It can be difficult to review a book that is part of a series for a number of reasons, one of which is to do with how one feels about the other books. That’s especially true of Concourse. Although I love the Five Boroughs series as a whole, it’s uneven; and while I enjoyed the writing, the friends to lovers trope, and the happily ever after this time out, I didn’t particularly care for the principals. They’re interesting and unique but so extremely opposite that I struggled to believe in them as partners in a romantic relationship. I’ve wavered over the final grade, and much as I felt while reading it, I’m still not sure I’ve got it right. Concourse is entertaining, steamy and contains the perfect mix of angst and happiness. I do love Mr. Hassell’s writing… but I didn’t love the main characters this time out, and for that reason, it’s not a DIK.
Concourse features Ashton Townsend and Valdrin – Val – Leka. Val’s mother was nanny to the Townsend family and the boys grew up together despite their very different stations in life. Ashton, black sheep of the family with his androgynous beauty and fragile, gentle spirit, spent the majority of his time with his beloved nanny and her two children. Val, a boxing prodigy who lost his father when he was young, always looked out for and protected Ashton – despite Ashton’s sometimes self-destructive lifestyle choices and his disdain for the rest of the Townsend family. When Concourse opens, the boys have become men, and though they live very different lives and move in radically different circles (Ashton is a professional celebrity and Val is an amateur boxer), they still look out for each other.
From the start, it’s clear that Val loves Ashton, and Ashton loves Val, but they can’t or won’t use the “L” word to define their relationship. They’ve only crossed the line sexually one time – but it was profoundly moving for both of them. For Val, the sex was intense, passionate and, he fears, addictive. But he’s keeping a secret from Ashton and in his heart he knows it will end their relationship if Ashton ever discovers the truth. Unable to deal with his feelings and attraction to Ashton (and believing he took advantage of him), Val retreats. Even after they reconcile when Val realizes he can’t stay away, they’ve never regained their comfortable relationship with each other. For Ashton, the sex was a revelation. Constantly in the public eye, chased by the paparazzi, fodder for the gossip columns, and rumored to sleep around, Ashton doesn’t believe he’s worthy of Val’s love. Everyone in his life – family, former lovers and until recently, his friends – has let him down or taken advantage of him. Except for Val. He wants a repeat of that night every night, but afraid that Val will distance himself again, he tries not to need or want more from Val than he wants to give.
Much of Concourse is taken up with Ashton and Val dealing with anxieties and self-doubt – that they’re good enough for each other, that their lives have meaning, that they’re good people (Mr. Hassell capably juggles these questions), and though I sympathize and can empathize with their struggles, after a while it just felt like their separation was overly drawn out. Both men feel at their best when they’re with each other so it’s a relief when Val finally gives in and permits himself the pleasure of a physical relationship with Ashton. The lead-up to the start of their sexual relationship is tense, emotional and fraught with doubt on both sides – but it’s romantic, sexy, dirty and wonderful once they finally get down to doing it. And doing it. And doing it. They can’t keep their hands to themselves and though a lot of their intimacy is off the page, it just feels right. Ashton feels a connection with Val he’s never felt with any of his past lovers and Val is finally intimate with the only man he’s ever loved or wanted. I just wanted this time to last and last and last… but as I mentioned early on, Val has a secret, Ashton still struggles to love himself, and happily ever after is still a long way away.
Though his secret weighs heavily on Val (and it’s the reason he keeps Ashton at a distance), I’m not sure it packed quite the wallop Mr. Hassell intended and/or was strong enough, once revealed, for me to understand why Val waited and waited to tell Ashton. His long silence is damning. I hate it when miscommunication is the main conflict between principals in my romance novels, and Concourse is a great example of why it’s so frustrating for the reader. I won’t spoil the secret here, but suffice it to say that if Val had been honest with Ashton from the start, Ashton probably would have understood – and even offered to help him.
Secrets aside, Concourse gripped me right from the start, though I struggled to identify with the principals as a couple. Val is a wonderful mix of tender and fierce, but he’s such a private, self-contained person, I just couldn’t believe he would fall for someone like Ashton – who, at least on the page, is everything Val seems to dislike: high-maintenance, publicly vapid and shallow, sexually adventurous, and self-destructive. He craves the spotlight while Val exists in the shadows. And Val is nothing like any of the people in Ashton’s close knit circle of friends… I just don’t know. So while I enjoyed their love story and road to happily ever after, I’m still not sure I believe these total opposites could fall so hard for each other.
That I can still say I liked this story, despite disliking the main characters, speaks to Mr. Hassell’s gift as a storyteller. Even when I didn’t like (or understand) his principals – Ashton in particular is a polarizing romantic lead – I still loved their steamy and swoony love scenes, crazy chemistry, and rocky road to happily ever after. I inhaled Concourse despite my problems with it, and though it’s not the strongest in the series, it still fits nicely into the Five Boroughs world. And one last thing – I would be remiss if I finished this review without mentioning the book jacket. I rarely mention them in my reviews because I usually forget a cover shortly after I start reading, but the opposite holds true here. The Concourse cover and model are so spot on to the Ashton of my imagination, I keep returning to it. I’ve always admired the Five Boroughs covers, but this one… it’s beautiful, appropriate and perfect for this not-so perfect love story.
PS Five Boroughs fans: Nunzio makes a couple of killer cameos in Concourse. I love him. BIG TIME.