Adam Hawthorne, the Earl of Blackwood, is attracted to a beautiful young woman he sees in the park as he rides in the early morning. He learns she is Jillian Whitney who is residing with the elderly Earl of Fenwick. Rumors are circulating that Jillian is Fenwick’s mistress, but she is actually the daughter of his late friend, a famous Egyptologist, who was left destitute on her father’s death. They live together as guardian and ward, but even the household staff seems uncertain of their true relationship.
Blackwood happens to be walking nearby when a shot rings out from Fenwick’s London townhouse. He sees a figure slip from the house. Blackwood goes in pursuit and captures Jillian who insists she is innocent of the earl’s murder and was only running to avoid false arrest. Blackwood agrees to shelter her in secret until there has been time for further investigation. He has witnessed the damage of wrongful accusations against himself and others so he knows how easily opinion can turn against one. At first his motive is that he feels there is doubt about Jillian’s guilt, but in a short time he hopes to exonerate her because he wants her in his bed.
Jillian’s location is discovered, and she is arrested. Blackwood with the assistance of his friends, the Duke and Duchess of Rathmore (from The Fire Inside), arranges to have her released into his custody. Having her under his roof provides numerous opportunities for desire to rise between them.
A solicitor informs him that Fenwick had ordered his will rewritten - he intended to leave his unentailed fortune to Jillian but had been killed before he’d been able to sign the new will. Blackwood confronts Jillian. She insists she had no idea the earl had been about to change his will. When Blackwood accuses of her of being Fenwick’s mistress, she informs him of the true nature of their relationship. Fenwick was like a father to her; she’s known no man. This complicates Blackwood’s plans. He is now convinced she is innocent of the crime, and he can’t take a virgin to bed. Even if their personal problems are resolved, however, Jillian is still facing a murder charge.
This Regency-era story moves slowly in the beginning: Blackwood lusts; things look bad for Jillian; repeat and repeat and repeat. The pace picks up midway through when the mystery gets into gear and the plot expands beyond its initial two-note pattern. Besides the mystery subplot there’s also a nice secondary romance between Lady Margaret, Blackwood’s sister, and a barrister as well as a subplot about a boy born to Blackwood’s first love: is he his son or his cousin’s?
The first quarter of Fanning the Flame uses kissus interruptus as its technique for increasing sexual tension. Every time Blackwood and Jillian are wrapped in a passionate embrace, one of them backs off saying this is a mistake, it won’t happen again, but, of course, it always does. Blackwood’s never known such desire, but she’s a virgin so even though he wants her he cannot have her. It becomes annoyingly repetitious after a while, and I was ready for something new to happen. I felt almost as much relief as Blackwood when they finally became lovers.
The characters are no more appealing in the beginning than the slow-paced plot.
Being a murder suspect must make one illogical because Jillian’s reactions make little sense. Every few minutes she wants to run away - she’s got no money, she’s got no friends - but she’s got to run. Run, Jillian, run. (Apparently it doesn’t occur to her that this would only make her look more guilty.)
Blackwood repeatedly prevents her from leaving. Then when Blackwood decides that opinion is running too strongly against her and that Fenwick’s nephew and heir’s threats to have her tried for murder are getting serious so they should get out of town suddenly no, no, she can’t go, she’s got to stay and prove she’s innocent.
Logic gaps abound - Blackwood is no more logical than Jillian. He finally believes she didn’t murder Fenwick when she reveals she’s a virgin. It would be different if she were Fenwick’s mistress as the rumors suggest because a sexually experienced woman could be a murderess. She’s a virgin ergo she must be innocent. As he sees it, sexual innocence equals criminal innocence. Does this sound logical? After he takes her to bed and thanks to him she’s an ex-virgin, has she suddenly become guilty?
Blackwood is one of those heroes who’s been betrayed by women so he’s decided never to marry. Naturally he has no difficulty believing Jillian must have been Fenwick’s mistress because in his experience most women are faithless, conniving sluts. This leads him to act in aggravating ways and make insulting proposals to Jillian. Since he’s all that’s standing between her and Newgate prison, she can hardly slap his face and denounce him, but I was hoping somebody would.
What’s surprising is in spite of these characters being on the annoying side in the beginning, I came to like both of them by the end of the book, particularly when love leads each of them to act in a way that puts the other first. I came to believe they were right for each other, and considering how much ground they had to make up, that’s saying something.
Fanning the Flame is the third in a three-book series (after Heartless and The Fire Inside). I had not read the previous books but never felt at a loss. The main characters from those books do play minor roles in this one so readers who enjoyed the earlier books may want to check this one out.
It’s unfortunate that Fanning the Flame gets off to such a slow, repetitious start because the second half proves it could have been an entertaining story.