Note: Friends in the second book in Nora Phoenix’s White House Men series and the books have an overarching suspense plot. Therefore, this review includes information about some key events/revelations from the first book, Press.
Five years ago, Secret Service Agent Seth Rodecker almost died in the NYC Pride Bombing. It was only his training, and the fact that he was wearing a protective vest, that kept him from dying along with many of his colleagues that day. Seth has since transitioned to a White House protective detail, but he is on desk duty while he recovers from a knee injury. Coulson Padman was an FBI agent called in to investigate the bombing, and he has spent the last five years working on the task force looking into the attack. When the President is killed in a terrorist attack, both Seth and Coulson are called in as part of the team to investigate.
The men get along well and end up sharing an office for the investigation. During long days working on the case, the two develop a growing friendship and spend almost all of their time together, both on and off the job. Seth can admit an attraction to Coulson, but Coulson is straight and Seth knows nothing can come of it. But as the weeks go on, the men become the best of friends, and when Coulson’s assignment gets extended, Seth invites Coulson to stay with him rather than finding his own place.
Neither man realizes at first that what is between them is more than friendship. But as Seth comes to recognize his own feelings, he starts to wonder if perhaps Coulson may actually feel the same. Now Seth and Coulson need to figure out if there might be something real and lasting between them, or if they are meant to be only friends.
I really enjoyed Press, the first book in this series, so I was very much looking forward to picking up this second installment, and it did not disappoint. As I mentioned, this series has an overarching plot related to the investigation into the Pride Bombing and presidential assassination. As with the first book, this story starts with a prologue set five years ago during the Pride Bombing and showing each of the men on that day. I think this is a nice touch that really ties the men emotionally to the case and forms a nice connection among the series characters. Once we jump ahead in time, this book overlaps with Press, picking up just after the assassination. We do see a couple of connecting scenes between the books, but the focus here is very much on Seth and Coulson and their part in the larger investigation. While the first book very much felt like a West Wing setting and focused on the White House and adjacent staff, this story has much more of a law enforcement feel. I think the tone fits perfectly for the book, but just be aware that the focus here isn’t really the same as the first story. I think Friends makes some nice progress into the larger investigation and begins to unravel threads more directly that we were only hearing about in the first book. I enjoyed following along as Seth and Coulson put pieces together and it is fun to see how they connect the dots of various elements of the case. We definitely aren’t at the point of having major answers yet, but I feel like the suspense side of things does make satisfying progress.
Along with the investigation, the key focus here is on Seth and Coulson’s developing relationship. This is the slowest of burns, with the men building an incredibly close friendship throughout the book, and only recognizing their own attraction late in the story. I really enjoyed the connection between Seth and Coulson. Phoenix spends a lot of time building that bond so I could completely believe these guys had become best friends over the course of the story. Seth and Coulson are each a little lonely and both married to their jobs, and so it is rewarding to see that companionship they build together and how much it enriches both of their lives. It is clear early on that Seth finds Coulson attractive, and as their friendship builds, they are more open with one another about the personal and sex lives. It takes Seth a while to figure out his feelings for this guy he wants to spend every moment with are not just “best friend” feelings. I appreciate that when it clicks for Seth, he is very patient with Coulson, waiting for him to recognize his own attraction. Seth thinks it is reciprocated, but he never pushes and he gives Coulson time to come to his own realization and acceptance. Coulson has never considered himself anything other than straight, and he so he has some more self exploration to do as he comes to recognize not only his attraction to Seth, but also his identity as demisexual. Once these guys figure things out, they are super sexy together and Phoenix does a wonderful job showcasing the heat and passion between them.
One thing I particularly appreciate about this series is Phoenix’s attention to detail, both on the setting and the men’s jobs. Obviously I can’t speak to the accuracy of life as a Secret Service or FBI agent, or a press secretary and reporter for that matter, but as a reader, it is clear Phoenix has put a lot of research into many elements of these books. It really develops the story well, as there is so much detail into where they are and what they are doing, I can completely picture it in my head. I will also give a shout out here as these books take place in the DC/Baltimore area, where I have lived all my life, and Levar from Press actually lives in the city where I grew up. I will tell you, people get the DC/Baltimore area wrong all the time in books and TV shows. I have read countless books where I was exasperated by the clear lack of the most basic research, so I want to be sure to recognize Phoenix for capturing the details of the area so well. (My only teeny tiny quibble here is the reference to Coulson staying at the one Marriott in DC, when there are dozens of them, including several within blocks of the FBI building — though I am guessing some of that is artistic license to make it logical for Coulson to stay with Seth.) So I was really pleased to see the effort Phoenix puts into getting the details right here and I think it does a lot to enhance the story.
I am really enjoying this series and think this is another great installment. There are a lot of interesting characters we meet here and I am really eager to see who will be featured in upcoming books. Phoenix is doing a great job balancing the romantic storylines with the overarching series plot and I am very much looking forward to more.