Bertrice Small, who has died aged 77, was an American author known as 'Lust's Leading Lady'. During a career spanning four decades she brought sexual intensity - and, some claimed, a feminist spirit - to more than 50 romantic, fantasy and erotic novels.
"Bertrice Small creates cover-to-cover passion," Publishers Weekly enthused. Many of the titles introduced fiery heroines: The Border Vixen, Wild Jasmine, Blaze Wyndham. Others alluded to carnal encounters, especially those in her Pleasures series, antecedents of the publishing sensation 50 Shades of Grey.
Bertrice Small was one of the 'Avon Ladies', a group of authors published by Avon Books who took the modern romance genre in new directions during the 1970s and 1980s. "Without us, and the phenomenon we created, romance would still be confined to little Harlequins and dear old Barbara Cartland," said Small. "Romances can be anything you want them to be. It can be adventurous, it can be exciting." The possibilities were endless: she made one of her femme fatales a virgin twice ("I am going to give her amnesia," she explained).
Instead of imagining damsels in distress who wilted into the arms of officers and gentlemen, she created protagonists who were a match for their male counterparts. "Her heroines from the very early days were as swashbuckling as the pirates they subdued," observed the writer Eloisa James.
While Small categorised some of her books as erotica, others she considered simply "sexy". The difference was down to the delivery. "For me erotica is seriously over the top," she insisted, while the rest "is just garden variety sex".
She was born Bertrice Williams on December 9, 1937, in Manhattan. She attended a convent and wrote her first (unpublished) novel at the age of 13, in which an Inca princess throws herself off Machu Picchu rather than succumb to the advances of a Spanish conquistador.
In 1963, she married George Small, a photographer and designer. She suffered from agoraphobia, which she turned to advantage. "My husband came home one day to find me in the corner of the couch with a clipboard, a yellow lined legal pad, and a Bic Clic in my hand," she recalled. "He asked what I was doing. I answered I was writing a novel. And that is how it all began."
She spent five years researching and writing her first novel, The Kadin (1978). In it, the captivating Lady Janet Leslie - a 16th-century "flirtatious minx" - is abducted and installed in the harem of Sultan Selim. Bertrice provided exotic locations, heady trysts and steamy similes. The plot went some way to subverting the genre's norms. As the jacket blurb declared: "She belonged to him, body and soul - yet it was he who was enslaved."
In her home in Southold, a quiet farming community on Long Island, she conjured up tales of Scottish lairds (the Border chronicles), Elizabethan Ireland (the O'Malley Family saga) and fantasy faerie lands (the World of Hetar series). Paintings of hot-headed heroines and barrel-chested heroes that were used for her dustjackets covered the walls of her writing room.
As an aspiring author, Small took inspiration from American historical novelists of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Anya Seton and Jan Westcott. She also embraced a professional work ethic: "I'm very anal about delivering on time too. The day after my gall bladder was removed, I was sitting up in my hospital bed doing galleys."
Her diligence fuelled a career which won her millions of readers and, last year, a lifetime achievement award from the Romance Writers of America.
Her swansong was Lucianna, the third in her Silk Merchant's Daughters series, set in Tudor Florence and published in 2013: "Here was Lucianna. Her dower portion was down to virtually nothing with the sudden competition from Milan in the silk trade . . . She was already in danger of becoming an old maid."
Fortunately she soon has the visiting Earl of Lisle, courtier to Henry VII, set in her sights.
Bertrice Small's husband died in 2012 and she is survived by their son.