Some of my favorite romances aren't romances.
I read Wheel of Dreams several years (a decade?) ago. I remember being captivated by the characters, but I never got around to reading it again. Then a few years later, I let my husband put it in the "to be donated box." Fast forward a few more years, when I start thinking about the story. This lead to a rather amusing adventure in Google-Fu, as I tried to locate a book without benefit of stuff like title, author, character names, publisher or publication date.
The million dollar phrase turned out to be "father sells her to a mercenary," which describes the novel's inciting incident. Kiera Danio is a young woman who lives in a highly patriarchal society. Basically, it's the kind of miserable, repressive society that you'd expect where fundamentalist religious nutjobs are involved. Women are one step above cattle (maybe). Anything contrary to god's will--like science and medicine--is heresy. One could say that the only sport in the land is witch hanging.
Kiera knows that it's just a matter of time before someone discovers her prescient dreams and her ability to leave her body and enter the body of others. Her dreams have grown harder to control in the months following her mother's death. Coincidentally, her father has grown more abusive, especially since Kiera refused to marry the man he chose for her.
Then one evening her father plays host to a group of travelers, including a priest, a page and his son and a soldier. Though Kiera, who is expected to serve the meal, tries to remain as invisible as possible, she is fascinated by the soldier. Judging by his dark hair and skin and beardless face, he is one of the folk from the coasts to the north.
Eventually, her father notices her and, fueled in part by too much liquor, offers her up for sale. Kiera leaves before the bidding is done, but as she waits in her room, she finds she is hoping that the soldier will win the bid. Not that it matters, because she has a plan. Her only hope is to flee whoever she marries and go north to the city of the witches, who can teach her to control her abilities.
Nikka Roshannon isn't normally the kind of man who buys a wife, so he is baffled by his impulse to put up the winning bid for the girl. His is a culture that treats women as equals, and having spent time among the southlanders, he finds their approach to life joyless and oppressive. He is nevertheless drawn to Kiera and even more baffled by the fact that, after their wedding night, she has fled.
Kiera doesn't really expect the soldier to pursue her. Although she stole some of his clothes and a dagger, she left him several jewels to buy herself back. She soon realizes that Roshannon isn't just another soldier, but a lord from the north. Worse yet, he seems to share her ability and the two are bonded, able to feel the emotions of the other. Despite their link, she fears him and is determined not to let him catch her.
Their game of cat and mouse is sidetracked by the escalating war between the witches of the north and the religious zealots of the south, particularly when the conflict spills into Roshannon's native land.
What I liked about their relationship is that Roshannon, despite his status as a veteran warrior, isn't emotionally unavailable. In fact, his is a pretty healthy attitude toward romance and love. As the story progresses, he displays an admirable sensitivity in dealing with his reluctant bride. Kiera, on the other hand, has been shaped by a society where men are the aggressors and oppressors. In fact, even as she finds that Roshannon isn't cruel like the men in her past, she still fears what he might represent--the loss of the freedom that she has tasted. The two do get their happy ending, but it is definitely hard won.
A satisfying romance set against a backdrop of war and religious oppression. (The edition I read is out of print, but easy to find online.)