Johnny Jewell did everything he thought he was supposed to do. He served his country for two tours in Afghanistan, married, and had children. He was a devoted husband and father, and is proud of his Native heritage. When Johnny came out to his wife as gay, he was hoping for support, hoping they could have a nice, platonic friendship and raise their children together. Instead, she kicked him out of the house. Ever since, Johnny’s been wandering, working with horses and cattle and trying to find a place for himself.
The JS Stables seems almost ideal. Its owner, an older woman named Joan who takes no nonsense and knows her business, runs a large, sprawling ranch of horses and cows. The work will be hard and endless, which is just what Johnny wants. He needs to push his body hard so that he can silence the thoughts in his head. His PTSD, from his days in the army and from the recent and horrific death of a close friend, has left him hurting both in flesh and spirit.
Joe Sigfusson, a giant viking of a man, is JS Stables’ resident horse trainer. He’s tall, broad, blonde haired and blue eyed and absolutely everything about him makes Johnny’s heart skip a beat. There’s an energy between the two men, something that hints at more than just a physical connection. If only Johnny can get past his fear and his doubt and let himself take the offered friendship, and more.
This story was published nine years ago as Breaking Bear and the author has added ten thousand words, changed some things, like Johnny’s name (which used to be Johnny Redbear), and added a few mentions of Covid-19. Having not read the original, my review will be based only on this version of the story.
Johnny has not lived an easy life. Sensitive and spiritual by nature, both his time in the army and his strict religious upbringing have left him somewhat at odds with himself. Then, add in his homosexuality, which he’s never acted on, living his whole life viewing it as something wrong and sinful, and you have a man almost as confused as he is lost. It doesn’t stop him from wanting, though, and when he sees Sig, Johnny can’t deny the powerful attraction he feels to the other man.
Sig, like Johnny, is a bit of a wanderer. He’s been to several countries, speaks four languages, loves horses, and is unashamed of who and what he is. He’s firm, calculating, and willing to work at a problem until he solves it. For example, Bear, the proud Arabian gelding who refuses to settle down and play nice; Sig looks for solutions that work for the horse, even if it’s more work for him. He’s even willing to consider having the gelding’s stall smudged with sage if that will help the poor guy calm down and relax.
I didn’t care for this book all that much. The writing is okay, and the pacing is actually fairly good for a novella, with nothing feeling rushed or lethargic. But the relationship between Sig and Johnny was a little uneven and they ended up feeling more like fuck buddies than anything romantic. Sig knows he wants to get to know Johnny better, so with a few innuendos he asks the guy to drive him home. Then he asks if Johnny likes musicals (in an effort to see if Johnny’s gay, a stereotype that that may have been meant to come off as amusing, but if so, the joke didn’t land for me), invites him up to his rooms where Sig takes a shower than prances around naked in front of Johnny. He says that his gaydar is pinging, tells Johnny he wants the other man to get a good look at what he has to offer … and then says “I’m not coming on to you.” Sig didn’t come across as pushy or predatory, just — forgive me — cocky.
Overall, this novella just didn’t catch my attention. It’s a quick, harmless read, but I was left kind of bored. The background details of the ranch and the horses speak to either experience or research, both of which I appreciate. However, I was indifferent to the characters and their growing friendship and just didn’t feel any chemistry between them. Also, the end with the mystical rescue … if that scene had been in the middle of the story rather than at the end, I’d have closed the book and tossed it on the DNF pile then and there. I’m sorry, but I’d suggest passing on this one. It just did not work for me on any level.
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