I picked up Rexanne Becnel’s The Troublemaker hopefully. Nothing makes me happier than to find a new writer - new to me - whom I enjoy and whose backlist I can then explore. Somehow or other, I had never sampled Ms. Becnel’s wares, and I hoped that The Troublemaker would send me scurrying in search of her earlier books. Instead, I found a story featuring a heroine with an unerring ability to make the wrong decision and a ‘hero’ who was one of the most thoroughly distasteful characters I have ever encountered in a romance.
The heroine, Sarah Palmer, is characterized as reckless and lacking judgment right from the beginning, a characterization that is maintained consistently for 300 pages. We first meet her the morning after she has tried to elope with a fortune hunter. Her older brother pursued her, thwarted the attempt, and revealed her suitor for a scoundrel. The London of 1827 is unforgiving of such conduct, so her family packs her off to stay with her older half-sister in the Scottish Borders. When she arrives, she finds that Olivia and her family have gone to Glasgow for a month. Instead of following them, Sarah decides to stay by herself in her sister’s home and prove to her family that she can behave maturely. Bad decision.
On her journey from London to Scotland, Sarah met Marshall MacDougal, an American also traveling to Kelso. Marshall’s mother raised him in the belief that his father died en route to Boston, leaving her to have her baby alone and nearly penniless. After her death, he finds a letter from his father, dated one year after Marshall’s birth, telling Marshall’s mother that he had contracted a ‘true marriage’ and would not be joining her in Boston. There is no marriage license among his mother’s few papers, but Marshall believes her story. He travels to Scotland, determined to revenge himself on his father and to claim his birthright as Cameron Byrde’s first-born son.
Marsh is unwittingly walking into a complicated set of relationships. The second woman Cameron Byrde married is Sarah Palmer’s mother. Thus her half-sister, Olivia, is also Marshall MacDougal’s half-sister because Marshall and Olivia have the same father. Cameron Byrde died a few years after he married Olivia’s mother. Augusta Linden Byrde remarried and produced Sarah Palmer, so Olivia and Sarah share the same mother. (Got that?)
Understandably, it takes Marshall some time to sort this out, during which time he believes that he has been attracted to his half-sister. Not wanting to reveal his identity, he tries to distance himself from Sarah by being rude to her. Sarah, in the meantime, has figured out who Marsh is and that his plans endanger both Olivia’s inheritance and her peace of mind. Sarah decides to find Marsh’s mother’s wedding lines before he does and destroy them - another typically poor decision.
Marsh is attracted to Sarah from his first sight of her on the docks at Berwick-on-Tweed. On her part, from that first, dockside kiss, Sarah finds herself responding physically to his advances. Why, I don’t know. Every single physical encounter between Marsh and Sarah is coercive on Marsh’s part. He forces his kisses on her - they are more of an assault than an embrace - and then is infuriated because he is left aroused and frustrated. He never shows any empathy for Sarah, even when he embarrasses her sexually during an unchaperoned carriage ride.
In an effort to spare her family pain, Sarah tells Marsh she will pay him to return to America without revealing his heritage. That is not enough for Marsh. He blackmails Sarah into having sex with him by telling her that only then will he leave without causing trouble. Afterwards, even though he knows Sarah’s motives are unselfish, he blames her. “She was a self-indulgent English aristocrat who believed her money could buy anyone off. When it could not buy him off, however, she willingly threw herself into the pot. Anything to protect her family’s reputation among the rest of their loathsome peers.” He then leaves without thinking that she might be pregnant. My skin crawled.
None of the authorial attempts to reclaim Marshall MacDougal in the last third of the book worked. Becnel could not show him flirting with rape for more than 200 pages, then expect readers to believe in his reformation. His earlier characterization was too well established. My conclusion? Spare yourself a nasty experience - avoid The Troublemaker.
--Nancy J. Silberstein