Cutaway is the second book in the Ben’s Life series and reunites us with partners Steve Michaels and Zack Greene. Steve and Zack have a domestic discipline oriented dom/sub relationship, although they are pretty low key and live very private lives. They also work together with Steve as the director and Zack as the star of the TV show Ben’s Life. Here we meet them again two years after the end of the first story, Action. Their relationship is now public (though not the dom/sub dynamic) and they are happily working together on the show. However Steve is under some stress as Ben’s Life comes up on its hundredth episode. He knows there will be something major in store, something that might upset Zack, but he hasn’t been told exactly which direction the story will take, making him very anxious. And once he finds out, it turns out that Zack will be required to take off the collar he wears in both real life and the show and allow another character to put it on. The collar is a symbol to the men of their bond and partnership and allowing someone else to wear it is upsetting to them both.
At the same time, Zack starts showing an interest in exploring more about BDSM beyond their current activities. He has learned that one of Steve’s exes runs a BDSM club and he feels jealously about their past relationship and the fact that Steve explored more of the lifestyle with Peter than Steve and Zack do together. So he asks Steve to take him to Peter’s club so they can try some new things. Steve is worried that seeing the more intense scenes will freak Zack out, so he invites Peter over to their house to talk to him. Peter is engaged in a much more intense total power relationship with his slave Josh, and Zack is bothered by their relationship. He is also put off by Peter who insists on trying to dominate Zack, as well and treat him as inferior because he is a sub.
Things are made even worse when Peter and Steve are in a car accident and Steve is seriously hurt. Peter refuses to call and tell Zack, making him hear second hand about the accident and causing the media to jump to conclusions that Steve is having an affair with Peter when Zack doesn’t arrive promptly at the hospital. Things aren’t helped by Steve’s mother who encourages this perception. And when Steve is released, things become even more tense as he has to accept care from Zack. Steve is used to being the caretaker and protecting Zack and it so hard for him to relinquish control and allow himself to be tended to by Zack. The couple must work through all these conflicts and try to keep things steady in the face of the upheaval.
So there is a lot happening in this story, especially for a novella, and at times it was hard to keep up with all the threads. For me the book really divides into two parts, before and after Steve’s accident. The major focus in the early part of the book is the situation with the TV show. Steve is stressed because he doesn’t know which script the producers will go with, and he knows having to take off Zack’s collar will be upsetting to both of them. Plus the higher ups refuse to give any of the actors a copy of the script once it is finalized to prevent leaks, making them have to rehearse (and film?) with Steve feeding the actors their lines. I have to say this part just felt a little off to me. First of all, the actors really don’t get scripts? Lots of shows and movies have major risks of leaks and the scripts are closely guarded, but is this really how they handle it? I guess it is possible, it just seemed odd. But the bigger issue for me was with the collar. Zack’s collar is a major prop his character wears in the show. So they just let him wear it home every day and no one thinks it’s odd (not to mention that it locks on he can’t remove it)? As the story goes on, we find out that Zack had the collar first and the show decided to incorporate it into the plot, so it is a little more understandable, but it still seemed so unlikely. But honestly, the biggest problem I had here with this subplot is that it just goes nowhere. There is a huge set up with a lot of angst, and by midway through the book we never hear about it again. Nothing is really resolved, no one feels any better about Zack having to take off the collar, but the subplot just disappears.
The next major subplot is the issue of the further BDSM exploration. In some ways I found this interesting, as Steve and Zack lead a fairly tame, if untraditional lifestyle. So the idea of them exploring some of the more intense sides of BDSM added a new dynamic to their relationship, especially since Zack really has no sense of the lifestyle beyond his relationship with Steve. So on one hand this worked well for me, but I ran into some trouble here too. First of all, why is Zack suddenly so insecure? I could have accepted just curiosity, interest in pushing his own boundaries, etc. But we are told clearly that Zack feels jealously about Steve’s old relationship and the things they did together and “Now, more than ever, he had to prove he was as exciting as Peter.” Not only did the jealously feel out of nowhere, but it seemed a terrible reason for Zack to be trying new and more intense aspects of BDSM.
There is also a side element here in Peter’s relationship with Josh. Josh is a “slave” and the two have a much more extreme partnership, with Josh giving up total control of his life to Peter. I think this was an interesting contrast to see a totally different dom/sub dynamic with this couple, especially in light of Zack’s desire to see and experience more. But Zack is really freaked out by their relationship and is constantly trying to interfere. Yes, as it turns out Peter is not a particularly good partner to Josh. But many of the things that upset Zack are not out of the ordinary for this type of dom/sub dynamic (Peter controlling when Josh eats, who he can talk to, etc), yet Zack keeps getting in the middle of things and stirring up trouble. So there were times things felt a little judgmental here for me. I mean, let’s be honest, there a lot of folks who would freak at the idea of even Steve and Zack’s relationship, with the spanking and other discipline. So while I get that Zack as a character may be bothered by what he is seeing, I think the book itself should have remained a little more neutral. On the plus side, I am really interested to see how the side plot with Josh develops as we are given indication there is more to come for him and I think there is a lot of potential here.
The last major subplot in the book surrounds Steve’s accident and I thought this part worked really well and created a really interesting dynamic. Steve is basically bedridden for the week, relying on Zack to administer medicine, bathe him, take him to the bathroom, and do just about everything else. This really throws both men. Zack worries that he won’t be able to care for Steve as well as he should and is nervous he will let Steve down. And Steve really has a hard time being dependent. He is used to being in charge, both at work and at home. It is hard for him to let Zack take care of him, to have this role reversal in their relationship. I liked seeing how they worked through this. And I appreciated Zack’s sensitivity in helping Steve reassert his dominance to give him back that feeling of control he needed after the unsettling event. I continue to really like these guys together. They are so sweet and mutually doting on one another. The love between them is really clear and it is obvious how much this relationship works for them both.
So a few other odds and ends. As with the first book, I often found myself confused here as to who was doing the action. It wasn’t a pronoun problem, but a lack of clarity in the writing. It threw me out of the story a couple of times as I would have to backtrack and reread to figure things out. I think tighter editing would have really helped. The other thing the book struggles with a bit is handling itself as a sequel. In some places the recapping of plot points from the first book came across as blunt and heavy handed, rather than blended into the story. Then in other places I felt lost about what was going on as an understanding of details from the first book seemed assumed (for example, who different side characters were and their significance to the story). Again, I think better editing would have helped here to catch this stuff. And last thing. Steve’s mom behaves incredibly badly here and it seems out of character from how she acts in the first book. She is sort of odd and flaky in Action, but here she is just so extreme that I was shocked by her behavior and didn’t understand where it was coming from.
Ok, so bottom line is that this second book didn’t work as well for me as the first. I think the story tackles too many issues and leaves a lot of things not fully developed or thought through. But I continue to really like Zack and Steve together and find them a great couple. Despite my issues here I am looking forward to the next book in the series and seeing where things go for them from here.