I know what you are thinking. Stern? Maybe after writing no fewer than twenty-freaking-seven books in an incredibly popular series, you’ve got to pull out all the stops in the name department. After all, this guy’s brothers are Canyon and Zane! At least they are all cowboy businessmen – it’s hard to imagine someone from Minneapolis pulling Stern off.
Stern is the 27th book in the ever popular and always heart warming Westmoreland series (and is that the reason it debuts on the 27th? If so, clever, clever Harlequin!). As with so many larger series, this one is broken up into several smaller “series within a series,” usually in the form of trilogies centering around a group of siblings.
Stern Westmoreland is a self-confessed ladies man who has never been tempted to have even a long term relationship with a girlfriend, to say nothing of marriage. He’s baffled by his brothers’ and cousins’ recent rush to the altar and while he’s happy for them, he’s pretty smug in his lifestyle.
But a wrench is about to be thrown in the cogs of his life. His best friend, JoJo, has been there for him since middle school and they’ve always looked out for one another. Stern knows that she’s never been serious about anyone, preferring to learn hunting and cars at her father’s knee. She can usually outshoot Stern at the hunting lodge he bought for their regular getaways and she’s definitely kept up the thriving auto shop she inherited after her dad’s death. But JoJo is acting strange, asking Stern how to attract a man, and it’s making him damn unsettled.
JoJo is feeling pretty unsettled herself. She came to the head-smacking realization a few months ago that she was actually having feelings for her best friend and she knows not only is she not his type but she doesn’t want to endanger their friendship. She has fixed the car of a handsome and dapper man who actually reminds her of Stern and her best idea is to start something up with this guy to divert herself away from the impossible. But she’s worried that her casual clothes and outdoorsy tastes are not exactly the bombshell qualities that attract most men. Who better than Stern to teach her what to do to dazzle a man’s eye?
While Stern tries to make JoJo see that any man should be more than glad to get her just as she is (he’s beaten up guys in high school for making her feel inadequate), he can’t believe he blurted out the piece about how most women do makeovers. Now he has to watch JoJo come back from a city trip with his female relatives looking absolutely edible. As relatives cast knowing glances in his direction, Stern must face the fact that the reason he’s never considered having a long-term woman in his life is that he already had one…and she’s perfect for him.
I adore “best friends to lovers” romances because of the long-standing comfort level and knowledge each character has of the other. Watching Stern absorb his brother’s comments and analyze his feelings for JoJo is priceless, as is his sneaky determination to derail any interest she might have in someone else. JoJo is a bit naive – despite her being in her late twenties – but I chose to see this as she is just so trusting of Stern’s character that even after he agrees to give her “kissing lessons” she doesn’t see his obvious physical reaction as being an expression of genuine passion.
There were a few points to this book that I thought felt the tiniest bit off. JoJo is nearing thirty and not only is she a virgin (!) but she also has never been kissed aside from some slobbering in the 10th grade. When she and Stern hook up seriously for the first time, you get the impression that she’s never even had an orgasm before him. Um, how is this possible in this day and age? I absolutely believe that Stern is her best friend, but JoJo must have women friends, a health textbook, cable tv, etc. that would convince her to do a little healthy self-exploration, right? She sounds fabulous and with her traditionally male tastes I found it highly unlikely there wouldn’t be a host of guys flocking around her grateful that she speaks their language. These are pretty small detractions to the otherwise total buy-in I gave this novel, so maybe this is just me.
The Westmoreland series has the quality that draws so many of us to family-based series, namely that in the end, you can picture yourself as part of the crowd and you care enough to want to see each and every one of them get their happy ending. Family values also manage to come across the page with a talented writer like Jackson, who readily admits that her personal attraction to family series comes from having a large family herself.
Even if the name gives you pause, it should be balanced out by the name of that wonderful author, Brenda Jackson. The year 2013 actually represents a milestone for Jackson, with her 100th book being published the year she turns 60 – an incredible personal achievement for any author, but especially one who published her first novel in 1995. Married to her husband for over forty years (she still wears the steady ring he gave her when she was 15), Jackson amazingly worked full time for State Farm Insurance until her retirement a few years ago, always declaring her romance writing a “hobby.” While many writers who have achieved her level of success might be tempted to move onto longer romance books with a different imprint, Jackson has remained faithful to Harlequin and (if rumors are true regarding her book deals) she’s been appropriately rewarded for it.
In a world where African American readers can have a hard time finding protagonists who look like them, Jackson has also accomplished something very special. While imprints like Kimani Romance specialize in multicultural characters, I haven’t seen a lot of evidence suggesting that there is a strong white readership of these books (a shame because there are a lot of great writers in that line). Because Jackson’s Westmoreland series is based off the premise of a great-grandparent who had multiple wives and kept leaving one for another as he made his way out West, the Westmoreland family is one trying to find their relatives (perhaps mirroring the recent upsurge in genealogy). What they discover are both African American and European American branches of the same family. It’s a blending that I think has lent itself to many readers dipping their toes into books they would otherwise not have picked up and finding that the water is just right!
Please do note that the August 27th release of Stern actually has the bonus story, Bachelor Untamed (which wasn’t in my ARC from NetGalley so I can’t comment on it), giving rise to the slightly higher price tag. If Stern is all you want, there is a standalone version of that book coming out on September 3rd that goes for a couple of dollars less.
I’ve loved all the Westmoreland novels I’ve read and it’s a testimony to Jackson’s writing style that I’ve never felt like I needed to read all the books in the series to understand what’s going on – they work together and as stand alone novels. Stern is a fabulous addition to the series and I dare you to stop at reading just this one. Many thanks to Brenda Jackson for all her quality writing and congratulations on hitting all her significant milestones this year!