I see the term frequently in the book description of sexy contemporary romances: off-limits. The hero meets the heroine but he can’t have her because she’s “off-limits”. The heroine has been in love with the hero for ages but they can’t be together because he’s forbidden.
After reading a lot of romance stories with this set-up, I realize that my definition of “off-limits” might be different from the author’s definition. Do I have too high of standard for these characters? Or worse, is my moral compass broken?
Dictionary.com says off-limits is an adjective and it means “forbidden to be patronized, frequented, used, etc., by certain persons.” This site also defines forbidden as “not allowed; prohibited.”
So are these romantic relationships truly not allowed? Let’s consider these common set-ups:
Scenario #1: The heroine is in love with the hero, but since they work together, he’s off-limits.
Is the relationship really forbidden or is it simply a risky choice? Is there an imbalance of power or is there a rule in the employee handbook? If the relationship fails, what would happen to the hero or heroine? Are we talking high-stakes here or more of an inconvenience? What would happen to the couple if someone finds out? I get very annoyed when it turns out all that’s needed is a conversation with Human Resources.
Scenario #2: The hero is in love with his brother’s wife/fiancée/girlfriend
Yes, I would consider this off-limits because the hero should have a code of honor.
However, I don’t consider the relationship forbidden when a) the brother is dead, b) the brother is no longer in a committed relationship with the heroine, or c) the heroine is in a fake relationship with the brother. (It’s a romance novel; this could totally happen.)
Is pursuing the ex a violation of the bro code? I think that depends on what the hero has promised his brother or friend.
Scenario #3: The heroine is in love with her best friend’s brother/the brother’s best friend/ her best friend
Why is this even considered off-limits? It’s changing the parameters of a relationship at best and, at worst, a poor decision. After all, what are the consequences? That their future interactions will be awkward? That they will no longer be friends? The potential of suffering a loss does not make it forbidden. It makes it a risk.
Scenario #4: The hero and heroine are in love but their relationship would be considered against the law.
Yes, this would be forbidden. I don’t even need to know why it would be illegal because the details might have an ick factor.
Scenario #5: The hero wants the heroine but she’s too young/too innocent/the boss’s daughter, etc.
Please, don’t waste my time. This isn’t forbidden and the heroine is not off-limits. It’s not about what’s wrong or what’s right—it’s about effort. The relationship requires more care from the hero.
Some books are labeled “off-limits romance” but if there’s no high-stakes, irreparable consequences, or the threat of incarceration, then how can they be considered forbidden?
Recommended Reading List
Here are some sexy contemporary romances for you to enjoy. Each has an off-limits trope, but are they truly about forbidden love? Read the books and decide!
- The Birthday Suit by Lauren Blakely: Leo thought he was over Lulu. She had been his best friend’s woman and off-limits. Leo’s a dream chaser but Lulu was the dream that he allowed to slip away. He had moved on but now she’s back in his life and he’s in love with her again. Only this time it feels new and hopeful. This time he’s not alone in his feelings. There are achingly tender moments in this sexy story as Leo’s unrequited love is finally returned!
- Forbidden Promises by Synithia Williams: This sensual off-limits romance about a woman in love with her sister’s ex-husband is a slow burn as it follows the lives of an elite Southern dynasty. Set against the backdrop of wealth and privilege, readers can expect plenty of family secrets and drama as the main characters struggle with longing and loyalties.
- Overnight Sensation by Sarina Bowen: Heidi is the sports team’s intern and she finally has a chance to bed Jason, the hockey player she’s been lusting after all year. But she messes up her chance right before he discovers she’s the league commissioner’s daughter. Jason decides she’s off-limits but he won’t avoid Heidi when she’s suddenly down on her luck. As Heidi faces every challenge with grit and grace, the woman of Jason’s dreams is proving to be irresistible.
- Playing with Trouble by Chanel Cleeton: Gray is no saint. He’s a self-made man but still rough around the edges. He had it all and ruined it. Now he’s starting over as a law professor and Blair–a senator’s daughter, America’s princess, and most importantly, his student–is the one temptation he can’t afford. Readers will love the heat that pulses between Blair, who is breaking free of her good girl reputation, and Gray, a man beaten down by his past.
Want to know more about common scenarios found in romance novels? Find a beginner’s guide to romance tropes here.