I read a total of 84 books. This was the year I read less romance than I’d read in a decade. However, what I read was superb so I really lucked out. My list here isn’t limited to books only published in 2015. It is a mixed bag of new releases, TBRs, and re-reads. I have three contemporaries, six historicals, and one contemporary from the 1950s that I read as a historical.

This Gun for Hire by Jo Goodman — This is my top romance book of the year. Calico is a bounty hunter. Quill is a lawyer, cattle rancher, and federal marshal. They meet in a brothel. She threatens to shoot him. And out of such improbable details comes a tender love story. Calico has had a tough upbringing but she revels in it and is proud of the unconventionality. Quill had a traditional upbringing but has a problematic relationship with his religious family. And yet the two are drawn together emotionally when they’re brought together to play bodyguards to a daughter-father duo. I liked the suspense aspect of the story as well. Itís nuanced and despite small details dribbled here and there, the answer is not obvious. The leads had disagreements, but there was no immature bickering. They settled their differences responsibly and respectfully. They are people I could like in real life.

Heartless by Mary Balogh — This is a Marriage of Convenience story with a dark thread twisting through the entire storyline. Lucas Kendrick, the Duke of Harndon, is a Paris exquisite, replete with a fan and stylized shoes. (Think Heyer’s Avon.) But these outward affectations belie the earnestness and sincerity of his character, and I really enjoyed the contrasts. Anna Marlowe is from the country and seemingly unaffected by the city she’s new to. When Anna and Lucas meet, they’re drawn to each other and that leads him to propose marriage to her on relatively short acquaintance. However, Anna’s past rears up its head and spoils their joy in each other. I really enjoyed seeing how Anna and Lucas negotiated their marriage, its shortfalls and successes, to make it all work.

By Possession by Madeline Hunter — A medieval by Hunter is a guaranteed good read. And this one proved to be the case as well. Addis and Moira knew each other as children: he a golden youth enamored with a golden girl, she a bondwoman’s daughter and the golden girl’s shadow. Moira was infatuated with Addis, while he barely knew of her existence. Fast forward to present day, Addis has returned from his crusade where for six of the eight years, he’d been enslaved. He resurrects bond-hood (is that a word?) for Moira even though she was a landholding serf. Adventures ensue with warfare, much emotional back-n-forth, and sexytimes. Through it all, the story remained well-paced and my immersion in it was total.

Charlie All Night by Jennifer Crusie — It was cute, it was tender, it was laugh-out-loud funny in places–altogether delightful. Allie is a primetime 6am radio show producer, who has an affair with her star. She gets dumped by him and from her job and is assigned to a 10pm to 2am slot with a newbie DJ. Of course, they strike sparks off each other despite both thinking the other is an unlikely bet in the beginning. This is a type of story that I’m very fond of because you can see the two of them falling in love slowly and unknowingly and then committedly. This is what makes for a satisfying romance read for me every time. I want to watch the unfurling of personalities and the blooming of love between them, knowing every step of the way why they’re right for each other and that this is forever.

The AdventurersThe Adventurers by Michelle Martin — Don’t even ask how many times I’ve read this book. Michelle Martin is one of my absolute favorite traditional Regency writers. Her wit and her Heyeresque characters and plot make her very few books one of the highlights of whichever month I choose to re-read them in. This book has derring-do, a cross-dressing heroine, an imposing peer of the realm bested by our intrepid heroine, a worthy quest, noble sacrifice, and laughter. And implausibility of plot. But who cares? I was enjoying reading the book too much to be bothered about practicality and reality.

Heaven’s Fire by Patricia Ryan — Here we have this ex-priest, celibate scholar of a wealthy noble French family. The heroine is an Anglo-Saxon peasant, more comfortable in English than in Norman French. However, she can read and write, and is well-versed in Latin. Due to tragic circumstances, she arrives in Oxford and manages to earn a living illustrating and illuminating books. Previous circumstances where he saved her from smallpox have bound them together inseparably. Their love story unfolds under the shadow of the Sir Roger, a knight of her village who has always fancied her and has now set a man to find her after she escaped to Oxford. This is medieval storytelling at its finest with tone, diction, world-building…all of it superbly done. And it has medieval manuscripts. A decided PLUS!

Love is a Distant Shore by Claire Harrison — This 1980s book was a re-read for me. He’s an embittered war correspondent with an injury that puts him out of commission from his regular beat. He’s proud that he has reported on some of the world’s worst hotspots. He has now been assigned to cover marathon swimming and the heroine in particular. He feels contempt for what he deems is a selfish endeavor of swimming 32 miles across Lake Ontario. He’s a love’em-leave’em kinda guy. Given his Blonde God looks, he pragmatically expects women’s attraction to him as a God-given gift. As the days go by, eventually, he comes to respect the heroine’s dedication, the hard work, and the single-minded focus on one task that inspires awe in everyone around. He falls hard for her (ooh, did I love how far he had to fall from his Blonde God pedestal and the humility he learned as a result). But her horrible, loveless childhood makes it impossible for her to know what love is, to even understand that she’s capable of loving. All these emotions, his thoughtfulness and respect, her care, the affection of those around them, the nurturing…it all adds to a story with a big heart.

Under the Stars of Paris by Mary Burchell — Burchell was writing contemporaries in the 1950s, so to some extent, I read it as a historical novel. Florian is an haut couture designer in Paris. Anthea is a Londoner, who’s moved to Paris to escape a jilting and a scheming stepmother. There she falls into a job as Florian’s mannequin showing off the models of his Collection at the spring show. The hero is very much an alpha, make no mistake, in spite of this opening description of him: a slight, fair-haired man with beautiful hands, thinning hair, and the air of an exhausted and impatient schoolboy. And out of this, Burchell spins gold. Despite being written in the 1950s, this story did not feel dated. It was superbly developed in its short form with distinct, memorable characters. Best line of the book? Il faut souffrir pour être belle. Indeed!

–Keira Soleore