It Was Always You is an anthology of friends to lovers stories by some great authors. Most of them are novella length, which makes this a really meaty anthology with some well developed stories. I really like friends to lovers stories, so I found the subject fun. At times I felt the theme got a bit repetitive, especially when there were several in a row of long time friends who suddenly realize an attraction to one another. It also would have been nice to mix it up so they were not all contemporaries. But overall, I think there were a nice array of stories by some really great authors and I definitely enjoyed this anthology.
Proceeds from the anthology go to One.n.Ten, an LGBTQ youth support center.
Rough Edges by Cardeno C
Kyle came from poor background and has worked incredibly hard to succeed. When he first met Brent, there was an immediate connection between them and Kyle thought there could be something more. However, when Kyle found out that Brent is wealthy and doesn’t have a job, he was instantly turned off. Given how hard Kyle works and how tough he has had it, the idea that Brent just lives a life of leisure is incredibly grating. Kyle doesn’t make a secret of his distaste for Brent and makes sure Brent sees his disdain every chance he gets. But when Kyle loses his job and is in danger of being homeless, Brent surprises him by taking him in. As the guys spend more time together, Kyle begins to see that there is more to Brent than he once thought.
Cardeno C writes warm, romantic stories and I enjoyed the set up for this one. I liked Brent and I am a big fan of the enemies to lovers theme. However, I did have a hard time with this story as I found Kyle pretty unlikeable. I get why he resents the easy life Brent has (though Kyle frames it as more anger that Brent isn’t being a productive member of society). But at the same time, Brent is kind and friendly and has never done anything but be nice to Kyle (and occasionally wing a retort back to Kyle’s scathing comments). Kyle, on the other hand, is rude and nasty to Brent at every turn. He constantly insults him, is derisive and scornful and picks on him at every opportunity. Even when Kyle is at risk of being homeless and Brent takes him in (when none of Kyle’s other friends seem to be bothering), Kyle still watches every word to make sure nothing he says to Brent can be construed as being nice or friendly. He is just so incredibly unpleasant, I couldn’t ever get behind him or figure out why Brent wants to give him the time of day. I think had this been a longer story, we would have had more time to see the friendship and ultimately real feelings developing between them. But in this novella, it seems like Kyle goes from hatred to friendship to relationship from one page to the next and I never could move past the way he treats Brent. So while I do enjoy Cardeno C’s work and think the writing is well done, this story didn’t fully work for me.
Unexpected Turn by Ella Frank
Connor and Tyler have been best friends for years. As roommates they are incredibly close, though things have been a bit more awkward since Tyler started dating Ryan, who has made it clear he doesn’t like Connor or want him around Tyler. After years of being nothing more than friends, Connor finds himself suddenly and unexpectedly attracted to Tyler, just as the two are getting ready to drive together to Tyler’s sister’s wedding weekend. Connor has always been attracted to women and doesn’t really know what to do with these new feelings for his best friend. Things are incredibly tense as Tyler can sense something is wrong and Connor is unsure how to explain this sudden attraction. But when the Connor confesses how he feels, and Tyler looks at him in a new light, the two may find that their long friendship turns into more.
Unexpected Turn is a cute, sexy story about two best friends who turn into lovers. This is one of those stories where you kind of just have to go with the premise that Connor suddenly and completely out of nowhere is attracted to Tyler after never having been before (or having ever been attracted to anyone but women). So I’ll admit this sudden attraction that just shows up inexplicably one day takes a little suspension of disbelief, but once I went with it, I found the story really enjoyable. The chemistry is great between them and I really liked the alternating POVs. The pacing of the story really makes you feel like they are both telling it to us as we swap back and forth between them. I will mention that both of these guys are dating other people when they first get together for their initial hookup. And while Ryan is understandably annoyed, Connor’s girlfriend is almost absurdly calm about the whole thing. But again, if you can go with the set up here, I think the story is really entertaining and I definitely enjoyed these guys together. This was my first introduction to Ella Frank and I wouldn’t hesitate to seek out more of her books.
Dare You To by Riley Hart
Austin loves his weekly movie nights with his best friend Dare. Even though the guys are totally different, they somehow work together. Dare is bold and high energy and game to try anything once, while Austin is much quieter and more steady, but feels a little stuck and boring. The two guys have always just been friends, never even considered anything more, until one day things start to change. Dare worries about messing things up with Austin and is hesitant to take it further, but when Austin decides to shake things up a bit in his life, Dare realizes he wants Austin with him and no one else. Austin helps to ground Dare and give him someone to trust, and Dare helps Austin to push a little outside of his comfort zone. Now as these two move their relationship from friends to lovers, they are both finding that they are a perfect match.
I haven’t read much by Riley Hart and I really enjoyed this story. It has a nice opposites attract vibe going on with these two very different men who somehow have become best friends. They are so different that they never really thought of more together, but when they finally connect as lovers, you can see how well they work as a couple. I liked that this story didn’t end with the realization that they were interested in one another as more than friends, but instead takes it further so we can see how each of their lives change as their relationship grows. Austin gets bolder, more willing to try new things, and Dare feels the support and confidence he needs to open up about some things in his past. So this one feels nicely developed and I really liked the story.
Leaning Into Love by Lane Hayes
Eric and Zane have been friends for years. Eric co-owns a tech company with another of their friends (and Eric’s former lover), Nick. Nick is now getting married to an investor’s daughter, and Eric knows it is a mistake as it is all just business to Nick and he clearly doesn’t love his intended. But Eric goes along and supports Nick anyway because that is his job as friend and best man. When Zane and Eric begin growing closer and exploring a relationship together, it is everything Eric wants. He has been attracted to Zane for years and the two have a strong bond that slowly grows as the two fall for one another. But Nick is making a mess of things with his fiancé and now the fallout looks like it might come crashing down on Eric and Zane, just as the two have a chance at something real together.
This is the first story I have read by Lane Hayes and I was really impressed with her writing. She writes with such vivid descriptions that the setting and the atmosphere really came alive to me. I loved Zane and Eric together. There was a sweetness to them as Zane gets up the nerve to ask Eric out and the two begin to explore things between them. I liked that we are in Eric’s sole POV, but a lot of the first steps are taken by Zane, so we are seeing it all through Eric’s eyes. My only complaint is that I found the conflict a bit convoluted. I never understood why Eric wanted to keep dating Zane a secret, why he puts up with so much crap from Nick, and definitely not why anyone thought the fallout of the conflict would affect Zane. Eric somehow seems to excuse Nick’s behavior in a way that seems too easy, especially because Nick’s motives never seem nearly as pure as Eric seems to think. Things resolve really quickly, which helped a lot, but I still was left a little frustrated that Nick comes out if it all so clean. But overall I really enjoyed this story and it was a great introduction to Hayes’ writing. According to a note at the end of the story, this is a sneak peek at an upcoming series featuring the San Francisco boys starting in early 2017, and I am really excited to check it out.
The Sweetest Goodbye by Christina Lee
Billie runs his family bakery with the help of his friend Dylan. For four years, he has been waiting on the return of Leo, his teenage boyfriend. Leo left for school and told Billie to go on with his life, but Billie feels like things are unfinished there and hopes when Leo returns they can really explore their relationship. But in the meantime, Billie is waiting.
Dylan’s father kicked him out as a teen when he came out, aborting his future as a dancer. Billie’s large family has always helped him out and Dylan is a part of the family. But now Dylan is finding himself attracted to Billie. He knows that their occasional hookups can’t be anything serious, as Billie is waiting for Leo. But both Dylan and Billie’s feelings are slowly changing, and as Billie weathers a crisis, Dylan is the one he wants there for him.
The Sweetest Goodbye was one of my favorite stories of this collection. It is super sexy, but with a layer of sweetness between the two guys. I liked the set up here and that it was a bit different than the “two friends suddenly have feelings for one another” theme that carries a lot of the book, with the added layer of complication about Billie’s feelings for Leo. I did feel like it was hard to fully understand Billie’s level of commitment to this guy after so many years when Leo was clear Billie should move on. In a longer story this might have been explored more thoroughly. But overall, I really liked this one a lot. I enjoyed both Billie and Dylan and found them very sexy and sweet together.
Please Don’t Go by Felice Stevens
Fifteen years ago Danny and Paul went to summer camp together. They were close friends and 16-year-old Paul always looked out for the younger Danny. Paul told Danny he would always be there for him, but the next summer he didn’t return to camp, leaving Danny alone. Now Danny is shocked when Paul shows up as the new employee in his accounting firm. Danny is still not over the betrayal of Paul leaving him, and wants nothing to do with the man. But Paul hasn’t forgotten Danny either and is determined to show him that they are truly meant to be together.
Sometimes I write a review and note that it is a story line or a set up you have to just go with, because otherwise the book won’t work. And most of the time I can do that. But unfortunately with this story, I could never get past some key elements and it just threw me out of the whole thing. First off, I could not buy that these guys who last saw each other at 14 and 16 had somehow not only retained an emotional connection, but a sexual attraction to one another for 15 years (especially considering they were only friends at camp). They have spent years thinking and fantasizing about one another, which seemed just incredibly unlikely. So much so that after one day reunited, they are declaring their love for one another a future together. On top of that, Danny is still angry with Paul for not coming back to camp, as if a 16-year-old could control such a thing (even ignoring the very good reason we learn for Paul leaving). Not only that, but even looking back as an adult, Danny is still holding this teenager accountable for his happiness, saying Paul promised he would take care of him and being angry because he didn’t. It made Danny come across as both foolish and kind of a jerk. So even though Stevens overall writing is solid, I could just never get past these issues and it really negatively impacted my feelings about the story. I couldn’t connect with the characters or stop feeling frustrated with them. That said, I would certainly consider reading other works by this author.
Perfect Catch by N.R. Walker
Troy and Cal have been best friends for years. They are each attracted to one another, but the timing has never been right between them and neither wants to take the chance of messing up their close friendship. When the guys go away for a fishing weekend together, however, they finally work up the nerve to act on their feelings. Now these two best friends may just be about to turn into more.
I loved this story. It was sweet and sexy and nicely romantic. This set up is pretty simple — two guys who are attracted to each other and finally share their feelings. We know from the start how these guys feel about one another, so it is just a matter of the delicious anticipation until we finally see them together. I loved how they are so solidly committed to one another and how gleefully happy they are to be together. This was a fun story and was one of my favorites of the anthology.