house on hancock hillRating: 5 stars
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Length: Novel

When the Sherriff’s Department calls to inform Jason Wood that the farm his father had passed to him after his death, the one they used to spend their summers at when he was a kid, has burned down, Jason can’t imagine why he needs to make his way all the way to Hancock, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to deal with it right away. But go immediately he does, even though he’s already out of town meeting with his bank about the financing for his second bakery; he doesn’t even take the time to go home and re-pack, which is a colossal mistake. After a whole day of traveling from Detroit, Jason is on a snow-covered road, late at night in a severely underpopulated area, battling a blizzard on his way to the farm—there’s no way that doesn’t end badly. When he wrecks the rental car, it knocks him unconscious and the next thing he knows he wakes up in the hospital.

Upon waking, Jason is informed that he broke his nose, bruised his ribs, and suffered severe hypothermia after being in the car for hours. He’s also informed that the fuzzy fantasy of being rescued by a strong, handsome stranger with warm skin wasn’t actually a dream at all and that he was rescued by Henry, the local veterinarian. Henry seems disproportionately worried about Jason, considering he’s just some stranger he pulled out of a wrecked car in freezing weather, and he refuses to let Jason deal with all the logistical problems he now has after the accident, offering Jason a ride and to help him find a place to stay since all of the hotels and B&Bs are closed for winter. Jason’s grateful, but confused—until he finds out that Henry is actually Henry McCavanaugh, his best friend in Hancock that he spent entire summers with as a kid. Boy did Henry fill out in all the right places in the years since Jason saw him last.

Henry arranges for Jason to stay in an apartment above his neighbor’s garage, but when the power goes out and Henry discovers that the only source of heat in the apartment is an electric fireplace, he insists that Jason come and stay with him. The close quarters and the peek into the private life of this quiet, gentle man have Jason’s wildly flaring attraction and warm, fond memories of laughter and coming of age blending into something he can’t deny. The growing heat between Henry and Jason eventually boils over and leads to a few physical encounters that are supposed to remain no-strings-attached, but feel anything but casual.

In the middle of healing from the accident and struggling with his connection with Henry, Jason meets with the Sherriff and finds out that the reason for the urgency over the fire was that there was a body found inside the farm and they suspect the fire may have been started deliberately. They want Jason to try and identify the body since they’ve already determined it’s no one local. Henry resolves to help Jason through this difficult process as best he can and offers steady, quiet support throughout it all.

The quiet, domestic moments he shares with Henry—cooking for him, talking about their days, watching him, and helping him care for his aging dog, Pat—are Jason’s first clue that feelings between Henry and him are starting to run deeper than he ever intended. But it’s the steady, solid way Henry insists on supporting him and caring for him as he not only deals with the horrible business with the farm, but with also confronting the memories of a happier time with his father before his death, that lets Jason know that Henry is falling just as hard as he is. The thought of going back to his life in Traverse City, hours away, and leaving Henry behind and hurting him by continuing to offer him something he can’t actually give has Jason’s panic attacks popping up again. Numb and thinking illogically in a blind panic, Jason sneaks out of Henry’s bed and his life in the middle of the night, returning home on the first available flight.

When Jason finds out the truth about the fire at the farm and who the girl who died there was, it sends him on a downward spiral of doubting everything he thought he knew about his childhood. It’s the worst time for Henry to show up and try to offer support and they both seem to know it, letting hurt feelings and misunderstandings drive a wedge further between them. They speak or see each other a few more times, and eventually Henry asks for a clean break and Jason gives it to him despite the fact that he’s desperately in love with him.

Confused about everything that he’s learned about his family, overworked and burnt-out, and missing Henry like a severed limb, Jason decides to take a sabbatical from the bakery. This sparks a journey of growth and self-discovery, true introspection about why he’s always held the world at arm’s length and been afraid to love. This trip eventually leads him back to Hancock, the house on Hancock Hill, and Henry, but it might be too late to convince Henry to give him another chance.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a tough reader. Almost all of the books that I read and enjoy are simply “okay” and they don’t make much of a lasting impression other than a vague sense that I liked it and the memory that I liked the author’s work when they come out with something new. Very few books make it past the outer wall of my heart and to its gooey center, but the ones that do stick with me for a lifetime. This book definitely fits into that latter category. I’m pretty sure that this one touched me on a level so deep that not only will I remember the characters and their romance and specific scenes for years to come, but also little details like the name of the dog and what Jason likes to bake when he’s stressed.

I’m going to do this review a little differently than I normally do, because the structure of the book was divided into two parts. The parts had such a different feel to them that they almost could have been released as separate stories and still worked (although I’m really glad they weren’t and I didn’t have to wait for the resolution of this story.) In a lot of cases something like that, such a dramatic change in tone and scope, wouldn’t work, but here it does beautifully, and I think it would be better for me to structure this review in two parts as well in order to be the most informative about the content.

Part One:

Nurse Bryce stared at his ass. I couldn’t see it, but from what I could see, I knew it wasn’t her fault. You’d have to be unconscious not to ogle—and if my memory served me correctly, even that hadn’t stopped me from trying.

That line really sets the tone for the first part of this book. It’s funny and quirky and warm-honey sweet with the slow-building romance between Jason and Henry. The tone throughout the entire first part is really well balanced between being light and fun to read, while building inexorably to something more intense. There’s no sudden shift into “drama gear” like Sulu kicking the Enterprise into warp. It’s more like a steady climb, like a great piece of music that slowly but resolutely builds to a really powerful crescendo. It’s extremely well executed.

Jason is sympathetic and relatable from literally the very first paragraph. The very first thing that happens in the book is the car crash and it happens on page one. When it happened I was thinking “Oh my god! Oh shit! Oh shit!” You’ve got to build a really strong character and be very skilled at presenting him to make me care that much about what happens to him that quickly without making me feel like you just plopped his personality in my lap without preamble. The entirety of this book takes place over the course of about a year and during that time Jason’s life gets turned completely on its head. The first part is the genesis of all of that, the catalyst for everything and you really feel for him as he struggles through this changing world view.

Jason is presented as this closed-off, self-contained man who was forced to fend for himself far too early by his father’s death. As you learn more about his history, the reader discovers that he’s been hurt and abandoned by quite a lot of people in his life and forced to sever many relationships that were quite meaningful to him, including those he’d built with the locals in Hancock, and it builds the picture of this sad, lonely little boy in a grown man’s body who’s just walled off his heart to keep people out and just make the hurt stop. I ached for him and I was so desperate for him to not only let Henry in because I knew Henry would be good for him, but also for him to learn how to protect himself in a healthier way and for him to grow. I wanted him to learn how to stand on his own emotionally the way he had outwardly after his father died.

And then there’s Henry. Holy crap did I fall hard and fast for Henry. Like all of my favorite characters, he’s the perfect storm of characteristics that separately would be good, but together they’re something really special that makes it hard to put my finger on exactly why I love him so much. It’s not just one thing about Henry, it’s everything about him. I love an alpha male that wants to take care of everyone around him and Henry is a fantastic caretaker. He’s there to support Jason through his recovery from the accident, through identifying the body from the fire, and through confronting some painful memories of his father, but in a way that he doesn’t feel like he’s trying to shield Jason from anything, just stand behind him the whole way and hold him up if he needs it. I love a man that loves his partner enough and thinks enough of them to respect the fact that they’re capable of handling tough things with some help instead of just doing it for them.

Also, he’s a vet.

Talk about a walking wet dream—a big, strong man who loves animals, who’s willing to get down on the floor and carefully dry his aging dog’s paws off after he goes out in the snow. Henry is sweet, and sexy, and funny, and vulnerable, but he’s also real. He get jealous and he’s insecure and he makes poor decisions and the fact that he’s not perfect in the literal sense, that he’s flawed, actually makes him more perfect in my mind.

The romance between the two of them was so perfect. There was no insta-love here, and no crazy whirlwind intensity. This romance felt more domestic and comfortable than anything else and for me that made it all the more beautiful and powerful. I’ll fully admit that I like reading more “typical” romance novel romances sometimes that are all about fantasy and heavy intensity and leaping without looking, but sometimes the romances that feel a little more “every day,” that feel comfortable and easy and subtle are the most beautiful, and this story is a shining example of that. Oh, and these men are damned hot together between the sheets, so that helps.

So that brings us to the end of part one. Part one ends with Jason sneaking away from Henry in the middle of the night and ending any chance they had of moving the relationship forward. And honestly I couldn’t have been more thrilled. Part one was so perfect, so well written, that I would have been “satisfied” with it just ending there, with Henry and Jason solving their differences and working out the obstacles to a relationship at this point and it still would have been a good book. But what takes this book from the realm of merely “good” into “fantastic” is that fact that the author didn’t take the easy way out. Had the book ended there, neither character would have gone through the growth that he needed, and honestly the relationship may not have lasted. It wouldn’t have felt like a lasting relationship, anyway. Jason still wouldn’t have been capable of opening up and Henry wouldn’t have learned to separate his feelings for the boy that Jason was from his feeling for the man that he became. It would have been a sweet romance, but honestly not entirely healthy. So I’m glad we got to move on to part two.

Part Two:

“Henry,” I said, finally daring to face him. He no longer looked like he belonged, no longer made my apartment seem like home. Tom’s words had changed his bearing, subtly but unmistakably; his wings had been clipped when he should have been soaring.

And yep, that’s pretty much part two in a nutshell. As I said above, the tone changes dramatically in part two. Some people might call it angsty, but I didn’t see it that way at all. It was certainly tense, and oh god did I ache for these men to find a way back to each other, but it wasn’t just drama for drama’s sake or this irreversible slide down the spiral of depression where it felt like no matter what the resolution was it wouldn’t have made up for the hurt that came before it. It was an entirely necessary separation for these characters. There were real, serious issues between them, things that prevented their relationship in its current incarnation from working, things that couldn’t (or shouldn’t) just be swept aside with the power of their feelings for each other. Sometimes love alone just isn’t enough to fix what’s broken and I’m so glad Vaughn chose to take both of these characters back to their own corners for a breather between rounds here. Both of these characters had to grow and learn to live in the now rather than stay mired in the past if this relationship was going to have a chance.

Jason gets the chance to let go of old betrayals and he learns more about the implosion of his parent’s relationship and he struggles with finding out that the image he had of his father, the one he’d been viewing through the rose-colored glasses of boyhood hero-worship, isn’t entirely accurate. All of this leads him to tear down the stoic version of himself he’d cobbled together out of necessity after his father’s death and really examine who he is and what he wants at the core of him. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, he transforms himself into someone who can simply accept life and love as it is. That in itself would have been a beautiful story even if none of the other stuff had been there.

And while Henry was certainly in a better place emotionally at the start of the story in the sense that he was open to love and a relationship, he certainly had some growing to do as well. Those summers that Jason had spent in Hancock had shaped him so profoundly, had been such a part of taking him from a boy to a man, and many of the events that formed his adult personality revolved entirely around his feelings for Jason. You really get the sense in the beginning parts of this book that Henry’s really straddling the fence, still hung up on and in love with the boy Jason was and letting the feelings that never faded push him into the arms of the man Jason is now. It’s never really clear whether he sees what was or what is when he looks at Jason through the first part of this. So when he walks away and cuts ties with what could have been, it’s really what he needed to be able to really re-learn Jason as he is now and fall for him for all of the right reasons instead of clinging to a sepia-tinted past.

The fits and starts they go through in finding their way back to each other are honestly painful to read but somehow also exactly what these characters need to be something together than can stand the test of time. The resolution the reach is the perfect mix of romance and realism. I don’t want to spoil it, but I’ll just say it feels real but it’s also butterflies-in-the-stomach, goofy-smile-inducing, painfully sweet at the same time. It was the perfect ending to an incredible story and it will stay with me for a long time. Also, it’s been a long, looong time since I’ve read an Epilogue that perfect.

So, in summary: the gorgeous, skillful writing, the perfectly executed characters, the layered and complex plot, the humor, the personal growth and the satisfying story arc make this book one that I cannot recommend strongly enough. This one is going on the forever favorites shelf.

A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.

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