The widowed Lady Cassandra St. Ives lives a safe, albeit restrained life. Her salons attract the intelligent, literate members of late eighteenth century London society. She undertakes translations on commission and publishes scholarly essays on Boccaccio, a poet of the Italian Renaissance period. A two-year correspondence has resulted from one of her essays when Count Montevarchi from Tuscany wrote to praise it. Their subsequent correspondence has been an opportunity to exchange thoughts and ideas; Cassandra has enjoyed being appreciated for her insight and intellect. She has treasured the contact with the correspondent she imagines to be a middle-aged, confirmed bachelor scholar.
The count writes to invite Cassandra to “come to Tuscany, my lady. Breathe new winds.”
Basilio, Count Montevarchi, has envisioned the scholarly Lady St. Ives as “middle aged and barrel-bosomed.” They are both stunned to discover the other young and beautiful. They fall in love at first sight. A disastrous marriage and her older sister’s excesses have led Cassandra to reject emotion in favor of intellect, but now in Tuscany she at last gives free rein to her senses.
Basilio is not free, however. He has been betrothed by his father to a young girl who was a favorite of his late mother. He and his father despise one another and are bitter antagonists. He resents his father’s mandate. Analise, a great beauty, has no desire for marriage and hopes to take vows as a nun.
As Basilio and Cassandra spend time together as friends and fellow scholars, he recognizes the rightness of their love. There can be no other woman for him, but his attempts to end the betrothal come too late. Following a furious argument between Basilio and his father, a heart-broken Cassandra leaves the Villa de Montevarchi.
Now the married Basilio has come to London with his young wife. His sensual poetry has made him a sensation and brought sponsorship of an English poet. Cassandra fears being near her love; honor demands that he not betray his marriage vows.
Night of Fire is the sequel to the author’s Black Angel, the first in the St. Ives series. The heroine Cassandra is the sister of the heroine in the first book. (No explanation is given why Cassandra is known as Lady St. Ives rather than by her late husband’s surname.) I thought Black Angel was overloaded with a surfeit of characters but weak in character motivation. This second book has many of the same St. Ives characters, but they are of less importance leaving the main focus properly on the relationship between Cassandra and Basilio. The story’s strength is character development.
Readers who enjoy romances with convoluted, intricate plots may find the plot of Night of Fire rather thin as it adheres to a classic model. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy loses girl. On the other hand, readers who want stories of lush sensuality and emotion are likely to love it.
Cassandra and Basilio are both strong, likable characters. Since they have become close friends through correspondence (apparently there was easy, regular mail service between England and Tuscany in the 1780’s), their falling in love at first sight is understandable. Both have been constrained by family or society to conform to an uncomfortable mold. Because they are so perfectly matched, for the first time they feel free to indulge themselves in expanding their experiences. And once they are forced to part, their unrequited love remains believably strong and vital.
The author employs language invoking several senses - light, sound, smell, taste - in describing Cassandra’s awakening to love and carnal experience. This is one romance where the correct word to characterize the author’s use of language is “lush.” Tuscany is likely to undergo a new influx of tourists based on the descriptions in this book!
While I was lukewarm at best about Black Angel, I can strongly recommend Night of Fire. With a number of St. Ives siblings still unwed, there are likely to be more installments in the series. Let’s hope they follow the style of this one.