When I started this project a month or so ago, Jenny Haddon said this 1980 Sara Craven book was the first Harlequin to include “full docking procedures” (Haddon’s term, which I adore). However, Possession, the 1979 Violet Winspear Harlequin Presents I reviewed two weeks ago, included married sex. Possession may have been published after this book, Flame of Diablo, by Mills & Boon (I can’t figure that out) but as a Harlequin it was published a bit later–Possession is #321 and Flame of Diablo is #331. I’m not sure I care precisely which was first though. I’m more interested in the evolution of sexual contact in categories than I am in the “first” everything. Though it’s possible that Flame of Diablo is actually the first Harlequin to include premarital sex because it, well, does. Because the hero and heroine aren’t married at the time of sexual contact, nor do they have any plans to be. It’s also fully consensual on the heroine’s part. Revolutionary! But we’ll get to that.
The premise of Flame of Diablo is that Rachel Crichton, a blonde, beautiful London actress, has been sent to Colombia by her sick grandfather to retrieve her brother Mark, who has gone to seek his fortune in defiance of the grandfather’s wishes. When Rachel shows up in Bogota, a friend of Mark’s tells her that he might be heading to Diablo to seek out a precious, but cursed emerald. Rachel attempts to hire Vitas de Mendoza to guide her into the wilderness, but of course she is afraid of her “powerful reaction to him” and sets off with a different local guide, who turns out to be not a nice guy.
Trigger warning for rape after the jump (brief, but violent).
I had a few rough moments with this book early on. Not only does Rachel find herself in the clutches of a man who threatens to rape her, getting as far as tearing her shirt and her bra before being rescued by Vitas, who then implies that he will require sexual favors as payment for seeing her safely to her destination. I might have, um, thrown the book. Just a little. But it gets better! Like, actually better, not sarcastically better.
Vitas turns out to be quite an honorable character. He’s notable for not being English as well. Most of the heroes in these books seem to be English or American, but Vitas is Colombian. I have yet to run across any of the Italian bosses, Greek millionaires or Spanish princes that are now so common in HPs. And there’s a bit of the “Latin lover” stereotype to Vitas, though it didn’t strike me as problematic as it could have been. He inflames Rachel where no Englishman yet has.
Vitas is also missing an eye and wears an eye patch, which is a facet of his appearance and a plot element, but isn’t overly dwelt upon. He never forces Rachel, his threats are mostly teasing, he has a sense of humor, he’s truly charming (as in, we aren’t just told he’s charming), and he’s actually genuinely kind of dreamy in classic romance hero tradition, unlike most of the Harlequin heroes I’ve come across thus far in my reading. He’s still a little impenetrable, uncommunicative and old-fashioned, but his facial expressions and dialogue leave less to the imagination than usual for heroes of this era. And he has real, practical reasons for not sharing certain bits of information with Rachel because it could affect their safety. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to note that Mark did go in search of the emerald and ran afoul of some bad characters, including Rachel’s original guide.
When they find Mark in the clutches of the bad guys, it’s at this point that Rachel decides to give into her feelings for Vitas (page 146):
She had offered herself, and she had expected to be taken, even used. She was prepared and willing for that–anything that would keep the darkness from him, and her generosity reaped its own overwhelming rewards. His initiation of her was almost wickedly controlled yet passionate, consummately skillful, but tender. Her first inevitable shyness dissolved away in his arms, as he taught her to respond, to return the pleasure she received, a pleasure that superseded and transcended the first sharp pain of possession. When it was over, she lay trembling in the aftermath of a delight she had never dreamed of knowing, and there were tears on her face, tears of joy, gratitude and disbelief.
That’s…dare I say…actually romantic? Kinda sexy? They’re still not together together at this point either. Vitas does eventually propose and it takes them even a bit longer than that to declare their love for each other. They also have a brief altercation that given my recent reading I found rather amusing. (I’m sorry. I’ve gone native.) Unlike the previous Harlequin heroes of my reading to this point, Vitas doesn’t threaten to spank Rachel; he actually does it. Forgive the long quote here, but it’s both important for context and worth it (page 158).
‘Sacrifice!’ He uttered a mirthless laugh. ‘Dios, the virgin martyr! Besides,’ he added sardonically, ‘I’m sure a sacrificial victim wouldn’t enter quite so fully into the spirit of the occasion. I have scratches on my back from your nails, little wildcat.’
‘You dare,’ she hissed, ‘to insult me by reminding me of any of the humiliating details and I’ll…’ She paused, lost for a suitable revenge.
‘Bite?’ he supplied, his brows lifting mockingly. ‘You did that too, querida. Shall I strip and show you exactly where?’
She cried out and her hand came up, striking him across the face. For a moment he looked incredulous, then incredulity hardened to fury, and she did not need to look round to know that her action had been witnessed by some of Captain Lopez’ men. But even so she was not prepared for what happened next.
As she turned to walk away, going in search of Mark, his hand caught her, jerking her backwards, lifting her off her feet and downwards over his bent knee. His hand descended with stinging effect four times before he released her, kicking and struggling, her cheeks flying scarlet banners of temper.
‘You swine,’ she choked. ‘You–you…’
‘Strike me again, Raquel, and you know now what to expect, he said coolly.
Rachel admits later that he hadn’t hurt anything but her pride. Some readers will, I’m sure find this appalling. I thought it was kind of funny. Obviously not appropriate in a real-life relationship, but it worked here as part of this fictional one. Also, I had three books in a row where the hero threatened to spank the heroine and this is the first one to actually follow through, which is probably contributing to my sense of mirth.
Other sexual contact includes three kisses and a bit of “sensuous, intimate caressing” that causes a “shock of response to run through her entire body” (page 125) but even though she’s clad in a towel at the time, it’s unclear what exactly is being caressed.
Not only was Flame of Diablo the first Harlequin Presents I’ve read thus far to include fully consensual and premarital sex, but it’s also the first where I had a visceral appreciation for the hero. Even though all his actions aren’t above scrutiny, I believed for the majority of the book that he’s actually a good guy. His attractiveness to the heroine was also believable. The descriptions of sexual contact in the book are still extremely tame by today’s standards, but they’re also unapologetically romantic and sexy.
I can only hope I am entering a new era in the history of Harlequin Presents. It will have to wait a couple of weeks though because I managed to acquire some non-Harlequin category romances from the 1980s at a thrift store in Central Virginia last weekend: two Dell Candlelight Romances, Rendezvous in Athens (1979) and Shadows of the Heart (1980). So I’ll look at one or both of those for next week for a glimpse at what was happening in the world of category romance out from Mary Bonnycastle’s conservative thumb at Harlequin.