Rating: 4.5 stars
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Chenco Ortiz is stunned when, after caring for his homophobic jerk of a father as he lay dying, he learns the man bequeathed the trailer Chenco lives in to the Klan rather than Chenco as promised. Now Chenco is broke with no place to live and crushed by the betrayal, though he knows he should have expected no less from Cooper Tedsoe. When Chenco meets Steve Vance outside his lawyer’s office, he is surprised when the man offers to help him. In Chenco’s experience, no one has ever cared enough to bother trying to take care of him, and certainly not a stranger. But Steve’s dominant side is drawn to this young man in need, and he can’t help but step in.
As it turns out, Steve has a connection to Chenco’s brother Mitch, a man Chenco had been taught by Cooper to fear as being violently homophobic. So he is shocked to learn that Mitch not only hates Cooper as much as Chenco, but that he himself is gay, and married to a man no less. Soon Chenco finds himself taken in by not only Steve, but also by Mitch, his husband Sam, and their friend Randy.
Chenco feels an immediate attraction to Steve, and it is clear that Steve shares his feelings. But Steve is also clear that he is not just a Dom, but a hard core sadist, and his sexual relationships all involve not just a Dom/sub dynamic, but also a major pain kink. Chenco isn’t completely sure this is his thing, but as he gets to know Steve and begins taking small steps into exploring both submission and pain play, Chenco finds that these things really work for him, helping him deal with the stress of not only losing his home, but all the other upheaval in his life.
And Chenco’s life definitely is in upheaval. He finds himself with a sudden family in Mitch, Sam, and Randy, all of whom adopt him into their lives and want to help him. Chenco is totally unprepared for all these people who actually care what happens to him. Not only does Steve give him a place to live, but the guys are so impressed with Chenco’s alter ego, drag queen Caramela, that they are determined to help him make it big with his act in Vegas.
Steve is so excited for Chenco, thrilled to see him succeed. He knows Chenco is strong and determined and can make it, he just needs a little help and some confidence. Steve finds himself falling for Chenco along the way, but Steve has demons in his past as well. He feels allegiance to a childhood friend that has fallen apart and is determined to bring Steve down with him. But Steve’s guilt over what happened to Gordy overwhelms him, haunting him and keeping him from moving forward.
Chenco and Steve are finding happiness together, but it can only work with both men moving forward. Chenco needs to show Steve that he is more than someone who needs saving, that he can be a source of strength for Steve as well. And Steve needs to finally let go of the guilt from his past and reach for his future with Chenco.
Tough Love is the third book in Heidi Cullinan’s fabulous Special Delivery series. It not only reunites us with the heroes of the first two books, but also introduces us to Mitch’s brother Chenco. As a huge and unabashed fan of Special Delivery and Mitch and his husband Sam, I was thrilled to catch up with these guys again and to see them all take Chenco under their wing. We can really see what a family Mitch and Sam have created, along with Randy, Ethan, and even Crabtree. So I loved seeing them embrace Chenco and show him that they were willing to help and care for him unconditionally.
This story has lots of interesting layers and conflict that I really enjoyed. The initial issue that faces Steve and Chenco is if they are even really compatible, both sexually and because of where they are in their lives. Steve is many years older and sees himself as sort of jaded and weary and has no idea what this young, lovely man would even see in him. Steve also is a hard core Dom and sadist, something Chenco has never really explored. So in the early parts of the story, we get to really see Chenco figure out if this is all for him. I found it really rewarding to see him discover that these kinks really meet his needs and let him release some of the tension and control that have followed him through the years of having to make it on his own.
I will admit that it took me a little while to really feel the romance and relationship end of things in the early parts of the story because what we see on page is almost all focused on the extreme S&M aspects of things. I could feel the sexual connection between these men, but it took me a while to really feel the emotional end. Honestly, this is probably in part because pain is not a kink I can relate well to. Typically when I read BDSM, I can see the appeal of many things that I would never want for myself, but these guys are really intense and while I could see why this worked for them sexually, I couldn’t really see how it was bringing a romantic connection. But as the story continues, we really see things blossom between the two men and it didn’t take me long to get totally on board.
An aspect of the story that I totally loved was Caramela, Chenco’s drag alter ego. I appreciated the way Cullinan really shows us the duality between Chenco and Caramela, how sometimes one comes to the front and sometimes the other. We see how when Chenco needs strength or confidence, Caramela is the one who often leads. There is an ease about him when he puts on Caramela’s clothes and begins to dance and perform. I loved how after being abandoned by his family for not just being gay, but also interested in drag, that we see Steve and the rest of the group accept Caramela completely. The embrace both parts of Chenco and work hard to help him succeed with his act.
While the earlier parts of the book focus a lot on Chenco, the latter section is really where we start to see more of Steve’s demons. His history with his childhood friend Gordy is spooled out a little at a time. First we just see that Gordy is a mess and Steve is helping to care for his as best as he can. But slowly we realize that Steve has been so emotionally manipulated by Gordy that he has allowed him way too much control. Steve wants to move forward with Chenco, but there is so much pain involving Gordy that he has trouble accepting that the relationship is killing him. I loved that after a whole book of Steve caring for Chenco and giving him the strength and support he needs, we see that Chenco can step in take care of Steve as well. It is a lovely flip on their relationship dynamic and shows that despite their sex play, that there is equal strength in both of these men.
Just a note here, that this story has some pretty heavy duty kink. These guys play with hard core pain and it is depicted in a lot of detail. They also engage in some other pretty intense stuff, including needle play and water sports. Cullinan really shows us how well all of this kink works for these guys. I had no problem seeing how this is something both men want and need and I think as usual Cullinan explores it beautifully and with a deft hand. But just be aware that this book is pretty far along the BDSM intensity scale.
So while I am sad to see the end of this wonderful series, I really think Tough Love is a great culmination to the three books. It highlights so nicely how these men have created a true family, how they care for one another and are there for each other. I loved reconnecting with Sam, Mitch, Randy, and Ethan. And I really loved how Mitch and Chenco finally find a connection to a biological family that both had been missing. So a great ending to the series and a really wonderful story.