Will moved to Texas to become a wildlife photographer after a tragic accident left him with physical and emotional scars. Will has been taking pictures in a nature preserve when he accidentally spots the couple in the house across the way kissing. It turns out that it is a famous, supposedly straight actor who recently retired and he is kissing another man. Will has no intentions of outing the men, but that doesn’t stop one of the guys from coming after him, thinking Will is the press.
Jason is both Cole’s boyfriend and former bodyguard and he will allow nothing to happen to him. When the guys are spotted by what they assume is the paparazzi, Jason wastes no time confronting Will. It takes a bit to straighten out what is going on, and it gives Will a chance to meet Jason and his hot and famous boyfriend, Cole.
Cole and Jason have been considering opening their relationship up to a third, and meeting Will gets them both interested in pursuing something further with him. And for his part, Will is attracted to both of them, but assumes nothing could come of it. When Cole and Jason let Will know they want to explore things with him, the three men find they have a great connection. However, when someone shoots at Cole and both he and Will are injured, Jason is determined to protect Cole, even if that means leaving Jason behind temporarily. It is not easy for any of the men to be separated and when it is clear that the danger isn’t going away, they decide they can’t hide any more. Now the men have to help lure in a killer if they want a chance at moving on to a life together.
Holding on to a Hero is the first book in the Bent Oak, Texas series and appears to be the debut book by author Bix Barrow. So this one seemed like a good choice for New-to-Me Author Week in our Reading Challenge Month. The set up here is what sold me on the book and the creative storyline is really what shines the most. I enjoyed the sort of meet-cute as Will is innocently photographing some adorable beavers and Jason and Cole assume he is the press out to sell their story. Cole quit acting because he was tired of being closeted and is working on plans to come out publicly. So the idea that someone is invading their private enclave to sell pictures before he is ready is not something Jason is going to stand for. Jason is Cole’s former bodyguard, so he is protective over his boyfriend, and it all makes a really fun conflict here that kicks things off. I liked the way the story combines the relationship among the men with suspense plot as they try to figure out who is shooting at Cole and why. I also liked how the story deals with Will’s chronic pain and emotional issues from the accident in his past. The book doesn’t shy away from showing how Will sees a therapist to help him work through some of the guilt he still experiences, as well as a realistic portrayal of someone dealing with a past injury that still affects his health.
My main issue here is that while the framework of this story is really good and there is an engaging set up to it all, everything doesn’t fully come together. From the relationship end, things go from a casual meeting or two between the three men to this serious commitment in a blink. Jason and Cole have spent a few hours with Will and are already planning a long-term relationship with him. (And it’s not too much later when Cole is already talking about making plans to have his will revised to leave some of his presumed riches to Will.) It all just happens so fast with no real time to develop the bond among the men, to see how they all work together, or even to really get to know them individually, let alone as a triad. I assume this part of the storyline is compressed to then make way for the shooter suspense plot, so Barrow wanted to get these guys together quickly. But the speed of it all left me feeling very unengaged with them as a triad, as I never really felt like I got to know them together as romantic partners. My biggest complaint is that we are told that things are so serious (again, so quickly) among the three men, yet when Cole is in danger, Jason takes him away and they leave Will behind (this is mentioned in the blurb, so I am not giving anything away here). For more than a month, they have no contact with Will to avoid the killer tracking them. Which makes sense to some degree, but if Will is your ride or die, future life partner, how do you just leave him behind? It just didn’t support what we are told about their relationship, nor do I really understand what separating these guys does from a story perspective. It just feels like an artificial roadblock that doesn’t add anything to the book, but raises questions about their relationship to me. There was a lot of potential here, particularly with an established couple bringing in a third person, but it just doesn’t all come together.
The shooter subplot also had a great set up, but it felt way too thin and never gathered the energy needed to make this feel like a suspense. Part of this is that I don’t think the book ever really settles on the tone it wants to convey. On one hand, we are presented with the shooter and the guys are supposed to be in mortal danger. But then the suspense plot is interspersed with these jokey, somewhat silly interviews with various suspects that make it seems sort of lighthearted and comedic, rather than intense. These interviews also tended to cut off the flow of the story for me, as they were interjected into the middle of the action. There never really felt like any kind of real investigation and the big “catch the bad guy” plan at the end seems very amateurish given all the law enforcement involved. I don’t want to get too much into the culprit, but I will say there is nothing throughout all these interviews that led me to possibly suspect this killer, leaving the big reveal feeling very flat.
As I said, I think the foundation here is good and Barrow shows creativity in the relationship set up and the story plot. The writing is smooth, even if the plot and characters aren’t as developed as I would like, and I think there is some nice potential for this series. If you aren’t worried about delving too deeply in any area and particularly if you like poly stories (or photographers taking pictures of cute animals), this one could be worth a try.
This review is part of our 2021 Reading Challenge Month for New-to-Me Author Week! Leave a relevant comment below and you will be entered to win one of TEN great book bundles from almost 100 authors (you can see the details on the bundles, including the fabulous authors who donated books, in our Prize Preview post)! Commenters will also be entered to win our amazing grand prize sponsored by NineStar Press: a Kindle Paperwhite loaded with 50 NineStar Press books! And don’t forget if you read along with your own challenge book this week, you can earn ten contest entries for writing a mini-review! You can get more information on our Challenge Month here (including all the contest rules) and more details on New-to-Me Author Week here.