Connor Morrison is a brilliant researcher and a leader in the physics department at UC Berkley. He is also a bit socially awkward and leaves most of the social interaction to his research partner Steve. So he isn’t particularly thrilled when Steve surprises him with a birthday party, although his eye does wander to a good looking young man in attendance named Wes Martin. It turns out Wes is a senior studying physics at Berkley, a brilliant young man with hopes of graduate school and one day working with Connor. However, when Wes makes a move, Connor is uncomfortable with the younger man’s overtures and rebuffs him, much to Steve’s dismay.
About a week later, Wes and Connor meet again at a big conference where Steve and Connor are to present their new research. Wes has volunteered to be one of the “gophers” for the top presenters and is matched up with Connor. After being together almost continuously for several days, Connor realizes his attraction for Wes isn’t going away, so he finally gives in to it, and the two men share a night of passion. Yet as soon as their encounter is over, Wes leaves without a word.
We soon learn that Wes is not just a student, but is also a prostitute, paying his way through school after losing his scholarship in the bad economy. Not only that, but he was hired by Connor’s friend Steve as a “birthday gift” for Connor, which is why he came onto him at the party. His position at the conference was his second attempt at completing the job. Although he has admired Connor’s research for a while (and in fact often sits in on his lectures), as well as being attracted to Connor all along, Wes knows that Connor would not like learning the truth about his prostitution or the circumstances about how they ended up together, hence the running out after their night together.
Things become more difficult for Wes over the coming weeks as he gets involved with a cruel client, one who abuses him and treats him horribly. Although he still has feelings for Connor, Wes knows he would never be able to hide his side job and so he avoids Connor, even after they end up living in the same building. Yet Wes’ secret turns out to be impossible to keep. Once Connor finds out, the question remains whether the men can make things work with all the baggage between them.
So this was a really interesting story for me, and had some parts that I really liked and others that didn’t work so well for me. I really enjoyed the opening portion of the book. I love my geeky heroes and seeing Connor and Wes bond over of their love of physics and science was really great. Connor is brilliant, but so shy and socially awkward, and I really liked seeing him face his anxieties when he speaks at the conference, and the way Wes is able to help him through it. They worked so well together, forming an instant bond as each man recognizes a bit of a kindred spirit in the other. Connor totally sees glimpses of himself in young Wes and appreciates the man’s brilliant mind along with his personality and gorgeous looks. I think that initial conflict between them of Wes being hired to be with Connor and how to get past that into a real relationship worked really well.
But as the story progressed, things became more problematic for me. My biggest problem is that I really disliked Steve and that sort of soured a lot of the story for me. This is a guy who is Connor’s business and research partner, and an incredibly close friend. Yet the things he does are so terrible and heartless, under the guise of being “helpful.” First he throws Connor a party he knows he won’t want, including inviting a host of strangers so that Connor can meet new people. Then he hires a prostitute to sleep with Connor, deciding Connor needs to have more of a social life. (Seriously, what is it with romance novel characters and their constant worry about how much sex their friends are having?) But what’s even worse to me is that when that fails, he then hires Wes AGAIN, plants him at the conference, and pays him a fortune to once again try to get Connor into bed. Is this really helpful friend behavior? To trick Connor into thinking Wes really likes him after they spent all that time together?
I also was bothered by how Steve finds Wes in the first place. We know Wes advertises online for his services. But he is also a student in the same department where Steve and Connor teach. Steve recognizes him as attending Connor’s classes and apparently being obviously attracted to Connor as he listens to the lectures. So when Steve finds Wes online, he presumably knows he is a student in their department. And still he “buys” him for his best friend? That doesn’t totally squick him out? It’s not like he finds out after the fact; it seems pretty clear he knew all along. Oh, and did I mention that Steve also bought some of Wes’ services for himself to check out the quality of the merchandise? Ugh, gross. I know we need Steve as the foil to sort of jump start the conflict, but I just found him so distasteful I had trouble moving past it.
My other big issue is the student/teacher dynamic between Wes and Connor. Although it comes up early when Connor rejects Wes at the party, after that it is pretty much ignored. Steve even comments that lots of faculty are involved with students and says it is no big deal. Really? Connor is a high profile professor in Wes’ department, with presumably some degree of influence over other faculty and students. They can really be engaging in an affair (and living together by the end) and no one cares? I mean, not only is Wes a current student, but he ultimately wants to be a graduate student under Connor. Does this school have no ethics rules? To be honest, the age difference between the men didn’t bother me at all. But the way the teacher/student dynamic was just buried as if it is was no big deal made it hard for me to suspend my disbelief.
I was also not thrilled with the way things were handled with Wes’ tormenting john. The guy is threatening him, abusing him, beating him up. Wes is afraid to complain because the guy tells Wes that he will out him to his friend the university president, who will then kick Wes out of school. So this guy is buddies with the chancellor of the school and he is just going to casually mention that he is paying a student for sex? So Wes is then afraid to tell anyone about what is going on or to seek help for fear of being outed. Yet he is advertising on a public web site for his services, and notes that many other students participate in this site as well. So is exposure really that much of a risk? Isn’t he pretty much out there already? And the school lets faculty sleep with students, but then would kick the same student out for accepting money for sex?
Ok, so like I said, I had some issues with the second half. It is a shame because there is so much I liked about this story. I really enjoyed Wes and Connor and thought the set up for the story worked quite well. I loved that inherent conflict of how to build a relationship when it starts out as a lie, and how the men would work past it. And honestly, maybe if you aren’t someone like me who goes crazy for little logic gaps, these things won’t bother you as much. But for me, it just didn’t hold together as much as I would have liked. I love Grant’s work and I look forward to other books by her, but this one just didn’t completely work for me.
P.S. This book is part of Riptide’s Rent Boy collection. It is currently available individually and will be released as part of the full collection later this summer.
Cover: Oh, I like this one. Pretty pretty.
Cat will also be here later today to talk to us more about Priceless and will be bringing a great giveaway. Be sure to stop by and check it out!