Black Tie Optional
It’s no secret that the Marriage of Convenience is my favourite trope when it comes to historical romance. But it’s a plotline that is less easy to pull off in a contemporary, so I was keen to read Black Tie Optional – the first in Ann Marie Walker’s Wild Wedding series – to see whether it could be made to work in a non-historical setting. The answer is yes, for the most part, but it seemed to me that some of the things I so love about the trope – the couple getting to know each other and eventually falling in love – were rushed and/or glossed over, and I came away from the book wondering where the actual romance was. That’s not to say this isn’t an enjoyable read, because it is; the central couple has chemistry so hot it could strip paint, their verbal exchanges are often quite funny and the wedding scene is hilarious – but when they’re not having sex, they’re thinking about how much they want to have sex and remembering how great it was the last time they had sex… and I can’t help wishing there had been less of that and more time spent on the development of an actual relationship.
The story is your classic enemies-to-lovers one, as environmental activist Olivia Ramsey butts heads (and other body parts) with tall, dark, handsome sex-god Coleman Grant III, the gorgeous arsehole whose multi-billion dollar company is about to develop land inhabited by the northern long-eared bat, an animal recently recognised as a threatened species. For eighty-three days, she’s confronted him on his morning coffee run, and for eighty-three days, he’s blown her off. It’s infuriating, she moans to her best friend Cassie – who teases Olivia about the fact that all she ever seems to talk about is Cole and suggests she’s got a thing for him. Olivia is adamant that she hates his oh, so handsome guts – because, yeah, denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.
For some reason, this eighty-third day is different. Cole notices how fabulous Olivia’s arse looks in her scruffy jeans and his head is suddenly filled with lots of salacious images while his small head perks up hopefully. It’s ridiculous – he doesn’t even like the woman – but then liking has little to do with wanting to get down to the horizontal mambo with someone.
However, he can’t afford to spend too much time lusting after a crazed environmentalist; he has a bigger problem to wrestle with, namely the clause in his late parents’ will that stipulates if he’s not married by the time he’s thirty, Grant Industries – which he has worked hard to transform from the successful investment firm his parents left him into a global leader in the emerging technologies market – and all its assets will automatically be transferred into the hands of his formidable grandmother. With his birthday just days away, he can sense her circling for the kill, but hopes that the lawyers will find a way to circumvent the stipulation. They don’t, however – news Cole receives after a spectacular night of unbridled passion in a Las Vegas hotel room… with none other than the woman of his dreams? nightmares?, Olivia Ramsey, who is in Vegas attending the same pre-wedding party as he is.
Anyway. Cole is backed into the proverbial corner and has just four days in which to find a wife. Olivia is trying to sneak out of his suite and embark upon her walk of shame, but he stops her in her tracks when he asks her to marry him, explaining his reasons for asking and offering to back her conservation project in return. They’ll get married, divorce after three months, the bats get a home and voilà! Win-win for both of them.
That’s the set up for the marriage of convenience, and it works fine. What doesn’t work so well is the fact that the pair of them then proceed to pretty much ignore the need to make their hasty marriage look convincing. In spite of Cole’s warnings that his grandmother is an incredibly shrewd, ruthless woman, Olivia expects the fact they’re actually married will be enough to stop her being able to gain control of Grant Industries. Even their closest friends, who are in on the secret, are amazed that Cole and Olivia haven’t sat down to invent a backstory and decide how they’re going to act once they get back to Chicago.
The section of the story in which Olivia takes Cole home to meet her parents allows her to see a more relaxed version of him and discover he’s even more irresistible when he’s not so buttoned up, while Cole comes to understand more about Olivia’s passion for her work, and to see a less prickly, more affectionate side of her. Her parents are terrific; her mother a committed environmentalist (so Cole can see where Olivia gets it from), her father a vet, and it’s obvious they adore each other. Cole finally starts to think that perhaps what they have is something he wants for himself. He has never really known what it is to be part of a family; born into money, he didn’t see much of his parents when he was younger, and was brought up by nannies and servants. The author touches briefly on how much Cole is hurt that they put that clause in their will, but doesn’t dwell on it overmuch.
The premise is right up my alley and Cole and Olivia have smoking chemistry, but the romance is under-developed and we go from intense lust to love with almost no steps in between. The pair spends most of their time together thinking about sex – how great it was last time, how it can never happen again and… oh, bugger, we’re in bed again but this is absolutely, positively the last time. Until the next one. And the one after that. They never talk about how they are going to handle Cole’s grandmother, his high-profile lifestyle, public appearances, or about how – or even IF – they are going to tell Olivia’s parents the truth.
The central characters are amiable enough, although neither of them is particularly memorable and some of their actions – most notably Olivia’s insistence on getting plastered on the plane and then at the party – are immature and made me actively dislike them. Cole’s obvious affection for his half-sister is a point in his favour, although this – like the grandmother side plot – is another thread that is introduced and then suddenly dropped.
Black Tie Optional is a quick, sexy read that isn’t without charm or humour, but which ultimately lacks that certain something that would have made it an out-and-out winner. There aren’t enough of those ‘moments’ that show us two people falling for each other; the moment they discover a shared interest or opinion, the moment they see the other person with fresh eyes, or those funny little episodes that show them growing closer together. The characterisation is pretty superficial and we never really get to know exactly why Cole and Olivia fall in love as opposed to lust. I did enjoy it, but not enough to be able to get past its various weaknesses or give it a wholehearted recommendation.