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A physically scarred veteran. An emotionally scarred young actor. Can they let go of the past and find a future together?
Stone Wilder is happiest with his emotional support dog and the hybrid wolfdogs he rescues. They don’t react to his scars or call him queer because sex doesn’t interest him all that much. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t believe the rumors that paint gorgeous Sebastian Keye as an unprofessional “it boy.” To Stone, Sebastian is simply a nice kid who shares his interest in dogs.
Sebastian is drawn to Stone’s warmth and caring nature. With the help of his stalwart PA Molly, Sebastian and Stone begin a quiet friendship. But a video from Sebastian’s past suddenly goes viral, causing old hurts and humiliations to destroy his emotional stability and nearly cost him his life.
After Sebastian’s world falls apart, Stone wants to support him. But Stone has his own tortured past, and they can’t move forward unless he makes things right.
Will growing close to Sebastian lead Stone to a new understanding of who he is and what he wants?
I enjoyed the first two books in Z.A Maxfield’s Men of St. Nacho’s series, so I was happy to pick up the third, A Reluctant Boy Toy for review. I admit the title did give me pause for thought, but I like the author’s work so I pushed ahead, and for the first two-thirds or so of the book, thought I’d made a good decision. But then it went completely off the rails, took a diversion into where-the-hell-did-that-come-from? town and crashed headlong into a rushed and unsatisfying ending.
But let’s start with the good stuff. Thirty-nine-year-old military veteran Stone Wilder is an animal handler who is currently working with two wolf-hybrids on a location shoot for a popular teen-drama series. He doesn’t normally do this sort of thing, but he’s stepped in to help out his sister Ariel, who is expecting her first baby any day. He’s wrapped for the day and is about to take the hybrids back to the RV that is their temporary home when the assistant director tells Stone he’s going to have to move his rig – including all the training equipment and kennels – from his spot, because their recently-arrived star, Sebastian Keye, demands that nobody be within a half a mile radius of him; he needs “complete privacy” unless he’s on set. The AD clearly doesn’t like Keye and thinks he’s a spoiled brat, and Stone isn’t best pleased either, but he can’t really do anything other than agree to the move.
Just as he’s finishing the conversation however, he gets his first sight of Sebastian Keye and starts to think that maybe his demand for privacy is more a need for self-preservation. He’s an incredibly beautiful man and Stone can’t help but wonder if Keye – who makes his living in one of the most cutthroat businesses in the world – has learned the hard way that beauty such as his is a magnet for predators. And if so, Stone really can’t fault his desire for distance.
Sebastian – Bast – is twenty-five and has spent almost his entire life in front of the camera, thanks to his pushy, manipulative mother who used him as a meal ticket. He’s worked steadily, transitioning from child star to adult actor and making a solid name for himself – but a few years back, his reputation took a nose dive after some unpleasant accusations were levelled against him, and while they were proved untrue, mud sticks and he still has a name for being difficult to work with. Bast has tried to move on and insists he doesn’t care what people say about him… but it’s clear he’s never really been able to completely get past what happened.
Stone hadn’t expected to have much to do with Sebastian Keye, so he’s surprised when the man shyly asks if he can introduce himself to the two hybrids and is obviously very impressed and a little in awe of them. They get talking and it’s clear very quickly that Keye is nothing like the brattish diva the AD had described to Stone; he’s quiet and considered and very interested in the animals and the sanctuary in Colorado where they normally live, eagerly taking Stone up on the offer to visit as soon as his schedule permits. Even more surprising is Sebastian’s invitation to have dinner with him; in Stone’s experience, the talent doesn’t mingle with lowly animal handlers, and beautiful people tend to avoid people like him, “as if my scars were contagious.” But before he can think about it too hard, Stone accepts, and they arrange to meet the following evening for takeout at Stone’s RV.
This first part of the story is absolutely captivating as these two completely different, damaged individuals get to know each other and come to recognise something of a kindred spirit in the other. Sebastian is attracted to Stone right from the start. He’s always been into older men, and Stone’s kindness, his gentle humour and the unconditional love he shows to his animals strike a chord deep within him. Stone doesn’t recognise Bast’s attraction at first though; sexual attraction – and sex – have not happened very often for him and he thinks maybe there’s something wrong with him. When he didn’t join in when his army buddies lusted over women, they thought maybe Stone was gay – but he never looked at guys either. He’s had one lover in his life – his ex-wife Serena, whom he loved wholeheartedly until his stubborn refusal to seek help for his PTSD tore their marriage and family apart.
It’s clear however, that what he’s starting to feel for Bast is something other than friendship, even if he doesn’t immediately recognise it for what it is. The attraction builds slowly and I enjoyed the warmth and honestly of their burgeoning relationship, the gradual lowering of the walls and barriers they’ve erected to keep themselves safe.
Their evolving relationship is thrown into chaos however when something from Sebastian’s past comes back to haunt him in a truly devastating way. In order for him to heal – from both physical (he breaks both arms in an accident) and mental injuries – Stone suggests that he takes him back to the sanctuary in Colorado which should keep him away from prying eyes. It’s after this happens, just after the halfway point that the wheels start to fall off the wagon.
It’s hard to say much without spoilers, but after the slow burn and gradual build-up of the first half, the second is rushed, and all the interesting storylines the author sets up just don’t pay off. We never learn the true extent of what happened to Bast as a young actor to blight his career, and the plotline is not fully resolved. Stone finally realises he needs to reconnect with his ex-wife and kids in order to apologise for what he put them through – and while he does meet with them and has a long talk with Serena nothing is resolved there, either. And while the book blurb promises a happy ever after, what we’re left with is an HFN – and a fairly flimsy one at that.
I also expected Stone’s realisation that he’s probably demisexual to have been handled more deftly than it is. He and Bast don’t even discuss it; Stone tells his brother he’s been looking it up (the sexual spectrum) online and that he thinks he’s demi and maybe bi. The one thing that worked for me about it was Stone being able at last to realise that he isn’t “some weird, cold dude who couldn’t be bothered with sex.”
Finally, the where-the-hell-did-that-come-from? thing I mentioned at the beginning.
With two broken arms, Bast is unable to do most normal, everyday things – like eating and dressing – for himself, and Stone is only too happy to help him. But Bast is uncomfortable because Stone doesn’t realise what it means to him; he likes Stone feeding him and doing things for him for reasons he thinks Stone will be angry about:
“It’s foreplay for me, okay… I feel weird getting turned on by something you’re doing out of ignorance and kindness. It’s creepy. That’s why you’d be mad.”
And then the penny drops for Stone:
Sebastian liked older men. Check.
Sebastian thought of feeding as foreplay. Check.
Sebastian got a boner when I bathed him. Check.
Sebastian wanted a Daddy. Check, check, check.
My main problem with this is – how does someone like Stone who, by his own admission, has never had much interest in sex and has had just one sexual partner, even know what a Daddy is in that context?!
Bast thinks that because he was “raised by a wonderful, loving and kind father”, he naturally wants “a partner like Stone, who reminded me of all my father’s best qualities…”
And all I could think was – Recipe For Disaster.
I was really engaged by the characters and the set-up, and had the second part of the book continued in the same vein as the first, I’d be giving A Reluctant Boy-Toy a much higher grade. But while the story had great potential, there are too many plot-threads left unresolved and the romance takes such an odd turn before rushing to a really abrupt conclusion that I’m afraid I can’t recommend it.