Rating: 3.25 stars
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Noah is many things: overworked, under appreciated, a snazzy dresser, and more than able to stand up for himself. And while he knows, intellectually, he can’t save everyone, try telling that to his heart. And it’s a big heart, which he’s opened to Austin, a young man he has seen grow from a a thirteen-year-old child struggling with anger issues and identity issues — as his black father was in prison and his white mother remarried — to the happy and kind man he is today.
Austin has invited Noah to watch an MMA fight. While looking for his seat, Noah runs into a very handsome man who flirts outrageously and asks for his number, but Noah isn’t interested in a fling at the moment, so he laughingly and lightly turns the man down. However, the man happens to be none other than Caden, “The King,” a gorgeous champion MMA fighter who uses Austin’s admiration to get Noah’s number.
From there, Caden tracks Noah down at his work and pesters him into accepting an invitation to lunch. It’s not a date, Noah is quick to let him know, it’s just that Caden owes him lunch for wasting his time. The connection between the two men is undeniable, but Caden’s temper — and his tendency to escalate situations from verbal arguments to a physical altercation — turns Noah off. He’s not interested in a man with a temper. Especially when, as Noah calls Caden out on his bullshit, “He should have felt awful for what he did. But, I knew he didn’t. What he felt was ashamed that I’d seen him, not that he’d done anything wrong.”
And this is an issue that never really gets resolved in the book. Caden’s fallback to punching rather than talking is brought up more than once, but his solution is to just … say he won’t do it anymore? Now, I am aware that this is a book that takes place in a world where happily ever afters are guaranteed and the main love interest is unlikely to ever do anything really, truly bad to the man he loves, but personally I would have liked more than the “he promises he won’t do it again.”
Noah’s mother urges him to give Caden another chance, especially if Caden really is the one, and so Noah does, only to have the second chance turn out as poorly as the first. But when he needs help finding Austin, who has gotten in over his head, it’s Caden he turns to for his underworld connections. Because fighting in underground MMA rings for money means he knows drug dealers and car thieves? A lot of details are glossed over in this book; a lot of judgements and assumptions are made in ways that didn’t really work for me. Noah, to be quite honest, can be rather condescending and Caden likes the sex, so he gives in to Noah quickly and eagerly.
It felt to me like Caden liked Noah because he turned him down not once, not twice, but three times, which made him more interesting than the people who came crawling up to him for some attention. For me, the relationship didn’t work. I didn’t feel any real connection between the two men other than lust, and the lopsided power dynamics between the pair and the unaddressed anger issues — and [spoiler][/spoiler] — soured the ending for me.
That said, there are some nice moments in this book. Austin’s father, Sampson, isn’t painted as a deadbeat dad for all that he’s been to prison for drug dealing and car theft. Instead, he’s very much interested in being in his son’s life, having fought for sole custody. And now that Austin’s graduated from high school, he wants to show his son how to take care of himself … albeit in the only way Sampson knows to teach, which is more car thievery. Sampson doesn’t seem to be upset that Austin’s mother married another man, or that another man is Austin’s stepfather. Instead, he’s upset that he doesn’t have as much time with his son. All of that — and the glimpses of Noah’s relationship with his mother and her community — were frankly more interesting to me than the romance at the center of the book.
The writing is decent, the pace is good, and the overall plot holds together fairly well. While I wasn’t a fan of Noah and Caden, I’m interested enough in this author’s work to look forward to the next book in the Winning At Love series.