mcnaught I just finished Judith McNaught’s Someone to Watch Over Me, and the main characters are… fine. He’s a bazillionaire who’s loved her for a long time. She’s a successful Broadway actress who doesn’t trust his criminal past. Like I said, they’re fine, with all the faint-praise-damning and forgettability that that word generally implies. But the book will end up on my keeper shelf anyway, because the secondary romance between Detective Samantha Littleford and and her superior, Lieutenant Mitchell McCord, is just too good not to reread.

What made Samantha and McCord so enjoyable? I love office romance/off-limits attraction plot devices because they put up plausible barriers to the couple’s courtship. As the senior police officer, McCord can’t express any feelings towards Samantha without running afoul of every procedure and regulation in the book. Consequently, he’s so self-contained that Samantha can’t even tell if he likes her. As former AAR reviewer Nora Armstrong wrote in her review: “Watching McCord’s increasingly desperate struggle against his attraction to Sam

[antha] was vastly more riveting and engaging for me than witnessing the other fellow’s relentless, if tender, seduction of [the heroine].”

My all-time favorite author for secondary romance is Susan Elizabeth Phillips. In Heaven, Texas, the secondary heroine Suzy Denton is the fifty-two year old mother of the hero Bobby Tom, widowed and reconnecting with Way Sawyer, the now-affluent bad boy from her youth. In Match Me If You Can, cutthroat rival matchmaker Portia Powers steals the show from the “adorably” incompetent Annabelle Granger. Portia’s fall for the rough-edged Bodie Gray is swoon-worthy, as Bodie teaches her how to be unafraid of, and even revel in, the human flaws she fights so hard to eliminate.

And of course, there’s what may be the most legendary secondary couple in Romancelandia: Sam Starrett and Alyssa Locke, from numerous Suzanne Brockmann Troubleshooter books. I’ll admit to not having read every book bringing Sam and Alyssa up to the present, but the ones I have are epic. Sam and Alyssa don’t have sparks; they have fireballs. They don’t have dialogue; they have verbal Ultimate Fighter matches. And once you remember the bland, conventional scenes the phrase is often applied to, you’ll have to agree with me that they don’t have sex either. I’m not sure what to call what they have, but it’s sure as heck not the same thing that many heroes and heroines are having.

Are there any interesting patterns here? In the SEP and Brockmann books, the secondary characters might have been controversial as leads in years past – for age reasons with SEP, and for the interracial romance in Brockmann. I always found it interesting how when Sam and Alyssa became the protagonists of their own book, Brockmann invented an entire African-American family for Sam for which there was no prior evidence. There was no prior counterevidence, either, but the whole thing did come out of nowhere. Maybe Brockmann felt that it was true to Sam’s character; maybe she just felt that it would erase the racial element of Sam and Alyssa’s relationship. I found that a bit contrived, and it was one of the reasons I preferred Sam and Alyssa in their earlier secondary books.

SEP and Brockmann let their secondary leads have much more adventurous sex lives. Suzy and Way have a creative good time in a Jacuzzi, for instance, while Brodie dominates Portia in a wordless encounter outdoors on her darkened balcony. Sam and Alyssa play with handcuffs and coat a bed and each other in chocolate sauce. These books are high “Warm” if rated for the hero and heroine, but the secondary leads jump to “Hot” if not “Burning.”

Does this imply that secondary romances are places where authors let their imaginations wander, with fewer limitations based on what people are expected to buy? Possibly. But it’s worth considering that Samantha and McCord from the McNaught, who got me starting thinking about this in the first place, are relatively conventional characters, and they don’t even have a sex scene. But does this speak to secondary characters in general or to McNaught personally?

Who are your favorite secondary characters? Have you ever DIK’d a book just for the secondary characters? Have you noticed more “risk-taking” in secondary romances, or do you think it just depends on the author and what she feels like writing?

– Caroline Russomanno