Little girls like Prince Charming. Grown women like a different sort of man—a man with a little more edge, a little more stubbornness and grit. Prince Charming can sweep you off your feet, plucking you from your tragic backstory and escorting you into another life that’s shiny and new. But it takes a true hero to step up to be your equal, not your rescuer. To share your battles and take them seriously instead of brushing them all away. To appreciate and value you for who you are, rather than “saving” you from yourself by turning you into someone else. These grumps with hearts of gold prove themselves as worthy heroes by showing the women they love that they are and always have been heroines in their own right.
In Sarah Morgenthaler’s The Tourist Attraction, Zoey Caldwell certainly doesn’t think of herself as a heroine, even on the dreamiest of all dream vacations, visiting the Alaska wilderness she’s saved every penny to see. Though she’s visibly out of place with the ultra-rich jet setting crowd that fills the exclusive Moose Springs resort, she couldn’t be happier to soak up every experience, including a meal at the infamous local diner The Tourist Trap, run by grumpy local Graham Barnett. Graham hates tourists—with good reason. And after a series of mishaps that include an energetic kick to somewhere . . . indelicate on their second meeting, Zoey’s not exactly going out of her way to make a great impression. Yet it’s clear that she dazzles him from the start. Before he knows it, Graham’s breaking all of his rules: taking her to the best dives known only to the locals, going on godawful expeditions with her just to make her happy, and, most dangerous of all, giving his heart away to a woman who’ll be leaving after two weeks.
Graham’s soft heart makes an earlier appearance than you might expect given his forbidding demeanor, but that’s just because Zoey is so irresistibly charming, walking around with her own heart on her sleeve as she practically vibrates with love for his beautiful hometown. Graham warms to her quickly, but that doesn’t mean his rough edges have gone away, or that their love is destined for smooth sailing. (There is, in fact, a bout of very rough sailing that is simultaneously one of the cutest and grossest scenes of the book.) As with any good romance, it’s Graham and Zoey’s imperfections that make them such a perfect match, bringing out new sides of each other and opening each other’s eyes to new experiences, new perspectives and a new belief that love might actually be able to conquer all.
By contrast, the hero of A Duke by Any Other Name by Grace Burrowes is very slow to succumb to the charms of the heroine. In fact, it takes an invasion of pigs (not flying, sadly) before Nathaniel Rothmere, the Duke of Rothhaven, deigns to give Lady Althea Wentworth the time of day. Leaning hard into his reputation as Yorkshire’s leading crank/recluse, he has no visitors, pays no calls, shows no courtesies and gives not a flying fig for anyone’s opinion—which means, of course, that the town views him with great admiration and awe. It’s a position Althea desperately envies. Although she’s the beautiful, well-educated, extremely wealthy sister of a duke, her position is lower than low among the ton who resent her rise from poverty and obscurity, who seize every opening to deliver another petty, nasty, viciously “civilized” slight.
Turning to Nathaniel for advice is roughly akin to sticking her head in a lion’s mouth, but she’s desperate enough to try, and both bold and clever enough to succeed. He spars with her, in spite of himself. He likes her, in spite of himself. He even counsels her, giving really awesome advice in the process. (I now know precisely how to give the cut direct: “You notice, you hold in a contempt too vast for words, you dismiss.”) But even when love finds him—despite all the literal and metaphorical walls he’s hidden behind—the twisted bonds of a dark family secret mean he can’t give in to what he feels. Here again we see how the hero needs the heroine, how the only counterbalance for his darkness is her light, and how in turn his grounded nature helps to set her free.
As you might expect from two such strong and determined characters, the sparks that fly between Nathaniel and Althea are undeniably fierce. Their banter is quick-paced and witty, sharp as a fencing foil. Sharp too is the edge with which Burrowes portrays their circumstances. Both were victims of shocking cruelty from their earliest years. The story touches on themes of violent parental abuse, exploitation of physical and psychological disabilities and even child prostitution. But these heavy shadows are balanced by the honor and kindness Nicholas and Althea demonstrate, the warmth and dedication they give to each other and to their families and, most of all, by the beautiful love they slowly build and (even more slowly) accept between them.