I am an unrepentant sucker for a friends-to-lovers romance. So I was probably predisposed to liking There's Something About Ari by L.B. Gregg. But then you mix in what I enjoy about her Gregg's writing in the first place (more on that in a bit) on top of friends-to-lovers and the undercurrent of angsty character baggage? I was totally gone. Over the moon. I had my full swoon on. Yes, I can see that this story isn't perfect. Because it's not. I had quibbles. But frankly? I didn't care. The quibbles were pretty easy to ignore once I had my full-blown swoon on.
Buck Ellis had one mission in life: getting the hell out of Bluewater Bay, Washington. And he was so close! Full-ride college scholarship in hand. Then his mom dies and it's just Buck and his kid brother, Charlie. Dad passed away years earlier, which means the boys are now orphans and Buck is "technically" an adult at 18. What other choice is there? Buck doesn't leave, determined to raise Charlie, get him off to college, which means no full-ride scholarship and sticking around in Bluewater Bay to work as a crappy coffee barista. On top of all this (because, you know, this isn't enough), his best friend, his only friend, Ari Valentine helps himself to Buck's saved money and skips town. Runs away for good. Ari. Who Buck fell in love with when they met on the playground as kids. As childhood turns to teen hormones, Buck realized he was fully in love (and lust) with Ari. Complicated, nothing but trouble, Ari. He watched while Ari "dated" (OK, banged) every other girl in high school and kept his crush to himself.
Back then, I'd died small deaths every time he looked at me, or talked to me, or slept on the floor of my bedroom, or borrowed a fucking pen. God. He made me cold. He made me hot. Sweaty. Sick. Happy. Sad. Horny. Ashamed. The whole fucking enchilada. Squared. It hadn't made sense then, because I'd been so afraid, so terrified of making a fatal error and losing him forever.Now Ari is back in town. He's an actor and has landed a part on the new TV show, Wolf's Landing, which is filming on location in Bluewater Bay. So Ari is back in his hometown, living right next door (literally) to Buck. Complicating all the baggage, all the words left unspoken between them? Yeah, Buck's still got it bad for Ari Valentine.
This novella opens up with Ari and Buck meeting on the playground as kids and that opening scene had me half-gone before I even got to Chapter 2. There's a sweetness, a charm, to those moments. Watching two boys, both outsiders, find each other - which had nothing do with romance (because, hello? Kids!) and everything to do with finding your first real friend. That other person who just seems to "get" you.
What charms me the most about Gregg's work is her ability to weave tangible, believable, human interaction. Her relationship building. I genuinely like her characters - flaws and all. These are the kind of people I would want to know in real life - warts and all. And certainly there are warts. Ari taking off like he did (although he had reasons), Buck who is emotionally stunted (again, reasons), and the various secondary characters. As Ari and Buck navigate their way towards each other, they also must navigate their pasts, all that has been left unsaid and, in a bit I especially loved, the idea of a "real" relationship. Buck's been busy trying to keep what family he has left together. Which means his past "relationships" (and I use the term loosely) were self-destructive, furtive one-night-stands that mostly took place with out-of-town tourists in public restrooms (Real relationship experience? Nil). And now here's Ari....right next door. Ari who he has all of the these complicated feelings for, which means yeah - not exactly quickie in the restroom material. Plus, Ari broke his heart once. Buck doesn't think he could survive round #2.
Even as I was swooning from the characters, the relationships, the baggage, the "fun" that is Gregg's writing style - I could see some cracks. There's not a lot of scene setting here, this being the second entry in the Bluewater Bay, multi-author, continuity series. On one hand it's great, because there's no annoying sequel-baiting "walk on" characters mucking up the already tight word count. But on the other hand, while I was intrigued by Buck and Ari right away as characters, the back-story of the series was slower coming into focus. Also, the ending is a bit rushed. I've seen other reviews stating this and I'm not going to say those readers are wrong. This is a novella and I loved these characters, their romance, their baggage, their relationship, so much that I easily, happily would have spent 300 pages with them. It helps tremendously that Gregg employed the ol' friends-to-lovers trope here, as it's more believable that two people who already have a shared history together can declare true love for each other in 100 pages - but still? It's rushed. But damn, that ending is sweet all the same. Genuinely, lovingly sweet. I wanted to jump through my Kindle screen and hug every damn person in this story.
There's also a few dangling threads, mostly revolving around Buck's identity as a gay man. I wouldn't necessarily say he's been living in the closet - I mean, his boss knows he's gay. But when it comes to younger brother Charlie? That's where I'm not sure. I mean, Buck's no virgin - but again, it's been wham-bam one-night stands. Buck doesn't "do" sleepovers for obvious reasons. So it would have been interesting to read about Charlie finding out that Ari (who he follows around a bit like a puppy) and Buck were hooking up as a couple - and, you know, confirmation that Charlie is aware that his brother is gay. Seeing more on that front would have been nice.
However, as it is, I still enjoyed this story immensely. I inhaled it in fact. It charmed the ever-lovin' snot out of me. I just loved everything about these characters and it pushed every. single. one. (seriously) of Wendy's friends-to-lovers trope buttons. No, it's not perfect. But I loved it. I wish I could reread it for the first time all over again.
Final Grade = A-
ETA: I labelled this as a "digital review," but it is also available in good ol' fashioned print! My bad.