Lord Langdon's Kiss
by Elena Greene
(Zebra, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-821-76583-3
****
Nell Ashley is finally in the company of Darcy Mayland, the man she thinks she loves, when she foolishly makes a remark about his older brother's homecoming. James, fifth Earl of Langdon, is headed home from the war to resume the running of the family estates, and he's already put his brother and stepmother on edge, even before he's arrived. Seems Darcy and Lady Langdon have been running through the family fortune at an alarming rate, and James has had the temerity to put a stop to their spending.

Nell, daughter of the local vicar, is thrilled to have Darcy's attention. He's handsome, charming, and perhaps he will come to share her concern for the impoverished tenants of the local parish. If he can convince his brother to provide for them a bit better, then she will have made a difference to them.

Nell's hopes are dashed when James makes an unexpected appearance. He quickly decides that Nell, being only a vicar's daughter, is a fortune-hunting schemer who wishes to entrap his younger brother for his money. He levels several harsh accusations at Darcy about Nell's conduct, to which Darcy responds indignantly. James is unconvinced. His flirtatious brother can't possibly be serious about an unknown country mouse.

James is all the more determined to quash his own interest in Miss Nell Ashley. True, her mother was the daughter of a viscount, but surely she's only looking to improve her own social station. Since he will remain at Charlwood, he'll have ample opportunity to discover if her character is good.

Their next meeting, outside a tenant cottage, strikes sparks. Nell thinks James is stuffy and boorish, and worse yet, unconcerned with the plight of his tenants. She takes the opportunity to give him an earful about their condition, all the while holding a sleeping baby. James is overcome with a sense of guilt for the neglect of his tenants, but masks it under an air of indifference. Perhaps Miss Ashley is genuinely interested in the local people. And perhaps she genuinely cares for Darcy. But she still could be playacting. He'll need to test her.

The author has created two complex characters in Nell and James. Their mutual distrust is beautifully contrasted by their unwilling fascination with one another. James just knows this girl is after his family name, but why the deuce is she grubbing in the dirt of the garden and tending to influenza victims? Nell is sure that James is a cold, uncaring creature. When his clumsy attempt to seduce her away from Darcy leaves both of them shaken, Nell is furious and James is even more certain that she's little more than a strumpet. The more these two try to untangle their emotions, the more they muddy the waters. So James decides to fix things for good -- by taking a debutante as a fiancée.

As events spin out of control, the book approaches Regency high farce in tone, and it's quite delightful. James enlists the help of an old Army buddy, who has an unknown tie to his stepmother. Clarissa, the debutante fiancée, arrives at Charlwood. Everybody seems to be matched up with the wrong person entirely. Yet all of these characters are fully-formed, with distinct personalities. No cardboard villains here. Readers will sympathize with all of them, for various and understandable reasons.

Lord Langdon's Kiss is a fine Regency romp that will satisfy lovers of the genre like ice-cold lemonade on a hot afternoon. This is what Regency romance is all about.

--Cathy Sova


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