Our favorite passionate page-turners
2017 has been a challenging year for many, but at least on the romance front, there were plenty of inspiring, extraordinary happily-ever-afters to escape into. From a sexy, dance-inspired debut to a fresh take on the green card romance to the launch of several crackling new series, the romance world had lots of steamy gifts to unwrap this year. It was also the year that romance joined the resistance. Authors such as Tessa Dare and Sarah MacLean used their writing to define modern happy endings, even in historical stories, with tales of protagonists who nevertheless persisted to find fulfillment with their best selves and those deserving of their love.
Take the Lead, by Alexis Daria
Daria made a sparkling debut with the first novel in her Dance Off series, which uses a fictionalized version of Dancing With the Stars as the backdrop for romance. Gina Morales is a professional ballroom dancer who finds herself immediately drawn to her latest partner/contestant — Alaskan survivalist and reality show star Stone Nielson. The book crackles with their chemistry, and Daria nails the behind-the-scenes drama of the dance and reality TV worlds. Come for the spot-on descriptions of the paso doble and the outrageous dance competition costumes, stay for the heartfelt romance about two people breaking down their barriers to forge a genuine connection in a world where reality is the furthest thing from it.
Going Dark, by Monica McCarty
Sexy, dangerous, and suspenseful, McCarty’s first contemporary romance and the start of the Lost Platoon series takes readers on a high-octane thrill ride through the highlands of Scotland. Environmental activist Annie Henderson gets caught up in international intrigue when she finds herself unwittingly part of an ecoterrorist plot. She ends up on the run with Dean Baylor, alias Dan Warren, a Navy SEAL who has gone dark to protect himself and other surviving members of his platoon after a mission goes off the rails. The book creates a very real, entirely current atmosphere of shadowy distrust, danger, and political subterfuge, while also making an argument for the beauty of listening for the truth through the noise as Annie and Dean/Dan find common ground (and toe-curling chemistry) in spite of their completely opposing backgrounds and views.
Accidentally on Purpose, by Jill Shalvis
Shalvis has created a memorable collection of characters with her Heartbreaker Bay series, but this tale of ambitious, career-driven Elle Wheaten and security expert Archer Hunt ranks as the best in the series (now up to four novels, two novellas, and growing). Part of the joy of Heartbreaker Bay is the tight bonds of the core group of friends at the series’ center, who all happen to work and/or live in the same apartment complex in San Francisco. Accidentally in Love is the rare book in the series to feature the romance of not one, but two of the core friends, as gruff, overly protective Archer finally makes good on the unresolved tension between him and building manager Elle. Archer and Elle are both reserved, stoic, closed-off characters in the other books in the series, making it a delight to get a closer look here — and the fact that they all have the same friends means even more time for hijinks, girls’ nights, and good-natured ribbing from the entire lovable cast of characters.
Hate to Want You, by Alisha Rai
Alisha Rai makes her Avon debut with this contemporary novel, which took the romance world by storm and launched the steamy Forbidden Hearts series. With a female heroine of Asian descent coping with depression, the novel delivers something romance fans are hungry for — well-written, inclusive narratives that handle real-world issues and obstacles with sensitivity and grace. Exes Nicholas Chandler and Livvy Kane have an agreement: They’ll meet once a year for a night of illicit pleasure, not speaking or making contact at any other time. Things get messy when Livvy returns home, forcing them both to confront the wounds of their complicated family history. Rai has a gift for crafting characters who feel breathtakingly real in their pain and their yearning — Livvy and Nicholas are compelling and relatable in their blend of fragility and strength. This book will have you craving the happy ending in ways you might not think possible — and it doesn’t hurt that the steamier portions are so hot we don’t understand how the book doesn’t just spontaneously combust.
An Extraordinary Union, by Alyssa Cole
Cole does the seemingly impossible, using the Civil War as a backdrop for a realistic, gripping interracial romance that interrogates slavery, systemic racism, and more, while still remaining utterly swoon-worthy. Rightfully so, anything related to slavery is a third rail when it comes to romance novels due to concerns of consent, race, representation and more. Cole tackles these issues head-on with a tale of espionage and romance between Elle Burns, a Union spy working undercover as a slave in a Virginia household, and Malcolm McCall, a Northern Pinkerton detective disguised as a Confederate solider. Cole looks at slavery and the realities of Elle’s situation and their forbidden romance with an unflinching eye, and Elle’s practicality makes the story all the more suspenseful, romantic, and dangerous. Cole paints masterfully in shades of gray, crafting a story that puts forbidden love in the crosshairs of war, slavery, and the preservation of the Union. In historical romance, the stakes are often reputation or fortune, but here it is the soul of a nation and the rights of an entire people — weighty topics handled with a deft blend of the seriousness they deserve and a clear-eyed respect for the subject matter, all the while delivering a heart-stopping central romance.
Roomies, by Christina Lauren
Marriage/relationship of convenience turned unexpected true love is one of the most popular plots of the romance genre in any medium. Christina Lauren breathes new life into the trope with Roomies, following Holland Bakker and Calvin McLoughlin as a marriage of convenience propels him to Broadway stardom and a host of relationship complications. The novel sparkles with rom-com wit and banter. It has the added bonus of the setting of the Broadway musical theater world, which will charm casual fans and former drama club members alike. Most importantly, though, it’s a triumphant tale of self-love and discovery as one woman finds her independence and inner strength. It just happens to have a cute Irishman thrown in for good measure.
The Duchess Deal, by Tessa Dare
Dare is known for her cheeky sense of humor, and it’s on full display here with this Regency-era, Beauty and the Beast-esque tale. Marking the first entry in a new Girl Meets Duke series, we meet the Duke of Ashbury, a man physically scarred by his time in the Napoleonic wars and emotionally scarred by the jilting and treatment he’s received since then that have made him believe he’s unlovable. Enter Emma Gladstone, a vicar’s daughter turned seamstress who bursts into Ash’s life with a fierce streak of independence and the determination to not judge a book by its cover. She finds herself falling for him against her better judgment (and his strict orders) in a novel filled with sparkling wit and romance that goes down like a delicious glass of bubbly. Add the smoking love scenes as a chaser, and you’ve got one of the most delightful books on shelves this year. Dare never shies away from writing feminist heroines, but here she takes it a step further with modern rhetoric and catchphrases cheekily referenced in several places.
The Day of the Duchess, by Sarah MacLean
MacLean made headlines when she penned a Washington Post op-ed explaining how the 2016 election prompted her to throw out much of her current draft of her novel and rework her alpha male hero into an “alpha feminist.” The result is a stunning tale of a duke who must win back the duchess whose heart he broke, all while she attempts to find a replacement for her first husband and win her much desired freedom from their marriage. MacLean has a gift for creating vibrant characters whose flaws only make them more intoxicating as they wind their way on their journey to eventual romantic bliss. Dripping with heartfelt emotion and true-to-life tenderness, The Day of the Duchess is yet another historical romance from MacLean that is crisply modern and swoon-inducing. MacLean writes with an entirely unique blend of elegance and ferocity that bursts from every page, and The Day of the Duchess is another tenderly provocative entry in her sparkling canon.
Modern Love, by Beau North
“Love at first sight isn’t for the Tinder generation” is the aphorism of damaged yet lovable protagonist Allie. She finds herself in a Pride and Prejudice-esque scenario when she becomes drawn to a man, Will, who initially rejects her and wounds her pride. Significant baggage and family drama on both sides fills this novella with believable obstacles, and North crafts one of the most pertinent contemporary love stories of the year. The amount of essays, self-help books, and op-eds that have written about “modern love,” including the New York Times column of that name, have tried to get at the heart of the perils of dating in our modern age. North side-steps the navel-dwelling and cuts right to age-old truths in this incisive novella that’s about falling for every part of yourself and allowing someone to see and love the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Seven Minutes in Heaven, by Eloisa James
Eloisa James is one of the stalwarts of historical romance, her booklist well into the double digits by now. Seven Minutes in Heaven was one of two she published this year — a return to younger characters all grown-up from a previous series. Eugenia Snowe is a widow and a governess who finds herself kidnapped by the demanding Edward Reeve, the bastard son of an earl. Initially affronted by her capture, Eugenia warms to the earl and his young charges. This book is perhaps the most “traditional” of all the selections on this list, but it cements its place here with its unconventional, irresistible heroine who earns herself her happy ending through her and Ward’s personal growth. Eugenia wants to be loved on her own terms, never revealing the full extent of her background and wealth, which leads to the hard-won victory she so desires. The book is full of James’ signature wit, literary references, and fiery love scenes.