Rating: 4 stars
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Connor feels like he has his life together; he is living with his boyfriend, Miles, and has a film production partnership with his best friend, Wyatt. That is until Connor walks in on Miles and Wyatt together and realizes his boyfriend and best friend are having an affair. Connor is devastated and barely able to hold himself together long enough to stumble back to his gym where he had just finished taking a class. There he practically falls into the arms of Donnie, his spin instructor, overcome with emotion.
Donnie is surprised when one of his students all but collapses in his arms, sobbing and seemingly in shock. Donnie has experienced overwhelming grief himself; he lost his husband four years ago and he remembers that raw pain. Seeing Connor so hurt brings out all of Donnie’s protective instincts. With Connor unable to really hold himself together and not having anyplace to go, Donnie feels like the only real option is to bring him back to his own house to stay for the night until he can get himself together.
Donnie can’t help but be supportive as he learns more about what Connor is going through. He feels a connection to Connor, enough so that he is happy to let Connor stay with him until he sorts himself out. At first, Connor can’t help but feel awkward, feeling like he is forcing himself on this sexy older guy — his spin instructor no less — and needing so much support. But Donnie is reassuring and Connor finds himself so comfortable with him. For his part, Donnie has been so lonely for so long. He has basically shut down for years, losing interest in friends and socializing. Connor is the first companionship he has really had since his husband died.
The two men get along surprisingly well, and there is an attraction that flares between them almost immediately. As they spend more time together, Donnie and Connor begin to act on their feelings and start to build something between them. But Connor worries if he can ever compare to Donnie’s late husband, a man who by all accounts seems to have had his life together. And Donnie has to figure out if he is ready to move forward into a new relationship. But the connection between the men is strong, and if they are lucky, both may have a second chance on love together.
Ripped is the first book in the new Mars Fitness series. Linden Bell appears to be a debut author and I think this story was a great start. It is a really lovely hurt/comfort story about two men dealing with grief who find their way to one another. Bell finds the balance I like for books with this trope. The emotional side feels real and raw and intense, particularly for Donnie, who is still grieving his husband’s death. There are definitely some aching moments as he reflects back on his loss and the life that has been forever changed. And Connor’s pain is just visceral when he breaks down sobbing at the realization of what was happening with his boyfriend and best friend behind his back. But while there is a lot of deep emotion here, there is also a sweetness and sexiness to the tone that keeps things from falling too far into the grief side. This sounds strange to say, but it may be helped by the speed at which these guys end up together. They feel an attraction almost right away and act on it quickly. It takes time to move from sex to something more, and for both men to accept that is what they want, but I think the romance moving quickly helps give a little lightness to the intensity of emotions.
There are some little elements here I really enjoyed. Donnie is a fitness instructor, so he is super into healthy lifestyle and eating, while Connor is admittedly a little on the heavy and non-athletic side. And while Donnie cooks healthy food for Connor and encourages him to take care of himself, he also is attracted to Connor just as he is and there is never any sense of trying to change him (it feels more “caretaker” than “fixer” if that makes sense). I also like the balance here between the two men. Each has moments they need one another and, despite how Connor all but collapses in Donnie’s arms in grief, he is also there to support Donnie over the course of the story. There is a nice sense of each man being able to step up for the other when needed. This is a small thing, but I also liked how even though Donnie is older, more fit, more established, etc, Connor is the more sexually assertive of the two. Again, it just gives some nice balance to the dynamic.
As a note, I found this book not really what I expected based on title, cover, and the opening that describes Mars Fitness as a gay gym where condoms are left out because everyone is having sex in the shower. It all made me think the story would be lighter, more sexy heavy, and more about the gym atmosphere. Not that I was disappointed at all; I found the story to be even more than I had hoped going into it. But I think some of these marketing elements are not a great match for what the story actually delivers, so I mention it so folks are clear what they are getting from the book. While Donnie does work at Mars Fitness and we get a couple of scenes there, the gym and the people there are barely relevant to the story and Donnie could have worked just about anywhere without much changing. Again, not a complaint, just an observation regarding expectations. We do meet some other characters from the gym, so I’ll be curious if that plays more of a role as the series continues.
Overall, I really enjoyed this story from a debut author. It had some nice depth and hit the sweet spot for me in terms of emotion and intensity, without feeling too heavy. This was an engaging story and I am looking forward to more from this series and the author.
This does sound appealing, Jay, so I’m off to get a sample. Thank you!