“The Spinster’s Guide to Scandalous Behavior,” by Jennifer McQuiston. (Avon)

Romance novels are oft-maligned because of the genre’s one unbreakable rule: Happily Ever After. If we know how the story ends, how can the book be rewarding?

The perfect romance novel is deftly written to keep readers somehow believing that two people cannot possibly end up together, all while knowing that they’re utterly destined for each other. But that will-they-won’t-they-of-course-they-will isn’t enough. To be truly unputdownable, the story must be pure literary fantasy. Therein lies the challenge of writing romance. This month, three authors rise to it.

In “The Game Plan” (Kristen Callihan; paperback, $15.95), Kristen Callihan tackles the fantasy of the celebrity relationship. Fiona Mackenzie and football player Ethan Dexter have been orbiting each other for years, but their lives are incompatible. She lives in New York, and he’s an NFL center. Nevertheless, Dex is handsome, exceedingly talented and very hung up on Fiona, so much so that he’s willing to offer her the one thing he has never offered another woman: his virginity. What ensues is a deceptively simple love story. When a Web site offers $1 million for proof that Dex has slept around, illicit photos of the couple become fodder for gossip rags, and an already challenging relationship between a celebrity and a civilian is tested. Callihan’s contemporary romances tend to linger over the minutiae of modern life — texts and Skype chats and the frustrations of long-distance relationships — but what may be dull in the hands of another author is beautifully wrought here, reminding readers of the breathlessness of love in its earliest stages.

There’s something about a dyed-in-the-wool spinster up against an inveterate bachelor. Lucy Westmore, the heroine of Jennifer McQuiston’s “The Spinster’s Guide to Scandalous Behavior (Avon; paperback, $7.99), has every intention of following in her spinster-aunt’s footsteps, including living in the newly deceased woman’s country house. Unfortunately for Lucy, her father has plans to sell the house to Thomas Branston, a marquess set on doing anything necessary to have the home to himself. What ensues is a charming battle of wills that becomes beautifully romantic as the two are thrown together and soon discover that enemies make excellent lovers. McQuiston’s skill is in effortlessly crafting a world that makes us wish it were more than fiction, and the corners of this story are filled with unique characters and elaborate extras.

“Steal Me,” by Lauren Layne. (Forever)

Heroes don’t have to be celebrities or aristocracy to make the romance fantasy grade, however. Police officers will do just fine. In Lauren Layne’s “Steal Me” (Forever; paperback, $5.99), Anthony Moretti is a handsome, rough, borderline insufferable captain in the NYPD who has vowed never to lose himself to love. Of course, such vows are made to be broken, and when the heroine doing the breaking is a waitress with a dramatic past and a nose for trouble, readers know they’re in for a treat. Maggie Walker moved to New York to escape a broken marriage and chase her dream of becoming a writer. She has little time for irritable Anthony, a regular at the diner where she works, until it becomes clear that she might be the key to solving a difficult case. The two are thrust together, and watching Anthony warm to Maggie is literary catnip. Readers looking for a sexy, satisfying read this winter will want to start here.

Sarah MacLean reviews romance novels for The Washington Post every month. Her new novel, “The Rogue Not Taken,” will be published this month.

Read more:

Sarah MacLean picks the best romance novels for November.

Nacho Figueras to help market a new line of polo romance novels.

“The Game Plan,” by Kristen Callihan. (Amazon Digital Services)