"Chad, stop, I love you..."

"Darling," she gasped into his ear. He slipped his fingers past the line of her panties and toyed with her secret nub. She squirmed against his strong rancher's hands. "God, I love you, Jade," he growled.She saw the engine of his desire straining against his pants. Oh god, she was going to explode! His gorgeous blue eyes gazed into hers....Periwinkle. They weren't blue. They were periwinkle.***I did it. I finally did it.Every English graduate's slush-fund dream -- I embarked on my first romance novel. It's formula writing, you think to yourself. It will support my poetry career. It will be ironic. Postmodern! An exercise in populist culture!And goddammit, it will make me rich.Last year Harlequin alone, not to mention the many other romance houses, sold over 160 million books worldwide, or 5.5 books a second.And with thousands of new authors printed each year, most paid $10,000 to $23,000 a pop for a first book, screw literature. Give me "the private affairs of not-too-private secretaries" or the "strange loves of a seaman" any day.But romance writing has entered a new era. There will be no bodice-ripping, thank you very much, unless he's wearing the dress. And, baby, he's going to like it.The genre has been revised, revamped and even renamed by some, if you can believe it, as a feminist form of communication in a woman-to-woman, kitchen-table "Honey, you deserve orgasms, too" kind of way.Gone are the maiden nurses who need the handsome resident surgeon to show them the ways of the internal exam. Today's heroines are feisty. They're boutique owners. They demand respect.Also gone, for the most part, are the father-figure heroes of yesteryear. He's still got to be a little bad, and definitely manly. But he can be the heroine's assistant, her handyman, even (god forbid, I say) a virgin.But I can't navigate these uncharted waters alone. Please, Aphrodite. I need help.***I sign up for an eight-week romance-writing course at George Brown College. There are mostly women in the class, but three brave men also join the fray. Our leader is Brian Henry, a cheery type who worked for Harlequin and now teaches the ins and outs (so to speak) of writing romances.I count among my colleagues a wee queenly boy ("My love life was lacking when I signed up for this course") and a dental hygienist disillusioned with the relative glamour of her job. "Sometimes it's just not that exciting," she sighs.Our first assignment is to write the opening pages of our romance novel.At home, I sweat in front of my computer. Characters. A story line. An inner and outer conflict. Dialogue. The pulsing shaft of his manhood. Romance.... Ack! This is so complicated!Porn starBut wait! Before I compose my opus, there's the weighty issue of picking a nom de plume, a must for any romance writer worth her sugar.At an existential loss, I go the porn-star name game route -- a pet's name and your mother's maiden name.I pick Ruby for my first name, after the goldfish I accidentally boiled when I was 10. But I still insist it's a suitably romantic association, because she and co-fish Emerald had been making eyes at each other, and I'm convinced she was knocked up with little caviars at the moment of her untimely demise. So, really, it's a two-hanky tragedy. (Those little movements of Emerald's mouth were never the same again.)But as for the mother's maiden name bit, Ruby Shapiro lacks a certain, well... je ne sais quoi. Ruby Riviera? Too stripper. Ruby Charlton? Too Ben-Hur.Ruby Ross.Sexy. But sounds married. Perfect.***Before you start writing your book, Brian warns us, you have to pick which publisher you're writing for.Harlequin, you see, which also owns Silhouette, is not the only tart in the sea. A slew of other publishing houses compete for a share of the love pie.They specialize in "ethnic " romance, "inspirational" romance (read: Jesus loves me, He really, really loves me). There are naughty publishers. Not-naughty publishers. Publishers that pay big bucks. Publishers that want funny stuff. Historical. Contemporary. Magical (but no vampires, please -- that's so 1991).And to further complicate matters, there are several series for each publisher, all with their own special requirements.They sport names like A Wink And A Kiss, Intimate Moments and Intrigue, and have varying degrees of dirty bits, bad guys and small-town flavour.Overwhelmed, I consider launching my own lines. The decidedly modern You Were Cuter When I Was High series. Or the sardonic yet hopeful I Always Fall For Fags Or Communists set. And, of course, the ever popular Oopsy titles.Hey, cowboyBut I'm not sure how big the market is for these, so I abandon my ambitious plans and toy for a while with composing for Jove/Putnam Berkley's Time Passages line, where they're currently looking for romances that highlight quilting."The heroine," says their outline, "should be a quilter and should be seen quilting throughout the book. That means it's important not to plunk a quilt into an otherwise non-quilting-oriented romance."But since I can't imagine what romantic things I could say about quilting except, "Hey, cowboy, lie on that quilt," I opt instead for a Harlequin Intrigue."Kidnappings, the stalkings of personal-ad applicants, and fiances wrongly accused of murdering their brides-to-be are examples of story lines we love most," gushes the guideline.Oooh! I can do that, I think. A brute crazed with misguided love is haunting my maiden. OK, forget it. She's not a maiden. But she needs protection. She needs a strapping buck with rippling arms and a twinkle in his eyes to watch over her -- but she'll still make more money than him.And this is when Meghan enters my life. Meghan with an H.Meghan is the rising star at her public relations agency. She has curly red hair -- no, curly red locks -- and sea-green eyes.Virile nameShe's being hassled by a guy who once answered the personal ad she placed, though she never met him. She enlists the help of Dave (good, solid, virile name), a detective, to guard her while they search for her stalker."You know," Dave said, grinning, "I am a cop. If you ever need some protection...""I'll be just fine," Meghan snapped. As if she needed a guy to watch her back. But, somehow, she couldn't make the little tremors in her thighs stop. What was it? His penetrating gaze? His swagger? His irritating cockiness?Eventually, they have hot, passionate sex on top of the phone-call-tracing equipment and secretly fall in love with each other, but, like, duh, they don't tell each other because then the story would be over.At one point, Meghan suspects Dave himself of being her torturer, but her stalker turns out to be the lead singer of the band she's doing the marketing for. (As if it would be the lame old bassist -- puleeze.)After a tense standoff, Meghan and Dave catch him and send him to jail, where he has to wear Kiss makeup all day as part of his punishment. Dave and Meghan declare their love and live happily ever after.***My star-crossed tale hits all the buttons. They have to meet, there has to be a conflict, they have to fall in love, they have to declare their love. They also have to have sex with each other, though not, Brian says mysteriously, necessarily at the same time. Think bathtub, he adds.Right.And, of course, there's always a happy ending. Other than that, go crazy. But certain things are unshakeable.For one, heroes shall not be ballet dancers (too pansy), academics (too highbrow) or computer geeks (too boring). They can definitely be cops, architects, doctors or avenging journalists.They should be good lovers, have a dark side and be confident, or, as Harlequin says, carry an air of "natural authority." They can't be poor, weak or have bizarre sexual preferences.Love sceneHeroines can be anything from an executive to a teacher. But models (too pretty), prostitutes (too... complicated) or stewardesses (bad uniforms) are out.I hand in my first assignment and receive a B+. Woo-hoo! I'm on my way! Brian then suggests, with shining eyes, that we write a love scene for our final project.But I blush every time I try to write the seemingly requisite phrase "He pressed his pulsing manhood against her as he caressed her aching mounds" (blushing! blushing!), so I compose a conversation between Meghan, Dave and her elderly neighbour Mrs. Biggs instead.Close enough.***I kind of get into my class and the new additions to my book collections.Though poetically alarming, they're amusing. They're escapist. They're "let's-drink-some-lemonade-and- make-leisurely-love-on-this-summer-afternoon." Sweet. High-calorie. Fleeting.But there is untold danger.The world of category romance starts to seep into the sweet cleft between the supple, pink, glistening hemispheres of my mind.I become sure that everyone is falling in love. Everyone has a deep secret in their past. And is that a certain gleam I see in my cat's eye?My urban literature and political culture mags sit forlornly, untouched, unloved -- with aching mounds -- beside my bed. Yeah, yeah, I'll get to those, I promise myself. But really, now, what is that Lex De La Mora getting up to these days?Dark sideI know I'll soon have to break free or I'm going to start coveting ranch owners. Their too-tight jeans. Their beef.But still I furtively sneak the books out on the subway. I devour a whole tale during class. I find myself spouting phrases like "That cad!", "He just isn't in touch with his dark side" and "Is he an architect?"But it's not just the stories that begin to take over my universe. My world view. My tattered soul.It's her.Meghan. Meghan with an H.Meghan is perfect. Meghan wears excellent business suits. Meghan has fiery eyes. Meghan has men falling at her sensible pumps as she steps over them on her way to further her career. Meghan's breasts are creamy.I hate Meghan.One of my classmates even scribbles on the bottom of my manuscript that "Meghan is spicy!"Meghan this. Meghan that. Meghan Meghan Meghan.Goddam her!May she wither up in her designer lingerie, forever hassled by pimply personal-ad applicants. I hope she turns into a corporate ice maiden whose only recourse is her bathtub, where she can fiddle with her secret nub to her heart's content. (Though I would not recommend she use her high-end vibrator while soaking. Just something I heard.)But even in my murderous rage, I hear in the back of my mind Brian's cheery admonition that all category romances have happy endings.OK, OK.Her vibrator is waterproof.***Sidebar One: Romances' top 10 names for his and hers:HIS1. the swollen hardness of him2. his length3. his hard ridge4. his pulsing manhood5. the column of his hardness (Ionic? Corinthian?)6. the hardened shaft7. his jutting appendage8. the evidence of his desire9. his rod10. that hot, hard, straining partHERS1. her feminine nest2. her lush, wet heat3. her dark thatch4. her sweet center5. her hot cavern6. her feminine warmth7. the center of her womanhood8. her heat9. her downy delta10. her secret nub

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