Borderline: A Fantasy Romance Podcast

I know, book buddies. It’s hard to read right now. That stack of books is staring at you, your Kindle is whimpering from neglect, but every time you pick it up, it’s just too hard. So I thought it might be helpful if I read you The Ex-Princess. If you haven’t read it before (no judgment), you’ll get to experience it for the first time PLUS get a little “behind the scenes” commentary on the book, what inspired me as I wrote it, etc.

Just a little quarantine gift from me to you. Drop a comment and let me know if you enjoy it!

Here’s the first episode: Chapter One: Time to Fulfill Your Contract, Princess

Magical Realism Love Stories: Late for the Party

Zen Buddhism has a girlfriend. The girlfriend is YouTube fame.

Tweeted by Magical Realism Bot (@MagicalRealismBot) on March 7th, 2020

I don’t know why this Twitter bot makes me so happy, but it just does. It creates the strangest scenarios I could ever imagine, and sometimes, I just want to see them play out. Especially when they’re love stories…because, you know, they’re kind of a thing for me. And you, I’m hoping. I’m going to write some of these goofy little love stories. They will be bizarre. You have been warned.

Photo by Tanner Vote on Pexels.com

“Are you ready to go?” Zen Buddhism poked his dark head into the bathroom. She’d been writing on the mirror with red lipstick again, the hairdryer was smoking, and it looked like her clothing had somehow exploded based on its scatter pattern. He sighed. It shouldn’t surprise him anymore, but it offended his sensibilities. Fame was still sitting on the closed toilet lid, half-dressed, scrolling through her phone, her wet, blonde curls falling over her shoulders.

“Almost,” she said, not taking her eyes off the screen.

He should’ve meditated a full hour instead of cutting it short; he wasn’t going to make it through the night without losing his cool if they didn’t get on the road soon. Zen massaged his temples, closing his eyes.

“We’re gonna be late, Fame.”

She looked at him then, and her coy smile lit up the small room. “People are happy to see me whenever I show up. You know that, hon.” She snapped her gum and went back to her scrolling. “Besides, it’s my party. I’ll be there for the main event. No point in showing up sooner.” Fame checked her Cartier watch. “She’s not drunk enough to do it yet. Don’t worry, sweetheart.”

“It would just be nice to get there in time for me to enjoy the party, too.” Once everyone was drunk, no one wanted to regulate their breathing or paint or drink tea or think about nature at all. Contemplation went right out the window when the keg came out. And strangely enough, alcohol really seemed to attract YouTube Fame…amateur musicians were a close second. He didn’t mind them as much.

Fame put down her phone, tapping her long nails on the counter. “You’re right. I’m being selfish. I’ll be ready in five.” Fifty-five? That he could believe. She stood and looked around the bathroom. “How does it get like this?”

Zen laughed. He couldn’t help it. His shoulder shook with it, his chest ached with it. She pulled him close by his collar and kissed him hard to shut him up. Her chaotic, transitory nature would always be a mystery to him, but he wasn’t going anywhere. She was wild, unpredictable, flitting like a bumblebee from flower to flower, and he burned to feel her life with him always. If there was a couple in the universe with a greater unity of opposites, he couldn’t…wait, no. That black hole was still dating that possum from Arkansas, and James Carville was still married to Mary Matalin. But they were a close third, and he hoped they would be for a long time.

Internalized misogyny and man chests: Isabelle Popp shares how she became a romance reader

I’ll admit–this article resonated with me. My own road to becoming a romance reader was bumpy. I picked up my first one quite by accident (Neanderthal Seeks Human by Penny Reid), being in search of both a bargain and a happy read which would rectify my lack of brain stimulation being a SAHM. So “smart romance” sounded like a win/win…and it was! In the interim, I have discovered that many people are offended by the phrase, assuming that the author is implying that the rest of romance is dumb. Let me summarize: she’s not. A better tagline might be “romance for people who like academia,” but that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. People perhaps think the same thing about my own tagline: “real romance in unreal worlds.” It could be misconstrued, I realize, to say that some romance is unreal…which is not what I intended to say. Merely that I want to infuse real relationship advice into my books, something you can carry into your real life and use. Reading as an escape is perfectly acceptable, but sometimes, it’s just not what I’m looking for. Pure fantasy and perfect romances with all swoony kisses and no misfires gets…old? It’s like cotton candy. I like a little. I don’t like a lot.

Anyway, read this article (if you want), then tell me how YOU became a romance reader in the comments! https://bookriot.com/2020/02/25/on-becoming-a-romance-reader/

“Reading as an escape is perfectly acceptable, but sometimes, it’s just not what I’m looking for. Pure fantasy and perfect romances with all swoony kisses and no misfires gets…old?” @fionawestauthor shares her journey to becoming a romance reader

The Un-Queen: Meeting the Guys

In this chapter, Abbie is finally meeting Edward/Parker’s childhood best friends, but they’re in the midst of an argument that they haven’t resolved yet regarding her health and their different conflict styles. Abbie is concerned that their arranged marriage is going to end up much more uncomfortable than she’s imagined…engagement is the pits, sometimes. Oh, and for context, Edward has a habit of punctuating his opinions by saying “hashtag kinging.” Enjoy!

Photo by Bruno Henrique on Pexels.com

“Hey.”

            “Hello.” They stood awkwardly together outside Bluffton as her things were removed from the train. Abbie twisted her rings, needing something to do with her hands. There had been no kiss in greeting, not even a peck for show.

            “How are you?” she asked. He wouldn’t give her his gaze.

            “Fine, and you?”

            “I’ve been better,” she said. Based on the look on his face, her honesty surprised them both. Edward recovered quickly and started down the hall. She touched his elbow hesitantly. Slowly, he came to a stop and turned to face her, arms crossed.

“Look,” she said quietly, “I’m not going to embarrass you. There’s no reason for anyone to know that we’re fighting. Let’s just put on happy faces and get through this.”

            “Agreed. As far as they know, our situation is unchanged.”

“I haven’t told anyone, either,” she said. His eyes met hers, and the mélange of emotions she saw there was almost dizzying. “But it isn’t unchanged, is it?” she said softly.

His gaze hardened. “I’m not doing this with you now.” He turned and strode down the hall. Abbie followed Parker into the game room, where two of his friends were already waiting.

“Lieutenant Saint you already know . . .”

“Good to see you again.” She really was happy to see him, but her smile was forced and she knew it wasn’t reaching her eyes. He gave her a friendly nod in return.

Edward gestured toward the other man. “And this is Simonson.”

“Simonson.” She got a handshake, but no eye contact. He kept his black hair shaved close to his head, and though he was black, his skin was much lighter than Parker’s—redder, too. “Great to meet you, Sam.” At the use of his first name, Abbie was rewarded with a fleeting glance in her direction and a tight-lipped smile as he looked away.

“Simonson’s afraid of princesses, Abbie, don’t take it personally,” Saint said, grinning. He’d stopped calling her ma’am after he’d tasted her cookies on board the transport.

“I’m not afraid,” Sam countered, “I just don’t want to—”

“A. Look at them? B. Speak to them? C. Touch them? D. Acknowledge their presence, by accident or on purpose? The answer is E, all of the above.” This came from James, who had strolled in while the others were being introduced. He stuck his hand out, and his V-neck T-shirt shifted so she could see some of the scars on his chest.

“I’m Arron. You may call me James, Lieutenant, or Arron. I also answer to Sex God.”

Without batting an eye, Abbie volleyed back. “Sorry, I’m saving that nickname for someone else.”

“Who, Edward? But he’s a god as yet unworshipped, love, whereas I’m tried and true. I deserve it much more. But any god worth his salt appreciates loyalty, so may your devotion be rewarded.” He crossed her like he was offering a benediction as he spoke, and despite everything, it made her giggle. “What are we playing?”

“If we bowl, everybody can play,” Simonson offered.

“Oh,” James cried, “I love how my avatar looks in his little shirt with all the flowers and the parrots!”

Saint and Parker protested, but Abbie interrupted.

“I can just watch, I don’t mind.”

Parker scowled and opened his mouth to speak, but he was too slow.

“Fair princess,” James began, “art thy sensibilities too fragile, too feminine for all those pointy pins and large balls?”

“Look, I know you guys are usually blowing things up and storming castles when you play. You don’t have to play kids’ games for my benefit. I’m just here to hang out.”

“Kids’ games?” Saint asked, perplexed.

“You know, bowling, table tennis, Frisbee with the cute little dudes with no arms who bounce around.”

All four men crossed their arms simultaneously, and it made Abbie want to step back.

“Don’t blame her,” Parker sighed. “It’s my fault for not educating her.”

Abbie crossed her own arms, feeling ganged up on. “What?”

“Those games are not just for kids.”

“They’re not?”

Simonson shook his head. “Not the way we play them.”

“But Abbie can’t drink, mates . . . ,” Parker put in, and there was murmured sympathy. I’d pay money to see them trying to play Frisbee drunk . . . They’d probably put a controller through the screen.

“I’m not in the mood to murder anything,” James said, “not with Sunshine here watching. We can’t reveal Edward’s true nature until they’re wed. Let’s race go-karts.”

Saint grunted his approval. They stuck her in the middle of the long couch and put a controller in her hands.

“What does each button do?”

Parker sat down next to her, still keeping a careful distance. “It’s better if you figure it out as we go. We’ll do some practice runs.”

“No, I like a plan of attack. I need to know how it all works first.”

“But you’ll remember it better if you learn it by touch. Don’t worry about the letters. Your brain is pattern-seeking, you’ll pick it up. Guys, back me up here.”

Saint shook his head slowly. “Side against a woman, they never forget it.”

Abbie lifted her hips and pulled out her phone out of her back pocket.

“What are you doing?” Parker asked.

“Looking up a schematic with directions.”

“Oh no, you don’t.” He plucked the phone from her and tucked it under his leg.

“If you think,” she said, diving for him, “that I’m afraid to go down there . . .”

“Stay away from his face,” James said, cruising through the setup menu. “Our royalty have standards to maintain. We revere that face. Maim him elsewhere.”

“Yes, but I need some of those other parts to maintain a dynasty . . . Woman, stop.” He grabbed her wrists and held her away, and her traitorous heart started to beat faster, because he was touching her. A hundred years had passed since that happened.

“You also need a willing wife to create a dynasty, Your Majesty.”

He shoved the controller back into her hands. “Pick an avatar.”

She glared at him, but he leaned closer and pressed his forehead against hers.

“Trust me, Abs.” It’s an act, she told herself. It’s just an act. The tenderness that should’ve made her feel warm and fuzzy just made her tense; she did not want to be kissed in front of “the guys,” but she wanted him to stop withholding himself, too.

Growling, she turned back to the screen. She scrolled through the characters until she found one that suited her: a dragon.

“Wow,” Simonson said. “I did not see that coming.”

“She doesn’t have to pick a princess, idiot,” said Saint.

Abbie sniffed. “I’m going to torch my fiancé. Only virtually, of course.”

“You sure about that?” Saint smirked.

She stared at the giant screen. “Mostly.”

“Well, your passive-aggressive revenge will have to wait a bit,” Parker said, “because I’m going to coach you through the first few rounds. Now, when the start whistle blows, you’re going to move that little stick on the right forward.” It was counting down from five on the screen, and she only had a moment to find the stick with her thumb before they were off. “You’re the bottom right-hand square.”

            “I see it,” she said. “Now what?”

            “Now you want to pick up stuff to chuck at the other players.”

            “How do I do that?”

            “Run over those little exclamation point boxes.” Parker put his arm behind her on the back of the couch, and she jumped when his fingers traced her upper arm lightly.

            “That’s distracting, hon.” But he’s touching me. I should’ve let him.

            “Sorry.” He moved his fingers, but left his arm where it was.

            “I’m distracted, and he’s not even touching me,” quipped James.

            “Okay, I picked up some kind of bomb thing. How do I chuck it at James?”

            “Oy! Why me? Simonson’s in the lead!”

            “Well,” said Parker, “first, you’ll have to catch up to someone. You’re last.”

            “Damn it. You said this was practice!”

            “It is practice. Good news, though; they’re about to lap you, and then you’ll be able to lob stuff at them as they go by.”

            “Doesn’t that mean they could also lob stuff at me?” she asked.

            “Yes, but we won’t,” said Saint. “It’s not worth it.”

            “Ouch.”

            “Economics, love,” James said. “When you’re a threat, we’ll bomb the Jersey out of you, promise.”

            “Also, Edward said he’d demote us if we weren’t nice to you,” Simonson added.

            “Did you? That’s sweet, babe.” Her heart swelled with hope.

            “Hashtag—”

            “Don’t say it,” all three of his friends yelled, and Abbie laughed, running her go-kart off the road.

            “Oh no! I crashed . . .”

            “It’s all right, the mechanic will pick you up in a minute.”

            “But now I’m even farther behind . . . I need more practice.” She paused, thinking, then took a chance. “Will you get me one of these?”

            His voice betrayed his surprise. “A gaming system?”

            “Yeah, then we can play when you come. And maybe I can coerce Kurt into playing with me if he ever shifts out of jackass mode.” Yes, I want to play with you, Parker. We’re still friends, we’ll figure this out. Don’t give up on me, on us, she silently begged him.

            “Yeah, sure, makes sense.”

            His friends fell quiet for a few minutes, each man attempting to destroy his friends, leaving Abbie untouched as she navigated the curves of the track, Parker quietly offering more tips as she mastered each new skill. She finally got a shot off on James and he cursed.

            “I was about to win!”

            “Bam! Who’s the sex god now, sucker?” Abbie crowed.

            “Broward?” Saint muttered.

            “Yo.”

            “She’s cool.”

            “I know.”

            “Hashtag un-queening,” Abbie muttered, and during the ensuing hysterics, she finally pulled into the lead.

West, The Un-Queen, Chapter Thirty-Five.

And yes, in case you’re wondering, all these guys get their HEA’s! (Edward’s just takes two books, because…well, because ABBIE.) Find all five books in the series here: The Borderline Chronicles.

HEA Hypothesis: Feminism in Off Her Game by Zoe Forward

Photo by Dane Wetton on Unsplash

Hello, book buddy! This blog post is part of a series called HEA Hypothesis, in which I do close readings of romance novels to figure out what makes them work, and you can find more here: HEA Hypothesis archives. This week’s post is focused on Off Her Game by Zoe Forward. Mr. West loves video games, and I love Mr. West, so I was intrigued initially by the premise: a video game writer gets too deep into an eGaming gambling ring. The FBI wants her help busting it open, and as her cover, she has to date a hot (but socially awkward) video game CEO. I love that she’s just as much of a gamer as he is, but the book doesn’t gloss over how it might feel to be a woman in an industry that’s mostly guys. In this scene, he’s picking her up for their first fake date…

“You’re kidding, right?” Tori stared [in] disbelief at Noah.

“About what?”

“A motorcycle? I’m wearing a dress.” This is one of two that I own. “When Emma said you wanted to pick me up, to drive us yourself, this isn’t what I expected.”

“The dress is nice. Really nice.” His gaze slid to the low dip above her breasts. As a man, his DNA was programmed to look. And maybe she’d chosen this dress to make sure looking happened. “You could ride sidesaddle? Come on, sometimes you gotta live a little.”

(Forward, Chapter Three, Location 530)

There’s a few different kinds of tension that work really well in this chapter. The first is financial tension: Tori’s income is far below Noah’s, and she’s concerned about ruining or damaging 50% of her date wardrobe. Tori’s constant stress about her debt has been a major plot in the book. He, on the other hand, probably thought he was being kind by picking her up himself instead of sending a driver. Notice, too, that it’s his assistant who communicated with her; he didn’t do it himself. That’s another marker of how his status is different from hers…as is his inability to listen to her concerns.

He held out a helmet.

“You want me to mess up my hair, too? I don’t put product in my hair for anyone, but because in the normal world I’d probably be super into this date, I did.” She touched the long, dark tresses, which with product waved like she had a perm.

“Your hair should shake out without a problem.” Said like a man who didn’t have long hair or work for the past two hours to make sure the curls happened.

(Forward, Chapter Three, Location 536)

The conflict here is two-fold: this is a fake date, but it’s feeling pretty real to Tori. She needs to make it look real, at the very least. She’s more invested in all this than he is, partly because of her debts and because it’s her safety at stake, and she’s starting to resent his lack of effort to understand. We don’t get Noah’s perspective in this scene, but I also wonder how much of it is him treating her like “one of the guys.” Tori has a lot of hangups (as I think many women do) about not being taken seriously in her chosen line of work. The subtext is sort of “come on, man, be cool,” and while he’s not putting direct pressure on her to get on the bike, it’s clear that he thinks her concerns aren’t valid.

“It’s a gorgeous night. Seventy-five degrees in March is almost unheard of. I wanted to get her out of the garage, but I didn’t think… Are you scared?” His brows drew together.

Was he calling her chicken? Oh no no no. “A few tattoos and piercings and you assume I’m a bike girl?”

“Nothing like that.” He ducked his head. “All right, maybe it was like that.”

“I’ve been on a few bikes. Sidesaddle is for movies and dipshits. It’s not the bike that’s the problem.”

He rubbed a hand down his face. “I’m sorry. Totally didn’t think you might not be into it. If you want to change clothes, I can wait, but I like the dress. This was a stupid idea.” He fiddled with the helmet he’d offered her. His fluster was kind of cute.

(Forward, Chapter Three, Location 536)

So here we see Noah (finally) try to shift his perspective…but unfortunately, he’s taking the wrong tack. Tori, used to being treated like one of the guys, prickles at the implication that she’s not brave enough for the bike. This deepens the tension of how she fits into his world and their industry: does she want to be treated like one of the guys, or does she want more consideration for her needs? She doesn’t like the implication that it’s the bike itself, and sets him straight immediately. But instead of listening to what she’s saying, he’s trying to find a deeper motivation (even though there isn’t one). At least he’s admitting that he didn’t think things through, and he’s finally playing to his strength: being a sweet, beautiful nerd who doesn’t know how to date.

She nibbled on her lower lip. Might as well just throw it out there. “I have this thing about the helmets. They’re tight.”

“Tight? They’re for safety. They have to be tight.”

“I know. They kind of freak me out. I have a claustrophobia thing.”

“Forget it. I’ll park it here and call my driver to pick us up.” He pulled out his cell phone. “Damn it. I should’ve texted you before, but it was a spur of the moment decision.”

She touched his arm to stop him from sending the text. “It’s a nice night.” On a deep inhale, she pulled the helmet over her head. One, two, three… She continued counting until she reached fifteen, then opened her eyes. Her heart jackhammered against her ribs while she struggled not to feel like a cat crammed into a hamster tube.

“You okay?” His voice echoed inside the helmet. “I’m serious. We don’t have to.”

“I’m good.” Way too much stress packed itself into the words. He mounted the bike and held out his hand to help her on behind him.

Forward, Chapter Three, Location 547

Noah’s honesty prompts Tori’s, too: she is afraid, just not of the bike. By finally affirming her, they’re able to get on their way, and even get some body to body contact in the process. Tori’s motivations are still being driven by a somewhat insecure desire to be seen as brave and strong…but at least the choice was hers. Just wait until he gets a glimpse of the dragon tattoo on her thigh as she gets on the bike… (Also, I worked another dragon into my post! Are you proud? You should be, I’m three for three now.)

If you want to read the rest of the book, you can get it here: Off Her Game by Zoe Forward. There’s also two more books in the Game Lords series, which I haven’t read yet. And if you want to read about more lovely nerds, you can read an excerpt from my book, The Un-Queen right here: Meeting the Guys.

And as a reminder, Amazon does pay me if you purchase something through these links, but it doesn’t change the cost of the product for you.