Touched By Fire by Kathleen O’Reilly
Jove, $4.99, PG-13 ISBN 0-5150-3240-
Four hearts

Touched By Fire has one of the most riveting prologues in recent memory. Young Colin Wescott and his father, the Earl of Haverwood, are watching a hanging. As the condemned man dies, the earl turns to the boy and informs him that he’s just witnessed the death of his true father, the notorious rapist Black Jack Cady. Colin’s soul is full of the same festering darkness that consumed Cady, the earl continues, and the boy will never be free of it.

Fast forward seventeen years. Colin is the new earl, and his father has left a final insult in his will. Colin must marry by his twenty-eighth birthday or lose control of the most decent thing in his life -a home for orphans of which he is the benefactor. (How this could actually come about is never explained.) Colin turns to his trusted friend and butler, Giles, to find him a plain woman to be his wife. One that will never incite the terrible lusts he fears he carries as a legacy of his depraved father. Colin must remain as he is, a pure, self-styled Dragonslayer, one who fights against evil in the world and evil in his soul.

Giles, of course, has no intention of seeing his beloved charge end up in a lifeless marriage. He and Colin stumble across the perfect woman -Miss Sarah Banks, owner of a very successful London gaming establishment. Colin accidentally meets her at the opera one night and can’t get her out of his mind. But Sarah is no society miss and is obviously a poor choice for a wife, at least in her mind. Giles and Sarah’s maid think otherwise, and they scheme to bring the two together.

Colin is an interesting character, to say the least. His immersion in the fantasy world of dragons and mythological creatures might have come across as adolescent, but the author portrays him with a sure hand. Colin is no adolescent, but a man terrified of what may happen if he lets his emotions run free. It doesn’t stop him from functioning perfectly normally in the world, however. And when he finally finds he can no longer resist Sarah, his concern for her safety should anything go wrong is tender and touching.

Sarah, of course, is having none of it. A straightforward sort of heroine, she knows perfectly well that Colin would never hurt her. Now all she has to do is prove it to him -by experience. And hopefully more experience.

All this takes place within the boundaries of a hasty marriage. There are several subplots, including one where Sarah’s life is threatened, but these weren’t fully developed and seemed to exist solely to help Colin be the professed Dragonslayer he sees himself as being. The deepening relationship between Sarah and Colin is much more absorbing, as are the secondary characters who help the romance along. Giles in particular is a scene-stealer. Picture Tony Randall in the Odd Couple -he’s that same blend of semi-fussy and endearing.

Tender, sensual, and funny in parts, Touched by Fire is an engrossing, satisfying romance. This Dragonslayer may steal your heart.

--Cathy Sova

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