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Priceless by Mariah Stewart
(Pocket, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-671-02625-9
Priceless is a tender romance with a modicum of suspense; it's just not absorbing enough to recommend. In addition, readers will always be two or three steps ahead of the plot.

Rachel Gordon has a bit of a chip on her shoulder. She's on her first solo mission for her father's underwater salvaging company and she's none too happy when her underwater archaeologist, Sam McGowan, makes it clear he's disappointed that he's working with Rachel rather than her famous father.

However, Sam quickly gets over his initial disappointment when he sees how competent Rachel is at her job. Rachel and Sam are working for an eccentric and very wealthy man, Norman Winter. Norman wants Rachel and Sam to salvage a Confederate ship which belonged to Sam's great-great-grandfather, the first Samuel McGowan, a Confederate hero.

Norman has bought Eden's End, a southern plantation and Sam's family's ancestral home. He has reconstructed the plantation to look like it did prior to the Civil War. In a matter of months, Norman plans to open Eden's End as a museum. Norman plans to add the contents of the lost ship, The Melrose, as a display for his museum.

Working quickly and carefully Rachel and Sam begin to uncover the secrets of the sunken ship. They're constantly being watched by Hugh, a man hired by Norman to videotape everything that goes on underwater. But while Hugh's busy videotaping a chest being brought up from The Melrose, Sam manages to pocket a few items that should not be part of the cargo. These items cause Rachel and Sam to question the true purpose of The Melrose's last mission.

Priceless is nicely written, the research and explanation about diving and salvaging sunken ships is quite interesting. The romance between Rachel and Sam is sweet and tender, although not particularly moving or exciting.

The problem with Priceless is that readers could easily skip over the first 100 pages and not miss much. Also, the plot seems to head into a new direction at Eden's End with the ghost of Sam's great-great-grandmother, who appears to Rachel. But this subplot just fizzles out, disappearing like Sam's ghostly ancestor.

The bottom line here is that while there's nothing to dislike about Priceless, it's too easy to put this book down and do something else. This story needs more oomph -- a faster pace and a good deal more tension in the plot could have made all the difference.

--Judith Flavell

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