If You Deceive, the third and last installment in Kresley Cole's entertaining MacCarrick brothers series, gives the oldest and most difficult brother, Ethan, the chance to find his "forechosen mate . . . For his true lady alone his life and heart can save.–? Not surprisingly, the most difficult brother also proves to be the most challenging romance, and unfortunately, the book did not quite master that challenge.
Like his brothers Court and Hugh, Ethan MacCarrick is unlucky in love, a fate he believes to be foretold by a family prophecy, the last and crucial lines of which are obscured by blood. Until each brother meets his mate, they believe they are to remain loveless, childless, and disastrous to anyone who cares for them. Ethan has doubled and even trebled his misfortune, first by the deep scar that mars his once beautiful face and then by his first fiancÃƒÆ’Ã‚ ©e's wedding-eve death. He is bitter and jaded, resentful of his responsibilities as Earl of Kavanagh and angry at the world in general, and more specifically at those who caused his disfiguring scar. Never a man who had tremendous respect for women, after being cut Ethan is certain that any woman worth having will be repulsed by his appearance, and he eventually shuts all women out of his heart and his sights. Until, that is, "wee lass–? Madeline Van Rowen, daughter of his greatest enemy, captivates him with her beauty and her natural sensuality. Although both are masked for the same party that started off Hugh and Jane's book, If You Desire,–? Ethan immediately sees beyond Maddie's disguise: Though she appeared lively and fresh, he sensed in her a world-weariness–"the same that affected him so markedly (16). The two are drawn to each other, and following a raid on the illicit party, Maddie and Ethan find themselves in a carriage and in a fully passionate exchange for which neither is prepared.
Like Ethan, Maddie has had more than her share of misfortune, enduring poverty, hunger, and abandonment since her parents' deaths, completely unaware that the drastic change in her circumstances from wealth to destitution were orchestrated by her mother's selfishness, her father's weakness, and Ethan's vengeance. Living in a Parisian slum, Maddie survives through thievery and odd jobs, and had made a final effort to trade on her beauty and her virginity to find a husband in England so she does not have to marry an aging and creepy French count, to whom she was promised years ago. So she borrows money to purchase a fine wardrobe and travels back to England and to her friends the Weylands, none of who know the depths to which Maddie's life has sunk. When she meets Ethan, she is as caught up as he in the unexpected attraction, and both of them indulge in an uncharacteristic recklessness that binds them together emotionally and physically, despite an equally strong mutual mistrust.
The pattern for Ethan and Maddie's relationship is established during their first heated exchanges as mutual strangers in a carriage. Ethan distrusts his own attraction to Maddie even as he is overwhelmed by her appeal. Maddie knows she is in desperate circumstances but is unwilling to count herself a defeated victim. Ethan has the means to rescue Maddie but cannot resolve his own tender feelings, preferring instead to imagine the final exacting of his rage against her parents. Maddie has the emotional strength and stability Ethan needs to heal his heart but cannot quite trust any fortune that gleams too brightly. The certainty of trust will guarantee their happiness as a couple, but the uncertainty each brings into the relationship practically guarantees tumult, misunderstanding, broken promises, and betrayal.
Ethan and Maddie's story is not new to Romance, based as it is on both great passion and great personal insecurity, and unfortunately, Cole does not provide the freshest spin on the epic emotional drama between Maddie and Ethan. Although I could appreciate both Ethan and Maddie as characters, I found the pacing of the story uneven and the plethora of well-used plot and character elements frustrating. It took me three days to read the first 150 pages of the novel and three hours to read the last 200 or so pages, and by the time I finished I felt vaguely unsatisfied. On the one hand, I really appreciated the fact that Cole does not flinch in portraying Ethan as a man who really has used women in the past, showing us in many ways that his callousness is a cover for the fact that "he felt [everything] too strongly–? (94). Combined with the cruel way in which Ethan was disfigured, that understanding allowed me to tolerate some very unpleasant moments, especially the scenes in which Ethan aggressively pushes Maddie sexually, uncertain at some level of whether he wanted to debase her or worship her. But even Ethan's self-awareness didn't save him from appearing two-dimensional, especially as he struggled so obviously and often with his dual impulses toward tenderness and callousness.
Maddie, on the other hand, while a very strong character, did not come across as vividly to me as Jane did in If You Desire, and consequently, the many pages of background that Cole provides on her degraded life in Paris dragged for me. Although I am the type of reader who really appreciates a broader scope for historical Romance –" a whole world view rather than microscopic focus on the two protagonists –" here the background and foreground felt unbalanced and not smoothly assimilated. One symptom of this is the fact that for every French phrase Cole used, she provided a translation, even when she could have expressed the meaning more smoothly through context and clues. By the time the novel finally took flight for me, I hit the epilogue and felt an almost tangible sense of curtailment, like having to break for more traffic after you think the freeway is finally clear.
As with most of Cole's books, I was entranced by the heroine and greatly enjoyed the sight of an overgrown, overaggressive man felled by his "wee lassie,–? even though I had had enough of her "wee–? everything long before Ethan did. I appreciated the fact that Cole created a woman who could tell the hero, and mean it, that he was not to "confuse my desire for you–"and for self-preservation–"with desperation–? (197), and who "boldly believed she was a lovable person,–? despite the losses she suffered (229). How refreshing it was to enjoy a heroine who wasn't a mass of fears and insecurities, even if her bravado seemed unbelievable at times. She was really the perfect foil for the angry, insecure Ethan. And Cole's prose continues to mature with every book she writes. If only the book had been more evenly paced and substantively vibrant, even in its derivative elements, If You Deceive would have risen above an average read for me. As is, however, it earns a C.