Reviewed by Donna
TITLE: By the Rules
SERIES: Evergreen Grove #3
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Staab
PUBLISHER: Self Published
LENGTH: 305 Pages
RELEASE DATE: January 19, 2016
No liars. No suits. Absolutely no straight guys…
AJ Fabin’s list of rules keeps him safe. Since getting kicked out of his parents’ home and attacked by a former escorting client, his rules and his life in the tiny town of Evergreen Grove provide a quiet haven. He may be lonely, and he may stick out like a sore thumb, but the folks like him well enough. When he’s not dodging his old pimp, things are peaceful.
Hayden Price is having a quarter-life crisis. Engaged to a woman he can’t connect to and working a job he secretly hates, he comes to Evergreen Grove to help his mother through a health scare. Returning to his childhood home makes Hayden reevaluate a lot of things, including himself. When he meets AJ and finds he can’t stand the mouthy jerk—almost as much as he can’t stop thinking about him—he has a lot more to change than his career.
To be together, they’ll both have to break all of their rules.
When I read through some of the other reviews of this book, it was amusing to see quite a few of them mention – “if you don’t usually read m/m books you should still read this one” – or something along those lines. However I’m coming at this from the opposite direction and I’m going to assure you that despite the fact the first two books in the Evergreen Grove series are m/f, if you don’t like to find vagina popping up in your books, you can very safely read By The Rules as a standalone gay romance. That’s how I read it, and I didn’t feel that I was missing out on any backstory from previous books.
I liked AJ instantly. He had depth and he was complex, there were so many different facets that made up his character. I loved the way his voice came across as we heard the story from his perspective. His vulnerabilities were endearing, yet his snark made him entertaining. He has a set of rules that he has created, put in place to protect himself from getting involved with a man who could potentially hurt him. The fact that he operates a run down hotel as more of a shelter for those who need help rather than a business was the icing on the I-love-AJ cake, as far as I was concerned.
Hayden on the other hand, well I was kinda prepared not to like this guy. I thought he was going to be the one with all of the usual “but I’m not gay” relationship issues, but instead that was AJ, and it made so much more sense coming from him. Hayden first presents as a bit of an uptight, serious, non-compromising kind of guy but in fact he’s exactly the right sort of person for AJ. He’s non-judgmental, patient, and most importantly brave enough to talk about feelings!
All of the secondary characters were well developed, even those who haven’t had their story told in previous stories. Mrs, Choi was a particular favourite, because though she’s only in a few scenes, her personality just bursts onto the page. Hell, she picked up an abused, young prostitute and carried him away to safety. That woman has a huge heart and some serious balls.
The chemistry between AJ and Hayden was scorching. The fact that they hate each other during their first few meetings just adds some extra spice to their encounters. Hayden broke through all of the boundaries that AJ had erected to protect himself, and when they finally hit the sheets I may have squealed just a tad. I liked that despite AJ having much more practical experience at sex than Hayden, he was the one who came across as nervous and awkward. The author does a great job of using the sexual relationship between the two characters to further highlight just how damaging AJ’s past was, and how Hayden’s affection is helping to heal him.
I think that most readers will like this story. It’s distinctly mainstream, and by that I mean there isn’t anything that requires content warnings. The angst is low and the awww moments are liberally scattered throughout. On top of that the writing is polished and the story flows at a perfect pace.
I won’t say that I’m going to rush out and pick up copies of the m/f stories in this series, but I definitely hope that we see another m/m romance pop up in the town of Evergreen Grove. Perhaps Deputy Haas could get his happily ever after?