Three romance novels saw me DNF them because of their opening scene: Mary Balogh’s The Secret Pearl; Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Nobody’s Baby But Mine; and, Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened. In time, I returned to all three and loved them. We can add a fourth, Lopez’s début, Lush Money. All four open with a scene where one or both of the protagonists are morally comprised; we see the them at their worst. All four involve a scene where the body is exchanged for money, or services, where the “other” is objectified and exploited. It is most interesting that in three of the four, including Lopez’s, the hero is objectified. What Lopez brings to the table is a flip to the classic HP ethos: the billionaire, in this case, the heroine, Roxanne Medina, “buys” Prince Mateo Esperanza’s, the hero’s, services to make her dream baby and cement her business empire. They marry, business-like, and “meet” once a month over a three-day period when Roxanne ovulates. So, what’s in it for Mateo?
Firstly, he is more sinned against than sinning because the MoC is set up by his father, Monte Real’s King Felipe (in northwestern Spain). Mateo, San-Francisco-based, is working to develop a wine grape to put his principality on the map and save his future kingdom and people from financial ruin, ruin stemming from his father’s degenerate, profligate ways. Mateo is a scholar-scientist at UC Davis and had been working on a plan to save his people and kingdom, thank you very much, without his father’s evil, ludicrous scheming. But when Roxanne, sexy as heck and cool as ice water on a hot day, makes him a financial offer he can’t refuse, the moral dance is on … and it ain’t an Almack’s waltz.
I was, at first, shocked at the crudity and aggression of Roxanne’s initial moves towards Mateo: hauling him in to her office, having him tested for, um, virility, speaking to him via Skype as if they’re sealing a business deal, which they were. Mateo is incensed, angry, and turned on. Like the HP-heroine, Mateo is at the mercy of his desire; even via Skype, Roxanne’s frosty demeanor, icy blue eyes, vital swirls of long, black hair, make Mateo feel ” … like a voyeur and exhibitionist at the same time.” In a way, both characters are voyeurs and exhibitionists: the objectification is an equal-opportunity animal in Lush Money. Like the best HP-heroine, Mateo isn’t a doormat. He’s sexually aggressive, angry, frustrated and plays a game of emotional cat-and-mouse with Roxanne by demanding an “amendment” to their MoC: one day of their designated three will be spent getting to know each other, talking, doing date-like things. Initially, whether they’re in the bedroom, boardroom, or pizza parlor, Mateo and Roxanne hurt and insult each other. But like the best of the MoC trope, especially in the challenging contemporary setting, proximity and intimacy force Roxanne and Mateo’s vulnerabilities and strengths into the foreground of their merely convenient relationship and make it anything but convenient, instead emotionally-challenging, world-disturbing, and settled-self-jarring.
What of Roxanne, where does she come from, beautiful, rich, accomplished? Like many an HP-hero, Roxanne’s vulnerability comes from humble beginnings and an upbringing at best negligent at the hands of her self-centred, self-serving mother. Roxanne wants to keep her life separate from any and all emotional attachments, except for her perfect baby, which Mateo will give her and then, they’ll divorce. Having reached the pinnacle of financial success, Roxanne wants her world to be complete with an heiress. She very specifically wants this baby to be a girl, and is stupid thinking it’s inevitable it will be. Not matter their explosive and explicit (be warned, this is not for the sex scene faint of heart) sexual chemistry, the novel’s strength comes from how Roxanne and Mateo’s lives become entangled in other ways: how she helps him with his financial woes, how he supports her through personal crisis and emergencies.
What was objectified is humanized, made soft and vulnerable. The uni-dimensional of physical desire becomes the multi-dimensionality of a human being, a stalwart friend, a teasing boyfriend/girlfriend, a tender lover, and the envisioning of a life of commitment, love, family. Necessity: “He had a kingdom he needed to save. She had a fairy tale to create,” becomes possibility, compatibility, the deep knowing of another person where their true self lies. As with the best romance, betrayal rears its ugly head from the exposed vulnerabilities of Roxanne and Mateo, but the grovel and HEA-resolution are perfect, as Mateo quips to Roxanne: ” ‘It’s a perfect story, how mommy saved daddy.’ ” And how daddy won mommy. With Miss Austen, who would be admittedly scandalized at the between-the-sheets acrobatics and vulgarities, in Lopez’s Lush Money, despite a tad overly-long (get that editing hand in there), dubiously morally-constructed, and caricatured evil parent-characters, we glimpse “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Angelina M. Lopez’s Lush Money is published by Carina Press. It was released in October 2019 and may be found at your preferred vendors. I am grateful to Carina Press for an e-galley, via Netgalley.