Julian Moss is solely focused on raising his children. After he and his cheating ex finally divorced, he’s a single dad. And nothing is more important to him than his children and their happiness. Which is why he does nothing more than ogle the new neighbor from afar, and why he agrees to enter the Shelby Beach annual Christmas lights competition.
Leo Adams has had a rough life, but he finally feels like he’s found a place where he can settle. Maybe. Staying in his friend’s house and looking after the dogs is nice, and his fledging personal trainer business is getting off the ground. When Leo sees the flyer for the lights competition, he decides it’ll be a good way to bring some sorely lacking holiday cheer to his life.
When Julian and Leo meet for the first time, they get off on the wrong foot. Assumptions make Julian act kind of like a dick, and Leo isn’t sure how to take it. Working in side by side houses to decorate makes the competition heat up with both men trying to outdo the other. When they finally have a chance a real conversation, things begin to thaw. And then heat up in a very different way.
But Julian isn’t ready for any sort of relationship, and Leo has never had much luck. Friends with benefits seems like a good place to start. But feelings develop quickly and when Julian gets hurt, not only does Leo want to care for him, but they decide to band together in the lights competition. As the season progresses, they begin to lean on each other more and more until there’s no denying that this Christmas, love has found Leo and Julian.
I’m a sucker for holiday romances and this one seemed right up my alley. A little enemies to friends to lovers, friendly competition, and two hurt men needing each other to finish healing. Cates does a great job with the characters and the romance, and I was wholly invested throughout the story.
I loved the way these guys grew and changed as the story went on. Julian comes off as, well, a total jerk the first time he and Leo meet. While the reader knows what’s going on inside his head, it doesn’t completely justify his words and actions. One of my favorite moments in this book comes when Julian owns his actions and apologizes. Leo gets to see the man that the reader has been getting to know. Julian’s experiences have shaped him, both in life and in romance, and I loved seeing him work through his emotions and thoughts as he finally moved forward.
Leo’s story is a sad one, and though we know early on his parents aren’t in his life, we don’t find out why until nearly the end. Leo has done well for himself, he’s grown into a great person, and he’s worked past the trauma, which I loved seeing. But I will also say that I wished there’d been some more foreshadowing as to the depths of his issue, and also more time given to the reveal. It’s a very heavy thing, and I felt as if the telling and resolution of it was a bit rushed.
The pacing of this book was my one issue with it. In the beginning, things seemed to drag a bit and while I loved watching Leo and Julian dance around each other, it felt like it went on for too long. I was ready for more action and for things to move forward. Conversely, the end felt slightly rushed, with everything resolving quickly. While I was satisfied with the way things ended up, I would have liked for the declarations to have a bigger emotional payoff.
But these guys are great together. Their chemistry sparks from the start, and I love the way they cared for each other, in and out of bed. It was sweet with heat and everything I was looking for in this romance. Add in the Christmas cheer, an epic lights battle, and some great side characters, and this book is definitely worth adding to your holiday TBR.