Often, reading romance is not unlike being caught up in the middle of a burgeoning love story yourself, where you’re attracted to certain plot beats or falling for specific books but don’t actually understand why. For me, it started with stumbling upon a recent Christina Lauren novel, but when I tried to find other contemporary romances that rang the same bell, I struggled. As I read my way through dozens of romances and slowly discovered specific ones that sparked for me, I couldn’t attribute it to any particular trope; some were one-night-stand, or friends-with-benefits, or fake-dating, but it wasn’t as if I loved every single entry in any of those subgenres.
It wasn’t until listening to Book Riot’s When in Romance podcast that it clicked: What I loved is the “Quick to Bed, Slow to Feelings” romance! It’s stories in which the love interests share one kind of intimacy (the physical kind, with plenty of vulnerability and trust) but aren’t yet ready to become emotionally naked with one another. And when the characters are struggling with this disconnect between their private and public selves, and/or fumbling through the morass of online dating? Gah, I just love it. While the recommendations from When in Romance lean a bit more on the erotica side, below are 7 romance novels that for me best exemplify how you can start a relationship hot-and-heavy but still have the love part be a satisfying slow burn.
In the same night that Christina Lauren introduces the tight-knit quintet of academics, they also set off the spark of attraction between criminology professor Millie Morris and tenured neuroscientist Reid Campbell: When she comes on to him while tipsy and horny, it both feels astonishingly sudden and like something the two best friends have been building toward for years. Complicating things is their insistence that it remain a friends-with-benefits situation (oof) coupled with the group making a pact to find dates for a university function via online dating apps (eek), with Millie unintentionally catfishing Reed as her more vulnerable persona “Catherine” (ohh nooo).
Falling for each other intellectually while continuing their secret hookups under their friends’ noses? It’s a hot mess, and so realistic, and is one of the best romances I’ve read that gets at how modern dating makes us compartmentalize ourselves instead of trusting someone to accept the whole package.
I don’t always go for the “we had a one-night stand, and then the koooookiest thing happened—we work together!” premise. (What can I say, I considered it one-and-done with Grey’s Anatomy.) But Julia Whelan carries off that twist beautifully by placing her love interests in an industry in which they can obscure their faces and thus their true identities: Sewanee Chester is an audiobook narrator (so good, in fact, that she keeps up a Texan accent the whole night!) who has a romance-novel-in-the-flesh perfect night in Las Vegas with charming stranger Nick.
But when incredible circumstances contrive to cross their paths again through Romancelandia, Sewanee is stunned to discover in how many different ways Nick is already part of her professional life. Whelan sells the idea that you can sleep with one man, swap emails and voice notes with another, and fall for another man entirely—and makes it all seem stranger than fiction.
The second installment in Talia Hibbert’s The Brown Sisters series (and my personal favorite) sees pragmatic professor Danika Brown letting herself be talked into a fake dating arrangement with her friend Zafir Ansari, the security guard at their workplace. Now, for Zaf it involves capitalizing upon a viral moment, ultimately for an extremely good cause; he rescued her from a fire drill, social media is hardcore shipping the ex-rugby player and the PhD student, and he wants to capitalize upon the fame to signal-boost his organization helping kids channel their feelings into rugby.
That’s very sweet and all, but Dani’s motives are more purely straightforward, if less altruistic: She wants a no-strings-attached friends-with-benefits situation—and she gets it, even as Zaf makes it clear from the start that he’s compromising his own ethics about sex and love. But as they manufacture more #DrRugbae moments for smartphones, while getting closer off-camera with incredibly hot hookups, Dani realizes that relationships may demand work, yes, but that they don’t have to make her sacrifice what else is important to her.
There are no words more tempting or damning in this subgenre of contemporary romance than “let’s just get it out of our system.” This fateful sentiment is shared by Zoe and Aiden, who have an awful history in which she was part of the law firm that negotiated the settlement for the pharmaceutical company responsible for his brother’s death by opioid overdose. After winning the lottery and leaving her soul-sucking job, Zoe wants to atone for her past actions; but assuaging that guilt means pretending to be Aiden’s fiancée at his childhood summer camp.
It doesn’t take long for these squabbling fake lovers to realize that part of what drives each other crazy is an insane attraction that they decide to act on only during their camp weekends (yeah, right). But the deeper, more poignant vein in Kate Clayborn’s Chance of a Lifetime series is about what people owe to one another; Aiden is adamant that Zo (!—the nickname’s how you know he’s a goner) not owe him this intimacy, that this is something real and not part of the lie. From that point, I was hooked.
So what’s interesting about The Kiss Quotient is that autistic heroine Stella Lane sets out to fulfill the parameters of this trope, even if the execution doesn’t quite go according to plan. Working backward from wanting to give her parents grandchildren, Stella surmises that she should get herself a life partner, but that her past lovers must think she’s bad at sex—ergo, hiring escort Michael Phan to help her improve in the bedroom.
Even though the terms of their deal quickly change—for one, Michael breaks his rule of no repeat sessions with clients; for another, by the time they really get physically intimate, feelings are starting to come into play—their shared attitude about sex as something that can exist parallel from love fits the bill. It also makes it incredibly amusing for the reader to watch as sex and feelings quickly become perpendicular.
(clapping) Sex pact! Sex pact! Sex pact!
Well—before the sex pact comes the public panic attack. See, love interests Aja Owens and Walker Abbott initially meet when he recognizes the paralyzing signs of anxiety and helps her through it—its own form of intimacy, trusting a stranger at the Piggly Wiggly. Then they discover that they have something else in common: bingo, which Aja happens to play with Walker’s estranged grandmother.
With Walker in town only temporarily, and neither interested in the complications of a relationship, they decide to act on their chemistry, but only within some very specific boundaries: Every time one of them wins at bingo, they can have sex. Now, imagine how worked up people can get about bingo, but with stakes like these? It gets emotional real fast, in a way that demonstrates why this type of arrangement is both the best and worst idea for these lovers who think they know what they want, when the reader knows what they really need.
However much we all cynically believe that most Hollywood romances are more likely business arrangements to make each star sparkle for the paparazzi, you have to assume that the celebrities involved are at least baseline attracted to each other, if they’re going to spend so many candlelit dinners and long beach walks together. But what’s especially fun about Ava Wilder’s fake-dating-a-movie-star contemporary romance is that both parties are hopelessly horny for each other—or, at least, idealized versions of each other.
Grey Brooks literally grew up with a poster of Ethan Atkins on her wall in his heartthrob phase; the fact that the man her publicist pairs her up with is divorced, approaching middle age, and sorely in need of a career comeback only increases the attraction, like seeing the pretty boy roughed up by time and misfortune. (His issues with alcohol, however, keep her crush from being too starry-eyed.) And Ethan, used to the dissonance between his idolized persona and his current self, is intrigued by Grey’s passion to advance in her own career beyond a teen primetime-soap star. The sexual tension stretches taut as they keep challenging themselves to be authentic (even as they’re putting on a show for everyone else), culminating in a scene of mutual letting-off-steam that brings together all of these themes—public versus private, performance versus reality—superbly. And then things really get real.
Natalie Zutter is a Brooklyn-based playwright and pop culture critic whose work has appeared on Tor.com, NPR Books, Den of Geek, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @nataliezutter.