It’s a bit of a conundrum.
On the one hand, I’ve had readers comment approvingly about a story of mine that has no sex in it. And I worry about whether they think that’s a promise for the next one, because it isn’t.
I write romances with happy endings. That means I write about people who are attracted to one another on a number of different levels. The ideal for a relationship that will last is sometimes called consummate love, where the lovers develop intimacy on four levels: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. And in my stories, I try to show that they have set out on that journey.
Sometimes — since I write mostly historicals and many of my heroines are as innocent as well-brought up girls were in the early nineteenth century — that means a few longing glances, an awareness of one another, maybe a slightly inappropriate thought by the hero (or entirely appropriate, depending on your point of view).
Sometimes, my character’s development or the needs of the plot has them in bed together, possibly before the wedding and definitely after.
On the other hand, I’ve also had readers pronounce my books boring because the sex is more hinted at than explicit. I’m far more interested in the relationship between them that in describing how tab A feels when inserted into slot B (or any other slot, for that matter).
As a reader, I skip long sex scenes that focus on the physical. Sex is more fun to do than to watch, or at least that’s my view. And as a writer, I let my characters tell me when sex needs to be on the page, and how much of it to show.
But how to warn a reader? I hate the term ‘clean’, which implies that sex is dirty. ‘Sweet’ has the same problem; I think my marriage night scene in Prisoners of Wyvern Castle, with two nervous virgins who met that day at their wedding, is very sweet. Rating systems are very open to interpretation. Your two flames might be my four. My passionate kiss in the garden might push my one flame novella into your ‘too much sex’ hot spot.
Maybe I should go for a general disclaimer. “I told the characters they had to behave, but they wouldn’t listen to me.”
Here’s a kiss from my current work in progress, House of Thorns. The year is 1816. Bear Gavenor has been boarding with Rosa Neatham and her elderly father, and the village is convinced she has been compromised. So he asks her to marry him.
He seemed to think he had won, for his grin was smug. “That would be true no matter who I married.”
“I need to think. May I give you my answer tomorrow?” Surely by tomorrow he would have changed his mind? For if he did not, the answer must be yes. For her father’s sake, if for no other reason; and there were a multitude of other reasons.
But a night’s council did not bring him to a different conclusion. He did not pester her for a decision in the early dawn, when she served him coffee and a plate loaded with food to fuel his morning’s work, but he returned early for lunch, driven home by a heavy shower.
“Have you had enough time to think, Miss Neatham?” he asked, as he came in through the kitchen door and interrupted her bread making.
“Yes, Mr Gavenor.”
He wouldn’t let the ambiguity stand. “Yes, you have had time to think? Or yes, you will marry me?”
He had stripped off his rainwear and was advancing on her with both hands out.
Rosa blushed, and allowed him to capture her own hands. “Yes, I will marry you, Mr Gavenor.”
He bent from his great height, brushing her lips with his own. “Then you had better call me Bear, as my friends do. Or Hugh, if you prefer. My great aunt used to call me Hugh.”
“Hugh, then. Thank you, Hugh. I shall try to be a good wife.”
He kissed her again, another butterfly touch of the lips, then put his hands on her waist and lifted her to sit on the dresser. Now her face was on a level with his.
“That is better,” he murmured against her mouth. Then his lips met hers again, not mere brush this time, but a gentle and inexorable advance, setting her lips tingling and taking her breath. His hands had slid behind her, pulling her against his chest, so that he stood between her open knees his body pressed tightly to hers.
No, just one hand, for the other came up behind her head, and tipped it slightly, holding it in place as his lips moved against hers and his tongue swept the seam of her shut mouth once, twice, and again. He hummed with satisfaction when she parted her lips a little, letting his tongue dart inside, and her whole body hummed with pleasure.
Pelman had subjected her to a kiss once; an awkward, embarrassing thing, with her twisting to escape and him boxing her into a corner and pawing at her body while he slobbered on her face. The new Lord Hurley, who had also propositioned her when he first arrived at the Hall, had respected her refusal. In fact, he had rather avoided her, and had left again not long after the will was read.
But Pelman laughed when she said ‘no’, and waylaid her when she was alone. It had, until now, been her only experience of the pastime, and she had not seen the appeal.
It was very different being the focus of Hugh’s undivided attention, the recipient of his tender passion.
She lost herself in the new feelings, grasping his shoulders to bring herself even closer to his body, trying her best to imitate the movements of his mouth and tongue.
He pulled away, and rested his forehead on hers, still holding her close. “We had best stop, Rosabel. You are to be my wife, and worthy of all respect, and I have no intention of tupping you on the kitchen dresser. At least, not until we are wed.”
Rosa reluctantly let him go, and he moved back a little so he could lift her back down to the floor. She was pleased to see he looked almost as dazed as she felt. “Would you call me ‘Rosa’?” she asked.
“If you wish, though Rosabel suits you. Beautiful rose. My beautiful Rosa.” He still had his hands on her waist, and he leaned forward to drop a kiss on her hair. “I will move to the village this afternoon, Rosa, and will ask the rector to post the banns tomorrow.”