It’s been six years since former swimmer and Olympic hopeful Alek Simmons’ father went to jail for abusing his trusted position as an elite swim coach as a cover for sex trafficking his athletes. Alek has moved on as best he can, but instead of living, Alek pours more than his everything into the Lang Aquatic Center he built from the ground up with former rival Victor Lang. Workaholic doesn’t even begin to describe how much of himself Alek dedicates to the nonprofit, but working himself to exhaustion day in and day out is the only way he can cope with the immense guilt over his father’s crimes. Even though Alek cannot stand to put so much as a toe back in the water, he can’t quite grapple with letting go of the sport that was equal parts his torment and his refuge. But a chance meeting with a young man named Benji reawakens a passion for swimming and an undeniable desire to coach elite swimmers that has Alek questioning if he’s strong enough to step out from the shadow of his past and live for the future.
Benji never thought he’d have love and acceptance in his life; his family is overbearing and unconcerned with his desires. Then he meets Alek Simmons at a hotel pool and discovers what it feels like to have someone’s undivided attention focused on him who wants nothing more than to see Benji succeed. Surprisingly, Benji’s controlling father deigns to allow Benji to begin training with Alek. It’s a dream come true for Benji, but it causes a bittersweet conflict for Alek who fears his name will forever be tainted by what his father did. And the fact that the chemistry between him and Benji is off the charts only adds fuel to the fire that rages in his mind, burning him up with doubt that he isn’t exactly like his father.
Help arrives in the form of former lawyer, Colson Strickland, an aloof man of forty who’s seen a thing or two about the dark underbelly of professional swimming and is intimately aware of exactly what went down with the senior Simmons. His advice to Alek? Either forget coaching elite swimmers or watch his nonprofit go up in smoke. But Colson can’t stop at giving that blunt advice. He somehow keeps letting himself get drawn back to Alek and Benji. When his professional excuses for accompanying the coach and swimmer duo run out, Colson will have to grapple with the reality that he cannot stop himself from falling for both of them just as much as they are falling for him. But the real challenge will be the three men figuring out how to make a relationship work when one of them is a shell of grief, another is emotionally stunted, and the last is built of lies.
Teach Me to Sin is the fourth book in Riley Nash’s Water, Air, Earth, Fire series. First, I think this story is strong enough to stand on its own. Nash builds enough details about the MCs’ pasts to grasp at the big picture of who all three of them are. That said, each MC is linked in some way to characters and/or events in book one (Hold Me Under) and book two (Make Me Fall). If you haven’t already, I cannot urge you strongly enough to read the whole series (or at least books one and two) before jumping in here to get the full effect. I even went back to do quick searches on Alek and Colson for a refresher on them and it all went a great way towards heightening my enjoyment of these three coming together. (And when you’re done, read book three, which is also a spectacular standalone in its own right.)
As far as content warnings, readers should be aware that this book deals with themes around sexual and emotional abuse, self harm, mental health, and possibly suicide ideation. Alek specifically occupies a complicated place in the narrative. Back when he was training under his father to be an elite swimmer (the details of which are more fleshed out in book one), Alek was trapped between a rock and a hard place: abuse and be abused, or lose literally everything because people with seemingly unlimited power and money controlled him. He carries this guilt with him in this story and we get a little more insight into his mental space back then (so re-reading book one would be fun now that we have his side of things). Denying he’s anything like his father has led him to sublimate his queer identity and trapped him in a loveless partnership with a woman. On top of this existential angst, when Benji and Colson make him feel and want things he’s spent a lifetime trying to ignore and deny, things get more complicated. Through Alek, I felt like this story makes a good effort at exploring what it’s like to discover romantic love between multiple partners. And it involves several bouts of angst where Alek sees Colson and Benji together and can’t help but feel like a third wheel or his purpose in the whole three-way-acquaintanceship at first has been to introduce Colson to Benji. Ultimately, these three all work it out for themselves, but I was a touch disappointed that Alek’s feelings of exclusion don’t seem to be addressed directly among the trio.
I feel like the majority of the story focuses on the love story. Alek, Colson, and Benji take turns acting as narrator, which gives a lot of insight into how they each acknowledge and process the feelings they’re having. Even though the narration isn’t balanced evenly among all three, I thought all three of them were fully represented and fleshed out. At the risk of being vague to save on spoiling a small but potent twist in the story, I think having two of the characters act as narrators most often made the revelation about the third one all the more potent. That same third character is also a delightful catalyst to getting all three of the men together. While all of this is unfolding, there is a growing side plot about how Alek’s history could damage his nonprofit and his prospects of serving as coach for elite swimmers. In hindsight, I loved how organically this theme developed. It starts off with Alek seeking a legal opinion on him jumping into coaching (provided by Colson, of course) then segues into Alek and Benji doing a morning talk show (that brings out fake news type articles accusing Alek of nefarious things), and grows into a substantial threat to Alek’s future and maybe even his life. I loved that Benji and Colson are almost always there during the thick of these incidents, both showing how inevitable their coming together is and giving them people to count on in these emergencies. The culmination of these escalating attacks on Alek acts as the bridge that finally gets the three of them on the same page when it comes to accepting and acting on their shared attraction and growing emotional connection.
Overall, wow. I just thought this was a spectacular story. I loved the way it brings in characters from the other books in meaningful ways, especially Victor (book 1) and Gray (book 2), without them stealing any thunder from Alek, Benji, and Colson. The way these three fell for each other was such a delight to read. Even with Alek’s recurring worries over being a third wheel, I never really felt like their actual relationship developed along those lines. These men came across as three individuals equally invested in one another and that was wonderfully reinforced through so many scenes, dialogue, and inner monologues. If you enjoyed this series or if you’re looking for an engrossing series to delve into, I cannot recommend Teach Me to Sin and the Water, Air, Earth, Fire series highly enough.