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Moon Dance by Mariah Stewart
(Pocket, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-671-02624-0
****
Mariah Stewart hits a home run out of the ballpark with her latest effort, in comparison to her previous two releases, which were at best solid singles. Moon Dance is a delightful contemporary romance with well-developed characters, gentle humor and a bit of suspense. It is a sweet romance but not a weak one.

Moon Dance is the third novel about the Enright family. Devlin's Light introduced readers to the family, and focused on the eldest child and only son, Nick. Wonderful You moved on to middle child Zoey. Now it's youngest daughter Georgia Enright's turn.

From the time she was a young child, Georgia knew she wanted to be a ballerina. But now, at age 26, she is gradually accepting the truth: she's good, but not outstanding. She knows she will never make it out of the corps into the lead roles she once dreamed of performing. She decides to take a break from dancing professionally to reassess her life. In search of solace, she visits the inn run by her half-sister, Laura Bishop.

Many years ago, as a teenager, matriarch Delia Enright gave birth to Laura and then was forced to give her up for adoption. Now that Delia has finally tracked down her long-lost daughter, Laura is a cherished member of the Enright family. Concerned for Georgia, who looks stressed and run-down, she suggests that her sister spend some time relaxing at Pumpkin Farm, a charming place once owned by Laura's aunt.

One person is less than thrilled to discover that Georgia is the farm's new tenant. Matt Bishop was a neglected, angry toddler when the Bishop family adopted him and raised him with love and kindness. Now an aspiring veterinarian, he is fiercely protective of his adoptive sister Laura and fears that the Enrights will end up abandoning her when the novelty of the relationship wears off. To make matters worse, Laura and Matt's adoptive mother, Charity Bishop, is now an Alzheimer's victim who requires nursing care. Seeing Delia Enright taking the place of Laura's "real" mother makes Matt see red. So he's not about to accept the presence of one of the hated Enrights at Pumpkin Farm.

Eventually, however, Georgia's beauty and good-naturedness combine with Enright family charm to make Matt realize that his loyalty and unnecessary anger may cost him a chance for true and lasting love. Then a secret from Laura's past threatens the safety of several members of the Enright/Bishop clan, and Matt realizes how much Georgia has come to mean to him.

Mariah Stewart expertly details the complex dynamics of this extended family. Unlike the other two novels in this series, there is enough initial conflict between Georgia and Matt to ignite some welcome sparks. The serious themes are deftly balanced with humorous scenes, including Georgia's unforgettable introduction to Matt's dog and her reluctant adoption of a very unusual pet. The novel also follows Georgia's voyage of self-discovery as she searches to find a new career that will still allow her to indulge her love of dancing. There's a hint of the supernatural that derives from Georgia's budding interest in reading tea leaves. Romance abounds, as meddling but well intentioned Delia Enright has the tables turned on her by Georgia, who finds the perfect mate for her strong-willed mother. Laura, too, may be on the verge of finding love, although it appears that her story will be told fully in Stewart's next novel, Priceless.

Devlin's Light and Wonderful You were pleasant but unmemorable romances. I don't believe they are required prerequisites for enjoying Moon Dance, which is a quantum step forward. At more than 500 pages, the novel never drags or feels padded. I was happy to spend that much time with Georgia and Matt and I look forward to seeing glimpses of them in the series' next installment.

--Susan Scribner


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