When I learned Dreamspinner Press was launching a category line, I launched. Zinged giddily at the idea–ohmygosh old-school tropey gay romances? yes please!–and at the chance to write my own old-school tropey gay romance.
Way back in mumblemumble, I fell into reading romance thanks to literally tripping over it. More precisely, two old grocery boxes full of vintage Harlequins. The books were pristine, packed two layers deep, the boxes left on the ground next to a construction dumpster I was diving in for scrap material (small college theater programs–poor but making it work!). We managed a good haul for the production: plywood, lengths of 2×4, metal flashing, and a container of weird’n’creepy baby doll parts. I nabbed the books. Part not able to stand the thought of leaving them there, part burning curiosity.
I didn’t grow up as or into a romance reader. There were none in my house, not quite verboten, but never mentioned or encouraged. I also didn’t have a grandma with walls of bookshelves or a friend’s basement stuffed full of old romances to inhale when no one was looking. But I always had the idea I wanted to read romance–I wanted to know about them even if I wasn’t destined to become a fan–but never had the immediate chance. Finding those two boxes were my romance gateway; a treasure trove, a cherished secret I could savor, an array of brightly colored tempting sweets like a heart-shaped Valentine.
Jane Arbor. Margaret Way. Rebecca Stratton. Margaret Malcolm. Jane Donnelly. Katrina Britt. Charlotte Lamb. Elizabeth Ashton. Claudia Jameson. Margaret Rome. Betty Neels.
Are these Titans of Harlequin ringing a bell with anyone else?
I can easily picture their oil painted and color block covers. Can easily recall the emotions the final ten-some pages delivered as climax, resolution, and HEA came in quick succession. I picked up on the formula and pattern of the books pretty quickly, but didn’t mind. The books were “sweet,” a term I didn’t know yet, but the lack of heat didn’t bother me either. Even the throwback (regressive) Guiding Hand or Domineering Male gender dynamic didn’t get under my modern skin. I never felt manipulated by their neat and tidy package, because under the shiny newness and my less than discriminating appetite for more, they worked. On a elemental level, they worked. Romantic, happily ever after, oh hooray. I devoured them, reading one or two in a sitting between classes and homework sessions.
I still have those Harlequins. On occasion I pluck one or two out and read those key, final ten-some pages, where everything happens. They live, sorted by author, year, color, in two much nicer boxes tucked away in my closet. Those authors and their books ushered me into the world of romance–with enthusiastic thanks from a huge fan–and I never looked back. But I also moved forward, and after blazing through them, sought more complex stories and characters arcs (and nothing more from those authors’ catalogues).
Except for Betty.
Something about Betty was special. Resonated in me. Hit my just-right place. Compelled me to find all her other books after savoring the few from the treasure trove. Her books felt familiar and comforting, but with all the right heartclench and swoopy feelings in all the right places, and always left me replete. The Promise of Happiness was the first Betty I read–the second I selected from the boxes–and remains my very favorite. Of hers, of those gateway Harlequins, of romance.
As a reader, Betty is my go-to comfort read. As an author, she’s my writing hero.
After retiring from nursing at 60, Betty agreed with an overheard complaint that there just weren’t enough good romances to read, and set out to write her own. 30 years and 134 books later, she certainly had.
That alone is inspiring. I mean, wow. But add in how her books make me feel, how many readers’ hearts her books have touched, and it’s beyond wow. It’s awesome and glorious and every writer’s dream.
Betty only really wrote iterations of two stalwart plot types, but she made them hers and made them work. She created the necessity for two more boxes in my closet, only all Bettys, sorted to my own system–Greater Betty, Lesser Betty–because even non-faves still hit that sweet spot. They’re still A Betty Book.
And Betty Books are a thing unto themselves. Wonderful, old-fashioned even for the time they were published, an acquired taste. They’re somewhat ridiculous, and wholly a delight. Dogs and cats and faithful family retainers abound, as do RDDs (Rich Dutch Doctor heroes). The heroine often traipses around on a travelogue or hop-scotches from thankless task to thankless task, while the vastly proportioned RDD plays close to the vest, bides his time, and guilds them to a quiet, and quietly earned, HEA. Not everyone clicks with Betty–that’s just how books+readers go–but if you do, oh you do, and welcome to the land of TGB (The Great Betty) and being a Betty Devotee.
I have friends across the globe thanks to Betty. As a reader, I have a sure place of escapism that provides long, aching or satisfied sighs, and dreamy interludes. As an author, I have the spark of all she achieved in my mind, and heart.
Two For Trust is my ode, my homage, my love letter to Betty. It’s not quite a missing title from her canon, but I wrote it to fit cozily on the bookshelf alongside hers. I owe her that much, and am elated to have the opportunity. If, like me, you love the old, tropey, vintage Harlequins–see the names above, Betty especially–Two For Trust is my love letter to you, too.
Two For Trust is a sweet, Bettyesque, contemporary category. Available May 15 from Dreamspinner Press @ all the usual book-buying outlets.