Just in time for Valentine’s Day, author Liv Arnold’s new steamy rom-com novel Etched in Stone has hit the shelves, and is as seductive and thrilling as its billionaire male love interest, Sebastian Stone.
What would you do if presented with the starkest of choices: save the man you love, or your own mum?
That’s the emotional dilemma at the heart of entertaining new heated rom-com novel Etched in Stone by award-winning author Liv Arnold.
Ambitious graduate Vanessa Lang hasn’t had things easy. She lost her father as a teenager and since then has had to put her life on hold while studying for a business degree. Yet, as the novel begins, we join her on the verge of graduation and looking ahead to an exciting new phase of her life.
On a shopping trip to find a suitable dress for her graduation, Vanessa accidentally goes to the men’s cubicles to try it on – only discovering her error when she pulls back the curtain to find a virtually naked man within. On the plus side, he’s drop-dead gorgeous:
“Even movie stars weren’t this perfect. Emerald eyes contrasted with thick raven hair and light stubble covered a jaw of sharp, sexy angles. His skin was tanned, his pecs full and well-defined, and a rippling six-pack spread across his torso.”
The man takes it all very well, even suggesting that Vanessa goes with the silver dress from among her assortment of choices, as it will bring out the colour of her eyes. Deeply embarrassed, she quickly apologises and leaves the awkward situation, but with a secret wish that there could be another, more intimate encounter in her future.
Her excitement for the graduation ceremony turns to despair when she realises that while out she lost the necklace her father had given her, and which had become a treasured keepsake since his death.
A trip back to the shops fails to uncover the necklace and, to her disappointment, neither leads to another meeting with the mystery man, whom has been preoccupying her thoughts:
“He’d been in her dreams since they met, with those piercing eyes staring back at her. Every time she woke, her skin was flushed, and she needed air. Stat. How could one meeting have impacted her in such a way?”
Upset, she tells her mum, Katrina, who tries to console her and bring her daughter’s mind back to the graduation. She also confirms that the grey dress, bought upon the man’s advice, does indeed bring out Vanessa’s eyes.
That evening, at the ceremony, Vanessa gets the phone call she’d been praying for – an offer of a job at Stone Corp, one of the largest investment companies on the US stock exchange. She can’t wait to get started but this is soured when, a few days later, her mum is caught shoplifting at a jewellery shop.
It transpires that Katrina, who has previously received treatment for kleptomania, had tried to steal a necklace for her daughter just like the one her father had given her.
The police have already been called but her conversation with Officer Lisa Herouvim does not go as expected, with it emerging that she is a detective investigating possible insider trading at Vanessa’s new employer. Herouvim presents her with an ultimatum: find evidence at the offices of Stone Corp or Katrina will be sent to jail.
Vanessa calls Herouvim’s offer for what it is – blackmail – but has little option to agree for the sake of her mum:
“She pictured Mom in jail in a black and white striped uniform. Her mind always travelled to the worst-13 case scenario. Mom was so vulnerable; she wouldn’t be the same afterward.”
Her first day at the new job is already tainted with the recognition that she is acting as a spy, but it’s made all the more difficult when the CEO, Sebastian Stone, introduces himself and turns out to be none other than the hunk she walked in on at the clothes shop.
Later that day, Stone returns Vanessa’s necklace, which he had kept safe after their prior encounter. He’s already proved himself to her as the ideal man, but this is further cemented when, during a drink’s night with work colleagues, he rescues her from the unwanted advances of a bar-room singer high on drugs.
A steamy romance ensues with thrilling liaisons in public spaces such as a photo booth and swimming pool, as well as within the office. Stone is the perfect gentleman on dates, and a majestic beast between the sheets, and Vanessa, quite understandably, begins to entertain thoughts that he may prove to be the one.
But as their relationship blooms, the pressure of her double role as Stone’s girlfriend and investigator becomes harder to bear. He seems so kind and generous, not only to her but to all his staff. Can it really be true that he is really the white-collar criminal the detective wants to take down with extreme prejudice?
Etched in Stone is Liv Arnold’s first novel, following on from 2018 novella Law & Disorder, and is a joy to read. Unlike some works in the genre, there’s a compelling and emotional story, propelling things forward between the lovemaking, which makes you care for poor Vanessa and her awful predicament, as well as for sensitive yet powerful Sebastian Stone. They crackle as a couple, while their more intimate moments are so electric, they could power the national grid.
Besides that, however, is something quite rare in this kind of novel – a good sense of humour. The author is Australian so is probably not au fait with the Carry On… films, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she has the complete collection on Blu-Ray, given the obvious delight she displays in throwing in double-entendre and puns. Romance writing, by necessity, features idealised characters and situations to titillate the senses, but this illusion can be broken if it’s all treated too solemnly. Thankfully, Arnold is aware of this and injects just the right amount of comic relief to keep readers on side throughout.
To sum up, Etched in Stone—planned as the first in a trilogy, with each focusing on the story of a different central character working within Stone Corp—is a stimulating page turner and one, I’m sure, where certain passages will be turned back to more than a few times. Like Vanessa and Sebastian, the novel is confident, sexy and funny, and marks Liv Arnold as one of the most promising new romance authors to keep on your radar.
Q&A WITH LIV ARNOLD
We speak to romance author Liv Arnold about the importance of humour, how her husband inspired her new novel, and why erotic fiction deserves more love from literary critics.
Q. Etched in Stone is, at times, a very funny novel. Why did you think it important to combine erotic fiction with humour?
A. Sex is funny. It’s important to have fun with the topic while reading and writing. I laugh the whole time while writing the sex scenes. Etched in Stone is filled with puns and embarrassing scenarios people can relate to. Even from my cover’s tagline, ‘The hardest choice…Either way she’s screwed.’ I own the space of erotic romance and embrace it.
A lot of erotic romance novels are serious. I’m not a serious person by nature and love a joke. Plus, I’m the most awkward person ever. A lot of the over-the-top funny scenarios in my novel has happened in real life. Or I stole it from a friend’s situation.
Q. How did you come to write within the erotic fiction genre?
A. I started writing to get into children’s stories, but I ended up writing erotic rom-coms! My husband, Tim, said an idea as a joke where a woman walks into a changing room where a naked man is inside. And of course, the woman doesn’t mind because he’s handsome and rich—that what seems to happen in romance novels.
I thought this idea could work and that’s how Etched in Stone was born.
Q. Despite being one of the world’s best-selling genres, romance fiction often gets sneered at by literary critics. Why do you think they should re-evaluate their opinions?
A. Romance is (mostly) written by women for (mostly) women. People in general sneer or laugh at the romance genre. It reduces them to giggling school kids. They believe they’re only ‘sex books’ that follows a formula from start to finish. But guess what? A lot of genres follow a formula. Murder mysteries, for example, have the classic killing at the beginning, the detective gathers clues, another murder happens, the audience is led to believe the crimes are done by someone else, then the detective figures everything out at the end and explains their conclusion. There’s nothing wrong with that. I love a good murder mystery novel and read a lot of Agatha Christie’s books, and have seen her plays. It keeps me on the edge of my seat.
People are uncomfortable with the topic of sex. Especially about women enjoying it. What is their issue with women and sex? When a violent, gruesome murder is described, no one bats an eyelid. When you think about it, making fun of the genre is another form of ‘slut shaming’. I write about people falling in love and sex happens to be a part of it.
There’s also the misconception that romance novels are terribly written. There’s badly-written romance books and brilliantly-written ones, same with any other genre.
In romance, the characters embrace and own their sexuality. It provides the reader with an escapism. This is something that society is still taboo about and I’m in a privileged position to change this stereotype. Having said all the above, I’ll still be mortified if any family members read my book. They are banned for life.
Q. What do you want your readers to get from reading your novel?
A. A lot of laughs and maybe a bit of swooning for the leading man, Sebastian Stone.
My husband Tim plays computer games all night after work. I barely see him. I started to read romance books on the mattress behind him and recite passages to give him a hint. Men never do half the romantic or sexy things outlined in the novels.
Then I decided to create my own book boyfriend of my perfect man. Someone who is charming, a great listener and attentive. Tim first asked me if Sebastian was based on him. I replied with, ‘Not at all.’
Q. The novel is planned as the first in a trilogy. What can you tell us about what readers can expect from future instalments?
A. In Etched in Stone, the story has three female colleagues working in the office—Vanessa, Jenna and Hayley. The second book will be based on Jenna with the theme about second chances with her ex-husband Marco, or with a new love interest while exploring her bisexuality being a single parent. There needs to be more books with diverse characters.
The third will be about Hayley, keeping romance alive after being with a partner for a long period of time. It’s something a lot of people can relate to as, after a while, a relationship can be repetitive or stale.
Each novel will have a lot of humour with crime elements. There’s a strong sense of sisterhood where the women pick each other up and give unconditional love and support. They want one another to succeed and do well. It’s how the workplace should be.