It may sound an unlikely choice, but for writer Michelle Styles, ancient Rome is the ideal setting for Mills & Boon novels. She talks to Women's Editor Sarah Foster.
'HE leaned forward. His hand brushed her shoulder. 'Tell me, and if it is within my power it shall be done.' She gazed at the point where his tunic kissed the column of his throat. More than anything she wanted to turn to him and lay her head against his chest, to feel his arms about her, holding her.
"She only had to take one step closer and she'd be there, her body next to his, her hands entwined with his. The image shocked her, made her hesitate. Her thoughts were not those of a priestess in training but of a woman..."
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It is with this tantalizing hint that Michelle Styles' novel, A Noble Captive, gets under way. Perhaps it's pure indulgent fantasy; the sort of thing that never happens, but it's addictive nonetheless. As the story unfolds, you quickly find yourself drawn in. Yet this is not your average romance - all Mr Darcy and corsets straining at the seams. It's set in 75BC, in the environs of ancient Rome.
Why this is so is something Michelle goes on to tell me, but she starts by giving me a little of her background. "I grew up in Mountain View, California," says the 42-year-old, who lives in Haydon Bridge, near Hexham.
"I went to university to study economics and applied for a junior year abroad programme with the University of Lancaster. I went over to Lancaster for a year and that's where I met my husband, who was studying law."
When the couple got married, her husband's bar exam success meant they decided to live in Britain. As Mark had North-East family links, they ended up in Pity Me, in County Durham, then came to settle near Newcastle. Michelle had children - three in all, of whom the eldest is 16 - and thought she'd stay at home and write.
Yet this was not to go as planned.
"Originally, the whole thing was going to be that I would write books and have children at the same time, and then I decided that having children actually took up a lot of time," she says, smiling.
"I kept saying 'someday I'll write a book' and then in 2002, I got sick with gall stones. I turned yellow and ended up at North Shields hospital, as there weren't any beds in Hexham, and I listened to a doctor saying 'this lady doesn't know how sick she is and hopefully, she'll never know'. I ended up with pancreatitis."
Michelle recovered but found her illness had changed her - she knew that 'someday' might not come. With this in mind, she felt she had to start to write, and thought she'd write for Mills & Boon.
"As luck would have it, the woman in the bed next to me - I'd been transferred to Hexham at this point - said 'oh, you can't go wrong with a Mills & Boon if you're not feeling well', and I decided that's what I wanted to write," she explains.
Like many women, Michelle had come across the brand while in her youth. She loved its unashamed romance but was discouraged by her mother. "My mother hated it," she recalls. "She used to say to me 'you'll never do anything if you read Mills & Boon'."
Michelle researched what was involved in being accepted as an author. She soon discovered this was harder than she'd thought. "I hadn't realised that Mills & Boon got 10,000 submissions a year from people who want to be authors and that they take on about ten new authors a year if they're lucky," she says.
To help her cause, she joined the Romance Novels Association, which gives advice to fledgling writers. She attended one of its talks and an idea began to form. "I heard a Mills & Boon editor speak and she said that they had opened up their historical side from ancient civilisations up to the Second World War, and living in this area, I thought wouldn't it be great if I did a romance based in ancient Rome, because it's a really interesting time period," says Michelle.
Her close proximity to Hadrian's Wall provided constant inspiration, but she was also keen to undertake research.
"I did a lot of research because I wanted to make it personal and I wanted it to be accessible for anybody who wanted to read it," she says. "I'm interested in food and I'm interested in clothes and sometimes you read this stuff and it's all political history. History shouldn't feel like it's something that's far away - people should feel like they can get into it."
There was, however, one small hitch - in 100 years of Mills & Boon, there hadn't been a single story set in ancient Rome. Michelle was told there never would be. "I had this one lady, a top agent, say to me 'my gut instinct is that there will never be such a book'," she says.
"Fortunately, that's not what the Mills & Boon editors thought. It took them about a year but they absolutely loved it. I did revisions then in June 2005, my editor called me up and said 'can we buy this book please?'"
The book in question was The Gladiator's Honour, Michelle's first work for Mills & Boon. It is succeeded by A Noble Captive, which came out earlier this month. Michelle explains the basic plot. "It's about a Roman soldier who is captured by pirates and the pagan priestess who offers him refuge, and the romance between them," she says. "If the priestess is found out it could be the destruction of her temple."
Though far removed from Regency London, where much of Mills & Boon is set, the second novel, like the first, is proving popular with readers. Michelle says letters have been forthcoming.
"I've had a few letters from people who have said that they picked up my first book with apprehension but they couldn't put it down," she says. "One woman said that she was very pleased that she could finally give one of her romance books to her husband to read, that it wasn't all bodices. I had a lady from Nevada write to me who said she really liked my first book because it made her think there was somebody out there for her and she would really like somebody like my hero."
The key concern of Mills & Boon, which Michelle stays true to in her books, is tapping into women's fantasies. She knows her heroes must appeal.
"It's really nice to think you're creating a hero whom other people will fall in love with and not just yourself - because you have to be in love with your heroes - but they're not based on my husband, which is a question that a lot of people ask," she says, laughing. "I'm afraid that after being married for so many years the scales fall from one's eyes."
Now that she's found a winning formula, it seems Michelle is on a roll. At Mills & Boon's behest, she's written books about the Vikings and the industrial North-East, as well as a third on ancient Rome.
She's especially proud to fly the flag for where she lives. "I got a phone call saying would I mind writing a Christmas Victorian book based in the North-East and that comes out in December 2008," she says. "I'm really pleased because I think there's more to the North-East than Catherine Cookson sagas."
As long as Mills & Boon still wants her, she'll keep on doing what she does, perhaps one day achieving fame in her own right, as others have done. She feels she's part of a tradition that's worth preserving.
"In some ways they are little books but they're very important to people because they give a lot of happiness," says Michelle.
* A Noble Captive by Michelle Styles (Mills & Boon, £3.69).