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Touch of Enchantment

A Kiss to Remember by Teresa Medeiros
(Bantam, $21.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-553-80209-7
Oh, the mail we will get, insisting I have my head on backwards and wouldn’t know a five-heart read if it bit me on the rear. And I freely admit that some will find this book to be a keeper. A Kiss to Remember was perhaps my most uneven read of the year so far, and while the lovely ending left me with a smile, the first half of the book was an exercise in perseverance.

The story opens with a chilling scene. Seven-year-old Sterling Harlow is literally sold into an heirdom by his gambling, avaricious father. Taken forcibly from his beloved home, Arden Manor, Sterling will be the next Duke of Devonbrooke. This satisfies the needs of his odious uncle, the present Duke, who has been left a widower with no sons, as well as those of his father, who receives a handsome sum in payment. The knowledge that his beloved mother is a willing accomplice to this breaks Sterling’s young heart.

Twenty years later, Sterling Harlow has returned from the war, now a duke. Devonbrooke Hall is a grand, chilly reminder of the hated years spent there, inhabited only by Sterling and his spinster cousin, Diana. No sooner does he arrive than Diana hands him a letter, received five months previously. It’s from a Miss Laura Fairleigh, informing Sterling of his mother’s death. Laura and her young sister and brother had been taken in by Sterling’s mother when they were left orphaned. The slightly reproachful tone of the letter angers Sterling, enough that he leaves London and heads for Arden Manor to reclaim it.

Laura Fairleigh is in a dreadful bind. If she marries before her twenty-first birthday, she will inherit Arden Manor. That date is only three weeks away. She needs to come up with a bridegroom. When Sterling is thrown from his horse close to the Manor, Laura finds him unconscious. Sterling awakes and has no memory. Laura can’t resist this answer to her problems. She informs Sterling that his name is Nicholas Radcliffe, and they are engaged to be married in a fortnight.

Any romance reader worth her salt will immediately know that Sterling and Laura will fall in love, but he will regain his memory at the most inauspicious time and denounce her as a liar. No surprises here. And this first half of the book gave me a great deal of trouble. Laura instantly assumes that, since Sterling never answered any of his mother’s letters, the new duke will throw the three of them into the workhouse, and therefore, her duplicity is justified. That she doesn’t know who “Nicholas” is and fully intends to go through with the wedding anyway certainly gave me pause. Laura has the impression that once she gets a signature on the marriage documents, nothing will be able to take Arden Manor away from her. As she states, “We’ll be married in the eyes of God, and those are the only eyes that matter.” The eyes of the court never seem to cross her mind. This part of her personality felt not only distasteful, but rather stupid, and by page 100 I was pretty exasperated with her.

Having said that, I liked Laura as a character. She doesn’t think very far ahead, but her devotion to her younger brother and sister is admirable, and she truly intends to be a good wife to Nicholas/Sterling. When the inevitable unmasking comes, Laura is as shocked as anyone to find out exactly who she married.

The second half of the book really takes off, as Sterling decides he needs an heir and Laura is just the woman to provide it. This bit of self-delusion leads to a wonderful denouement and a secondary romance involving Diana that has a twist at the end. Sterling loves Laura, of course, but his deep-seated fear of abandonment creates a wall that will have to be breached.

Sterling is the standout character in this story. Where Laura is rather simplistic, Sterling is complex, and the two sides of his personality - the sunny Nicholas and the darker Sterling - are juxtaposed perfectly. Blending the two together in the second half is a masterful piece of writing, indeed. The ending is certain to bring a tear to readers’ eyes, as Sterling finally makes peace within himself and opens himself up to love.

The attraction between the leads is quite steamy, and nearly deserving of an R rating. Call this a hot PG-13 historical. Ms. Medeiros really knows how to generate some heat.

So why the three-heart rating? Because the premise of the book is built on a lie, one that Laura has no intention of revealing until some years have passed. If circumstances didn’t intervene, there would be no revelation on her part, and I found that to be fairly distasteful. Other readers aren’t going to mind as much. So, if the plot sounds like something you’d enjoy, by all means pick up a copy of A Kiss to Remember and enjoy one dashing, heartsore duke.

--Cathy Sova

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