My romance reading in 2014 can be summed up in one word: Contemporary. When I look at the almost 200 romances I read last year, only a quarter of them were historical romances. In previous years, that number would have been closer to two thirds. Almost all of the historicals I loved almost all came from authors I’ve read and enjoyed in the past whereas many of the contemps that made my Best of list were penned by authors new to me.

My pick for most enjoyable historical romance of the year comes from Eloisa James. Ms. James, when she’s on her game, writes some of the wittiest romances around. Three Weeks with Lady X (DIK review here) is full of sparkling, sexy exchanges between its heroine, Lady Xenobia India St. Claire, and its hero, Thorn (Tobias) Dautry (the illegitimate son of the Duke of Villiers, the hero of A Duke of Her Own.) I love almost everything about this book–the hero’s grand gesture at the end seemed a bit much–especially the letters Xenobia and Thorn send one another while she is overseeing the refurbishment of his estate. Three Weeks with Lady X is my favorite work by Ms. James in several years.

 Mary Balogh is a consistently strong writer of historical romance. Of the 57 Balogh works we’ve reviewed at AAR, we’ve given her 24 A grades, 23 B grades, 8 C grades, and 2 D grades. Her 2014 release Only Enchanting is an AAR DIK (review here.) Reviewer Caz wrote: Only Enchanting is beautifully written, the characters are fully-rounded and the romance is emotionally satisfying. Flavian and Agnes are engaging characters who make a well-matched couple and their HEA feels all the more deserved because of the difficulty of the journey they have undergone in order to achieve it. I really can’t recommend it highly enough. I completely agree. 

Several of my colleagues have included Joanna Bourne’s Rogue Spy on their Best of 2014 lists. Add me to that list. All but one of Ms. Bourne’s books have been DIKs at AAR and the one that isn’t, My Lord and Spymaster, would have gotten an A from me rather than the B+ it received. (Honestly, any book with Adrian/Hawker in it is a book I’ll happily read and read again.) I remain in awe of Ms. Bourne’s plotting. Rogue Spy is set during 1802, the same year that The Spymaster’s Lady takes place. It is, chronologically, the middle book of the Spymasters series, and, though we’ve encountered Pax (the hero of Rogue Spy) in the later books, his story is a completely engrossing surprise.

Cecilia Grant’s A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong is a tart, smart holiday novella. I wrote my review for it after reading it once. I’ve since read it again and it’s risen in my estimation. (I originally gave it a B.) Ms. Grant is justifiably known for the clarity and crispness of her writing and, in this work, her characterizations as well as her humor are astute. This novella, like her debut A Lady Awakened (review here), takes a romance cliche–here, the fake marriage–and turns it into something new.

Last September, my social media feeds were full of readers raving about Frozen by Meljean Brook. It’s a novella and was (and still is) priced at .99. I’ve read a few of Ms. Brook’s steampunk love stories and enjoyed them so I downloaded Frozen. I’m glad I did. Ms. Brook doesn’t spend a great deal of time world-building here and that’s a good thing. Her focus is on her lovers and the curse they must break to find their HEA. There’s just enough paranormal here–a giant, a clan of werewolves, and soothsaying mother–to give the story intrigue but the heart of the tale is its lovers and they are a compelling pair.

Personal Geography is another book I discovered via social media. The novel is a first person narrative that tells a complicated and compelling story. India, the heroine, is so vividly drawn that I feel I know her in a way fictional heroines rarely come alive. I seldom read romances with a strong BDSM focus because the sexual relationship doesn’t appeal to me. In this book, however, the sex scenes were so explicative of India’s interior life I found them fascinating. Personal Geography is the first of two books that tell India’s and Chris’s story–the second, Intimate Geography, comes out next month.

Avenge Me by Maisey Yates and Scandalize Me by Caitlin Crews are the first two books in the Fifth Avenue trilogy put out by Harlequin last year. (The third, Expose Me, didn’t hold my attention.) The books tell the story of three men all of whom are determined to destroy a corrupt powerful lawyer whose sexual harassment of the women in his employ is truly evil. The stories are linked but not in a way that makes any of them any less strong as stand-alone reads. The heroes are gorgeous, successful, wealthy males; the women they fall for are strong, brilliant, and sensual. Avenge Me and Scandalize Me are well-done steamy reads–they were my favorite category romances of the year.

If you’re not reading Molly O’Keefe, you are missing out. She’s wonderful. Her Boys of Bishop series is delightful and Indecent Proposal is the best of the bunch. This marriage of convenience story rocks. Ms. O’Keefe’s romances feature adult characters who make messy choices and whose path to true love is tenuous. The leads here, a bartender with a chip on her shoulder and a politician afraid to put anything before his ambition, must overcome their own limitations and doing so is damn hard. The novel is sexy, peopled with great secondary characters, and impossible to put down. I loved it and I can’t wait to read what Ms. O’Keefe writes next.

I am rarely drawn to the nice guys in romance. (I blame an early exposure to Sweet Savage Love.) In fact, there’s only one truly sweet man in this list and that’s Mack Kennedy, the hero of Amy Andrews’s winning No More Mr. Nice Guy. Mack is 100% Dreamboat. He loves his bossy sister, cares for his animal patients with compassion and skill, and, in general, spends his days doing the right thing. But when he discovers his little sister’s best friend Josie has made a sexual to-do list, he decides he’s the man to help her tick off the items on her steamy list. If you’re looking for a sweetheart of a book that will make your pulse rise–Josie has a great list–this is the book for you.

Maisey Yates is the only author who appears twice on my list. Her Untouched was the funniest book I read last year. This book shouldn’t work. The hero’s too old for the virginal heroine and, well, he’s kind of a dick. But he’s the dick trash-talking nerd-girl hero Lark needs and he, rodeo star Quinn Parker, is damn lucky that’s so. Lark and Quinn made me laugh so hard it annoyed my husband who kept asking me, “What’s so funny now?” I’ve read all the books in Ms. Yates’s Silver Creek series and this my favorite thus far.

The other books I loved this year are all mentioned in our staff’s Best of 2014 list. Like Melanie, I adore Larissa Brown’s Beautiful Wreck (review here). Carolyn Crane can write no wrong in my eyes and although I don’t love Into the Shadows quite as much as Heather does, Off the Edge (review here) the former gets my vote for Romantic Suspense novel of the year. I’ve slavered Jackie Ashenden’s Having Her–my pick for best book of the year–so often but humor me: It really is a great read.