James has finally taken the plunge to submit some of his writing for the Vets and Pets charity event meant to raise money for service animals and veterans. While he’s mostly doing this for Chloe, so she’ll stop bugging him about it, he’s also eager to improve his writing. In order to draw out more participants, the event is pairing artists with the writers, and James is soon introduced to his partner, Grant. The two of them talk through Discord, Tumbler, and finally text where they get to know one another. They quickly become friends, and soon James is unloading his deepest secrets on Grant, including his crush on Aiden, the handsome young man who brings his dogs to James’ kennel for boarding.
Grant too has a secret. First, Grant is his middle name; his first name is Aiden, and he has a crush himself — on the handsome man who works at the kennels. While talking to James (who he knows as J), a man who shares his sense of humor and his kinks, Aidan urges the other man to go for it and ask his crush out, never knowing that he’s the crush in question.
James is an abuse survivor. His ex-boyfriend hurt him both physically and emotionally, finally driving James into a corner where he had to fight back — and in doing so put Bruce in the hospital. The relationship ended, and James found himself facing PTSD and guilt. He’s dealt with that, but the scars are still there, both those on his skin and those in his soul. Ever since then James has been afraid to be in another relationship with anyone else. He’s afraid he might go back into that dark place and hurt someone.
Aiden often shows up to the kennels where he boards his dog, Clover, injured in some way. Scrapes, cuts, bruises, once a broken leg, and James doesn’t know how to ask … is Aiden just clumsy? Is he sick? Is he being abused? The truth is, Aiden is in the Special Forces and his job asks that he put himself in danger to save others. He does so with skill and confidence, but yes, sometimes there are a few injuries. He never meant to keep it a secret, it just never came up. Aiden, for all that he longs to submit to James, is not a push-over. Nor is he just a dreamy-eyed innocent. He wants someone to look at him the way James does, and once he figures out that James is “J,” he’s determined to find a way to kneel at James’ feet.
There is a moment in the book where James kisses Aiden … and Aiden doesn’t kiss him back. James’ reaction isn’t anger or entitled outrage. It’s regret, and shame, and even more guilt. He’s an admirable, if clueless, man who knows what he did was wrong, beer or no, and apologizes immediately. Of course, he also runs away. Aiden’s reaction isn’t to flutter or hide, he wants to deal with the situation. He wants to talk to James — about the truth, about secrets, about what may or may not be in their future — and it’s a good moment that shows both James’ character and Aiden’s, and hints at the sort of relationship they could have if both of them could just get on the same page.
There is another comment I want to make about a well handled scene, but it spoils the plot of the story, so read at your own risk:[spoiler] The guys’ friends were trying to set James and Aiden up. They knew the two had a thing for one another and thought it would be perfect to hook them up. However, Aiden is, justly so, pissed off about how they went about it. James’ friend Spence knew James’ past and his desire to be dominant in a romantic relationship, but had no idea if Aiden was even into the scene. Getting them together without knowing that the two were compatible could have been disastrous for James, who was still fighting with his own fears of his nature. For all he knew, Aiden could have, himself, been another dominant, or even another abusive jerk. Aiden reams Spence out for it, and it was a well-written and well-thought-out scene. Their friends had good intentions, they went about it in the absolute wrong way.[/spoiler]
For as well as James and Aiden work together, I found the writing style to be a bit basic with things overly-explained and sometimes with reactions that seem almost theatrical with their heavy handedness. The gimmick of the texts between Aiden and James as they speak — artist to author — is cute enough, but the writing became a bit twee, with “*pouts*” and “*chokes*” and “*fidgeting in discomfort awaiting a reaction*” thrown in as they chatted. The dialogue often came across somewhat stilted, lacking a natural flow. The side characters had a role to fill and plot directions to hand out and did so with little personality, which made them feel more than a litter interchangeable.
Even so, the pacing was tight and the spark of chemistry between Aiden and James felt sincere. I think this may be the author’s debut book, and I hope she can continue to bring the same honesty and emotion to her other works.