Miss Bates’ introduction to Sarah Morgan was the lovely but unfortunately-titled medical category Dare She Date the Dreamy Doc? She read HP Twelve Nights of Christmas fast on its heels. The latter stayed with her: maybe because of its fairytale quality, a quality Morgan knows how to play, poking a little tongue-in-cheek fun at the HP Cinderella-trope, but affectionately, lovingly. Twelve Nights‘ opening prefigures Playing By the Greek’s Rules‘ elements: the making-ends-meet, Cinderella heroine moonlighting as a cleaner, billionaire hero sexy as heck but not alpha-holish, arrogant, or bossy; the funniest, most delightful dialogue, the heroine with-the-heart-of-gold who melts the icy hero. In Morgan’s two HP-category romances, the hero has everything, money, power, looks, status, but cannot match the heroine for irrepressible optimism, loving-kindness, and an unabashed élan of wearing her heart on her sleeve. The boundless felicity heroine Lily Rose takes in everything and everyone she encounters breaks down every wall of Jericho around hero, Nik Zervakis’s stony heart. Miss Bates cheered, laughed, and cried along with Lily and admired, once more, Morgan’s ability to create a heroine the reader adores as much as the hero is exasperated with – until blinded by the light of her exuberant sunniness and inexhaustible empathy.
We meet Lily Rose on a Cretan archaeological dig with her American friend, Brittany. Their conversation is revealing and funny. They are opposites: Brittany looking for sex without love and Lily seeing love, marriage, and babies in every loser; as she puts it, “I need to lighten up and use men for sex instead of treating every relationship as if it’s going to end in confetti.” Lily has recently emerged from an affair with a worthless, cheating rat-bastard. We learn that Lily, orphaned, never-adopted foster child because of the care her eczema demanded (sad sad sad), expert in Minoan ceramics, part-time gopher at Zervakis’ company, occasional cleaning lady, yearns for family and connection. This latest amatory debacle and the encouragement of her sex-without-love-is-the-way-to-go friend Brittany leave her resolved to turn from emotional lightweight to “Kevlar.” She embarks on “Operation Ice Maiden,” “a personality transplant,” no longer yearning for love, marriage, babies, or falling under the spell of every creep who seems to hold out that promise until – BAM – there goes her shattered heart. She should have, as Brittany advises, emotionless, glorious “rebound sex.”
The evening finds her cleaning Zervakis’ apartment and having a technological run-in with his “flight deck of a jumbo jet”-like shower features … Lily is soaked and Miss Bates snort-laughed her way through the scene. Nik finds her, drenched, in her underwear, in his bedroom. Her near-nakedness sends his date into a jealous rage and she storms out. Nik needs a date for the antiquities-museum-wing opening; when he discovers Lily is a Minoan ceramics expert as well as lusciously attractive, he recruits her as his date. Lily accepts because she’s kind and feels guilty she caused the break-up, because she never has an opportunity to do posh things, because maybe, just maybe, this gorgeous specimen of manhood may be her chance to have emotionless “rebound sex.” There’s not much more to the plot, the attraction between Nik and Lily and her launching of “Operation Ice Maiden” finds them sharing a glorious night. In the morning, sympathetic, listening-ear Lily answers a call from Nik’s father, begging his son to attend his fourth – eek! – wedding. Lily convinces Nik to attend; Nik won’t go without her and they make their way, debating, bantering, and squabbling, to Kostas Zervakis’ nuptials on his private, idyllic island.
Morgan’s accomplishment in Playing By the Greek’s Rules is a fresh take on the opposites-attract romance convention: she establishes, develops, and refreshes it with gently ironic play between Nik and Lily. In a perfect nutshell of an exchange, Miss Bates can point to Morgan’s skill: Lily to Nik, “Your cynicism is deeply depressing.”; Nik to Lily, “Your optimism is deeply concerning.” While many dismiss the romance genre as fluffy escapism (go ahead, Miss Bates shrugs) she finds in it other possibilities. From where does Lily’s belief in love stem? From where does Nik’s cynicism? What interests Miss Bates is what links them and from where their diverse perspectives emerge. Lily is as wretched as can be: a sickly foster child. She never belonged to anyone; she wasn’t loved, or succoured. Nik too had a difficult childhood, but was always safe and secure and possessed the love of one parent: his mother left him and his father, but his father is a loving, caring man even now. Lily and Nik are a study in the mystery of temperament: her hope and good cheer to his dour skepticism. Lily’s inner resources are rich and loving: she is able to give of herself infinitely. Nik holds back his heart, keeps his love under a bushel. Does she prostrate herself before his greatness and give of herself in the way of the self-sacrificial lamb of Old Skool romance? Nope. Lily wins Nik by being herself so that he may come to himself. She matches her sun to his thundercloud (a lovely analogy that Miss B. absconded from Morgan). Lily may not lift The Mighty Chin in defiance, but she’s as close to HP Pudding delight as a heroine can get.
In Playing By the Greek’s Rules, the cleverness of Morgan’s writing puts the third dimension into the HP’s stock characterization. Her characterization emerges like those childhood books you open to a pop-up castle. Nik and Lily take flesh; witness one of the many exchanges Miss Bates adored. It is early in their relationship, right after the museum opening and before their night of love. Nik takes Lily to Crete’s most renowned restaurant. She is moved by the story Nik tells of his father’s love for a daughter he never sees, the result of one of Kostas’ divorces:
“If you let a single tear fall onto your cheek,” he said softly, “I’m walking out of here.”
“I don’t believe you. You wouldn’t be that heartless. I think it’s all a big act you put on to stop women slobbering all over you.”
“Do you want to test it?” His tone was cool. “Because I suggest you wait until the end of the meal. The lamb kleftiko is the best anywhere in Greece and they make a house special with honey and pistachio nuts that you wouldn’t want to miss.”
“But if you’re the one walking out, then I can stay here and eat your portion.” She helped herself to another spoonful of food from the dish closest to her. “I don’t know why you’re so freaked out by tears. It’s not as if I was expecting you to hug me. I’ve taught myself to self-soothe.”
“Self-soothe?” Some of the tension left him. “You hug yourself?”
“It’s important to be independent.” She’d been self-sufficient from an early age, but the ability to do everything for herself hadn’t removed the deep longing to share her life with someone.
What has Morgan done? She delightfully reiterates the opposites-attract convention with that opening quipping salvo. She makes the scene come alive with food details … Miss Bates has had kleftiko and it’s magnificent. Then, she adds the poignantly humorous exchange about Lily’s self-care, her fearless claiming to her soft heart and the lead to the authorial voice telling us, after she’s shown us, why Lily longs for connection. When connection comes, at least initially, for Nik, it must be sexual and therein, Morgan shows great skill again. Miss Bates loves how Morgan’s love scenes are about connection, incipient emotional bonds, even while they’re hot and fun. She doesn’t need every body part choreographed, nor does she rely on Old Skool purple prose, but on reinforcing character. Love scenes are the seamless, silent embodiment of who her hero and heroine are beyond what they say, or think. (Morgan also takes a brilliant little poke at the erotic convention of the safe word: read the novel on that promise alone.)
Playing By the Greek’s Rules is sweet, funny, and moving: sustained over 200 thoroughly immersive pages. That page count may be Miss Bates’ quibble with Morgan’s romance novel: the ending, when it arrives, is a tad too “hie thee hither”. Her other, minor grouse, is, once again, the use of Greek. Firstly, Nik’s full name is Niklaus! No Nick, or preferably Niko Miss Bates has ever known has been called Niklaus; it’s Nikolaos … every syllable pronounced; second, stressed. Moreover, the endearment “erota mou” means “my love-making”: no self-respecting heroine wants to be addressed thus. Aside from Miss Bates’ pedantic kvetching, quoting Miss Austen, she finds in Sarah Morgan’s Playing By the Greek’s Rules “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Sarah Morgan’s Playing By the Greek’s Rules is published by Harlequin and has been available since January 20th in your preferred formats from your favourite vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.
Have you read a great HP lately? Or do you have a favourite Sarah Morgan? Tells Miss Bates about them in the comments.