When last we left our bare-chested, chisel-cheeked hero, he’d been through the ringer: he’d been a bookish (and even worse, fully clothed) werewolf, a vampire queen’s bondage-toy, a bitter alien bounty-hunter, a rakehell businessman (on a couple of different continents), and even a British ne’er-do-well. He’d had crises of confidence (what male model hasn’t?), perhaps taken bad advice, and done a butt-load of work for International Male and Undergear, where the merest glimpse of his famous smoldering pout was enough to sell out an entire shipment of lace-front bikini thongs. This was fame – this was the peak of his profession – and yet, something was missing. True, all the heterosexual and fashion-conscious young guys shopping in catalogs now considered our Paul the ne plus ultra of sporty negligee, but surely there’s more to life than flesh-colored shape-enhancers? Through hard work and a generous helping of good genetics, Paul had risen to a certain dominance of the couture world. But was there still a part of him that yearned to be dominated? To be shaped like clay by strong, certain hands, to be re-made into something out of this world? To achieve this, he needed that one crucial element that’s been shaping men since the dawn of time.

Paul needed some naughty, naughty ladies.

You all know the type: three-quarter-length leather trenchcoat, sunglasses even when it’s cloudy outside, the gentlest touch of stiffener in the hair, the lightest brush of rouge on the cheeks, the arms akimbo or defiantly crossed, one leg jutting out at a cocky angle, and the whole combination virtually screaming, “Honey, you’re gonna have to do more than that to impress me.” The publishing world makes much ado over its crusty Tom Clancys and its posingly cerebral Jonathan Franzens, but the simple truth is: the best-seller lists have been almost the sole territory of these naughty, naughty ladies since Patricia Cornwell first butch-chopped her hair and posed in front of a chalk body-outline.

When it comes to crafting breakneck-paced, frankly erotic romantic fantasies, these ladies know exactly what they’re doing – and exactly what they want. And in due course – and with disconcerting unity – they decided they wanted our boy Paul. With cat-like (cougar-like?) claws, they latched onto him, yanked him out of English countryside period-pieces, ripped most of his clothes off, slapped press-on tattoos wherever they’d do the most good, and parked him on the covers of their steamy, uncompromising romance covers. They gave not thought to posing some half-naked woman alongside him – these naughty, naughty ladies just don’t have time for that kind of folderol. These deal in elemental forces, in bare essences, and they harbor no illusions about what it is their audience wants. The whole reason they can live in gated communities and send their kids to the Ivy League is because they know their audience – and that audience doesn’t want to daintily identify with some simpering woman on the cover of a novel: they want a good clean glimpse of a handsome, voracious man right before he swoops right at them, leaps through plate glass at them, steps out of the darkness right at them.

Somewhere around the halcyon year 2008, these naughty, naughty ladies realized that although Paul might not be the biggest, most muscular model out there (or even – gasp – the prettiest), when it comes to doing the whole voracious thing, he has no equal. All he needed was the freedom to show it.

Enter Christina Dodd and her “Darkness Chosen” series (these ladies almost invariably write books in series), specifically the volume called Into the Shadows. This is the story of feisty, strong-willed adventure hotelier Karen Sonnet, who’s guiding an expedition high on the flanks of a mountain somewhere along the border of Tibet and Nepal – an expedition intent on finding lost treasure, although that’s now secondary in Karen’s mind. For many nights in a row, she’s been visited in her tent by a mysterious man who doesn’t seem human and leaves no trace of himself behind come morning (only the most cheeky tattle-tales among you will know how much of that might describe our Paul himself!). It’s the last thing she expected, and it touches her in ways that go beyond the erotic – although Dodd, true to her naughty, naughty nature (don’t let those website photos of hers fool you – sure, there she is curled up on a window-sill with a steaming cuppa and an adorable yellow lab … but I wouldn’t be surprised if the cup contained straight vodka, and the dog is probably only acting all cute and addled (basset hounds have been known to perform the same trick), is happy to keep the erotic part simmering on full heat:

She reclined on her narrow cot in her tent at the foot of Mount Anaya. The darkness pressed down on her; the sense of wrongness in this place oppressed her. She hated everything about it.

And tomorrow she would rise. He would be gone. And she would go to work, another day spent in hell.

So she wept.

He caressed her face with his fingertips, found her tears, said, “No. Don’t do that.”

The tears only flowed more quickly.

He kissed her. Kissed the dampness from her cheeks, her lips, her throat … He kissed as if they hadn’t bade love only ten minutes before. He kissed her with passion. He kissed her with intent. Finally, she forgot to cry, and remembered nothing but desire.

Afterward, as she slid off to sleep, she thought she heard him say in a slow, hoarse voice, “You make me real again.”

Her mystery lover, as she soon finds out, goes by many names – and he isn’t quite real, not in the ordinary-mortal sense of the word. He’s a member of the Varinskis, a semi-legendary group of savage Ukrainian shape-shifters whose infamy is used in bedtime stories to frighten children all over Central Europe (“The children should be frightened,” our hero, Paul, says at one point, “they should shiver in their beds to know creatures such as me are abroad in the world”). Paul himself can transform into a sleek, powerful panther at will, and he does so many times in the course of Into the Shadows, both to menace poor Karen and to save her.

From a Paul who shape-shifts into a panther in order to save the girl, it’s just a small step on little cat feet to a Paul who shape-shifts into a lion in order to save the world, and that’s exactly the situation in Pamela Palmer‘s steamy 2009 fantasy romance Desire Untamed, the first in her “Feral Warriors” series. In this book, Paul is, um, Lyon, the leader of the aforementioned Feral Warriors who are charged with the defense of the Therian people. Key to that defense is radiant female Therian called, um, the Radiant – she’s all that stands between the Feral Warriors and defeat at the hands of vile demons knowns as the, um, Daemons. That Radiant is Kara MacAllister, but Kara knows nothing about her vital genetic legacy – until Lyon tracks her down and tells her all about it. And even then, she’s not buying it:

“Why do you call me Radiant?”

“You are the caller of the energies of the Earth. It’s through you that your race renews its strength.”

“I don’t understand.” She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. “I don’t care. I don’t want to be your Radiant.”

Needless to say, a few dozen pages of access to Paul’s burly shoulders and oh-so-inviting chest – not to mention his ability to transform into the world’s biggest pussy – quickly changes all her reluctance into ecstatic cooperation. She wouldn’t have hemmed and hawed at all if she’d only looked at her novel’s cover first: it’s pure, animal Paul – and who could resist that?

Those were-kitties might have had different methods, but they were united in one trait: they’re pretty identifiable as heroes right from the start, despite their bad-boy trappings. Far more grey areas exist in Lover Avenged, a novel in the “Black Dagger Brotherhood” series of the mighty J. R. Ward. This novel is a very different proposition than the other two – on scale alone if nothing else. Ward writes big, densely-detailed romantic fantasies full of gutter language, intricate, multi-layered plots, and great heaps of great dialogue. Palmer and Dodd (!!!) write quick, frothy escapist fare, and they do it with flair; Ward, in book after book, writes something far more ambitious. There’s still plenty of titillation in her books (she’s not a square or anything), but there’s also a fully-envisioned fantasy world out there, complete with its own vocabulary, taxonomy, and hierarchy. It’s like Tolkien played out on Raymond Chandler’s mean streets, only the Elves stop every fifteen minutes to have sex with the private dicks. Or something like that.

Lurking somewhere near the top of the food chain in this dark and perverted world is a dark figure named, um, Rehvenge – that’s our Paul (despite the fact that Rehvenge is about two feet taller than our hero), and here he’s fallen so low, so thoroughly embraced his dark side as a quasi-vampire and owner of a nefarious drug-laundering nightclub, that in the novel’s first half he’s utterly indistinguishable from a bad guy:

Drug dealing was a very lucrative business.

In his private office at ZeroSum, Rehvenge went over the night’s receipts at his desk, meticulously checking off the amounts to the penny. iAm was doing the same over at Sal’s Restaurant, and the first order of business at each nightfall was the meet here and compare results.

Most of the time they came up with the same total. When they didn’t, he deferred to iAm.

Between the alcohol, drugs, and sex, gross receipts were over two hundred and ninety thousand for ZeroSum alone. Twenty-two people worked at the club on salary, including ten bouncers, three bartenders, six prostitutes, Trez, iAm, and Xhex; costs for them all ran about seventy-five grand a night. Bookies and authorized floor dealers, meaning those drug dealers he allowed to sell on his premises, were on commission, and whatever was left after they’d taken their cut was his. Also, every week or so, he or Xhex and the Moors executed major product deals with a select number of distributors who had their own drug networks either in Caldwell or in Manhattan.

(Nor is the lord of all this wretched excess himself above it all – that scenario is immediately followed by an extremely realistic description of Rehvenge shooting up). Like other naughty, naughty ladies – indeed, more so than any of them – Ward doesn’t pull her punches: when she sets out to make a fallen character, they’re guilty of more than some unpaid parking tickets – they’re well and truly fallen. It’s true that Rehvenge is due to meet Ehlena, a vampire with a heart of gold who will eventually change him for the better – but it’s a slow, (literally) torturous process, and Ward revels in every agony, personal and physical, that she puts poor Paul through before she’s done with him.

That’s the glory of this book’s cover, perhaps the first truly great Paul Marron book-cover: in just the simple physical fact of him, of his bare skin and bolt-steady stare, we get a cloud of conjured stories – the book attached is very nearly superfluous … the best it can hope to do is live up to the possibilities of that face.

These three books very much do, thanks to the underrated talents of some naughty, naughty ladies. But is Paul destined to stay in their clutches permanently? Or is there perhaps another, quite different, group of ladies eagerly waiting to grab hold of him? We’ll find out – in our next thrilling chapter!