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They cook. They diaper. They dust. They're '90s . . . // Romance heroes

He gets a lump in his throat "the size of Rhode Island" when he thinks of his darling kids.

The mere sight of a vacuum cleaner sends him into a cleaning frenzy. And don't even ask about his cooking _ it can send a woman to "steak heaven."

He's the 1990s hero of the billion-dollar romance novel industry, a man for whom children and family come first. But in case you're wondering, no, he's not domesticated to the point of boredom. Nor has he lost those "bedroom eyes" or that "let's-make-love voice."

The transformation of romance heroes from heartless playboys or intimidating studs into nurturing _ but still hunky _ daddies has come about mostly in response to readers: While still seeking fantasy to lose themselves in, they want characters they can identify with.

At a time when baby boomer women are busy rearing children, and divorce remains common, single parents want to read about people in their own situations. Or what they wish their situations were.

"If women can get a happy ending with a little reality in it, such as the guy who does make mistakes but apologizes, who makes us soup when we're sick and picks up the kids from soccer, it's better than the fellow who's really great with the dueling pistols and the horse," said Toni Allen, a Newport Beach, Calif., psychotherapist who also happens to be a romance novel reader.

Janis Reams Hudson, a writer who is president of Romance Writers of America, said children in the stories add conflict, humor and depth to a relationship.

And so, in the name of art _ and annual worldwide sales estimated at $1-billion, and 50-million readers, mostly female, in North America alone _ the industry gave the baby boomers what they wanted.

Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., which publishes the Harlequin and Silhouette imprints, put out new daddy lines: Fabulous Fathers, Family Man, Bundles of Joy, Hometown Reunion.

It changed its cover art, which over the years almost always depicted an embrace between a bare-chested hero and a swooning heroine. The typical new-romance cover shows a shirtless, muscular hero tenderly cradling a baby, a couple sharing their bed with a toddler, a group of children clinging to a laughing daddy.

The books also have their own logos _ a bear or a house for the Family Man series, a safety pin and toys for Fabulous Fathers, a rattle under some of the titles.

And the hero acts as you've never seen him act before.

In Reluctant Father, businessman Blake Donovan's wife, Nina, leaves him without telling him she's pregnant with his child. Four years later, a lawyer shows up with Sarah, Donovan's daughter, and the hero doubts he would make a good father. But paternal instincts prevail.

Donovan dashes out of an important board meeting because Sarah wants a frilly dress the housekeeper has refused to buy. He gives in and is "rewarded by a smile so delightful he'd have sold his Mercedes to buy the . . . thing for her."

Sam Grayson, the daddy in Babies and a Blue-Eyed Man, is left with three kids after his wife, Donna, dumps him.

Grayson loves his kids so much that when he has to leave them behind to look for a bigger house, he gets a "lump the size of Rhode Island . . . in his throat." He's ready to "lie, cheat, steal . . . to help my daughter. . . . I'd commit crimes for (her) sake."

But don't think Sam is just a sappy dad.

"With his let's-make-love voice and his bedroom blue eyes," he blows into Rachel's life "like an unsettling wind." He cooks a mean T-bone, which transports defenseless Rachel to "steak heaven."

In another typical offering, Introducing Daddy, Adam Rabalais learns he has a 3-month-old daughter. Is diapering beneath the dignity of "an extremely handsome and masculine man?" See how Adam reacts when wife Evie wants to change the infant:

""I'll do it,' he said, and in an instant he had crossed the room and . . . taken out the wipes and powder and had the baby freshly diapered in only moments. Evie, dumbfounded, watched in silence."

A good read

Some facts about the $1 billion romance fiction industry from Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., which does extensive research:

More than 50 million women in North America read romance novels.

Their average age is 42.

70 percent have attended or graduated from college.

57 percent are employed.

Romance fiction makes up 46 percent of mass-marketed paperbacks.

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