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How to reinvent the romance novel? Think martial arts

A bronzed, shirtless Adonis with chiselled abs and his willowy, full-bosomed lover are locked in a passionate embrace: It's a book cover image that's classic Harlequin, and various incarnations of this coupling blanket the main wall of the Toronto-based publishing company's ninth-floor lobby.

But one stands out: On a book called Her Son's Hero, the hero in question is wearing a black belt and karate uniform.

In an unlikely combination merging mixed-martial arts (MMA) and romance, Her Son's Hero tells the story of Dominic Payette, an MMA fighter who falls in love with single mother Fiona MacAvery. But Fiona has an aversion to violence that stems from her desire to protect her son, a victim of schoolyard bullying, and she initially resists Dominic's advances.

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Written by Toronto writer Vicki So under the pseudonym Vicki Essex ("You can't spell my name without sex," she says), Her Son's Hero is a classic tale of opposites attracting – but wrapped in an unorthodox package.

As the world's largest publisher of romance fiction, Harlequin releases 110 titles a month in 111 countries around the world, and the company is constantly looking for a fresh take on the boy-meets-girl love story.

"We really do take the cue from the authors. If they can deliver a story that is authentic and emotional and grips the reader – whether it involves an alien or someone who has been very wounded in terms of having gone to war and lost a leg because of an amputation because of an injury – it's just such a huge range of things," says Dianne Moggy, vice-president of Harlequin's series and subsidiary rights. "There's nothing that's really taboo in terms of what type of hero you can have – or heroine – or what are the conflicts and the things that they're dealing with."

So, a full-time proofreader at Harlequin, came up with the concept for Her Son's Hero while watching an Ultimate Fighting Championship (a mixed-martial-arts league) match with her sister and friend, who convinced her to write about MMA. At first, So was reluctant, but soon warmed to the idea after discovering that the popular sport had a growing female fan base.

Harlequin has sought inspiration from other less obvious sources as well: there are NASCAR-driven plotlines, for example, and a paranormal series featuring vampires, werewolves and demons.

Other publishing houses have ventured into non-traditional romances too – and have seen the payoff.

"Pop culture drives demand not just in novels, but in everything," says Bahram Olfati, vice-president of adult trade books at Indigo Books and Music. "I can tell you that those books are always in our top sellers."

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Terri Badiuk, 45, is certainly a fan. She says reads Harlequin's paranormal romance stories on her e-reader every day.

"It isn't your traditional girl meets boy; girl falls in love with boy; end of story," she explains. "It's action, power, struggle, love, pleasure, fighting, passion and so much more."

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