Lady Larkspur Declines
by Sharon Sobel
(Signet Regency, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-21459-5
***
The premise is clever. Lady Larkspur, the last unmarried daughter in her family, is humiliated when her fiancé jilts her on the night they are to announce their engagement, running off with another woman, instead. As if that isn’t enough, her brother-in-law introduces her to his good friend, Mr. Benedict Queensman, a doctor who has recently returned from America. Ben is attractive, but unsettling, and he seems completely impervious to Lark. Annoyed, Lark treats him rather rudely.

She has cause to regret her actions when her father arranges a marriage to the Earl of Raeborn, Ben’s uncle. Raeborn is at least sixty, has been through a number of young wives, and patently wants an heir. Lark will do nicely, and if she finds him disgusting, well, too bad for her. So Lark comes up with a plan. She will go into a “decline” long enough for Raeborn to turn his attentions to someone else. After all, who would want a sickly wife?

The doctors are mystified, and Raeborn asks his nephew, Ben, to have a look at the girl and see what he thinks. Lark’s concerned parents agree, and when Ben states he can find nothing wrong with her, Lark insists she feels like she is about to collapse. Ben reasons that she needs some good, bracing seaside air, and he proposes taking Lark and her companion, Janet, to Brighton, where he runs a hospital. He secretly believes the whole sickness business is a sham, but he’s not unsympathetic to Lark’s plight.

Lark and Janet travel to Brighton, where Lark is installed in a sanitarium. Ben calls daily to see how she is doing, and so begins a cat-and-mouse game in which Lark continues to feign a lingering malaise, and Ben tries to trick her into admitting she is perfectly healthy.

Unfortunately, this cat and mouse are running in circles. Lady Larkspur Declines has a very saggy middle section, in which virtually the same scene plays out several times, with minor alterations. Lark, for the most part, is a perfect brat to Ben. Her reasoning seems to be “I like him, I find him intelligent and intriguing, so therefore I must be as rude as I can be to him.” So, Ben calls on Lark, Lark acts nasty to Ben, and Ben wonders why he’s so attracted to her. Why indeed.

The author seems to realize her plot is running thin and introduces a spy subplot into the story. This is actually quite well-done, and in a welcome twist, Ben and his cohort Matthew put the clues together quickly. Lark ends up having to make a choice between helping the man she has grown to love and maintaining her charade, which might release her from her engagement. If only Lark had given Ben much reason to fall in love with her, I might have bought into the romance, but as it stood, it felt false.

The author has a penchant for over-description, and parts of it come across as just plain silly. Consider this passage describing Raeborn:

His scanty hair, knowing none of the benefits of soap and water, abandoned all hope and fell away from his head to take refuge on his slouched shoulders.”

Or this one describing Ben:

His dark hair looked somewhat windblown, as if he rode without a hat, but it fell cunningly on his brow.”

Wasting page space ascribing nonexistent abilities to hair is a great way to jar readers out of a story.

Yet the story has some genuine flair, and Lark’s frustration as she wonders how long she can keep up the deception is certainly fun to watch. And if there’s a slight satisfaction in watching her squirm, well, it’s only what her character deserves. Lady Larkspur Declines has a few too many self-conscious flaws to earn a wholehearted recommendation, but Sharon Sobel has an inventive touch with a plot. This is only her second book, and with a bit more seasoning, she might emerge as a standout Regency author.

--Cathy Sova


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