Thursday, May 31, 2018

Release Review: The Power of Two by Leigh Vining (Excerpt)

Title: The Power of Two
Author: Leigh Vining
Date of Publication: June 1, 2018
Category: Gay Romance, M/M


Corey Preston has just opened his own gym. He should be proud, but frustrations with his family and his ex-boyfriend keep him from feeling fully secure.

Nick Sanders is running away from his life the old-fashioned way--hopping a train. With all his bridges burned and no idea where he's headed or what he'll find there, he ends up in Redding, California, and in Corey's life.

Corey finds himself intrigued with the mysterious stranger, and hopes to forge a friendship with the young man with the boy next door charm and good looks. As Nick begins letting his guard down and sharing fragments of his life back home where he'd been living a lie and making choices he's not proud of, Corey dreams of more. He falls fast for the handsome stranger, but Nick's baggage and Corey's chaotic life threaten to keep them from happiness.


Early the next morning Corey headed to the gym, his windshield wipers on high since the rain was coming down hard. He made a left into the strip mall parking lot and drove his black Kia Soul toward the gym. Not one space was vacant in front of the main entrance, but luckily there was one about thirty feet to the left by the Members Only door. Once parked, he stared at the building wondering what he was doing there at five forty-five in the morning on such a cold and rainy day. It wasn’t like he had to be there at the break of dawn, but since he hadn’t slept well that night he’d decided to get up and do something useful, the gym being the obvious choice. Katie would certainly thank him for having most of the menial tasks taken care of by the time she arrived.

Snuggling deep into his coat he pulled up the hood, climbed from the car and hurried for the entrance, not surprised to see his breath in the chilly morning air. Once inside, he stopped to say good morning to a couple of regulars and then headed straight for the office. He had to admire those who didn’t let the early hour, or the bad weather, stand in their way to a healthy life.

He hung his damp coat on a chair, and after booting up the computer and starting a fresh pot of coffee he checked the waste paper cans on the gym floor. He wasn’t surprised to find them nearly overflowing and that the bathroom floors needed some touching up, despite the cleaning crew having been there the night before. They’d done a good job, but it was obvious there had been a steady stream of members through the gym since then. He pulled the trash bags out and tied the tops, taking them to the front door.

When fresh bags lined every can, he looked outside and was happy to see that it wasn’t as gloomy as when he’d first arrived and that the heavy rain was fizzling into a light sprinkle. He headed back to the office and put his coat on, then grabbed the trash bags.

A blast of cold air hit him in the face as he stepped out the door. He trudged past several of the other businesses—standing quiet and dark—and headed toward the corner of the parking lot and the enclosed garbage bins. When he passed the smoke shop he had the same thought as always, that such a shop by a gym, vitamin store, and sporting goods store seemed out of place, but then again, so did the pizza place out near the street next to the hair salon.

As he approached the enclosure, a gust of wind rattled the large front metal doors used by the trash truck operator. When he entered through the small side walk-in entrance, he stopped in his tracks and sharply drew in a breath. He dropped the bags, not expecting to see a man slumped in the corner clutching a black backpack tightly to his chest.

"Jesus," Corey said out loud, his heart pounding, wondering if the guy was ill or the victim of a crime, or if he’d have to perform CPR in the next ten seconds. Taking a step forward, he was relieved that he didn’t see any blood or visible injuries. He bent down for a closer look, and all indications pointed to the fact that the man was either asleep or passed out.

The hood that covered the man’s head was wet, as well as the legs of his jeans, but the clothing covering his neck, shoulders, and back appeared fairly dry because of the small amount of shelter the tin overhang offered. His shoes were also most likely dry because of the plastic bags tied around them.

From what he could tell, it appeared this guy was close to his own age. He cautiously looked to either side of the man and didn’t see or smell any liquor and wondered if what he was seeing was simply a homeless person seeking shelter from the cold and rain. He wanted to believe that anyway, and he didn’t want to call the police if that were the case.

Hesitantly, he reached out and touched the man’s arm, and then gave it a gentle shake saying softly, "Hey, are you okay?" When he didn’t get any response, he shook him again, wondering once again if this guy was truly unconscious or was sleeping deeply.

It took several more hard shakes before he got any reaction, but finally, the man lifted his head and looked blearily at him. Corey was shocked at how beautiful this guy’s eyes were—a beautiful piercing blue—and for a moment he forgot to breathe. He hadn’t expected this guy to be so handsome—after all, he was just some vagrant sleeping next to a dumpster, right?

How did a guy like this ever get into such a state?

He didn’t have long to think on that because the stranger suddenly jerked back with a strangled gasp, clutching his bag even closer to his chest and then began struggling to his feet.

"I was just trying to find a place to get out of the rain and must have fallen asleep. I’ll get out of here," he stammered. Once on his feet, he hefted the backpack on to his shoulder, hanging on to the strap with both of his gloved hands. But instead of pushing Corey out of the way and hightailing it out of there, he just stood there, still looking dazed.

Corey wasn’t sure what to say or do, he was so caught up in the whole bizarre encounter. Just a few moments ago he wasn’t even sure if this guy was alive or not, but now here they stood, face to face, and there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with him at all.

Looking directly into the stranger’s face, Corey noticed that complementing those piercing blue eyes was a head of blond waves sticking out from the guy’s hood, giving him a boyish, innocent look. He didn’t look like any of the homeless people Corey had ever seen before. The clothes that fit this stranger so well weren’t tattered and faded. Other than a stubbled face and rumpled wet clothes, this guy looked like he belonged at the gym or rushing off to a high-end job. Corey realized he was staring and, not only that, he was blocking the path out of the garbage enclosure.

He tried to step aside, but the space was too narrow to go far, so he picked up the trash bags that he’d dropped and hoisted them into the bin, giving them room to move back outside. Once they were a few feet away, Corey noticed the guy had a slight limp.
"Are you hurt?"

The guy looked down toward his foot. "Uh, I guess I must’ve sprained my ankle. It’ll be okay."

"Are you from around here?" Corey blurted out.
"No… I’m just passing through," he said, stepping from foot to foot as if testing his ankle.

"You been hitchhiking?" Corey wondered if he was going to get any information other than just short answers to his questions.
A wry smile slowly spread across the guy’s lips. "Yeah, you could say that."

Corey wondered about that answer. Either he had hitchhiked, or he hadn’t. Why be so cryptic about it?  Shaking his head, Corey realized he had been so distracted by the whole situation that he hadn’t noticed that the rain had completely stopped, and the sun was trying to peek out.

"Corey Preston," he said, sticking out his hand because it just seemed the thing to do right then.

"Nick," was all the stranger said, as he pulled off his glove to shake Corey’s hand.
Nick’s hand was very warm considering the conditions, and Corey didn’t want to let it go. He held on longer than he should have, because Nick broke contact, quickly replacing the glove back on to his hand.

"How long were you in there? You must be freezing in those wet jeans," Corey said because Nick did look uncomfortable—miserable—in fact.
Nick pushed up his sleeve and checked his watch. "A couple hours, maybe."

"Uh, can I give you a lift somewhere?" Corey asked before thinking the offer through.
Nick gave a slanted smile. "I’ve no place to go. Like I said, I’m just passing through and stopped to rest and get out of the rain for a bit." Nick smiled wider this time and it seemed friendly and sincere. "Thanks just the same, though." He pulled the collar of his jacket around his neck, aiming for the sidewalk, the plastic bags still tied around his feet.
Corey caught up with him in a few long strides. "You’ll freeze to death walking. Let me drive you to the mission."

"You don’t have to do that. I’ll just find a bench where I can sit and think awhile ’till I decide where I go from here."

"You can get a hot meal there, change into some dry clothes, stay the night and rest up."
For a moment Nick stared at the traffic going by on Main Street as if deep in thought. He finally said, "Just point me in the right direction and I’ll find it."

"But your ankle!" Corey protested. "And besides, the mission isn’t within walking distance from here." He couldn’t believe the way he was acting—begging Nick for permission to give him a lift. He’d lost his mind, that had to be it, because he was offering to take this guy, who he’d just found sleeping next to the garbage bin, across town to the mission. And that pack—the way Nick was clutching it made it seem as if he was trying to keep the contents safe. Corey hoped it was just something of sentimental value and not something sinister. He gave a slight shake of his head because his imagination was getting the better of him.

"Well, if you’re sure." Nick finally relented, readjusting the pack on his shoulder, the slightest hint of a real smile curving his lips. "That would be nice of you."
Nick did look genuinely appreciative, which reassured Corey that he’d done the right thing by offering the ride. He took a deep breath and smiled back.
"Okay then. Follow me." When they reached his Kia, he said, "I’ll be just a second, so wait right here."

He rushed into his office, frantically looking for the travel mug he kept. He yanked open a few drawers and finally found it, filling it with the coffee he’d made earlier and snapped the lid on securely. He then locked both doors to the office as he left with the mug in hand.
Once he made it back to his car, he was relieved to see that Nick was still standing there, but he had removed the plastic bags from his shoes.

"I thought you could use this," Corey said, noticing that his shoes looked to be in good shape. He handed Nick the mug and then unlocked the car door. "I wasn’t sure how you took it, so it’s just black. Hope that’s okay."

Nick nodded, carefully taking the mug in his gloved hands. The longer Corey stood there, the more nervous and awkward he felt, so he automatically reached for the backpack. "Let me put that in the back."

Nick handed it over and Corey placed it in the hatchback and then got in, Nick following into the passenger seat as Corey started the car.

"Ready?" Corey asked, cranking up the heat. When Nick nodded, Corey pulled out of the lot and made a right on to Main Street heading to Warren Avenue. He was cold to the bone, despite the heat blasting out of the vents, so he knew Nick had to be a block of ice too, and that was proven by the way he was guzzling down the coffee.

"They’ll give you something to eat at the mission," Corey said into the silence. "They’re some really nice folks there. I volunteered to help with the Thanksgiving meal last year, and I’ve helped out some during their food drives too. You tell them Corey sent you and they’ll treat you good."

Nick turned toward him and gave him a shy, lopsided smile, pulling off his gloves once more and pushing the hood off his head. "Okay, I’ll be sure to do that."

As they crawled down Main—traffic was getting heavy now this time of the morning—Corey glanced at Nick and the world outside all but disappeared. The only two things he could see or think about for a few brief seconds were Nick’s blue eyes and that mop of blond hair. Nick fit Corey’s idea of the boy next door to a T—wholesome and unassuming—and his attention was definitely caught. Cutting his gaze back to the street and then once more to Nick, he again wondered what circumstances had brought Nick here, to this city he lived in, inside his black Kia on their way to the mission.

He supposed that after Nick got something to eat, changed into dry clothes, and got some rest that he’d be on his way again, because that was the way of transients, right?
He turned onto Warren Avenue, and all too soon they were parking in front of the old brick building of the mission also known as the homeless shelter. "This is it," he said, putting the car in park.

Nick had put the empty travel mug into the cup holder and had his hand on the door handle, pushing it open and stepping out.

"I’ll need my bag," he said, looking toward the back of the car.
Instead of just unlocking the hatchback, Corey jumped out of the driver’s side.
"Sure, I’ll get it for you." He quickly opened the back, but before he could reach for the bag Nick got it himself and arranged it on his shoulder, smiling and sticking out his hand.
Corey took it and smiled back, liking the feel of that ungloved hand on his. This time when they shook, Nick held on a little longer than necessary, and Corey felt flushed when those beautiful blue eyes found his, holding his gaze for many long seconds.

"It was nice meeting you, and thanks for helping me out," Nick said, finally letting go.
"Nice meeting you too. Uhm. Good luck." He wanted to say more, but really, what else was there to say, standing out on the sidewalk with the car running, so he turned and got back in and drove off, leaving Nick standing at the curb.

3.5 Stars

Nick escapes from an impossible situation at home by hopping on a train, the last thing he expected was to meet Corey, a handsome gym's owner, in the first place where he got off the train or that Corey would be as intent on helping him, a stranger. The more that they get to know each other, the more their attraction grows, but there are some strange things happening in the gym's vicinity that might point to Nick being involved.

Okay, so this book was very instalovish on Corey's part, he almost came across a bit stalkerish to a point with how intent he was on Nick at first. Corey was mostly nice about it, though, and he really wanted to help Nick out without being overbearing, which was obvious when he drove Nick to a shelter and didn't make much of a fuss about the motel Nick moved into later on. Yes, he also gave him a job painting his gym even if he was aware that Nick lied to him about his last name, but all in all, he was a good guy all-around. I also liked Nick, for the most part, but the way he escaped from his house came off as cowardly and frankly, that made it difficult to connect with him. He seemed cool and hardworking, but I couldn't get past what made him run away. Corey and Nick had chemistry, although, it felt as if Corey was more invested in their relationship at first, Nick did get caught up eventually and did the right thing in the end, so there's that.

I liked Corey's uncle, he was a great supportive character, but I wish I could say the same about the rest. I wanted to strangle Corey's cousin, Katie, and her beaus Alan and Wes, who were all just a hot mess. I didn't really care about that particular storyline or how much it took away from the main story.

I did enjoy the robbery plotline, even if it was a bit overshadowed by Katie's love troubles. It certainly kept me wondering who the real robber was until the end.

Overall, this was an entertaining story with an interesting premise, perhaps the execution was a bit lacking but it was an enjoyable read nonetheless.

*** Copy provided to Bayou Book Junkie for my reading pleasure, a review wasn't a requirement. ***

Author Biography:

Born and raised in California, Leigh Vining has been creating stories in her head for as long as she can remember.  Always drawn to male friendships, she believes that loving who you love should never be something to be ashamed of.

She and her husband are stray cat magnets and they share their home with a houseful of rescues. Leigh believes that cats are great companions for people who sit at their desks for long periods of time. A lap full of purring cat has kept her company many a night while agonizing over every typed word.

Her muse often goes into overdrive while working out at the gym. She finds that breaking up the day with physical activity is good for your muscles, including the creative ones.

Her favorite ways to relax are baking sweet desserts, taking long walks, and watching baseball on TV.

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