Jo Beverley
2004, European Historical Romance (Regency England)
Signet, $6.99, 361 pages, Amazon ASIN 0451211839
Part of a series

Grade: B
Sensuality: Hot

Laura Gardeyne is a wealthy young widow with a beloved three-year-old boy, Harry. She is also a terrified mother struggling to maintain a semblance of normal behavior. She suspects that her late husband's brother, the Reverend Jack Gardeyne, is planning to kill her son for his inheritance. She has no proof and no friends to help her; she's not even sure she can trust her own judgment. While searching for evidence of Jack's perfidy, she discovers that her father-in-law, Lord Caldfort, has received a cryptic letter that seems to be some sort of blackmail attempt.

MP Stephen Ball is a childhood friend of Laura's who'd once hoped to marry her (and was soundly rebuffed). He comes to Caldfort House, ostensibly to talk politics with Lord Calfort, but actually hoping to court Laura. As soon as he sees her, he immediately realizes that she's in a state of near-panic about Harry. He confronts her, and she tells him the whole story. Stephen believes her suspicions about Jack, and together the two of them put together a plan to figure out the meaning of the mysterious blackmail letter.

This book's chief conflict is internal, and is based upon a very acute psychological understanding of the characters. Stephen is a charming hero, the kind of man it's easy to like. He is deeply honorable, but he wants Laura almost more than honor itself. He wrestles with his own actions and motivations, knowing it would be wrong to press his suit in her current vulnerable state.

There are a lot of romances in which the dynamic hero outshines the heroine. That's far from the case here; although Stephen is a sympathetic hero, Skylark is Laura's story. At one time, she was a carefree, flamboyant, and highly fashionable member of the ton. She was known as Lady Skylark, which she privately hated, believing it to condemn her as wasteful and frivolous. She was deeply hurt to discover that the nickname had been coined by Stephen, apparently to get back at her for rejecting his hand.

After the death her equally fashionable and good-looking husband, Laura is at a loss; is she merely the superficial Lady Skylark, or is there more to her? And if there is, does that mean she must abandon the lighthearted pursuits that she loved? These questions come to the forefront as she realizes how attracted she is to Stephen. He is a politician and (she presumes) needs a serious wife. It hurts her to think that Stephen might merely want her for her beauty and charm; but she suspects, herself, that she would be bored by the sober lifestyle of a politician's life. As Laura struggles to uncover the meaning of the strange blackmail letter and the threat to her son, she also grapples with questions of identity. I very much enjoyed her as a character; it's rare to see such introspection in romance novels, but this author pulls it off with great aplomb. By the time Stephen and Laura work through their differences and insecurities, one has the feeling that they've built a really solid relationship, composed of both desire and strong friendship and respect. You just know that theirs is a marriage that's going to last.

Skylark's suspense plot is far too complicated to explain here. It involves, among a lot of other things, a long-lost heir whose existence, if proven, would save Harry's life. (You see, if Harry is no longer the heir, then he would no longer be a target for his uncle's greedy plots.) In order to investigate, Laura and Stephen go to the seaside town of Draycombe. To escape scandal, Laura dons a disguise that makes her appear to be ugly and sickly. Laura has never been less than beautiful before; her disguise changes the way Stephen sees her, and changes the way she looks at herself as well.

This suspense plot quite effectively throws our hero and heroine together, and forces them to look at themselves and each other in new ways. However, the way it's done weakens the book. The problem is that it is in the suspense plot that we must deal with the Company of Rogues. I have read some (but not all) of the Rogues books. I know that Stephen is a Rogue, and it's natural for him to call upon fellow Rogues for help. It does not seem natural, however, for Laura to agree to trust some of these guys, whom she has never met, just because they are Rogues. She even agrees to trust someone she is assured is "a Rogue by association," as if that would cut any ice with an actual worried mother. This associate Rogue is particularly annoying to me because he seems extraneous to the plot. He was a secondary character in Dragon's Bride, and it seems he is being set up as a hero in some future novel, which is the only reason for his insertion in this book. I know that a lot of readers are fans of the Rogues, but they reminded me too often that the world and the people I'm reading about are not real. They broke the spell for me, which was a shame; it's a nice spell.

In spite of the book's sequilitis, Skylark is a well-written, complex, and passionate romance. I recommend it for the depth of the characterizations, and for the deep and loving relationship that grows between Laura and Stephen. Jo Beverley has proven once again that she can really write.

-- Jennifer Keirans

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