A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

5 Great Secondary Romances (repost from H&H)

on May 19, 2021

We got into a discussion of secondary romances on Twitter, which reminded me of this piece. Dexter & Victoria are still a fan favorite today!

Secondary couples are often an opportunity for authors to take interesting risks; consequently, they’re sometimes more memorable than the primary couple. Here are five secondary couples that have stood out from the crowd.

5) Dexter/Victoria —  Secondary romances are one of Susan Elizabeth Phillips‘s trademarks and it’s hard to choose just one. But years before geeks were an in thing, she created Dexter O’Connor in Lady Be Good, “a rather disheveled man in his early thirties wearing chinos, a rumpled blue oxford cloth shirt, and wire-rimmed glasses,” who is also described as “the biggest nerd in Wynette, Texas.” Victoria Traveler is resisting her father’s efforts to force her to marry Dexter, but she gradually discovers his careful, precise attitude has its benefits:

As the minutes ticked by, she discovered new things about Dex. He liked to inspect everything. Thoroughly. To evaluate, measure, and caress. And his curiosity seemed just about insatiable.

There’s a bit of a dominance/submission edge to the pairing of contrary, defiant Tori with the firm and straitlaced Dex—there’s even an old skool spanking scene!—which plays a little oddly today, when such relationships are much more openly drawn in romance. But Dexter remains delightful.

And he’s—I mean, for all his faults, any fool can see that he’ll be a good father. Except when it comes to sports, but I figure between you and me, we can make up for his shortcomings in that department. And then there’s . . . there’s just something about him.” She gave an uncomfortable shrug, clearly wanting to put an end to the conversation. “Something sweet and . . . Oh, I don’t know.”

“Your sister’s fallen in love with me,” Dex said, in case Kenny had missed the point.

4) Joanna/Adrian — If SEP is the queen of secondary romances in contemporaries, Anne Stuart is the queen in historicals. (A good argument could also be made for Sherry Thomas.) Stuart gets more varied in her secondary lovers than in her main characters, and there are many intriguing pairings, but the couple from Hidden Honor is particularly memorable. Joanna is a beautiful woman who’s survived “on her wits and on her back”; sex is a distasteful but useful tool to her. When she helps the wounded knight Adrian, he doesn’t care about her past or that she’s older than him, but her cynicism and mistrust of men could be a real problem. But Adrian’s wooing is made unexpectedly easy, when the two of them are forced to hide in a tiny space in a moving cart, which puts them in a very… interesting position.

…she had already stretched out in the small, coffinlike space he’d arranged. “Keep your weight on your elbows and we’ll be fine,” she said calmly.

It was more difficult than she had imagined. He settled down on top of her, as gently as possible, pulling the rough sacks over them before resting his arms on either side of her. The sacks smelled like flour and honey—they blotted out the light, enclosing the two of them in muffled darkness. She could feel himstretched along the length of her body, even though he was doing his best not to put his whole weight on her. The position was miserably uncomfortable, with her face in his shoulder, trying not to breathe in the intoxicating scent of his skin.

Bump…bump…bump…. The friction was gentle but insistent, and he seemed to become bigger still, harder, and she knew it wasn’t her imagination. The rhythm of the wagon was setting an age-old rhythm in their bodies, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.

She put her hands on his shoulders, pushing at him. “You need to get off me,” she whispered. “This isn’t right.”

Bump…bump…bump…. She was shivering, not quite sure why, cold and hot at the same time. She had no idea what was going on with her body, only that it was sinful and wicked and out of her control. Bump…bump…bump….

“Hush, love,” he whispered in her ear. “Just let go.”

Her body went completely rigid beneath his, as a thousand tiny sparks of light raced beneath her skin. She tried to cry out, but his hand kept her silent. It seemed to last forever, and then she went limp beneath him, afraid she might faint.

He took his hand from her mouth, turned her head to face his and kissed her mouth. And for the first time in her life, without thinking, she kissed someone back.

3) Gideon/Livia — Against the high drama and angst of Aline and McKenna’s tempestuous reunion in Lisa Kleypas‘s historical Again the Magic, the gentler romance between Livia and Gideon stands out for its maturity. Livia has already lost one love, and is too wise to either commit herself to the alcoholic Gideon or to try to coerce him into changing.

Sighing, Livia lowered her face to his chest and rested her cheek against the crisp, curling hair. She forced herself to be honest. “Nothing would induce me to marry you, my darling.”

Gideon’s arms went around her then. He held her a little too tightly, and ran his hands over her back in a long, supplicating stroke. “Why not?”

“Because I care for you too much to watch you destroy yourself.”

She felt the sudden tension in the long body beneath hers. Again she moved to roll away from him, expecting that this time he would let her go. But his arm tightened around her slender back, and one hand came to press her head more firmly against his chest. Resignation flattened his tone. “You want me to stop drinking.”

“No—I want no part of that decision.”

Gideon’s return, sober, is utterly joyous, because Livia can accept it with no qualms — he’s done what’s best for him, as well as for him.

A thrill of sudden, intense excitement stole Livia’s breath away. She watched him without blinking, rapidly calculating…yes, it had been six months, almost to the day. But Gideon had made it clear that he wouldn’t come for her unless he was certain that he could be the kind of man he felt she deserved. And I’ll come armed with honorable intentions, he had written—more’s the pity for you.

Now Gideon was more handsome than before, if that was possible. The lines of strain and cynicism had been smoothed away, and the dark smudges had disappeared from beneath his eyes, and he looked so vibrant and vigorous that her heart thudded wildly in response.

2) Peabody/McNab — It may be a law that any romance list has to includeJ.D. Robb‘s In Death series somewhere, but really, how could there be a best secondary couple list without Peabody and McNab? Starting out with the classic antagonism that inevitably leads to bed, in fiction, the relationship evolves over the course of several books — most notably in Witness in Death, in which McNab consults Roarke on how to get Peabody to take him more seriously:

“So I finally get a chance to bounce on the naked She-body, and it’s making me crazy. I’m all tied up inside and she’s cruising right along. I always figured women, you know, mostly they were supposed to want the whole relationship thing.”

What’s so fun about McNab and Peabody is that neither is glamorous or intriguingly troubled or fabulous-looking like Eve and Roarke, and yet they’re still so darned crazy about each other. “McNab’s got a little, bitty butt and hardly any shoulders,” says Peabody, thoughtfully adding, “Still…”  McNab is more clear about what he likes, refusing to listen to Peabody’s complaint that she’s pudgy: “You’re built. Seriously built.” They’re ordinary people, and they still get to have passionate love and great sex. After the tentative beginning, their relationship has been relatively free of angst, but when troubles come along—as when McNab is seriously wounded in Purity in Death—we can see how firm the connection is underneath all the naked bouncing.

1) Mary Lou/Ihbraham — Suzanne Brockmann specializes in unexpected pairings, showing that despite differences in age, skin color, religion or gender, love is love. Perhaps none was as unexpected as the matching of Mary Lou Starrett and Ihbraham Rahman, which begins in Into the Night and ends happily in Gone Too Far. Mary Lou was one of the most hated characters in romance, the Evil Other Woman who deliberately got pregnant, destroying Sam Starrett and Alyssa Locke’s blossoming romance; she’s also unconsciously racist and classist. But as we learn, she’s an alcoholic young mother married to a man who very obviously doesn’t love her, and she’s hanging on to sobriety by a thread. Also a recovering alcoholic, and an Arab-American living in the post 9/11 United States, Ihbraham knows a lot about accepting what you can’t change and changing what you can. He becomes the friend she desperately needs, though he refuses to be her sponsor…and tells her why with a kiss:

It was meltingly lovely. It was heart-stoppingly perfect. It was completely, shockingly exactly what she so desperately wanted.

A man she really liked—who wanted her the way she longed to be wanted.
Except he was black. Or brown. Certainly non-white.

Although who the hell could tell what color either of them were while her eyes were closed, while she was kissing him?

[Me from now — I don’t know how well this book holds up; this was a very white/mainstream list.]

2 responses to “5 Great Secondary Romances (repost from H&H)

  1. KeiraSoleore says:

    I loved reading this post, Willa. I missed this conversation on Twitter. I have a poor memory for books so it is rare for me to remember secondary romances. But now that you mention the Kleypas, I remember the two stories. I also remember than Eloisa James has done the same. And Balogh. Depending on the author, it can be done well or steal from the main story. I am ambivalent about having secondary romances. I think I prefer singleton ones.

    • willaful says:

      I don’t remember Balogh doing any I especially liked — but one I didn’t. (Christmas Beau, IIRC.) Would much rather have just stayed with the main couple. Eloisa James liked to have arcs going through the series.

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