leaning into the fallRating: 4.5 stars
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Length: Novel

After breaking his ill-advised engagement, tech genius Nick Jorgensen is stuck with cases of wine he bought for the ceremony that never happened. Nick believes in karma and figures getting rid of the wine will help to wipe the slate clean. When Nick attempts to return the wine to the Napa Valley winery from whence it came, owner Wes Conrad is clear that there is no way he is taking it all back. Although the guys are left at odds, there is definitely some sexual tension between them, and when they run into each other again in the city, the men act on their interest.

Before he sold his business to run the winery, Wes was also a leader in the tech industry. After living life in the fast lane and realizing it left him unsatisfied, Wes now lives a happier life out in Napa. He is solid and steady and after a rocky past, Wes knows how to appreciate the good things in life. He is also strong, confident, and a sexy (almost) silver fox, and everything about Wes appeals to Nick. For his part, Nick knows he is kind of a weird geek. His brilliance and atypical mind mean that he was always the one that didn’t fit in growing up. He has some wonderful best friends, including his business partner and former lover Eric, who know and love him like he is. But to most people, Nick is weird and awkward and he mostly stays away from talking to people in favor of using his mind behind the scenes.

As the guys spend more time together, they begin falling for one another. Rather than be turned off by Nick’s unusual personality, Wes finds him endearing and engaging. And Nick finds being with Wes is so calming and grounding. Wes has a way of helping Nick look past all the clutter in his busy brain and focus on the present, enjoying life more and getting out of his head. But when things get complicated at Nick’s business, and pieces of Wes’ past begin to collide with Nicks’ present, he becomes wary. Now Nick has to decide if he is ready to just trust in the relationship he has built with Wes, or he risks losing the man he has grown to love.

Leaning Into the Fall was such a rewarding story with a really fascinating main character in Nick. We first met Nick in Hayes’ short story Leaning Into Love, which was originally published in the It Was Always You anthology and is now for sale as a standalone. While Nick wasn’t exactly the villain there, his poor choices in preposing to Lisa and pursuing the marriage were what led to a lot of the conflict in the story. So I was really excited to see him here in his own book and getting to follow his tale of redemption. FWIW, you could pick this up without having read the first story as most of the background on Nick and his relationship with Eric is explained here. However, I definitely found it rewarding to see Nick’s growth over the course of the two books.

Hayes’ writing is evocative and the storyline here is engaging, but I think where this book really shines is in the character of Nick. He is just fascinating and Hayes does a wonderful job making him an engaging and layered character. He is kind of weird and geeky and often caught up in his own busy brain, but it is more than that. There is also so much of Nick that is shaped by how others perceive him, starting with his father and various childhood bullies. He thinks of himself as weird and odd and as someone who doesn’t interact well with others, and that affects how he then ends up dealing with people. Every situation is a puzzle to work through or a challenge to win, and in many ways Nick uses his brain to disengage from interaction. So what is really lovely here is how unconditionally Wes accepts Nick, but even more, how he helps him to see that he is more than people’s impressions of him. Wes recognizes Nick’s issues, but also supports him and believes that there is nothing wrong with him either. I just loved the way these two interact and how being in this relationship helps open Nick up to more confidence and acceptance of himself.

Wes is a fabulous character in his own right, mostly because he is totally wonderful and dreamy. We get enough backstory and sense of him as a character that he doesn’t come across as flat in any way. And the chemistry between these guys is totally intense. But Wes’ really serves as the solid foundation that grounds Nick and helps him see that he can have a relationship with someone who loves him and believes in him, and that he can take a step back from that pressure he puts on himself and still thrive.

My only small issue here is with the business side of the storyline. While most of the focus is on Nick and Wes’ relationship, there is also a side plot regarding a deal Eric and Nick are trying to make. There are a lot of moving parts, primarily in characters where we are not quite sure their motivation and the guys are trying to figure out the right moves. The issue for me is that the story heads into some areas of implied intrigue that never really materialize into anything. I realize that is in part because Nick has to come to terms with some trust issues and this part of the story provides fodder for that. But it felt like we were built up for something that never really goes anywhere. So I think this aspect could have been handled a bit better.

Overall, however, I totally loved this one. My first exposure to Hayes’ writing was with the anthology short, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect here, but I found this story so engaging and rewarding. I just loved Nick and Hayes gets that right mix of vulnerability in him to balance out some of his more difficult traits. She just makes you root for him, and for Nick and Wes together, and I think that Nick is a character that will really stick with me for a long time. So I really enjoyed this one and am excited about this series. There are quite a few folks in this world I am looking forward to learning more about, so I can’t wait for more.

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