Author ~ Amy Jo Cousins
Publisher ~ Samhain Publishing
Published ~ 17 November 2015
Genre ~ Contemporary M/M Romance
When talking fails, it’s time to break out the big guns.
Five years ago, Tom Worthington busted his ass to overcome the fear and paranoia that led him to withdraw from the world and nearly lose his boyfriend. He never thought he’d find himself right back there, shutting Reese out, keeping secrets again.
Reese Anders is ready to try anything to get Tom to talk: if he can’t seduce his boyfriend with food, he’ll get Tom to open up in bed. But even Tom’s confession that his dad is getting out of prison soon doesn’t clear the air between them. And as the holidays approach, intensive mentoring from a new British boss creates more distractions, until Reese is keeping secrets of his own.
At a company Christmas party, it only takes Tom one look at Reese’s new boss to figure out how much danger their relationship is in. But he’s not about to let the connection that started all those years ago at Carlisle come to an end. It’s time to deal with their problems like adults. Face to face. Or back to front. Starting in the bedroom.
Warning: This book contains two adorable guys with way too many secrets, conciliatory rigatoni, a bedroom lesson on the power of multitasking, and indisputable evidence on what makes the perfect holiday HEA.
The HEA for “Off Campus”
I liked this book a lot, in some ways better than the book that spawned it. This is a follow-up to Ms. Cousins’ earlier book, “Off Campus”, and it’s really nice to see the angst-ridden protagonists of that book with the maturity and insight that only time brings.
Just a word of warning: You can read this book as a stand-alone, but you’ll miss the backstory, the pain and fear these boys went through in becoming who they are. “Real World” takes place four years after the lovers, Tom and Reese, leave college. The two boys have been living together all that time, and Tom has become a valued member of Reese’s family, a son to Reese’s loving, understanding, and endlessly-supportive father. Tom gains both a boyfriend and a father in one fell swoop.
And Tom needs a father as much as he does a lover. As the book opens, Tom’s real father is languishing in Federal prison. Tom was raised in the lap of luxury, primarily by nannies, with all the worldly advantages a child could possibly want, except the love of his father. No matter what Tom does, he just can’t measure up to the impossibly high bar his father has set for him – even though he barely knows him. He is a true absentee father, traveling the world, running his huge financial empire, which turns out to be gossamer. His whole investment bank is a scam, a Ponzi scheme, and when the Feds finally take him down, he leaves behind the wreckage of thousands of lives and families - their retirements, their children’s college funds, even their mansions, summer homes and futures left in ashes, including his bereft and abandoned son.
Tom never quite gets over this ultimate betrayal. The Feds left him without money to pay the utilities, put food on the table or gas in his car. But worse were the vicious, accusatory articles and the paparazzi that chased him everywhere he went and interrupted his education. To be honest, Tom became a bit of a paranoid mess. He trusts no one, refuses all offers of friendship, hides out, and works through the weekend for a gypsy car service, driving fares straight through from Friday to Sunday night to try to save enough to pay for tuition.
He gets back into school with some limited scholarship assistance and the tips from his weekend driving. Then the worst happens, his dorm room, which was supposed to be a single, already has someone in it – an effeminate boy who does everything he can to get Reese to abandon his room so he can be alone, including bringing anonymous tricks to his room to force Tom to sit out in the hall most of the night. Hah, that’ll get the straight guy to run away, for sure. Only Tom turns out to be not quite so straight, and he gets turned on hearing (and later, watching) Reese have sex in front of him while he pretends to be asleep.
The boys end up together, each of them leaning on the other to help them cope with their individual demons. They do OK, and that’s where “Off Campus” ends.
“Real World” picks up their relationship after they’ve weathered four years in the real world. Although, not quite. Though they both do have entry-level jobs, Tom is still working on an MBA- and fearful that he’s doing it only because it’s what his father expected of him. In some part of his soul, he fears he will turn into his father. And he’s still a bit paranoid, sometimes believing that people at work are staring at him and talking about him because of who his father is. He may be right. But it terrifies him, and he continues to hide out, even from Reese. He’s better than he was, but hardly clear-headed and confident.
And worse, he still keeps secrets from Reese, terrified that if Reese knows who he really is, he’ll pack up and leave. He has no rational reason to believe it. Reese makes it clear, over and over again, that he will always have Tom’s back, and the only thing that will wreck their relationship is keeping secrets and refusing to communicate.
Tom blows it, hiding the fact that his father has earned early release and will soon be out of prison. He hasn’t really dealt with the old man. He hasn’t visited him, nor accepted a single call from him since he was incarcerated. Even thinking about his father ties him in knots, and he can’t bring himself to tell Reese. Instead, he mopes around and avoids him. That’s really good for a relationship!
Most of “Real World” is about Reese gentling Tom, like a skittish horse, and desperately trying to convince him to trust him. Over the course of this relatively short book, they make real progress, commit to each other and finally get a glimpse of their Happily-Ever-After. It’s set during the holidays, and there are opportunities galore for cuddling, loving, a few tender smiles, and some hot sex. There’s definitely some learning happening and some growth. I defy you to read the wonderful Christmas party scene with a dry eye.
“Real World” is a well-written novella. At less than half the size of the previous book, it doesn’t have enough runway to get very deeply into character development, but the characters are, nonetheless, extremely vivid, well-rendered, and their dialogue is always expressive and authentic. I think of “Real World” as a holiday stocking-stuffer that delivers the Happily-Ever-After not quite achieved in “Off Campus”. If you’re a fan of the “Break or Bend” series, this is a must-read, a few more moments with two sympathetic characters to whom the holidays bring the very best gift of all – a family just for them, and a new level of trust and respect that bodes well for their future together. They’re obviously going to make it, and that’s a very good thing.