I began reading Harlequin Presents in high school. Doctored headshot aside, that was not a mere decade ago. More like three. Back then, with my only income from the local fast-food chain, I bought the six-for-a-dollar Harlequin Presents from the used book store which were long off the shelves.
Later I paid full price, when I was home nursing babies, but that was still more than fifteen years ago. Then life got busy. Really busy. Kids in school and sports. We moved, got new jobs, life intruded with some butt-kicking that knocked us for a loop. I kept writing, it was my salvation, but I didn’t make much time to read.
Thus, a good decade passed when I picked up the odd new author, but honestly, I mostly gravitated to my tried and true favorites. Half the time I went to my keeper shelf and reread those. Our local bookstore closed and they were pretty small anyway, so it wasn’t like I could browse a huge selection and make new discoveries.
With that lack of up-and-comer influences, I guess it’s not surprising that I’ve heard my voice described as ‘old-school Presents’ by more than a few sources. I’m still not sure what it means. Is it a compliment or a critique?
I’m not trying to sound like my favorite authors, but I am trying to create the same experience that I loved: being swept away with emotion and drama and passion. I’m sure that’s what all romance authors are trying to do, so I don’t think that makes me ‘old-school.’
However, I have seen discussions lately on which four letter words are allowed in Presents. To my mind, there was always a rule that the hero might say Damn and the odd, Oh God, might slip in, but crap was pushing it and I was actually taken aback in at the tender age of seventeen when Penny Jordan’s hero said the S-h-i cuppa-tea word. I grew up in the age of shaft and manhood. Ladyparts were alluded to has ‘his intimate caress’ and that’s about it.
I have to admit I still write by a lot of those rules, despite how silly the euphemisms can get. It’s romance. The whole point is to put some airbrush and gloss on the courtship experience. If you prefer your love scenes to be more coarse and graphic, the erotic authors in the next aisle are more than happy to provide. (Footnote: I’ve written those too.)
Speaking of coarse, back in the day, the Presents hero and heroine rarely visited or came from the colonies. Europe only please, preferably Greece, Italy or Spain.
It’s important to remember that romance was just starting to branch out in those days. Once Silhouette arrived, there was loads of room for different types of stories, but the Presents promise was glitz and sophistication. The Janet Dailey American stories were a pleasant diversion, but the Aussie in the outback had to be the station owner and that hero and heroine who took a campervan into the Canadian Rockies seemed really out of place to me.
Therefore, I hummed and hawed quite a bit about sending my H/h to California in A Debt Paid In Passion. I’m okay with my characters visiting New York City, even having penthouses and mansions there, but I guess I am old-school for being worried the West Coast might not fly with my editor, never mind my readers.
It should be noted that I gave them a red carpet event as a reason for going, not that I knew the book would come out in Awards Season when I wrote it. That’s just good luck. It should also be noted that I take them to Sydney where Raoul does not own a station. (spoiler alert!)
So I like to think I’m not completely mired in old-school rules, even if the story does cover just about every trope imaginable: Boss/PA, one-time affair, revenge, secret baby, marriage of convenience. He’s not a forty to her twenty-two years and she’s not a virgin. I’m practically a rebel!
What’s your experience? Do you see a different tone in modern Presents authors and stories versus old favorites? When did you first find Presents and what do you love about reading them?
A Debt Paid In Passion
A beautiful thief…?
Raoul Zesiger has everything a man could want—including Sirena Abbott, the perfect PA who keeps his life in order. Or so it seems, until their professional relationship gives way to one hot, impassioned night…and then he has her arrested for embezzlement!
She may have escaped a prison sentence, but Sirena knows she'll be shackled to Zesiger by more than just the past. With Raoul determined to recover the debt she owes him, Sirena is torn between guilt and an impossible attraction. But what will happen when Raoul uncovers the truth behind her theft?
Look at me, Raoul Zesiger willed Sirena Abbott.
He had to lean back in his chair to see her past the three men between them. He should have been looking at the judge, but he couldn’t take his eyes off Sirena.
She sat very still, face forward, her profile somber. Her absurdly long, gypsy lashes had stayed down-swept as his lawyer had risen to speak. She didn’t even flick a glance his direction when her own lawyer stood to plead that jail time was counter-productive since she needed to work to pay back the stolen funds.
Raoul’s lawyers had warned him this wouldn’t result in incarceration, but Raoul had pressed hard for it. He would see this treacherously innocent-looking woman, with her mouth pouted in grave tension and her thick brunette locks pulled into a deceptively respectful knot, go to jail for betraying him. For stealing.
His stepfather had been a thief. He had never expected to be taken advantage of again, especially by his reliable PA, a woman he’d come to see as someone he could trust to be there, always, but she had dipped her fingers into his personal account.
Then she had tried to manipulate him into going easy by being easy.
He didn’t want the flash of memory to strike. His ears were waiting for the judge to state that this would progress to a sentence, but his body prickled with heat as he recalled the feel of those plump lips softening under his. Her breasts, a lush handful, had smelled of summer. Her nipples were sun-warmed berries against his tongue, succulent and sweet. The heart-shaped backside he’d watched too often as it retreated from his office had been both taut and smooth as he had lifted her skirt and peeled lace down. Thighs like powdered sugar, an enticing musky perfume between that pulled him to hard attention as he remembered how tight—almost virginal—she’d been. But so hot and welcoming.
Because she’d known her criminal act was about to come to light.
His gut clenched in a mixture of fury and unparalleled carnal hunger. For two years he’d managed to keep his desire contained, but now that he’d had her, all he could think about was having her again. He hated her for having such power over him. He could swear under oath that he’d never hurt a woman, but he wanted to crush Sirena Abbott. Eradicate her. Destroy her.
The clap of a gavel snapped him back to the courtroom. It was empty save for the five of them behind two tables, both facing the judge. His lawyer gave Raoul a resigned that’s-how-it-goes tilt of his head and Raoul realized with sick disgust that the decision had gone in Sirena’s favor.
At the other table, partly obscured by her lawyer, Sirena’s spine softened in relief. Her wide eyes lifted to the heavens, shining with gratitude. Her lawyer thanked the judge and set a hand under Sirena’s elbow to help her rise, leaning in to say something to her.
Raoul felt a clench of possessiveness as he watched the solicitous middle-aged lawyer hover over her. He told himself it was anger, nothing else. He loathed being a victim again. She shouldn’t get away with a repayment plan of six hundred pounds a month.
That wasn’t reparation. That was a joke.
Why wouldn’t she look at him? It was the least she could do: look him in the eye and acknowledge they both knew she was getting away with a crime. But she murmured something to her lawyer and left the man packing his briefcase as she circled to the aisle. Her sexy curves were downplayed by one of her sleek jackets and pencil skirts, but she was still alluring as hell. Her step slowed as she came to the gate into the gallery.
Look at me, Raoul silently commanded again, holding his breath as she hesitated, sensing she was about to swing her gaze to his.
Her lips drained of color and her hand trembled where she outstretched it, trying to find the gate. She stared straight ahead, eyes blinking and blinking—
“She’s fainting!” He shoved past his two lawyers and toppled chairs to reach her even as her own lawyer turned and reacted. They caught her together.
Raoul hated the man anew for touching her as they both eased her to the floor. She was dead weight. He had to catch her head as it lolled. She hadn’t been this insubstantial the last time he’d held her. She hadn’t been fragile.
Raoul barked for first aid.
Someone appeared with oxygen in blessedly short time. He let himself be pushed back a half-step, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the way Sirena’s cheeks had gone hollow, her skin gray. Everything in him, breath, blood, thought, ground to a halt as he waited for a new verdict: that she would be okay.
It was his father all over again. The lack of response, the wild panic rising in him as he fought against helplessness and brutal reality. Was she breathing? She couldn’t be dead. Open your eyes, Sirena.
Distantly he heard the attendant asking after pre-existing conditions and Raoul racked his brain. She wasn’t diabetic; had never taken medication that he’d seen. He reached for the phone he’d turned off while court was in session, intent on accessing her personnel file when he heard her lawyer answer in a low murmur.
The words burst like shattered glass in his ears.
After a brilliant debut in the UK with No Longer Forbidden, a Mills & Boon Modern Book Of The Month in January 2013, Dani Collins saw her first Harlequin Presents, Proof Of Their Sin, nominated as a Reviewer’s Choice by Romantic Times Book Reviews. When her Fantasy Romance, The Healer, was named an Epic eBook Award Finalist it was icing, but very validating after two decades writing and submitting before making her First Sale. Dani’s settings span from glitzy Greek islands to imaginary medieval worlds, but she always delivers alpha heroes squaring off with spirited heroines over complex problems with passion and humor.
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