“Will Russ be mad at me? Which wasn’t nearly as bad as the other thought. Am I allowed to be mad at Russ?”
In a word: Maybe read the thing? I had a few problems with this one, and I’m not sure which problems are down to bad writing and which are due to the fact that I didn’t read the book that came before this one. Russ and Justin got together in the previous book (The King’s Mate) and this book continues their story. While I was reading this book it felt a lot like the author was banking on me already having read the first book. It kinda felt like being dumped into a story already in progress, with minimal character introductions and people making references to events in ways that make it seem like I should already know about them. Sam and Russ in particular are always talking about past events and the text doesn’t explain anything about them, but I don’t know if that’s bad writing and we will be learning about those events eventually, or if it was already explained in the first book and I’m missing out because I didn’t read it. Although I also had problems with the writing in other ways, mostly with the dialogue and the (many) sex scenes. Also I never felt that I connected with any of the characters, I felt for them and their problems, but I didn’t really care about them. Speaking of problems, this story is also really bleak. The main focus of it is about Russ and Justin confiding in each other about issues they have about their past and how they are trying to work through them and learning to work through them together. It’s mostly a downer and pretty heavy. Also I don’t think I was ever really sold on Russ and Justin as a couple; I never really got invested in them.
THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS
The Trigger Warning: This book contains talk of a past abusive relationship, mentions of sexual assault, mental health issues, alcohol abuse, past loss of a loved one, and un-negotiated kink.
The Series: This is the second book in the Sam’s Café Romances series. As far as I can tell, it seems to be a series centered around a café owned by one of the main characters, Sam Tesh, and the romantic relationship between his son, Justin, and best friend, Russ Pine. I didn’t read the first book (The King’s Mate) though I probably should have as A Wounded Promise seems to be a direct sequel and it feels like the author has assumed that you read the first book already. Book One tells about Russ and Justin getting together, I believe, and Book Two continues the story. There is also a third book in the series focused on a different relationship, from what I understand.
The Couple: Justin Tesh is in his early twenties and still suffering the effects of a past abusive relationship. Russ Pine is in his late thirties and Justin’s current boyfriend, who is still dealing with the death of his husband from a few years ago. These two have a lot of issues they struggle to cope with on their own. It’s clearly not working as the book opens with Russ having inadvertently terrified his boyfriend into leaving for the night. Justin has had one relationship in his life before Russ, and it was physically and sexually abusive and that kind of thing leaves lasting scars. Russ is not abusive at all, but he does have some issues with alcohol and when combined with the grief he still deals with over the death of his husband, it’s a dangerous mix (though Russ is not at all abusive and there’s nothing to suggest that he ever would hurt Justin, Justin is still very sensitive to the possibility that it could happen). The story isn’t so much about their romance (though it is still there) as it is about them coming together as a couple to deal with their issues. I wasn’t really a huge fan of them as a couple, but I can’t really put my finger on why. I just couldn’t get invested in them. One thing I will mention though, that I did feel weird about, was the circumstances surrounding the age difference. I’m not usually overly fussed about age difference between romantic leads (I love Lisa Henry and J. A. Rock’s The Boy series and those MCs have a 17 year age gap), and I think the gap between Russ and Justin is maybe 10 to 15 years, but it’s more the fact that who Russ is what makes me leery of the whole thing. Russ is best friends with Justin’s father, and is part owner of the café he runs. I believe that Russ and Justin’s father are somewhat close in age, and they’ve known each other for about 20 years, so it’s not a stretch to assume that Russ knew Justin as a child. Then we get confirmation that, while Russ and Justin weren’t close in the past, Russ did sort of watch Justin grow up from afar. That little detail kinda ruined the whole romance for me because that’s something that just weirds me out. Russ and Justin as adults are good romantic partners I suppose, but the fact that Russ knew him as a child (while Russ himself was an adult) just gave me a weird feeling. (I’m in no way suggesting that Russ preyed on or groomed Justin at any point, it’s just the circumstances that turned me off.)
The Father: Despite his name being in the series title, Justin’s father Sam Tesh isn’t really a huge part of the story (maybe he was in the first book?). Sam owns his own café and is best friends with Justin’s boyfriend Russ (long before he and Justin ever got together, which I will never not find disturbing). He isn’t a major part of the story, but he actually does get a few scenes in his point of view, and I really enjoyed those scenes. The most personality we get from Sam is ‘protective father’, which is fine, he’s a good dad. I really liked the scenes where he comforts Justin and confronts Russ (separate scenes), he doesn’t go overboard with the dramatics. He’s a widower, and there’s a lot of stuff that went on in his past that is only vaguely alluded to that I wish we got to hear. I was really more invested in his relationship with Justin than I was the romance and I wish we had more scenes of them interacting.
The Exes: Russ and Justin both have an ex that has impacted their lives in ways that left trauma behind. Russ’ ex is his ex-husband Brian, who died a few years before the story takes place. We get very little info on who Brian was as a person, but we do know that Russ loved him very much and, despite now being with Justin, is still very much in love with him. I think they were together for quite a while and they had to overcome a lot of obstacles to be together (said obstacles are barely fleshed out). Unfortunately, Brian died in a car accident and I don’t think Russ has ever really gotten over it, if the whole thing surrounding the opening scene is any indication. Justin’s ex is Peter, who is, sadly, still alive and an abusive fuckwit. We don’t really get a clear history of events, but we do know that Justin and Peter dated for a while and Peter was abusing Justin for most of it. Justin managed to hide the abuse from his father, and really only left Peter because Sam walked in on a beating and called the police. Peter got arrested and he’s in jail for most of the story. He does actually show up for a bit and Justin gets to confront him, and that scene gives us a bit of insight into Peter as a character. Peter is a pretty one-note character: he’s an abusive boyfriend, also possibly delusional. He himself is in and out of the story pretty quick, but what he did to Justin (the abuse and the rape) left a lasting effect over Justin’s life.
The Therapist: I feel like Russ’ therapist, Elaine, might have had a bigger part in the first book. That’s the only reason I can think of as to why she barely gets an introduction in this one. Seriously, she just appears out of nowhere having a therapy session with Russ on a bridge in the park (I think). I honestly thought she was a figment of Russ’ imagination at first. Just that whole scene came out of nowhere with no lead up. And then after the scene ends it isn’t mentioned for a bit; I honestly thought it was either a dream sequence, or that Russ was just talking to thin air. But, no, she is a real person. She used to be Russ and Brian’s therapist, but now Russ wants him and Justin to go see her. Her purpose in the story seems to be to explain the mental state and behaviours of the main couple (to us and them); which was fine, if a bit dry (and a lot more telling instead of showing).
The Sex: I feel like most of the story was about the sex scenes. Or just leading up to them. Russ and Justin have a lot of sex. Not even major emotional turmoil will stop them. One problem I had was that the two of them always seemed to be up for it. There was a bit of tonal whiplash because a lot of the sex scenes started after some serious emotional moments. It was weird. The other problem I had was that I didn’t like the way the scenes were written. Russ and Justin have some very shouty sex. There’s a lot of shouting and screaming and wailing going on. Which was very weird to me. Also the moaning was written as dialogue, which, eugh. I don’t think that ever reads well. There was also a scene, one of the times where they discover the joys of rough sex, that was written quite violently. Like, the language was violent; which was weird to read when one of the characters still hasn’t really gotten over being raped by a past partner. The sex scenes just really fell flat for me and I really felt that we could’ve used less of them.
The Writing: I wasn’t a huge fan of the writing, but it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been (the fact that it wasn’t first person POV definitely saved it). The narration wasn’t too bad, with the wording and things. Though there was a weird thing where the characters talked out loud to themselves a lot, which rubbed me the wrong way. The dialogue itself wasn’t horrible, but it was pretty sappy in parts. The dialogue during the sex scenes was just bad, especially the moans being written as dialogue. Not a wise decision. The biggest problem I had with the writing was the lack of background. There were a lot of aspects of the characters’ histories and past events that weren’t adequately explained, and some that weren’t explained at all. Some of that might be due to this being a direct sequel and that all this background was written out in the first book, but I dunno. I feel like I would’ve enjoyed the story and characters more if I didn’t feel like I was missing large chunks of the story.
[A Wounded Promise was published March 4, 2015, by Dreamspinner Press, it is only available as an ebook]