Among the best of recent romances are the three tales below. The first two are, in different ways, girl-meets-duke stories. The third is about loves past, present, and in dreams.
The Duchess Deal: Girl Meets Duke
By Tessa Dare
Avon. 384 pp. $7.99.
Tessa Dare mixes together several romance tropes in The Duchess Deal: Girl Meets Duke - the genteel but destitute heroine, the physically and emotionally scarred recluse, a marriage of convenience. But in Dare's talented hands, the tired themes are given new life.
Emma Gladstone is pushed to desperation. Working as a seamstress since being tossed out of her home by her vicar father for an indiscretion, she has shown up at the Duke of Ashbury's doorstep, demanding to see him. The startled servant, seeing a woman wearing a monstrosity of a wedding gown, informs the duke, who decides to see Emma.
Tessa Dare, author of "The Duchess Deal." Photo: Jean LeBlanc.
Emma had worked for months on the gown, through many alterations demanded by the duke's former betrothed, who apparently had dreadful taste. When the wedding was called off, the gown was never picked up. Emma has shown up to demand payment.
Ash's engagement was broken after he suffered terrible wounds and burns on the battlefield. Half his face and much of his body are horribly disfigured.
A dark impulse to lash out has Ash demanding the gown in return for paying Emma. In desperation and defiance, Emma starts to disrobe. A startled Ash stops Emma, but then he offers her another deal: She can take the money owed her or he can make her a duchess.
Ash needs a wife in order to have an heir. Emma is pretty, gentle-born but in desperate straits, and she has not cringed in fear at his scars. He offers her a marriage of convenience, with dignified nightly encounters - no lights and no kissing.
Emma initially refuses in outrage, thinking she is being made fun of. When Ash later presents his proposal again, she realizes she has few options in life and accepts.
At the signing of the wedding contract, Emma makes two demands. They will dine together every night, with conversation. She refuses to be treated like a broodmare. And since it was her wedding day, she wanted one kiss.
But that simple kiss opens a floodgate of feelings, passion, and yearning between them. Their marriage of convenience becomes something unexpected.
Dare is a master at revealing the conflicted emotions that well up between a couple who fight a growing attraction. There are few writers who can better craft scenes that make you laugh out loud on one page, then make your heart swell on another.
A Bitter Creek Novel
By Joan Johnston
Dell. 432 pp. $7.99.
Joan Johnston is best known for her western romances, contemporary and historical. Her Bitter Creek series features members of Texas rancher families - the Creeds and the Blackthornes - whose feud has gone back generations. Johnston's latest, Blackthorne's Bride, is part of her Bitter Creek world but is set in the past.
Most of the story takes place in England, a bit of a disappointment if you're hoping to immerse yourself in one of Johnston's western tales.
Marcus Wharton, the Duke of Blackthorne, is traveling across the American West with his future brother-in-law, the Earl of Seaton, when they come upon a white teen being whipped at a Sioux village.
Joan Johnston, author of "Blackthorne's Bride." Photo: Dave Anderson.
Wharton rescues the injured and delirious girl, then cares for her during the voyage home. Once in England, he is chagrined to find his fiancée waiting at the docks, so he asks Seaton to nurse the rescued girl back to health then send her home to America.
Fast-forward two years, and we discover that the girl, Josephine "Josie" Wentworth, was never sent back to America. She has been stuck as a maid on Blackthorne's rundown estate up north. Worse, two orphaned nephews of the duke's were also sent to the estate, where they, too, were forgotten and even mistreated by their caretakers.
One day, a Pinkerton detective finds Josie and tells her that her siblings are well and have been looking for her for a while. In fact, Josie is now a wealthy woman because of an inheritance.
Once she and the detective arrive in London to see the duke, they hear he has been widowed and is looking for an heiress to save his moldering estates. Josie decides that if she marries the duke, she will become aunt to the boys, whom she had grown to love, and can have them brought to the duke's home, where they belong. And if the marriage is a disaster, she can just leave for America with the boys.
However, on meeting the duke, she discovers he is nothing like the dastardly man she expected. He doesn't recognize this beautiful, spirited woman as the broken girl he tended, and Josie decides not to reveal her identity until she has the boys safely in her care.
Josie and the duke discover passion in their marriage, but can their union work when it is based on deception? Josie is a strong and courageous heroine, but her pride leads to some frustrating misunderstandings that could have easily been cleared up by some frank talk.
Blackthorne's Bride concludes the Mail Order Brides series about the four Wentworth sisters.
The Dream Keeper's Daughter
By Emily Colin
Ballantine Books. 480 pp. $16
Archaeologist Isabel Griffin has rebuilt her life. Eight years before, her boyfriend Max Adair disappeared a day after she told him she was pregnant. After struggling to raise her daughter alone and finishing her schooling, Isabel has finally moved on, healing from the grief, fear, and anger that had shattered her life.
While on a dig in Barbados, Isabel gets a call on her cellphone. The caller ID says Max. She answers it and hears her missing boyfriend's voice as though from far away, through static. He says her name, then, "Keep her safe," before the line goes dead.
Isabel is in shock. Max had been the one to console her when her own mother disappeared. Max vanished six years after her mother, and the police never found a connection between the two disappearances. But Isabel always feared that the same thing had gotten them both.
Emily Colin, author of "The Dream Keeper's Daughter." Photo: Mitzi Jonkheer.
The book then switches to Max's point of view. We find out that on the night of his disappearance, he had seen an apparition of a man in the woods who beckoned him. He recognized him as Robert Adair, whose portrait hangs in his parents' home. Max followed the ghost until suddenly he fell into darkness. He landed in bright sunlight, in the middle of a sugarcane field, coming face to face with a startled black man with a machete.
Instead of being in present-day South Carolina, Max has somehow been transported back in time to 1816 and Robert Adair's plantation in Barbados. He has arrived there just a couple of weeks before a deadly slave revolt. He discovers that Isabel's mother is there, too.
The story switches back and forth between Isabel and Max. Isabel becomes obsessed with the notion that Max is trying to contact her from beyond. Max desperately tries to find a way to stop the revolt and get himself and Isabel's mother safely back to the present day.
Emily Colin has written a gripping tale about love that defies time, place, and danger. It is also a bittersweet tale about grief and the healing power of love.
Grand finales: It took almost three years, but Wildfire (HarperCollins, 405 pp., $7.99) finally brings to a close Ilona Andrews' terrific Hidden Legacy trilogy about magic wielders in an alternative-universe Houston. Best of all, not all ends are neatly tied up, leaving the door open to future books.
J.R. Ward has brought her soap opera trilogy to a close with Devil's Cut: A Bourbon Kings Novel (Ballentine, 416 pp., $28). The trials and tribulations of the troubled Bradford family, a Kentucky bourbon-making dynasty, have included infidelities, abuse, financial ruin, and even murder. Ward keeps you reading compulsively until all the secrets are out and the last tear is shed.