A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

5 Great Secondary Romances (repost from H&H)

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.]

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TBR Challenge: Dear Mr. Knightly by Katherine Reay

CW: descriptions of violence against women and children.

The theme: folk or fairy tale. I went a bit off book.

Why this one: Despite the title, it’s actually a retelling of an old favorite, Daddy-Long-Legs. Spoilers for the original story.

(I actually just listened to a perfect book for this theme: Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier, a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling set in ancient Ireland. But it didn’t occur to me to take notes while listening, so I can’t really write about it other than to say it excellent, albeit somewhat irritating. The heroine wound up on my now-seldom-used “too stupid to live” shelf.)

I started this a little dubiously, because the title seems like it’s trying to cash in on Austen’s popularity — which is apparently something of this author’s brand. It did make some sense thematically, though. The main character, Samantha, has survived a very rough childhood by escaping into books — I related a lot — and has acquired a habit of using fake personas and book quotations because she has such uncertain social skills — again, I related a lot.

The basic plot follows the originally fairly closely. Orphaned girl is given a scholarship to college — in this case, graduate school in Journalism — by an anonymous benefactor, who asks only for letters describing her progress. Lonely girl uses the letters to express herself because she feels so alienated from her peers; meanwhile she falls in love with a man she happens to meet… guess who! I think the author had a goal to “fix” aspects of the original story that bother some readers today — it’s made very clear that the benefactor is not “grooming” Samantha, and he doesn’t interfere with her plans or her other relationships, as the original “Daddy-Long-Legs” did. And Sam gets angry when she discovers the truth about her benefactor, which the original orphan didn’t. (The “grooming” theory still bugs the hell out of me, but I won’t dissect it here.)

It’s very hard for me to review this book, because I started to realize about halfway through that it’s an Inspie. And though that wasn’t so in-your-face that I couldn’t enjoy it, I see from other reviews that there’s a lot of standard Inspie conversion tactics going on. This is making me second-guess my reaction to the book, much as I did when I learned that a book I thought had an excellent depiction of a disabled character was published by a fetish press. (Not comparing Christianity to a fetish — and not that there’s anything wrong with fetishes — but I’m really bothered by hidden agendas.)

Trying to put that aside, the epistolary narrative was engaging and I enjoyed reading it. It’s maybe a bit too good to be true in parts, but mostly stays believable. But if you’re sensitive about any of the issues mentioned here, I suggest giving the GoodReads reviews a good look through before deciding to try it.

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Brandon Mills versus the V-Card by Lisa Henry and J.A. Rock

CW: child sexual abuse

I’m not loving the trend of unbelievably perfect romance heroes lately, so I was intrigued when I realized that Brandon, the touch-averse student first introduced in Mark Cooper versus America, was not being matched with someone knowledgeable and unutterably sensitive, but rather someone as inexperienced and clueless as he is.

Brandon’s situation is deeply tragic. He was molested by a teacher as a child, he believes his father thinks that experience “ruined” him as a man, and his eidetic memory keeps him reliving those terrible experiences. He’s so freaked out most of the time, he doesn’t even experience sexual feeling, much less a sexual identity.

But Alex, a new pledge at his nerdy fraternity, develops an almost instant crush on Brandon, fantasizing about them as both equally eager to find first love and first sex in college. And his puppy-dog cuteness become hard for Brandon to ignore.

What follows is an adorably sincere, bumbling, sweet slow burn, as Brandon and Alex figure out how to be together. Brandon isn’t able to talk about his experiences for a long time, so there’s occasionally mistakes and hurt feelings. But Alex doesn’t need to be a perfect amateur sex therapist, because the most important thing he can offer Brandon, besides relearning how to have good physical feelings, is relearning how to play .

Brandon’s process seems very real and believable, but the book overall is too funny to be really heavy. Brandon and Alex’s sex banter is a goofy delight. The wonderfully awful Mark is around, being a ridiculous arsehole but also a good friend, and there’s an over-the-top subplot (I hope not offensive to anyone) in which kind, oblivious frat boy Blake goes to Gay/Straight Alliance meetings to figure out how to help Brandon with what he thinks is an identity crisis and winds up becoming an integral part of the group.

I really enjoyed both books, but lil ole lady me was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of kinky sex in the first. This has a much milder heat level, and you can skip the first book, though Mark’s character will be harder to understand.

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TBR Challenge 4/21: Outlaw in Paradise by Patricia Gaffney

The theme: My favorite, old school!

Why this one: I think this is last Gaffney romance I hadn’t read.

I don’t remember ever seeing this Gaffney discussed much and from that, had assumed it was one of her earlier books, before she’d really hit her stride. In fact, it’s actually the last romance she wrote before switching to fiction. And though it can’t compare with amazing books like Wild at Heart and To Have and to Hold, it’s definitely Gaffney.

Jesse Gault rides into Paradise, Oregon, dressed all in black, his reputation proceeding him. He’s the rootinest, tootinest gunslinger in the Wild West. And local businesswoman Cady McGill is pretty concerned when he rents a room above her saloon, the Rogue. But when she actually meets him, he’s not quite what she’d expected.

“She had the strangest sensation: that she’d just had a conversation with two men, not one, and she had no idea which was real. Or which one interested her more.”

Cady’s not wrong. Far from being a ruthless gun for hire, Jess is actually a conman with a somewhat inconvenient heart of gold. His method works great: stay in a town for awhile, and wait while anyone with a guilty conscience pays him not to kill them. But between his immediate interest in Cady, his friendship with the young son of her bartender, and his general good nature, Jesse finds it hard to maintain his sinister facade, slowly becoming a member of the community. He even manages to overcome Cady’s reluctance to get involved with a killer.

But when Cady and the town are threatened, and really need a gunslinger, Jesse is caught in his own bluff.

Outlaw in Paradise is maybe… middle-aged school rather than old school. Cady is a gently-used heroine rather than a virgin. There are positive (but sometimes cringey) portrayals of characters of color. And Jesse is most definitely a beta hero but not one of the Practically Perfect in Every Way betas of today’s romance. He’s a loveable rogue, almost a goofball. (One GoodReaders reviewer found him just too useless to be acceptable as a romance hero.) There’s some heavy moments in the book, but a lot of it is kind of like a big party, with plenty of carousing and canoodling; even the sex scenes are as likely to leave you smiling as sweating. Gaffney didn’t go out with a bang, but it is a pretty sweet farewell.

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on the off-chance someone is reading this who isn’t a Twitter friend..

Check out this absolutely amazing treasure a friend made for me!

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Recurring Themes in My Reading 3/21

Redheaded heroes

Intimidating eyebrows

Adoptions gone bad 😦

Romeo & Juliet allusions

Historical heroines cursed by their own sexiness

Obnoxiously smartass but goodhearted young adult heroes

Gifts of granting happy dreams

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TBR Challenge: Here Comes the Bride by Pamela Morsi

The theme: A favorite author.

Why this one?: I find Americana romance a good palate cleanser.

Like many Morsi books, this one features two couples — but here she mixes things up with a quadrangle.

Businesswoman Gussie, owner of “Mudd’s Manufactured Ice,” has been keeping company with Amos Dewey for three years, but when she asks his intentions point blank, he reveals he doesn’t have any. So she enlists her employer Rome to fake court her and make Amos jealous. Meanwhile, Rome has been having a secret affair with the local scandalous widow Pansy, but she won’t marry him; no matter what the town thinks, she deeply loved her husband, and will only marry again for love. And she’s the only one who realizes that Amos Dewey is still too stricken with grief over his wife’s death to be truly interested in anyone… yet.

It’s not hard to guess what happens but of course it’s a complicated journey. Pansy and Amos were initially the more interesting couple for me, but I did start to enjoy Gussie and Rome, especially Gussie’s obliviousness to her changing feelings.

[the dress] did look very nice on her. She hoped Rome agreed. If Rome thought she looked nice, then, of course, Amos would think the same. She’d worn the dress for Amos. Because she knew Rome liked it.

She allowed her imagination to wander. In her mind’s eye she saw herself leaning over the narrow counter [of the kissing booth], her lips dangerously close to those of Rome Akers. Suddenly, Amos Dewey comes pushing through the crowd. He grabs Rome by the shoulder and jerks him away from her. Then he pulls Gussie into his arms and kisses her, he kisses her exactly the same way that Rome had kissed her.

Pansy and Amos’s romance doesn’t hold up quite as well. Pansy decides to seduce Amos as a favor to Rome, since she can tell he and Gussie are perfect for each other. The seduction scene is just gorgeous — let’s hear it for old-fashioned barber chairs! — and they share a very promising afterglow, but she feels so close to Amos she makes the mistake of blurting out her plan, and of course he goes into an Old Skool snit. Although they wind up with a HEA, I’m iffy about how they got there.

I wouldn’t recommend this as a classic of the genre, but it does have a detailed, atmospheric setting, sweet characters, and believable insights into human nature. Worth a read.

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P.S.

I just discovered that TBR Challenge: Ghost of the Past by Sally Wentworth was the second half of a two-parter! So all the whackadoodle from the past has its own book, Twin Torment, if anyone cares. (Does not raise hand.)

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TBR Challenge: Ghost of the Past by Sally Wentworth

CW: slut-shaming, violence against women

The theme: A comfort read

Why this one: What, you’re not comforted by bananapants drama about nasty men and the women who love them anyway? How about very short books?

Ghost of the Past may be the winner of the Wackiest Sentence Ever Uttered in a Romance award. We’re only a few pages in and our hero Alex has just slapped our heroine Ginny:

Then he stood back, his body shaking, his hands clenched tightly, fighting for control. ‘Dear God! The first time I’ve ever hit a woman and it has to be a little slut like you.’

All I can think is, “what nice, pure woman were you saving it for, then?”

Alex is a typical sexist, unreasonably jealous HP hero but interestingly enough, if this story was an “Am I the Asshole Post” it would probably be voted ESH — everybody sucks here. The ways in which the two primary women in his life messed with him and each other is laughably awful. Yet oddly enough, the actual story is fairly down-to-earth — the wackery is largely in the past.

Summing up, both Ginny and her identical twin sister Venetia fell in love with Alex, and literally tossed a coin to see who could have him. Ginny lost, and left to become a well known model. When the story begins, Venetia has died and left her home to Ginny, which brings her back into Alex’s sphere. She still loves him, and he has feelings for her as well… but how can you manage a relationship with someone who was in love with someone exactly like you?

This is not a good twin//bad twin story, which was a little disappointing at first. Ginny and Venetia were very close and had that mystical “twin bond” writers adore. A man came between them, but never destroyed that bond. I wound up liking that choice, despite my love of a juicy good sister/bad sister story. Ginny isn’t going to win Alex’s love just because Venetia was really a bad person.

But Wentworth set herself quite a challenge here, and I’m not sure she met it. The fact that Ginny and Venetia were constantly Patty Duke-ing Alex in the past makes his claim that he always loved Ginny too seem pretty weak. How do Alex and Ginny get past their issues? By literally duking it out. They have a drag out fight, which of course turns into sex, and… that’s it. Problems solved.

And there’s very little compensation for all Alex put Ginny through, and how much she had to be the one in pursuit, dealing with his ever-mixing emotions. Overall, a letdown in the catharsis department.

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TBR Challenge: Christmas Belles by Susan Carroll

The theme: festive!

Why this one: I confess, I just scanned my books for “Christmas” in the title. I think I’ve tried to read this one one or two times before, and since I’m enjoying quieter stories now, it seemed time. Also nothing says “festive” like a Christmas-set Traditional Regency.

The story opens with hints of Little Women and Pride and Prejudice : four sisters, an entailed estate, and a father who can’t provide for their futures. Eldest Emma is domestic, and quietly in love with the impoverished local vicar; Lucy loves society and fashion; Abigail is a bookworm. Our primary heroine is Chloe, who’s warm-hearted and imaginative. But as we will discover, she also has chin! (ping Miss Bates!)

When their father is killed trying to earn dowries for his daughters, his heir feels responsible for the girls and proposes to Emma via letter; she accepts. When he arrives, Captain Will Trent is relieved to find Emma is pretty and pleasant, but her sister Chloe is so stubborn and complicated, seeming to hate him on sight.

Will is no awful Mr. Collins — he’s closer to Mr. Darcy. Responsible, repressed, and absolutely in need of someone to show him how to enjoy himself.

This could be one of those irritating “why don’t you just SAY something!” stories, except that Will is quite believably clueless. Almost from first meeting her, his thoughts are on Chloe, but he’s completely out of touch with his own feelings. The first part of the book is charmingly silly, as they butt heads while constantly thinking about each other, and then become friends as Chloe coaxes Will into enjoying the season. Then the story falls into lot of drama all at once, but it mostly works, thematically.

I’m reading Christmas Promise by Mary Balogh for a book club this month, and it’s interesting to compare this with Balogh’s family-filled, spiritually uplifting Christmas. Carroll’s is almost pagan in contrast, with much more emphasis on legends and luck than “the meaning of Christmas.” If the usual sentimentality of Christmas stories is overdone for you, give this one a try.

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