Adan Balil used to be a famous child star, known as Bowen Phillips, until he got addicted to drugs and his life spiraled out of control at age fourteen. Adan has been living a quiet life since his recovery, but now he is having a career comeback. Adan had almost forgotten what it is like to be in the spotlight, to be treated like a commodity instead of a person. He is just beginning to take some steps to figure out who he is and want he wants aside from his public face as Bowen Phillips. But when he is violated by two women with a camera during a very private moment and the video is released to the world, Adan can’t face yet another scandal. Instead, he gets in the car and starts driving, eventually ending up in the small town of St. James and settling temporarily while the chaos hopefully dies down.
Noah Jordan is a former biologist turned professor, and now coffee shop owner. After Noah was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition that has him nearly blind, he felt he could no longer work out in the field and instead moved to teaching. But that wasn’t a job he ever really wanted and as his vision continued to decline, Noah decided it was time to move on to his retirement dream of owning a cafe. Of course, Noah never thought his “retirement” would come in his 40s and he isn’t particularly happy with where he has settled in life. Noah misses being passionate about his job, and he definitely is finding himself lonely and out of sorts. After confiding his feelings to a friend, Noah decides to hire a professional “cuddler” for a chance to have some much needed human touch.
When Adan goes next door to borrow a banana from his neighbor, it leads to a case of mistaken identity where Noah assumes Adan is the man he hired. A host of complications mean Adan doesn’t have the heart to tell the truth and ends up spending an evening with Noah, just holding him. It is such an amazing experience for both men, enough so that they begin to see one another as friends, all while Adan continues to let Noah believe he is someone he is not. Adan knows he needs to come clean; he is coming to care too much for Noah to keep up the deceit. But he also knows when the truth comes out, it will ruin things between them. Adan is only in St. James temporarily anyway; when things finally get sorted with his public image, he will be back in L.A.. But Adan and Noah have fallen hard for one another. They have found a way to open up to each other and share their deep pain, but also their desire for what they want their lives to become. But with Adan’s lies and his job in the public eye standing between them, neither man is sure they can have the future they want together.
Who We Were is the third book in E.M. Lindsey’s Love Starts Here series. Readers familiar with the series may remember the story of Bowen Phillips’ “sex tape” leaking to the press at the end of All You Touch and Noah is featured as a side character there as West’s professor turned friend. But while there is some side character crossover in this book, this would stand alone just fine if you haven’t read the earlier stories.
I have said this time and again, but what makes an E.M. Lindsey book really stand out for me is the author’s incredible character development, and once again it makes this book really shine. Lindsey not only builds these layered characters, but lets us as readers into their minds so we can understand them so well. I found the title here really interesting in that both Adan and Noah are in this transition period in their lives between the past and their future. They are both taking action not only figure out what they want and need, but to claim it. But it is not easy for either of them, and the struggles they are dealing with are just palpable, particularly for Adan. When we meet him, Adan is having a comeback as an actor, something he never expected after his spectacular flame out as a child actor. Adan is happy to be performing again, but he is suddenly reminded of all that comes with it — the public life, the being treated like a commodity, the total lack of privacy. It all comes at a time when he is also struggling with his own identity, coming to slowly accept that he is asexual and trying to explore what all that means for him. And at a moment where he is incredibly vulnerable, he is sexually violated by someone taking a video of him and sharing it to the world. The trauma is more than he can handle, especially when it gets turned around in the media to make him appear the predator, and Adan can’t do anything but flee. Lindsey is so good at showing that vulnerability Adan feels, that sense of violation, and the way he is torn between wanting his career, but knowing what it means for him. It is just so well done and I was completely swept up in the emotion of his character.
Noah is also at a pivotal point in life, transitioning out of his job as a professor to run his coffee shop full time. But it is not what Noah wants, at least not now, yet the effort of getting vision accommodations for other jobs is just overwhelming to him. Noah is also touch starved and intimacy starved and his connection to Adan becomes a lifeline. Both of these men need each other so badly and they connect and open up to one another in ways they don’t with anyone else. Both men have also gotten into the habit of backing down or running when things seem more than they can handle, which is leaving them both unhappy with their lives. But the support they give one another makes all the difference, and it is rewarding to see how both Noah and Adan have found a way to have the futures they want, while still retaining their sense of self.
While these men are each dealing with personal conflicts, they also face a major relationship hurdle in the fact that Noah doesn’t realize Adan is his neighbor, not the professional cuddler he hired. So a lot of this book rests on a mistaken identity (or a mislead identity technically). This isn’t my favorite trope, and this is actually the third book of three in the series that relies on this plot device. In Without a Doubt, neither man is really aware of what is going on, but in All You Touch and here in Who We Were, we have one man hiding the truth in order to keep the relationship going. On one hand, I think Lindsey makes a plausible case for how Adan gets himself into this situation, and it starts out as a way to protect Noah’s feelings. But I will admit that I had a hard time with it. First, Adan’s deception relies on the fact that Noah is blind and therefore isn’t aware of several key facts that allow Adan to hide a lot from him, which really bothers me. I also feel that for someone who was just sexually violated himself, who is struggling with someone exposing his most secret moments to the world, Adan entering into such an intimate situation with someone else based on a lie just doesn’t sit well with me. There is nothing sexual happening other than Adan holding Noah, but is a vulnerable activity that Noah thinks he is engaging in with a professional, not his neighbor. So I do think Lindsey pulls it together well and we can understand Adan’s actions, but it still make this part of the plot feel uncomfortable to me.
Fortunately, I think the deep, intense character development and the way these men relate to one another is enough to really carry this one for me. I just loved learning more about Noah and Adan and seeing how they grow over the course of the story. I also enjoyed reconnecting with some of the other characters from the series, and particularly enjoyed seeing Bennett in a new way as Adan’s new friend (and presumably he will be getting a story of his own). So I found this one a really rewarding story and I am very much enjoying this series.