Author ~ Santino Hassell
Publisher ~ Riptide Publishing
Published ~ 1st May 2017
Genre ~ Contemporary M/M Romance
Ashton Townsend is the most famous celebutante of Manhattan’s glitterati. The black sheep of his wealthy family, he’s known for his club appearances, Instagram account, and sex tape. Most people can’t imagine him wanting for anything, but Ashton yearns for friendship, respect, and the love of his best friend—amateur boxer Valdrin Leka.
Val’s relationship with Ashton is complicated. As the son of Ashton’s beloved nanny, Val has always bounced between resenting Ashton and regarding him as his best friend. And then there’s the sexual attraction between them that Val tries so hard to ignore.
When Ashton flees his glitzy lifestyle, he finds refuge with Val in the Bronx. Between Val’s training for an upcoming fight and dodging paparazzi, they succumb to their need for each other. But before they can figure out what it all means—and what they want to do about it—the world drags them out of their haven, revealing a secret Val has kept for years. Now, Ashton has to decide whether to once again envelop himself in his party-boy persona, or to trust in the only man who’s ever seen the real him.
Oh, Ashton, come here, I’ll give you a hug. Let’s just say Ashton had my momma bear instincts in full force. His parents really did a number on him and have dismissed him as an embarrassment to the family and now his brother Dylan, who has taken over the family business, is no better, using Ashton to save his own incompetent ass. Ashton has been left with little self-worth, always putting himself down. He is dying on the inside while putting on a show for everyone around him. He’s the weird party-boy sex toy who’s always up, most of the people he hangs out with aren’t real friends, just people who want a piece of him one way or another. Ashton knows this and figures as long as he’s getting what he wants too, what does it matter? Deep down, where few ever see, he just wants his life to mean something. He doesn’t want his legacy to be that of just another celebutante. The only one who sees the real him is his best friend from childhood Val, but Val seems to want nothing more than be his protector, although Ashton craves his love and affection. Val is the only one Ashton really wants, has always loved, but he knows Val doesn’t seem to want him in that way. Ashton doesn’t know that Val has loved him since they were kids.
Since his mother died, Val’s doing everything he can to take care of his sister, but he draws the line at taking money from Ashton’s family. Val hates the Townsends for what they’ve done to Ashton, for what they did to his mother and what they are doing to him. As much as he loves and wants Ashton, he doesn’t think he has anything to offer him other than protection. But Ashton won’t stop loving him and Val’s finding it harder to deny Ashton. However, with the Townsend family holding a secret over his head that could drive Ashton away forever, Val fears losing everything he and Ashton had or could have.
To say these two have a complicated history is putting it mildly. Outside of the class issues and the family differences, Val is struggling with his own career choice, with his sexuality and with trying to take care of the two people in the world he loves. The dysfunction in his relationship with Ashton is mind blowing, but at the end of the day they’ve loved each other since they were kids, but the sexual attraction is something that has always confused Val. They dance around each other with delicious sexual tension and a sweetness that I ate up. As if the internal emotional drama and angst isn’t enough to drive them each crazy, when the two finally give things a shot, trouble arises from every corner; family, career, friends and outsiders all stacking the deck against them.
Both men easily found a spot in my heart, although sometimes I wanted to shake them silly and yell “Just talk to each other!” Each is so caught up in their own feelings of inadequacy that they don’t see just how much the other wants to be the one, they can only see the reasons why they wouldn’t work.
While Ashton’s angst may not appeal to everyone, I felt for him deeply. Ashton’s not just the vapid, sex starved, rich boy celebutante he puts out to the public. While that persona has colored the outside world’s view of him and has made it more difficult for him to be taken seriously when he tries to make a difference, he is generous, caring and wants to do something with his life. He’s just looking for a purpose, something real in this fake life he’s created, but his worthlessness has been drilled into him by his family that it’s hard for him to push that aside. To know as a child that you’re different is difficult enough, but when your family, friends and associates use that against you it’s hard not to buy into what everyone is saying.
Val is his own worst enemy. He is so blinded by the hatred of the Townsends, he can’t clearly see what Ashton offers him at every turn. He knows what they put Ashton through, he knows Ashton is nothing like them, but he can’t bring himself to believe what Ashton says he feels for him. If Val could just open his eyes and heart and see Ashton as the person he has spent his life with, who craved his affection from day one, he wouldn’t be in the position he finds himself.
If you haven’t yet been convinced of the author’s talent, I probably won’t be able to do it, but no matter how different my life is from Val and Ashton, and all the couples in this series, Santino Hassell’s writing always allows me to relate to their emotions. Here, both Val and Ashton’s fears felt real and I understood both men’s reluctance about the other and why it was so hard for them to believe in themselves. Although it worked for me, if you don’t like stories where the main issue is poor communication, where the MCs are their own biggest stumbling blocks, you may have trouble with this one. Sometimes it seemed for every up there were two downs on their road, but when Val and Ashton are together, ignoring outside perceptions and their own doubts, they are one of the sweetest, most caring couples, seeming to gravitate to each other, needing to always touch. On the flip side, the sexual chemistry is off the charts. Ashton likes things rough and dirty and Val is more than happy to oblige.
There are plenty of cameos from the Five Boroughs world, but the one that made me swoon is Nunzio. I know, big surprise right? Only takes a brief conversation for him to see the real Ash and, in true Nunzio style, tell him just what he needs to do. I loved the glimpse of Nunzio in his new job and it just endeared his character to me even more.
Throughout the series, underneath all the differences in upbringing, the stories are about the universal need to love, be loved and find that family where you belong and are accepted. This is another wonderful romance in the series. I’m so glad there are more books on the horizon since I have a list of characters whose stories I would love to see.
The Five Boroughs Series
Santino was raised by a conservative family, but he was anything but traditional. He grew up to be a smart-mouthed grunge kid, then a transient twenty-something, and eventually transformed into a guy who spends his days and nights writing romance with an edge.
Santino is a dedicated gamer, a former fanfic writer, an ASoIaF mega nerd, a Grindr enthusiast, but most of all he is a writer of queer fiction that is heavily influenced by the gritty, urban landscape of New York City, his belief that human relationships are complex and flawed, and his own life experiences.