I first read Mary Jo Putney’s Shattered Rainbows, the fifth book in her Fallen Angels series, more than fifteen years ago, and I’ve reread it at least half a dozen times since. I sometimes skip hot scenes in the romances I read because they add little to the story and because I’ve been reading romance fiction since before the Woodiwiss-initiated revolution and find that there is nothing new in the bed or the garden or the bath or . . . Well, you get the idea.
But one of my exceptions to the skipping rule is the twelve-page “gentle sensuality” scene in Shattered Rainbows which Putney uses, not to titillate readers, but to reveal her characters and advance their relationship.
Michael Kenyon, second son of a duke, first sees Catherine Melbourne, who has been following the drum as daughter and wife all of her life, as she is comforting a dying boy in a field hospital in Salamanca, Spain. Three years later, Napoleon has escaped from Elba, and Michael, the newest member of Wellington’s staff, needs a billet in crowded Brussels; he is invited to share the quarters that Catherine Melbourne and her family are already sharing with another cavalry officer and his family and Michael’s friend Kenneth Wilding (their story is told in River of Fire).
Catherine and Michael fall in love, but, determined to make honorable choices, they don’t acknowledge their love by word or deed. Even when Catherine saves Michael’s life, searching for him after Waterloo, nursing him, and risking her own health in a radical medical procedure, they act honorably. After the war, when Catherine needs Michael to pose as her husband, he agrees—reluctantly, but he is understandably angry when he learns that she has kept the death of Colin Melbourne from him. He can only see that Catherine is free; she, however, believes that she is unfit for marriage. Michael, who senses that her problem is sexual, asks her to trust him and assures her that he will stop at a word from her.
She had come to know his body very well when she nursed him, but she had tried to make herself think of him only as a patient. For the first time she allowed herself the pleasure of open admiration. He was beautiful, strong, and well-made, utterly male. . . .
The thought of surrendering herself to that strength chilled her. She turned away and silently got her lotion from the dresser. He examined her face shrewdly as she handed him the bottle. “We have a long way to go, don’t we? We’ll start with a single small step. How far the journey goes is up to you.”
What follows is a lengthy scene, both sensuous and sensual, in which, with tenderness and passion, Michael initiates Catherine into the pleasures of the flesh.
The air was heavy with tropical warmth, the sweet tang of the lotion, and the fragrance of the fresh flowers that were brought in every day. The world narrowed down to touch and scent and heat and the two of them.
Each time I read the scene, I am reminded of lines from Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress”:
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But Michael, unlike Marvell’s speaker, seems unconscious of “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” He leisurely celebrates Catherine’s body with his touch and with his words:
We don’t have enough words in English. There’s nothing stronger than beautiful. And colors—we need more colors. What would you call the shade of these? . . . Tawny rose? Blush gold?
Quoting passages fails to do the scene justice because every word, every revelation shared, every touch is part of the intimacy that these two share. Catherine has been known as Saint Catherine because of her unassailable virtue and her selfless service, but as she acknowledges, it “is easier to be a saint than a woman.” Women are vulnerable in ways that saints are not; however, Catherine learns that men can also be vulnerable. Physical and emotional vulnerability is the cost lovers pay; pleasure and freedom are the rewards. Michael and Catherine’s story does not end with this scene. Their black moment awaits them, as do dangers to all they hold dear, but in this scene they become mates in the fullest sense of that word: companions, partners, and lovers.
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.