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Secrets of the Night by Jo Beverley
(Topaz, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-451-40847-0
Here's the scenario: young heroine, married to a "fatherly" type, must get with child in order to save her home from the religious extremist due to inherit upon her husband's (imminent) demise. She saves the life of a handsome nobleman, and propositions him as payment. He, being a noble nobleman, agrees. Before page 50 they've both had the best sex of their lives and have fallen madly in love.

Now normally I would read a synopsis like this and run screaming. It sounds contrived, insensitive, and completely unrealistic. And Secrets of the Night is, to some extent, all of those things…..except insensitive. Somehow, author Jo Beverley has been able to infuse the two lovers with such depth of emotion that I had a hard time putting the book down. The novel's absolutely luminous lovers fall deeply and unabashedly in love and succeed in capturing the heart of the reader despite the book's considerable contrivances and conveniences.

It's 1762 and Rosamunde Overton is returning to her home in Yorkshire when she finds Lord Brand Malloren lying unconscious at the side of the road. Of course, she doesn't immediately know his identity, but takes pity on the handsome man nonetheless, and transports him to the safety of her Cousin Diana's dower house.

It was Diana who convinced Rosamunde that the answer to her troubles could be found in perfect anonymity at the masquerade ball Rosamunde has just fled. No matter how desperate she is to produce an heir to Wenscote, she just couldn't throw herself into the arms of the willing, but overstuffed nobility populating the dance floor. Suddenly, however, Rosamunde is given a second chance in the form of a very young, very attractive "Sir Galahad."

Of course, if it weren't for the vulture-like interests of Edward Overton, her husband Digby's heir, Rosamunde wouldn't be in such a desperate position. Edward is a member of a radical group of religious extremists known as Cotterites, a Puritanical sect hell-bent on driving fun and joy off the face of the earth. Edward claims concern over Digby's failing health, but Rosamunde knows the truth – that the sanctimonious hypocrite is on a death watch, anxious to advance his cause within the Cotterites by turning his inheritance into a commune for cranky ultraconservatives.

In truth, it is the sect's penchant for floggings and their ill treatment of women that particularly worries Rosamunde, who has worked to turn Wenscote into a peaceful and successful estate. After she married Digby on the heels of the carriage accident that left her permanently scarred, Wenscote became Rosamunde's sanctuary. But hiding from the world for almost eight years has left her ill-prepared to act the sinful wanton. Still, her patient presents the perfect opportunity.

When Brand wakes up with a splitting headache in a strange place with a kind-voiced nursemaid at his side, he's grateful to be alive. When his nurse proposes a "tupping" as payment, he's grateful for the opportunity to so easily fulfill his obligation. Almost too grateful. In fact, Brand acts as if there is absolutely nothing unusual at all about the circumstance. Yes, he's having a little trouble remembering his name, and he can't quite figure how he came to be passed out cold on the moors, but hey, if a little nookie is all it's going to take to clear things up, no problem.

Or so he thinks. His mystery lady comes to him masked in order to protect her identity (and hide her scars), but that doesn't stop the chemical reaction that explodes the minute they touch. The sex is, quite frankly, stupendous. It changes both Brand and Rosamunde physically and emotionally. He willingly, with a wink, becomes her "love slave" until dawn. She, unwilling to hope that "once was enough," risks scandal in order to share his bed for just a few brief hours. In between bouts of "exercise," Brand and Rosamunde realize they have a lot of the same interests including a passion for country life. When their idyll comes to an end, neither party is able to forget what has passed. As fate would have it, they are destined to meet again.

Things rush towards a conclusion that, unfortunately, falls rather flat near the end when the author seems to run out of steam. Judging from the energy it must have taken to create the heat between Rosamunde and Brand, my guess is she just dropped from exhaustion. Because, despite some of the silliness that goes on with masks and mad nephews, there is a tremendous amount of feeling that is easily and quite successfully communicated between Brand and Rosamund. Jo Beverley has an enviable talent for depicting the instinctual bond that exists between the couple – that love-at-first-site, soul-mate thing that is as rare in books as it is in real life.

This is the first of Beverley's novels that I've read, but I'd be interested in looking through her library to see if there is anything more homespun. It strikes me that her natural talent for developing and depicting real emotion between her characters might be even better served in simpler settings.

--Ann McGuire

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