May is #RomBkLove month, where romance lovers give reading recommendations based on a category prompt. Aaraya took up the mantle for Day 6: Meet-Disasters
Aarya Marsden is a pseudonym for an Indian-American college student and long-time romance reader. Her favorite authors include Ilona Andrews, Nalini Singh, Lucy Parker, Alisha Rai, Jeannie Lin, Lisa Kleypas, Alyssa Cole, Tessa Dare, Meredith Duran, Mina V. Esguerra, Kate Clayborn, and many more. You can follow @Aarya_Marsden on Twitter, where she gushes about romance novels and is a firm advocate for a happily-ever-after.
We all know what meet-cutes are. According to Merriam-Webster, it’s “a cute, charming, or amusing first encounter between romantic partners.” In romantic comedy movies, the meet-cute can range from adorable (dreamily staring into each other’s eyes across the street) to awkward (running into someone and falling on top of them). But what if the meet-cute between a couple isn’t so nice and romantic? What if the meet-cute is, well, a disaster?
I’ve always privately referred to these not-so-cute first encounters as meet-disasters. They can still be funny to the reader, but the characters may not necessarily see the humor in the situation. Even though I’ve labeled the term as “meet-disaster,” I’ve broadened the definition to include any of the following criteria:
- Violence between the protagonists (including kidnapping!)
- The protagonists gain an instant dislike/hatred of each other, perhaps trading insults (this is common in enemies-to-lovers)
- Extreme awkwardness and mortification (not minor discomfort, but to the point where the protagonist(s) is embarrassed beyond belief)
- When everything that can go wrong does go wrong
I’ve purposely made the definition broad because a disastrous first encounter can manifest in so many forms. A lot of enemies-to-lovers books qualify as meet-disasters because the protagonists get off on the wrong foot, but the meet-disaster is also present in many other books (most of my examples below aren’t enemies-to-lovers).
And now, on to the recommendations. Hold onto your wallets and one-clicking fingers, because you’ll want to buy everything after reading my recs! You have been warned.
My Fair Concubine by Jeannie Lin
[m/f; historical romance set in 9th century Tang Dynasty; Vietnamese-American author; Chinese MCs]
I discovered Jeannie Lin a few months ago and went on a four-day binge where I read ten novels/novellas at a frenetic pace. If you’ve never read Lin before, My Fair Concubine is a wonderful introduction to her historicals. Lin’s prose is exquisite and her worldbuilding incomparable. In a market with a surplus of European historicals, Lin’s vivid rendering of the Tang Dynasty – including scholars studying for the emperor’s civil service exam, tea girls throwing pots at rude patrons, and princesses wielding butterfly swords – is a must-read.
In My Fair Concubine, the proud and rigid Fei Long is in a terrible bind. After chasing his runaway sister across the empire, he reluctantly lets her escape and flee with her lover. The problem? His sister has been chosen by the emperor for an arranged marriage to a foreign ruler. Stewing over his troubles in a rural tea house, he is interrupted by the tea girl’s query to see if he needs anything. Fei Long then utters the unforgivable words:
“I need a woman,” he mumbled. “Any woman would do.”
Her stomach dropped. She swung around, her mouth open in shock. The stranger raised his head. For the first time, his eyes focused on her, looking her up and down.
“Perhaps even you.”
Any sympathy she might have had for him withered away. If his tone had been leering, or his look more appraising, it might have been less offensive. But the coldly pensive way he’d said it along with the addition of ‘perhaps’, as if to plunge her worth even further—Yan Ling grabbed the teapot and flung the contents at the scoundrel.
Let’s recap: Fei Long is drinking away his troubles in tea after his sister elopes, he acts like an asshole to the tea girl Yan Ling, and she (quite understandably) chucks the teapot at him so that he becomes drenched with tea. This is a meet-disaster if I’ve ever seen one. It gets even better worse: Yan Ling’s employers are so angry that she’s fired on the spot. What then unfolds is a delightful reimagining of My Fair Lady: Fei Long decides to transform the unrefined commoner into a well-mannered lady so that she can take his sister’s place in the arranged marriage.
A Matter of Disagreement by EE Ottoman
[m/m; novella; historical/fantasy romance; disabled, queer, trans man author; gay male fat MC/trans man MC; White MCs]
I know I said that meet-disasters don’t always have to be in enemies-to-lovers books, but let’s face it: enemies-to-lovers romances have some pretty spectacular and disastrous introductions. I particularly love the meet-disaster in A Matter of Disagreement because it’s sneaky and starts off as a meet-cute.
Before the events of the novella, Lord Ashcroft “Andrea” de Bourbon has been involved in a very public and bitter academic fight with the Marquis de la Marche, a trans man and prominent inventor/scientist. The two men are on opposite sides of a debate: the Marquis is an innovator in the new field of mechanical animation (using spellcraft to animate objects like message birds, which are wooden creations that are magicked to fly to different locations with a spellcraft beacon) while Andrea is trying to save the legitimacy of non-mechanical fields that also utilize spellcraft. And if you’re at all familiar with squabbling academics and insulting back-and-forths in academic journals, you shouldn’t be surprised that the two men can harbor a deep resentment without ever having laid eyes on the other.
Remember how I said that this meet-disaster is sneaky? When Andrea is forced to attend a ball in the Marquis’s home, he sneaks away from the festivities and into an observatory on the estate. There, he encounters a strange man with a telescope (hmm, I wonder who this could be) and assumes that the stranger works as a research assistant for the Marquis (I’m sure you can see where this is going). The next five minutes are textbook meet-cute. They smile at each other! Andrea admires the mystery man’s impressive telescope! They flirt (I am not getting carried away; Andrea thinks they’re flirting)! Swoon. And just as I’m envisioning their inevitable happily ever after, all hell breaks loose.
“Yes, well, I want to argue that the use of spellcraft to animate objects far out-dates our use of machinery.” Andrea looked down at the glass in his hands instead of at Gregory. “As a close reading of such volumes as Livre de la Sorcière reveals.”
“You are Ashcroft de Bourbon.”
Andrea finally looked up at Gregory, whose mouth had flattened out into a straight, unhappy line.
“Yes. That is my legal name.” He drained his glass.
“So tell me.” Gregory straightened, crossing his arms over his chest. “Since you didn’t see fit to respond to my private letter before writing another one of your scathing articles, what do you hope to accomplish by attacking the entire field of mechanical animation?”
Sigh. Goodbye, meet-cute. It was fun while it lasted. Hello, meet-disaster. Lucky for us readers, I personally think meet-disasters are more fun than meet-cutes.
The Austen Playbook by Lucy Parker
[m/f; contemporary romance set in England; White MCs]
Lucy Parker’s latest entry in the London Celebrities series takes inspiration from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to create an extremely awkward and mortifying meet-disaster. Just like Elizabeth Bennet, West End actress Freddy Carlton eavesdrops on her hero talking about her to his friend – and it isn’t anything flattering. Freddy is moping about her less-than-stellar opening night when she overhears theater critic James “Griff” Ford-Griffin critiquing her performance.
“Even when she had her words straight, she was phoning it in. She’s losing her spark… [text redacted]… She’s an overexposed, chronically confused crowd-pleaser, who’s built a career riding on her family’s coattails.”
Ouch. Lucky for Griff, Freddy isn’t the type to hold a grudge over being (unintentionally) humiliated. Freddy is an absolute sweetheart of a Hufflepuff and I love how this meet-disaster deviates from its Pride and Prejudice homage (I think Griff’s “chronically confused crowd-pleaser” may give Darcy’s “she is tolerable, but not pretty enough to tempt me” a run for its money). Folks, if you’re going to insult someone, maybe quickly glance around the room to make sure that the object of said insult isn’t present. Trust me, you’ll thank me for it (odds are low that the insultee will fall in love with you. We can’t all be Austen-inspired romances!).
Tempest by Beverly Jenkins
[m/f; historical romance set in Wyoming in 1885; Black author; Black MCs]
Look, you can’t get more disastrous than a mail-order bride accidentally shooting her husband-to-be in a moving carriage. Yep. You read that correctly. In Regan’s defense, she’s never met her fiancé – how is she supposed to know what he looks like? Plus, her carriage was being overtaken by outlaws and she was shooting frantically to save her life.
“Did you really shoot the doc?”
Her cheeks burned. “It was an accident.”
Another man shouted, “This called a shotgun wedding where you’re from?”
Regan is mortified when she realizes the truth while Dr. Colton Lee is less than amused. The good doctor was expecting a meek and ladylike bride to help take care of his young daughter; he doesn’t want a wild hoyden who can use her Winchester with terrifying accuracy. Oh, Colton. You’re about to find out that what you don’t want is precisely what you need. Regan is about to take over your life like a… well, tempest. The book is aptly named!
Your Wicked Heart by Meredith Duran
[m/f; novella; historical romance set in late 19th century Europe; White MCs]
Poor Amanda Thomas is not having a good day. The secretary has been waiting at the church for hours and her viscount groom hasn’t bothered to show up for their hastily-planned wedding in Greece. Determined to prove that she hasn’t been jilted and convinced that something terrible has happened, Amanda runs to the hotel. She loudly declares that she’s engaged to the Viscount Ripton and that Something Dreadful has occurred to him. A mysterious man with “elegantly shaped eyebrows” and a “casual arrogance” (I’m sorry, I just love how Meredith Duran describes disdainful aristocrats) finds her tirade very curious. Why?
“We have not been introduced,” she said. Giving her back to him, she addressed a new man—the Frenchman. “The viscount is a guest here, isn’t he?”
“The—the viscount—” The Frenchman’s voice squeaked like a girl’s. He glanced beyond her and visibly shuddered. “—is right behind you.”
“What?” Heart soaring, she turned. But the viscount was nowhere to be seen. And everyone else was gaping at her.
Save the blackguard, who tipped his head slightly. “How good to meet you,” he said. “Shall we take a walk? I will be very interested to learn of when I proposed that we marry.”
Poor Amanda indeed. Her missing groom is a fraud for impersonating nobility and the real viscount thinks she’s some sort of gold-digging criminal. Determined to find the impersonator, Ripton drags Amanda back to England via sea travel in an attempt to trace the false viscount’s footsteps. Two small problems: 1) Ripton very quickly realizes that the fraud is his cousin and 2) he may be falling in love with his cousin’s infuriating fiancée. Oh, well. The course of true love never did run smooth.
Briarley by Aster Glenn Gray
[m/m; novella; historical/fantasy romance set in WWII England; gay male MC/bisexual male MC; White MCs]
It’s a tale as old as time. No, seriously! This is a Beauty and the Beast retelling with one significant twist: what if the Beast fell in love with Beauty’s father instead? In this enchanting reinterpretation of a classic fairytale, an English parson stops by a fantastical estate and plucks a perfect wine-red rose for his daughter. But alas, the thievery does not go unnoticed.
But the moment the parson set foot on the path, the iron gates swung shut. They crashed together with a terrible clang, and the parson stood frozen in surprise and creeping horror.
One did not steal the fairies’ flowers either, it seemed. One should not bleed on fairy ground.
“Thief!” a great voice roared, and the parson whipped around, looking for the source of it. “Thief! Thief! Thief!”
And then the parson was covered in shame. Could he have stolen a flower, like a schoolboy scrumping apples? “I’m sorry,” he said. “I wanted it for my daughter; and your roses are so perfect, I did not stop to think…”
The captor is not a furry beast-man with silky locks and rounded horns. No, this Beast is another creature altogether: the parson refers to him as a “dragon-man” and the comparison is apt. With large sleek wings and a scaly dragonish snout, the captor is an odd meld between man and dragon. When the dragon-man demands the parson’s daughter in exchange for the theft, the parson firmly refuses and is determined to serve his imprisonment in place of his daughter.
Which, now that I think about it, is really how the original should have gone. Poor Beauty never plucked the forbidden rose! No, she just innocently asked her father to bring her a rose. She probably intended that he grab some flowers in Wegmans, not go up to some menacing and obviously magical castle to commit theft. Beauty has unfairly paid for her father’s sins for all these years and infinite retellings; it’s about time that the father stayed imprisoned instead!
Okay, I’m digressing from the main point: this gorgeous novella, like all other Beauty and the Beast retellings, has a meet-disaster to sigh tremble over. I should not find this frightening encounter attractive, but I do. Sue me.
Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews
[m/f; paranormal romance set in Houston; White man/Mixed race woman]
I’m about to contradict myself because it turns out that it can get more disastrous than a mail-order bride shooting her husband-to-be.
Burn for Me’s Meet-Disaster, according to Connor “Mad” Rogan:
- Step One: kidnap a strange woman in a public arboretum because you suspect she has crucial information connected to an arson you’re investigating.
- Step Two: chain her up in your magically protected basement.
- Step Three: interrogate her with your all-powerful magic and fail because this mysterious woman somehow has the power to resist the most dangerous man in Houston. Oh, and she passes out in the attempt to resist you.
- Step Four: drive the unconscious woman back to her alarmed and furious family.
Look. I know, I know, that this sounds bonkers and unacceptable. I promise that I don’t normally like kidnapping elements (okay, this is kinda a lie because I love Kiss of a Demon King by Kresley Cole). But you have to trust me when I say that this book is one of my favorite paranormal romances of all time. Connor Rogan may have kidnapped and chained up Nevada in their meet-disaster, but she gives back as good as she gets. Feeling vulnerable from the kidnapping, Nevada undergoes a magical procedure where eel-like creatures bite into her arms just so that she can become a “shocker.” And Rogan gets what’s coming to him.
A spark of pain drained down my arm, driven by pure instinct. I grabbed his shoulder. Feathery lightning shot out and singed him.
Agony exploded in me, cleansing like an ice-cold shower.
Rogan’s body jerked, as if struck by an electric current.
Burn for Me ends in a cliffhanger and without a romantic resolution, but the entire trilogy (Burn for Me, White Hot, and Wildfire) has a satisfactory HEA for Rogan and Nevada. Hidden Legacy has magical warring houses, political conspiracies, tank-building grandmas, heist-committing ferrets, competent heroines, and arrogant billionaires all rolled into one irresistible package.
Okay, one more!
Better At Weddings Than You by Mina V. Esguerra
[m/f; novella; contemporary romance set in the Philippines; Filipino author; Filipino MCs]
This #romanceclass meet-disaster is less violent and more quietly mortifying/awkward for all parties. The heroine Daphne is a wedding planner and is invited to a dinner with a friend and his fiancée. At the restaurant, Daphne doesn’t understand why a strange man is looking at her oddly.
The guy was looking at her. She felt it, and it was why she looked up from admiring the pavlova. He was not scanning the pastries, no chance. That look of intensity, that hint of recognition, that was meant for her. Or for a stray cat that wound up inside this guy’s car and scratched up the interior. It wasn’t hostile, but it wasn’t the warmest look either.
Great, Daphne thought. Where did I meet this guy, and what did I do to him?
She would need a moment or seven to figure this one out. Daphne was completely aware that there were people who hated her guts, for a variety of reasons. But this guy?
It turns out that his name is Aaron and that he’s also invited to the private dinner. He is the couple’s recently fired wedding planner because the groom believes that the bride still nurses an unrequited crush for Aaron. The groom fires Aaron, hires Daphne as the new wedding planner, and wants Aaron and Daphne to work together and make sure that the responsibilities are transferred over seamlessly. Yikes! Daphne is furious that her friend has screwed over a professional wedding planner this late in the game, but she agrees to take on the job as a personal favor. It’s a truly mortifying introduction and I was cringing with second-hand embarrassment the entire time.
Do you agree with my definition of a meet-disaster? Do you think that I left something out or included amendments that don’t really qualify as meet-disasters? What are some of your favorite meet-disasters, and do you prefer them to meet-cutes? Why or why not?
If you’re not familiar with #RomBkLove, readers can respond to the daily prompts in May, sharing favorite books, scenes, characters and more, especially for books written about and by marginalized people. Authors are welcome, too, as readers! For all the prompts and archives, you can visit Ana Coqui’s website.