It simply cannot be stated loudly enough that romance authors are out there doing important work. In a reality that seems primed to stress us out as often as possible, the escape that fiction provides cannot be trivialized. How many of us have retreated into the pages of either a new story or a comfort read, especially these last few months? (You can’t see it, but I’m slowly raising my hand…) Perhaps you’ve gone the audiobook route so you can listen to old favorites again and again. Even knowing the destination doesn’t make the journey any less compelling, especially when it can offer us reassurance of optimism, the strength of love, and the power of a happy ending. These days, that sounds pretty subversive all on its own, doesn’t it?
July can notoriously be a hot month, and the books below aren’t necessarily the easiest way to cool down, if you catch my drift. From grumpy meets sunshine to rom-coms and fairy tales reinterpreted to fake relationships abounding, these fabulous romance reads may actually help you beat the heat—provided you’re also taking care to drink water at the necessary intervals!
Honey & Spice by Bolu Babalola
Release Date: July 5 from William Morrow
Why You’ll Love It: Those who follow the insightful and wickedly funny Bolu Babalola on Twitter will know that she is a self-described Romcomoisseur, so of course the anticipation for when she would finally pour her understanding of the genre into a book was already high! The result, Honey & Spice, could not be any more of a brilliant, discerning, and entirely human portrait of romance.
Kiki is the type of heroine who goes on her own, independent journey to discover her fullest self, but she’s also hardened herself against the potential for romance. Enter Malakai, who seems perfectly poised to knock down her walls in the most disarming manner possible, and the banter that results is off the charts. What also makes the two of them work on the page is the fact that theirs isn’t the only relationship that Kiki finds herself navigating—-the book also places the same amount of emphasis and importance on friendship as it does its main romance, and how all of those dynamics can be fulfilling and enriching in a person’s life. Ultimately, Honey & Spice does what more romances should do: it prioritizes joy, especially joy that might come in the wake of struggle, and offers the right blend of sweet and heat, just like its title indicates.
Publisher’s Description: Sharp-tongued (and secretly soft-hearted) Kiki Banjo has just made a huge mistake. As an expert in relationship evasion and the host of the popular student radio show Brown Sugar, she’s made it her mission to make sure the women of the African-Caribbean Society at Whitewell University do not fall into the mess of “situationships”, players, and heartbreak. But when the Queen of the Unbothered kisses Malakai Korede, the guy she just publicly denounced as “The Wastemen of Whitewell,” in front of every Blackwellian on campus, she finds her show on the brink.
They’re soon embroiled in a fake relationship to try and salvage their reputations and save their futures. Kiki has never surrendered her heart before, and a player like Malakai won’t be the one to change that, no matter how charming he is or how electric their connection feels. But surprisingly entertaining study sessions and intimate, late-night talks at old-fashioned diners force Kiki to look beyond her own presumptions. Is she ready to open herself up to something deeper?
The Romance Recipe by Ruby Barrett
Release Date: July 12 from Carina Adores
Why You’ll Love It: Ruby Barrett proved herself an immediate winner for me with her first book, Hot Copy, and you don’t necessarily have to have read that one to dive into The Romance Recipe—which cooks up an irresistible premise between two women who are working together in a professional setting but realize that they want things between them to be a lot more personal. Although boss/employee relationships can be a tricky needle to thread in romance, especially in terms of the potential power dynamics at play, Amy and Sophie are essentially peers as restaurant owner and head chef, two pillars who share a stake in the business and therefore can have an equal voice in making decisions, which really contributes to making their relationship work.
Folks have been praising the new FX series The Bear for its realistic portrayals of anxiety and stress in the food industry, and if you came away from that series in the market for a romance novel with a lot of the same themes—that also includes a struggle to keep a restaurant afloat but with way more kissing—The Romance Recipe is more than capable of serving the same energy, only turned up to eleven with some extra spice on top and the kind of steam capable of setting any kitchen on fire.
Publisher’s Description: Amy Chambers: restaurant owner, micromanager, control freak.
Amy will do anything to revive her ailing restaurant, including hiring a former reality-show finalist with good connections and a lot to prove. But her hopes that Sophie’s skills and celebrity status would bring her restaurant back from the brink of failure are beginning to wane…
Sophie Brunet: grump in the kitchen/sunshine in the streets, took thirty years to figure out she was queer.
Sophie just wants to cook. She doesn’t want to constantly post on social media for her dead-in-the-water reality TV career, she doesn’t want to deal with Amy’s take-charge personality and she doesn’t want to think about what her attraction to her boss might mean…
Then, an opportunity: a new foodie TV show might provide the exposure they need. An uneasy truce is fine for starters, but making their dreams come true means making some personal and painful sacrifices and soon, there’s more than just the restaurant at stake.
Always Be My Duchess by Amalie Howard
Release Date: July 12 from Forever
Why You’ll Love It: I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for a good rom-com retelling, and even more so if it takes place in a completely different era than the original version. Enter the first book in Amalie Howard’s new Taming of the Dukes series, which asks the question: what if Pretty Woman, but set in the Regency period? That concept and the clear homage to the film poster on the cover were enough to hook me, but the story itself slayed me from page one.
Lysander Blackstone, Duke of Montcroix (whose name is not-often-lovingly shortened to “Stone” simply because of how rigid he can be emotionally) is trying to secure a new business deal, but he has more than a considerable reputation for not being the kind of man who wants lasting commitment or a family, which could jeopardize the outcome. Enter Nève Valery, a former ballerina who finds herself strapped for cash and in need of a way to help her sister out. Pretending to be a duke’s betrothed shouldn’t be that hard, right? But while the two clash over every situation imaginable, their differences—economically, personally, and otherwise—may be the very reason why they’re perfect for each other, and not just to convincingly pull off a temporary ruse.
Publisher’s Description: Lord Lysander Blackstone, the stern Duke of Montcroix, has only one interest: increasing his considerable fortune. After a series of betrayals, he keeps his emotions buried deep. Money, after all, can’t break a man’s heart—or make promises it can’t keep. But when his reputation for being heartless jeopardizes a new business deal, he finds himself seeking a most unusual—and alluring—solution…
Once an up-and-coming ballerina, Miss Geneviève Valery is now hopelessly out of work. After refusing to become a wealthy patron’s mistress, Nève was promptly shown the door to the streets. When she accidentally saves the life of a handsome duke, she doubts the encounter will go any better than her last brush with nobility. But instead of propositioning her, Montcroix makes Nève an offer she would be a fool to refuse: act as his fake fiancée in exchange for fortune enough to start over.
Only neither is prepared when very real feelings begin to grow between them. They both stand to win… but only if they’re willing to risk their hearts.
Bet on It by Jodie Slaughter
Release Date: July 12 from St. Martin’s
Why You’ll Love It: I’ve been a fan of Jodie Slaughter’s since I read White Whiskey Bargain, her modern-day marriage of convenience romance (go look it up, you’ll thank me later), and ever since then, she has been both an auto-buy and a cannot-miss author for me. Bet On It delivers on so much of what I’ve personally enjoyed from Slaughter in the past but also introduces new and compelling framing, as well as a story concept that manages to be equal parts sexy, swoony, emotional, and complex.
Of course, it should be noted that any time Slaughter writes a couple in romance, they are going to have mindblowingly good chemistry, and Bet On It’s duo is no exception to the rule. Aja and Walker fall in love against the backdrop of a small South Carolina town—complete with Piggly Wiggly—but it turns out that retreating to a quieter spot doesn’t necessarily always help Aja with things like managing her anxiety. Walker is there, in the moment, the first time they meet, and while they begin the journey of wooing the hell out of one another, they’re also cognizant of each other’s issues and reach a point of acceptance not in spite of, but because of the deeply-rooted struggles that exist. Slaughter writes a love story that is as much about compassion and understanding between two people as it is romance and hot, hot attraction.
Publisher’s Description: The first time Aja Owens encounters the man of her dreams, she’s having a panic attack in the frozen foods section of the Piggly Wiggly. The second time, he’s being introduced to her as her favorite bingo buddy’s semi-estranged grandson. From there, all it takes is one game for her to realize that he’s definitely going to be a problem. And if there’s anything she already has a surplus of, it’s problems.
In Walker Abbott’s mind, there are only two worthwhile things in Greenbelt, South Carolina. The peach cobbler at his old favorite diner and his ailing grandmother. Dragging himself back after more than a decade away, he’s counting down the days until Gram heals and he can get back to his real life. Far away from the trauma inside of those city limits. Just when he thinks his plan is solid, enter Aja to shake everything up.
A hastily made bingo-based sex pact is supposed to keep this…thing between them from getting out of hand. Especially when submitting to their feelings means disrupting their carefully balanced lives. But emotions are just like bingo callers—they refuse to be ignored.
For Butter or Worse by Erin La Rosa
Release Date: July 26 from HQN
Why You’ll Love It: Like The Romance Recipe mentioned above, Erin La Rosa’s romance debut is set in the realm of the culinary industry. But For Butter or Worse certainly kicks up the enemies-to-lovers flavors and sets it all within the cutthroat landscape of reality television, so you know emotions are going to be running even higher, and probably a little hotter too.
Such is the case for chef Nina, who’s been tapped to host The Next Cooking Champ! and really assert herself as a name in professional cooking, but she cannot get past the obstacle that is her co-host, smarmy restaurateur Leo. Never mind that Leo has never truly intended to piss Nina off; it just kind of ends up going that way! Granted, anyone with a self-education in the genre of romance knows that when two people absolutely can’t stand one another, it usually means they’re masking feelings that go much deeper than simple loathing. But when they realize that a fake relationship might actually help both of their professional situations, they might just have to give in and put on their best act for the cameras. Then again, playing pretend turns out to feel better than it should…
Publisher’s Description: All chef Nina Lyon wants is to make a name for herself in the culinary world and inspire young women everywhere to do the same. For too long, she’s been held back and underestimated by the male-dominated sphere of professional kitchens, and she’s had enough. Now, as co-host of the competitive reality TV series The Next Cooking Champ!, she finally has a real shot at being top tier in the foodie scene. Too bad her co-host happens to be Hollywood’s smarmiest jerk.
Restaurateur Leo O’Donnell never means to get under Nina’s skin. It just seems to happen, especially when the cameras are rolling. It’s part of the anxiety and stress he has come to know all too well in this line of work. So nothing prepares him for the fallout after he takes one joke a smidge too far and Nina up and quits—on live TV.
To make matters worse, the two are caught in what looks like a compromising situation by the paparazzi…and fans of the show go absolutely nuts. Turns out, a “secret romance” between Nina and Leo may just be what their careers need most.
Now all they have to do is play along, without killing each other…and without catching feelings. Easy as artisanal shepherd’s pie. Right?
A Duchess by Midnight by Charis Michaels
Release Date: July 26 from Avon
Why You’ll Love It: I’ve been an avid follower of Charis Michaels’ Awakened by a Kiss series, which takes familiar fairy-tale conceits and breathes new life into them. You’ll recognize familiar characters like a mercenary who goes by the name of “the Huntsman,” or a travel agent known as Miss Tinker. This time around, Michaels has taken someone who no one might have expected to get her own romance and delivered a charming retelling with authenticity and nuance.
Drew Trelayne is a former wicked stepsister intent on changing her ways. Now distantly removed from her terrible mother, she’s decided to focus her efforts on finding ways to help others reach their fullest potential, and what better route to take than opening a finishing school? But in order to do that, she needs funds, and helping the reclusive Duke of Lachlan prepare his nieces to venture into society properly could be the answer to her financial problems. Fighting their attraction to one another proves harder than they expect, and being caught in a compromising position can only end up with one outcome: marriage. What comes next? You’ll have to read to find out.
Publisher’s Description: A Former Ugly Duckling…. Miss Drewsmina “Drew” Trelayne is a former awkward child and one-time wicked stepsister. Raised by a bitter, overbearing mother, Drew is all grown up and has made peace with her orange hair and bean-pole height. Her transformation has inspired her dream of opening a finishing school that emphasizes inner beauty, capability, and confidence. But launching a school costs money so Drew must begin with private clients who pay well and don’t ask many questions.
A Reclusive Duke…Ian Clayblack, the Duke of Lachlan, lives alone on his Dorset estate, forced by scandal into a smuggler’s life. When his estranged sister arrives with her two daughters, he feels obligated to give the girls a proper Season. Venturing back to society could clear his name and provide his vagabond nieces with a better life. Who better to help than the striking Miss Trelayne?
A Midnight Kiss… Affording Drew’s services isn’t a problem for Lachlan, but his growing desire for her is. As his nieces warm to her gentle charm, he is overwhelmed by her unique beauty and open manner. When they’re caught in a scandalous embrace, nothing short of marriage will save all of them from further scandal.
Can a marriage made in haste be love’s saving grace?
Nobody’s Princess by Erica Ridley
Release Date: July 26 from Forever
Why You’ll Love It: Ridley’s Wild Wynchesters series has consisted of insta-buys for me from the first installment, and with book #3 now out, readers are in for a delightful treat. The titular Wynchesters are a found family of truly endearing characters, each with their own unique quirks and talents — and the hero of Nobody’s Princess, Graham, prides himself on being a man who knows everything about everything thanks to his spy network. However, he’s not the intense agent of intelligence you’d expect; he manages to be a wholesome, enthusiastic presence, on-page, but he’s certainly not prepared to have his life upended by the sudden arrival of a dagger-wielding woman.
Kuni is a heroine who is hardly waiting for any man to come in and sweep her off her feet or away from her current circumstances. She has plans and goals of her own, and wants to follow in her father’s footsteps rather than doing what’s expected of her. The loveliest element to it all is that Graham wholly supports her in her dream and is willing to do whatever it takes to help her fulfill it — and isn’t that what we all want, and more importantly, deserve in life and in love? Between family hijinks, forced proximity, and enduring charm, Ridley continues to demonstrate why she’s one of the best in the histrom genre.
Publisher’s Description: Nothing happens in London without Graham Wynchester knowing. His massive collection of intelligence is invaluable to his family’s mission of aiding those most in need. So when he deciphers a series of coded messages in the scandal sheets, Graham’s convinced he must come to a royal’s rescue. But his quarry turns out not to be a princess at all… The captivating Kunigunde de Heusch is anything but a damsel in distress, and the last thing she wants is Graham’s help.
All her life, Kuni trained alongside the fiercest Royal Guardsmen in her family, secretly planning to become her country’s first Royal Guardswoman. This mission in London is a chance to prove herself worthy without help from a man, not even one as devilishly handsome as Graham. To her surprise, Graham believes in her dream as much as she does, which makes it harder to resist kissing him…and falling in love. But how can she risk her heart if her future lies an ocean away?
Carly Lane is an Atlanta-based writer who considers herself a lifelong Star Wars fan, newbie Trekker, diehard romance reader, nascent horror lover, and occasional live-tweeter. She is the senior TV editor at Collider, a former contributing editor for SYFY FANGRRLS, and has also written for Vulture, the Boston Globe, Nerdist, Teen Vogue, Den of Geek, The Toast, and elsewhere around the Internet.