A bit of a long-running joke in this author’s social media groups is that she can’t write a stand-alone novel. This book, however, definitely stands alone, and whether she wrote it that way on purpose or not is irrelevant, because it still includes everything I love about her writing and storytelling. Ben and Thomas are well-developed characters coming at a new relationship from very different angles. They happen to perfectly mesh in the middle, even though it takes a bit of work for both of them to get there.
Neither man expected to see each other past their first night together, which is little more than an anonymous hookup arranged by app. Ben wants to replace memories of his emotionally abusive ex, and Thomas is fresh out of a divorce and finally ready to indulge in the sexual attraction he feels for men. But this is an anonymous hookup, remember, so neither confesses anything about why this encounter is so important to them. These hidden issues elevate the scene from standard sexy shenanigans to a true focus on every facet of how Ben and Thomas interact, even if neither man yet knows the weight of its significance. This could have all gone poorly, but since this is a romance novel, it’s only the beginning of a fascinating not-quite relationship.
Hawthorne effortlessly blends a romance storytelling arc with the progression of a relationship that is intended to be nothing like a romance. Much of this is helped by the focus on each character as an individual. I found myself completely invested in the post-divorce drama of Thomas’ family dynamics, and Hawthorne also uses a deft touch with Ben’s healing, especially by never hiding the acknowledgment that it is possible for a man to experience an abusive relationship and need to heal from the trauma, no matter the circumstances (such as length of relationship or verbal vs physical abuse).
But this is also a Hawthorne novel, which means nothing is as simple as it appears. We get the briefest brush of an “idiots in love” scenario as a relationship begins to develop between Ben and Thomas despite their best intentions, but deeper connections between the men are revealed that upend everything they’ve almost built. No matter when you put the particular pieces together (I almost fell off the treadmill), this story includes a pretty amazing twist that will only make you even more invested in these characters and their story. Then, far from being idiots, both men prove to be (mostly) mature adults in how they practice self-care after these reveals, which only makes me care about their eventual happily ever after even more.
Disclaimer: I received a digital review copy of this book from the author.