Always Only You
I’ll be honest, I knew very little about this book when I requested it. I saw the lovely cartoon cover featuring a hockey player (I like them, btw), read the blurb, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. Friends, the risk paid off. I mostly enjoyed Always Only You, the second novel in the Bergman Brothers series, and I have every intention of backtracking and reading the first book in the series, too. The author, recently diagnosed on the autism spectrum, has crafted an #ownvoices story that’s romantic, inspirational and educational. The novel features an autistic heroine trying – and mostly succeeding – at the game of life, and a virgin cinnamon roll hero who hopes to one day earn her love. Always Only You is a funny, sexy, low-angst romance focused almost entirely on the relationship between its two principal characters, and I liked it very much.
Francesca – Frankie – Zeferino is the In-Game Social Media Coordinator for the Los Angeles Kings hockey franchise. She’s great at her job, and despite her clubhouse nickname “Frank the Crank,” she’s a softie who cares about the team, its players, and their reputations. Being tough is part of her job, and it’s easier for her if the players assume she’s a hard ass all the time. She dresses the part, too – unrelenting black and white clothing, black sneakers, and a silver walking cane she refers to as the Elder Wand (she needs it because her rheumatoid arthritis sometimes makes it difficult for her to get around).
The whole look is very Wednesday Adams, with a similar and intended repelling effect. People leave me alone. Which is how I like it.
But Frankie has a big secret. She’s autistic and her clothing and attitude are part of the armor that helps her get through days that are physically and mentally challenging and exhausting. Fortunately, one player makes her job easier, Søren – Ren – Bergman, the sunshine to her rain cloud.
Handsome, fit, kind, generous and good, Ren is a ginger haired dreamboat. He prefers book club meetings to parties – as evidenced by his membership in an ultra-secret Shakespeare book club – he’s always willing to lend his time and smile to a good cause, and he never seems to have a bad day. He’s also a terrific hockey player and his teammates love him. Frankie knows he’s off limits, but can’t seem to stop noticing him whenever he’s around. And he’s around a lot. Unbeknownst to Frankie, Ren purposefully seeks her out so he can spend time with her. Ren sees the softer, sweeter side that Frankie thinks she keeps hidden, and since the moment he met her three years earlier, he’s wanted her. But therein lies the rub. Because they work together, Frankie is forbidden. For three years, Ren has waited, wanting Frankie and hoping for his chance – and when Always Only You gets underway, he finally gets it. After someone breaks into her house, Frankie has to temporarily move out. Ren offers her a place to stay, and then discovers Frankie is making plans to leave the team. An ‘accidental’ kiss convinces him it’s time to make his move, and he gets to work winning Frankie over. Forced proximity, as everyone in Romancelandia already knows, wreaks havoc on ‘platonic’ friendships between people secretly in lust with each other. Spoiler alert: moving in together changes everything.
Always Only You is a lovely ode to the opposites attract trope, and Ren and Frankie fall fast and hard for each other. Frankie grew up feeling like a burden or a problem for her family to deal with, and she moved across the country to break free of their smothering love. Fiercely independent, strong, and tough, Frankie doesn’t need or want someone to fight her battles for her, or to treat her with kid gloves. She’s also avoided romantic entanglements after watching past boyfriends flee the moment she revealed any sort of weakness, and she doesn’t want Ren to break her heart, too. She falls for him, but tries to keep him at a distance. Ren wants to protect and support Frankie, and struggles to prove to her that she isn’t a burden or problem he’s trying to solve. Raised in a big family and exposed to lots of different personalities and temperaments, very little throws Ren off his game – on the ice or off it. When Frankie confesses she’s autistic, Ren is surprised – but not for the reason Frankie imagines – he just can’t believe he didn’t guess it on his own. His response:
“my little sister is on the spectrum. So, while everyone’s unique, and I’m no expert, I love someone who’s autistic. And I hope you know I’m a safe place for you to be you,”
is yet another reason why Ren is nearly irresistible.
Always Only You doesn’t feature a secondary plot (although the author introduces a villainous character at the start and then largely forgets about him); the evolving romance between Ren and Frankie IS the story. Mostly this works – when these two are figuring out how to love each other, the story shines. The characterization of both principal characters is excellent, although frankly Ms. Liese, Ren is too good to be true. Discovering that super hot and sexy Ren was an adorkable nerd in high school, is still a virgin, swears like a Shakespearean sailor, and perfectly intuits how to give a woman an orgasm despite a seeming lack of experience all feels a bit like gilding the lily. Leading men can have flaws and still be great partners! Frankie is similarly well-realized, and Ms. Liese does a terrific job showing readers the effects of autism on Frankie’s everyday life, although she occasionally grows pedantic on the subject. It sometimes feels like the story is less about Frankie specifically, and more like a TED talk about autism. Regardless, Frankie – despite the challenges she faces – is formidable and extremely likeable. It’s easy to see why Ren falls for her.
While I mostly liked the book, the author has some peculiar idiosyncrasies. Whenever Frankie is surprised by something Ren-related, her expressions are completely bizarre: Mary Mother of Jesus Riding on a Donkey (after spotting Ren’s hair in the moonlight); Preschool Jesus with a Carpentry Awl (after Ren licks ketchup off his thumb); Jesus Tossing Tables in the Temple (when Ren appears wearing fitted joggers); or Jesus Skipping through the Resurrection Garden (when Ren scowls at a bad driver). I don’t know if the author does this in real life or… honestly, I simply don’t know. It’s just weird. And while Ms. Liese is a self-described Harry Potter fan and makes Frankie one, too, the explicit references to Frankie’s wet or soaked Harry Potter themed panties are just plain yuck. Why Ms. Liese? Why?! Finally, one last quibble. Ren is a hockey player, but there isn’t a ton of hockey in this story, and a few of the game references (made the lamp glow red instead of ‘lit the lamp,’ and a chest pump in lieu of a group hug after a score) are just plain wrong. These errors are distracting.
Always Only You is romantic and entertaining, and an excellent introduction to this promising new author. I’m looking forward to future Bergman books. Recommended.