Hi there! Today I’m sharing a review for a M/M contemporary romance from C Koehler. FIRST IMPRESSIONS is a standalone romance that gave me a sense of Pride and Prejudice–as a gay romance. I fell into this author’s CalPac Crew romances and recommend those if you like crew and mature romances! I’ve enjoyed ROCKING THE BOAT, TIPPING THE BALANCE, and BURNING IT DOWN and SETTLING THE SCORE wrapped up that series.
Scroll down for an excerpt, and to enter the giveaway for a $10 GC.
About the book:
When Henry Hughes and Cameron Jameson meet for the first time at a Coming Out Day party, it’s anything but love at first sight. In fact, it’s an unmitigated disaster, despite a scorching physical attraction.
Henry, whose social anxiety gets the better of him, humiliates Cameron, and when Cameron finds out about Henry’s past in adult films, he assumes he dodged a disease-covered bullet. Yet as Henry runs into Cameron again and again, he realizes he might have misjudged the younger man. He also realizes that Cameron won’t let go of his own initial view and thinks Henry is an unmitigated ass. First impressions are lasting impressions, and Cameron seems to misinterpret all of Henry’s words and deeds.
It’s not until Henry confronts Cameron that Cameron realizes just how wrong he’s been, but he thinks he’s lost his chance. Yet when disaster strikes Cameron and his friends, Henry rides to the rescue. Will Cameron be able to put aside his pride and shame to accept Henry’s help and his heart?
How about a little taste?
Henry Hughes nudged his Tesla Roadster into the second of his assigned parking spots beneath the Capitol Towers, the one in which he’d had a charger installed, praying he didn’t dent or scratch the pricey plaything.
He struggled to leverage his muscular frame out of the door, and finally just climbed out the top. There was no way this would work long-term. He was way over six feet tall and built like a linebacker. Maybe the other space was larger? He’d already noticed his assistant’s more serviceable SUV parked there. He made a note to talk to her about it, but then he realized if he did, she’d relinquish the larger space without a peep, or worse, buy a smaller car. Then he thought about the hassle of moving the charger. It’d be easier to keep climbing out of the top of the car.
The parking was a pain in the ass—and not the good kind—but to keep a place in Sacramento. Since it wasn’t his primary residence, a house with a yard simply wasn’t practical, not even one of the adorable bungalows in the neighborhoods east of downtown. So, there he was with a condo and the adventures in parking.
Even with the occasional headache, Sacramento still beat San Francisco, and it was the only city of any size close to Alpenglow, his spread near Lake Tahoe. What was his alternative, some village of less than fifty people on US-50? Now entering, now leaving!
The door opened at his touch, and he sighed. There could be only one explanation.
She had arrived early to freshen the place up for him.
It was thoughtful and so like her, and so unnecessary. He wasn’t helpless, just an emotional wreck. He lied to himself and pretended the joke was funny.
“Hello?” he called, shutting the door behind him. He walked into the foyer and through the French doors that led to the formal living space beyond. “Lillian?”
“In here, Henry.”
Lillian Desmond rose to shake his hand when Henry entered the room because she was respectful like that. She was tall, a bit shorter than him, at least, and while her face was lined by sun and a storied career in law enforcement and paramilitary groups—the details of which he still found improbable despite vetting them thoroughly—she wore her fifty-odd years lightly. He suspected she could put him on the ground in seconds if she wanted to but was nice enough not to demonstrate it. She kept her graying-blonde hair out of the way in a no-nonsense bun, and that plus the reading glasses perched on her nose made her look like a schoolmarm.
“Welcome home.” Her reading glasses slid down her nose as she looked him in the eye. It made him wonder what he’d done and what the consequences would be.
Henry looked around. “It doesn’t really feel like home. It’s more like a hotel suite I own, which is weird, because Alpenglow doesn’t look this impersonal and it’s actually a hotel. Sort of.”
“And whose fault is that? Maybe you should spend more time down here this fall. You work awfully hard.” Lillian gave him a stern look. “Take some time off.”
“I don’t work any harder than you, and you’ll take time off when you die.” He hated talking about his work habits because they inevitably led to discussions about his personal life. Or the lack thereof. “Who knows. A bit of a break might be nice.”
“There you go.” Lillian herded him away from her paperwork. “Let’s go into the living room. We’ve got some things to go over.”
“The winter schedule and programming?” Henry noted the leather portfolio with the Alpenglow logo on its cover.
Lillian laughed, sweet and musical. “You’re funny. No, we went over that months ago, as you evidently don’t recall. This”—she pulled out the portfolio—“is the material for next spring.”
“I guess there’s no putting it off.” Henry pretended to be reluctant, but he loved Alpenglow like nothing else, built from the ground up out of a moribund ski resort with his own money and tricky financing. It had started just with skiing, but he had added a variety of offerings to make it a desirable year-round destination.
Lillian had been an early part of Henry’s operation and had quickly become integral to it. He’d initially hired her to head his security team, but after her first diffident suggestion that perhaps opening the cross-country trails to local horse-riding camps might improve their nonexistent summer cash flow, he and she had put their heads together to make Alpenglow what it was, even if she wouldn’t accept part ownership. “Alpenglow’s all yours,” she said when he’d tried to sign over an admittedly minority share to her. “You pay me a prince’s ransom, and that’s more than enough.”
So now he sat next to her now on one of the leather sofas while they finalized their spring plans.
Lillian pushed her readers back into position. “I’ve got quite an agenda for us while we’re here, Henry.”
“I can see that.”
“First, routine maintenance issues. As you know, the outdoor swimming pools are showing their age.”
“That they are. Frankly, we’re lucky we got through the summer with them in the shape we did. In retrospect, they should’ve been done last winter.”
“Hindsight’s always twenty-twenty,” Lillian agreed. “Now, in the past, you’ve insisted on keeping one outdoor pool open and heated, but this year…”
Henry leaned back, paying attention with only part of his mind as they ran through basic upkeep issues. They’d done this many times before; only the specific details changed.
“Have you had a chance to look into the décor of the rooms in the south wing, like I asked?”
“Yes, of course, Henry.” Lillian flipped through her notes. “You were right. Those rooms have never been updated, and honestly? They’re not looking that good.”
Henry nodded. “That’s what I thought. I haven’t been able to get into every room, but the ones I checked need help, and soon.”
They should, he thought. They were the first rooms to accommodate guests, back when the south wing was the only wing and he worked the front desk.
“I’ll oversee it myself,” Lillian said. “Now, about—”
He shook his head. “No, I will. We can probably find designers and decorators whose work’ll do in Sacramento, but if we need to go to San Francisco I’m halfway there. Have the schematics for those rooms sent down here via courier, and I’ll start making calls.” Henry thought for a moment. “One other thing…don’t fill my dance card too full. There are people down here I want to see, people I hope will invest in the next phase of Alpenglow.”
Lillian nodded. “I’ve heard a rumor that Darren Jessup from Band of Brothers might be in town for a while. I’ll see what I can find out. Now, the last thing on the list, at least for today, is Camp Snowflake. Will you be taking your usual role?”
Henry frowned. “Of course, why wouldn’t I?”
She looked up from her portfolio. “Just checking. I wasn’t sure how long this hankering of yours for city life would last this time.”
“We’ll see, won’t we? It looks like I’m ready for company again, and despite the smaller size of Sacramento’s gay community, it feels like fewer people here know about my past.”
Lillian put down the portfolio with its list and removed her glasses. “People don’t care about your imagined ex-porn star notoriety as much as you think they do.”
“You’d be surprised what people care about, and thanks to the Internet, it’s still as fresh as yesterday.” Henry laughed without humor. “It’s only been five years or so. Hell, Badass still has most of the films on the website.”
“I know how much it bothers you.” Lillian touched his arm gently.
He appreciated the gesture even if it didn’t make him feel better. Early in their association, she’d taken on the role of mother surrogate. It hadn’t taken him long to figure out that he’d never convince her he could take care of himself, and it was nice to have someone looking out for him.
None of that meant he didn’t want, didn’t long for, didn’t need that someone special to look after him. And for him to look after in return, a real husband and not the string of trophy men his Uncle Benton supported, tagging along behind him like Mary’s little lambs, always bleating for more cash. He sighed and made a mental note to let Uncle Benton know he was in town.
Lillian snapped her portfolio closed, and then hesitated. She gave him a measuring look. “There is one other thing…”
Henry knew that tone. It always led somewhere, usually right into his private life. “Yes?”
“You need to get out more, Henry.” Amazing. She hadn’t even bothered to butter him up first. She held up a hand to hold him off. “I know what you just said about the imagined sins of your past, but you’re never going to meet Mr. Right—hell, Mr. Right Now—if you’re holed up in your pretty prison up by the lake.”
“Alpenglow’s not a prison,” Henry mumbled. He crossed his arms defensively, trying to ward off the truth of her words. On some level he knew he looked like a petulant child, but right then he didn’t care.
Lillian leaned forward and touched the side of his head. It was gentle, almost a caress. “I mean up here, in your mind.”
Henry jumped. That one slipped past his defenses. He tried to laugh it off, but it came out as a strangled gurgle. He coughed to clear his throat. “So…um, what do you have in mind?”
“Well, seeing how it’s early October…”
Henry looked at her expectantly, waiting for the rest.
“Early October, Henry. Ring any bells?”
“Not seeing any connections, Lillian.”
“National Coming Out Day, Henry,” Lillian sighed. Then, quicker than lightning, her hand flashed out and smacked him on the forehead.
“Ouch!” Henry yelped. “What the hell was that for?”
“You’re gay, you big fool. Hell, you made gay porn for years, and you don’t know when National Coming Out Day is?” Lillian shook her head.
“I came out—was outed, thank you very much—years ago.” Henry rubbed where she’d hit him. It still stung.
“My point,” Lillian said, “is that you could show a little gay pride once in a while, considering how much money the gay community’s made you over the years.”
“Technically, they made the money for Badass Productions. I was a contract worker at first,”
“Trivia, Henry. Once you bought into the company all those horny men put cash in your pocket. You’re coming with me so I can introduce you to Sacramento society. There are people you need to meet.”
Wasn’t Sacramento society an oxymoron? “All right.”
Lillian looked at him with suspicion. “That’s it? No argument? No mulish and obstinate resistance?”
“Would it do any good?”
“Then…wait a minute.” Henry glared at her through slitted eyes. “If I need to meet these people, why haven’t I met them sooner? We’ve both spent plenty of time here.”
“The time just didn’t seem right.” Lillian wouldn’t meet his eyes.
Interest, but Henry decided not to pursue it. “Why not? I can’t spend all my time on the redesign, and who knows? Maybe I can drum up some business. I do own a high-end resort, after all.”
He made all the right noises, but when it came down to it, Henry didn’t know who people would see when they met him, Henry Hughes or Hugh Jerection, a man and persona he’d long ago come to hate.
Henry Hughes is a wealthy ex-porn star turned boutique hotelier. Because of his history in adult films, Henry is a reticent man believing that people are mostly interested in one thing. One BIG thing. And, though he’d love to settle down with a good man he just can’t seem to find one that he can trust. He is introduced to Cameron Jameson at a Coming Out Day party, but he’s in the wrong mood for it, and lashes out in a huge, embarrassing way.
Cameron Jameson is a wunderkind who took a big step off the spinning wheel of life following early admission at Stanford. He never finished college, and is working retail at age 29, avoiding the pressure of his wealthy family, and all their expectations. He so wants a loving partner, and is a bit hung up on his close friend Simon, but Simon seems to disrespect his love. He’s been mortified by Henry Hughes, who is big and wealthy and beautiful, which made it all the more disappointing. Especially since they keep running into one another.
If only Cameron didn’t find Henry so attractive–because it’s hard feeling so attracted to a man who made him feel so bad about himself. His friends and Henry’s friends keep trying to intercede, explaining that their initial impressions were skewed in horrible ways, but it’s hard to overcome those disastrous first moments. And it’s only when Cameron finds himself in dire need of assistance that Henry is able to demonstrate the truly kind and compassionate man he is inside, in a way that Cameron will actually accept.
In the larger context, this story seemed to follow a Pride and Prejudice archetype, with a wealthy, reclusive hero whose ill manners lead him to making unpardonable social missteps with a younger and unexpectedly witty novice. It’s obviously been updated for a current setting and a male-male romance, but the underlying social situations of balls and brief encounters “in the wild” of Sacramento, California’s retail environs was a modern approximation. I even liked the metaphor of Henry’s “endowment,” er, male member, being so enormous and a making him a bit of a hard catch as a result. It’s not a perfect approximation of the story, obviously, but there were glimmers in that both Henry and Cameron were so well-matched in truth, but mismatched in temperament, and their respective prejudices and inflated pride kept them separated far longer than either man wanted.
I really enjoyed the side characters and their melodrama, which sucks Cameron into schemes against his will and better judgment, schemes that at first push him and Henry apart, but later unite them in common cause. Pretty much a disastrous Thanksgiving weekend seals them together. The side characters are largely larger than life, and add a silliness that amused me, for it being so monstrously outrageous. Poor Cameron, who’s mother is nothing short of a boulder loosed by an earthquake, flattening his every chance at escaping the family embroilments. And, the zany roomies, who are flaky and yet determined to fill in for the missing family that Cameron has kept at arm’s length for a decade. Henry’s bodyguard/assistant and his new business partner both bring grounding and ribbing, by turns, shoving Hugh from his staid rut and into a more receptive mood for love.
I think readers need to be prepared for descriptive and introspective characters, who aren’t in the least afraid to flaunt their vocabulary. All of the books I’ve read from this author have operated at a high intellectual quotient, with challenging syntax and diction. For this book particularly, that naturally elicited the comparison to Austen’s great prose.
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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.