Aaron McCoy is a grown, out gay man who had a rough childhood in Leavenworth, Kansas. His mother was an addict who often left Aaron in care of his much younger half-brother, Zach. Barely a teen at the time they were put into foster care, Aaron couldn’t cope. He lashed out and was separated from Zach, who was adopted quickly. Aaron went to group homes until he was matched with out-of-state placement in Tennesee with Tyler Howard’s family. Only 16 at the time, Aaron tried to be as perfect as possible, hoping the Howards wouldn’t get rid of him. And, he hit it off with Tyler, who is a year younger than Aaron—and bisexual.
Fast forward about twelve years and Aaron’s an investigator with Child Protective Services and Tyler’s his very best friend. Aaron’s last serious boyfriend took off to Nashville and he’s feeling at loose ends. When his boss puts Aaron on a mandatory three-week vacation, Tyler jumps in with the perfect idea for killing time: a road trip to Kansas so Aaron can attend Zach’s wedding. Aaron isn’t sure it’s a good idea. He’s felt superfluous to Zach’s life for years now—only the barest of connection via Facebook. Why would his shiny-happy brother who had the perfect adopted life want Aaron around anyway? But Tyler’s a hungry dog gnawing a bone and Aaron can’t refuse his bestie’s request—a man he’s secretly loved a long, long time.
Told exclusively from Aaron’s point-of-view, this friends-to-lovers story is bittersweet. Aaron’s internalized self-loathing has colored all his relationships. He doesn’t feel good enough to be a true partner to Tyler, and he also feels lacking when it comes to being a support to Zach. For their parts, Zach and Tyler seem more than eager to make Aaron know how much his presence, and affection, are wanted. There’s lots of family drama—Zach’s life hasn’t been exactly perfect—but there’s a lot of healing, too. Zach’s adoptive mother isn’t the shrew Aaron remembered from his short stay with the family. She’s actually very open about how sorry she was for failing Aaron as a foster mother. There are a host of Kansas bros who are Zach’s closest friends, and Aaron definitely isn’t okay with how one of them is constantly, and blatantly, homophobic. That this guy keeps pairing Aaron and Tyler makes Aaron very uncomfortable. He can’t risk Tyler walking away from him if they managed to pair up—because Aaron is unwilling to risk losing the only family who’s given him love he could accept.
For his part, Tyler is loving and supportive. He’s accepted his role in the friend-zone of Aaron’s life, if that’s all Aaron will allow him to be. But, that isn’t all he wants. Being the humorous rock at Aaron’s side during this tumultuous visit really gets Aaron to see Tyler as a true partner, one he’s finally willing to risk everything to keep at his side. I really loved how tentative, and compassionate, Tyler was, when it came to his love for Aaron. They have a whole history of close friendship, and neither of them wants to risk losing that. But, Tyler’s constant love, plus the good advice of some unexpected people, help Aaron recognize that his worth isn’t less-than.
This story felt very much mundane, and I mean that in a positive way. I could see the characters, and hear their voices, in a way that was completely realistic. Zach’s adoptive family are very human, and his relationships with them are ordinary. Aaron’s insecurities make sense, even as they feel mildly self-destructive. I had many moments of connection with the blue-collar life Aaron left behind, and his desires to grasp tight to the few relationships he’s allowed himself to forge. There’s a happy ending, once Aaron does the heavy lifting to fix some of the effects of his childhood trauma. For that, I was truly glad.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.