Based on the blurb, I knew not to expect a fluffy romance, and this wasn't one for sure.
Jake is an ex-con, living in a small apartment. He's bi, though he doesn't advertise that, he has a daughter he doesn't get to see, for reasons you find out in the course of the book, and works hard to get his life back on track. He's a member of a dojo, he goes to work, and he pretty much stays to himself.
One night, on his way home, Jake nearly stumbles over what seems to be a body on his doorstep. Grumbling, he checks and is shocked to find his downstairs neighbor Max, beaten to a bloody pulp.
Max is used to being a punching bag. He's small in stature, skittish and wary of others, and his father basically raised him to expect others to beat the crap out of him for no particular reason. He knows better than to fight back, and prefers to run instead whenever possible. He works two jobs to afford the tiny cellar apartment below Jake's, and, though gay, has a pretend girlfriend because he craves companionship.
This book is mostly about learning to accept yourself as who you are, and to know your demons. In Jake's case, he has to work on his temper, which is quick to come to the surface when he or someone he loves is being wronged. For Max, he has to learn that standing up for himself is an option.
Both men learn to overcome their respective demons in this book. It's not easy, not for either of them. Learning self-defense moves in Jake's dojo helps Max to feel stronger, and Max's outward calm and gentle nature in turn keeps Jake from exploding.
The story doesn't have a lot of action, and is mostly focused on its characters. Jake and Max are friends first, something that develops slowly while Max recovers from the attack and Jake plies him with food as much as possible, as Max has trust issues and Jake's quick anger doesn't help. Their romance is by design slow burn, and the two steamy scenes we get in this book are not only utterly gorgeous, but also pivotal scenes to further the plot.
What niggled at me were two major things:
- Kate and Dominic. While I understood the history, I didn't think that either Kate or Dominic redeemed themselves by the ending. Kate especially was a major catalyst for Jake's anger, and I hated that the domestic abuse angle was downplayed here by her excuses for Dominic, and his apparent change because she was pregnant. She handled that situation badly, and her treatment of Jake was rather unfair. Dominic too had a lot of explaining to do, and I didn't believe his promises. He's the reason Jake lost his temper, and he didn't appear to take that responsibility.
- the goons coming after Max. Nothing is done about them, even after it's established who they are, and there's no closure to that plot point. While I believe the reason why, I didn't like that they weren't brought to justice.
There are additional secondary characters, who all play a part in this story, and who were fully realized and realistic. None of them are perfect, and mistakes are made. Jake's family in particular stood out for me, as they are truly close-knit and quickly enfolded Max into their midst and treated him like a full-fledged family member, even if Max struggled a bit with that.
The book is written from a dual POV, which really allowed me to get a full picture of the two MCs. They felt real to me, and while I wanted to wrap Max in a huge hug most of the time, I like Jake a lot too. He knows he's done wrong, and he takes his punishment seriously.
There's obviously a lot of angst in this book, and I cried a couple of times, mostly for Max, who's been hurt for most of his life, but who still finds the will to go on and move forward, but also for Jake who tries so hard to do the right thing, even when he's not exactly sure what the right thing is on occasion.
The two men have to fight their demons for their happy ending, but fight they do. And win.
** I received a free copy of this book from its publisher. A positive review was not promised in return. **