Holly, a virgin and a waitress, was recently dumped by her fiancé, and the subsequent turmoil has fueled an addiction to chocolate wafers and resulted in an expanding waistline. As her self-esteem tanks, she learns that she must serve dinner to Prince Casper of Santallia in a hospitality suite at Twickenham, the home of England's national rugby team. Within minutes the playboy prince starts making passes (and not of the sporting kind), Holly slides across a table, and, for the first time in her life, she feels like a "rider clinging to the back of a thoroughbred stallion." It's pure bliss until cameramen beam the encounter on the stadium's Jumbotrons. (See pictures from the 2007 Rugby World Cup.)
"My hair is all over the place and my bottom looks huge and everyone is looking," Holly wails.
But Prince Casper has bigger worries. The sultry video footage distracts his friend the England captain, causing him to miss a crucial kick. "More importantly," moans the muscle-bound Mediterranean Lothario, "you just cost England three points."
So begins the tale of The Prince's Waitress Wife, by Sarah Morgan (out Feb. 1, just in time for the start of the Six Nations European season), the first of eight rugby-themed romances from Mills & Boon, the iconic publishers of romance novels like Virgin Mistress, Scandalous Love-Child. According to Clare Somerville, director of sales and marketing, the rough-and-tumble world of rugby fits snugly into the publisher's literary field of play. "[The books] have all the elements of a quintessential Mills & Boon romance: jet-set locations, hunky alpha-male heroes and hot sex, but in a rugby context."
For instance, in At the Argentinean Billionaire's Bidding, Alejandro D'Arienzo presents a beautiful heiress, who designs costumes for England's rugby team, with an ultimatum: her name in tatters or her body in his bed. (Spoiler alert: he gets his wicked way.) And in The Ruthless Billionaire's Virgin, a shy opera singer experiences a "wardrobe malfunction" while singing the national anthem, spurring a brooding billionaire to march onto the pitch and cover her bare breast. According to Jenny Hutton, the series editor, "These stories have lovely romance, and they're really heartwarming."
Mills & Boon will release one rugby-inspired novel each month as part of its "International Billionaires" series, which it advertises with the slogan, "Life is a game of power and pleasure. And these men play to win!" All details pertaining to rugby-related matters from the inside of a locker room to the typical day of a p.r. woman at Twickenham were fact-checked with the Rugby Football Union (RFU), the body that governs the sport in England.
For the RFU, the popularity of Mills & Boon they sell one book every three seconds in the U.K., which amounts to around 10.5 million per year provides an opening to expand its fan base. They hope the series will arouse excitement among rugby moms who cart their children to and from practices, and perhaps introduce the sport to the uninitiated. "The beauty of rugby is that you have every shape and size of hunky man," says Jane Barron, licensing and marketing manager for the RFU. "And just think of the different positions!" Mills & Boon have happily jumped in bed with the RFU because, Hutton says, they want to cater to "different levels of sexuality." They also see it as an opportunity to attract female rugby devotees to their books: currently one in five season-ticket holders in the Guinness Premiership England's 12-club professional league is female.
Women unfamiliar with rugby culture needn't worry. A Girl's Guide to Rugby accompanies each book; it doesn't just explain the meaning of offside and line-outs but also provides information about where to view matches they can jet off to Dubai for the International Rugby Sevens or catch the Tri Nations tournament in Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. Readers will find out about rugby's various positions through the stories too. In The Prince's Waitress Wife, Holly encounters the word hooker and exclaims to the prince, "I can't believe they named a rugby position after a prostitute!" She soon discerns that it refers to the player in the middle of the front row of the scrum who tries to capture the ball with his foot. Duh.
For fans seeking an exposé on their favorite international players, however, the books will disappoint: the characters are entirely fictional and the books don't depict heartthrobs such as England's Danny Cipriani scoring on the pitch (or off). In fact, says Felicia Field, partner of one of rugby's newest stars, James Haskell, the books make players' lives seem far more glamorous than they actually are. "These books are all about fantasy," she says. "They're like chocolate pure indulgence." But for women seeking a little escape, the likes of Haskell he's blond, 6'3" and 245 lb. may prove sweet nonetheless.