Tag Archives: Alpha Male

Romance Readers and Authors Can Increase Their Love IQ with Mating Intelligence Unleashed from Oxford University Press

30 Oct

When you read romance, you’re an armchair psychologist. “Oh, he’s got some commitment issues here” or “She’s still experiencing that inadequacy and body image baggage from before she lost the weight” are comments that run through most readers’ heads as we pick up the hints and character shadowing the writer has so carefully placed for us, like a trail of breadcrumbs leading us through the emotional forest of the story. Like all fiction readers, romance enthusiasts are damn smart – let’s face it, are you going to try to masquerade as your twin or not communicate after a misunderstanding? Nuh-uh, because you’ve seen how great that goes over in a relationship in the books you’ve read. We learn through reading.

Romance authors should have a fictional therapy license bestowed upon them, as their job involves metaphorically putting that character on a couch and listening to their deepest fears. Of course, their role is a more challenging one as the writer takes that understanding and translates it into visible action which hints at the mental makeup of our hero or heroine.

Thought I was joking, didn’t you?

But I’ve begun to worry that the creation of characters has grown to be based on secondary or tertiary sources (other romance works or stereotypes) rather than primary material (the personal experience of writers or actual psychological research). This makes a lot of romance reading derivative, like that moment when you say, “Yes, he’s a billionaire playboy doctor with mommy issues” and know every move said hero is going to make because, hey, you’ve not only seen it before, you’ve read it before, and so has the author writing the story. *bored glance to the left*

One of the areas that is super tricky for romance writers is the ephemeral moment of attraction or, even more complicated, when one of the characters decides that this person is IT with the writing solidifying the hero or heroine’s holy-cow-I-can’t-get-enough-of-this-person feeling. What really attracts two people to get them to that point? Enter a fantastic source for romance writers and readers everywhere, Mating Intelligence Unleashed: The Role of the Mind in Sex, Dating, and Love by Glenn Geher and Scott Barry Kaufman. Both authors have Ph.D.s, Kaufman in cognitive psychology and Geher in social psychology (with a speciality in evolutionary psychology) and fortunately for us, both men are highly entertaining and thorough writers.

The book, published by Oxford University Press in January of this year, reads as a literature review of all the major research done recently on why people are attracted to one another, with the focus on what evolutionary advantage it offers us to be attracted to certain people. (Naturally this means that the research is heterosexual in nature – I really wanted to read about same sex attraction, but that wasn’t the focus of the book.) This in turn, offers an amazing insight into some key features of the process of mate-choice, insights so illuminating it made my mind reel with possibilities from a romance writing perspective. [Please note, I used both the paper version and the Kindle version of the book, so the references are sometimes the traditional page number or the Kindle location. Sorry that they vacillate!]

As Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University puts it in the forward, “We are witnessing the true fusion of biology and culture, of psychology and brain architecture, of personality, neurochemistry, genetics and evolution, of brain and mind.” (Kindle edition, Loc 45 of 5908) What better basis than to take the science of attraction and overlay with the thoughts and actions that make up a character? It would lend an authenticity often lacking when a couple goes from hot glances to tangoing between the sheets with minimum preliminaries.

couple-168191_640Geher and Kaufman have their own reasons for pursuing the topic (I’m sure they weren’t thinking about romance readers and writers), namely that human mating is undeniably important (duh) and that “mating success” is the biggest predictor for life satisfaction and happiness – more than your education, how much money you make or your occupational status. Keep in mind that they mean “mating” in the purest sense – all life has one purpose and that is to reproduce and have a genetic line (yours) continue, whether you are a bacteria, an orchid, or a stockbroker. Even in a modern age where many people choose to not have children, our partner choices still are driven by our biology, even when we don’t realize it. While I could easily do ten blog posts on all the awesome research, here are some of the highlights.

“I Just Knew It When I Saw Him/Her”

Famous celebrities often possess all the traits listed as attractive, for example Elizabeth Taylor in her stunning heyday.

Famous celebrities often possess all the traits listed as attractive, for example Elizabeth Taylor in her stunning heyday.

Physical attraction is based on a few key factors, with strong physical predictors for men and women regarding what body and facial types characterize the most desirable mates, and these traits supercede dominant cultural expectations, crossing racial lines into universal ideals of beauty. For women, full lips, large eyes, thick hair and smooth skin are all elements  men choose as being “beautiful” and highly attractive. When choosing the future mother of your offspring, these factors give you clear indication of where the woman is in her crucial reproductive years as these are the physical factors which degrade over time, giving a window into whether the woman is nearing the end or passed her prime reproductive capacity. Keep in mind that when presented with pictures of the same woman at various points in her menstrual cycle, men are able to pick out – with astonishing accuracy, I might add – when women are ovulating since that is when they seem most attractive to them. They are simply picking the image that shows that woman at her most appealing, but biology is sending men a message that this moment means “get your sperm in this woman ASAP.” How’s that for the basis of your key sex scene ending in a baby epilogue?

Brad Pitt - Cad or Dad?

Brad Pitt – Cad or Dad?

Men have even more pressure physically since their anatomy must not only transmit how virile they are, but also audition them for role of protector (and keep in mind that an astonishing number of children of long-term relationships would not pass a paternity test – women often choose different men for the impregnating versus the person who financially and physically supports your offspring). Men who rock the short-term dating scene (see your romance shelf for books starring the reformed rake or modern manwhore) are tall, extremely masculine in appearance (chiseled jaw indicating testosterone up the wahzoo), facially attractive and socially dominant. For men who would like to go beyond the one night stand, they need to demonstrate kindness, warmth and loving – what the authors call going from cad features to dad features in order to convince a woman her children will be well cared for.

Other physical elements include one that romance readers will be VERY familiar with – that moment where the smell and taste of the other person is so drugging that all good sense is lost and it’s all about getting down to business. But there is serious biology at play in this moment, as we can actually smell and taste the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) of one another. MHC is important because biology has set us up so we are not attracted to people whose genes, when combined with ours, would not produce strong offspring. You think I’m joking? A famous study took college men, analyzed their MHC and had them sleep in the same t-shirt for multiple days in a row, sealing the shirt in a plastic bag and sending it to the lab. Scientists then recruited college women after checking their MHC, and asked them to smell each t-shirt, rating the smell of the shirt to determine which ones they thought smelled the best. To the letter, each woman rated the t-shirt which had been worn by the man most genetically compatible with her as smelling the most desirable and the shirts they labeled least desirable were the ones where the genes of the man were too close to her own (offering no genetic advantage if mixed). In addition to scent, we can also taste MHC compatibility in the process of kissing or even tasting a person’s skin, so close contact is vital to determining good mate selection. See my post on the Science of Kissing for more information on this fascinating quirk.

Cave paintings...possibly the earliest form of "come up and see my etchings" in the mating world.

Cave paintings…possibly the earliest form of “come up and see my etchings” in the mating world.

Yet it’s not just looks (obviously) that determines attraction. Traits such as intelligence (people are more likely to be attracted to a mate of similar IQ) and creativity are extremely important in mate selection. Geher and Kaufman present the scientific hypothesis that many of the arts were developed by our ancestors to not just express ideas but to…wait for it…attract a mate. Missing out on that shoulder to hip ratio, Cro-Magnon man? How about delivering the old “come back to my furs and I’ll show you my cave paintings” line? It probably worked. This explanation of creativity as a mating lure could explain the magnetic pull of various rock stars and artists who are not the slightest bit physically attractive, yet inspire the lingerie sections of entire department stores to be thrown in their direction. (Mick Jagger or Keith Richards anyone? It’s a scientific fact that creative people, even the average ones, have more sex partners, although this seems to apply to mostly men.) You want to pass those creative genes onto your offspring, although probably not the lips or susceptibility to addiction.

Which also brings into play the concept of emotional or social intelligence. “Mating clearly includes socially relevant tasks such as acquiring and keeping a mate, and it inevitably involves a degree of social interactions and navigation. Not only must an individual possess the ability to read another’s thoughts and feelings, but this individual must also possess proficiency in interpreting complex social stimuli.” (Kindle edition, Loc 402 of 5908) A mate candidate who has this type of ability is one demonstrating their openness to experience, their agreeableness, social competence, the quality of their relationships as well as how well they can control their emotions to suit their mate’s needs and a social situation. The types of courtship displays which transmit this ideal are usually related to music, art, poetry, acts of extroversion or visible kindness.

Humor seems so simple - woman want a man who makes them laugh and men want a woman who thinks they are funny.

Humor seems so simple – woman want a man who makes them laugh and men want a woman who thinks they are funny.

My favorite area of research is the one relating to humor. Both men and women indicate this is important to them, but when someone lists “good sense of humor” on Match.com, they mean very different things by gender. “Women tend to prefer men who make them laugh, whereas men tend to prefer women who laugh at their jokes.” (Kindle edition, Loc 677 of 5908) But what does humor indicate in a mating context? Once again, it’s about an individual’s ability to function in society (which helps your offspring). In addition to indicating a person’s playfulness and their creativity, humor also demonstrates a person’s emotional IQ (Did you ever date someone who was a lame joke teller? They clearly couldn’t read the room which made you think about how they weren’t going to read you too well either). Humor transmits feelings of interpersonal warmth and someone laughing at your jokes is one of the early indicators of sexual interest. Interestingly enough, the research suggests that if a person happens to be of high social status (see previously mentioned billionaire playboy doctor) he or she should probably adopt self-deprecating forms of humor in the mating marketplace as this is what makes him or her approachable to potential short-term or long-term mates.

Abandonment Issues

The presence of caring parents is of vital importance when it comes to adults being able to forming long-term, loving attachments.

The presence of caring parents is of vital importance when it comes to adults being able to form long-term, loving attachments.

If I had a dollar for every time a romance hero or heroine had been abandoned by a parent, had emotionally detached family members or was a foster child, I wouldn’t have to work my day job and could just stay home and write. While so many of the characters we love and admire have made the best of crappy life situations and showed their inner steel, in actuality this is a major uphill climb. For men, a father figure bowing out of the picture early gives a tendency for increased delinquency and aggression for boys, and even accelerates the onset of puberty for both sexes. (Loc 115 of 5908) While boys are more likely to manifest increased aggression and delinquency, girls demonstrate greater levels of manipulative attitudes, more risk-taking behavior including sexual promiscuity, as well as a lower attachment to romantic partners and offspring.

Loving, Conscientiously

Attracting a person, as we can see, is all about putting your best face forward and while that clearly has a physical connotation, it also includes personality traits that prove you are a good bet in the mating game. Gehrer and Kaufman cover the research regarding combinations of traits that are particularly influential in attracting mates. Some are tagged “meta-traits” because they combine personality factors, for example, stability, which is defined as “a blend of emotional stability (low neuroticism), conscientiousness, and agreeableness…Those who score high in stability have a need to maintain a sense of order in their lives.” (Kindle edition, Loc 1177 of 5908) The second meta-trait is termed plasticity and is a blend of extraversion and openness to experience.

Not only do people want both stability and plasticity in a mate but “they also tend to seek mates who are somewhat higher than themselves in terms of their own perceived mate value in levels of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and emotional stability. People apparently want to feel as though they ‘acquired’ a partner of higher quality than themselves.” (Kindle edition, Loc 1199 of 5908) I’m thinking here of all the romance novels where each partner brings out something in the other which was underdeveloped or hesitant, helping that person become a healthier, more engaged person making positive decisions. Stability and plasticity at play, people.

Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Love

Keep in mind these traits also are directly correlated to actual love. Psychologist Robert Sternberg has actually developed a triarchic theory of love (don’t confuse it with a love triangle), demonstrating how different components produce various types of love. Prepare to be blown away:

Intimacy alone is “liking,” passion alone is “infatuation,” and commitment alone is “empty” love. Intimacy and passion combine to form romantic love, intimacy and commitment combine to form compassionate love, passion and commitment combine to form fatuous love, and if you can combine all three components, you get consummate love. (Kindle edition, Loc 1291 of 5908, emphasis added)

This fascinating theory reads like a litany of past relationships for either party in a romance novel, complete with lessons learned and the mistakes they don’t want to make again. How about the reunion trope which usually involves two people who had some form of romantic love (passion and intimacy) but lacked the commitment to make it the consummate ideal. Clearly the goal of the romance reader (and the writer) is to see the hero and heroine achieve consummate love which is going to sustain them in forming a successful mating partnership.

Crafting Your Villain: Using Narcissism

The myth of Narcissus, the boy who fell in love with his own reflection, forms the origins of the disorder narcissism.

We all know narcissists, those extraverted people who seem like they love the social scene, but in actuality these people have a high level of self-focus, self-importance and a sense of entitlement, always seeking to surround themselves with people who cater to their ego and avoiding anyone who might want to tell them the truth about themselves. (pp. 158-159) Narcissists suck at long-term relationships (the only one they want is with themselves) and fail at intimacy in general as their goal is always dominance, yet they inherently lack the self-control necessary for real success. While adolescents are naturally narcissistic (that feeling you had walking through the lunchroom when you were certain everyone was looking at you), it’s a stage we all grow out of. Well, not all of us.

There are different types of narcissists – check this list for the types that you have met:

  • leadership/authority – enjoys being a leader and being seen as an authority. Woe betide someone who challenges them or criticizes their work. You see these individuals not just in business but in classroom and coaching positions, as well as in doctor’s offices (and I’m not talking about the receptionist).
  • self-absorption/self-admiration –  focus strongly on their appearance and others’ perception of said appearance. Think of the date who spent her time admiring her reflection in a spoon rather than looking into your eyes, or the guy who spent more time looking at himself in the rear view mirror than making conversation.
  • superiority/arrogance – overestimate their own abilities. In adolescents this is very common, and I see teenagers all the time who have bought into their parent’s belief in how utterly special they are – hook, line and sinker. They usually are special but not because of the reason they think. This is the person who repeatedly says, “I’m really great at ________” but all evidence points to the contrary. They also have the gall to be super puffed up and arrogant about it. Barely okay in a 10 year old, and completely unacceptable in a 30 year old.
  • exploitativeness/entititlement – enjoys manipulating and exploiting others and expects favors from other people. My guess is that there are a lot of these people in politics (Lyndon B. Johnson fulfilled several of the narcissist criteria) but you can find them everywhere, sadly. From a mean girl clique to the White House, this brand of narcissist is around every corner.

I bet your blood pressure went up reading that list, because we all have known narcissists, but would it interest you realize that as a group they are more successful, at least initially in the mating game? Narcissism and attractiveness tend to go together and narcissists exhibit adaptive traits which offer success in the short-term mating game. If you want to spread your genetic material around quickly (leaving someone else holding the bag, or rather the baby), being a narcissist was probably a great evolutionary development. Narcissists are seen as being more attractive (they spend more time on their appearance), move with confidence, and are seen as being cheerful and outgoing. (p. 160)

But longer-term acquaintance has the scales falling from people’s eyes. Narcissists are sexually coercive, experiencing more fantasies about coercion and sadism and engaging in behaviors which support manipulation and power over the other person. Since their goal is to maintain power in any relationship, this can take the form of conversational narcissism (where they focus the topic always on themselves, use exaggerated hand gestures, a loud voice and express disinterest when others speak) or sexual narcissism when they are not focused on anyone’s gratification but their own (and BTW, there are more male narcissists than female ones – ladies, I know you are not surprised).

Promiscuity is the strategy that allows these people to maintain their hold on control since it enables them to feel like they have the most power by being the least committed (the other person needs to earn their loyalty). The more their partner is committed, the more likely a narcissist is to cheat since they believe they are more likely to get away with it. They get a rush out of high-risk behavior like cheating or in convincing their partners to perform behaviors out of their comfort zone. This entitlement has the flip side of narcissists becoming aggressive when sexually rejected, wanting to punish the person who denied them what they felt was their right. (p. 165)

Niccolo Machiavelli was so successful at manipulating princes and kings that he wrote a Renaissance best-seller, The Prince, which has become a foundational text for politicians.

There are some related disorders that romance villains seem prone to – Machiavellianism is the psychological trait of manipulating people (which involves a certain level of Emotional IQ) a quality that can be used for good, but often isn’t and psychopathy, which involves being callous or insensitive (wow, I think I just described several Harlequin Presents heroes!). The combination of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy is known in psychology as the Dark Triad. These traits are applied to individuals who will stop at nothing to manipulate others for their own gain and there is even a twelve-point assessment to determine where your villain/narcissist lands within them.

Arrogant Alpha or Laid-back Beta?

Both the alpha and the beta have something going for them (as paranormal romance writers and readers everywhere are well aware).

In the world of romance novels, we are far more likely to see the dominant alpha male than the supportive beta, but that beta is showing up more and more. The problem? Women seem to think of the beta as a “nice guy” and any chess player can tell you that particular label is the kiss of death. If the alpha qualities of dominance, pride, and ambition – maybe combined with a hesitancy if not an antipathy to being tied down – are crack cocaine to women, are we just attracted to the bad boy to our detriment? Or is there actual science at work here?

When surveyed, women clearly indicate that they want a “nice guy,” but as Geher and Kaufman state, “…when it comes right down to it, women choose the bad boy.” (author emphasis, p. 179) A main source of confusion seems to stem from early psychology studies which clearly interpreted non-dominant men as exhibiting truly submissive behavior, characteristics which naturally women did not find to be sexually attractive in a potential mate. More recent studies have narrowed women’s specific interest to men who fit the following description.

..it seems like the ideal man (for a date or romantic partner) is one who is assertive, confident, easygoing, and sensitive, without being aggressive, demanding, dominant, quiet, shy, or submissive…[other researchers] found across three studies that it wasn’t dominance alone, but rather the interaction of dominance and prosocial behaviors, that women reported were particularly sexually attractive. In other words, dominance only increased sexual attraction when the person was already high in agreeableness and altruism. (p. 182)

What emerges then, is that women don’t like assholes but do want men to be strong and confident, although men who practice dominance toward other men with over-the-top competition or physical force are quickly placed in the “jerk” category. Kindness and assertiveness are not exclusive traits; women feel both traits not only exist in the ideal man, but they are considered the sexiest attractant for both short-term and long-term affairs. Because these traits are heavily associated with prestigious, or high status, males, it’s not just their celebrity status that women find appealing. (p. 183)

Pretty close to the mark, actually, but not always.

If this is the reality then, that kind but assertive males have truckloads of women after them, why does the “nice guy” get such a bad rap? Geher and Kaufman conjecture that it’s because when women slap the label of celibacy on a man’s forehead “NICE GUY” in actuality “they mean overly nice guys.” (p. 184) This moniker speaks more about what the woman feels rather than says something about the guy. Women of high self-esteem and maturity are less negatively affected by incredibly generous behavior but less secure women don’t like how overly nice men make them feel – like they are a bad person but not being as altruistic or that they are unworthy of attention from such a giving man. But people in general don’t like over-the-top nice people – research supports that study participants looked with disfavor on individuals who were extremely competent, who offered too much help, or who adhered to a moral position strongly. (p. 184) Hey, goody-two-shoes, the angels want their loafers back.

But truly nice guys can finish last (and, ahem, often do, as the above generous traits of nice guys have women reporting more orgasms with them, and that they are more likely to perform oral sex on their partner – tuck that away for pondering, ladies). (p. 191) Bad boy traits may be fine for short-term relationships but women in it for the long haul are looking for good genes (men who are assertive, funny and physically attractive) and who demonstrate good parenting potential (kind and considerate). Clearly having both sets makes you a catch, but in studies, when a handsome asshole goes toe to toe with a homely nice guy, the nice guy always wins. (p. 187) Go beta!

So What Does All This Research Mean for Romance Fiction?

Naturally, this is the question I immediately asked myself on finishing the book. While entertained by the authors’ excellent writing and comprehensive approach to the evolutionary psychology of mating, I think they succeeded in blowing a few well-done (perhaps over-done) tropes out of the water.

Exactly. Love can only do so much and after that, it’s called therapy.

The first is that I’m calling for the death of the manwhore. A man who truly loves women and goes from woman to woman with intent and friendship (with hot sexy benefits) does not incur my ire, but all too often we get cold alpha heroes who use women like Kleenex and it’s explained away that “they knew the score.” I’m not sure a one-night stand where you barely can recall the person’s face and name actually says anything positive about a hero, who may very well not deserve that label until he can prove his worth. Consider that his inability or choice not to commit is often credited to a particular psychological trauma – his abandonment by a parent(s), a damaging first love, or his whole platoon blowing up in front of him and he’s working through the survivor’s guilt – and we have a recipe for our hero needing therapy, not a just a heroine who has what romance calls “the magic vagina” that cures all ills. Let’s not give the manwhore a pass without acknowledging his emotional damage and demonstrating that it takes more than the insta-lust and the love of a good woman to heal him. I’m just not a believer.

Villains might be able to have great dimension if the idea of the narcissist (or better yet, the Dark Triad) come into effect. There are numerous books on narcissism (and specifically narcissistic men) that have story after story to help flesh out what this personality disorder looks like in the context of women who have had relationships, either family or romantic ones, with a narcissist. When I read so many antagonists who are practically cardboard cutouts, I say, give the villain a backstory! Understanding his or her psychology is a big piece of writing that character well and infusing your story with conflict that will make the HEA that much more satisfying.

The Witness by Nora Roberts (Berkley, April 2012) – A great beta is just as sexy as any alpha.

Lastly, let’s bring back the beta. A great example of a book using a beta as hero is Nora Roberts’ The Witness. My mother and I not only adored this book, but had an entire conversation about how the small town police chief, Brooks Gleason, was certainly decisive and strong, but how his demeanor of a laid-back, easy going guy bent on protecting his town from any threats was very beta, and it was such a breath of fresh air. Let’s occasionally tone down the testosterone and demonstrate that some men can be the nice guy most of the time, and still show their dominance when they need it (and only then).

But more than anything else, I would ask that romance readers and writers be smart. We each have our own experiences upon which to draw in the world of sexual attraction but let’s not turn away or ignore what science can give us in insight into the dance that is the journey to a happily ever after. Glenn Geher and Scott Barry Kaufman have given us an outstanding resource in Mating Intelligence Unleashed, and we would all do well to use their efforts for good!

Happy reading!! 🙂

Against the Ropes by Sarah Castille Takes You To Hot, Sexy, Slightly Disturbing Places

3 Sep

Against the Ropes by Sarah Castille (Sourcebooks Casablanca, September 3, 2013) – great cover although it’s missing Max’s phenomenal tattoos

In the world of romance, the only thing better than a hot, underground MMA fighter is a hot, millionaire, underground MMA fighter and that’s exactly what we get in Max “Torment” Huntingdon, the hero in Sarah Castille‘s fabulous novel, Against the Ropes.

Yet the entire book is told from the heroine, Makayla’s perspective, one that begins with her trying to help her best friend at the underground warehouse which serves as the training center and an official fight location for this local, unsanctioned MMA ring. Despite Makayla strong physical reaction to witnessing violence, the EMT in her can’t help but reach out and help when people get hurt. That she is wrestling with some very traumatic issues from her childhood regarding violence, makes this reaction easy to understand and the reader instantly comprehends Makayla’s bravery in entering into a relationship with Max despite his personality which craves the show of strength he gets by doing MMA.

Max is an irresistible yet flawed individual who you end up loving because of his flaws as much as due to his caring nature. He makes a lot of mistakes with Makayla (as she does with him) but you root for the two of them to make it work since they each give each other way more than they take. Love – true love – always creates more than the sum of two people, and this couple shows how that can become a reality. Castille’s sex scenes between Max and Makayla practically cause the pages to burst into flame and it’s not shocking she’s won numerous contests in the erotic romance category.

Should you be interested in beginning your own underground fighting ring, please note that the actual equipment can be rented easily (although I imagine you’ll have to pay extra for cleaning off all the blood).

It’s tough to go too much into the plot with a typical summary since this book lives inside Makayla’s head. There is a distinct progression in their relationship and if you like possessive alpha males you will have noooooooo problem with Max, particularly when you discover why he might be a tad hypervigilant. Makayla is also dealing with insane student loan issues (and I confess to thinking this was the most unrealistic part of the novel – underground millionaire MMA fighter with venture capitalist firm, no problem, but harassing phone calls with threats to repossess your parent’s house for YOUR student loans, not freakin’ likely). She is however, surrounded by good friends and plenty of male interest, and in the middle of trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life (she was pre-med at the top of her class). Perhaps because of that element, and since Castille uses the first person to tell this story, I actually feel that there were a lot of factors which place this novel in the “new adult” category, if that’s an interest of yours.

Castille’s writing is outstanding in the sense that this is an insightful, deeply psychological novel that delves into the heroine’s head and sifts through some pretty deep stuff. Makayla doesn’t initially realize that she craves the dominance Max offers her (although her body understands pretty quickly). Yet her hot, steamy, highly erotic encounters with him often trigger flashbacks to the violence in her childhood. At first it’s unbelievably disturbing and I found myself, like Makayla, resisting the idea that she could be sexually turned on by something that would dredge up these memories. But by the end of the book it’s clear that this tension exists because Makayla’s brain is helping her reconcile her memories of violence done out of anger by an unhealthy person with the reality in front of her – namely that Max’s violence is controlled and strategic, born of a desire to protect the people important to him.

The MMA part of this was smart – fans of Kele Moon’s Battered Hearts series would find a lot to love here – and Castille writes every character with respect and depth, no mean feat! I hate the first person (it takes an amazing author like Charlotte Stein to get me to get past that hurdle) but I loved Against the Ropes don’t plan on fighting the purchase of any future Sarah Castille books which are going right into my “must read” list.

Alpha Angels and the Kick Ass Heroines Who Love Them: Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter Series

27 Nov

Angel’s Blood (Guild Hunter #1) (Berkley, April 3, 2009)

There is a fine line between urban fantasy and paranormal romance and I’m sure I’ll do a “Professor Tori” post on exactly what that is, because it’s darn interesting. Nalini Singh, a powerhouse author in the romance world, writes both with enough crossover that she’s not easy to pigeonhole. The good news is that she’s such a talented writer you don’t care what category she falls in and simply lay back and savor every word of her books. As with all overviews of series, this post will naturally hold some spoilers since you can figure out from one novel later in the series what has happened earlier, but I’ll do my best not to give it all away and just give you the highlights.

Most of the Guild Hunter series falls under the category of urban fantasy, with characters engaged in a battle of good versus evil in an urban setting, characters like Elena Deveraux, a Guild Hunter. Elena lives in a New York not far removed from the one we know, except for one rather large difference. In her New York, angels rule large swaths of the world as territories, granting immortal life to chosen humans who are made by them into vampires – vampires who enter into indentured servitude to angels in exchange for their extended life.

But not all vampires are able to leave their human independence behind for the necessary amount of time to pay back their debt, or they fail to follow the careful proscribed rules regarding how to treat humans. Once they step outside the line, an international organization, the Guild, comprised of the best vampire trackers anywhere, dispatches one of its own to run down and subdue the rogue vampire. These trackers are often endowed with an additional ability to actually scent vampires and gravitate to the Guild. This is not just because their nature makes them unhappy if they are not doing the work they were meant to do, but also because they don’t truly fit into any society. The angels are remote and inaccessible to everyone but vampires, the vampires see humans as food, and humans view Guild Hunters with suspicion.

In Angel’s Blood, this is the world Elena Deveraux knows, but she came into her ability in a brutal way, watching most of her family brutally slaughtered by a mentally ill vampire when she was just a child. Rejected by her surviving father and sister, the Guild has become Elena’s life and she’s damn good at what she does. Her friends in the Guild are real family and she loves the life she’s made for herself.

It’s a life that quickly takes on new meaning when she is summoned to the Angel’s Tower, headquarters of Raphael, the archangel who rules the East Coast with New York as his base of operations. She has seen the angels, flying to and from the Tower roof from the balcony of her apartment, but never thought to see any angel in person, to say nothing of the angel, Raphael himself. At most he does his business through the Seven, the seven angels and vampires utterly loyal to him who conduct his business and punish those who step out of line. Raphael has contracted her to do a job, but why on earth can’t he just go through the Guild like business as usual? When she finds herself on the roof of the Tower facing the most beautiful creature she’s ever seen, she realizes nothing in her life would ever be the same from this moment on.

Raphael is fascinated by the human hunter in front of him. Her gorgeous blond hair is a stark contrast to her honey skin and North African features but what strikes him most is her demeanor. Only a fool wouldn’t be scared in the presence of an angel with their prodigious strength and mental power, and Elena Devereaux is not a fool. But despite her fear, she is able to demonstrate her amazing scenting ability and stand up to him to demand respect, even knowing she could be killed.

He has always been attracted to warrior women over the centuries that he’s been in existence and this one has him truly fascinated. He even thinks he could trust her, which is a good development since what she will be tracking could wreak destruction on not just her corner of New York but the whole world. But this human holds her in hands the power to also end Raphael’s existence by making him vulnerable in a way he’s never been before, and it may mean the death of them both.

Let me make perfectly clear that I challenge anyone to come up with an alpha male more alpha than Raphael. When your love interest is about a thousand years old, has prodigious physical strength, possesses major mental powers, and holds the ability to kill or have killed almost anyone he knows, well, it’s not boasting to know you are the top of the food chain and everyone serves at your pleasure. That Nalini Singh understands that Raphael’s alpha constitution is both a flaw and a strength is what makes her such an incredible writer. Raphael struggles to understand the boundaries that Elena insists on and is, no lie, ready to die for in order for them to be equal in at least one way in their relationship. Elena must be Elena and for a while you’re not really sure if Raphael has the ability to change, since he’s never asked to by anyone. Ever.

But the act of beginning to respect Elena’s needs, of negotiating with her so he can exercise his desire to protect from other dangers like himself, and of finding a way to be her equal in their relationship is an unadulterated joy to witness. She is more important to him than asserting his power just because he can, and that’s unbelievably sexy.

Angel’s Pawn (Guild Hunter #.5 – Ashwini and Janvier’s prequel novella) (Berkley, March 3, 2009)

In Angel’s Pawn, we have a prequel to Angel’s Blood with Elena’s fellow Guild Hunter, the former dancer, Ashwini, once again in the South on the trail of her perpetual nemesis, the sexy vampire Janvier. He’s always managed to make peace at the last minute with the angels who send her after him but they’ve taken each other on some pretty fun chases over the years. This time, the court of angel Nazarach, filled with cruelty and intrigue, has fallen under suspicion and Ashwini and Janvier must go in as partners to determine what really is going on. Can Ashwini keep reminding herself that getting involved with Janvier is a bad idea or will his sweet southern drawl and good looks supercede her good sense?

Major warning. Ashwini and Janvier will have their own book in the future but this isn’t it; rather this is a novella that is meant to show the complexities of the angel system of rule and the level of cruelty which exists within the structure. The side benefit is that we get to see the smokin’ level of sexual tension (and essentially the inherent sympathy) between these two characters, who are fantastic. Janvier shares the vampire allure of someone who has lived for centuries, with all the sensual knowledge inherent in that existence. Yet for all those years, Janvier sees something unique and special with Ashwini, who doesn’t lack her own secrets and perspective. For her to be drawn to what she must hunt (a vampire in general and Janvier specifically), is a dangerous situation for both her body and her heart.

“Angel’s Judgement” (Guild Hunter #1.5 –  Sara and Deacon’s story) in Must Love Hellhounds anthology (Berkley, September 1, 2009)

Novellas for series often crop up in anthologies and the Guild Hunter series is no exception. In Must Love Hellhounds, we find Angel’s Judgement (also available along with several other series novellas in the anthology Angel’s Flight) which, despite it’s being named #1.5 in the Guild Hunter series, should be actually numbered. #.75 since it happens at least a year or so prior to Angel’s Blood.

It’s an important year. Sara Haziz is a Guild Hunter and a good one despite her small size. Her current boss is ready to retire and he wants to name her the next Guild Director, a job she’s not 100% sure she’s up to, but she’s interested. While the angels decide if she’s right for the position she also must solve a mystery regarding someone targeting vampires, a mystery man identified by victims as  a Guild Hunter.  When a gorgeous, gigantic man shows up to question her collared vamp, she can’t help that her heart is beating faster and she wants to lick him all over. She might capture vampires but she’s only human.

Sara’s astonished to discover that the huge man helping her is none other than Deacon, the Slayer, whose job it is to hunt Guild Hunters if they go rogue. She had no idea that he was so young, so good looking, or the same famed weapons maker she’s admired for years, but with his warm hands and deep voice, she’s more than a little drawn to the total package. He’s also a great partner, but she realizes that this case is getting more complicated by the minute. If she accepts the Guild Director job, she’ll be Deacon’s boss, so there’s no relationship allowed there. She also can’t ask him to leave his work since he’s a private person who would abhor being with a woman who had a highly visible job, involving glittering parties and political machinations.

Deacon can’t believe the crappy description he got of Sara Haziz; why did no one mention that she was a petite, curvy goddess? The way she handles a crossbow would make any weapons master hot and Deacon plans to get the most out of their time together. It’s lonely being the Slayer. Who wants to really get close to someone who may be assigned to take you down one day? But Sara doesn’t seem afraid of anything and it’s easy to see she’d make a great Guild Director – particularly with the angels constantly testing her toughness, distracting them both while they are trying to solve this case. But more difficult than the constant fighting is when he begins to realize that walking away and leaving Sara to pursue her bright future might be the hardest thing he’s ever done.

If you don’t adore Deacon and Sara…well…I have no use for you. You have a dead heart, because these two are a fabulous couple, great hunters, and clearly meant to be together. The ending was AMAZING and actually chokes me up and makes me grin like an idiot, all at the same time. Genius.

Archangel’s Kiss (Guild Hunter #2) (Berkley, February 2, 2010)

In the next full-length book in the Guild Hunter series, Elena wakes up from her year-long coma more than a little surprised at her transformation. In Archangel’s Kiss, we see the ramifications of Raphael’s unconscious decision at the end of Angel’s Blood, namely that he has made her an angel, a phenomenon which has not occurred for thousands of years. Her friends are ready to storm the Tower (after being put off for almost a year they’re convinced she’s dead or a vampire) and Elena can’t get over the stunning dark wings the color of twilight she’s sporting.

Raphael is elated that Elena is finally awake, but as a newly made angel she’s almost more delicate than she was as a human. He takes her to the Refuge for safety and to learn how to be an angel, but she faces threats there as well, from his enemies who are irritated at this show of Raphael’s ability and who realize that Elena is his only weakness. Although he wants to give her plenty of time to find her wings and train with his Seven to be strong again, an unspeakable crime leaves him with no choice but to call upon Elena’s tracking ability, even when the ultimate danger comes knocking at his door.

For Elena she realizes that being “immortal” isn’t a reality for another couple of centuries and she’s got to get strong fast for both her sake and Raphael’s. She’s unbelievably annoyed with him for being such a mother hen and his behavior causes a major renegotiation of their relationship; she has to make him realize that she’s got to be herself or die trying. His Seven see her as a weakness and are not thrilled (well, most of them aren’t thrilled) at her continued presence in his life, but they resign themselves to protecting her for Raphael’s sake, especially if it means beating the crap out of her in the practice ring to help “train” her. With any luck, her natural strength, her new wings, and the efforts of the Seven will help her face the threat so determined to end her life with Raphael before it even has a chance to begin.

Such a great book on so many levels! Seeing the natural outcome of the power shift between Elena and Raphael (and how Raphael is such a total newbie in even having a relationship) is actually very sweet and hot and you share Elena’s frustration when Raphael is treating her with kid gloves, particularly in the bedroom. A big part of this book happens at the Refuge, the secret area where the angels are born and raised, guarding their most important asset, their young. Not only does this help us understand them better, but it also introduces many characters, like the teacher Jessamy of the broken wing, and the various members of Raphael’s Seven who we haven’t yet met. The more I find out about archangels, particularly the psychotic ones, the less I like them, and the risk they pose to Elena is a very real one, particularly when a certain archangel gets in her head to dredge up the dark ghosts of Elena’s past.

Archangel’s Consort (Guild Hunter #3) (Berkley, January 25, 2011)

With the archangel Cadre reshuffling after their recent balance of power has changed, Elena and Raphael return to New York in Archangel’s Consort and Elena begins to feel she can get on with her life. Wearing Raphael’s amber (and he hers) means they belong to one another, but when she is called upon to do her Guild Work again after a vampire attacks a girls’ school, what she finds has her loyalty split between the Guild and Raphael, and it’s not easy. The fact that one of her half-sisters was the actual target also complicates things, specifically because it stirs up a life’s worth of animosity and secrets between her estranged father and herself.

When one strange thing after another begins to happen, it becomes clear that more than a vampire is at work and Raphael begins to withdraw, suspecting his mother, the archangel Caliane. Elena begins to realize that what’s worse than having a mother-in-law is having an archangel mother-in-law who disappeared after going the archangel version of batshit crazy. Powerful archangels have the ability to “sleep” for centuries in order to restore themselves and indications are occurring that Caliane could be awakening, possibly not in a restored state, with disastrous results for the world and for Raphael.

The mother-in-law storyline is a wonderful device in his novel, as it adds a layer of relationship complexity in a story that could easily be about Elena adjusting to life as a angel out in the world, as a Guild Hunter with torn loyalties and as a daughter forced to face painful secrets. An old nemesis is certainly present stirring up trouble and Elena has to also deal with the members of the Seven who love her and the ones who definitely don’t. Where other authors could have let the series slump, Singh is full speed ahead, with Elena fighting for Raphael as he faces the dark reality of what he could easily become.

Archangel’s Blade (Guild Hunter #4 – Dmitri and Honor’s story) (Berkley, September 6, 2011)

After reading so much about the Seven, the angels and vampires who make up Raphael’s elite guard, it’s wonderful to have a novel devoted to one of them, and Singh does not leave us wanting as she focuses on the hottest, sexiest member, the seductive vampire Dmitri in Archangel’s Blade.

Dmitri’s been a pain in Elena’s ass from day 1, but a hot pain in the ass  and the reader never doubts his loyalty or his deadliness. He’s an old, old friend of Raphael’s (their relationship began when Dmitri was human centuries ago) and Raphael is only person who actually understands why Dmitri is as dark as he is. This particular vampire is only capable of finding pleasure in pain because all the love was violently removed from his life in one fell swoop long ago.

Honor is a Guild Hunter who lived through inconceivable torture at the hands of vampires. She’s been holed up in Guild Headquarters trying to recover, but she is only too aware of how shattered she is, and her friends can see it too. Yet when her boss Sara asks her to work with Dmitri on a case, she’s not sure she is going to be able to follow orders. There is no doubting that Dmitri is stirring something within her that hasn’t moved since before her trauma, but he’s not to be trusted and she needs the next man to touch her to be trusted above all else. Plus, ever since she’s spent time with Dmitri she has been having vivid dreams of someone else’s life and she suspects it might be his. It’s disturbing and making her feel things better left alone.

This book gets a lot of strong feedback on Goodreads, with people either loving it (it’s Dmitri after all) or taking vocal issue with the very paranormal piece of Honor’s past. I not only have no problem with it, I adore the solution, since I choose to think of Dmitri’s centuries of man-whoring as his violent acting out after losing the only thing which meant anything to him, his family. Because someone with such violent passions is bound to have only one true love, Singh did exactly what any writer should have done and yet showed us how strong and different Honor was from any woman Dmitri knew before. It’s pure gold and there is something extraordinary at seeing someone so dark embrace love again.

Angels of Darkness (Guild Hunter #4.5 – Noel and Nimra’s story) (Berkley, October 4, 2011)

The next novella, Angel’s Wolf, published in the anthology Angels of Darkness, takes us away from Raphael’s court but with a tie to it nonetheless. Noel was a victim in a previous book, a vampire tortured so profoundly that he wished he had been able to die. Sent to the court of the angel Nimra, Raphael’s foremost angel in the Louisiana territory, he expects nothing but cruelty from her, even though she is breathtaking. But as he sees the respect she shows all who work for her and the love she receives in return, he questions how she is able to maintain control. In the world he knows, angels must show brutality and ruthlessness to the forces who would otherwise usurp their power.

Nimra has a particular power that lets her harm only those who would seek to harm her or encroach on her territory. She has carried the pain of loss through the centuries and now an attack from within has her horrified that she has a traitor in her midst. Nimra is grateful for the competent and masterful vampire Raphael has sent to help her, but she can see how damaged Noel is from his attack and how his strong personality could easily try and dominate her own. The question remains whether it would be worth the challenge to have such a partner, especially one that makes her heart feel that which she thought it never would again.

Noel is heartbreakingly wonderful, an alpha hero who manages the trick of respecting the angel who rules while also being a man around her in the fullest sense. His distrust of her is only natural after what he experienced, so it’s all the more meaningful as he slowly lets down his barriers, encouraging Nimra – loyal and kind Nimra – to do the same. If you’re an animal lover, do yourself a favor and have tissues handy. This one is a doozy.

Angel’s Flight (containing all previous published novellas and the new novella, Guild Hunter #4.75 – Jessamy and Galen’s story)

The next anthology is actually the one that readers wanting the whole series should get, as it compiles all of the previous novellas mentioned (Ashwini and Janvier in Angel’s Pawn, Sara and Deacon in Angel’s Judgement, and Noel and Nimra in Angel’s Wolf) plus a new novella, Angel’s Flight.

Angel’s Flight focuses on one particular angel we already love and respect, the lovely, willowy teacher in the Refuge, Jessamy. She has been the angel historian for centuries, but because of her crippled wing, she has the task of teaching the little ones their history. While she adores working with the children, her self-consciousness about her condition has kept her from having meaningful relationships with men since she is all too conscious she is not the equal of an angel who will naturally want to fly with his lover.

Galen is the new weapons master to Raphael, having transfered from a rival court where he had no hope of advancement. He’s hoping to give his loyalty to Raphael and eventually become one of his guard and is prepared to work his butt off to prove himself to this impressive archangel. One look at Jessamy and Galen begins to think he could win something much more than just a position in Raphael’s court, he could win a woman’s heart. But part of that game will be convincing her of her own worth and showing her how she is more free to choose than she currently believes.

Oh my God, Galen is such a guy, exactly what you would expect from a weapons master who is brawny and makes killing tools out of leather and steel! But the unlikely pairings are the ones that we like the best, aren’t they, and intellectual, delicate Jessamy with someone who could probably star in a gladiator movie is the ultimate odd couple. A hot odd couple, FYI, and he sees exactly who Jessamy is and what she’s been hiding all these years. Not content to allow her to stunt her potential, he challenges her every step of the way, pushing her out of her comfort zone while providing unconditional backup. This novella is actually a prequel and could easily be read prior to any of the series, but it’s great where it is, giving more insight into the two characters and a lot more insight into angel politics (a nice segway into the next full-length novel) and the Refuge.

Archangel’s Storm (Guild Hunter #5 – Jason and Mahiya’s story) (Berkley, September 4, 2012)

Rather than an Elena and Raphael book (the next one is due out in 2013, I believe), Singh focuses on another member of the Seven, and a damn elusive one at that for the next full-length novel. Jason is the ultimate spymaster for Raphael, an angel with wings black as night who can cloak himself in shadow and hear whispers on the wind of political machinations happening around the world.

In Archangel’s Storm, this ability makes Jason the perfect angel to send to the court of rival archangel Neha. Neha is the queen of poison and her court is beautiful and very deadly, particularly to her consort who has just turned up murdered. Neha had kept him imprisoned for centuries after she discovered he had cuckholded her with her own sister, who produced a child from the union, the Princess Mahiya.

Mahiya may be young in angel years but she’s old in the ways of Neha’s political manipulations. Growing up in an environment where she could trust no one, surrounded by selfish angels who knew Mahiya’s very existence was a reminder of her sister and her consort’s ultimate betrayal, wasn’t a condition that lent itself to fast friendships. She had even been used before by male angels bent on having her body and heart only to break her for Neha’s pleasure.

It’s a history that makes her wary when the dark and beautiful Jason arrives to investigate the death of Neha’s one true love. Mahiya has her own reasons for helping him and quickly realizes in his presence that here is one angel who could really break her heart. He’s noble and kind, sensual and deadly, and Neha finally might have met her match in him and his ruler, Raphael. When Mahiya and Jason realize that Mahiya’s own past is playing a part in the deadly game afoot in the court, they also are aware that he is probably her only hope of survival.

I wasn’t sure what I thought of Jason being the next in line for his own novel (I, like everyone, am waiting with bated breath for Bluebell’s story) but I should have just trusted Nalini Singh who has never, in any series, led me wrong. Jason is a strong hero more than capable of holding an entire book on his strong shoulders and the erosion of his spymaster wariness of Mahiya is a pleasure to witness. Seeing this poor young angel finally find a measure of happiness after a lifetime of living under Neha’s thumb is its own reward as well and I adored the ending when she finally realized what her life could finally be. So sweet.

The year 2013 will be a good one with more Guild Hunter books on the horizon. Honestly, between this and the Psy-Changeling series, I give Nalini Singh a major tip of the hat for her productivity. For a writer to produce so many books and novellas in multiple series each year – and that they each are of outstanding quality with zero slacking visible – makes me think that she’s a writing genius and a productive one at that. If she ever needs anyone to come do her laundry or walk her dog, I’ll fly to New Zealand if it means helping her get more writing time behind her computer!

Many thanks to Nalini Singh for her fertile imagination, unparalleled writing ability and to Berkley Romance for having the good sense to publish her. All your hard work is appreciated, I promise. 🙂

The Ultimate Alpha Males: Midnight series by Lisa Marie Rice

20 Mar

I stumbled across a Lisa Marie Rice recommendation as one of the “similar reads” links on Goodreads.  For a long time I didn’t take the plunge into reading her Midnight trilogy for a couple of reasons.  First, the covers are unattractive and extremely confusing (just look at them!). It makes me weep to think of all the mediocre romance novels out there with amazing covers that dupe the reader into buying them and these are just the opposite. I can barely figure out what is happening on the cover of Midnight Run and Midnight Angel.  Why the sundial/clock thingy?  Is it because of the midnight part of the title? (FYI, clocks and time are not that important in the plot.) Second, a few reviewers emphasized that, in the case of the first book of the Trilogy, Midnight Man, that the protagonist was a major Alpha male.  I mean major, as in uber-controlling, and they were concerned that some people would not like the book if that kind of character put them off.

Having read hundreds of romance novels over the course of my life, I have to say that while I love a strong male character, I guess the phrase “Alpha Male” still carries a caveman connotation, or at least the type of a relationship that your BFF in high school would slip you one of those special pamphlets from the nurse’s office.

In the hands of a good writer, the Alpha Male is nothing to fear.  Lisa Marie Rice crafts her male characters from a similar stamp – yes, they are bad-ass, usually ex-Special Forces warriors, who expect to control every situation.  Yikes! This could potentially be a disaster of epic anti-feminist proportions, but in Lisa’s hands she uses the vacillating point of view to show us what is going on inside the minds of our heroes.  Let’s hear what she has to say about them.

“My men are brave and smart and built. And boy do they love their women! Their women are much more interesting than new weaponry, sports cars, and even plasma TVs in their eyes, and the fascination will last their entire lifetimes, I promise. It’s sex, of course, but also a whole lot more. My heroes genuinely like and admire their women, though in the beginning this is sometimes obscured by blinding lust. Once that first sharp edge of desire is over and they settle down a little—and that will take several years and a kid or two—they’re so bonded with their women that they couldn’t live without them.” (from her website)

It’s this utter fascination with the heroine that shines through and makes us go “awwww” even if they are killing a bad guy (to protect the heroine, natch).  Lisa Marie Rice shows their lust and fascination with a woman who evokes feelings they have never felt before, as well as their utter commitment to keeping this newfound special person utterly safe.  The heroines might not be able to kill a person with their bare hands 30 different ways, but they are not TSTL (too stupid to live) either, instead possessing intelligence and resourcefulness as well as bravery.  Yes, they rely on the hero for his skill set and look to him for comfort, but lots of women do that with their best friend or their mom and manage not to accuse them of being too alpha, right?

Former SEAL John Huntingdon is known for being a deadly Black Ops commander who can see in the dark (hence his nickname, Midnight Man) but now he is simply looking for a new space for the thriving security company he built when he left the service. Elegant blond beauty, Suzanne Barron, enjoys running her interior design business out of the renovated factory she inherited, but her new tenant is not going to be discussing shades of teal anytime soon.

John is startled by the blaze of lust he feels for Suzanne and possessing her (and upgrading her building’s crappy security) becomes his new mission. The dangerous aura surrounding John is not exactly what Suzanne’s life has prepared her for, and after their first date turns into hot sex against the brick wall in her buildings hallway (have icy cold drink ready when reading), Suzanne doesn’t know how to handle the intensity of their relationship.  While trying to make sense of what is happening between them, she unknowingly witnesses a murder and has a hit taken out on her. As she and John escape to the mountains, lust and attraction turn into something deeper, but with a killer on the loose, they might lose each other forever.

The second book of the trilogy brings up an innovative technique employed by Lisa Marie Rice.  Unlike most trilogies where the books are clearly chronological, Lisa builds in deliberate overlap to her stories.  So Midnight Run actually happens a little before and then during the events in Midnight Man.

Claire Parks is a good friend to Suzanne and is grateful to her for decorating the interior of her adorable new Portland house.  After a long illness and tragedy in her childhood, Claire wants to grab life with two hands, which is what she has in mind when she heads out to a sketchy club with a new friend.

Lieutenant Tyler “Bud” Morrison is undercover at a club known for drugs and illicit activity and is startled to see a beautiful princess stranded by her companion and left to the wolves.  Stepping in, he rescues her and takes her home, an act that sizzles with attraction and leads to an amazing night (weekend, really) of sex and companionship.  Claire thinks Bud is a wonderful lumberjack or carpenter (since he’s helping her around the house and good with his hands *mrrrrooowww*), not realizing he is a police officer.

But when her wealthy father stops by, Claire discovers that the gorgeous man who has rocked her world is actually the police officer who rescued her from a kidnapper when she was a young, sick teenager.  Bud gets no argument from Claire’s father about their relationship (her father admires Bud and his integrity), but instead he gets an earful about Claire’s delicacy and past health issues.  Rather than being her passionate lover, he proposes and proceeds to treat her like delicate crystal.  Can’t he see that he will lose her if he won’t let her be his equal?

Midnight Angel is my FAVORITE of the whole series, largely because I could eat the hero up with a spoon.  Former SEAL Douglas Kowalski is a big, scarred beast of a man, one who usually sends elegant ladies running, but he secretly loves all things beautiful, especially music.

When his former commander and present-day security partner John Huntingdon insists that he accompany John and his wife, Suzanne, to a jewelry exhibit at the museum, he grudgingly makes the sacrifice.  Suzanne designed the display cases and her friend Claire Parks and her family’s foundation arranged the exhibit, but it still seems like torture until he catches sight of the stunning redheaded beauty playing the harp and singing like an angel.

Claire and Suzanne’s friend Allegra Ennis agreed to perform at this special event as a favor to them, but it’s the first time she’s performed since her father’s murder, the same event that took her sight and her memories of that traumatic event. When gunshots ring out, Allegra finds herself tucked under the stage and sheltered by the huge, rock-hard body of John Huntingdon’s partner, Douglas, a man with an amazing bass voice whose playful banter was making this evening a lot easier on her.

Douglas thinks Allegra’s beauty and incredible talent puts her into the untouchable category, but he cannot deny the wash of lust and tenderness he feels for her. When he realizes she is feeling the strong attraction between them as well, not even well placed C4 explosives would tear him from her side, especially after he realizes that the bastard who hurt her and literally got away with murder might still be after her.

There is a lot to love about this series (I actually have it in ebook form and find myself rereading them about once every couple of months). The characters are well-drawn and Lisa Marie Rice knows how to describe lust and attraction (with a hint of something more) in a way that other romance authors would do well to emulate. On an interesting note, her sex scenes are interestingly realistic (as much as this genre can be), in that she sometimes depicts the heroine being a little uncomfortable or unable to satisfy the hero at that moment, which sounds odd in an erotic (or at least scorcher) romance novel, but it actually makes the scenes more caring in the long run.

Lisa Marie Rice is a pseudonym and her bio is a fun exercise in playful fiction, with the only “true fact” she lists being that she writes looking at the Ionian Sea and facing (in the far distance) the temple where Pythagoras (the theorem guy) taught. My best guess is that this puts her probably in southern Italy or Greece facing Crotone, the place where he taught, so I’m glad she has such a beautiful place to be suitably inspired for her writing.  I would encourage her to set a book in that stunning locale, as I could easily see one of her fabulous Alpha Males meeting a beautiful heroine on assignment there.

Don’t be afraid of the alpha male.  When done right, he can be a macho protector who is a perfect match for a feisty heroine.

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