive" while Patrick falls under the "smells like emo" category. But as the story progresses, these characters exhibit various layers of complexity in their personality and thought processes. There are some plot developments here that are straight out of the "Hey, it works, so all hail the formula!" handbook, but at the same time, these developments feel like organic results of the evolving plot.

It's, therefore, a bit disconcerting for me to realize how little I like the idea of these two in a happily ever after. Perhaps this is because the story is a subversion of the formula where the hero is usually the pro-active one while the heroine is a pretty bobblehead nodding sadly to the key of blue. In this one, Julianne is the one out there working her rear end off to salvage things for Patrick, while Patrick's Pavlovian response to any hint of conflict is to run away, sulk, or gnash his teeth haplessly as he remains rooted in passivity.

What annoys me is that Julianne breaks many rules of acceptable romance heroine behavior - beautifully, unrepentantly - for Patrick's sake, but Patrick sometimes undermines her efforts by sabotaging them or, worse, treating her with disrespect or undermining her efforts in front of the very people whom she's defending him from. I can only take such behavior for so long before wondering why I even care about seeing Patrick get happy, as he puts so little effort in digging himself out of his hole. His BFFs tell him what to do. His wife drags his ass all over the place to get him to do something. This guy is nothing better than a stubborn donkey who just won't move unless people force him to.

I like Julianne a lot - she'e feisty to the hilt, in every positive way, and she's definitely a fighter who isn't afraid of playing dirty. She may not be the smartest person around, and I do cringe at some of things she does here, but the darling has the right attitude. She doesn't go down without a fight, and I like that. I can tolerate her Eeyore husband in small doses, But they go together like oil and water - she's too good for him, even after all the pain she has caused him from a year ago, and I can't care about his happy ending since he barely puts any effort into getting it himself.

The suspense is flimsy and some suspension of disbelief is required, but I get this feeling, from reading the author's foreword, that there had been some editorial tug-of-war that resulted in the downplaying of the suspense elements. In this instance, perhaps it is inevitable that a couple of plot holes show through the Band-Aids hastily applied to the story after the author had done rewriting it to keep the editor happy.

Moonlight On My Mind isn't a clear home run out of the gate, but the author has me taken by surprise from the first chapter. I can't help but to be impressed despite my misgivings about this story.

Rating: 81


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