Charlie King is doing fine. Sure, he’s a widower raising a teenage daughter who just got her first boyfriend, his book series isn’t writing itself, and he has a crush on his new neighbor — the guy next door. But everything’s just fine.
Simon Lynley is doing better. He moved to Bethlehem to fall out of love and rebuild his career. An affair with his neighbor isn’t part of the plan, but the attraction between them is too hard to ignore.
But when Simon’s ex follows him to Pennsylvania seeking reconciliation, and Charlie’s life starts to feel like a video on repeat, everything comes apart. Charlie worries that he’s failing as a father, and Simon is a distraction he can’t afford. Meanwhile Simon doesn’t know if he could survive being left again, and he hasn’t come all this way to make the same mistakes. But despite their fears, it’s only together that they’ll find the strength to slay old foes and build the forever they’ve been waiting for.
I’ve come across Kelly Jensen before as an author of m/m Sci-Fi romance (I’m thinking of the Chaos Station series she co-wrote with Jenn Burke) but haven’t so far managed to read anything of hers. When I saw that her new contemporary romance series, This Time Forever would feature protagonists a bit older than the norm, I jumped on book one, Building Forever, in which a widower with a teenaged daughter and the handsome architect who moves in next door find themselves slowly falling in love.
Charlie King married his childhood sweetheart, Merry, after Merry got pregnant when they were both around eighteen. He never regretted it and loved his wife dearly, but she died of cancer five years earlier, and he’s been caring for his daughter Olivia (who is now seventeen) on his own ever since. As every parent is, he’s continually beset by doubts about his parenting skills, worried about Liv’s health – and when he finds out she’s got a steady boyfriend, his anxiety levels go through the roof. (As the parent of teenage daughters myself, I could understand a lot of his concerns!) He’s a writer – technical manuals by day, Sci-Fi novels by night (as it were) – so he works from home, which is how come he’s in his kitchen stuffing his face with Cheez-Its and covered in crumbs when his gorgeous new neighbour comes in through the back door.
Simon Lynley has moved to Bethlehem from New Jersey intending to make a fresh start. He ended a twelve-year relationship with the man who was also his business partner a few months back, and still beats himself up about the fact that he let things between them go on for so long – like, a decade too long – when he knew Brian wasn’t faithful and that Simon wasn’t happy, either personally or professionally. He’s an architect, but had become disillusioned with the way his career was going, unhappy with projects that required no imagination, designing homes with no soul or character. The move offers him the opportunity to build something of his own and work in a town full of character, to immerse himself in a like-minded community, converse with people who, like him, wanted to preserve the old rather than flatten it to make way for the new – and to work on projects he believes in.
The character property next door is just the sort of thing Simon admires and so, it turns out, is its owner. He is immediately struck by Charlie’s handsome features, his ready smile and open-hearted garrulousness. Charlie doesn’t seem to have a brain-to-mouth filter, but Simon doesn’t mind; in fact he’s charmed by it, even as the alarm bells are ringing because Charlie is (as far as Simon knows) both straight and married.
Over the next few weeks and months, Simon and Charlie see each other occasionally; sometimes by design, such as when Charlie takes Simon to a local art festival, sometimes accidentally, like when Simon discovers Charlie furiously digging in the garden trying to repair a hole in the hedge. Each finds himself growing more and more attracted to the other, but isn’t sure what to do about it. Having married so young – and been a faithful husband – Charlie never had the chance to explore the bisexuality he’d acknowledged in his teens. He hasn’t had a serious relationship since his wife died, confining his sexual encounters to a few hook-ups at the Sci-Fi conventions he attends – but the strength of the pull he feels towards Simon is something he’s never felt towards anyone, male or female.
Building Forever is a funny, charming and sensual romance between two men who’ve been knocked about a bit by life and are recovering from past hurts. Both leads are extremely likeable and feel like real people, complete with individual quirks, emotional baggage and messy lives; they’re not perfect, but they’re perfect for each other, and the author creates a strong emotional connection between them at the same time as she develops their physical attraction. The chemistry between them fizzes delightfully, and Charlie is, quite simply, one of the sweetest, most adorkable heroes I’ve read in some time. He’s warm, funny and utterly captivating; I loved his self-awareness and honesty when it came to admitting to his feelings for Simon, and his unashamed enthusiasm for new sexual experiences is both cute and sexy. Charlie’s impulsiveness and compulsive chattiness are a nice contrast to Simon’s quieter, more cautious personality; Charlie brings some much needed lightness and sunshine into Simon’s life, and Simon brings a calming influence to Charlie’s.
Family and friendships are important to both men, and although the secondary cast isn’t large, the relationships between Charlie and his brother-in-law (and best friend) Phil and between Simon and his best friend, Frank, are nicely done and add a bit depth to the principals and the story. Olivia is a fully-realised individual (so often, children of protagonists in romances are little more than ciphers) and I loved that she’s so supportive of Charlie and Simon together; she’s obviously as devoted to her dad as he is to her. The one criticism I have of the novel overall is that there isn’t really anything much keeping Simon and Charlie apart, except their own insecurities and some pretty bad timing, but fortunately, Ms. Jensen doesn’t go overboard with the roadblocks or silly contrivances to create unnecessary drama.
Ultimately, Building Forever is a fun, feel-good read with a little bit of angst and a lot of warmth and humour that, for all its frequent light-heartedness, still packs an emotional punch. If you’re in need of a romantic pick-me-up on a grey day, I reckon this one is more than up to the task.