NEW YORK - There's a new kind of romance novel in which no bodices get ripped, no loins throb, no breasts heave, and the cover is more likely to feature a wedding dress than a shirtless Fabio.
And while a kiss is still a kiss, it no longer sends the hero on an inexorable journey to "the pulsing flower of her womanhood."
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., one of the world's leading publishers of romance novels, is introducing a line of inspirational Christian fiction in which the heroine is always chaste and God is the third figure in every love triangle.
In a testament to the growing popularity of religious fiction, the Ontario-based publishing house launched its new Steeple Hill division in September with three Christian romances.
Steeple Hill plans to bring out three a month through the end of the year and eventually branch out to broader areas of religious fiction and nonfiction.
With Harlequin's publishing muscle behind it, the line represents a major step for religious fiction, enabling it break out of Christian bookstores and into mass-market sellers such as Kmart and Wal-Mart.
"It not only speaks loud and clear about the market, but it does, if you will, give a validity to this market because it speaks from a commercial voice. ... It speaks with all the neutrality of the cash register," said Phyllis Tickle, religion editor for Publishers Weekly.
The new Harlequin fiction line also returns the romance novel to its gentler roots, when governesses would look longingly across the room at noblemen or tycoons for most of the book and the tale would end with nothing more salacious than the characters rushing into each other's arms and saying, "I love you."
As romance fiction took off during the 1980s and more publishers entered the field, the competitive juices produced more explicit prose. The characters in some Harlequin romances now consummate their love in detail.
In the Steeple Hill romances, the kisses are described in passionate detail, but the action stops there. Not even married couples have sex in these books.
Rather, the love stories are set in the larger context of the characters' relationships with God. Through faith, they overcome past hurts and learn to love again.
On the last page of In Search of Her Own by Carole Gift Page, the rugged hero draws the vulnerable young woman into his arms, holds her close and kisses her "with a slow, tender passion."
"Then he said huskily, `Will you marry me, Victoria?"'
Her answer: "Yes, yes, yes!"
In the final scene, Phillip and Victoria watch the moonlight cast a soft glow over the sleeping son she had given up years ago.
"No matter what happens, we'll never be alone," she says, "because our heavenly Father will be with us and watching over us forever."
"The readers who are reading these books, they are looking for entertainment," said Anne Canadeo, editor of the "Love Inspired" series from Steeple Hill. "But they are also looking for a moral message to take away, to make it more than mindless entertainment."
And there are a lot of people out there who are looking for fiction that is consistent with their faith, Harlequin said.
Lisa Myles, special promotions manager for the publishing house, said "inspirational" books are one of the fastest-growing markets, with sales projected to rise from 118.4 million books in 1995 to 133.2 million in 2000. According to one poll, she said, 31 percent of American women in 1995 bought a spiritual book other than the Bible.
She said the company does not release publishing or sales figures, but more than 100,000 of the Christian romances have been sent out, and the initial reaction from major department stores has been positive.