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Christie Ridgway’s 11th published novel, This Perfect Kiss, opens with the heroine, a vintage-clothing dealer, heading for an afternoon appointment. She’s dressed in a tight-fitting, flesh-colored chiffon evening gown out of which her voluptuous breasts keep threatening to spill. (For reasons beyond her control, she hasn’t changed into the business suit she’d planned to wear.) She’s also late, which irritates the man she’s meeting, a wealthy software mogul described as “six lean feet of black hair, blue eyes, and unusual, almost exotic features.”

The two get off to a rocky start; she has to badger him to let her help liquidate his grandfather’s estate. To any seasoned romance reader, it’s clear by page eight that these two will wind up having passionate and extended sexual intercourse (which will be described in graphic detail). Various misunderstandings and tensions will complicate their wild mutual attraction. But by the end of the book, they’ll be bound together for life.

Caidwater, the estate where much of the action in This Perfect Kiss takes place, includes a 44-room mock Moorish castle set amidst eight separate gardens and “acres of undeveloped land…crowning the highest ridge of hills ringing Hollywood.” The author of this fantasy lives in an old neighborhood near the base of Mt. Nebo in La Mesa. Ridgway’s property is a corner lot distinguished by a majestic California pepper tree that sits on a bank of ivy sloping down to the street. Ridgway is conscientious about decorating her house, a two-story tan edifice with teal and white trim. This past Christmas, for example, a Santa and sleigh pulled by five reindeer stretched across the low front roof, and on the porch a wagon held several potted poinsettias. Inside the house, golden-toned wood floors gleam. Ridgway and her husband of 18 years have 13-year-old and 9-year-old sons, as well as a rambunctious golden retriever, but little clutter is evident. You have to enter Ridgway’s office to find hints of her love-soaked calling: a collection of wedding cake ornaments displayed in a bookcase; a file cabinet painted hot pink. Behind her desk hang framed paperback book covers, each one bearing Ridgway’s name.

At the moment, the wall space holds 13 of these literary emblems, but Ridgway’s productions are hard to keep up with. Two just came out last month (First Comes Love and In Love with Her Boss), and three more are slated for publication between now and the beginning of next year.

All her published-book credits place Ridgway among the more prolific romance writers of Southern California, which in turn ranks as one of the steamiest hotbeds for the genre nationwide (second only to Texas). The Orange County chapter of the Romance Writers of America includes about 300 members, making it the largest in the country, and the 20-year-old San Diego branch is also hefty, with a membership of more than 100 women, including 20 or so who have published.

Their collective aim is to help satisfy the voracious appetite among American women for stories about male/female relationships that “end in a way that makes the reader feel good.” That’s how the national writer’s organization defines romance on its website. These novels “are based on the idea of an innate emotional justice — the notion that good people in the world are rewarded and evil people are punished.” Lovers “who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship” receive “emotional justice and unconditional love.”

The sale of such stories amounted to $1.37 billion in 2000, according to the writer’s group. In that year alone, almost 2300 romance titles were released, making romance far and away the most important segment of the book market — accounting for 55.9 percent of all popular paperback fiction sales. That’s twice the percentage claimed by mystery and suspense paperbacks combined (28.1 percent) and more than four times that for “general fiction” (12.9 percent). A 1999 survey of reading habits commissioned by the Romance Writers of America found that 41.4 million people aged ten and older — 18 percent of the reading-age population — had read a romance within the past year.

Women (and a small percentage of men) obtain these books from a variety of outlets. Some get monthly shipments in the mail. Others pick up paperbacks in airports, supermarkets, drugstores. Still others turn to bookstores, both the big chains and smaller stores, such as Gracie’s Book Nook in National City, the Book Mark in Escondido, or Nina’s Books on El Cajon Boulevard, that have a reputation for their robust romance sections. The ultimate local amatory outpost, however, is Romance World in El Cajon.

Picture a parking lot a block away from the Parkway Plaza shopping center. At one end looms a Michael’s craft emporium, and along two sides, long arcades hold back the concrete sea. The overhang of the arcades makes it hard to see the businesses tucked within them, but the strip that shelters the used-tuxedo shop and the hair salon and the plus-size dress store is also home to a vast storehouse of literary love.

Owner Mary Roscom estimates that Romance World contains more than 100,000 volumes, with maybe 80 percent of them romance. Most are paperbacks, the majority used. In the five years she’s owned the business, Roscom has developed a ruthless system for organizing her stock. The newest books face the front door, just steps from the entrance. After a few weeks, they move to the sides of their bookstands. Those unsold later shift again to a lowlier perch. Roscom’s cash register and central work area command the space just beyond the new books. Around and beyond this administrative island, Roscom has created tidy nooks for the used books. Labels hint at the head-spinning varieties within the genre: historical, paranormal, contemporary, inspirational, and more.

“Everything you could get another way — military, horror, mystery, sci-fi — you can get in romance,” Roscom declares. She says whenever she tries to read a straight mystery, she always thinks afterward, “That was good, but it was just missing the romance.”

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