stroker coverRating: 3.75 stars
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Length: Novel

 

Gates has been staying with his brother’s best friend, Tallahassee, for months. To be honest, Tallahassee expected Gates to be gone long ago. That is what Gates does, of course. He leaves. Usually without a word. But not only is Gates not showing any sign of his usual restlessness, he seems to be enjoying trying to get a rise out of Tallahassee with endless annoying pranks. But Tallahassee is determined not to give in and show his frustration. He knows it won’t be long before Gates takes off anyway.

Gates leaving is probably for the best, as the men have quite the complicated past. Tallahassee has been best friends with Gates’ brother, Steele, their whole lives and the one thing Steele has always asked of Gates is not to get involved with his friends. Yet Gates and Tallahassee have a huge secret. After hooking up off and on for a while, the two men got secretly married eight years ago. After which, of course, Gates left. Tallahassee sent him divorce papers, which Gates never bothered to sign, so the guys are still married and still hiding it all from Steele.

As much as Gates is used to taking off on a whim, his time in town has reminded him how much he loves his family and how much he misses having a sense of community. Steele has built a real home for himself with his mechanic shop and his boyfriend, Porter, and Gates is starting to imagine for the first time what it might be like to stick around a build a life somewhere. Unfortunately, after years of skipping town without a word, convincing anyone else that he is sincere about staying this time isn’t easy.

Both Gates and Tallahassee know getting involved with one another again is a bad idea. Steele will be furious when he finds out, for starters. But Tallahassee had his heart broken eight years ago and knows falling for Gates again is a big risk. And Gates knows his reputation precedes him and worries if he can be the man Tallahassee really needs. But the longer the guys spend together, the more they realize that this time they may actually be able to make it work, if they can be brave enough to take a chance.

Stroker is the second book in the Big Bull Mechanics series, a spin-off of K.M. Neuhold’s popular Four Bears Construction series. Though there is some cross over of side characters between the series, you can read these books without having read Four Bears with no problem. However, while this book could technically stand alone from Crankshaft, the first Big Bull story, I think it works better having read that book as both Gates and Tallahassee appear there and we get some background on their dynamic, as well as their relationship with Steele.

This story has a fun set up, as we knew from Crankshaft that Gates has been living with Tallahassee, but we didn’t know that they’ve had this whole secret relationship (which is revealed at the very start of Stroker, as well as in the blurb, so I am not giving anything away here). It is a clever set up, since we met both men previously, but had no idea this was all going on. And more importantly, Gates’ brother (and Tallahassee’s best friend) Steele has no idea this is all going on. So I found that a great start to the book and it added a really interesting dynamic to the relationship right from the start.

That said, I really struggled at the beginning of this story with Gates. We know from the first book that Gates is irresponsible and always in trouble, flitting from one place to the next, disappearing without a trace, and having his brother come and clean up his messes. Here we learn that he married Tallahassee and took off the same night, just leaving without a word. Gates is a restless guy and he is always out looking for his next adventure with little thought to those he leaves behind. But on top of that, he is a giant man child. He wants attention from Tallahassee, who is keeping his distance emotionally given the mess between them, so Gates is doing whatever he can to get that attention. Which includes endless “pranks” that I didn’t find particularly funny and make him seem so incredibly childish. Gates tie dyes all of Tallahassee’s clothes pink and blue. He sets a million alarms five minutes apart to wake Tallahassee out of a dead sleep. He puts lube on door handles. He removes Tallahassee’s door so he can’t shut Gates out. To be clear, Gates is a 40-year-old, grown ass man, not some guy in his early 20s, yet he acts like a giant child doing anything to get attention. And while Tallahassee has decided to wait it out and hope Gates gets bored, in the meantime, he has to brace himself every time he enters his home for fear of what new disaster he will find. I think that if we had a better sense of the emotions the two of them shared all those years ago, it would be easier to understand why Tallahassee puts up with all this crap. Because for the life of me, I don’t really get why he didn’t just kick Gates out long ago. But without that context, I just found Gates so frustratingly immature that I had trouble warming to him, or rooting for the guys together early on.

As the story continues, we start to see Gates and Tallahassee rekindling that friendship and the emotional (and sexual) connection, and once that happened, things really settled down for me. It became a lot easier to see the bond between them and to want them to find their way out of the mess toward happiness together. They have a tendency to avoid really talking, particularly about their past, but again, that gets better as the book goes on. So I did find I liked these guys together and enjoyed the story as it developed and seeing how they find a way to open up to each other and share those feelings that make their relationship work.

Even once these guys get out of their own way, a big hurdle is Steele, who is going to be furious about the fact that his best friend and brother are together. Part of me thinks Steele is overstepping, as these are grown men and it is not his job to police their relationship. But the other half of me gets it, as we learn just how much Steele gives and gives, and how much Gates takes and takes, and we know what Steele stands to lose if Gates screws it up with Tallahassee. And while Gates is frustrated that no one believes he has changed, it has barely been a hot minute since he is pulling pranks and stirring shit up, so it is not unreasonable that people don’t immediately believe him.

Part of the fun of both these series is the co-workers as family dynamic and here we once again get some fun times with the guys from the garage. The story has so much camaraderie and great banter among the guys, and I just love the found family dynamic. We get to spend more time with the other guys from Big Bull, including a new hire, and it is really getting me excited to see what else is in store for the group.

While this one started a little rocky, in the end, it came together nicely, and I am looking forward to more in the series.

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