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.

HEA Hypothesis: Sacrificed to the Dragon by Jessie Donovan

Hey, book buddy! Good to see you here on my blog. This post is part of a series called HEA Hypothesis, in which I try to dissect and analyze why different scenes in romance novels work well. You can see past post here. For the sake of clarity, I have formatted the conversations between Tristan and his dragon in italics, but also made bold Tristan the man’s part. This was not done in the original text, but because of my formatting limitations in WordPress, I wanted to make sure it was clear who was speaking; I’ve changed nothing else.

Okay, here’s the context, and then we’ll dive in. Melanie Hall is a British-American human writer in an alternate universe where dragon shifters exist and are supposedly to be protected by British law. Dragon blood has healing properties that her brother needs to stay alive; dragon shifters need human women to help them conceive and perpetuate their race. So an exchange is made: Melanie agrees to be paired with Tristan in exchange for what her brother needs. Unfortunately, the man she’s paired with, Tristan, has some serious trust issues when it comes to humans, because his mother was killed and abused by hunters. As we pick up the story, Mel is living on the dragons’ land, newly pregnant, and he’s been hiding from her because he’s a dirty coward.

Photo by Sean Thomas on Unsplash

As they passed one of the Stonefire’s eateries, the smell of steak and kidney pie filled his nose, making his stomach rumble. No doubt, after losing her breakfast, Melanie would be hungry too. He was about to ask her if she wanted something to eat when she buried her head against his chest and wrapped her arms around his waist. He stopped walking and said, “What’s wrong?” Her voice was muffled. “That smell…it makes me want to vomit again.” “So you’re burying your face against me to cover me in sick and get revenge on me for impregnating you?” She shook her head against his chest. “For some reason, your scent calms my stomach.” His inner dragon hummed. Our scent helps her. She will want us always by her side. Tristan brushed the remark aside, determined to remain unaffected. “Let’s keep going. We’re nearly there.” “If I move my head away before we clear that smell, I’ll be sick. And this time, I’ll make sure to aim for you.” He nearly smiled. Even when facing a humiliating situation, like being sick in public, Melanie Hall didn’t back down (pg. 108, Donovan).

Power struggles. They’re nothing new in a romance, but what I found so intriguing about this particular book is that we have so many different power struggles happening, and here we see the first one: man vs. instinct. As is common in shifter romances, there’s a “mated” status that’s beyond anything the shifter could rationally choose, and that’s what happened to Tristan. His dragon chose Mel, and now he’s stuck with a human he doesn’t feel he can trust. But she’s carrying his child, and for Tristan the man, that changes things…his instincts are conflicting. He feels a strong desire to protect Mel because she’s carrying his child, but he’s obviously still assuming the worst about her and resisting the desire to embrace her as a mate.

Since she was suffering in part because of him, he looped an arm around her waist and said, “I can carry you or guide you until the smell clears. Which method do you prefer?” She hesitated a second and then said, “Guide me, but make sure to walk slowly.” His dragon let out a soft snarl inside his head. Carry her. I want to feel her soft body pressed against ours. Not now. She doesn’t feel well. Comfort her first and maybe we’ll feel her body against ours later. At the promise of feeling the human female’s curves against his skin, the dragon retreated. Tristan tried not to think too hard on how cooperative his beast was being, because that would mean thinking about how attached his dragon was becoming to the human. He tightened his grip on Melanie’s waist and started walking, careful to time his steps to her sideways walk (pg. 109, Donovan).

Inevitably, our second power struggle is man vs. dragon. Tristan’s dragon is Mel’s #1 fan, but the man part of him isn’t sold. As a result, he’s trying to push both her and his dragon away emotionally, even though he can’t push her away physically. This is a common struggle in literature as in life: the dragon is the personification (beastification?) of those parts of us that react at a gut level. That blow up without thinking. That feel deep desire and want selfishly . The dragon is all pride and smug satisfaction in a way that the man isn’t allowed to be. Let’s consider the alternative: if Tristan didn’t argue with the dragon, we’d question his motives as a character. Dragons don’t seem to care much if the woman’s interested in sex. But by arguing with his dragon and denying him what he wants, he’s literally tearing himself apart for the sake of a woman he claims not to love…

Photo by Jamie Coupaud on Unsplash

He nearly ordered her to walk faster, but then he remembered Lia’s words about taking care of Melanie. If his mother were alive today and saw him barking at a pregnant woman, carrying his baby no less, she would’ve frowned and give him a cool, even look. His mother had never been one to raise her voice, yet Tristan and his sister had known better than to disobey her. Thinking about his mother squeezed his heart. He’d pretty much locked away his memories of her for both his and Arabella’s sakes, but he was starting to wonder if it was time to address both the pain and the memories of his mum. He had a feeling that during their visit with Arabella, he wouldn’t have a choice. Samira and Liam’s cottage came into view and he caught traces of Liam’s scent in the air. His dragon snarled and tried to take control. A male lives inside that house. He will take our human many times until he erases our scent. We must take her away and protect her from all other males. I will protect her. Now, stop being daft. Liam has his own mate. But ours is better (p. 109, Donovan).

Here, we get a humorous moment where the dragon boldly pronounces against reason that the other male would *obviously* be attracted to Mel and want her despite his own commitments. But it also highlights our third power struggle: man vs. community. The dragon is more afraid of his own clansmen stealing her away, while Tristan is afraid that they’d judge him for the detached way he’s tried to deal with Mel. At the same time, one of the things preventing him from embracing her is his fear that his sister Arabella won’t accept his human mate. Donovan does an excellent throughout the book to demonstrate the ways that a community, a family, can influence a relationship. Their commitment to their other relationships both pushes them together and forces them apart at times. That’s a theme I’m working through in my WIP, Could be Something Good, too (stay tuned to the blog, and I’ll give you a taste of it later in the week). In my mind, a new relationship that forces you out of your old relationships is probably unhealthy, yet we see it all the time in literature. They turn their backs on the world for the sake of their romance.

Ignoring the remark about mates, Tristan said, Stop it or I will shut you out completely. His dragon grumbled and allowed Tristan’s human-half to remain in control. At least, for the time being. He tightened his grip on the human to further soothe his dragon. The feel of her soft curves warm against his hand, arm, and chest calmed the beast. He hoped Liam was out, or his dragon would try everything he could to break free, resulting in a rather spectacular display of protectiveness and possibly a fight. They reached the front door of Samira’s cottage. Tristan gave his dragon one last warning to behave before he said, “We’re here” (pg. 110, Donovan).

Donovan, Jessie. Sacrificed to the Dragon (Stonefire British Dragons Book 1) (pp. 108-110). Mythical Lake Press, LLC. Kindle Edition.

Needless to say, I really enjoyed this book! And at the time of this writing, the first book in the series is FREE! You can get here: Sacrificed to the Dragon by Jessie Donovan. I do participate in Amazon Affiliates, so I get a small kickback if you use these links, but the cost to you is the same. (Tea money, anyone? BOOK MONEY?!)

Friday Feature: Favorite Words I Read This Week

Loved Charlotte’s thoughts, as usual! And it makes think about unreliable narrators…does it decrease our trust in him that he’s waffling so much, or can we just take it as a sign that he’s anxious about the experience?

Close Reading Romance

Photo bySusan Holt SimpsononUnsplash

Anyone who follows me over on Twitter has watched me yell in excitement about Scarlett Peckham’s The Lord I Left for the better part of a week. I savored this book slowly (until the end when I couldn’t stop myself) and enjoyed so much about it.

The passage I picked occurrs only a handful of sentences into the first chapter, and there isn’t much context for it. All we know about Henry Evesham’s current situation is that he’s just knocked on the door of a “whipping house” with a “forbidding reputation,” one that he’s visited at least once before. A visit which ended, as we learn, in our hero fleeing from a woman named Alice.

If he was being honest with himself – and he’d vowed to be rigorously honest with himself – Alice, for it was untruthful to pretend he did not…

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Four Love Letters: Arron to Rhodie (The Semi-Royal)

This is part of a Valentine’s Day bonus for my fans! Hope you have fun imagining with me how our heroes would celebrate the holiday…which one’s your favorite? Leave me a comment! You can also download these letters as a PDF at the bottom of the page. Enjoy, book buddies! 

Though Arron never sent this letter to Rhodie, he does get a shot with her in The Semi-Royal…but will his secret inheritance ruin their chances before they’ve even begun? Grab some sunscreen and find out for yourself…get the ebook or the paperback on Amazon or in Kindle Unlimited. If you use one of the Amazon links provided, I do get a small kickback from them.