Colin Wescott, the Earl of Haverwood, must marry in order to save the beloved orphanage of which he has been the sole patron for years. As a final jab at the son who was not of his flesh, the old Earl had made a provision in his will that Colin must have a wife by his twenty-eighth birthday or the orphanage would be turned over to an unscrupulous family member. Colin will not allow that to happen, but has no wish to marry, because he believes to do so would tempt the volatile passions in his real bloodlines. The old Earl had viciously told Colin all his life that he was as evil as his real father, a violent highwayman who was a rapist and murderer. When Colin has a chance meeting with Sarah Banks, she inflames his desire and beguiles him in a way that no woman ever has before. Colin can't stop thinking about Sarah and would like nothing more than to take her as his new wife, but believing that he would someday do her harm, he instead chooses to pursue a loveless, passionless marriage to another woman.
As the daughter and heir of a gambling hell owner, Sarah Banks has endured her fair share of scandal and society snubs in spite of her wealth. She dreams of a man with sherry-colored eyes who will love her for herself and not her fortune, so when she meets Colin at the opera, she believes he is the man of her dreams. Through the goodhearted machinations of Colin's butler, Sarah has several more "chance" encounters with Colin, and each time she thinks she sees feelings for her in his eyes, but each time he also seems to outwardly rebuff her. Not understanding Colin's strange behavior, Sarah comes close to giving up, but her father's admonition that a Banks never looses and her penchant for games of chance, make Sarah determined to win Colin's heart and discover the truth that he hides behind those enchanting eyes. But time may be running out as mysterious attempts are being made on Sarah's life, and Colin is recalled to his army post while stubbornly insisting on marrying someone else.
I love fairly tales, and Touched by Fire was a novel with a sweet fairy tale quality to it. The hero, Colin, has dreamed of being a DragonSlayer since he was a mere boy, and the heroine, Sarah, has been dreaming of a "gallant knight" with sherry-colored eyes who would come whisk her away from her loneliness and love her for who she is. Colin and Sarah had a magical first meeting and an instant attraction, which is something I usually don't care for much, but it really worked for me here. I think my liking of it was partially due to the enchanted atmosphere, but mainly because although they may have been instantly in lust with one another, they took the time to build a relationship instead of heading straight for the bedroom. I love the way that Colin and Sarah were always looking deeply into each other's eyes. I thought it was very romantic and helped to build that magical attraction even more. It also became a primary mode of communication between them. Sometimes it was difficult for them to communicate verbally, especially Colin, but their eyes always spoke volumes to each other. Both Colin and Sarah tend to hold back quite a bit, especially early on, because neither one really feels worthy of the other. I usually prefer for one character to be a bit more overt and persistent, and Sarah finally started actively pursuing Colin about a third of the way into the book but still doubted herself at times. It was definitely a difficult, uphill battle for her, but one that was well worth the fight.
Colin's biological father was a notorious and violent highwayman who had raped his mother. The old earl had claimed Colin as his son to preserve some dignity for his wife and spare her further disgrace, but he despised Colin and made sure that he knew his real parentage by constantly telling him that he carried the same evil that was in his father. Having had these lies drilled into him from the time he was just a boy and seeing the fear and grief that his mother suffered, left Colin fearful of himself and determined that he should never marry or have children. In fact, he had spent the better part of the last ten years as a soldier and spy in the Peninsular War, in hopes that he might die a hero's death and end his bloodlines. Now he is back in England and being forced to marry to save the beloved orphanage of which he is the patron, and that he felt was the only way to redeem himself. I really liked Colin's hobby of studying dragon lore, and how the dragons became a metaphor not only for the physical dangers in his life, but also for his emotional demons. Initially, I thought that Colin was a beta, because he is such a sensitive and wounded individual who truly believes that he will hurt the woman that he marries. As I read further though, I could definitely see alpha tendencies as well in his extreme protectiveness of Sarah and others. He was willing to sacrifice himself to save the orphanage, and didn't hesitate to rescue a young girl who had been sold into prostitution. He also has the heart of a lion and the courage of a warrior to have put himself on the line as a soldier. It takes Colin a long time to realize the truth and understand that his fears of propagating evil are unfounded, but when he finally does it's a beautiful thing.
Sarah is the daughter of a gambling hell owner who has her own share of demons to battle. She is a wealthy woman, but has lived with the censure of society all her life because of who she is. All she has ever wanted is be a part of the glittering social set, but girls like her don't get invited to balls and parties. After her father died, Sarah became very lonely, but the only men who come to call on her are nothing but fortune hunters. She dreams of a man who will simply love her for herself. When Sarah meets Colin she is convinced that she has found that man, but when Colin seemingly rejects her at every turn or sends her mixed messages, Sarah doesn't know what to think. She spends quite a bit of time going back and forth between thinking she isn't good enough for him but not being able to stop dreaming about him. Sarah sees something in Colin's eyes and actions that tell her there is more to him than he lets others see and that he truly does care for her. The one thing that Sarah's father, the consummate gambler, had taught her was that a Banks never looses, so she finally sets out on a determined quest to win his heart.
I loved that Colin and Sarah were both virginal characters, a rarity in romance. Their first love scene was far from idealistic, but it was realistic considering that both of them were very inexperienced. Colin also allowed his fear of himself to get in the way, causing him to make a highly unusual and unromantic request of Sarah which made the scene all the more uncommon. However, the experience changed Colin's whole outlook on life, and made him absolutely determined to pleasure Sarah the next time, and him taking the time to learn what he needed to know was quite romantic as were their remaining love scenes together. Another thing I thoroughly enjoyed about the story was Colin's butler, Giles, who was more of a father to him than a mere servant. It was hilarious how he was trying to covertly play matchmaker, and then coerced Sarah's funny little maid, Iris, to get into the act as well. Giles was probably the most well-rendered secondary servant character I've read since George Kemball from Liz Carlyle's books.
I honestly didn't realize until about halfway through the book that Touched by Fire was essentially Kathleen O'Reilly's debut novel (she had previously authored only one short story in a Harlequin Duet that was released one month earlier), and in my opinion, it was a very worthy early effort. There were a few minor things here and there such as wording and transitions that showed a bit of greenness but nothing that really detracted from my overall enjoyment. Ms O'Reilly has a very subtly emotional writing style that seems to speak volumes. It moves a little slowly in places, and I can see how it might not be for everyone, but her writing really pulled me into the story and wouldn't let go. It was rather like watching a richly drawn dramatic indie movie, punctuated with moments of humor and levity. Touched by Fire was my first read by Kathleen O'Reilly, but I enjoyed it so much, it earned a spot on my keeper shelf. I'm a little disappointed to say that it is her only historical romance to date, but in spite of that, I'm eagerly looking forward to diving into her contemporary backlist soon.
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