When it comes to love, there’s no such thing as smooth sailing.
Rafael Castro is so far out of his element he can’t even see it anymore. Carlisle College in Massachusetts is a long way from his Chicago home, even farther from his Dominican Republic roots.
The only thing keeping him attached to his last nerve is the prospect of seeing Denny Winslow again. The first time they met, Denny taught Rafi to fly across the water, rowing hard in a knife-like boat. Now, two years later, on the wings of a rowing scholarship, Rafi is attending Denny’s elite college.
Even before the excitement wears off, Rafi is struggling with classes and fending off rumors that Denny’s family, not Rafi’s talent, won him his spot. To quash the gossip, Rafi tries to steer clear of the man he wants. A plan that evaporates in the fire of renewed attraction.
But Carlisle’s academic pressure cooker has Rafi barely treading water. And when a family crisis hits, both Rafi and Denny must pull hard to keep their relationship from capsizing in rough waters.
Warning: Contains a surly Dominican-American guy determined to show no weakness, a golden boy who knows his soft spots, some seriously dirty bachata dancing, and an excellent excuse for voyeurism in the locker room.
I really enjoyed Level Hands. I was apprehensive when I began the book because a couple of my fellow readers weren’t enthusiastic about it when they finished it. They weren’t negative about it, but they weren’t glowing about it either. But me, I so totally connected with Rafi and his struggle to fit in, to do everything right, to juggle work, school & scholarship requirements, and to be the first person in his immediate family to go to college. That feeling of being a little fish in a big pond after having been the big fish in a little pond is so overwhelming and having been there myself, I felt it for Rafi. Cousins brought back all those feelings from almost two decades ago and made me experience them all over again, right alongside Rafi. Thank goodness I didn’t have to deal with the added pressure of sports practices and navigating my first relationship at the same time, but it made it that much easier to see where Rafi was coming from when he lost it. And lose it he does, more than once.
Level Hands is the first book in the series that I have read and while it’s apparent I missed out on Rafi and Denny’s first encounters, the prologue gave me enough background that I didn’t feel lost. What I was unsure about was how Rafi managed to keep putting Denny off for so long in the book. There is some serious chemistry between these guys and while I understood and appreciated Rafi’s need to prove that he belonged at Carlisle College and on the rowing team, even if he got there via a scholarship and with the helping hand of Cash and Denny’s family, I do not know how that man was able to keep tamping down on the sexual attraction between them. Rafi has some serious self-denial skills because Denny could be rather relentless in his need and want of Rafi. But then again, as often as Rafi ran hot and cold, sending mixed message after mixed message, Denny couldn’t really leave things in Rafi’s court all the time, otherwise the relationship never would have progressed. Seriously, Denny was lucky he didn’t lose any appendages from frost bite or sunburn with as hot and cold as Rafi ran. But when circumstances put Denny in the position to help Rafi out, Rafi realized how much time they’d lost because of his pride. When he finally let go, whew! These two guys had me squirming, they were that freaking hot together.
Keeping in mind the Level Hands is a new adult romance, there is a lot of angst in it. Fortunately, it was just what I was in the mood for and it’s what I expect in a new adult romance, regardless of the main characters’ sexuality. Cousins does a great job of conveying Rafi’s fears – feeling like everyone knows more than you and you’re too afraid to ask because you don’t want to look stupid; feeling like everyone is better than you and looking down their nose at you; feeling like you don’t fit in and you never will. The last two fears were bolstered by the ever-present jerk who went out of his way to make Rafi feel as though he didn’t deserve to be there – the requisite git who is only happy when he’s making others’ lives miserable. While I hate what happened, I was glad that Denny got the chance to be there for Rafi in a way that Rafi couldn’t turn him away or shut him down. Not only did Rafi need to see that Denny was capable of taking care of him, Denny needed to be able to do it. I did feel as though the ending was rather abrupt, but largely because I wasn’t ready for my time with Rafi and Denny to end. Now that I have looked up the previous books in the series, I can only hope that future books will give me the chance to spend more time with the guys as this seems to be a relatively tight-knit group – even Rafi’s odd assortment of suitemates.