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Scandal's Captive

Priceless by Mandalyn Kaye
(Fawcett, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-449-22645-X
A couple of fairly interesting characters and some nice snappy dialogue get lost amidst a convoluted plot and a laundry list of secondary characters who do little more than make cameo appearances. Mandalyn Kaye's Priceless starts off well enough, with a hero and heroine who forgo the usual romantic games for candor and honesty (to a point, of course) from the start. But when the relationship begins to suffer because of an intricate deception so does the book. It becomes bogged down in some vaguely structured "who's" and "why's" and quickly loses the reader's interest. Which is a shame really. The author's punchy style is distinctive, but her plot would have benefited greatly from some stronger editing.

Elliot Moss has always had a thing for Liberty Madison (a name with such heavy American connotations I was surprised the author never mentioned its roots). Liberty has just been bequeathed the estate of the Earl of Huxley, her former employer, and a man everyone assumes was her lover. Huxley as it turns out was Elliot's archenemy. Now that he's dead, Elliot is determined to lay his hands on the jeweled Cross of Aragon, a priceless artifact rumored to be in the Earl's possession.

Unfortunately for Liberty, the Earl's estate is so badly in debt, and the male London bankers so unwilling to extend credit to a woman, that she is being forced to consider marriage to the Earl's dissolute nephew. Enter Elliot Moss with an even better idea. He pragmatically suggests that he and Liberty tie the knot as a business arrangement she gets the benefit of his financial connections, he gets her promise to find the Cross. Elliot is satisfied when Liberty agrees he knows that there is much more between them than just a business arrangement.

It matters not to Elliot that Liberty is looked upon as a fallen woman. He's one of those all too wonderful heroes who has enough money to go around, a modern sense of a woman's need to succeed on her own, and general disregard for society's opinions. These traits make him vastly appealing to Liberty, who, unlike many romantic heroines, doesn't have to struggle too hard to maintain her sense of individuality. The couple has an immediate respect for each other and their well-intended motives are never in doubt.

The muddle begins the deeper Elliot and Liberty become entrenched in a scheme that dates back years and involves Elliot's father, Liberty's benefactor and a number of other aristocrats. It involves the embezzlement of funds, a secret ledger, a code book, and a number of other twists and turns that tend to make no sense because the initial crime is never fully fleshed out. This scheme perpetrated on investors is described in such vague terms that the reader never fully understands the crime and therefore never appreciates the multitude of actions the hero and heroine take to expose the ruse. With Liberty and Elliot's feelings tied so tightly to the plot constraints, they too begin to lose their appeal.

Little or no attention is paid to the London circa 1851 surroundings. Aside from a mention of Prince Albert's "Great Exhibition" of the era, there is no real feeling for time and place. The secondary characters who haunt society are seen so briefly that we barely get a glimpse of their personalities. And while Liberty and Elliot may be a tad more cerebral than many romance characters, they lack that certain spark it takes to make the reader truly care about their circumstance.

--Ann McGuire

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