I have a not-so-secret-anymore love of marriage of convenience plots. (Not so much in historical romances because marriage between strangers was an accepted part of social hierarchy.) I love marriage of convenience plots in contemporary romance where the hero and heroine aren’t necessarily legally married, they just have to live together in forced intimacy.
Nowadays, in most cultures, people have the right to choose their own partners. So when you take away that choice, whether it’s to reach a certain goal (receiving an inheritance) or to perpetrate a deception (agents undercover), the tension that results from two people in close contact with each other and unable to escape sets up such lovely conflict and usually a lot of fireworks.
One of the most endearing things about marriage of convenience stories is that they require the hero and heroine to accept and deal with the little things (like, say . . . leaving underwear on the bathroom floor) that might otherwise put them off in their ordinary world. Because they are locked into a period of time during which they have to be with each other, they have to let it go.
The hero and heroine frequently show their worst to each other because they don’t care about normal social customs. If you were on a first date with someone, you’d never yell or exhibit a bad side, but in a fictional marriage of convenience story, societal restrictions on behavior are stripped away and the characters reveal their true selves.
In Susan Elizabeth Phillip’s Kiss an Angel (February 1996— so long ago, and yet I still reread this book every year!), Daisy, a debt-ridden socialite, is forced to marry a man her father chooses to avoid going to jail. Alex agrees to repay his debt to Daisy’s father by marrying her. Her father requests that Daisy grow up, so Alex takes her away from all that is familiar to travel with a circus in an old beat-up trailer. In the course of their marriage, Alex is much harder on Daisy than the other circus employees, unable to see the vulnerable woman beneath her spoiled exterior. Because of his actions, Daisy develops a core of strength by facing the challenges set before her.
Marriage of convenience plots elevate the intimacy between the two characters immediately from strangers (or sometimes mere acquaintances or even slight adversaries) to very intimate roommates who literally can’t walk away. The plot demands that they stay together. That condition means that they have to work through their differences, which makes their finding common ground all the more sweet.
There is also a vulnerability that living together exposes. It’s difficult to always be on and in control when you are living with someone. The characters are put in a situation where they are under pressure. Their imperfections and insecurities are exposed by the forced intimacy. The situation sets up tension within the hero or heroine as well as within the home. Add in sexual tension and the sensual heat that rises between people who are attracted to each other but don’t want to be, and you've got a very compelling read.
In Suzanne Brockmann’s Flashpoint (April 2004), Jimmy Nash is a man with a lot of secrets and a hidden longing for his coworker Tess, whom he considers far too nice and girl-next-door-ish to handle the black marks on his soul. But while undercover as married relief workers and forced to share a room in an earthquake-ravaged country, Tess sees through Jimmy to the dark man beneath the charming exterior and falls in love with him anyway.
All of these elements combine for fun and tension-filled reads. There’s a vicarious thrill in watching a romance develop between people who might never have gotten together otherwise. Marriage of convenience stories also remind us to appreciate our significant others . . . because the truth is, a hero doesn’t need to be perfect—he just needs to be perfect for you.