The women who stroll Aisle 8 at McKay's Used Books in Centreville often come looking for a quickie -- an easy read to take home and polish off in a couple of hours. But some get seduced into lingering over hunky paperback heroes. Dexter or Damien or Jordan or Jared. Men who promise devotion and a lifetime of epic sex, served up with a wedding ring and a white picket fence. Baby, I'll never leave you. McKay's stocks Harlequins, the books that are synonymous with a genre that still flourishes after 50 years. Steamy TV soaps and bare-all movies don't seem to have dented the romance novel market; Harlequin sold 160 million books worldwide last year to an estimated 50 million readers. Sure, the titles have changed -- in 1949, "Honeymoon Mountain -- Deborah Loses Her Innocence" was a hot seller; today it's "The Sexiest Man Alive." But Harlequins remain the cultural texts to consult if you hope to answer the essential question: What do women want? It's all love. All the time. Getting love, keeping love, making love. While some women read Harlequins to escape their arid everyday lives, for others they provide a blueprint for behavior. They artfully help women negotiate the complex psychological landscape where excitement and stability compete. And always end on the tidy note that love conquers all. In the last 50 years, women may have left the kitchen, burned their bras and found their G-spots, but Harlequin has still tagged along to the altar. It is the ultimate validation of women's social and biological programming. Get yourself bought. Taken home. Taken off the shelf. And as long as happily ever after is the goal, taken over and over to bed. Sometimes, you can even lead the way . . . She shook her head again, still stunned at her response to Damon's naked torso. Thea had never felt stirrings like that before. Oh, she had seen good-looking men before, and even admired their physiques. But ogled? Never -- never before half an hour ago. . . . One ride on a motorcycle, one taste of freedom, one look at that man's impossibly gorgeous, hunky chest, and twenty-four years of breeding and reserve crumbled. She was . . . a sex maniac. -- Catherine Leigh, "Rebel Without a Bride," 1997 Harlequin may be a half-century old, but this isn't your granny's romance novel. While the virginal ingenue can still get swept away by her prince, some books feature a single mom in the brawny arms of Mr. Right or a '90s enchantress getting carnal with Mr. Right Now. With titles like "In Bed With the Boss" and "Expectant Mistress," readers are ordering up the full monty. And who is buying them? Stereotypes of romance readers may include the bored and the brain-dead, but according to Harlequin surveys, educated, middle-age career women are among the genre's most ardent supporters. Some critics argue that cookie-cutter romance recipes damage women by conditioning them to be naive and unrealistic in relationships. Others argue that because the books factor men out by inviting women to close the doors to the world and indulge their fantasies, Harlequins are nothing short of subversive. For readers, however, none of the reasons are as compelling as the promise that lurks just behind the enigmatic lovers on the front covers. Because in Aisle 8, customers know, the smell of old paperbacks can be a powerful aphrodisiac. Sometimes real women simply prefer fantasy men. Last month Harlequin celebrated its anniversary by kicking off an "Art of Romance" touring exhibit in New York City. Fans like Angela Blake Fields, 45, a contract manager who is married with a 12-year-old daughter, dropped by to revisit favorite titles and chat with authors. "I used to be such a snob," Fields said in a phone interview. "I went to college. I went to graduate school. I have a master's degree. I said, Romance novels, that's so pooh-pooh.' Then I just happened to pick one up and I was enthralled. I just fell in love!" Recent surveys contend that Americans from their twenties on up are suffering from a high rate of sexual dysfunction. We're simply not surfing the sheets like we used to. Still, Harlequin numbers show, women are still getting it somewhere. "You become the heroine -- you fall in love with that guy along with the woman," says Katherine Orr, vice president of Harlequin Enterprises. "As a young girl reading the book, you anticipate what {first love} is going to be like. As an older woman, it reminds you of a time you were happy and in love." Harlequin heroines have changed perceptibly, mirroring the changes in the lives of women who read them. Heroines used to be virgins, exclusively. The hero was always a man of means, and the woman was always "taken" by the hero. Maybe she was the governess working for the lord of the manor, or the nurse falling for the doc, but there was always a power imbalance in early Harlequin relationships. By the '60s, Harlequin heroines not only worked more outside the home, they took a stand on issues women cared about -- careers, sexual freedom, equality. Once women began asserting their power, titles like "Sweet Revenge" and "Rendezvous in Venice" began popping up. And books began exploring more egalitarian notions of love. These days, the Harlequin woman seems to have come full circle. The '90s heroine doesn't have to choose between the boardroom and the bedroom. She thinks she's entitled to it all. And this time around, the hero shares equally the responsibilities of hearth and home. Today, each month, Harlequin publishes more than 70 titles among 13 different lines, each with a different emphasis. You can pick from the "Historicals" or "Love and Laughter" or "Intrigues" -- like literary bonbons, a sure bet to deliver only the filling you like best. "I love Temptations,' that's my favorite," Fields says. "It's all about sex. I don't have to go through 300 pages to get to a page that's hot and heavy." Harlequin does not disclose the sales numbers for particular lines, but "Temptations," by far the steamiest of the Harlequins, is among the most popular. "Why shouldn't we enjoy it?" says Alison Scott, head of the popular culture library at Bowling Green State University, where the Romance Writers of America's archives are housed. "There aren't that many things out there that speak just to women's fantasies and women's sense of desire for amusing, entertaining engagement." Scott, a popular culture professor, acknowledges that the books formulaically reaffirm the social conventions of marriage. But, she contends, they also offer wiggle room for readers to play around with gender roles. And who's on top. Bottom line, the woman always wins. Every career conflict is resolved in the heroine's favor, every love triangle lands a dream lover right at her feet. Nice. And sometimes, kinda nasty. The feel of his body, strong, demanding and utterly virile, made her feel wonderfully feminine and alluring. She was more than ready for him, her body pliant and supple, open and welcoming. . . . "I need you, Trish! I need you so badly," he gasped. "Yes, Adam! Oh, please . . . Yes . . .," she implored. -- Sara Wood, "Expectant Mistress," 1998 Ever wonder who writes this stuff? Vicki Lewis Thompson began writing for Harlequin in 1984 and since then has penned close to 50 titles, most in the "Temptations" line. "In the late '70s and early '80s, there was a whole new concept that came through the industry that reflected what was happening with women. Harlequin decided to offer women stories closer to the way they were living," Thompson says. "For one thing, we didn't close the bedroom door anymore. Women were having committed relationships with the hero but we do have consummated love scenes, most of the time before the marriage vows and even the proposals." Still, Harlequins keep the lens in soft focus. They don't feature dirty words, but the ones they substitute in sex scenes make romantic fiction among the easiest prose to parody. Everything is moist. Every manhood either bulges or throbs. However, when Thompson's heroes unleash the inner reader-freak, there's less "Do me, baby" and more "What can I do for you?" It's all part of the disconnect that happens between men and women. Female authors know that, in love, a woman's most exquisitely sensitive organ is her brain. We fall for the notion of a love that won't trade you in for a sleeker model, with lower mileage. For a love that won't hit. That won't hurt. That will never dissemble. That doesn't expect you to be a size 4, and punish you when you're not. A love with a soundtrack: Hope that he turns out to be/ someone to watch over me and To whisper words that make you feel like a woman. A love with a nice beat you can dance to. A love that involves as much psychology as chemistry. The men in the books "are totally focused on the heroine -- that's extremely validating," Thompson says. And inventing that alpha hunk can be lots of fun, too -- a chance to etch-a-sketch all the things she likes best about her husband and her son and men in general, and none of the things she doesn't. "What you don't want is some huge character flaws. Someone who's cheap, a hypochondriac, someone who's mean and spiteful." Thompson is married and has two adult children. She says her daughter has been reading her books since she was 12 and has taken away a central positive message: to set her own agenda. Never to be a victim. "Make sure the man you're with loves and respects you." According to Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University film and TV professor who lectures extensively on popular culture, real men don't read Harlequins, but maybe they should -- if they really want to know Victoria's secrets. The books, he says, "are indulgent to women's own sexual interest. Indulgent to their own romantic fantasy. A book designed for female pleasure. That's nothing short of revolutionary in this culture." But Thompson acknowledges that, like any other staple of pop culture, a Harlequin in the wrong hands can distort reality. It can sell an impressionable young woman a sanitized vision of love. Real love can be messy -- and sometimes unravel at the ends. While Harlequin sells the marital vows, its fine print doesn't tell you that some restrictions may apply. Still, most readers argue, they don't consider romantic fiction to be a primer on real life. Feminist author bell hooks has had a love jones for Harlequin Romances for more than 20 years. She says she's still got about a two-a-day habit. "I would credit Harlequin Romances as much as I would credit Emily Dickinson as being a factor in my enchantment with words," hooks says. Harlequins serve as an important fantasy vehicle that offers an escape route for women trapped in dysfunctional families, she says. Not because someday your prince will come, but because "you will triumph over it and it will all come right in the end." She bristles at the notion that the books set women up for disappointment and promote unrealistic fantasies about being rescued. "Only a crazy person doesn't want to be rescued," hooks says. Romance readers aren't stupid; they simply take from these books what they need at a given time. "When I interview somebody like Lil' Kim, she is like, Love, what's that?' It's fantasy." Harlequins provide a different kind of fantasy. The books, she says, simply offer "a moment of restoration. . . . The central therapeutic message in Harlequin romances is you will not be abandoned. What I am still seeking is that love that will not let me down." Nora Lewis has shelved the Harlequins in Aisle 8 of McKay's for 10 years. Books that originally cost $3.50 to $4.75 get new life on McKay's shelves starting at a dime for titles that date back nearly 20 years. "Some people say the books help them relax; I just read them for the joy of reading," Lewis says. Jennifer Pryde, a homemaker from Gainesville, Va., is browsing Aisle 8 with her 15-month-old daughter, Ashley. In a basket beneath Ashley's stroller is a handful of titles: "Lover Unknown," "The Case of the Vanished Groom" and "Jackson's Woman." For Pryde, the appeal is obvious: "A change from diapers, yet situations that are not so far-fetched you couldn't see yourself in them. Sometimes {the hero} is the bad boy who actually commits when nobody thinks he will. Other times, he's the family guy, the guy you're married to." A cheap escape, she calls them -- just another way for busy women to say, "Calgon, take me away." Eric Moldoch, 23, fiction director at McKay's, says he doesn't get it. He doesn't like Harlequins. In fact, he doesn't even like to shelve the books. He says they are pure fluff. "Science fiction, fantasy, horror -- that I can understand," he says. He frowns. "Harlequins." He twists his lips. "That's just a simple, quick romance." A simple, quick romance. For millions of women in millions of Aisle 8s all across the country, it's just the kind of thing a full-service fantasy man is good for. CAPTION: Nowadays, the romance novel selection includes validating husbands as well as throbbing love. ec CAPTION: What many women want: At McKay's Used Books in Centreville, Myrna Goodwin of Vienna examines romance novels to add to the hundreds she has read. ec