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Nobody's Darling by Teresa Medeiros
(Bantam, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-553-57501-5
*****
Here's the good news: Nobody's Darling is Teresa Medeiros' best book in years, possibly the best since Thief of Hearts or even Once an Angel. For those who love this author, but haven't been thrilled by her recent output of books, Nobody's Darling proves that Medeiros still can write zany screwball romance with the éclat of a fine poet.

Nobody's Darling is the story of Esmerelda Fine, a dutiful young woman who has spent her youth caring for her little brother, Bartholomew. Having lost their parents to cholera, Esmerelda has gotten by teaching music, pinching pennies, and denying herself every small joy to ensure Bartholomew's future. Bart isn't interested in Harvard, however, but in pursuing adventure out in the wild, woolly West; and against Esmerelda's better judgment, he runs off to do just that.

As the story begins, Esmerelda has received the heart-breaking news that her cherished little brother has been gunned down by a bloodthirsty outlaw by the name of Billy Darling. Determined to bring Billy Darling to justice, or shoot him trying, Esmerelda leaves Boston and travels to the New Mexico territory in search of her brother's killer.

What Esmerelda finds is not a vicious reprobate, however, but an unlikely ally. Billy Darling may be big, fearsome and magnificently handsome, but Esmerelda quickly discerns that he is not a murderer. Certainly any man with a Basset Hound as devoted as his Sadie cannot be all that bad. Billy, a Civil War veteran who is trying to make a new life in the West, may be a dangerous ruffian, but he has a soft heart, and before long is quite smitten with this extraordinary Boston spinster.

Though now penniless, Esmerelda hires Billy to help search out the whereabouts of her brother, and discover Bart's true fate. Although they strike a risqué bargain about his fee, which concerns the loss of her maidenly virtue, Esmerelda tells Billy that this will not be necessary; for eventually all his costs will be covered by her rich grandfather. Who happens to be an English Duke. When dear Grandpapa hears of her travails, he will of course sail over from England to come to her rescue. Billy cynically concludes that she is a liar spouting desperate nonsense. But is she? As for Esmerelda, though she is wildly attracted to Billy, can she reasonably consider him as a serious suitor? She is, after all, a spinster of twenty-five, no longer attractive to men.

While Nobody's Darling has one of Medeiros' strongest plots in many moons, the charm of her novels is in the telling – and no quick summary can quite do them justice. For me, Medeiros is one of the finest prose stylists around – she can pen simply beautiful sentences. Her humorous dialogue, especially the romantic repartee between hero and heroine, is some of the finest since Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. And she can work magic on the emotions of her readers. That is, when she does not fall prey to her own worst fault as a writer, her tendency to be overly precious. But in Nobody's Darling, Medeiros has that unfortunate tendency firmly in check, and the book is all the better for it.

Since I reported the good news, is there any bad news to impart? Not bad news, per se. But as a critical reader, I felt that more romantic tension was needed between Esmerelda and Billy. Since she discovers almost immediately upon meeting him that he is not Bart's killer, what impediment is there really for their romance? And although Medeiros can be wonderful with the sensual imagery, with Nobody's Darling, it occasionally seemed forced. This, however, is likely connected to my first complaint.

Nobody's Darling also never comes close to the celestial perfection of Medeiros' classic Heather and Velvet; but then few books do, and I would not reasonably expect such. As a fan, I am just delighted that once more she has written a book on par with her earlier work. So if you haven't read Medieros in a while, this may be the one to win you back – for not only is it a very good Medieros, it is the best Western romance I've read so far.

--Meredith Moore


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