Jennifer Hayward’s Tempted By Her Billionaire Boss coulda been a dud. The signs: office romance … ick … worldly tycoon-hero and innocent secretary-heroine (hallelujah, not virginal) … ick-compounded by a ten-year age difference between hero and heroine. And yet, it’s not the tropes you’re dealt, but how you play the game. Hayward took on HP-dom’s tried-and-true in the first of her Tenacious Tycoons duet, Tempted By Her Billionaire Boss, and gave them a good twist. When the romance opens, Francesca “Frankie” Masseria, 23 and PA to an automotive company’s VP, Coburn Grant, watches Rocky Balboa, her fish, swim. Like “Rocky,” Frankie and family are an Italian-American success story: her father built a thriving restaurant; her many siblings, from doctor to business owner, flourish; and Frankie used tip money to attend business school and fulfill her dream of working as a PA for a glamorous Manhattan-based corporation. Coburn asks her to fill in for his brother’s pregnant PA. Unlike easygoing Coburn, CEO Harrison Grant is intimidating and demanding. The Grant family, with a congressman grand-father, are American “aristocracy,” but dark struggles haunt them. Harrison and Coburn’s father died in the midst of a gubernatorial run and financial crisis: his sons had to rebuild. Tempted By Her Billionaire Boss is sexy and romantic. However, it’s also about family obligation, the ethics of revenge, and conflict between justice and mercy.
The boss/employee dynamic isn’t an appealing convention, at least not to Miss Bates, but it’s rife in category romance. She went into Tempted By Her Billionaire Boss warily, but emerged tickled pink. The opening scene is light: Frankie, fishing for her discarded shoe, boinks her head against the desk as Harrison walks into the office. She expects, at best, his quizzical embarrassment on her behalf; at worst, contempt. She receives solicitude. On Harrison’s part, he has a glimpse of elegant and curvaceous legs. Thus, Hayward’s opening-delight sets the heroine and hero’s character: Frankie, young, a little goofy; and Harrison, sombre, sexy, and dark. Frankie’s initial impression of Harrison is in sensually demonic terms: ” … the laser-like stare of his black eyes under designer glasses made her giddily wonder if he was the devil himself.” Miss Bates loved Harrison’s sulfurous vibe: ” … a distinct smoky gray aura surrounding his muscular frame.” For Harrison, Frankie is forbidden territory, but resisting proves difficult when she is “temptation that didn’t know it was temptation.”
Hayward uses original ways to shake up typical HP hero and heroine. Harrison is driven to conquer the automotive world. His plans, however, go deeper than financial gain and status: he seeks revenge against Anton Markovic, his father’s business rival, whose machinations brought Harrison’s father to ruin and precipitated his demise. This is familiar territory: mitigating the hero’s ruthlessness, making him palatable to heroine and reader. Early in the novel, however, Frankie isn’t aware of Harrison’s deeper motivations. Hayward writes a compelling scene that renders Harrison’s sensitivity (and it isn’t a sex scene)! When Harrison buys a Chagall at auction, with Frankie in tow, they discuss Chagall’s painterly themes:
She shifted her gaze back to the painting … A bird and a woman were perched in a magnificently colored bouquet of flowers floating over the waters of what must be Nice, with its palm trees … the bouquet had the tails of a fish instead of stems, and the buildings dotting the Riviera were curved not straight.
“It’s fantastical, almost supernatural,” she murmured. “Things that shouldn’t be together are and it seems perfectly natural. Like he envisioned some sort of alternate universe.”
He nodded … “I think he did. The art historians describe his work as figurative and narrative art. Chagall was embraced by many – the surrealists, the cubists, the suprematists – but he rejected them all. He created a new reality for himself – one that was based on both his inner and outer worlds – the story, the dream he wanted to tell … ” he said, waving a hand at the painting, “is always very mystical and inspirational. The colors are incredible.”
She got that completely. “Is he one of your favourites?”
“Likely my favourite.” The amber flecks in his eyes she found so fascinating glimmered … giving him a softer appearance … The emotion in his eyes when he talked about the artist hinted at a depth to him, an ability to feel he kept hidden underneath the layers.
These “layers”? Harrison’s darkness, his pursuit for revenge against all costs to himself and others. The Grant family’s loss is bound up with subjects not common to HP: Harrison’s father suffered mental illness, the stress of financial loss and political aspiration led him to suicide. Harrison’s fears go deep: he questions himself, wonders if he too might end up “like his father.” Before Frankie has the full Harrison story, she sees a ruthless man, yet capable of care and of rare sensibility. Even so, his single-minded pursuit to destroy Markovic puts his soul on the line because of what he’s willing to do to get there. Whoever is in his way is “collateral damage.”
Frankie and Harrison grapple with ethical issues. Firstly, their relationship’s power dynamic. After a night together, they’re horrified. Harrison is aware of his breach of conduct vis-à-vis an employee and Frankie is concerned for her professional reputation. They agree it would be best if Frankie, after this initial deal is cemented, return to working for Coburn. Where their thoughts diverge is in their awareness and acknowledgement of their connection. Harrison’s need for emotional control pushes Frankie away. Frankie wants to salvage their professional relationship and Harrison’s need for emotional control is going to be her aid, “She handed him a new cup of coffee, noting the look of absolute control on his face. The beast was back. Good. That would be helpful.” As Miss Bates has said many a time, one of the genre’s virtues is to posit that physical intimacy changes the emotional dynamic; the body, once shared, leads to the heart … deny it as our protagonists do:
He looked up at her, his hard gaze softening into something more human. “It was amazing, Francesca. You were amazing. I – ” He stopped, frowning, as if looking for exactly the right word, like a man on the witness stand. “I needed to escape. I needed to not be in my head. And you helped me do that.”
So she was the nonrational choice. Fury fired her veins. She knew exactly what she’d been to him last night. She was shocked, however, by how much more she wanted him to say. How she wanted him to admit the undeniably special connection they shared …
“You needed to be with someone,” she said quietly. “It’s fine.”
His gaze sharpened on the stubborn upper curve of her lip. He looked as if he was going to say something, then his mouth tightened. “We need to decide where we go from here. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect us to keep working together … “
… However, right now, none of that mattered. All that mattered was getting out of here before he made her want to say something completely out of character. Something angry. Because although this was her fault, even though she had made her own bed, it was clear it was never going to be Harrison Grant’s. And that hurt in a way she didn’t want to examine.
… “Are you all right?”
She turned around and gave him her iciest look. “Perfectly fine. I’ll see you this afternoon.”
Ha, Miss Bates loved Frankie. She freezes him … a man so hungry for love, connection, and reassurance that he doesn’t see how dark his soul-cave. The connection they wrought went beyond what he expected and now he’s going to get his comeuppance for not acknowledging it. Harrison is honourable: he’s cognizant of his breach of work place ethics, but the breach to his heart … clueless. Frankie’s decision to freeze him out … priceless.
Miss Bates loved that Frankie’s Harrison-foiling doesn’t begin and end in the bedroom, but breaks him open in the boardroom by questioning the ethics of revenge. And by doing so, Frankie delves into Harrison’s deepest vulnerabilities and fears, which she handles like a newborn chick; our Frankie is strong and compassionate. Early in their association, Frankie challenges Harrison’s business “ethics”:
“Francesca,” he growled. “This is business. Put the self-righteous look away and be a big girl. You have no idea of the stakes here.”
The big girl remark did it for her. She looked up at him, eyes spitting fire. “Dictate to me what you want in this plan and I will do it. But do not ask me to say that this is right.”
“It is right.” His ebony gaze sat on her with furious heat. “This is the law of the jungle. Only the fittest survive.”
“In your world,” she said evenly. “Not in mine.”
“And what would you world have me do? Allow some other predator to snap Siberius up … “
“I believe in karma,” Frankie said stubbornly.
… The fury in his eyes channeled into a livid black heat that was so focused, so intense, it scorched her skin. “I know all about karma, Francesca. I know more about it than you will ever want to know in your lifetime. Trust me on that.”
… This job meant everything to her; she was proving she could make it on her own. But so did the principles upon which she’d been brought up.
“I’m not trying to be difficult,” she said quietly to his back. “But my father taught me to treasure my ethics at all costs. That if I was ever in a situation that would make it hard for me to sleep at night, maybe I shouldn’t be a part of it.”
The key to this exchange lies in Harrison and Frankie’s notion of what’s at stake. For Harrison, it’s not his company, but his need to avenge his father’s death, because if he does, maybe it will protect himself from a similar fate. What he doesn’t think through is what his cold-blooded actions will wrought on his conscience. Frankie, at this point, may not be aware of Harrison’s true reason for his skewed business ethics, but even when he tells her the story, she knows that vengeance is as harmful a creed as the business law of the jungle. She doesn’t lie down on Harrison’s altar, she calls him on it. Her example and fearless truth-telling, including admitting her feelings for him, leave him in a cold and lonely place when he rejects her. So much of romance is about coming to see things otherwise, from the beloved’s perspective. When Harrison admits that “vengeance [is] a poor substitute for a broken heart.” In effect, the hero (rarely, but occasionally, the heroine) has to “convert” to the heroine’s more human, more compassionate, merciful ethic. And in that sense, in Miss Bates’ humble opinion, the romance as genre and the narrative it enacts is inspirational, even when it’s devoid of the more pernicious versions of inspirational romance we’ve witnessed recently.
Harrison has to eat his humble pie, enact his grovel and it’s only here that Miss Bates has a quibble with the novel. It is the nature of the HP-beast, much as those of us who love it hate this aspect, that it’s a succinct romance-endeavour. As such, Tempted By Her Billionaire Boss ends with a pretty fantastical decision on Harrison’s part and a hurried-along grovel. No matter, despite minor imperfections, like Lynne Graham, Jennifer Hayward is an HP author to follow, to see what she’s going to bring to the genre next. Tempted By Her Billionaire Boss doesn’t quite reach the reader-pleasure heights of The Italian’s Deal For I Do, but it’s darn close. Miss Bates and Miss Austen say of Tempted By Her Billionaire Boss, evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Jennifer Hayward’s Tempted By Her Billionaire Boss, published by Harlequin, was released on June 1st. You may find it at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to the author for an e-ARC.
P.S. You’ll notice Miss Bates’ subtitle is what Rocky says of Adrian when Mickey asks him what he sees in her.