Story Rating: 4 stars
Audio Rating: 4.25 stars
Narrators: Greg Boudreaux and John Solo
Length: 12 hours, 18 minutes
In the year since a catastrophic injury ended his hockey career and left his body forever changed, Brent Weyland has become a depressed hermit. Feeling trapped in a body that doesn’t feel or look like his own and dealing with slowly healing new injuries and reactivated old ones, Brent is constantly struggling to stay hopeful, accept his new lot in life, and figure out who he is and what he wants. When his best friend, Ethan, drags him to the wine bar, Vino & Veritas, Brent’s primary objectives are to stay out for an hour and hope that he gets a glass of decent wine and his pain stays manageable. He definitely doesn’t expect to find good music being played by a hot silver fox that he not only connects with, but who is interested in him as well.
Jon Norquist never expected his 20-year marriage to his best friend to crash and burn; while he’d known Ashley wasn’t exactly happy, he was convinced they would figure their lives out together. In the 18 months since their divorce, Jon’s been focused on finding his footing as a 40+ year old single dad and processing his pain and confusion through his songs that he sings at Vino & Veritas. He also hasn’t been interested in anyone…until he locks eyes with Brent. While the chemistry between them is instant and like nothing they’d ever experienced, both men are still struggling to deal with the aftermath from the upheavals in their lives and don’t think they’re ready for more than a friends-with-benefits relationship. But between the red hot attraction and enjoyment they find in each other’s company, friends-with-benefits soon becomes something else—something Brent and Jon crave, but fear in almost equal measure. If they can overcome their insecurities, they might discover that wonderful things can grow in the wake of destruction.
Aftermath, the fifth standalone entry in the multi-author Vino & Veritas collection (set in Sarina Bowen’s World of True North universe), is a sweet, realistic romance between two insecure men trying to rebuild their lives while still immersed in pain and uncertainty. In an instant, Brent goes from being a 29-year-old dynamo at the peak of his physical prime to a man who feels trapped in the body of a geriatric that can’t even do simple things like sit or walk without pain. As Brent is still in the process of physical rehab and recovery, he is constantly barraged with feelings of inadequacy and runs into another physical limitation almost every day. When he discovers he’s suffering from erectile dysfunction too, he can’t help but feel that Jon will get tired of dealing with all his issues and the lack of “normal” sex.
As a massage therapist with chronic pain patients, including athletes and hockey players, Jon understands the constraints Brent’s pain places on their activities and isn’t frustrated or daunted by them; to him, they are merely a part of Brent’s life and don’t detract from the joy Jon gets from Brent’s smile, shy sexiness, and kisses. Unfortunately, both MCs question their worthiness as partners, which clouds their judgement. For Brent, he can’t believe Jon will be ok with his broken down body and erectile disfunction in the long term, and Jon doesn’t think a hot, young, and rich former athlete would choose him. These uncertainties plague them even as they share their burdens and grow closer. Overall, the evolution of Brent and Jon’s relationship is delightful as a lot of times the benefits from their arrangement are just snuggling and simple human contact. It’s nice to see a sexual relationship where orgasm isn’t the end goal and how much pleasure can be had from simply kissing and touching. Their emotional and physical connection is apparent early on, but it’s their ease with one another and growing affection and friendship that is truly endearing.
Witt is a master at conveying the realities of characters living with chronic pain or recovering from injury, and Brent’s situation is the most detailed and heart-wrenching fictional account I can remember reading. Brent’s isolation, constant pain, frustration, and loss of identity are palpable and relatable. Additionally, as a reader who tends to avoid stories that feature kids (and fur-babies), I appreciate that Jon’s son Cody spoke and behaved like a regular kid and that he’s referenced more often than not, only making appearances when necessary for the narrative and the MCs’ development. He’s not frequently on page spouting wisdom and sage advice like a 50-year-old lifestyle coach like so many “precocious” kids do in books.
There are two secondary plots dealing with each man’s family dynamics, one of which I absolutely hated. Abusive parents are a hot button for me and Brent’s parents (his father is particular) are emotionally abusive, in my opinion. While most of Brent’s pain comes from his interactions with his father, when I learned how Brent and his siblings were raised, his mom is still culpable. The treatment Brent subjects himself to at every Sunday dinner is unpleasant, but a necessary part of his journey. Jon’s plotline with his wife is ugly as well, especially as I never understood why she acts so cold and mean to Jon. Some lingering bitterness makes sense, and maybe she’s projecting her guilt (and her anger at feeling guilty), but yikes. The only thing keeping her out of the evil ex box is that she manages to shield Cody from that and co-parents pretty well with Jon.
As compelling as Jon and Brent are as a couple, it feels like there’s a lack of mental/emotional progress in the MCs until the end. As Aftermath is a character-driven story with little going on besides the daily minutia of living, a 12+ hour book where each guy ruminates on how ‘it feels like more than friends-with-benefits, but will end’ in almost all of their chapters (and sometimes more than once) becomes a bit repetitive and annoying. It makes the MCs seem like they are standing still and not developing; at 75%, I expected more emotional growth/change. However, with only a quarter of the story left, they’ve only just admitted to one another that “whatever they’re doing” is more than friends-with-benefits—a revelation that comes about because Brent is meeting Cody and Jon doesn’t want to impose by calling him his boyfriend. Why they can’t just say they’re dating seems weird, and by 90%, they’re still covering the same ‘whatever we’re doing’ ground, making the last hurdles in their path to an HEA and their resolution seem abrupt and the story overlong.
However, Greg Boudreaux and John Solo’s narration helped keep me engaged and decreased my irritation. Boudreaux gives his signature well-crafted performance, while Solo gives the most unobtrusive one I’ve ever heard from him. It was nice to simply hear his narration skills without being distracted by his more…quirky narrative frills. His delivery and cadence fits Jon’s character and the text well, and he and Boudreaux manage to keep Brent and Jon’s voices similar enough that switching between characters isn’t as disruptive as many dual narrations are. The only issue with the performances is that often Solo’s voices for Jon and Brent are too alike, especially when transitioning from Jon’s inner thoughts or him whispering to Brent speaking. Additionally, the audio levels for Solo’s tracks are a bit lower than Boudreaux’s, while Boudreaux’s pace is a bit slower than Solo’s, which was distracting for me at first. However, these are technical issues that may not bother others at all, and I still enjoyed the audio. So if you’re looking for an emotional journey to healing and love that highlights the realities of injury and the importance of connection beyond the typical portrayals of sex, combined with a solid dual-narration, the audio version of Aftermath may be for you.