Rating: 4 stars
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Jasper Tanaka doesn’t do commitment; his past has assured him that he’s too damaged and incapable of the kind of vulnerability needed for a serious relationship. The closest Jas has come to romance is his crush on Matt Reed, the straight ginger cinnamon roll who co-owns his favorite café. The only thing Jas expects from life is pain and disappointment, but he’s managed to claw out a small safe haven with the creation of Tabletop Tavern with his best friends Roxie and Cal. The family they created with their employees and their significant others is enough. When the land developer Leviticus Group begins a campaign to buy the buildings of queer businesses in the district, Jas is heartbroken, but unsurprised that something so vital is being taken away from him again. While his business partners desperately search for a solution, Jas knows how this story ends and is already mourning his loss. Hoping the Shibari class at the local kink café will take his mind off things, Jas is thrilled when Matt shows up and they end up being partnered.
Having recently begun to explore some D/s kink with his girlfriend, Matt is feeling good about their future and looking forward to learning more about being a Dom. So it’s quite the gut-punch when his girlfriend not only breaks up with him, but tells him it’s partly because he isn’t dominant enough for her. Matt’s used to never being enough for his girlfriends, but hopes that with more training, he can become a Dom worth keeping. When partnered with Jas, Matt expects the calming effect being around his friend always offers. What he doesn’t expect is the intense heat and feelings of safety and rightness being bound and on his knees for the man brings. Matt has always discounted any attraction he’s had for men, but he can’t ignore what Jas makes him feel and doesn’t want to.
For both men, being together is like a dream come true and unlike anything they’ve ever experienced. Although the depth of their emotions is frightening, Matt doesn’t know how to hold back and for the chance at something so amazing, he’s more than ready to take the risk. Unfortunately, Jas’ past and the imminent loss of his business are constant reminders that dreams are only something to lose, and loving Matt may be too much of a risk to take.
Charisma Check is a solid and sweet send-off for the Tabletop Tavern crew and works fine as a standalone, though there may be more weight to the emotional payoff for those who’ve enjoyed other books in the Dungeons and Dating series. It’s nice to finally get Jas’ backstory, as he’s been the protective and dependable, yet slightly aloof, flirt with the devil-may-care attitude throughout the series. After his parent’s disowned him for being gay and a traumatic assault by his roommate, Jas, Cal, and Roxie became family. Yet for all the years between them, Jas still harbors doubt that he can keep them, and the threat to their business has him shutting down in preparation of losing another family. Getting closer to Matt offers solace, but is also another potential loss Jas isn’t sure he can handle.
Matt and Jas are a great pair, and complement each other well. Jas is very free with his sharp tongue and caustic wit…with everyone but Matt. The burly baker is such a pure soul that even being slightly snarky would make Jas feel like he was drop-kicking kittens, so he can’t be anything but genuine. However, being genuine frightens him so much he almost gets physically ill and makes letting Matt in a challenge. Matt has the biggest heart and tends to go all in, despite his many heartbreaks and the inadequacy he feels about being enough for anyone, especially for someone like Jas. Matt can’t help but notice how polished and put together Jasper always is, so he cherishes the glimpses of the more honest, vulnerable parts of the man he gets, while also glorying in feeling cherished and valued.
Each man learns a lot about himself and his needs in the course of their relationship, with the class opening their eyes to the mutuality of their attraction, as well as sexual preferences, and the heat, trust, and care between them is palpable. The kink is pretty light and more focused on discovering/accepting hidden pieces of themselves. While Matt also has some personal challenges and worries about coming out as bi to his family, Jas has the strongest voice/biggest focus in the narrative, but it makes sense for the characters’ personalities and histories. While I found the speed of the relationship to be a bit fast considering Matt’s breakup with his girlfriend of six months happens only a few days before the class, the years of pent-up interest and friendship, as well as the intensity and uniqueness of their feelings for one another, make it believable.
The big bad land developer taking their home and threatening their family plot line is a little on the nose (but with that name how could it not be) and only looms in the background until the third act save, but McIntyre does a good job making this work, as it ties in to Jas’ trauma and reflects how he does (and doesn’t) deal with it. Besides, the ending is so feel-good and leaves the Tabletop crew in such a good place, I couldn’t help but be happy and charmed. All in all, Charisma Check is a lovely story that revels in found family, community, and kindness, and I can see fans of the series and newcomers enjoying it.