This is the third book in this series. They will work as standalones so you don’t have to read them in order, although you may get more of an emotional impact for this story if you do. This story focuses on Brian, Simon’s ex from book one. He makes a brief cameo in book two. What is known about Brian so far doesn’t make him the most likeable character, so the author has her work cut out to flesh him out in a sympathetic way. He’s an architect and still has business ties to Simon. Malcolm and Brian actually meet at the local bar. Malcolm is on medical leave from teaching and coaching until he recovers from a car accident that broke both his legs. They really aren’t each other’s type, but Malcolm’s well intentioned family and friends trying to warn him off Brian ends up backfiring.
When Brian’s nephew Josh shows up after being kicked out for being gay, Brian knows he may not be the best role model but there isn’t anyone else and he does step up to the plate. Because the alternating POVs are from Brian and Malcolm, Josh is as much as mystery to the reader as he is to Brian. Josh ends up in Malcolm’s class so when he needs help mentoring the school’s LGBTQ society, he asks Brian since he is already on the board for the Smart Kids Foundation that helps disadvantaged kids. This allows Mal and Brian to get to know each other in ways Brian normally wouldn’t bother.
What makes this book work is seeing Brian struggle with feelings and memories of his own past as he helps Josh. Finally getting Brian’s side to the break-up and how his past affected his life with Simon was crucial. Now that Simon has had a chance to reflect, he sees his part in what went wrong also–this doesn’t excuse Brian’s cheating, just makes it more understandable. When they finally talk about the past, I did want a little more, but maybe it was enough for them to both let go and move on towards a healthier friendship. Where Brian shines is his patience and thoughtfulness with Mal’s injuries. Also, his best friend Vanessa is proof of his ability to have a long term, honest relationship. There are several times in the book where there is dissonance between how others see Brian and how he sees himself; if he could only see the good he does instead of using his persona to distance himself, which makes him less likeable. Mal getting to see the real Brian and accepting him seems to be what he needs to start a new chapter.
I thought this book was very well done. There were minor things I think could have been more fleshed out to give the story a bit more roundness, but the framework is solid. I like Mal and Brian together. I like that helping Josh and confronting his past, helps Brian start to heal so he could be a better partner to Mal. Brian actually interacting with the LGBTQ society instead of just hiding behind giving money is a great step. So, I ended up liking Brian. There, I said it.
Frankie kissed Tom when he was 17 and Tom punched him, ending their friendship. Then, Frank left town and hasn’t been back in 30 years. When his uncle dies, he has to go back to deal with his inheritance. Tom has been working for Frankie’s uncle and has now lost his friend, his home, and his job due to his death. He has given up everything to take care of his mother, who is now in a nursing home. The story has dual POV and their childhood is shared through flashbacks. Frankie is still caught in the sadness of the past. Much of this book is sad, reminiscences often are–of dreams lost, bad decisions made, the things you can’t take back. As Frank and Tom start to relive the good times they shared as boys, rather than dwelling on the incident, you would think it would liven up, but for me it doesn’t.
I am not a fan of second chance romances. I tend to think things didn’t work out for a reason. I am not a fan of nostalgia or glorifying the past. But avoiding dealing with things from your teenage years until you are nearing your fifties is not healthy. While my heart ached for both men for different reasons, I was frustrated with them too. Tom has let fear rule him for so long; after fighting it, he finally gives in and decides to explore what they have. Frankie was hard for me to relate to for some reason. His demisexuality seemed to keep him isolated from deep relationships and even his friends didn’t really know him. There was a little bit of comic relief about 60% in when they tour a neighboring resort. I wish that type of interaction had been included more. The best parts are having them recapture their love of the woods and each other–sharing the dream of remodeling the resort.
While this was interesting and well written, I felt removed emotionally at times. That’s okay, because I like to read books that are about many types of people. How boring would it be if we were all alike? It’s a good reminder that other people’s logic and life experience can be completely different and will affect their decisions and outlook. Charlie, Simon, and Brian from book one show up. Brian seems the next one to be paired off, but as he cheated on Simon over and over for a decade, I am not much enthused by this prospect. It will take a lot to redeem this character in book three, but if any author can do it, Kelly Jensen can.
Charlie is a widower with a teenage daughter and a crush on his neighbor. Simon is on the rebound and rebuilding his life in a new state at a new job. When Simon’s ex Brian steps back into the picture, and Charlie needs to prioritize his daughter Olivia over his love life, things get complicated.
I find that I like the dual POV in alternating chapters approach rather than the willy nilly style some authors have. Seeing their relationship unfold from both sides made me care about each of them and I never struggled to figure out whose thoughts were whose. Charlie is adorable. His admitting he was bisexual and sharing that with his friend and daughter was handled in the confident way of someone who is honest with themself and others while still showing his doubts and anxieties. Simon is more serious and cautious, taking longer to think things through. I laughed out loud a few times; I felt weepy a few times too, and cringing–there was definately cringing. They burn up the sheets, but in a way that is real and human. They connect in that way that people do when they are actually honest when getting to know each, other instead of just putting on a face.
Their story is engaging with interesting side characters that give it richer layers: Simon’s friend Frank, Charlie’s friend Phil and his neighbor Cassie, Simon’s new business partner Aurther, even Charlie’s daughter Liv are all there to show us different facets of the MCs.
The difficult part about being in love and staying in love is the daily decision to–the decision to stay when things hurt, or are not fun and easy, but still confront and fix them. To think about what someone else needs even if they don’t communicate well or ask for help is part of building a partnership. Stressful things can either pull people apart or bring them closer together, and that’s a choice too.
Sometimes I feel like I judge books too harshly, like I’m being mean, but then I read a book like this and I know that all the books I gave a lower rating to are missing what this book has, and I feel fine about it. This is the kind of romance I want to read, regardless of genre.