Rating: 4.25 stars
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After a bad breakup four years ago, Michael Larson hasn’t been doing much dating, preferring instead to get his needs satisfied by picking up men in a local park for some quick, anonymous sex. When he sees firefighter Nicky O’Brian step off his bike in his leather, Michael is immediately interested in the gorgeous man. Nicky is shy and clearly still closeted, but perfect for a hot hookup.
Michael never expects to see Nicky again, but as the men cross paths and then exchange numbers, what started out as just getting off begins to lead to more. But Michael is wary. After his last breakup he is determined not to date guys who are not willing to be open and out with him. But Nicky still has clearly not come to terms with his sexuality. He is obviously gay or bi, but hasn’t yet admitted it to himself. And definitely not to his sick mother, with whom he lives.
Even when Nicky is able to admit that he is gay and begin some initial forays into real dating with Michael, he still can’t bring himself to tell his mother. She is dying of cancer, with only months to live. Nicky’s life is just so complicated, managing work and caring for his mother and trying to figure out his feelings for Michael. All he knows is that Michael brings him a sense of comfort that he badly needs and that he cares for Michael deeply. And Michael knows he is falling for Nicky as well, but he is not sure Nicky will ever be able to give him what he needs from a relationship. Nicky and Michael both care for each other and are falling hard, but they must figure out if they can make it work with so much baggage between them.
Nothing But Smoke is the third book in Daisy Harris’ great Fire and Rain series. The stories so far each feature one firefighter character (though we don’t see any on-the-job stuff here) and a group of friends who appear across the series. In this case, we have met Michael in both the first two books as he works in the coffee shop with Jesse and Henri. Michael has always been a prickly, uptight sort of guy, the one the others love to tease a little. Here we still see his need for order and structure, and his adherence to living healthy and being environmentally friendly. But he is also a little softer in this story. While he starts off just looking for some quickie sex in the park, he can’t help but have his caring side come out when he is with Nicky. As much as Michael wants to hold himself back to protect his heart, he can’t help but want to step in and nurture as Nicky deals with such a tough time with his mother. It is nice to see this other side of Michael and get to know him as more than the prickly friend.
This story largely deals with two main issues: Nicky’s coming out and his mother’s health. From the start the men are at odds about the fact that Nicky isn’t out. Michael is very clear at the outset that he will not date anyone who is in the closet. He was badly hurt by a past boyfriend who refused to ever acknowledge their relationship and he is determined to not repeat the past. Nicky, on the other hand, doesn’t even think of himself as gay in the beginning of the story. Even as he accepts his own sexuality and takes steps to come out, he and Michael are still at odds. Michael has to learn to be patient and let Nicky go at his own pace. Both men need to accept there will be some bumps along the way. But the more time the spend together, the more they realize it is worth some rough patches in order to be with one another.
The other hurdle is Nicky’s mother’s health. We know she is at the end from the very start of the story and things get worse as it progresses. Part of the problem is that she is very religious and Nicky just doesn’t think he can tell her he is gay so close to the end of her life. He must balance wanting her to know his true self with not wanting to potentially hurt her so near death. Harris really handles this conflict deftly and there is a scene late in the story that is particularly poignant as Nicky must face the reality of how much he can share with his mother, as much as it hurts him.
The other piece of this is simply the grief about a child losing a parent, irrespective of the coming out issues. It is just the two of them and Nicky has been her primary caregiver. Now he must face that he can no longer take care of her needs, that she is dying no matter what he does, and that his whole world is changing. Michael surprises himself by wanting to be right there along with Nicky as he deals with all of this, despite how new their relationship is. The two men definitely connect with Nicky’s need for comfort from Michael and Michael’s desire to take care of Nicky. Although this was all really nicely done, I do wish we had seen more between these two guys than just this hurt/comfort aspect. They go from hooking up to dealing with these health issues so fast, it seems like that is the primary basis for their connection. I wanted to see what they liked about one another, what drew them together as a couple beyond Nicky’s mother’s illness and I don’t feel like that was as well explored as I would have liked. It is not just that they move fast emotionally (which they do) but also that we never really get a good sense of what is drawing them together besides dealing with this tragedy.
Overall I definitely enjoyed this story, however. This series continues to be really great and I am really looking forward to future books. I would definitely recommend this book and this series.
Cover Note: As with all the books in this series, the cover is just gorgeous.