A big storm is coming so Officer Tom Webber sends his wife and young son off to ride out the weather with family in another town. Tom adores his son, but knows he has never been the kind of husband he should be to Marna. Tom has done his best to bury his unnatural urges, but he still can’t love her the way she deserves. Yet Tom is still determined to be the best man possible and sets in to help his town ride out the storm.
When Tom encounters a broken down car on the side of the road, his instincts are screaming at him to back away. Right from the start Ben Parker pushes all of his buttons, smirking and flirting and bringing up feelings Tom has worked hard to ignore his entire life. Tom brings Ben into the station, and when the storm forces them down into the storm shelter for the night, the sexual tension becomes too much and Tom acts on his attraction to Ben. By the morning, however, Tom can barely face himself and sends Ben on his way, hoping to never see him again.
Dealing with the aftermath of the storm proves a distraction and Tom tries to avoid thinking about his encounter with Ben and the feelings it stirred up. But when Ben gets in trouble with the law and Tom is called in as his alibi, he finds himself the target of a vengeful sheriff who is determined to pin the crime on Ben. Suddenly Tom is dragged into the middle of fight that begins to threaten his job, his family, and his place in his small town. Tom’s time hiding his true self might soon be over, and he has to decide what he truly wants and if he is willing to risk everything to have it.
Rival Within really grabbed my attention from the very start, and I found this story really engaging. I loved the set up with the steady, dependable Tom and the feisty and wild Ben. Tom is just this all around good guy. He has grown up in Ramer and dedicated his life to serving the town and its people. Tom tries so very hard to be a good man and has done all he can to bury those urges he is sure make him a sinner ready for hell. He feels such guilt for his interest in men and for the fact that he can’t be the husband Marna deserves. It is heartbreaking to see how much self hatred has been buried down deep from all those years of hiding. Then he meets Ben and immediately Ben pushes all his buttons, making him crazy and frustrated, but also stirring up his need in a way he can’t ignore. Ben has had kind of a shady past, but there is a goodness in him as well. It is clear there is more than the smart ass Tom first encounters. I loved these guys together, and especially love how Ben pushes Tom past his own self loathing to finally accept that he can be a good person and also still have feelings for men. It is a difficult time period to be gay and most people will never accept Tom. But I liked seeing his journey here as he comes to terms with his feelings and is brave enough to stand up for himself.
Along with this personal side of things, the story also focuses on Sheriff Cronkite and his determination to find some dirt on Tom. He is furious that Tom provided an alibi for Ben and is sure he is up to something. The fact that Ben was actually with Tom at the time of the crime doesn’t matter; Cronkite is digging and soon it is clear that he is going to find out all of Tom’s secrets. This all plays out in such an interesting way, and we see Tom at times terrified, furious, and determined as he sees the life he has built for himself threatened. Peterson really sets up a fascinating conflict here and I could really feel for Tom as the danger circles ever closer. Things do resolve a bit too neatly for me, to be honest, with the way the bad guy is dealt with. And while I was glad that Tom ends up happy in the end, I did wonder at the apparent ease [spoiler] with which he handles the separation from his son. [/spoiler]
I really found this story so interesting and I loved the way it reflects the time period and the life in the small town. I was angry and frustrated for Tom as he faces this discrimination, but also thrilled for him that he finally is able to really accept himself. I really enjoyed Ben and Tom together, and even though they spend parts of the book separated, I could feel the connection between them right from the start. So a really great story from Peterson and one I would definitely recommend, especially for historical fans.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.