aftermath coverRating: 4 stars
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Length: Novel

 

Brent Weyland’s professional hockey career came to an abrupt end after a drunk driver hit him a year ago. Now, even after multiple surgeries and much physical therapy, Brent lives with chronic pain and probably always will. He feels adrift and finds himself struggling to be out in the world interacting with others and he is at loose ends about what his future holds. However, Brent grudgingly agrees to go with his best friend to the Vino & Veritas wine bar and bookstore one night to hear some music. There he finds himself immediately drawn to the gorgeous singer, so much so he actually approaches the guy.

Jon Norquist is 18 months past a divorce that came out of nowhere. He had no idea his wife was unhappy, and suddenly after 20 years together, he finds himself alone in his 40s. Singing at Vino & Veritas is a chance to do something that brings him joy, as well as allowing him to work through his emotions. When Brent introduces himself after Jon’s performance, he can’t believe the hot, young guy is even interested, but Jon isn’t going to pass up an opportunity

The chemistry between the guys is intense and they can’t resist acting on it. But neither man feels ready for anything serious as both Jon and Brent are coming off major life upheavals and still finding their footing. Brent’s injuries mean he is in near constant pain and they are even affecting his sexual function. He is also still emotionally struggling with his life going forward after so much of his identity has been wrapped up in hockey for as long as he can remember. Jon is also navigating a new life, one where he is single for the first time in years and has part-time custody of his son. So they decide to keep things casual and just enjoy a friends-with-benefits arrangement. However, it doesn’t take long for things to grow more serious. The men come to rely on one another, and with sex not always an option due to Brent’s health, they end up finding lots of ways to be with one another aside from just in bed. But even as Jon and Brent are falling for one another, they are still both insecure about being enough for the other with all their baggage. Now they have to decide if they are ready to trust in one another’s love and believe that what they have built is strong enough to last.

Aftermath is the fifth book in the Vino & Veritas collection, a set of standalone stories by a variety of authors that all tie into the same bookstore/wine bar. In this case, the book links to the wine bar as that is where Jon plays. However, while we do see him perform a couple of times, the story is otherwise completely independent of the other books and can easily be read as a standalone.

This is an intense and slowly building story. While the guys come in hot for one another right away and the chemistry is strong, the story has a slow pace as things develop between them. Brent’s injuries mean he is in near constant pain and there are many times he is not able to have sex or where his body just doesn’t cooperate with what his mind wants. So the men spend a lot of time with physical and emotional intimacy that is often not sexual, or at least, not sexual with an orgasm as an end goal. As a result, this story builds the emotional connection between the men in an intense way I really enjoyed. There is a great sweetness between them, and a nice quiet way they care for one another.

I also really appreciated how Witt addresses the realities of the issues Brent is facing. Like I said, there are times where his body doesn’t cooperate. For a lot of the book, he can’t usually get hard. Jon is patient and understanding and never pushes Brent for more than he can give. He is also clear to Brent that he is perfectly happy and satisfied exactly as things are between them. I enjoyed this look at a couple for whom sex can be a struggle. It is not something we see often in romance land, but of course, something that often occurs in the real world. I loved the way the story shows how the men find ways to make their physical and emotional relationship work for them, even in a non-traditional way.

Both of these men have a lot of issues to explore, and I appreciated that Witt takes the time to really delve into things here. But at the same time, this book felt very long to me. It is around 400 pages and there is very little in the way of plot development. This is truly a character-driven story, and I loved that, but I needed more to be happening to carry a book this long. Honestly, after the guys get past the initial hurdle of their first night together, the story is mostly day to day events as they hang out together. The most significant thing that sticks out in my mind is when they each adopt dogs. Otherwise, the plot basically consists of them each coming to terms with their own pasts and futures, and the bond developing between them. So I just needed more going on here to carry so many pages.

Overall, I think what really works here is the way Witt delves so deeply into both of these characters. I loved how they support one another and together find their way forward after each has dealt with some intense events in his life. And I can’t forget — the dogs are adorable! If you are looking for a strong, character-driven story that explores some intense emotions, as well as heroes with a sex life that is not “romance novel” traditional, this is definitely worth checking out.

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