Secondary Romances and Risk-Taking

mcnaught I just finished Judith McNaught’s Someone to Watch Over Me, and the main characters are… fine. He’s a bazillionaire who’s loved her for a long time. She’s a successful Broadway actress who doesn’t trust his criminal past. Like I said, they’re fine, with all the faint-praise-damning and forgettability that that word generally implies. But the book will end up on my keeper shelf anyway, because the secondary romance between Detective Samantha Littleford and and her superior, Lieutenant Mitchell McCord, is just too good not to reread.

What made Samantha and McCord so enjoyable? I love office romance/off-limits attraction plot devices because they put up plausible barriers to the couple’s courtship. As the senior police officer, McCord can’t express any feelings towards Samantha without running afoul of every procedure and regulation in the book. Consequently, he’s so self-contained that Samantha can’t even tell if he likes her. As former AAR reviewer Nora Armstrong wrote in her review: “Watching McCord’s increasingly desperate struggle against his attraction to Sam[antha] was vastly more riveting and engaging for me than witnessing the other fellow’s relentless, if tender, seduction of [the heroine].”

My all-time favorite author for secondary romance is Susan Elizabeth Phillips. In Heaven, Texas, the secondary heroine Suzy Denton is the fifty-two year old mother of the hero Bobby Tom, widowed and reconnecting with Way Sawyer, the now-affluent bad boy from her youth. In Match Me If You Can, cutthroat rival matchmaker Portia Powers steals the show from the “adorably” incompetent Annabelle Granger. Portia’s fall for the rough-edged Bodie Gray is swoon-worthy, as Bodie teaches her how to be unafraid of, and even revel in, the human flaws she fights so hard to eliminate.

And of course, there’s what may be the most legendary secondary couple in Romancelandia: Sam Starrett and Alyssa Locke, from numerous Suzanne Brockmann Troubleshooter books. I’ll admit to not having read every book bringing Sam and Alyssa up to the present, but the ones I have are epic. Sam and Alyssa don’t have sparks; they have fireballs. They don’t have dialogue; they have verbal Ultimate Fighter matches. And once you remember the bland, conventional scenes the phrase is often applied to, you’ll have to agree with me that they don’t have sex either. I’m not sure what to call what they have, but it’s sure as heck not the same thing that many heroes and heroines are having.

Are there any interesting patterns here? In the SEP and Brockmann books, the secondary characters might have been controversial as leads in years past – for age reasons with SEP, and for the interracial romance in Brockmann. I always found it interesting how when Sam and Alyssa became the protagonists of their own book, Brockmann invented an entire African-American family for Sam for which there was no prior evidence. There was no prior counterevidence, either, but the whole thing did come out of nowhere. Maybe Brockmann felt that it was true to Sam’s character; maybe she just felt that it would erase the racial element of Sam and Alyssa’s relationship. I found that a bit contrived, and it was one of the reasons I preferred Sam and Alyssa in their earlier secondary books.

SEP and Brockmann let their secondary leads have much more adventurous sex lives. Suzy and Way have a creative good time in a Jacuzzi, for instance, while Brodie dominates Portia in a wordless encounter outdoors on her darkened balcony. Sam and Alyssa play with handcuffs and coat a bed and each other in chocolate sauce. These books are high “Warm” if rated for the hero and heroine, but the secondary leads jump to “Hot” if not “Burning.”

Does this imply that secondary romances are places where authors let their imaginations wander, with fewer limitations based on what people are expected to buy? Possibly. But it’s worth considering that Samantha and McCord from the McNaught, who got me starting thinking about this in the first place, are relatively conventional characters, and they don’t even have a sex scene. But does this speak to secondary characters in general or to McNaught personally?

Who are your favorite secondary characters? Have you ever DIK’d a book just for the secondary characters? Have you noticed more “risk-taking” in secondary romances, or do you think it just depends on the author and what she feels like writing?

– Caroline Russomanno

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20 Responses to “Secondary Romances and Risk-Taking”

  1. Yulie says:

    Jill Sorenson has some of the best secondary romances; in some of the books, I think the secondary couples upstage the main ones. Carly and James (Crash Into Me), Megan and Eric (The Edge of Night) and Maria and Ian (Caught in the Act) are fantastic. My only real complaint is that two of these couple are still in dire need of an HEA/HFN.

    I strongly disliked the secondary romance in Heaven, Texas, but then I disliked just about everything about that book. I felt Way was too aggressive and manipulative with Suzy. I did like the secondary romance in Dream A Little Dream – actually, I’d have preferred for it to be the main romance.

    Looking at Brockmann’s books, I don’t think of Sam and Alyssa as a secondary romance so much as a main couple with a longer arc. Some of the true secondary romances in the Troubleshooters series – that is, characters that did not get a full book later on – were really good, most notably a couple of the WW2 romances as well as Mary Lou and Ihbraham; Mary Lou was really not a likable character at the outset, so that was quite a risk to take.

    Sherry Thomas has written some good secondary romances: I liked Freddie and Angelica in His At Night as well as Gigi’s mother Victoria and the Duke of Perrin in Private Arrangements. I am also in awe of Loretta Chase for being able to give Bertie Trent an HEA in The Last Hellion, in which he doesn’t become any less idiotic than he was in Lord of Scoundrels, but his good qualities nonetheless come across very clearly.

    • AAR Lynn says:

      I completely agree about Jill Sorenson’s secondary romances. I liked the one in Aftershock (Penny and Owen). They’re still in need of an HEA and they come from such difference background, but I found their characters both pretty compelling.

      • Yulie says:

        Penny and Owen too, of course! I’m not sure why I didn’t include them in my list. I know Owen makes an appearance in Freefall as well, and they’ll be getting their own book next year, I’m really looking forward to it.

    • CarolineAAR says:

      I loved Kristy and Pastor Ethan from Dream a Little Dream too – but I didn’t have the book to hand to review the details. Plus, the column could turn into one big SEP!

      I would be interested to know how far in advance Brockmann plotted Sam and Alyssa’s story.

      • mirole says:

        Caroline: Sam and Alyssa meet in book 1 but the romance starts in book 2. So far I’ve read books 1 through 6 and loved book 6 (Sam & Alyssa’s) the most.

    • mirole says:

      Yulie: I so agree with you re Brockmann. I absolutely loved Sam and Alyssa’s romance.

      Also the secondary romance from the first book – of two teenagers, male being Asian – was so, so sweet, it made the book for me.

      Against my anticipation, I did love WWII romance from book 2 – American young girl and her brother’s English tutor.

      Even yet more contrary to what I’d expected I loved Mary Lou’s romance with Ibraham. I had been totally prepared to hate her after book 3 or 4 (don’t quite remember).

      Also, I second secondary romance in Private Arrangements.

  2. AARJenna says:

    I would also add JR Ward to the list of authors who *can* do secondary romances well. The relationship between cop Butch and vampire Vishous was so unbelievably hot, that when Butch SPOILER ends up with Marissa, many readers were left scratching their heads. I think in this instance, Ward never intended for Butch and Vishous to be romantically involved but the characters had a mind of their own.

    Problem with a lot of writers is that while they do a secondary romance well, when they bring that couple to the forefront to make them the primary couple of a title, it seems to fall flat. Maybe it’s the build-up. I remember being disappointed with Sam and Alyssa’s book when it finally happened.

    Maybe secondary romances end up being better because the writer is more relaxed and natural – they aren’t focused on making that couple’s story epic the way they are with the primary couple, so the secondary pairing is more realistic.

    • CarolineAAR says:

      Perhaps it’s not about making the couple’s story epic as much as it is about making the couples safe, typical protagonists. Lover Revealed was only the fourth book – Ward may not have had the clout to push an m/m story at that point. Or maybe she personally just didn’t feel it.

      Alternately some authors get in protagonist ruts (that’s what we mean when we describe a “Ward-style alpha hero”) and completely remake the secondary characters into the same as every other hero/heroine when they get their own books. I don’t even think this is on purpose; I just think it’s instinctive.

  3. maggie b. says:

    Yikes! I can’t remember Sam and McCord from Someone to Watch Over Me. All I can really remember is the closing scene and the fact that the heroine had forgotten the hero. IIRC he had done something pretty amazing for her in the past and she just up and forgets him?

    I did like SEP’s Suzy and Way and I loved the secondary romance in Match Me if You Can. SEP typically writes some great secondary romance.

    I loved Sam and Alyssa initially but grew tired of their story as the drama increased.

    My favorite secondary couple is probably Peabody and McNab from the In Death books.
    I love Ian and Maria from Jill Sorrenson’s books as well.

    Stephanie Bond had an interesting secondary couple in one of her books that she just let die . The series wasn’t popular and she left their story untold. Irritating!

  4. Eggletina says:

    I don’t know that I have a favorite secondary romance, but Anne Stuart has written some where I preferred the secondary romantic couple over the primary (e.g., I thought the couple in the 2nd book in her Rohan series had more depth than the primary).

  5. Caz says:

    Ashlynn Macnamara’s recent début A Most Scandalous Proposal actually featured a dual romance wherein two sisters find love, but anyone reading the cover blurb could have been forgiven for thinking there was one couple and one romance. And in fact, I much preferred the ‘other’ romance – I won’t call it secondary because it got pretty much the same page count as the one touted in the blurb.

    I have to wonder if the reason for completely omitting information about the second romance in the publicity material was because the publisher thought it would put people off. I know I’ve read the author describing the book as a ‘double romance’, so it would appear that was certainly her intention.

  6. Cady says:

    Definately Peabody and McNabb, there romance really grabbed me, they had a lot of ups and downs getting to this point. All of which felt believable. NR does a great job normally with her seconds.

  7. Kim says:

    Judith McNaught has another book with terrific secondary characters. In PERFECT, the heroine’s best friend and brother are divorced, but still attracted to one another. I thought their story almost overshadowed the leading characters.

    Also, Julie James writes the best secondary characters, but she hasn’t yet focused on a love story relating to a secondary couple. There is an attraction, but they never quite get together.

  8. Krista says:

    Innocence Undone by Kat Martin – I loved Adam and Gwen’s story. It’s the only reason why I’ve kept the book.

  9. Fran says:

    As soon as I saw the title of this article I thought of Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Heaven, Texas. Secondary romances were one of the reasons I loved to read her books.

  10. NBLibGirl says:

    As soon as I saw this fabulous post, I thought of Portia and Bodie in Match Me If You Can (they – and that balcony scene – are incredible) as are Dean’s parents and sister in Natural Born Charmer. My all time favorite though are Jules and Robin in Brockmann’s Force of Nature – they are the most obvious case of “secondary” characters taking over a book for me. Ric and Annie have some great moments together but Jules and Robin just totally stole that show.

    I particularly enjoy when authors effectively use older (50+) characters as a secondary couple. Being a reader myself with more than a few years’ life experience, it’s nice to read about people my age or older who get to have an HEA too. Off the top of my head, there’s a former actress and retired military man in one of Robyn Carr’s Virgin River series and Kevin’s Mom and the artist in SEP’s This Heart of Mine work well in those books and get an HEA.

  11. Joane says:

    I also liked Hugh & Mae in Rachel Gibson’s Simply Irresistible. I wanted their story would have been more developed. And I think there was a ‘risk factor’ in them, too. In Mae, at least.

  12. Charissa says:

    Yes! Finally something about t.

  13. Ducky says:

    I agree about Sorenson’s secondary characters and their romances being superior to the main couples. Her main characters tend to be pretty cookie cutter and the complexity is with the supporting characters.

    An example from classic literature where the secondary romance is more compelling are Lizzie Hexam and Eugene Wrayburn from Dickens “Our Mutual Friend”.

  14. Barbara Pomales says:

    Sorry disagree Queen of the second romance in a book is Anne Stuart : in her Historicals ..

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