The X Ingredient
This book is not going to be for everyone because it’s an erotic romance with a boss/employee scenario, although if that pairing is your jam, you will almost certainly love it. I totally understand and respect that not everyone is comfortable with that power dynamic in fiction. Personally, I like it, and I particularly enjoyed how this book handles it because it addresses and challenges that dynamic head on, rather than brushing past it (more on this below), while still offering a whole lot of feels. Also, while I’m noting things people might hate or be fine with, there’s sort of a cheating element to this book too. It didn’t bother me, but the details are behind a spoiler tag below.
Laurie Holcombe needs a job and fast. She’s determined to crush her interview to become the assistant to one of Atlanta’s top lawyers because if she doesn’t, she won’t make rent or her student loans. Besides, she wants to go to law school after she finishes her sociology degree, so what better place to get a job? When she walks into the offices of Parker, Lee & Rusch (PL&R) with her bargain clothes, it’s clear that Laurie doesn’t fit in with everyone else’s high-end looks, but she doesn’t really care because she knows she’ll be an asset to Ms. Parker.
Diana Parker is known as an ice queen, but is it really too much for her to ask that people just do their damn jobs? When Laurie Holcombe shows up with her big blue eyes, small-town Southern Georgia accent, and a streak of pink hair, Diana knows she’s all wrong for the job. But something about the way Laurie challenges her and follows up on her interview shows Diana that Laurie has the same hunger inside that drives Diana to be the best, so she offers her the job over someone with the right clothes, right hair, and right resume.
Laurie is a quick study, learning Diana’s tastes and habits thanks to notes and lists from the previous assistant. And while she sometimes puts her foot in it with Diana by speaking her mind, Laurie quickly proves that Diana was right to hire her. If she could stop the massive crush she’s developing on her significantly older boss, that would be perfect, but at least she has the income she needs to keep her life afloat.
Diana’s life at the office runs smoother than she could have imagined with Laurie there, but her home life is going to shit, as she gets less invested in her marriage by the day. Her husband is perfect on paper since he’s handsome, successful, and driven, but they barely interact anymore, and she can’t even be bothered to care. Diana’s far more interested in talking to her assistant, and their interactions leave her energized. Diana barely stops to consider why that might be, since she’s very secure in her heterosexuality. OR IS SHE? Because when Laurie admires a local businesswoman and Diana’s overwhelmed by complicated feelings, Diana throws her life in the blender by kissing Laurie.
They know that an affair isn’t wise, especially as Diana’s pulling the plug on her marriage, but they’re both swept up by their attraction and neither are inclined to put a stop to things. So, what to do? Rules, of course. Laurie lays down her conditions, which are sure to protect her mind and her heart, and chief of which are that they keep things strictly sexual and that Laurie’s the one in charge of what happens in the bedroom. And these rules are what make the book about much more than a simple boss/employee fantasy, and turn the trope on its head.
First of all, if you’re wondering whether Diana cheats on her husband, I’m sticking the answer behind the spoiler thing here.
This story originally began as one of the hottest fanfics I’ve ever read, so I was pretty excited when I heard it was getting picked up. Like I mentioned above, I love boss/employee romances and it’s hard to find great f/f ones (Too Close to Touch by Georgia Beers is the only other one that springs to mind, although it isn’t without problems, even if I adore it). I knew the characters in The X Ingredient would no longer be Andy and Miranda from Devil Wears Prada and I expected some substantive rewriting, but when the #MeToo movement exploded, I wondered how this book could possibly work.
The original version of the story, while hot, has a major dubious consent thing going on. Andy learns that her job requires “taking care” of more than just Miranda’s errands and appointments, and decides to make sure she has all of the power, bringing the media mogul to her knees, on the floor, across her desk, or whatever. The X Ingredient as it’s been released is decidedly NOT that story and has been almost entirely reimagined. The only remaining elements are the boss/employee relationship, the major class difference, a significant (but somewhat shortened) age gap between the leads, and that Laurie holds the power in their relationship whenever they’re not in the workplace. Okay, and sometimes even a little bit in the workplace.
That’s not to say that Diana has no power. Obviously, as a partner in PL&R, Diana holds a massive amount of influence over Laurie’s current workplace experience and her potential future career in law. But from Laurie’s initial reaction to their first kiss—not positive, and including phrases like “What the hell was that?”—onward, it’s clear that Laurie isn’t going to be coerced into anything. After getting some space from that interaction, Laurie finds she doesn’t want to acquiesce to the part of her that knows it’s a terrible idea to sleep with her boss, and so she instead she controls their sexual encounters, taking Diana whenever she wants to (but, like, consensually). Laurie has full agency in both her personal and professional relationships with Diana at all times and she regularly reaffirms it, topping the control freak Diana with ease.
Further to that, I’m a gigantic fan of Laurie because, while she’s bright and thoughtful, she is also 100% not to be fucked with. She knows her worth and isn’t afraid to say so at any point in the book (seriously, she ends her job interview with “You’d be lucky to have me,” which is a total boss move that I’d never have the guts to do). She’s also excellent at reading people, like when she’s initiating the first sexual encounter with Diana and opts not to go for an obvious compliment:
I let my gaze drop down to the gap in her bathrobe. Unlike her, I do it deliberately. She needs to notice that. I need her to notice—but I don’t know why, I’m just—
“Oh,” she whimpers. It was definitely a whimper. I look back up at her face, with its desire-glazed eyes. Her hands are fisted in the comforter like that’s all that’s keeping her from reaching out and grabbing me.
I want to tell her she’s beautiful. I want a lot of things. I can only tell her about one of them.
“I want to work for you,” I say quietly. “Maybe it wasn’t like that at first. But now that I’ve seen how you operate…I want to learn from you.” I take a deep breath. “You’re the best there is, Diana. And you know it.”
She looks at me, more needfully than any woman ever has, like she finds this hotter than if I’d spoken of her beauty. My breath catches.
Laurie doesn’t have much of a character arc, and I’m totally okay with that because she doesn’t really need one, being fabulous exactly the way she is. Diana, on the other hand, has one hell of an arc because she starts the book genuinely believing she’s straight. It’s only because of her time with Laurie that she can begin the process of coming out to herself, which isn’t easy for her at all. I appreciated seeing someone in her 40s grappling with her sexuality because that’s a very real thing that happens to many people, and it’s handled in a way that’s relatable and kind of raw, yet without being overwrought.
If I have any complaint, it’s that the story wraps up a little too quickly for my liking. Thankfully there’s an epilogue so I know they have a HEA rather than a HFN, but it moves very swiftly from reconciliation to end of the main story and I would have preferred to see their situation resolved a bit more fully on the page, even with just a few thousand extra words.
One other thing to know going in is that it’s a first-person story with the perspective shifting between Laurie and Diana. I don’t mind first-person, so I enjoyed seeing into what they’re both thinking, but I also know plenty of people hate it. At least try a sample, because you’ll know really quickly whether this book will be for you or not between that and everything I’ve said above.
So, did The X Ingredient live up to my expectations? Yes, and then some. It carefully covers difficult ground, between the interrogation of Laurie and Diana’s power dynamics, and Diana’s coming out, and I was left thinking about this book long after I finished it. I’ll definitely read it again in the future and will be keeping an eye out for more from this author.