By Cintra Wilson

'Alfie raked fingernails gently across one of his nipples, his other hand pushing aside John's neckcloth so that he could pepper John's throat with little bites. 'Nnh!' John managed. His trapped cock hurt, bent and straining against the heavy, harsh fabric of his breeches.... Alfie's mouth was on his and sweet fire pulsed down his backbone as he opened to Alfie's questing tongue. Gathered up in both arms, his head back, astonished and all the more aroused by his own deep surrender, he felt Alfie's knuckles dig hard into his back as the man snapped the tapes at the back of his waistband and shoved the suddenly loosened breeches down to his knees.' [False Colors]

Alex Beecroft, the writer of this raunchy encounter and a happily married mother of two with short red hair, picks me up in an old Volvo wagon at the train station in her tiny, green Cambridgeshire town. Her home reflects a daily bustle of family activity: framed pictures of adorable blonde children, various craft supplies crowded on tables, stacks of handmade wicker baskets, rosebushes thriving in the backyard. It is in no way visually apparent that Beecroft is one of the most popular and beloved authors in the rapidly expanding male/male romance genre, a defining feature of which is explicit gay male sex.

M/M romance fiction is the latest development to evolve out of the renegade slash fiction phenomenon -- an entire subculture devoted to stories that take straight male buddy characters from various pop culture offerings and write them into steamy gay love scenes. What has been a relatively recent and surprising revelation is that the majority of slash creators (known as 'slashers') and fans are heterosexual, college-educated women -- and that for a rather large number of them, gay erotica is the pornography of choice.

In spring 2009, Philadelphia-based publishing house Running Press premiered a new line of M/M soft-core erotica designed to tap this growing market, based on research indicating that M/M was among the fastest-growing trends in the billion-dollar juggernaut that is romantic fiction. 'We were just listening to the market,' says Craig Herman, associate publisher at Running Press. 'We saw the success of films like Brokeback Mountain, which had a strikingly large female audience for what seemed like a niche film. And after doing research and listening to booksellers, it seemed that there was a larger female audience that was attracted to gay porn, which was surprising.'

And however taboo, the M/M market is proving to be irresistible. Even Harlequin, the oldest and most uptight of the romance publishing houses, is getting in on the hot M/M action with its new imprint, Carina Press.

Josh Lanyon, one of the M/M genre's few male authors, is breezily straightforward on his Carina author blog, inviting fans to congregate on eHarlequin.com: 'Hopefully we'll get some discussions going between Carina Press's M/M authors (and aspiring authors) and those of you who like your romance with a double side of beef. (Cough!)'

To kick off its M/M line, Running Press published two gay romantic historical novels set in 16th- to 19th-century England during the naval age. Transgressions, by an author writing under the pen name Erastes, features two hot iron forgers in 1642 England, set against a background of civil war and witch trials. Beecroft's False Colors recounts the erotic tensions between a ship's captain and his first mate on a suicide mission to stop the slave trade off the coast of Algiers.

Reviewer 'Joan/Sarah F.' waxed rhapsodic over False Colors on DearAuthor.com. 'Rarely, oh so rarely, I'll read a book that is so sublime, so transcendent, I actually come away from it a little melancholy, because it's over'. But the process of devouring the book, of eking out its layered, textured meaning, of savoring its descriptions, and the emotions -- oh, the emotions! -- leaves me flying for days....This is one of those books. It ravished me. It scoured my insides. I feel like I'm stuck in it and I don't ever want to get out.'

As Beecroft makes tea, a tiny red car pulls up in her driveway, and a large Englishwoman who writes under the pen name Erastes emerges. Her hair is twisted in a knot secured by two ballpoint pens. There is a film of cat hair on her black pants. Warmly, she presents me with a copy of Standish, her first gay Regency era novel, jovially acknowledging the cat print in the unidentified brown crust on the back cover.

How did two such charming English ladies ever become literary stars of the eyebrow-raising M/M genre?

'It's a talking dog, isn't it?' says Erastes. 'Nobody's surprised that gay men like reading books about gay men. Everyone's surprised that straight women like reading them. If I asked any man within a hundred yards, 'What's your biggest fantasy?' They're going to say, 'Two birds in bed!' '

Both authors came to the M/M genre through slash fan fiction -- which Erastes refers to as 'the nursery slope.'

'For me, it was Harry Potter,' she says, grinning. While looking for 'anything online involving the Snape character,' Erastes recalls, she stumbled onto Snape Fuh-Q Fest, an online archive of fan fiction where Snape, to her delight, was 'having sex with any character in the series you can think of.' For Erastes it was a eureka moment -- she began to write her own Harry Potter slash.

'That was me too,' says Beecroft, who discovered slash while running a search for the character of Qui-Gon in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and, thus inspired, went on to write slash based on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

'I've been telling these kinds of stories in my head from puberty, since I was 11,' says Beecroft. 'As long as I've had sexuality, this has been it. I started
writing and thinking up stories with two gay protagonists. I thought I was a single, solitary pervert. When I discovered slash, I thought, Oh, my God, I'm normal!'