I’m not above admitting when I’m wrong. When I rediscovered the romance genre in my early 20s I justified this burgeoning, newfound flirtation by dismissing category romance: “Yes, I’m reading this book about a Regency miss and a dissolute Duke but it’s not like I’m reading Harlequins!” Then, of course, I pulled my head out of my behind long enough to read some category romance, and quickly became hooked. “But, you know, that’s okay because it’s not like I’m reading Harlequin Presents!” Seriously, I really am this slow on the uptake.
Presents tend to get a bad rap because it’s a line that was built on the backs of brooding Alpha heroes. Nothing wrong with that, in theory, until you hit upon an Alpha hero who isn’t an Alpha so much as he is a barely housebroken jackass. The reputation started to stick. Alpha jerk “heroes” and mealy-mouthed, spineless “heroines” who get railroaded by them. Was this assumption fair on my part? No, of course it wasn’t. Although I refuse to sit in this shameful corner by myself, as there were, and still are, plenty of readers, romance or otherwise, who think this too.
It also didn’t help matters that for a number of years there seemed to be a policy at Harlequin to make the Presents titles and back cover descriptions as overblown as humanly possible. Since I feed my category addiction almost entirely off of back cover descriptions, I had a hard time navigating a line that made every book sound so absurd. What ultimately changed my mind, and got me to give Presents a fair shot, were other readers, most notably Lynne Connolly, an author in her own right with, among others, Ellora’s Cave and LooseID. I had always known that Presents books were about glamour and passion, but Lynne also has publicly stated that when a Presents book is done well, it really is a modern retelling of a fairytale. Hey, I love fairytales! So with the aid of reviews, recommendations, and Harlequin blissfully toning down titles and back cover copy, I started a month-long glom on Presents. What I found were several really good reads.
If loving the secretary-boss trope is wrong, I don’t want to be right, and Sarah Morgan’s A Night of No Return puts a nice spin on a classic story. Emma is a harried personal assistant taking some important papers to her boss’s country home in the middle of a blinding snowstorm. When she gets there she finds herself snowed in with Lucas, who is drinking himself into a stupor. She’s never seen her single-minded, determined, ambitious boss behave in this manner. Likewise, he doesn’t know anything about Emma beyond the fact that she’s a damn good PA. What painful past is he hiding and what kind of person is Emma away from the office? A lovely read carried on the back of a strong, determined heroine who isn’t afraid to stand toe-to-toe with her demanding boss. Nobody would ever accuse Emma of being weak or mealy-mouthed!
Nicola Marsh writes for one of my favorite Harlequin lines, Harlequin Romance, so I was more than willing to try her books in the Presents universe. Marrying the Enemy features a marriage of convenience plot with a hero trying to outlive his parents’ dubious reputations and a jewelry-designing heroine desperate to save the family business. They start the book at cross-purposes but quickly realize that joining forces will benefit them both. Then, of course, they do something completely stupid and fall in love. Another strong, forceful heroine who doesn’t back down from a hero, who has a major chip on his shoulder but also a vulnerable and wounded soft underbelly.
For the record I want to state that I normally don’t gravitate towards sheikh heroes and I really don’t go for fictional royalty books. Yet I picked up Hajar’s Hidden Legacy by Maisey Yates anyway, sucked in by a Beauty and the Beast storyline. Princess Katherine was supposed to marry Sheikh Zahir’s older brother, an arrangement that would have benefited both of their kingdoms. Then her betrothed and future parents-in-law die in a motorcade ambush. Katherine’s small Alpine kingdom needs this marriage to go through for various reasons so she propositions Sheikh Zahir, who was injured in the same ambush. His injuries have kept him out of public view, leaving people to call him the “Beast of Hajar.” Now here is Katherine, practically storming his palace, and demanding he honor the marriage agreement. What I loved about this story is that Katherine does heal the beast, but he also heals her. He’s more than a pile of hurt and scars and she’s more than a pretty face in designer shoes.
I love a good friends-to-lovers story, and that’s what readers get in Front Page Affair by Mira Lyn Kelly. Nate Evans has been off the society pages for the past six months, a minor scandal he doesn’t want the paparazzi digging up. He comes up with a plan to distract them, and propositions old friend Payton Liss. They’ll play-act a torrid affair they’ve been trying to keep secret, and that will deflect speculation off of Nate’s disappearing act. Except, of course, that these two knew each other as kids. Payton has the mother of all unrequited crushes, and Nate’s fallout with her older brother meant he also walked out of her life. They say they’re going to keep things light and fun, and then naturally life intervenes.
Readers often say there’s nothing quite like discovering a new author. For me the only thing that trumps that is the magic of getting hooked on a new-to-me category romance line. Through my weeks-long reading experiment I got hooked in the zippy format and fun retellings of many classic romantic tropes and fairy tales. I need more category romance to read like a hole in the head, but with Presents it’s sure to be a decadent, consuming addiction that I won’t want to dig myself out from under of.
Wendy the Super Librarian also blogs at WendyTheSuperLibrarian.blogspot.com. So dig that library card out of your pocket and head for the stacks.