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Only With You by Libby Sydes
(Dell, $5.99, G) ISBN 0-440-2233-8
***
First off, this is a darling book. I loved the heroine, was fond of the hero, and appreciated the slow spiral of their courtship. But unfortunately, reading Libby Sydes' Only With You also brings out the rampaging English professor lurking in my soul. This is not always a pretty sight.

When reading Only With You, I would politely suggest skipping, or at least skimming the prologue, which is a thoroughly pedestrian affair. Thankfully, the rest of the book is much, much better.

Here we are introduced to young Jennifer Delaney, daughter of a Mississippi plantation owner in the Civil War South. Jenny, as she is referred to for the rest of the book, is an unconventional Southern miss. To the distress of her genteel mother, she prefers swimming in the river to ladylike activities. One day she is at the river when the news arrives that Ian Thorne, heir to the neighboring plantation, has been brought home. It seems Master Ian was kidnapped out West as a child, and has grown up with the Commanches. Master Ian is furious at being dragged against his will back to Mississippi (and who, in all honesty, can blame him) and is clearly more savage than white man!

It was here, Gentle Reader, that I issued forth a GROAN of momentous dimension. Goodness, thought I. Is Only With You to be a hybrid of my least favorite romance story lines, that of A) the Civil Waw-a and the decline of the "romantic" South and B) the tragic "white" Indian?

Happily, no. Instead, Only With You jumps ahead a decade, to 1872. Having lost her home and family in the war, Jenny has settled on her uncle's horse ranch in the New Mexico Territory. She has found contentment as the town's school teacher, but has not quite resigned herself to spinsterhood. At twenty-three, Jenny is filled with the proper longings for husband and family, and bothered by the improper urgings of her young body. Jenny, in an inquisitive frame of mind, kisses a convenient fellow behind the schoolhouse. Afterwards, the town is thrown into an uproar over their schoolmarm's moral turpitude, and Jenny's job is in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, Ian Thorne, or Thorn as he is now called, has also transplanted himself to New Mexico. He lives in a tiny adobe hut up on a mountainside, living in rustic, spiritual simplicity. With him is his child, conceived during his stint with the Commanche. Though the child, Jeremiah, is Jenny's favorite pupil, she has little to do with Thorn. Despite the fact that he was once a beloved childhood playmate, she is still justifiably put out with him for kidnapping her at knife-point oh-so-many years ago.

Thorn, like any Southern gent or Commanche brave worth his salt, is a consummate horseman. He agrees to come down from his adobe abode to help her run the horse ranch, which is in serious trouble. Once Jenny and Thorn are proximal, sparks and cute dialogue fly.

"...I'm beginning to think there is a reason women are kept ignorant. Is it so bad that men don't want us to know everything ahead of time?...Is it so terrible that men purposefully try to keep women uninformed until it's too late? Is it so horrible "

"No." Thorn smiled suddenly. It was a wolf's smile, cunning and intense. He leaned forward, his own expression full of secrets.

Her feistiness began to dwindle at the strange look in his eyes, but she had come too far to back down now. "Then why?"

His eyes were cold and bright in the moonlight. "Are you sure you want to know?"

She swallowed hard. "Yes."

His voice went low, almost purring. "No one tells unmarried women because it makes them want to do it."

Exchanges such as the above are what make the innocuously titled Only With You a delightful read. Thorn is a fine hero, both tough and gentle, and far more intelligent than your run-of-the-mill Caucasian hero raised by Indians. And Jenny is perhaps the best heroine Libby Sydes has created to date, spunky and sweet, vulnerable and strong. Jenny has the twinkle of life so many of the mass-produced romance heroines these days do not.

Only With You would have rated four hearts, if only for the technical problems with the manuscript. Sydes' prose has a certain raw, unpolished quality anyway, but I was often distracted by phrases that have too modern a ring for a story taking place in 1872, such as when Jenny handles a weapon "like a pro"; or when Jenny worries that she's "falling for" Thorn; or when, after an outlaw threatens to hurt her, Jenny rallies with, "You and what army?"

Also, while Sydes employs some interesting background information to good effect, in other cases there are factual errors and incomplete research. For example, Sydes doesn't seem to know much about horses, and it shows. When Thorn whisks Jenny off on his galloping steed,

His arms tightened around her, comforting rather than restraining, and he stroked her back and shoulders, while they galloped through a forgotten stretch of desolate land toward the green foothills.

This sentence had me wondering how the devil he could keep hold of her, while massaging her back at a full gallop? In another section, I had to dog-ear a page in disbelief, when Jenny laments her lonely fate as a spinster.

Out west where it was miles between ranches and days between towns, a woman was fortunate just to find a mate she liked. Being choosy was for city girls with greater prospects.

Surely, anyone who has peeked at the social history of the West knows that women were extremely scarce on the frontier. Unmarried women regularly trekked out West to find husbands, as readers of romance know very well. Even the ugliest female could have a host of suitors. And Jenny is young, pretty, and owns a valuable horse ranch! Goofs like these ruin the "suspension of disbelief", yanking this reader out of the story, and into the dreaded English professor mode.

Another draft or two of the manuscript should have remedied these problems. So would an editor with a sharp eye. It is too bad, because despite such distracting flaws, Only With You is a charming read.

--Meredith Moore


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