Night Of Fire
by Barbara Samuel, historical (2000)
Avon, $5.99, ISBN 0-06-101391-9

When happily widowed Cassandra St Ives receives this invitation from her penpal/soul mate Count Basilio, she couldn't pack her bags fast enough. Cassandra is a happy woman enjoying her independence, deeming her newfound freedom a compensation to her mercifully brief suffering at the hands of a perverted, abusive husband. Having exchanged letters that bare each other's intimate feelings to the other, Cassandra is a bit hesitant but what the heck - Tuscany, here she comes!

Thing is, she thinks he a well-pickled elderly poet-cum-scholar and he her a bawdy, witty, maybe even rotund woman of advancing years. Thing is, both are drop-dead, young, and sexy people whose hearts and other portions of their anatomy start working overtime the moment they meet.

But alas, alas, Basilio is restrained by family obligations to marry another woman. As it happens, this woman doesn't want to get married, she wants to be a nun, but if Basilio doesn't marry Analise, her father will give her to a cruel man to wed. And Cassandra willingly brings herself out of the one-week paradise of a moment in Tuscany.

Altogether now, let's take out our collective hankies and sing along with the star-crossed lovers: Con te partirĂ², paesi che non ho mai...

That's basically the premise of Night Of Fire. The first half is our two lovers' painful, often moving, sometimes overly-flowery, always poignant love affair that culminates in one of the most beautiful love-afterglow scenes I've read. (The same scene is reproduced in the first page of the book - take a peek if you like.)

Never mind that I do have my qualms about a man who just speaks in nothing but beautiful if sometimes bombastic poetry. I mean, imagine Cassandra coming home from a hard day's work of inspecting and purchasing new gowns from Bond Street to ask, "Honey, what's the cook making for lunch?" and having him answer "Oh my beautiful moon-drop love, the cook is making a succulent heavenly white and tender, rosy as your lips and ever beauteously delicious like your sweet little - " and finally she in exasperation, "For heaven's sake, he's making chicken or fish, buster?!!!"

Still, I'm moved to tears more than once. The Utopian Tuscany depicted here is just simply heavenly and lush, what with birds chirping and sunlight (always the right temperature) warming one's skin as one wakes up to an always perfect morning. And all those luscious love scenes - not just the coitus, but the chemistry, the quiet moments, all are just heavenly.

Then, the second half have our lovers staring at each other across the ballrooms, hungrily yet sadly as both are doomed never, ever to touch. And Barbara Samuel portrays their pain so acutely, again, I am moved to shed tears like a damaged fire hydrant.

Night Of Fire may lack the usual Napoleon/Irish/Highland intrigue, and instead it just chooses to tell a love story thwarted by the lovers' own nobility and circumstances. It's a beautiful story, and the poetry in the prose adds to the whole surreal enchantment of the larger-than-life romance that envelops me as well as the two lovers. I also love the way Cassandra actually welcomes Ton life instead of being one of those annoying, scholarly spinster clichés that start to overpopulate British Isle historical romances like an explosion of zits. Surprise - she enjoys balls and dancing, and she goes to the theater on her own accord!

Basilio is a stereotypical Italian hunk with a tongue so poetic it could probably send his female listeners into aurally-induced orgasms, but still, when he writes his poetry to release his despair at not being able to be with Cassandra, oh, my heart hurts too. Sensitive and hunky and noble - no wonder they say it always shine in Tuscany.

I am tempted to give this book a full 100, very very tempted, but the resolution of this star-crossed affair is like cold water splashed most rudely on my face. Needless to say, Cassandra and Basilio never actually do anything to get their happy ending, it's actually a third party that fixes matter. In a way, it's probably the only manner a resolution could be attained, but still, I get annoyed by the way Cassandra would have keep making a martyr out of herself in the Name Of Love (Cassie, let Analise be the saintly one, please?) if things didn't happen the way they did in the end.

Still, this is a book that, for once, seems nothing but pure unadulterated, larger-than-life and oh-so-passionate romance, tempestuous emotions made poetry, and - sorry, I have to say this - seems free from most of the usual clichés of a mediocre historical romance. There's definitely a space for this book on my keeper shelf. Poetry like Basilio's and a love affair so grand and passionate like this, I sure can't resist.

Rating: 95

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