Title: The Right Wrong Turn
Author: Heidi Champa
Cover Artist: Trace Edward Zaber
Publisher: Amber Quill
Length: 158 pages
Derek Owen has made a new life for himself in Austin after leaving his hometown of Cedar Bluff years before. In his rush to start over, he left behind his first and only love, Luke McLeod. He's moved up and moved on with a job at an accounting firm and a completely inappropriate relationship with his boss, Ben Dickson.
When Derek and Ben are caught in a compromising position, Derek is sent into exile, ostensibly to do an audit of a ranch near Cedar Bluff that's keen on expansion. Going home means confronting the past, and Luke, who is still living there. Derek soon finds himself tangled up in small-town secrets and lies. And, fighting his old feelings for Luke.
Can Derek figure out the right way forward, or has his life taken one too many wrong turns?
The narrator, Derek, has left his small town roots and his small town love, Luke, far behind in his search for success in the big city. He misplaces his sense of right and wrong intermittently; it disappears when his cock goes up and manifests when he's flaccid.
Derek's supervisor Ben, theoretically in a committed relationship, summons Derek frequently, in spite of their mutual protestations that they shouldn't be involved. Furtive blowjobs in dank supply closets do not a relationship make, but his spine is a good grade of macaroni; he drops trou at the crook of Ben's finger. This isn't even an office romance, it's office tawdriness, showing Ben in his amoral self-centeredness. Derek doesn't come off much better, and when he's shipped off to pay penance by doing an audit in the boondocks, all he can think of is how fortunate he is not to be fired immediately.
The boonies in question are his old home town, and the audit, he comes to find out, touches his former lover's hopes and future. Luke, who summoned the courage years earlier to tell Derek that he didn't cherish hopes of finding his fortune in the city, is both alarmed and interested in Derek's return. Luke doesn't get a lot of honest answers at first, and by the time he does, he's well on his way to getting his heart broken again.
Luke is the voice of honesty here; he knows what he wants with his life and with his partner, and he's willing to make the hard choices that pay off in the long term. He's still a bit bitter about how things went between him and Derek, but finds enough forgiveness to start crawling through Derek's bedroom window again.
Derek's relationship with Luke, his relationship with the truth, and his job all come together with a resounding smash. Since Derek hasn't shown any great strength of character so far, reading how this shakes out was quite stomach churning. This book had me cussing and muttering instructions to the characters; Derek followed almost all of them eventually, but geeezzzzz (though he missed a chance at a final flip-off to someone who deserved it.).
The writing is smooth, letting the story unfold in first person from Derek's POV. His mental progressions flow, from disbelief to self pity, to resignation, and at last to determination and understanding that what's right isn't going to be easy. The impression that he's the sort of sleaze who deserves a Ben takes a long time to change; Luke's much too good for him, right up to the last few pages. Luke vaults from "I can't trust you" to "I still love you" which should be accounted a gift from God; all the intervening years and Derek's crappy behavior gets wiped away for doing the right thing one time.
The small town of Cedar Falls, is a puzzle; it's big enough to support a restaurant with a French trained chef but not big enough to support two accountants; it's rural Texas but one man hand-feeding another in a cowboy bar doesn't arouse comment. They feel very free to speak of intimate matters in a public place, and while that strikes me as a good sort of environment, it also, alas, doesn't seem very realistic.
The proportions of the story seem skewed—the cock-driven affair with Ben gets a lot of page time; by the time Derek gets back to Cedar Falls, half the book has elapsed. Derek doesn't examine why he's willing to screw around with a slimeball like Ben, whose lover seems ruthless enough to be a good match for him. "Not being over Luke" doesn't explain the self-destructiveness of this affair. It was interesting to read, in a "watch the car crash" way, but Derek doesn't seem to have learned anything from it. The relationship with Luke gets about half that much treatment, including the flashbacks, and quite a bit of important business between them happens offstage or in the past.
That said, I liked this story quite a bit more than its flaws would suggest: Heidi Champa somehow writes around them in a way that is a pleasure to read. The Right Wrong Turn is more about Derek's moral evolution than the romance. 3.5 marbles