Nick McQueen is a 20-year-old college sophomore who has had to wear his sexuality like a coat of armor. Growing up in an affluent Chicago suburb, he was the subject of jokes, bullying, and beatings, especially after being abandoned by a closeted friend. One person served as a focal point for his hopes of escape: Josh Pahlke, his soccer camp counselor and graduate of the same high school Nick was barely surviving. Being six years older, athletic, popular, and out and proud, Josh embodied every dream of beautiful and acceptable. As a teen, Nick sought out Josh, but was thwarted time and again by his closeted (ex) friend. Still, the hero worship remained even as Nick grew, and matured, and ‘it got better’—or, more likely, he got better at hiding his pain behind a façade of “cool” and countless unnamed conquests.
Seeing Josh at a party in Boston, Nick can’t resist making a play for the grown man he still tracks on social media. He knows how good Josh is, and has been over the years. Their home town still reports news of Josh’s skiing awards and his college career—even as he’s now in grad school. Nick thinks this one night could be the culmination of so many years of banked lust, and makes a play for Josh, one that Josh accepts.
Josh is blown away by the charismatic player who wants to take him to his hotel. Josh’s not one for one-night stands, but he’s also had a long dry spell with men and exercise due to a lingering injury. Josh has a laundry-list of hangups regarding intimacy, not only because he’s got a lot of skin sensitivities. He’s just been a one-man-guy most of his life, and has trouble relaxing around strangers. They keep it anonymous, but it’s not quite as incendiary as either man first wanted. Josh’s reticence about spending the night with a stranger puts him off after a short interlude.
It’s kismet, maybe, that they reunite at Ellery College—where Nick is a history major and library aide, and Josh is doing research for his Master’s dissertation.
As they now have far more time to spend together, Josh is able to open up in ways he couldn’t that night in Boston. Nick is honest and adamant that he’s not good for Josh, and has never been exclusive—both issues Josh is willing to overlook as he and Nick find they are more than compatible—both intellectually and sexually. Nick conveniently never mentions that he knows all about Josh from their childhood—and this becomes a wedge between them.
There is so much going on in this story, heartache, heart break, coming to terms with the past, making amends, growing up, being a good friend and better human. Oh, and the sex. Gobs of it. Like, so so much. (Not a complaint!) Nick had been mercilessly teased for having an out-sized member as a kid, so expect a lot of dick jokes and comments. I loved the whole Torvik Tower setting, with Josh the Prince and Nick, his knight—it was both romantic and cheesy, and they took it as such. Still, the allusion to Josh being untouchable, from Nick’s standpoint, was well-demonstrated. I also liked the transformation of Nick the Player into Nick the Stayer. He is such a tender soul, and so giving, despite his history of abuse (schoolmate, not domestic—his parents are kind, understanding, and slightly overprotective.)
As Josh comes to terms with Nick’s history, both ancient and near, he’s not sure he can cope with all of Nick’s issues/secrets. A break is in order, one that results in two better men, both willing to talk, listen, and cope. I could understand Josh’s problem with Nick and his friends—though I wished he’d been a bit more receptive to the explanations. Nick wasn’t the callous jerk he seemed on the surface, and the fall out caused ripples that changed Nick—for the better in some ways—but those were changes he’d already been making.
This book takes place in the Ellery College world, but is released as a standalone and able to be enjoyed as such. I liked the flashbacks to “Lake Woods, Illinois,” a fictional affluent Chicago suburb that bears STRONG resemblance to an actual North Shore community. The experiences of that life affected Nick, Josh, and their friends. Knowing the area (as I’m a native) all of that social conditioning felt spot-on, and Nick’s constant rebellion (ragged clothes, tattoos, piercings, gauges) made clear his strong choice to separate himself from those memories and the lingering pain they brought. Part of his armor, in truth. It’s a steamy and tender read with an HEA that satisfies and enough Walt Whitman quotes to resurrect memories of sophomore English.