Untouched, Anna Campbell’s sophomore effort, is a flat-out terrific book whose leading man has just landed on my short list for Favorite Hero of the year.
Widow Grace Paget wakes up from a laudanum-induced sleep to find herself strapped to a table and in the company of a madman. After wandering around Bristol looking for the cousin who failed to pick her up from the coaching inn, she was kidnapped by two nasty specimens who took her for a prostitute. Grace thought her life as a poor relation in her cousin’s household after the death of her husband was going to be difficult. Now she finds that her role is to be mistress to a madman. But, though Matthew looks a bit wild, there is intelligence and compassion in his eyes. Will he help her escape her prison?
Matthew, Marquess Sheene, has been imprisoned by his eeeee-vil uncle Lord John for 11 years, since he contracted a brain fever. When Matthew recovered months later, he had to learn to talk, walk, read and write all over again. He also learned that his uncle had him declared insane and has been running the marquisate in Matthew’s stead ever since. Even though Matthew is now in good health, Lord John keeps him imprisoned, guarded by ruthless jailers, and subjected to quack medical treatments prescribed by doctors bribed to maintain the insanity diagnosis during their yearly visits.
Matthew has made several escape attempts over the years but all ended in failure and more abuse. When the last one a year ago resulted in the deportation to Australia of his old nurse, to whom he had run, Matthew lost some of his will to resist. He has become listless and lost weight. Lord John thinks that what Matthew needs is a woman to perk him up. He has been imprisoned since he was 14 after all, and had no contact with a woman, other than his mute old housekeeper. And Matthew is indeed fascinated by Grace, but refuses to give in to his uncle’s plan. It takes a little while before Grace is convinced that Matthew is not insane and for Matthew to realize that Grace is an innocent victim.
Grace was born to a good family and was a headstrong young girl who paid for her wildness with a soul-killing nine year marriage. She is no stranger to hardship, but she cannot believe that her life now depends upon seducing a supposed madman. As she gets to know Matthew, she is even more loath to do it, for resisting his uncle’s plans is one of the few powers Matthew has left. The struggle becomes even more acute when she finds herself admiring and then falling in love with him.
Matthew is an amazing man. He passed his time in captivity by becoming a botanist of note, writing papers, doing experiments with roses, honing his mind, all the while fearing that he may slip back into madness. Matthew has a great capacity for love, which is remarkable considering his history, and is so eager for kindly human contact – something he’s not experienced in 11 years – that it almost breaks the heart to read. He is enchanted with Grace and completely open to the experience of falling in love. This is perhaps not especially believable considering his history, but it makes for a great fantasy and a hero to die for.
The sexual tension between Grace and Matthew is taut and riveting. While Matthew is the virgin of the pair, Grace never experienced passion with her elderly husband and so these feelings are as bewildering and foreign to her as they are to Matthew. When they finally do succumb to their passion it is an almost uncomfortable scene to read, for Matthew doesn’t have the finesse one expects from a romance hero, but performs exactly as one might expect a man of no experience to perform. Poor Grace isn’t thrilled with the idea of a second attempt, but Matthew is enthralled and determined to use his scientific knowledge of experimentation and observation to make sex equally as enchanting for her. He is a quick study.
There are just a couple of things that kept this from being a DIK for me. I felt the ending was too rushed, wrapping up too neatly and quickly, and that Lord John was a bit of a caricature. Campbell’s writing is replete with metaphors and similes which can be lush and moving at times – “She was rain in the desert. She was a banquet to a starving man. She was Grace.” – or it can be clunky – “…anticipating her departure was like bathing in acid.”
Still, Untouched is a remarkably satisfying and sigh-inducing read. I highly recommend it.
Buy it at Amazon