Cash Carmichael coaches soccer to needy kids in inner city Chicago. He gave up his cushy, well-paying job in his dad’s company to try to live life on his own. It has taken some adjustment to his new lifestyle, but he loves his job and is happy. When Cash’s newly out younger cousin Denny shows up out of the blue after having left home, Cash isn’t quite sure what to do with him. Cash agrees to let Denny stay for a while, but he is pretty sure he needs some reinforcements to give Denny the help he needs. So Cash calls on his friends Reese and Tom, along with his friend Steph, who now lives in Chicago as well.
Cash hasn’t seen Steph in a while as the two drifted apart after college. Steph and Cash were close friends at school with Reese and Tom, and the four of them were inseparable for a while, especially after Cash and Steph started hooking up. But when Steph moved on to a new girlfriend, Cash was left behind, and no one has quite measured up since. Seeing Steph again reminds Cash of all his old feelings and how much he still is attracted to and cares for Steph.
Steph is ready to start up their friends with benefits arrangement again now things are over with her girlfriend, but Cash wants more. Every time he tries to open the door to something more serious, however, Steph makes it clear that she wants to keep things casual. After being pretty much dropped by both her girlfriend and her absentee dad, Steph isn’t ready to commit to someone else. As they spend more time together, however, Cash is finding himself falling hard for Steph. Now he just has to convince her that he truly wants them to be together, and hope that she is willing to trust him to be there for her.
The Girl Next Door is the third book in Amy Jo Cousin’s wonderful Bend or Break series. The first two books in this series are m/m romance, but this one takes a slight detour to focus on Steph and Cash, two side characters from Off Campus. The two play a big role as the best friends of the two MCs in that book, and we are given hints that there is more between the two of them. So I was super excited to get their story here and it definitely didn’t disappoint.
This story is told from Cash’s POV and he is so endearing I could hardly stand it. We met Cash in Off Campus as the jock best friend to Tom. At first Cash was kind of taken aback to find Tom was suddenly with a guy, and we kind of expect Cash is going to be sort of a jerky, dumb jock. But he turns out to be sensitive, open minded, and pretty much down with anything. He has come a long way from when we first met him, and now he is such an all around good guy. He gave up his cushy life, high paying job, and fancy apartment to work in a poor school in a poor neighborhood because he didn’t want to be handed a job and do nothing all day. He is dedicated to those kids and is like a mother hen with them and his friends, though he would never admit it. Cash isn’t the smartest guy around (something he will readily admit), but he works hard and he figures things out and is such a giving, caring person.
Cash is straight, but all his closest friends are gay/bi, and he is pretty much as comfortable with ranging sexual orientations as a guy can get. Cash has watched more gay porn with his friends than most gay men, is happy to go to a gay bar and be the wingman for his buddy, and pretty much is about as open-minded as you can be about sexuality. It makes him a perfect match for Steph, who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to ask for it. Together the two of them are quite sexually adventurous (Steph introduced Cash to the wonderful world of the prostate back in college) and the two of them are hot and super sexy together. We even get a little threesome action when Steph confesses how hot she finds the idea of Cash with another guy. I love these two together because they challenge each other, but are also so good together. They clearly care for each other so much, but they just are stuck in that friend zone and need a push to get to more.
My only issue here, and I am not actually sure if it is a complaint or just an observation, is I didn’t feel we get to know Steph nearly as well as Cash here. We are in his POV, which is part of it, but we just aren’t exposed to nearly as much of her feelings and thoughts in the way we typically are in a romance, especially early on. We see them having increasingly frequent sex, and hanging out together a lot, but for the first half of the book, they have barely any conversations that could illuminate Steph. The story is more focused on Cash and him navigating his new life, dealing with Denny, hanging out with his friends, and his growing feelings for Steph. I think it helps having read the first book because I had a sense of her character already. And her personality definitely comes through clearly. But, for example, we never really learn about her fears and insecurities about dating until the very end of the book. We are just told she doesn’t want to be more than friends, but we don’t know enough to really know why. Like I said, I am not sure this is actually a complaint because I adored Cash and loved being in his head. I couldn’t put this book down, loved following along with his story, and enjoyed the two of them together.
As I mentioned, this is the third book in the series and Tom and Reese show up here. I think you would be fine jumping in with this story without the others, but I think this book would be much richer if you have read Off Campus and meet Steph and Cash when they first connect in college. I am also super thrilled to hear that two of the side characters here are going to show up in the next book (dying!), plus a third will make an appearance down the line (and holiday novella coming with Reese and Tom!). I am SO enjoying this series and can not wait for more. I just adored The Girl Next Door and would strongly recommend it. Even you don’t read much beyond m/m, I would definitely recommend this story anyway. It fits beautifully in the larger series, and Cash is so open-minded and there is so much interaction with and acceptance for his non-straight friends that this story is something any reader can enjoy. Just loved it.
P.S. Can we talk about this cover? I mean, Cousins has hit the jackpot with the covers for this series, no question, and this one is no exception. So unbelievably striking and totally captures Steph. Love it.