Why Did They Do That? Romances That Broke The HEA Rule

broke the hea rule

Warning: Here Be Spoilers on HEA in Romance

The HEA in romance has always been a none of contention with detractors. But a book must have a happy ending to be considered a romance. Just as every detective novel must include a mystery to solve. That’s the only rule for the genre.

Some older romances played fast and loose with expectations, especially ones published during the bodice ripper heyday. In the past, some novels–and even many today–attempted to defy that inviolable law. Doing so inevitably angers readers because if there’s one thing writers are not supposed to mess with, it’s The Happy Ending.

Not all romances end with the couple–or whatever permutation–married with a dozen babies. Regardless, there’s an expectation of a committed relationship that will last the test of time.

But what about those romances that broke the HEA rule? What are those books, and what is their legacy? Let’s examine some pre-2000s novels that did the unthinkable.

Actor Joaquin Phoenix from “Gladiator,” 2000; Directed by Ridley Scott; Produced by DreamWorks & Universal Pictures

Jennifer Wilde’s Marietta Danvers Trilogy

Jennifer Wilde broke the romance rules all the time, never quite letting the reader know who the book’s hero was until almost the end. Her first book, Love’s Tender Fury, definitively had Marietta Danvers ending up with Derek.

But in the second book, Love Me, Marietta, she spends a lot of time with a new man, Jeremy Bond. By that book’s denouement, it’s revealed that Derek is a no-good-nick, already married to a pregnant wife! He still wants Marietta as his sidepiece, though. Love Me, Marietta has a cliffhanger ending as Marietta rides in a carriage, racing to reunite with Jeremy.

When Love Commands will have Marietta engage with other sexual partners. In the end, she does settle down with one man. There s a HEA in this romance series, just not with the man you expect.

Roberta Gellis: The Roselynde Chronicles

Roberta Gellis was a stickler for being historically accurate. The young heroine, Alinor, of her novel Roselynde is married to Ian, a man 30 years her senior, which isn’t unusual for a medieval setting. In romance novels, sometimes we overlook issues caused by age differences, like the much older partner leaving his partner widowed while she’s still young. That’s what happens in the second book of the series, Alinor.

Publishers Playboy Press had initially pitched the Roselynde series as an “Angelique” type series set in the middle ages. The heroine would find romance with a new man in each book. Fortunately, the publishers limited the idea to only two novels. The rest of the books in the series deal with Alinor’s many children finding love.

Elaine Barbieri’s Amber Series

In Elaine Barbieri’s Amber trilogy, the first book, Amber Fire, seems like a typical bodice ripper. Melanie has various men in her life as lovers and husbands. The first book culminates with Melanie finding happiness with Simon.

However, Simon passes away in book two, Amber Treasure. Amber finds consolation with his best friend, Worth, but another man still has her heart.

Their love story is told in the second half of Amber Treasure and concludes in the final installment, Amber Passion.

Aleen Malcolm’s Cameron Trilogy

Aleen’s Malcolm wrote a fierce yet tender bodice ripper romance with her first outing, The Taming. Free-spirited, 15-year-old Cameron became the handfasted bride of the older Alexander Sinclair. Ride Out the Storm, its follow-up needlessly separated the young heroine from her stubborn husband for years.

What occurred in the third book, Daughters of Cameron, floored me. Far from having had many years of happy marriage together, Alex and Cameron are separated by war as Alex fights in the American Revolution. When he returns home, he finds his wife is bone-thin and suffering from consumption. Cameron dies early on in the book, before the age of 40.

The rest of the novel is about her two daughters, Kestrel and Rue, finding love. Alex remains a widower, remembering his short time with Cameron fondly. THE HEA in this romance is for her children, not Cameron.

The Pirate’s Captive by Dana Ransom

The Pirate’s Captive by Dana Ransom is a romance I’ve been putting off reading for years. Why? Because I accidentally read its sequel, Alexandra’s Ecstasy, first. In Alexandra’s Ecstasy, I discovered that the main couple from The Pirate’s Captive only had a few happy years together before tragedy struck. That book’s heroine, Merry, died soon after giving birth to a son, who also passed away.

Nicolas, the hero of The Pirate’s Captive, spends Alexandra’s Ecstasy in perpetual mourning for his lost young bride and son. He’s also emotionally distant from his and Merry’s daughter, Alexandra. Nicolas finally reunites with Merry in the ever-after when enemy pirates murder him.

Ena Halliday’s Marielle, Lysette, and Delphine Series

Ena Halliday is a pseudonym for an author whose works I adore, Louisa Rawlings, aka Sylvia Baumgarten. I have loved almost all her books. Even the best writers can create stories that displease their fans, however.

Not only did she break romance’s hard-and-fast rule by denying her protagonists a happily-ever-after-ending. She also gave the hero another woman to love! In Marielle–which had the privilege of being Tapestry romance #1–the heroine of the same name is imprisoned during the reign of Louix XIII. Marielle is a gentlewoman who endures much hardship. To her delight, she is paired with her hero, Andre, supposedly for a long life of happiness.

Book two of the trilogy, Lysette, stars an anti-heroine who has eyes for Marielle’s husband. Before she falls in love with her man, Lysette does her best to destroy Marielle’s & Andre’s marriage.

Finally, poor Marielle passes away a year before the beginning of book 3, Delphine. Her husband Andre finds it hard to move on, but indeed he does, with Delphine. Delphine is 19 years old to Andre’s 43.

That’s not a happy conclusion to a trilogy. It’s a wonder why the author chose this route.

Mary Gillgannon’s Dragon Duo

Mary Gillgannon did something similar in her Dragon series. The first two books focused on a Gaelic King. In Dragon of the Island, the hero, Maelgwn the Great, is a feared warrior fighting against the Romans. The Welsh warlord enters into a marriage of convenience with Aurora.

The heroine is dead in the book’s sequel, Dragon’s Dream. Maelgwn has become a recluse in a monastery, mourning her loss. Then he finds love again with a new bride, Rhiannon, a Celtic princess.

Maelgwn’s love life is based on actual events. The author wanted to tell two tales of romance while being historically accurate. The books have received much praise, especially the second entry. Nevertheless, it’s surprising that the Pinnacle editors allowed Gillgannon to take such a risk with her series.

Sandra Brown’s Coleman Saga

Sandra Brown’s Coleman duo makes for rather gritty western romances. In Sunset Embrace, Lydia Bryant finds love with Ross Coleman on a wagon train ride out West. He has a motherless son who needs a wet nurse. Lydia is a childless mother who can help his son. Ross is a rough, cruel man, but Lydia wins him over with her grace and grit.


In its sequel, Another Dawn Banner Coleman, their daughter, engages in a love affair with Jake Langston, a longtime family friend. Jake has had a longing for Lydia for many years. Yup, he goes from wanting the mom to getting it on with the daughter. This book is particularly egregious because it ruins Sunset Embrace‘s happy ending by prematurely killing off that book’s hero, Ross.

Anne Stuart’s Maggie Bennett Series

Anne Stuart broke all sorts of romance rules with her Maggie Bennett series. Book one in the romantic suspense series is Escape Out of Darkness, with the eponymous heroine finding love with Mack. They get married.

Shockingly, Mack is murdered at the opening of book two, Darkness Before Dawn. In this new chapter, Maggie teams up with Randall to discover who’s sold out national security secrets.

Frustratingly enough, book #2 doesn’t end happily ever after, either. You must wait to read At The Edge of the Sun to find out if Maggie will finally ride off into the sunset with her forever man.

Your Opinion on HEA in Romance

There are a few other novels and series that play partner switcheroo or kill off the hero or heroine before they reach old age. This always causes controversy.

When the romance genre only has that sole requirement, it’s curious to discuss why a writer would break that rule. Why do you think the authors made that decision? Does it ruin your reading experience when you know the HEA is not guaranteed to last long? Do you demand a HEA in your romance?

As always, please drop a comment, and let’s talk romance.

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About Jacqueline Diaz

Old-School, retro, and vintage romance reads are my jam, baby! The good, the bad, the cheesy, and the sleazy! I have no shame about it; I love ’em! An auto-didact, amateur historian, and reader of romance novels since 1990, I hope to offer a unique perspective on the genre. As a blogger, you may know me by several names; here, I’m Jacqueline Diaz. I’m also the aspiring author of two works-in-progress, historical romances, The Savage Noble and What She Says with Her Eyes, which hopefully will be released in 2023.

8 thoughts on “Why Did They Do That? Romances That Broke The HEA Rule

  1. ShiraDest

    I thought most of the traditional publishers wouldn’t accept a romance that broke the HEA rule. This is really good to know! Thank you, Jacqueline!


  2. Mary Anne Landers

    Thanks, Jacqueline. I think I understand why this used to happen.

    A romance novel revolves around the greatest, sometimes only, love of the two focal characters. It ends happily ever after. Or so it seems.

    But say the book is commercially successful and calls for a sequel. How can the author continue the story without it coming off as an anticlimax?

    There used to be only one way. Kill off one of the protags. Then have the surviving protag find love with someone else.

    Note I said “used to happen” and “used to be”. I doubt any author carries out this practice nowadays. Romance fiction is more series-oriented than ever. But each volume in a series is about a different couple.

    The protags of previous books often turn up as characters. But just secondary ones.

    Personally I don’t mind if a romance doesn’t end happily ever after. Or happily at all. Tragedy has its place in the human condition.

    But I’m probably the only reader who thinks this way!

  3. Blue Falcon

    Hi, Jacqueline. Another great post.

    Of the books you write about here, I’m only familiar with two, Elaine Barbieri’s “Amber” trilogy (i’ve read all the books) and Mary Gilgannon’s “Dragon Duo” (I have both books, but have not read them yet). I had mixed feelings for the “Amber” series, due in large part to the age gaps in the books (in the first book “Amber Fire”, the heroine, Melanie Morganfield, is 13, and Asa Parker, who was a friend of Melanie’s father and is lusting after her, is 42! when the book begins). That’s a 29 year age difference, and, as we’ve discussed in another post, that is simply too much of a gap for me. Every male-I can’t call them men-who falls in love with her is significantly older than Melanie, which I find both creepy and sleazy. Melanie spent the entire series looking for a father figure, literally. Rant over.

    Now, to answer your two questions. Why do I believe the author didn’t have a HEA? Purely speculation, but maybe they wanted to write a more realistic story, as we all know that there are few, if any, Happily Ever Afters in real life. To answer the second question, does it ruin my experience as a reader? Not necessarily. As long as the hero or heroine finds love, that is what matters to me. Whether that’s with one person or many doesn’t change that equation for me.

    1. jacquelinediaz

      Thank you Blue Falcon!

      With the Amber books since I consider them bodice rippers they operate under different guidelines than ordinary romances. Anything goes with them, age gaps, multiple partners, new heroes, etc. The huge age gap w/ Asa was uncomfortable, so he was not hero material. 30 years is too much, and making the heroine so young makes it gross.

      I forget the other man who was obsessed with Melanie all through the series, but even though he was awful, he was more exciting than her first husband. I never read book three, but skimmed to know she and Worth have a HEA. I was fine with that.

      When it’s a certain kind of book, I can accept multiple loves and unconventional endings.

      But…when a book is a straightforward romance, and a main character is killed off young, or the hero/heroine finds happiness with someone else, it’s like a betrayal. Romances need to have a HEA forever for me. These book are like faiy tales for grownups. Total fantasy. I appreciate realism, in other genres though.

      Thanks for the perspectives!

      1. Blue Falcon

        Hi, Jacqueline.

        At first, I didn’t consider the “Amber” series to be a bodice-ripper series, but now that you mention it, it is. All of the traditional bodice ripper elements are there (Melanie faces emotional, mental, physical and sexual degredation at various points in the series. Much of that comes from the “man” who was obsessed with her, Stephen Hull, who was a true piece of work). Side note, in “Amber Passion”, Melanie and Worth are separated and he is pursued by a Chinese female pirate. And yes, I agree with you about straightforward romances when a hero/heroine finds love with someone other than the person they’re supposed to, it does feel like a betrayal of the romance novel code.

        I also have to correct something from my earlier post. I also have the two Dana Ransom books, but I haven’t read them yet.

    1. Kes O'Rear

      I know how it ends, I probably won’t read the first book in the series . However, I think it can work if the book leans more historical fiction or if the hero is so awful that a better hero would be a win for the heroine . For instance, I’ve read Sunset Embrace and I hated Ross so much that I dropped the book at about 80% done, I don’t think I’d be too sad if I read the sequel and he dies. Also apologies for dividing this comment into two posts; I accidentally hit post before I finished the initial comment and there is no edit button for the comments.

      1. jacquelinediaz

        No, worries!

        I absolutely agree that if a better hero works, and you have to get rid of the first, do it.

        I forgot to include Skye O’Malley & its sequel All the Sweet Tomorrows on this list. In the 1st book, Skye gets w/ Niall, but had a short affair w/ Adam whom I preferred.

        In book #2 Niall dies and Skye ends up w. Adam. Was so happy.

        It’s hypocrital on my part, but I can’t say I’d be ok if the hero got another love in a new book.

        Ross was indeed a hard man to tolerate, so I don’t blame you on tapping out for that book. The hero of Another Dawn lusting after the mom, and then marrying the daughter squicked me out, too.


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