His Hometown Girl by Karen Rock, that's why. For the record, I love my sheikh's with secret babies and those poor amnesiac cowboys, but this particular story? This is the kind of story that reminds you of what category romance does best. In other words, it tends to go where single titles don't - and that's a good thing.
Jodi Chapman is a single mom to an autistic son, Tyler, and just about at the end of her rope. Her son hasn't said a single word since the day her rat-bastard louse of a husband walked out of them a year ago. She's desperate to get him into this amazing preschool that specializes in helping autistic kids, but when she sees the tuition cost she starts thinking that selling her kidney on the black market may be a viable option. On top of this, her sleazeball ex has just dropped the bomb that he's suing her to lower his child support payments. As if him refusing to be a part of his own son's life weren't despicable enough. How is she going to get Tyler into that school? Then, like manna from heaven, her boss dangles a carrot in front of her face. A corporate farming conglomerate, all Jodi has to do is go to her hometown in Vermont and secure 5000 acres for the company. If she does that, a big promotion with a nice raise is in her future. A raise that would make Tyler's school tuition more realistic. The fly in the ointment? She left Vermont 10 years ago, desperate to break free. In the process she left behind Daniel Gleason, the boy-now-man who is farming his father's land and is determined to stop her company from succeeding.
Daniel loved Jodi once, but circumstances and the fact they were two dumb kids who couldn't find the right words, drove them apart. He came home from college to discover the family farm near bankruptcy. Daniel brought it back from the brink, but now a new threat is at the door - Jodi' company. And they're not fighting fair. They don't send some slick suit to take their farms. Oh no, they send one of their own. And this "new" Jodi? She's so different. Hard. Brittle. With traces of the girl he used to be. Daniel may still care for her, but he's been burned by that fire before.
So when was the last time you read a romance novel that had corporate farming as part of the conflict? Yeah, exactly. What I enjoyed about this story was how the author gave me a delicious, angsty romance swimming around conflict that isn't far-fetched. I also enjoyed that she avoids painting villains with broad-strokes. For example, it takes a while to get there, but corporate farming isn't all EVIL, EVIL, EVIL!!!!! Family-run farms aren't all sunshine and rainbows and happy families skipping through the corn fields. Like 99% of everything in life, there are a lot of shades of grey. I liked that the author didn't "dumb down" or simplify the conflict that exists between the romantic couple.
Naturally with conflict of this ilk you get an adversarial relationship between hero and heroine. I'll admit, this kind of thing can be tiring for me as the reader if it drags on too long. What I liked here is that while Jodi and Daniel are butting heads, they aren't vile about it. They both realize, in the cold harsh light of day, that maybe they, at times, overstep and wow - they really should apologize for being an asshat. I also was very, very relieved that even though Daniel feels he's fighting for his life he doesn't drag Tyler into the mess.
I don't have an autistic child, and haven't spent a great deal of time around them, but this aspect of the story rang true to me. Jodi loves her son dearly, but that doesn't mean every waking moment is champagne and roses. She feels guilt, she feels helpless, she is really all her son has in this world and she feels like she's failing him every step of the way.
If this story perfect? Well, probably not. It is one of those Small Towns Will Save Us All stories, but I liked how the author spins the idea of "home" and "family" really being where the heart is. I also am, once again, reduced to a throat-clogged-sniffling-mess at the hands of a Karen Rock story. You understand a woman like Jodi, so overwhelmed but not looking for a white knight to save her (because how often does that really happen?). She's working to save herself, and that's kind of what she does here. She confronts her past, she confronts her present and she looks at her future - really looks at it. In turn, so does Daniel. Daniel realizes some important things about love, home and family - and how sometimes that's as simple as the person standing next to you, holding your hand.
Final Grade = B
Note: Print copies available direct from Harlequin. Available digitally at all the usual places.