They rendezvous on Wednesdays next to the Ferris wheel in the nearly deserted food court at Forest Fair Mall.
Dianne, Leigh, Lori and Valerie grab a table and tell stories, describe long, meaningful kisses and ponder the meaning of true love.
They're not gossiping. They're going over their books. Dianne Kruetzkamp, Leigh Riker, Lori Foster and Valerie Taylor are romance novelists. All but Dianne are published authors.
They meet each week for lunch and sympathy. After three years of lunches, they're more than writers with a common subject. They've become friends.
"If we have the cover illustration from hell or - God forbid - the editor from hell, we help each other get over it," Dianne says as she spreads out notes for her novel-in-progress, Inn-possible Love.
"If you can't get any writing done, because your son is having trouble in school," Lori says, "we call each other up and ask for help."
Lori, a former deodorant packer for Procter & Gamble Co., might call Dianne. She used to be a teacher. Or Valerie, who has a degree in psychology. Or Leigh, whose sons survived school and are on their own.
On this Wednesday, while the writers compare notes, I'm buying another chapter of "Lunch with Cliff." I treat and four romance novelists tell me what's on their minds.
It's not what you might think, especially considering the shower scene in Valerie's The Mommy School.
He pulled her toward him, and she stepped into the shower, still fully clothed. He wrapped an arm about her . . .
At lunch, Valerie talks about listening to biofeedback tapes. "They're supposed to make you more creative," she says. She thinks they work, even if they sound like whales burping.
Want to set off a table of romance writers? Ask: Do you write from experience?
"All men ask that," Lori sniffs.
Her husband works the night shift at the Dent Kroger. When he's stocking shelves, his co-workers grab copies of Outrageous from the store's book section. They read passages to him and ask: "Does your wife do that?"
He replies: I wish.
"I'm 39," Lori says. "You can't live this long without dreaming up things unless you're brain dead."
Adds Valerie: "A sex-scene on a beach is great in a book. But in real life you wind up with salt and sand in places where you don't want salt and sand."
Acting as the group's referee, Dianne calls time. "These are stories of romance," she declares.
"Sex is not the only thing that love is about," Leigh adds. "Love is about people laying down their lives for the other person," Dianne says. "That is romance. The steam only lasts about 10 pages in a 230-page book."
For the writers' group, romance - in real life, not between the pages of a novel - is not a beach. Or a hot shower.
Lori says it's dinner and a show.
"Romance is going to Ponderosa with the kids, watching a Freddy Krueger movie at home and popping popcorn."
Leigh's husband recently surprised her - and their sons - with a trip to Hawaii. "It was very tender and romantic of him to do that." For Dianne, romance is an afternoon alone with her husband. "We sit at the kitchen table. The kids are out of the house and we just talk to each other like human beings instead of parents." Valerie, of the shower scene, was hard-pressed to come up with an example of true romance. She appreciates having the house to herself when her husband takes their children to the YMCA on Saturdays. "But that's not romantic," she admits.
"That's why I make up this stuff," she says laughing. "I don't have any romance in my life."
Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax 768-8340.