And do you think readers set the bar higher for heroines than heroes?
In the recent Duke University romance forum, Ilona Andrews said that in her experience, romance readers are more forgiving of male characters than female ones. A male character can do appalling things but with the careful application of a little tragic backstory, he can still become a hero. A heroine, not so much.
That set me to wondering about one of my favorite contemporary characters, a super-rich bitch called Sasha Montgomery. She’s on ice for now, but not forgotten. She’s not a nice woman, but I love her a lot and I’d always planned to turn her into a heroine one day. Now I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.
Below is a snippet from the life of Unredeemed Sasha. She definitely has a challenging backstory. I’d be very curious to know whether you think she could be turned around.
Sasha Goes to Work
This day had been a long time coming, and Sasha Montgomery was more than ready for it. She sat in the back of the limousine, eyes fixed on the distant Docklands skyscraper that housed Montgomery Media and Leisure. Beside her Rick Young, her newly appointed Chief Counsel, sat ramrod-straight, checking and re-checking his paperwork. From his neatly barbered salt-and-pepper hair to his shining black dress shoes, he looked more like a retired soldier than a top city lawyer. It would be interesting to see if he could stomach a twenty-five year old woman as his commanding officer.
At precisely 8am they arrived at MML Tower. The chauffeur sprang to open her door, and Sasha stepped out into the morning sunshine. It was already late in the world of ordinary people, and a stream of bodies flowed in and out of the building. She ignored the revolving doors and stood with Rick at her shoulder outside the double height glass entrance. Far too late, the security guard leapt to attention and opened the door for her. His name badge was askew but at least it was easy to read. His would be the first name on what would undoubtedly be a long list of casualties.
In the lobby she found two receptionists. Jean and Jane. Both were moon-faced, middle-aged, badly dressed, and smiling as though they asked no more of life than to sit behind a desk for forty hours a week. She didn’t know which annoyed her the most.
“Good morning, Miss—” They waited politely for her to announce her name.
She folded her arms and waited for them to realize the gravity of their mistake. When Jean or Jane’s smile finally started to waver, Rick cleared his throat and started forward. She stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Remember what I said.”
“Of course, Sasha, but—”
Comprehension dawned. “Oh. Miss Montgomery, welcome to MML.” Jean/Jane smiled as though her mistake was somehow amusing. “Please sign in here and I’ll make you a temporary security pass. Guests must wear their pass visibly at all times while in the building.”
It was beginning, and she was glad.
She walked forward until she was directly in front of the woman, enjoying the metallic click of her heels on the marble floor. “I am not a guest. I do not wear a pass.” The receptionist gaped like a stranded fish. She spoke slowly and clearly, as if to an idiot. “This is my building. You are sitting at my desk. If you want to continue sitting at it, I suggest you take me to Mr. Greenaway. Now.”
The woman sat, frozen, but the other receptionist scrambled. “Yes, Miss Montgomery. At once. Please follow me.”
That was better.
Jean/Jane led the way to a small private elevator, pushed the button and squashed herself into a corner, putting as much space as possible between herself and Sasha. It was a pathetic victory, but it was a start.
The fiftieth floor was like something out of a museum: deep carpets, custom-woven to fit the corridors, dark wooden paneling, and gilt-framed bucolic landscapes that confirmed beyond any doubt that Sasha was at the heart of her late father’s empire. Wherever she looked, lusty shepherds chased nymphs in diaphanous gowns. The image was totally inappropriate for a twenty-first century media business, but worse, it epitomized Alex Montgomery. She’d personally burned similar paintings of much better quality when she’d moved in to the Kensington house.
“Thank you, my dear. We can introduce ourselves.” Rick smiled at the terrified receptionist, undoing much of the good work of the past few minutes. The woman fled. Rick opened the door and stood courteously aside.
She’d been expecting a meeting room full of people, but there was just one.
George Greenaway, her father’s chief crony and boot-licker, remained seated in an oversized leather chair behind a dark-paneled desk that made her want to send out for an axe.
“Hello, Rick. And Sasha: how lovely to see you. Happy birthday.”
“Thank you, Mr. Greenaway. This is a special day for me.”
She turned a slow circle, taking in the panoramic view and the sheer size of his lair. There was an antique-style telephone on his desk, an embossed leather blotter and fountain pen, but no sign of a computer.
“You’re a very lucky young lady.” He smoothed back his wavy white hair, gave her a patronizing smile over his rimless glasses, emerged from behind the desk, and slouched on a dark brown Chesterfield. “Now, come and sit down and tell me how I can help.”
His chalk-striped suit was cut to disguise his spreading middle, but nothing could conceal the beginnings of the second chin or the pudginess of the hand that patted the sofa cushion. She scanned the office again, decided on one of the straight-backed dining chairs and indicated it with a gesture. “Rick, would you…”
Ever the gentleman, Rick set the chair where she requested and seated her before taking an armchair for himself.
She’d chosen to mark the occasion by wearing a new body-hugging fuchsia wool suit with a very short skirt, and black alligator pumps with five-inch heels. Her father would have loathed the ensemble but George’s eyes were everywhere. She sat upright, feet together, legs neatly aligned, thankful for a lifetime of deportment training.
“Where is everyone else, Mr. Greenaway?” She’d faced bigger challenges than this cockroach. She knew no hint of her feelings showed on her face. “I was expecting to meet the whole Executive Committee, not just you.”
He tore his gaze away from her legs with reluctance. “I decided that wasn’t necessary, my dear.” He smirked. “I can tell you anything you want to know.”
“You’re the CEO, so I suppose that makes sense,” she said. “Would you please explain to me how MML measures up against its competitors?”
“Dear me, what a boring way for a pretty girl to spend her birthday, even if she did inherit a company.” He smiled at her again, a displeasing combination of uneven, off-white teeth and watery blue eyes. She stared unemotionally at him until he continued. “It’s rather complicated. We could talk for hours about how to define our competitors, and then—”
“We’re a private company and this isn’t precise, but let’s say the companies in our sector of the FTSE 100 or the Dow. When my father died we were second largest and closing in on the top spot.” It had been his obsession. “Nine years later, we barely scrape into the top ten.”
Greenaway sat up in surprise, started to say something, hesitated, started again. “That’s overly simplistic, my dear.” His jowls quivered. “We have a quite different mix of businesses and geographies.”
“Your competitors have moved into new markets and taken advantage of changing technologies,” she said. “Or, to be simplistic, the world has moved on and MML hasn’t.”
Greenaway turned on Rick. “Is this your doing, Young? Somebody’s been filling this girl’s head full of nonsense.”
Rick didn’t look happy but he stuck to his brief, made another note and said nothing.
“I did it myself, Mr. Greenaway.” She pressed home her advantage. “What’s your strategy for the developing markets? MML isn’t even present in India or China.”
MML’s CEO – her CEO – narrowed his eyes and stared at her with dislike. “Your father said he’d moved to the English-speaking world and he intended to stay here.”
“My father was a bastard, but he was a winner.” She was pleased to hear not a hint of emotion in her statement of plain fact. “I doubt he’d have paid you a king’s ransom to sit in his aerie and do nothing.”
She folded her hands in her lap and looked him square in the eye. “In any case, I certainly don’t intend to.”
He was out of the chair and on his feet in a split second. She rose in a more controlled fashion, wondering if she should have brought a bodyguard after all. On balance, she thought not. Most likely Rick would get in the way before Greenaway got around the table, and if he didn’t, well, Evan had taught her a trick or two.
“Is that a threat, Miss Montgomery?”
“A statement of fact, Mr. Greenaway.” She turned to Rick, keeping an eye on Greenaway’s hands, which were bunched into fists. “Rick, please make a note. I am disbanding the Executive Committee with immediate effect. I’ll be making a number of new hires.” Her type of people. Smart, presentable, ambitious, disciplined, and pragmatic.
Rick took out a handkerchief, mopped his brow, and noted her instructions.
Greenaway’s face was the same color as her suit. He was breathing heavily, and she wondered without interest whether MML had an in-house medical team.
He spat the words out. “You may be the majority shareholder, but I’m the CEO. You can’t do that, you stupid spoiled bitch.”
“Rick, please make another note. Mr. Greenaway is suspended with immediate effect pending investigation of financial irregularities in his expense claims.” Her tone was cold, clear and conclusive, exactly as she’d rehearsed. “He is not to set foot in the building or contact any other employee of MML until matters are resolved. I will personally assume his position as CEO pro tem.”
“Sasha—” Rick scribbled a hasty note, put his pad on the table and stood looking from her to the livid CEO. Greenaway took a step toward her and Rick moved to intercept him.
“How dare you, you fucking stupid spoiled bitch.”
“I can see why you got on so well with my father, Mr. Greenaway.” She allowed herself the indulgence of a small smile. “My team of forensic accountants will arrive later this morning.”
He swallowed hard, threw her a final look of pure hatred, and began the long walk to the door. “You’ll be hearing from my lawyer.” His voice was shaking so hard she barely understood him.
“I suspect they’ll start with your two-week fact-finding mission in Thailand last January.” She inspected her manicure. It was flawless. “I don’t think flying your mistress out to meet you in New York was a good idea either.”
He made a strangled sound that required no translation.
“Rick, would you please escort Mr. Greenaway out of the building?” she said. “Then kindly meet me back here. I have further instructions for you.”
The door closed behind them and she was alone. There was a life-sized portrait of her father hanging behind the desk and she crossed the room to stand in front of it as she used to stand in front of him as a child. She felt the goose-bumps break out over her skin, just as if he were present and still found her lacking in every respect.
“You’ll see,” she said to the empty room. “This is just the beginning.”
What do you think?
Do you see any potential to redeem this woman, or is she too vile to love?
If you think she could be turned around, I’d love to know why and what it would take.