Mindy Hung’s previous bodice-ripping work for The Toast can be found here. Most recently: All the Sporty Ladies.
Today’s Wealthy Romance Heroine is a serious creature, pulling on gumboots to launch herself on philanthropic missions, or donning tailored mansuits to protect her family’s business interests. Unlike her popular counterpart, the Billionaire Hero, who spends a considerable portion of his income on sex dungeons and—I don’t know!—floggers woven from the pelts of Komodo dragons, the Wealthy Romance Heroine gives a shit about the rest of the world.
Sorry Fran Lebowitz, it seems that there are very few madcap heiresses left.
Today, we’re focusing on rich girls in recent contemporary romance novels: the captains of industry, the earnest heiresses. We’ll look at women who are determined to prove their worth, and who find that wealth doesn’t necessarily grant them power, and that value doesn’t always reside in the bottom line.
Under Her Skin, Lea Santos
While vacationing at the Denver estate of her manager Geraline, Iris Lujan, out lesbian Chicana supermodel, flees to the grounds to escape the attentions of a male model, and to cry luminous tears. She is consoled by ripped, sports bra-clad gardener, Torien Macias.
Torien sends money to her family in Mexico and spends her free time volunteering in a community garden in her Círculo de Esperenza/ Tortilla Flats neighborhood. Iris, although dissatisfied with modeling, has booked a 3-year contract which will take her to Paris.
Lea Santos began her career writing heterosexual romances under the name Lynda Sandoval. More recently, under her real name, she re-fashioned her male/female books, first published by Kensington’s short-lived Encanto line of bilingual Latina romances, into lesbian love stories for Bold Strokes Books. Under Her Skin is a rewrite of Dreaming of You/Sonando Contigo.
The book has a fairytale quality–Iris is so vulnerable, Torien is so noble—but Santos fits in canny observations. (Antoine, the evil male model [heh] notes, “The gardener. Dude, way to slum. Sounds like one of those books I wouldn’t read—”)
The novel provides an elegant way to study the value of a person. After all, we can assign a price to the body of a model and that of a worker. But both Torien and Iris must learn to appraise themselves beyond the cost of muscle, and beyond the price of a set of nice legs. When Torien tells Antoine to get lost, he says, “You want me out of your gardens, I’m gone. I’ll be sure to tell Geraline what a … nice job you’ve done with her… property.”
Iris’s manager thinks Iris and Torien are commodities, and, for a while, so do they. With each other, they have a chance to do embrace themselves.
Asking for Trouble, Tessa Bailey
Brent Mason is a big, loud cop from Queens. Hayden Winstead is an Old Money Manhattan socialite with a penchant for garters and stockings. They’re like oil and vinegar, but when shaken, they form an emulsion, a big ol’sex emulsion. How would you like that on your salad?
Bailey’s Line of Duty series pairs monument-sized Emergency Services officers with spunky, game women. There is a lot of ribbing. Hayden and Brent’s best friends are in love, so despite the fact that they loathe each other, they’re often thrown together. Class differences fuel their hostility/combustibility. She thinks he’s a crude knuckle dragger, but belying his insensitive image, he helps his sister-in-law and nieces make ends meet. (And he knows a lot about the Babysitter’s Club and Beaches.) He calls her duchess and derides her as a useless snob, although unbeknownst to him, she grubs it up with a lot of charity work.
Hayden and Brent’s animosity becomes lubricious within the first moments. The book is deliriously filthy; if you’re reading this on public transportation you might feel the urge to cross and uncross your legs, and clear your throat a few times.
While in some romance novels, bedsport is a little beside the point, in Asking for Trouble, it’s the entire point. All of the Feelings get worked out in the sex. In their initial encounter, Hayden manages to handcuff Brent. This does not hinder him from getting her skirt off.
“You walk around all day hiding fancy panties behind those expensive clothes, but you never let anyone have a taste of what’s underneath.” He ground his teeth together. “I think you’re the one who needs to be taught a lesson.”
“You think you know what I need?” She let her fingers brush over the tips of her breasts, smiling when he issued a strangled groan. “Enlighten me.”
“Right now?” His gaze dropped once more to the material shielding her core. He gave a single, quick shake of his head. “You need a good tongue-fucking, duchess.”
The characters initially get off on that element of loathing and self-loathing, which in this case, includes light spanking. Bailey makes it clear that when they pink each other up, it’s reciprocal: He smacks her bottom and she wallops him back.
Bailey plays with possession (warning: Brent refers to Hayden as his “girl,” like, a lot) and the idea of worth: what it is to be worth something and how one proves one’s worth. The true test arrives when Hayden allows herself to be treated as chattel when she considers marriage to a rich, handsy suitor who can save her father’s business. The point where Brent risks losing Hayden is when she’s most in danger of losing herself.
The Wrong Man, Delaney Diamond
While attending a friend’s barbecue, recently divorced executive Talia Jackson is spared a physical confrontation with her bitter ex thanks to the intervention of smoldering Tomas Molina. Tomas and Talia have always sniped at each other because of their hitherto forbidden desires, but now they find themselves free to act on those lusty ants in their easily-removed pants.
Tomas is a construction foreman who escaped Cuba. He sends funds to his mother. And he starts off as one of those offhand misogynists with complaints about how women are with their hair and makeup. By contrast, Talia comes from a moneyed, African-American family in Atlanta. She was raised by her imperious maternal grandmother who constantly belittles Talia and Talia’s father’s side of the family. Talia was also promoted above her ex-husband at the advertising firm at which they both work.
Mutual friends warn Talia off Tomas. One pal notes that he has “hordes of women who hound him. He has restraining orders against at least two of them.”
Know how to tell if a fella is perfect fling material? Just follow the rabid flocks of females risking arrest in order to be near him.
Pretty soon, a knicker-less Talia is meeting Tomas in the stairwell of her office building for a quickie. But of course, once these two get started, race, wealth, and gender get thrown into the stew. In a telling passage, Talia runs into Tomas in the street.
He spoke in Spanish to the men with him. They ogled her and used the word morena, which she knew could mean dark-skinned. That let her know they were discussing her but she didn’t comprehend much else.
Talia is reduced from polished executive to bare physical characteristics: small, dark African-American woman. She can’t even speak the language.
Talia and Tomas battle constantly for the upper hand in The Wrong Man, and Diamond is adept at showing how fluid power can be. But she also manages a few clunkers. For example, she has Tomas declaim an explanation of a quinciñera, which reads like the work of an earnest cultural ambassador, and which simultaneously renders him an exotic.
With all of these weighty issues at play, it is perhaps a mark of Diamond’s ambition that The Wrong Man sports so many possible endings. The last chapter is like a series of false bottoms; just when the reader thinks she has encountered the last word, oops, there’s another thread to tie up, followed by an epilogue. Diamond can’t solve the world’s race, gender, or class problems, but she sure as shit tries to resolve every single one of Talia and Tomas’s affairs.
Crazy, Stupid Sex, Maisey Yates
Evie James, geeky, self-made multimillionaire app developer, is commissioned to put together a dating app for Flirt magazine. She goes to a bar to beta test her product and to put behind her longtime boyfriend’s recent defection. As she notes, “[Her] success,  had apparently, made him feel neutered and forced him to seek greener pastures. And by greener pastures, she meant another woman’s vagina.”
While floundering through an attempted pickup, she meets Caleb Anderson, layabout heir to a media empire—which includes Flirt —who self medicates his grief with sex. They spend a night together and he finds her so weird/ compelling/ vulnerable, that he arranges to work with Evie on the product by day, so that they can work each other over by night.
Hitherto Evie has had an unsatisfying sex life: “She was a professional woman who had total control over her life, and yet she’d never asked for what she wanted in bed. She’d never pushed for excellence there.”
[Insert Lean In jokes here.]
It’s a pleasure to watch Evie simply figure out and demand what she wants. Yates is a pro. She writes deftly and prolifically, and her work hums with an awareness of genres and tropes she works within. She also puts out cowboy and sheikh romance (yeah, I know) and at least one other of Yates’ books, The Couple Who Fooled the World, features a geek girl who makes good.
The Chocolate Heart, Laura Florand
Three of Laura Florand’s six Amour et Chocolat novels feature very wealthy heroines. (I’ll be looking at two, and out of order. Deal with it.) The books follow the stories of strapping French chocolatiers/pâtissiers who abandon themselves to women of American (or half American) nationality.
No, a cynical marketing cat yowling, Teh ladeeeez love chocolate, AMIRITE? did not dream up this series. Florand’s true subject is the clash between American and French mores, resulting in comedies of values, layered with dark, delicious sex.
In The Chocolate Thief, we’re introduced to Cade Corey, competent, tireless heir to the Corey (think Hershey) chocolate empire. (We meet Cade’s fair-trade cacao activist sister, Jaime in The Chocolate Touch.) And in The Chocolate Heart, from the distant hotelier branch of the Corey family, we encounter Summer.
Summer seems on the surface to be one of those madcap heiresses of yore. In the first moments, the golden blonde stumbles into Leucé, the Paris hotel that her father has coerced her into managing for three wintry months. Woozy from international travel, she lands in the arms of resident 3-star Michelin pastry chef Luc Leroi. She mistakes him for a bellboy, gets him to carry her to her rooms, and offers him a yacht. He finds this terribly insulting—he is, after all, the reason for the season at Leucé–and glowers handsomely and darkly at her through much of the novel.
Luc and Summer clash even as they fight their attraction for one another. He broods over the fact that she won’t eat his desserts, seeing it as a rejection of his soul. Summer pines for the warmth of the South Pacific and for the school and the children where she used to teach. (Florand seeds the story with allusions to the Persephone myth.)
Indeed, Summer can’t leave, because otherwise her father will refuse to invest in communications for the island she has devoted her life to for the last four years. But, of course, no one knows this. Leucé’s staff, her parents, the world, all think she’s a self involved, man-eater: “Rich and blonde and none of it to her credit, she had been born to be the world’s scapegoat.”
People use Summer, so she deliberately plays the spoiled heiress. When the hotel director warns her off of Luc, telling her, “[Top chefs] don’t really make good… toys,” her response is sharp: “Summer nodded understandingly. “Not like me, for example.”
As Summer points out, Luc’s feelings are important, hers are not: “Who was she but a great man’s daughter?”
Luc comes to learn that Summer’s retreat is for self-preservation. Geographic separation allows her to have an identity independent on her father’s money. On the island, she’s nothing to her father and her father’s world, but everything to herself.
The Chocolate Thief, Laura Florand
Cade Corey, heir-presumptive to the Corey candy bar fortune, goes to Paris to meet Sylvain Marquis to persuade the famed chocolatier to produce a gourmet line for her company. He is insulted that she suggests his work be associated with her cheap, mass-produced product. She has been groomed from birth by her father and grandfather to manage billions, and is unused to having anyone turn her down.
Cade becomes so obsessed with Sylvain and his chocolates that she resorts to ham-handed espionage, including breaking into his pristine laboratoire to look for recipes, and to—well—eat everything. He is flattered by her willingness to risk her reputation—by her transgression–but worries that she’s after him for his name on a wrapper, and not for his foxy self.
The thievery is entirely selfish on Cade’s part, and that’s what makes it great. The newspapers, bloggers, and members of Sylvain and Cade’s personal peanut galleries think that she’s stealing to enrich the Corey industrial complex. But when Sylvain catches her, it becomes clear that Cade’s nocturnal activities are likely not representative of the company’s interests:
He stared down at her, the counter bringing her almost to his height. His eyes glittered. He had caught her, and the thrill of it had taken her over until she couldn’t think, only breathe, long, clean, last breaths that lifted her chest and filled her lungs with scents of cinnamon, nutmag, vanilla, chocolate, and human.
“So, you thought you could steal me?”
They have hot, harrowing counter-top sex, followed by cold, awkward misunderstandings in which Cade’s vulnerability comes through: “What would he think if she just stepped up to him and nestled her head right at his heart? That she was pathetic? Worth thirty-three cents at Walmart?”
The wealth that has long defined Cade isn’t useful here. Sure, she can buy a place in Sylvain’s weekend workshop for tourists by giving someone a Pretty Woman-like spending spree. But desire, potent and perverse, also brings out the limits that wealth imposes on her. Sylvain notes:
“In school, we learned that was an American ideal—the pursuit of happiness.” He turned his tongue around the English phrase, with its awkward r and breathy h. “It doesn’t even translate well into French.”
“It doesn’t sound like an ideal in French; it sounds selfish,” she retorted. “That’s why. People depend on me.”
As Cade notes, Corey has 30,000 employees. She says, “I can affect working conditions in entire countries. Working with chocolate in Paris—I’m not good at it… it doesn’t do anything for anyone but me.”
That is the crux of Cade’s problem; Her wealth—her life—is not hers alone. Florand isn’t advocating ruthless, self interest, she isn’t saying that the rich lady just needs to get Ayn Randy* with her Frenchman in a vat of super dark chocolate. Nor is she saying that we need to wail for all of the privileged women trapped under piles of lucre.
But for Cade and many of the heroines in these books, owning a valuable piece of oneself means changing the way one engages with systems that proffer wealth; Sometimes that means ceasing to be a body for trade, or, like Cade, host for patriarchal dynastic ambitions. And yes, Cade resides in a romance novel and finishes by linking herself to a man, but she gets to defines some of the terms by which she does it. Her ending may be imperfect, but she gains a richer life.
*Props to the McNally Jackson Twitter feed.
1. Anyone up for a cleansing chorus of The Internationale? Have any labour-leader fanfic you’d like to share?
2. What is your favorite madcap heiress movie? Should we try to bring the word madcap back?
3. Let out all of the Fifty Shades, Crossfire, or any billionaire bachelor boys club type feelings now, for after this, I will never, ever speak of them with you again.
Mindy Hung is a New York-based Canadian writer. Her novel, Trip, was published in 2012 by Outpost19. She also writes romance as Ruby Lang.