Like 2016 and 2017 before it, 2018 regularly produced an urgent need for some reading escapism (can't imagine why), and the ranks of romance writers didn't disappoint. Once again, the genre was stacked with devilish dukes, concupiscent cowboys, ingenious ingenues, and naughty nannies – and once again, these and hundreds of other characters were brought to life by the hardest-working women in the writing world. These were the best of their efforts in 2018:
10 What Ales the Earl by Sally MacKenzie (Zebra Historical) – This first volume in Sally MacKenzie's “The Widow's Brew” series takes readers to Puddleton Manor's Benevolent Home for “fallen” ladies who've removed to the country and pooled their various skills to make a success of their small brewery and alehouse. In this first outing, single mother Penelope Barnes unexpectedly encounters her child's father, newly risen to his family's titled estates – and sparks fly!
9 Bound For Eden by Tess Lesue (Berkley) – This rowdy and fast-paced Western romance from Tess Lesue is the first installment in the “Frontiers of the Heart” series, centering around the famous Oregon Trail and starring a charismatic trail boss and a young woman traveling under a false identity and on the run from killers. This was a terrific start to a series that's continued to please all year long.
8 The Prince by Katharine Ashe (Avon) – At first the most refreshing thing about this latest in Katharine Ashe's “Devil's Duke” series was the fact that its hero, a portrait-painter known as Ziyaeddin, is neither an English lord nor a Scottish laird. But then Ashe's wonderfully enjoyable portrait of an unfolding love takes over and carries the book to a truly satisfying conclusion.
7 A Match Made in Bed by Cathy Maxwell (Avon) – This second book in Cathy Maxwell's “The Spinster Heiresses” series about the wealthy and temporarily unmarried Holwell sisters focuses on bookworm Cassandra and features, among its many pleasant surprises, a pleasingly conflicted web of feelings between hero and heiress.
6 Devil in Tartan by Julia London (HQN) – On one level, a reader can glean the whole sum and essence of this fourth book in Julia London's “Highland Grooms” series from its cover, as magnificent and straightforward a piece of cover art as the romance genre fielded in all of 2018. And because this is the great Julia London, the book is correspondingly terrific, a boisterous story of a strong-willed Highlander woman and the sea captain she captures!
5 A Gentleman Never Keeps Score by Cat Sebastian (Avon Impulse) – This latest in Cat Sebastian's “Seducing the Sedgwicks” is in many ways the most daring of them all. To the matter-of-fact frankness of the series' portrayal of gay love in Regency England, A Gentleman Never Keeps Score adds layers of both class and race to make for some fascinating romance reading.
4 Hot Winter Nights by Jill Shalvis (Avon) – The “Heartbreaker Bay” series by the mighty Jill Shalvis have all been complete delights, but this sixth installment is the best one yet. The story of an office manager named Molly Malone and the object of her poorly-concealed romantic fixation, this novel ripples with sexual tension and a steady stream of smile-inducing dialogue.
3 What a Difference a Duke Makes by Lenora Bell (Avon) – The premise for Lenora Bell's new “School for Dukes” novel is simple and extremely familiar: a gruff duke needs a new governess to look after his two young children, hires a beautiful woman who is more than she seems, and love ensues. But this is an author who can be relied upon to do more, and What a Difference a Duke Makes is another first-rate example: memorable characters, sparkling dialogue, and some playful plotting.
2 Dirty Little Secret by Jennifer Ryan (Avon) – The sprawling Montana scenery forms the backdrop for this wonderfully playful (and steamy) novel by Jennifer Ryan, the story of a young cowboy who unexpectedly inherits half of his family's ranch – and suddenly finds himself in rivalry (and in erotic fascination) with a new co-owner he doesn't know, a young woman with some pressing secrets of her own.
1 All Dressed in White by Charis Michaels (HarperCollins) – This second book in the “Brides of Belgravia” series, the best romance of 2018, is the complicated and unconventional story of a hard-working merchant who marries for convenience and only very gradually comes to realize not only her own business acumen but the complex ways in which they are a thrilling match. There's a very pleasantly large amount more to this novel than first meets the eye.