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A Touch of Magic
by Nadine Miller
(Signet, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-19511-6
****
Nadine Miller has a taste for unusual characters and unusual situations in her Regency romances, and A Taste of Magic is no exception. Can the granddaughter of the "Witch of Exmoor" and the son of the Duke of Bellmont find happiness together? Quite an unusual premise, to say the least.

Lord Adam Cresswell, son of said duke, has managed to survive four years in Wellington's army. He is now expected to live the life of a gentleman of leisure, and he is not particularly happy in it. He suffers from "survivors' guilt," wondering why he is alive while so many of his friends are dead. When he wins heavily at cards from a country farmer and when that farmer shortly thereafter suffers a fatal accident, he feels responsible. So he heads off to Exmoor to return to the widow the deed to her husband's farm and to assure himself that she is not in any distress.

When he arrives at Fiona Haines' remote farm, the widow mistakes him for an ex-soldier in need of work. Since she needs a farmhand, she offers Adam the job. Adam decides to accept. He wonders if he can meet the challenge of being just an ordinary man doing an ordinary job. He is also most taken by his extraordinary employer.

Fiona had married Buckley Haines at sixteen, grateful to the slow but kind man who gave her a home and respectability. Fiona had suffered under a double burden. First, she is the illegitimate daughter of a local nobleman. But more significantly, she is the granddaughter of Creenagh Derry, the "witch of Exmoor." Derry women have never loved wisely. Traditionally, they have all fallen in love with noblemen who leave them alone to bear their children. Fiona had been determined to escape this fate, and her marriage to Buckley had been her method. She had been fond of her husband, but he had never inspired any passion in her.

Adam finds Fiona fascinating. She has educated herself with the help of a kindly local vicar and she has a thirst for knowledge. She is hardworking, intelligent, shrewd, and, of course, lovely. He delights in talking to her about the world beyond Exmoor, a world she knows only through newspapers. He decides that he should introduce her to that world, that a woman of her beauty and charm should not be shut away on a remote farm. Of course, he does not intend to marry her; dukes' sons do not marry farmers' widows.

The major barrier to Adam's plans is Fiona's determination to maintain her hard-won respectability. But when the magical white pony appears to them, the pony that always presages the lord whom a Derry woman will love, Adam believes that he may have a chance to convince Fiona to abandon her principles and come with him into the wider world.

Miller sets her romance against the wilds of Exmoor and recreates faithfully the harsh beauty of that mysterious landscape. She also faithfully recreates the harsh realities of those who must struggle to wrest a living out of its unpromising terrain. Her descriptions of rural life add immensely to the impact of her story.

Despite his dishonorable intentions, Adam is an attractive hero. He has all the prejudices of his class, but they have been leavened by his wartime experiences. His gradual awakening to the worthiness and humanity of those he has been taught are his inferiors as he works along side them demonstrates that he is capable of real growth.

Fiona is clearly Adam's match. She has created herself and, although she lacks experience of the world and although she has had a hard life, she has made herself into a most admirable and lovable woman.

One of the signs of a good book is whether or not the characters stay with you after you finish the last page, whether you care enough to try to imagine how they will live their "happily ever after." The fact is that I wanted more of Adam and Fiona. I wanted to see her as Adam's wife, wanted to watch her as she moved into a new world, wanted to watch her continue to meet every challenge, wanted to see how she helps Adam become the fine man he is meant to be.

Miller included in A Touch of Magic a secondary character who may be worth a book of his own, Fiona's half-brother Liam. I kind of hope Miller tells Liam's story, just so I can meet Fiona and Adam again. That's how much I liked these two characters and how much I liked A Touch of Magic.

--Jean Mason


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