Touch Not the Cat by Tracy Fobes
(Pocket Books, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-671-02467-1
Sir Walter Scott would agree, Touch Not the Cat is an apt title for this tale of fantasy and historical romance. However, readers shouldn't confuse it with Mary Stewart's best-selling romantic-suspense novel of the same title published 22 years ago. This is a new book, not a reissue.

Although the writing is superior and includes some very witty dialogue between the hero and heroine, the faulty reasoning in this tale bothered me. Characters say and do things that contradict the facts of the story and the legend of the cat, the grimalkin.

According to legend, the grimalkin is a fierce wildcat, about the size of a leopard, found in the Highlands of Scotland. The grimalkin is also said to be the MacClelland Clan's familiar. What few realize is the grimalkin is more than just a legend, it's a curse on the women born to lairds of Clan MacClelland. A curse that Catherine MacClelland has lived with since she had her first women's flow.

Because of a terrible wrong done hundreds of years ago by Clan MacClelland to their Highland neighbors, the McQuades, daughters born to the MacClelland laird have the beast within them from the time of their first menstrual flow. Night beckons the grimalkin to take over Catherine's body and run with the moon. Sometimes Catherine can control the change and sometimes she cannot.

Because of the curse, Catherine has no wish to marry, but at her father's insistence she has ventured into London society, circa 1817. Catherine's father, Iain MacClelland, Earl of Kildonan believes that without "a husband or children," her life will remain empty and unfulfilled. Wanting only to return to her beloved home in the Scottish Highlands, Lady Catherine does her best to discourage any suitors.

But Catherine doesn't count on Nicholas, the 12th Duke of Efington showing an interest in her. Sparks fly from the moment the two meet and Catherine quickly realizes that Nicholas's interest is anything but honorable. Her father, however, has reason to believe that Nicholas is a McQuade and not the true son of the 11th Duke of Efington. He informs Nicholas that if he doesn't marry Catherine, he will expose Nicholas as a bastard.

Okay, here's my first and biggest problem with this story. According to the legend, MacClelland women with the curse die in childbirth along with their babies. Iain MacClelland knows all about Catherine's curse; he knows his sister died in childbirth because of it. Given these facts, it just doesn't make sense for Catherine's father to take her into Society so that she can marry and have children.

Another example of flawed reasoning occurs when it appears that the grimalkin may be responsible for murdering a woman; Catherine tells Nicholas that it couldn't possibly be the grimalkin because it has never killed anything bigger than a rabbit. But earlier in the story Catherine comments that she never remembers anything that happens while she is the grimalkin. So how can she be certain that the grimalkin has never killed anything larger than a rabbit?

And why does Nicholas worry that Catherine only wants to use him, and make him love her to rid her of the grimalkin, when he knows that she, too, must love in order for the curse to be lifted? Also, I found Nicholas's lack of interest in Robert McQuade, his biological father, rather odd. Given that he loves his mother and loathed the 11th duke of Efington, I would have thought Nicholas would be a little curious about his new neighbor, the man his mother loved enough to risk everything for.

Despite the contradictions, I did find a lot to like about Touch Not the Cat. The plot is intriguing and there's lots of it this book really moves along at a brisk pace. The sparks between Catherine and Nicholas are hot; the banter between them during their initial meeting is witty. Also, I enjoyed the way the author used the grimalkin as both a blessing and a curse in Catherine's life.

And, I found Catherine's fear of discovery, of being considered nothing more than a beast, a freak of nature, to be genuine and very moving. It touches a common chord: the fear that when those we love discover our deepest and darkest secrets they may not understand, or will no longer look at us in the same way.

--Judith Flavell

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