I have previously enjoyed your novels, both those I’ve reviewed and those I haven’t. And I had this book in my review pile for a while. But…someone (can’t remember who, sorry) jumped it way up my list by saying how wonderful it was and I spent most of Thanksgiving engrossed in the characters you created.
First of all: what the hell is up with the title? It’s boring and misleading and just…well, boring. I mean, I don’t want The Ex-Mercenary’s Undercover Gardener or anything, but Truthful Change is lacking a certain creative energy that the story has in spades. And the cover’s pretty suckful too. Which one of those men is supposed to be Karl? Because neither of them is 37.
Anyway. Aiden is an FBI agent. The book opens with a Prologue in which he is blowing his doctor boyfriend, with whom he lives. Not all is well in Paradise, though. We next see Karl yelling at his gardener. Karl is a former mercenary, who sold his private military company (like Blackwater) after he was shot by a sniper. His rehabilitation has taken months, during which time he bought a house that needs landscaping. His gardener, Adam, is young and naive and hot and Karl soon comes on to him and they end up fucking. A lot.
Adam, of course, is really Aiden. Karl is being investigated by the FBI because the person he sold his PMC to is going rogue and the FBI wants to know if Karl is involved in or masterminding the violence and/or if he’ll testify against the current owner of the company. But this is where this book might hit many people’s squick buttons. Aiden has sex with Karl as Adam. He actually thinks at one point:
He loved his partner Scott. Loved him and would never cheat on him. This didn’t count; it was for work, and it wasn’t like Aiden had wanted it. Hell, on the one hand, it was almost possible to convince himself that he wasn’t even the one who’d been fucked by Blake. That had been Adam Marshall, after all. The only thing Aiden Russell had done that day was go to work. That his job had required he stand with his pants around his ankles was irrelevant. Besides, Blake had worn a condom. It’d been safe. That was all that mattered, and Scott never had to know about it.
Sure, he’s working hard to convince himself here, but still…this might be a problem for some readers. It’s only when his emotions get involved that he starts to feel guilty about it. *I* thought the slow movement into love and the hints about Aiden’s relationship with Scott going sour were well-done enough to work. But I have more…let’s just say, more liberal opinions when it comes to cheating than many romance readers. The inevitable break-up with Scott is dealt with in slightly deus ex machina fashion to make us sympathetic to all concerned, but Aiden does cheat on his partner, he does acknowledge that he’s cheating, and he feels guilty about it, but not guilty enough to stop. Readers, do with that what you will.
This issue aside, this story is told from the alternating third person deep point of view of both Aiden and Karl. You do a great job of showing Aiden falling for Karl and Karl falling for both Adam and later, after the reveal just more than halfway through, Aiden. What gets to Aiden, what makes him cheat on Scott emotionally, is how well Karl jumps on all his sexual buttons. Karl is a top and Aiden is a bottom. Both of them like sex hard and fast, pushing boundaries, and slightly painful. I wouldn’t say this book tips over into full-on BDSM at any point. But there is a strong power dynamic during the sex scenes that both Aiden and Karl revel in. Their sexual compatibility draws the men together, but they discover that they get along well in other aspects of life, too. And, oh my stars and garters, the sex is hot:
Three fingers hurt, but Karl’s mouth was open, waiting, and Aiden arched his hips obediently, pushing inside it, then pulled back to grind helplessly against the fingers inside him because as much as he wanted the wet heat of Karl’s mouth, he needed the burn in his ass more. It scratched every itch he had to be filled so painfully, to be so perfectly possessed. Even if two of the fingers were his, they were moving at Karl’s command, back and forth, pushing deeper.
Karl let Aiden’s cock rub against his cheek, leaving it damp. The sun was rising now, light sifting into the room through a window whose curtains were only half-drawn. "Still feel good?" Karl asked, his finger working in and out slowly. Aiden could feel it rub against his fingers, and the knowledge of what they were doing together sent a shudder through him, shame and lust competing for supremacy.
God, it hurt and it felt so good, and after a sex life in which he’d usually been the one in control, being Karl’s puppet felt shockingly right. He didn’t want it to stop. He let himself fuck Karl’s mouth with a lazy abandon that was like drifting, floating, and for one incredible moment, he didn’t care if he ever came. He just wanted to stop time right then and there.
I liked how you have Karl deal with the revelation of Aiden’s real job. He’s pissed that he’s been played. He’s worried he’s losing his edge. He’s confused about the difference between Adam and Aiden. And he has to learn to like Aiden more than he liked Adam. He’s in lust with Adam, but he falls in love with Aiden. But he’s not stupid about the “betrayal” of what Aiden did. Karl is pragmatic and once he gets passed his initial outrage, he understands Aiden’s position and even appreciates how well Aiden did his job. And I also love how, when they’re on a stake-out together, they don’t have sex all over the place. They’re working, so…they work.
But this is actually a problem with the narrative arc. The first two-thirds of the book are intense. Adam/Aiden and Karl have a lot of hardcore sex and it’s brilliantly described and very very hot. Aiden has his job and it creates the suspense of when Karl will figure things out and how he’ll deal with it. Once Karl does figure things out, there’s the emotional entanglements and suspense of his reaction. But once they’ve settled into the resolution of the suspense plot of the novel (bringing down the guy who bought Karl’s company), the novel itself loses some of its intensity, precisely because Aiden and Karl act like professionals and don’t fuck like bunnies while on the job. But I did appreciate Karl having to figure out how to treat Aiden, the more mature, educated professional, differently from the way he treated and protected Adam, his young, uneducated gardener.
So while the tension felt off during the final third of the book, the fact that these characters are so well-built, so internally consistent, so real, and the fact that they actually acted like people who are good at their jobs almost made up for it.
Readers: if you can deal with the cheating and want a truly character-driven story that’s extremely well-written, you can’t do much better than this book, ridiculous title and cover or no.