Nov 21 2013 3:15pm

“Holding On” and “Not Letting Go”: Favorite Phrases from Romance

A Company of Swans by Eva IbbotsonFavorite romance couples become favorites because of those moments that are uniquely them, and some of their best moments come from iconic lines that live on in our minds long after the book is done. Rupert and Daphne's bone-melting demand, T'ala heneh—“come here”—from Loretta Chase's Mr. Impossible. Harriet's repeated wistful desire to creep into her lover's presence like an odalisque in Eva Ibbotson's A Company of Swans; “we will creep together,” he insists. The admiration and affection encompassed in Roarke's simple greeting, “Lieutenant,” in every one of J.D. Robb's In Death books.  

When they're actually part of the relationship arc, a couple's special phrase can become even more memorable. In Kiss an Angel by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, the arrogant, prideful Alex is amazed by Daisy's easy humility:

I’m begging you. Daisy said that all the time. The same words that had poisoned Sheba Quest’s spirit two years ago when she’d pleaded for his love rolled off Daisy’s tongue without a second thought. In the morning she’d stick her toothbrush in her mouth and call out, “Coffee! Please! I’m begging you!” Last night, she’d tickled his earlobe with a soft, sultry whisper. “Make love to me, Alex. I’m begging you.” As if he needed to be begged.

But begging didn’t threaten Daisy’s pride at all. It was simply her method of communication…

After hurting Daisy deeply, Alex can only prove his love to her by conquering his pride:

Alex spoke in tight, hard tones. “You know what the irony in all this is. Daisy’d do it. She wouldn’t even think twice about it.” He gave a rough bark of laughter that bore no trace of humor. “She’d be on her knees in a second because she’s got a heart beating inside her that’s strong enough to take on the world. She doesn’t care about honor or pride or anything else when the well-being of the creatures she loves is a stake.”

He turned his face upward, and his mouth tightened with scorn. Although he was on his knees, he had never looked more glorious. He was every inch the czar. The king of the center ring. “I’m begging you, Sheba,” he said flatly.

By the end of the story, Daisy's pet phrase has become theirs:

He began kissing her tears away, and she rubbed her fingers over his cheek. “You really love me, don’t you?”

“I really do,” he said huskily, “and this time I want you to believe me. I’m begging you, sweetheart.”

She smiled through her tears. “All right, then. Let’s go home.”

Revealed by Kate NobleIn Kate Noble's historical romance Revealed, the phrase “It's just me” becomes a symbol of the easy intimacy that develops between Marcus and Phillippa, two people who seem to have nothing in common. Whether she's rearranging his hair or he's freeing her from an unexpected sojourn in a sarcophogus, the reassuring words—sometimes proceeded by an exasperated, “for heaven's sake,”—show their instinctive knowledge that they belong together, no matter what societal conventions might decree. Each of the many times the phrase is used has some significance, but never more so than when they make love for the first time:

“Look at me.”

She met his eyes and saw there only tenderness.

“It’s just me,” he said.

And she knew. She knew everything would be all right. It was just him. And just her. There was no judge nor jury here. Marcus would not despise her for lacking the sophistication she so ruthlessly cultivated in society. For once, she could be herself. Nervous, silly, shy, bold, happy: Whatever she happened to be, he would match her.

“It’s just you,” she replied, relaxation sliding over her in waves. “And it’s just me.”

Finally free to be herself, Phillipa can even joke:

“It’s just me,” he said, when Phillippa didn’t say anything for a few seconds.
A slow smile spread across her face. “I don’t think there’s anything ‘just’ about you,” she said, raising her hips and then settling back down onto him again, a torturous, agonizing slide down his shaft.

Through the Evil Days by Julia Spencer-FlemingAn iconic phrase can be especially powerful when you have an entire series in which to build on it. Early in Julia Spencer-Fleming's romantic mystery series, star-crossed lovers Ross and Clare share several life-threatening experiences, giving them a phrase that becomes symbolic of the forbidden feelings they can't seem to overcome:

He took his glasses off and polished them on his shirtfront. “Remember when you were getting me out of the helicopter? You told me to hold on tight?” He replaced his glasses and looked back to the high horizon. “I’m still holding on.” He glanced down at his hand. “I don’t know how to let go.”

“Holding on…” She bit her lip. Cleared her throat. “Doesn’t do you much good when the person you’re holding is falling, too.”

As they face further dangers together, the words are often used literally, but also continue to be a metaphor for their unshakeable love:

Russ reached toward her, his arm stretching, his hand outflung as if he could pull her through the elevator doors and take her with him. His eyes were dilated black with the painkillers pumping through him, and even though she knew it was just the drugs, she had to stand for a long time, staring into her scratched and blurry reflection, after the stainless-steel doors closed on his final words: “I’m still holding on. Not letting go.”

The resonance of their phrase builds in each sucessive book, until at a dark moment they become a searingly painful symbol of the ugly side of their relationship:

“You see? It’s all about you. Again. When does it get to be about me, Russ? When does it get to be about what I need?” Her eyes teared up, but the words kept coming, as if she had tapped some vat of acid and now it had to gush out until it ran dry. “I killed for you. I killed a man to save you. And then I had to turn around and let you go again, and you know what? I know it was the worst moment of your life. But I was having the worst moment of my life, too, and you just turned your back on me. You rejected me, everything I had to give and everything I needed. We always said we were holding on, and you let go. You . . . let . . . me . . . fall.”

But having survived this crisis, the words once again become their theme. By the time they reach the latest book, Through the Evil Days, it's their instant shorthand when they're in danger: “Holding on.” “Not letting go.” No matter what happens, they will never give up.

Is there a line or phrase that calls to mind your favorite romance couple?


Willaful has been diligently reading and reviewing romance for the past seven years, but for some reason just can't seem to catch up. She blogs at A Willful Woman and Karen Knows Best.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. D.G.
Awesome article, Willa! I specially love those phrases that can define a relationship like that one from Kiss an Angel (now I want to re-read it!)

I've had Revealed in my TBR for like a million years. Now I'll definitely move it up!
2. willaful
Thanks, D.G.! I hope you'll love it as much as I do.

Kiss an Angel is one of my "bought in ebook but still kept the old paperback so I can read all my favorite parts easily" books. :-)
Heather Waters
3. HeatherWaters
I adore a good buildup, and those snippets from the Julia Spencer-Fleming series sound fantastic. Also, I love all the other books you referenced. Awesome post, thanks!
4. willaful
Me too -- I used to do improv theater and so tend to be very fond of reincorporation and structure in my reading.
Kiersten Hallie Krum
5. Kiersten
"As you wish." Boom.

Great post. I've read almost all of those series and I love when a couple has their own shorthand like that. It so easily adds intimacy that transcends the clinch or the bedroom and shows just how well the H/H get one another, warts and all.
6. willaful
*kicking self for forgetting that one*

Okay, now I have to share this chat conversation I had with my husband:

hub: "arr. it be talk like a pirate day. this is true love. think this happens every day?"

me: "I'm torn between posting that and keeping it to myself."

hub: "As you wish."
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