Derrick Massey has visited Clean Slate Ranch a number of times and he’s there now to celebrate a double wedding. When his sister-in-law, Sophie, goes into labor, Derrick is restless waiting for news and wanders around the ranch. There he encounters cowboy Slater Stamos and the two men have a steamy encounter that they both enjoy. But neither man is looking for more than a one-time thing.
Slater found a new life for himself on Clean Slate Ranch, one where he could put his past behind him. He enjoys working on the ranch, though he hasn’t let himself get close to too many of the other cowboys. When Slater suffers a serious injury saving the life of one of the guests, he is out of commission for what could be months. He is surprised to hear from Derrick who offers him a proposition: pretend to be Derrick’s boyfriend for five summer weddings and help get Derrick’s meddling family off his back and, in exchange, Slater can stay in Derrick’s apartment where he can be close to doctors and have Derrick help take care of him. It seems like a great deal for both men, and the guys get Slater settled into Derrick’s apartment.
At first things are a little awkward as the men barely know one another and now they are pretending to be boyfriends. But as time passes, Slater and Derrick realize just how well they get along and begin to really enjoy each other’s company. Things become easy and domestic as they share a home and a life. Slater also realizes that he is really enjoying living in the city much more than he expected, and begins to meet new friends and discover new hobbies. As the end of the wedding circuit draws to a close and Slater heals, both men realize they are interested in continuing living together and becoming real boyfriends, but both men are also afraid to put pressure on the other by asking. Now Slater and Derrick have to take a leap and be honest with each other about their feelings, and they may just be able to turn their charade into something real.
Hard Ride is the fifth book in A.M. Arthur’s Clean Slate Ranch series. Though we have met Derrick as a side character in previous books, this story itself stands alone just fine. But, as with all the books, the various characters appear across each other’s stories, so being familiar with the other books will enhance your reading here.
I like fake relationship stories and have been enjoying this series, so I was eager to pick this one up. Arthur does a nice job building the connection between the men, showing their progression from awkward strangers to men who clearly care about one another. Slater, in particular, has a nice journey here as he grows more comfortable opening himself up to other people and being a part of their found family. I enjoyed seeing him learn crafting and build a friendship with one of their neighbors. I also enjoyed the group interactions, both with the gang from the Clean Slate Ranch, as well as with Derrick’s neighbors and family. There is also a nice element here with Slater reconnecting with his daughter and his character has some great growth.
I did struggle a little here as I didn’t feel the chemistry between the men quite as much as I would like. I could totally see how they were bonding and their connection was growing, but I didn’t really feel the intensity of their romance as much as I would have liked. I was also looking for a little more from the fake relationship storyline. We do see the men attending a couple of the weddings, but some of them aren’t even shown, and that “secret relationship” dynamic just didn’t come through with as much energy and fun as I would have liked. I also found it confusing why they had to lie to everyone they knew about the fake boyfriend thing. I get why Derrick’s family couldn’t know, and even why the guys at the ranch couldn’t know either, as Derrick’s family is connected to the ranch. But I am not sure why they had to tell Derrick’s other apartment tenants this big lie also, especially considering how close Derrick is with two of his neighbors. I mean, they aren’t going to tell Derrick’s family, so why the need to lie? I was also uncomfortable that Slater lies about Derrick being his boyfriend to his family, including his child, with whom he is trying to rebuild trust. The two families were never going to meet; what is the benefit to lying and potentially damaging an already fragile relationship? It just made the plot feel more contrived than it needed to be.
My last issue is that the conflict really rests on lack of communication. Both Derrick and Slater know from fairly early on they really like each other and want to stay together once the agreed upon period is over. But neither one is willing to actually talk about it. This just seems to drag on for a lot of the story and it was frustrating to read. Slater also makes a decision toward the end that left me literally going “what?” and while the guys end up working it out fairly easily, I was thrown off by his behavior.
Despite some issues, I do continue to enjoy this series. I particularly like the found family aspect and the way this group all supports one another and I found the connections in this story to be particularly good. Some new side characters are introduced here, so I am curious to see if they will be integrated into the bigger story as potential love interests going forward. I will be keeping my eyes open for more.