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The Noble Nephew
by Martha Kirkland
(Zebra Regency, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-8217-5956-6
Gemma Westin has lived in a modest cottage with her stepmother Nora and stepbrother Cedric since the death of her father and the subsequent inheritance of their former home by a distant relative. Their straitened circumstances are balanced by the bonds of affection among them, but Nora is concerned that Ceddy's education will be hampered by the lack of sufficient funds for a proper schooling.

Cedric's great-uncle and aunt propose in a letter that they adopt Ceddy and are coming to meet with Nora along with their nephew Duncan Jamison. Nora and Gemma are fiercely opposed to the adoption because, loving the boy as they do, they could never part with him even though his financial situation would be vastly improved. Duncan overhears Gemma suggesting to Nora that she could never give up Ceddy for less than ten thousand guineas and he believes that the two are plotting to extort a fortune in exchange for the boy.

The visitors remain in the area with the hopes of convincing Nora to allow the adoption. Eventually Duncan realizes that he was greatly mistaken, that Nora and Gemma are devoted to Ceddy and will never agree to the boy's being taken from them. In the meantime, another nephew has joined the group, and Ceddy's life is endangered by some unknown malefactor. Can Duncan, in whom Gemma is developing a romantic interest, be the villain behind these dastardly attempts?

The Noble Nephew is unusual for a Regency romance in that, in spite of the book's title, the characters aren't rolling in aristocratic titles. There's not an earl or duke to be seen. The heroine is plain Miss Westin, and the hero is a lawyer who's hoping for a career in politics. In fact, the book's title is a bit perplexing. This book abounds in nephews: who's the title character? I suppose it's Duncan, but I half expected Ceddy to turn out to be the missing heir to some dukedom. It's rather refreshing to have a story that foregoes the "Your Grace" and "My lady" every other line.

There's nothing offensive about this story. The majority of the characters are nice people with good morals and decent motivations. The heroine [s] (Nora's nearly as important as Gemma) are good but poor women who have raised a well-behaved child. The hero wants to be sure no one's taking advantage of his aging relatives.

Perhaps they're too nice because this book needs something to ignite a little fire. (The scene where the drawing room curtains burn up isn't what I mean.) All the attempts to develop a little character conflict pretty much fizzle. Duncan realizes that Nora and Gemma have no intention of selling Ceddy. Gemma soon realizes that Duncan's a decent sort. (This far out in the boonies Duncan's only competition is the stereotypical stumbling, bumbling, homely clergyman. Duncan's bound to look like the answer to a maiden's prayers.)

There's no sense, however, that Duncan and Gemma are soulmates or caught up in a whirlwind of overwhelming passion. Sure she's nice. Sure he's better than anything else around. They could just as easily be penpals as lovers.

The story quickly degenerates into a series of Fiendish Plots Against Ceddy. A gunshot, a mysterious masked villain, clandestine meetings in the moonlit garden, etc. etc. Ho hum. This provides the main characters with plenty of opportunities to save the kid in the nick of time, but it doesn't do much to advance the romance.

In real life I would expect good people to be more concerned about the safety of a child whose life is threatened than with their love life, but a Regency romance isn't real life. In a romance the hero and heroine should be giving more than just an occasional passing thought to the many admirable attributes of the beloved. It's no wonder that Gemma and Duncan suddenly realize they're in love: they haven't had the luxury of time to work up to it gradually. I'd be more comfortable with their declarations of love if there were more supporting evidence. What's to keep them from one day realizing they weren't really in love at all?

As for the mystery and the identity of the secret villain, it's pretty obvious who's causing all the trouble and why.

The primary reason I can't whole-heartedly recommend this book is because it fails a fellow reviewer's put-down-pick-up test. I managed to leave this book behind while I was out of town for two weeks and never felt a twinge of regret. Even with nice characters and all, that means it's only acceptable.

--Lesley Dunlap

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