Hi there! Long time no post, I know. I’ve been without a working computer for a couple weeks–plus I needed to make a huge push to get teaching and grading done for my students in the fall semester, so I needed time to recuperate. Today I’m sharing a review for a M/M contemporary romance from C Koehler. <a href="SETTLING THE SCORE is the fourth book in his CalPac Crew series. This installment tracks the former CalPac coxswain and the elder brother of a former crew member. I’ve enjoyed ROCKING THE BOAT, TIPPING THE BALANCE, and BURNING IT DOWN and enjoyed seeing the characters from those books return to advise our new couple.
Scroll down for an excerpt, and to enter the giveaway for a $10 GC.
About the book:
Stuart Cochrane and Philip Sundstrom are very busy men. Stuart, freshly graduated from California Pacific, works as much as he can to save money for medical school. Philip, now in charge of the family home-construction company, works long hours to save the company from his father’s blunders and back-stabbing cronies. A chance encounter brings them together and the attraction is fierce and instant. While neither has time for a relationship, they can’t keep away from each other.
When the National Team recruits Stuart to cox, only Philip understands that Stuart’s sick of rowing and wants nothing more than to start medical school. When Philip’s board of directors plots to remove him from his own company, Stuart helps him scheme and strategize. Despite their emotional and sexual chemistry, Stuart’s hang-ups about money and rich people doom their fledgling relationship. But after a personal tragedy, Stuart must overcome his prejudices and accept Philip’s help. Can Philip set aside his broken heart to help Stuart in his hour of greatest need and, dare he hope, a family?
How about a little taste?
The waiter held Philip’s eye a moment too long. Philip knew what that meant and flushed from the starched collar of his shirt all the way up to the gelled magnificence of his golden bangs. Left to its own devices, his hair flopped down to cover his eyes, and right then, Philip kind of wished it could. Instead, he’d styled his hair like he always did, parting it on the left and then the bulk of the bangs were up up and away! in a truly stupendous flight of fancy that was probably on the wrong side of metrosexual for a corporate CEO. When he was by himself, he played the game, but c’mon, dude. He was here with his girlfriend. What kind of trash did he think Philip was? It meant he had to cut the waiter. The cut direct wasn’t his style, but Philip felt like he didn’t have a choice. Angie was his priority.
“The waiter’s certainly attentive this evening,” Angie commented.
Philip cocked one eyebrow. “Sweetheart, did you get a good look at yourself? You’re stunning.”
“You think so?” she said, smiling sweetly. “Thank you, Philip. It’s always nice to be noticed.”
“I always notice you,” he said, smiling back. He raised his wine glass in a salute. “Notice and appreciate.”
Angie touched her glass to his in an almost-silent toast. “Charmer. Half the time I feel upstaged by you. Is that a new suit? You look amazing.” Then she glanced at the waiter. “I get the feeling I’m not the only one who thinks your tailor is a god among men.”
“Boy, you buy one new sport suit—”
“A week,” Angie interrupted, her eyes merry. She was enjoying herself.
“—one new suit, and people accuse you of being a dandy.” Philip sighed theatrically. “Memo to self: return the ascot and waistcoat ASAP,” he said in a stage whisper.
They shared a quiet laugh. Philip reached across the table to caress her cheek, and Angie leaned into his touch. Her beauty struck him once again, and that evening, she’d gone all out, every bit his match in an ivory satin gown with the back down to here and her auburn hair done with seed pearls as it cascaded down her back. She even wore a simple cameo around her neck, an antique Wedgwood piece he’d given her for Valentine’s Day the year before. Then he noticed she’d mounted it on a mauve ribbon that clashed horribly with her auburn hair. What on earth had she been thinking? He’d given it to her on a cream ribbon for a reason—
Dinner arrived and Philip dropped his hand.
He tried to ignore the argument going in his mind about the colors, but it was hard. He’d always had an overdeveloped sense of aesthetics, and at times growing up with Brad and Randall had been nothing but torment. Builders’ houses were always one of two types: ramshackle and about to fall over, or palatial monuments to every architectural innovation and new concept to show up in the design rags. The Sundstrom home was one of the latter type, if poorly decorated, and no sooner had he shoved Randall off stage and into the hands of the police than he called in the cavalry to remove the worst of his father’s excesses and atrocities. Gone were the putti pissing into fountains and faux-antique tapestries and superfluous televisions, and there were no more—Philip jerked his thoughts back to the here and now. He sat across the table from a beautiful woman at a posh restaurant. His aesthetic hang-ups could wait.
Philip genuinely enjoyed Angie’s company. They might not live together—yet—but they certainly spent a lot of time in each other’s company, mostly at her condo. She found his house “creepy, like a funeral home,” even with Randall out of there and every room but his mother’s old sitting room and her library redone. Not that he blamed her—it was large and foreboding, and maybe it was time to sell it. When he’d called to invite her out to dinner earlier in the week, she’d been overjoyed, even more so than usual. It made him wonder if he weren’t missing something, but a thorough search of his day planner by both himself and Suresh revealed nothing.
After gnawing his guts out for a while, he’d finally given up, and when it came time to pick her up, he gave in and let himself enjoy the evening. “Are you ready to go home?”
“Yes, I think so,” Angie said. Was that a tightening around her eyes?
Philip signaled the waiter, who promptly brought him the check. When Philip put a black Amex card down, the man’s eyes widened. It would have been comical, but Philip found it hard to believe no one at this restaurant had ever seen American Express’s Centurion Card before.
“Here you are, Mr. Sundstrom,” the waiter said when he returned, placing the receipt before Philip and then departing. Philip signed it, including a generous tip.
Philip held Angie’s chair for her and then waited patiently while she wrapped her shawl around her shoulders. As they walked out of the restaurant, Philip smiled at their waiter. “Thank you. We had a lovely evening.”
But it was only as they waited for his car to be brought around that he noticed the waiter had written a number—presumably his—on the back of the credit card slip, but lightly and in pencil so it didn’t show from the front. Classy. Philip crumpled it up and threw it in the trash.
“They’re staring at you out here too,” Angie whispered.
Philip blushed. “I think you mean they’re looking at you.”
“Some of them, maybe.” She laughed. “A few, the straight ones.”
But they weren’t all straight, he could tell that right off the bat. Sorry, boys. He played, but never when he was in a committed relationship.
“Remind me not to come back here. This is very embarrassing.”
She hooked her arm on his. “I think it’s hilarious, and you blush very prettily.”
“Great.” He rolled his eyes.
It made him uncomfortable, that regard, even if he understood it. Thanks to the last year at SunHo, he knew how to project an air of authority, and a lot of people found that attractive. It wasn’t quite a matter of “do the opposite of Randall.” After all, his father had run SunHo with an air of power, but in Philip’s estimation, that power was based on fear. Employees in SunHo’s corporate offices had feared for their jobs, at least when Randall stomped and blustered. But authority? That was something different. Philip knew when he spoke, he would be listened to. He might be young for a CEO, but by and large, he was respected. He wasn’t sure Randall could’ve said that, or even appreciated the difference.
In his early thirties, Philip was young, fit, and, based on the evidence at dinner, handsome; he was very well situated financially, and the waiter and valets could tell that from the credit card and his car. He loved his Merc, a sleek sports car, the six-figure kind with the spoiler to prevent it from taking flight. At least he assumed that’s why they stared. Or maybe he had spinach stuck between his teeth, he thought ruefully, the perils of being a vegetarian there to keep him humble.
They drove back to Angie’s condo in silence, insulated from the sounds of the city by the Merc, but what, Philip wondered, isolated them from each other? He bore responsibility for that, the lion’s share, at least. He felt bad for neglecting Angie in favor of SunHo. It wasn’t that he preferred SunHo per se, but it seemed so much more immediate to him. More…real, he realized guiltily, but that’s not how he wanted his life to be. Angie always understood—or acted as if she did. She got that he’d taken over the family business, even if she didn’t know the particulars of how that had come about. As far as he was concerned, she didn’t need to either.
But simply because Philip had chosen this life, it didn’t stand to reason that Angie was happy with it. He knew she’d prefer to be living the high life, preferably in San Francisco. Angie cared for him, so no gold digger, she, but he didn’t fool himself on that score either. She enjoyed the life his money afforded them. Buying Brad out a few years ago might’ve set him back, but SunHo grew and expanded, despite the recession and building slowdown. Philip was loaded, and Angie knew it.
He glanced over at Angie as he drove, her face turned away from him, inscrutable in the passing lights. He knew what he wanted from the next step in life, but was it what Angie wanted?
Unable to decipher his uncharacteristically enigmatic girlfriend, Philip retreated into his thoughts, pretending he was in the cockpit of a spaceship instead of a luxury car, because damn, the onboard computer was almost that complicated. He liked Mercedes for the same reason he liked Macs. They both embodied high performance and elegant design and didn’t bother him with a lot of irritating details. Sure, BMW made amazing cars, but they always seemed to want his input on some matter or other, and he got enough of that at work. As for PCs, Philip was sure there was an elegant and highly functional one somewhere, he’d just never heard of it. But really, they’d gone from a charming dinner together full of conversation and laughter to him retreating into his imagination. Again. He’d been doing that more and more lately.
If he were to be honest with himself, it couldn’t be a good sign, but they looked good together, and she was someone to hold on cold, dark nights. Angie was someone to cling to when he’d spent too much time reading the Existentialists and felt too alone in an uncaring universe. But was that really a reason to stay in a relationship with someone? On the whole, Philip reasoned, there were worse ones, but it would only be fair if she felt the same way, and he knew for a fact she had no patience for what she called his “navel-gazing.” This raised the question of why on Earth he was with someone who so easily dismissed his interests and the things he valued. On the other hand, he didn’t remember his parents sharing that many interests. So many puzzles.
The keypad at the entrance to the parking lot under Angie’s condo tower saved Philip from further omphaloskepsis. After he parked in her designated guest space and opened the door for her, Angie again laughed and flirted in the elevator.
“Dinner was great, but tomorrow night I want to go clubbing in the city,” she said, moving in close, breathing in his ear, hand roaming south of his belt.
“What’re you doing?” Philip gasped at the sudden assault.
“What does it feel like I’m doing?”
He looked down at her, amazed at her audacity. “Groping me. What if someone comes in?”
“Then I stop.”
This is the fourth book in a series, but it can be enjoyed as a standalone. We have met both of these characters in previous books, but this is their story.
Philip Sundstrom is the eldest of the Sundstrom brothers, with Brad being the younger. Brad was the MC of the second book in this series, and we have seen him in the other stories as well. Philip was the enigmatic brother who seemed kowtowed to their domineering and homophobic father, but we are now seeing the truth behind that facade.
Philip was the beleaguered son, “learning” the business of Sundstrom while really being shut out of any and every real decision, but Philip played a long game, acquiring knowledge and allies as he awaited his shady father’s downfall. It happened to come at the cost of Brad’s boyfriend, Drew, who was bashed by Daddy’s cronies. Philip found out and had his abusive, snaky father incarcerated–and he also got full ownership of the company, in the process. Philip wants to root out the board members who were loyal to his dad–and might be actively sabotaging his CEO position–and he’s also mature enough he wants a secure relationship instead of rattling around his big, empty childhood home. Unfortunately, his long-term girlfriend hadn’t got the memo that they were exclusive, and that was the end of that. Philip is bisexual, not that he’s made any overtures to a man in a long time. That’s why it’s a bit shocking that he’s so turned on by the ginger bagger at the specialty grocer, Stuart.
Stuart Cochrane has just graduated college from CalPac University and is due to matriculate into medical school at UC-Davis in August. He shares an apartment with his boyfriend and a fellow crew member, Jeremy, whose highborn English mother has been an unpleasant advent in his life. Stuart grew up in rural Pennsylvania, with parents who take “Jesus Freak” as a badge of honor. He literally ran away to Sacramento to attend college on the scholarship for crew, where he was a champion coxswain. Stuart is diminutive in size, but not opinion or voice, and he’s quite tired of Jeremy’s callous and wasteful immaturity. Being nearly destitute has trained Stuart to be incredibly frugal, and shun charity. So, when Jeremy makes an ultimatum that would cost him thousands, Stuart is happy to see him head off for England on a summer break that ends their relationship. And, that’s when he meets Philip.
Philip is a fixer, but while he has money he is sensible about it–for the most part. And he’s sensitive enough to Stuart’s pride that he doesn’t try to press his financial advantage, at least at first. They end up dating, which causes a little conflagration as Philip comes out, but much less than one might expect. The book is set in the time period around 2013 when marriage equality was still a fight in the courts, and not the rule of the country at large. Stuart has never really considered being married, because it hasn’t been accessible to him as such, and he’s still young with big plans for his career. Meanwhile, Philip is going all in on Stuart, and on the people he suspects of conniving against his leadership at work. There are several issues at risk, including a development that seems to have been built in an area rife with toxic waste. The legal ramifications are high, and as all of this is percolating to a head Stuart’s phobia of wealth and privilege get stuck with. He’s prideful to a dangerous and self-destructive degree, but once Philip arrives–thanks to mutual friends who reach out–Stuart is more than sorry for his earlier scorn. These guys are so used to being on their own it’s hard to lean on one another, but Stuart has need to lean more frequently, and this bring shim shame. He’d already had a pretty low self-esteem thanks to his parents, but his money struggles only reveal the deep-seated class prejudices Stuart has. And, what he has to get over if he’s going to salvage what is left of his battered family.
I really enjoyed this story, though I felt it kind of took a long time to get to the larger action moments. What I mean is, Philip was investigating his board in June, and doesn’t resolve anything there until January–despite constant machinations and discovery of damning evidence. Over the nearly 6 months of their acquaintance Stuart’s growing loathing of financial security seems excessive and childish. He has no capacity to manage his exponential debts, and hates that Philip is not only able, but willing, to wipe it all away just to ensure Stuart isn’t burdened. Every one of Stuart’s friends tell him he’s being unreasonable and childish–and he’s also considering this himself–but he cannot stop turning into a giant ridiculous brat when Philip pays for these rare and extenuating extravagances. It was almost pathological, honestly, and I was overjoyed that he FINALLY got down from his high horse in time to save his family and his relationship.
This is the fourth story in the series, but there is plenty of detail to fill-in any gaps for readers picking it up out of sequence. It will be a bit of a spoiler though, if one wants to go back in time, as the previous love stories have some level of exposure in this book. I’m always a little thrown by the deep references I encounter in this series, considering how well-read that I am, but it’s always fun to learn a new 78-point Scrabble word, or two. The younger characters read as way older, and sometimes Philip and Stuart read as way younger–but it was fun that they acknowledged this as demonstration of their infatuation. There are some dark moments, and the death of several secondary characters leading up to the final crisis. In all, I’d read on if another book comes out.
Click on this Rafflecopter giveaway link for your chance to win a $10 NineStar Press GC.
Good luck and keep reading my friends!
About the Author:
Christopher Koehler always wanted to write, but it wasn’t until his grad school years that he realized writing was how he wanted to spend his life. Long something of a hothouse flower, he’s been lucky to be surrounded by people who encouraged that, especially his long-suffering husband of twenty-nine years and counting.
He loves many genres of fiction and nonfiction, but he’s especially fond of romances, because it’s in them that human emotions and relations, at least most of the ones fit to be discussed publicly, are laid bare.
While writing is his passion and his life, when he’s not doing that, he’s a househusband, at-home dad, and oarsman with a slightly disturbing interest in manners and the other ways people behave badly.
Christopher is approaching the tenth anniversary of publication and has been fortunate to be recognized for his writing, including by the American Library Association, which named Poz a 2016 Recommended Title, and an Honorable Mention for “Transformation,” in Innovation, Volume 6 of Queer Sci Fi’s Flash Fiction Anthology.