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Homer author heats up the summer with smoking hot reads

Bachelor Firemen of San Gabriel series

By Jennifer Bernard; 375 pages on average; Avon Romance/HarperCollins; prices vary

You always remember the first time.

Mine happened on a rainy evening. The lights were dim, the radio low, the mood sultry and slow.

I glanced across the room and my eyes locked on a brawny and muscular chest, a chest of Viking proportions, a chest so flawless and perfectly sculpted that my knees weakened; I could barely breathe, so anxious was I to touch, to open, to consume.

I loosened the top buttons of my shirt, walked over.

And readers, I consumed.

That was the first time I opened the sexy cover of USA Today best-selling author Jennifer Bernard's fun and fiery firemen series books, and I was smitten. I fell hard.

Bernard, a Homer author with a degree from Harvard, isn't your ordinary romance-with-an-erotic-twist writer.

She's a literary-trained author who's worked both in the New York publishing arena, plus promotional spots and screenplays in Los Angeles.

With titles such as "Four Weddings and a Fireman" and "Sex and the Single Fireman," Bernard's books are playful, sexy and spiced with just enough heat to keep readers frantically turning the pages.

They're well written, too, with characters that are likable yet flawed. Bernard understands that it's our vulnerabilities that make us lovable, and she gives readers exactly what they desire: Male and female characters who don't always make the right choices or say the right things, people who mess up their lives and their relationships and must dig down and find the emotional strength to honestly correct their mistakes, make amends and get themselves back on course.

The books follow the basic romance premise, with a few unpredictable twists and turns to add depth: A hearty tease of love, followed by misunderstanding/betrayal/conflict, smoldering looks, more misunderstandings/conflict followed by more smoldering looks followed by smoldering kisses.

Well, a little more than smoldering kisses.

OK, a lot more.

Sex flirts throughout the pages, and here's where Bernard's mastery shines. Her artfully devised romantic scenes are written without a hint of gratuitousness. She not only knows what women want, she appreciates the power of anticipation and how to best draw out the tension. And then draw it out a bit more. By the time readers hit the first sex scene, they're nearly frazzled from the buildup, but in the best possible way.

Escaping the romance label

Romance novels don't get much respect. In a publishing industry dominated by men, where male-inclusive subjects take precedent over female interests, romance is viewed as low-bar, a few inches down from chicklit, something reserved for bored housewives and women waiting for their lives to happen. This is especially prevalent in the literary world, where so-called serious writers take great pleasure in picking apart merits of the romance novel.

Bernard is familiar with this mindset.

"I grew up in an academic family that disdained romance," she said. "In order to even attempt to write my first book, I had to grapple with that 'snobbish' attitude. I had to figure out why I wanted to write, and who I was writing for."

She soon realized that she had little interest in impressing the literary community.

"I wanted to write for people," she said. "People who are looking for a laugh, or a happy sigh or the delicious satisfaction of a happy ending."

Romance novels, she said, focus on love relationships, a peak experience in life.

"When you pick up a romance novel, you can be transported to ancient Egypt, Regency England or the planet Mars after the apocalypse, but there will always be a happy ending of some sort," she said. "That combination of adventure and safety, variety and familiarity is very powerful."

Bernard moved to Alaska from Los Angeles in 2007. She met her husband in a Fred Meyer grocery store. In the chocolate aisle (see why she writes romance?).

"Living in Alaska reinforces my natural affinity for down-to-earth heroes such as firefighters," she said. "I'm not drawn to write billionaire or CEO-type heroes. I'm interested in the struggle, and how that helps form one's character."

She wrote her first fireman-series book "The Fireman Who Loved Me" as a single novel. When the publisher, Avon/HarperCollins, requested three more books, she came up with the concept of the Bachelor Firemen of San Gabriel series. By the time she finished, she had completed six novels and three novellas.

Next: Hotshot wildland firefighter series

She's presently working on a Hotshot wildland firefighter series.

Bernard's books have garnered a large following. They've also picked up positive reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews and she was chosen as a National Readers Choice Awards finalist.

Still, what Bernard enjoys is the interplay between characters, that familiar tug of chemistry and conflict.

"Why are these two people, with their specific histories and flaws and qualities, right for each other? And how are they wrong for each other?"

She also enjoys the spice. She really enjoys the spice.

"I like the juicy stuff — the flirtation, the buildup of tension, the sizzle, the way falling in love changes you," she said.

"So that's what I write."

Cinthia Ritchie is a freelance writer and author. She blogs about writing, books and Alaska life at www.cinthiaritchie.com.

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