Old-school romance novels can feel like the ultimate guilty pleasure. Where else can we have the fun of being ravaged by a sexy Scotsman or having a notorious pirate take us to bed (or in a carriage, or on horseback or up against a wall . . .)? But so many of the old classics mix erotic delights with the more unsettling elements of racism, sexism and a disturbing tendency to believe that if the scene is steamy enough, the reader won’t mind that the heroine said no and the hero treated it like a yes.
The remedy is found in delicious historical romances such as these three novels. They deliver on all the elements you’d expect: The historical settings are rich and engaging, the drama is fast-paced and exciting, the passion is turbulent and scorchingly hot and the men are strong and sexy (and Scottish, in two out of three—always a nice bonus). But above and beyond that, the heroines are fierce, forthright forces to be reckoned with as they defy conventions and choose their own paths to happiness.
A WOMAN BETRAYED
Athena Trappes, the lovely heroine of Between a Highlander and a Hard Place by Mary Wine, starts worlds away from rugged Scottish laird Symon Grant. We first meet her happily settled in Elizabethan England, on the verge of marriage to a handsome, charming royal courtier. She seems perfectly poised to live very properly ever after. But when her groom-to-be turns villainous and attempts to force Athena into becoming his mistress rather than his bride, her true strength is revealed. Far from swooning into the man’s arms or waiting to be rescued, she sets his house on fire and walks out with her head held high—right up until she’s forced to run for her life to avoid retribution. In a plot that might appeal to a certain bard of that period, Athena safeguards her passage by disguising herself as a boy. And this successfully protects her, until her true nature is discovered by Symon.
He’s the polar opposite of the man she’d once planned to marry—Scottish rather than British; rough-edged rather than manicured; plainspoken rather than full of empty compliments. But most of all, he’s honorable and generous rather than deceitful and cruel. He falls for Athena in an instant, but he challenges her to make her own decisions, to embrace her passion, and to choose a life with him. It’s not an easy journey for Athena, and more than once she finds herself held against her will and viewed as a commodity by ruthless men, yet through it all, she maintains her spirit and strength, and even finds the courage to love the gorgeous highlander who offers her his home and his heart.
A WOMAN ABANDONED
A loving home is exactly what the orphaned heroine lacks in Julia London’s Seduced by a Scot. Taken in—with reluctance—by a friend of her father’s in 18th-century Scotland, Maura Darby is treated with cold indifference when she’s a child. But that’s far better than the outright contempt she receives as she grows into a beautiful woman and attracts too much male attention away from Sorcha, the daughter of the house. When Sorcha’s betrothed forces a kiss on Maura—a kiss for which Maura is blamed, of course—both Sorcha and her mother insist Maura must leave, at once. But where exactly is a woman with no resources meant to go? And how can the family that raised her be rid of her without generating speculation? Clearly, the only solution is to call in Nichol Bain, the capable and clever “fixer” for the upper class. At the start, he’s so confident in his abilities that he’s actually disappointed to be given such an “easy” problem. Foolish, foolish man—he has no idea what he’s in for with Maura!
It doesn’t take long before he realizes that this is not a woman who will submit to having her life arranged without having her say—at full volume. Half of the fun of the story is seeing how thoroughly Maura ruffles Nichol, shaking him out of his comfort zone and pushing him to live his life to the upmost as she strives to do the same. This is a man who believes he has all the answers, but it isn’t until Maura enters his life that he starts asking the right questions—such as what a person might be willing to sacrifice for a true and lasting love.
A WOMAN ABUSED
Compared to these other adventures, the setting of Barbarous might seem almost staid by contrast. Our Regency-era heroine—Daphne Redvers, widow to the Earl of Davenport—is a bookish, bespectacled matron living quietly with her children on her late husband’s country estate. But she shows her grit right from the start when she breaks a man’s nose on the first page! The man in question—her evil cousin, Malcolm—spends most of the book stubbornly insisting he can overpower and intimidate her while she spends the book proving him wrong, with the assistance, of course, of the exceptionally dashing hero. Hugh Redvers is, technically, Daphne’s nephew-in-law—officially titled Baron Ramsay and standing next in line to become earl before Daphne’s sons were born. He’s also a pirate, both feared and revered on the high seas as One-Eyed Standish. (Yes, he has an eye patch. And a parrot. And a monkey.) He left his aristocratic family behind decades earlier, content to let them think he was dead while he pursued his own adventures, but when he receives word that Daphne might be in danger, he comes home to help—and is stunned to find himself in danger of losing his heart for the first time.
As with Dangerous, the first title in Minerva Spencer’s Outcasts series, the story brims with all the swashbuckling excitement anyone could ask for, mixed with high-society hijinks all wrapped around a blazingly hot love story. But this book also has the most poignant departure from the old romance model. Daphne is a mother to twin boys who are the result of sexual assault—something she grapples with over the course of the story. Healing comes with time, and with the shock of finding true understanding from Hugh who, following a capture at sea, spent time as a sultan’s slave. When he comforts her, he does it as someone with intimate knowledge of how it feels to be stripped of bodily autonomy; to be used with no concern for consent. It makes their conscious choice to be together—to share themselves and enjoy each other freely—all the sweeter.