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 (Winning Back the Duke)

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 Winning Back the Duke…but will his secret inheritance ruin their chances before they’ve even begun? Grab some sunscreen and find out for yourself…you can pre-order the ebook or it’ll be in Kindle Unlimited on March 30th! If you use one of the Amazon links provided, I do get a small kickback from them.


Four Love Letters: Saint to Brooke (Taking Down the King)

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! 

Haven’t read Taking Down the King yet? Want to see how Saint, veteran playboy, became such an awesome dad? You can pre-order it now or it’ll be available in Kindle Unlimited on March 9th; any time is a good time for a sweet holiday romance with plenty of enemies-to-lovers secret attraction.