Four years ago, authors Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy teamed up to write my absolutely favorite m/m romance, “Him” (and the follow up, “Us,” which is also very good but more a relationship novel than a romance novel). So you can imagine my excitement when I discovered they had written another one together and were doing a surprise-release this week.
The story: Keaton (rich, popular, starts off straight…) has had the same girlfriend since he was 16; they’re now 21 and in college. For her birthday, she requests a threesome with another guy. Keaton goes onto a hookup app to find a third and begins chatting up an anonymous guy, and sparks fly. Luke (poor, prickly, securely bisexual) is hustling to keep a roof over his head while in college, and dealing with his annoying neighbor Keaton…who he hates. And who hates him. Not having any time or inclination for a relationship (one of his jobs is as a Magic Mike style stripper), Luke uses a hookup app for convenience, and prefers to be the third with a couple since there is zero chance they will want more than just sex. So you can see where this is going, right?
This is basically a “You’ve Got Mail” plot- two people who dislike each other immensely in real life are actually falling for each other online. Keaton is very similar to Jamie from “Him”: he’s optimistic, trusting, and open-hearted. Luke is none of those things. Once we learn about Luke’s background, the way he is makes total sense, but that doesn’t mean that he is an easy character to love. He isn’t. In fact, there were moments where I wondered if Keaton might not be better off just moving on…which is an unexpected thing to feel while reading a romance novel. Obviously there is a happy ending (this is romance, after all) but Luke doesn’t make it easy.
‘”Keaton, you’re a yellow lab.”‘
‘”A dog. A big, happy dog chasing Frisbees on the beach with his pals. You’re a pack animal.'”
‘I snort. “And you’re…a pit bull?”‘
‘”Not even. I’m a tomcat in the alley,” Luke says. “Just passing through. No collar. Not very friendly. No good at catching Frisbees…”‘
I enjoyed “Top Secret.” There was a moment about 75% of the way through where I actually broke into a huge grin and squealed over how adorable Keaton was, and I was generally satisfied with the resolution and emotional growth of both main characters. I give characters in New Adult a bit of slack since they are in their very early 20s and who hasn’t made some questionable decisions at that age, right? This is not a book to swoon over, but it is an enjoyable, well-written, fresh m/m romance. I’m not going to gush about “Top Secret,” but I’ll definitely be reading it again soon. There’s a link to a free epilogue at the end of the book that’s well worth reading and provides a more thorough resolution to the story- highly recommend reading this. Someone also posted it on Goodreads.
[Spoiler, so only read if cheating is a dealbreaker for you]: Look, in real life cheating is depressing and sad and gross. I don’t enjoy it in my escapism, and especially not in my romance novels. I know readers of this book are on Goodreads splitting hairs over whether Keaton is cheating on his girlfriend when he is texting/sexting with Luke without her knowledge, and it’s down to the skill of Bowen & Kennedy and the story they have written that it didn’t bother me at all. I can completely acknowledge that Keaton’s behavior is cheating while also acknowledging that within the specifics of the story and the characters, it doesn’t feel like a betrayal of his relationship or a statement on his morals.