Rating: 4.75 stars
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Guardsmen are present in all facets of life, and they are always a bonded pair. The Protector, who can shift into a dog, is bonded to his or her Handler, who takes care of and nurtures the Protector. The bond is complete and unbreakable. Once bonded, a Protector can’t live without his or her Handler. If the Handler should die, the Protector will as well. Except for Alex Taylor. When his Handler, Theo, was killed three years ago, Alex didn’t die. He’s an anomaly, and he continues to go back to the Institute to be studied so the doctors can figure out why.
Marcus Stephanek is a Handler, but he doesn’t have a Protector. Though the bonds are usually made in late adolescence, Marcus is twenty-six. He’s well past the age where he’s can expect to find his Protector. The thought is depressing, and Marcus doesn’t want to accept that truth. While a Handler can live a full life without a Protector, he’s longed for nothing more than a bond of his own. He basically feels that all hope is lost. Until he meets Alex.
Alex knows that Marcus is his Handler the instant they meet. But he doesn’t want anything to do with Marcus. His heart, mind, and body still belong to Theo. But the drive to mate and bond is too great, and they have sex. Even though he knows they are now bonded, Alex pushes Marcus away. Marcus doesn’t want to be with someone who doesn’t want him, but he’s desperate to be connected to his Protector anyway. Knowing they can’t be apart, Marcus uproots his life to move to Alex’s home—the one he once shared with Theo—in order to do what he can to cement their bond. But Alex is unyielding. He still loves Theo, and only does the bare minimum for his and Marcus’s health. They don’t work well together, which is frustrating for them both.
Samantha and John are friends with both men, and they show up at their home to try and make Alex and Marcus see what is right in front of them. Samantha is a Protector, and John is her Handler. When Alex’s friend Ryan also shows up, the two Protectors realize that he’s on the verge of transitioning. It doesn’t make any sense; Ryan is too old to transition. But they decide to see if they can force the transition.
While playing in the park, Sam is shot while in her dog form. For once, Alex and Marcus click and begin to work as a team. Ryan ends up transitioning, and it’s obvious that John is his Handler too. This is another piece that doesn’t make sense in the world as they know it.
As the truth about Ryan’s shift and the person behind it comes out, Alex and Marcus cement their bond. Terrified of the possibility of losing another Handler, Alex will do whatever it takes to protect Marcus. Though he still loves Theo, he begins to see that he has room in his heart for Marcus too. Once the mystery is finally solved, and everyone is on the mend, Alex is ready to take the next steps in his life. With Marcus.
Oh my god, you guys. This book was so very good. I don’t even know where to start. It was such a complex plot that I wasn’t sure if what I thought was true until it was revealed. I was frantically turning pages the whole time, waiting to see what happened next. I read this from start to finish in a couple of hours. And then read it again. It really was just that good.
Alex has lost everything. His world has crumbled. And what’s worse, he knows he should have died at Theo’s side. To still be living is a fate worse than death for him. His heartbreak is so palpable, his anguish is still believable even after years have passed. It speaks of the depth of the bond, that Alex is still grieving so hard. It’s clear he’s living as a shell of his former self. My heart just hurt for him. And I wanted him to start healing so badly.
Marcus, on the other hand, is waiting for his life to start. He’s wanted a Protector of his own for so long, that he just can’t accept that he may never have one. He seemed a tad arrogant at first, but underneath that, you could really see how much not being bonded hurt. His pain was different than Alex’s, but it was real nonetheless. When they meet, when they bond, I couldn’t help but give a cheer. I just knew they’d be able to take care of each other. If only Alex could see what was right in front of him.
Because of the depth of Alex’s loss, and how different Marcus is from who Theo was, there was no way the journey could be an easy one. And it wasn’t. West did a fantastic job with the slow build. If Alex had jumped into this relationship quickly, it would have seemed trite and unbelievable. As it was, Alex slowly learned that he could trust Marcus. Watching both of them learn to adapt, and even make some changes, was a rewarding experience. When they finally worked out the worst of their kinks and started working as a team, it felt real and organic. There was no other way they could have come together. I loved that there was no quick fix here; both these guys had to put in the effort to make their relationship work.
When they finally came together, it was like the stars aligned. Not only are the sex scenes smoking hot, but even more than that, both Alex and Marcus deserve each other. I was so relieved for them when they finally got past the worst of the stumbling blocks.
And while these two men are trying to find their feet in their burgeoning relationship, a new plotline emerges. One that is full of mystery and betrayal. That whole part was wonderfully done as well. West dropped in just enough clues throughout the beginning half of the book that the reveal wasn’t a big surprise. But it was also information that we needed as readers for it to all makes sense when the bad guy was revealed. It was sort of an “Of course!” moment. Once it all came into the light, the little things we had read before tied in perfectly. Because of the clues that West gave us along the way, it felt like a natural extension of the plot. I loved the way it was done, and it fit in perfectly with the rest of the story.
The only thing that kept this from being a perfect 5-star read for me was there came a point that I wanted to shake Alex and tell him to wake up. I didn’t want him to forget Theo, there was no way he could, but I wanted him to see Marcus for the man that he was. This part, for me, dragged on just a wee bit too long and I was getting a bit impatient for him to have his revelation.
Everything worked in this book. The characters were fantastic and real, the plot made sense and kept my interest from the very beginning, and I was deeply involved with each character and storyline. I didn’t want it to end, because I wanted to stay with these guys and in this world longer. I can tell you that this is one that’ll be reading again in the future. Very highly recommended.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.