Sometimes the most cliché thing about a romance novel is its cover and title. Take Julia London’s latest: A ripped Lucifer in a kilt smolders darkly from the cover, and DEVIL IN TARTAN (Harlequin) renders the image in blunt syllables. But this is the fine yarn-spinner London here, and what follows is a rollicking seafaring adventure that feels fresh. Talk about meet cute: A perfectly paced farcical sequence puts the sea captain Aulay Mackenzie (he of the kilt) on a literal collision course with a hapless bunch of bootleggers led by Lottie Livingstone, who steps up to lead her clan after her father is gravely wounded. Lottie’s ship is sinking, but rather than let the hero sail to her rescue, this heroine engineers her own. The audacity of her plan propels the plot, but despite the outwardly comical circumstances, the developing relationship is serious from the start. Lottie’s sense of loyalty, justice and responsibility are equal to Aulay’s — and he honors that equality in his acceptance of the fate that may await her for her crime. That makes the prospect of a happy ending as hard to see as a ghost ship through the Highland mists. Romantic bonus: Aulay’s hobby on the high seas is painting melancholy seascapes with no people in them. His 18th-century version of Jerry Maguire’s “You complete me” to Lottie: “You filled my canvas.” Don’t be afraid to dampen the lacy hankie for this one.
If you can get past Jenny Holiday’s fetishizing of her hunky hero’s tattoos (I managed, barely), her ONE AND ONLY (Forever) is a satisfying iteration of the contemporary bridezilla subgenre, the first novel in a “Bridesmaids Behaving Badly” series set in Toronto. Jane Denning writes young-adult novels, is a Comicon geek and, five years after a bad breakup, considers herself permanently single. On bridesmaid duty, Jane volunteers to keep a close eye on the groom’s bad-boy brother, who has just been discharged from the Army, not honorably, and has shown up to cause trouble, or so the bridal party assumes. Wounded warriors are popular romance heroes, and Cameron MacKinnon makes a credible one. His feminist bona fides can seem piled on for a hypermasculine hero. As Jane obsesses about her weight, Cameron muses about the faults of “the patriarchy.” But Holiday manages to keep things super-steamy even when Cameron, who has just told Jane that he doesn’t do “drunk hookups,” continues, “Because there’s this little thing called consent?” Romance fiction didn’t go carnal until the 1970s, and consent was just a gleam in a good girl’s eye. These days, even if the real world is slow to progress, consent is practically a fixture in the genre.
In Krentz’s excellent new novel of romantic suspense, PROMISE NOT TO TELL (Berkley), Virginia Troy, a Seattle art gallery owner troubled by the suspicious suicide of a painter she represents, enlists the aid of Cabot Sutter, a private investigator, to look into their shared past as children who grew up in a cult. The psychopathic cult leader who tried to incinerate them at his compound succeeded in killing their parents, and now Virginia and Cabot are teaming up to see if he still lives, but also revisiting the scarring trauma that has stunted both their lives for decades. Yes, even two individuals as damaged as these can win, together. It is possible to be so absorbed by the quickening plot here that you overlook the unfolding of the relationship, which is subtler, gentler than it is in many romances. Most people put up walls of some sort, but Virginia and Cabot share a wall, so they need only each chip away half to reach the other. Consent, once again, is explicit. Virginia’s panic attacks have resulted in several abortive attempts to have sex, but Cabot is the hero you want in this situation: “We can go this far and stop as often as you want,” he says, a line all too often consigned to fiction.
If a romance novel must have a happy ending, a corollary is that half of any new batch of romances must feature a duke. Hardly a trope goes unturned in A DUKE IN SHINING ARMOR (Avon) by Loretta Chase. There’s the confirmed rake, the bluestocking spinster, the runaway bride, the runaway dog. But Chase’s dependable wit leads a reader willingly on a merry romp as Lady Olympia Hightower, not a little drunk, escapes her nuptials to one duke only to be pursued by his best friend, also a duke. When the wouldn’t-be bride tumbles out the window, so does the Duke of Ripley’s honor; he’d meant only to retrieve the lady for his friend, not fall for her himself. The tale is on the anodyne side (read the classic “Lord of Scoundrels” for the author at her most hilariously inventive); still, Chase’s consistent gift is to gently puncture all the genre’s conventions but one: the one that makes you care about her Regency hero and heroine and their happy ever after.
But enough of dukes; the prince takes the prize. Alyssa Cole’s A PRINCESS IN THEORY (Avon) is the best new romance I’ve read in a while. In Cole’s contemporary story, Naledi Smith is an overworked epidemiologist studying for her doctorate in New York. She’s an orphan with too much debt, too little sleep and no love in her life. To add to her discontents, some scammer has been emailing her to say that she has been betrothed from childhood to an African prince and that it is past time she fulfill her destiny. She declines to take the bait, but the prince comes calling anyway, just not as a royal. Prince Thabiso of Thesolo, a small African kingdom, masquerades as Jamal, Naledi’s underemployed temporary neighbor who invites her to share the dinner he’s ordered from a meal-kit service. Their relationship blossoms sweetly and sexily. Apart from his big deception, the prince is a near perfect hero to Naledi’s science nerd. This novel checks a lot of boxes — STEM girls, gaslighting, science deniers, explicit consent in the bedroom, mineral exploitation in Africa — but it’s more organic than obtrusive. Delightful details abound, especially when the scene shifts from New York to Africa (Segways to scoot around the royal palace, anyone?). There’s even a nod to real-life royals. A redheaded playboy pal of Thabiso’s is suspiciously reminiscent of Prince Harry — “Prince Johan” was once caught on tape playing strip poker. Until Harry, step-great-grandson of the romance writer Barbara Cartland, weds Meghan Markle in May, “A Princess in Theory” will do very well as the royal fairy tale of the young year.