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The Artful Heir by Martha Kirkland
(Signet, $4.99, G) ISBN: 0-451-19562-0
****
I do like it when I find a Regency that I can recommend wholeheartedly because it has a certain freshness that sets it apart from the rest of the pack. Martha Kirkland's The Artful Heir is just such a Regency. We can begin with the clever title. The heir is Matthew Donaldson and he is artful, artful in the sense that he has inherited a house full of art. And he needs someone to catalog and clean his outstanding collection.

Miss Sarah Sterling is a fairly standard contemporary Regency heroine: a woman in her late twenties, "on the shelf," of somewhat ambivalent social status, and possessing a non-traditional skill. In this case, Sarah is an art expert and restorer, having learned at her father's knee. Now her father is recovering from a heart attack and she has traveled all the way to Northumberland to fulfill his commission. But she is, not surprisingly, concerned that her potential employer will reject her services on the grounds that she is a woman.

Matthew and Sarah have a somewhat unusual first encounter, as he rescues her when the stage has an accident. From the start, he appreciates her calm, levelheadedness. But he is loathe to employ her since he fears for her reputation. Matthew, you see, is viewed as "not quite the thing" by his neighbors. Although his father was the previous owner's brother, he had been forced to make his own way after his father's death. He had served fifteen years in the army, six in the ranks before winning a commission by virtue of his bravery. He is not quite a gentleman, at least in his own eyes.

Add to this attractive couple a plot that includes a matchmaking aunt, a pair of star-crossed lovers, and a mystery centering on the theft of some of Matthew's pictures, and the result is a pleasant, entertaining read. I did find Matthew's sense of unworthiness to associate with a proper young lady a bit overdone (he did have all that money and Sarah was not exactly high society), but still, I liked the way the romance developed. They are a well matched pair.

The Artful Heir breaks no new ground, but it is an engaging, well-told tale that should appeal to fans of good Regency romance. I certainly spent a pleasant Sunday afternoon with Matthew and Sarah.

--Jean Mason


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