Ty Adams is a champion horseman, running his legacy Lost Acres horse farm and ranch in Burlington, Vermont. He trains a stable full of champion horses, and the riders who compete with them. Ty is an out, gay man, but he’s so committed to his business that he’s denied himself any relationship. Ty observed his parents’ loveless marriage and believes that the ranching took so much time that it interfered with their relationship. He’s now forty-three and struggling with the physical demands of his life/career now that it’s the low season and many of his farm hands have gone elsewhere for the winter. And, Ty’s pretty lonely, all things considered.
Landon Maxwell is an ex-con on parole, working at the Second Chances animal rescue that neighbors Lost Acres. Two of the rescue dogs routinely break out of their pens and take off to frolic with Ty’s horses. While returning the sweet pups, Ty and meets Landon, who seems a natural with horses. Ty offers him an interview and then hires Landon, knowing that he’s an ex-con, because he needs help with the ranch, and–let’s face it–Ty feels an attraction for Landon, who is in his mid-30s and also gay. Landon spent ten years in prison for grand theft, and he’s determined to never step back into a cell again. Landon does a great job, though, and Ty’s pleased with Landon’s sweet demeanor with the headstrong horses. Ty’s learning a lot about how difficult Landon’s life truly is, with the risk of re-offending and returning to prison always hanging over his head. Even though he knows Landon committed crimes, Ty sees the rehabilitated man doing everything he can to abide by the law and stay out of prison.
Underdog is part of the second phase of the Vino and Veritas collection called In Vino Veritas. The books are multi-author stories set in the larger World of True North universe. Theyare designed to be standalone stories that can be read in any order. The attraction between Ty and Landon is a medium-burn, with both men being rather skittish about becoming physical. Ty’s never had such a captivation with another man, and part of this must be attributed to how awesome Landon is at working the farm. Without recognizing it, Ty’s fallen into the kind of partnership he’d always wanted, but never allowed himself to hope for. The holidays are upon them, and Ty ensures Landon won’t be alone, even if this upsets his own family. Ty begins to recognize his parents’ marriage wasn’t ruined by the farm duties, just incompatibility. He is starting to see that Landon would make the perfect life partner–until the completely predictable situation that puts Landon’s freedom in jeopardy.
While acknowledging this complication felt too predictable, the fact remains that this scenario could easily reflect the day-to-day experience of an ex-con. For Landon and Ty, it was a life-altering moment. The trap idea, to turn the tables, gave this clichéd complication some dimension, which brought it beyond the predictable. I liked how that turned out.
There’s a LOT about horses in this book, but for me the farm and the horses became a conduit for Landon and Ty to demonstrate their character, their passion, and their perseverance. This summer, my own dog died from an ailment described here for a horse, and I loved how Landon and Ty fought so hard to save that animal. It was a turning point for Ty, seeing Landon as more than a hook-up or employee. Ty’s recognition of Landon as a partner was a bold step, especially since everyone in Ty’s life sees “past-Landon’s” mistakes and judges the man against them.
This is a redemption story, and the author takes great pains to demonstrate the depth of Landon’s rehabilitation. He’s still living the trauma of incarceration every day, and struggles to develop successful relationships as a result. It takes time to overcome such trauma, and Landon and Ty meet about 9 months post-release. There was a lot of healing happening at Lost Acres, for Ty’s lonely heart, and Landon’s battered esteem and psyche. I remember that horse therapy is a thing for PTSD sufferers, and I think it was definitely beneficial to Landon as a teen and now in his adult post-prison life.
I really enjoyed the love story, the redemption arc, and the animals. The story didn’t really have a lot of connection with the larger Vino and Veritas world, except the location being in Burlington. Landon reconnects with his long-lost childhood friend, Luke, whose daughter takes riding lessons at the farm. Ty doesn’t have many friends, another reason why he’s lonely. I loved that his heart was so buoyed by Landon’s sure and sweet love, and I enjoyed how he and his brother grew closer during the drama. If you are a fan of slowish-burn stories between mature men that have some serious baggage, and/or really like horse ranch stories, this could be a winner for you.