Hi peeps! We have debut author Erin McLellan stopping by today with her debut release Controlled Burn, we have a brilliant guest post where Erin chats about the story settings, we have a great excerpt and a fantastic giveaway, so check out the post and leave a comment to enter the giveaway! <3 ~Pixie~
At eighteen, Joel Smith’s life fell to pieces. His boyfriend died in a car crash while reading a sext from him, the local newspaper outed them both in the aftermath, and his parents got a divorce. Joel did everything possible to outrun his past: he moved to Oklahoma for college, legally changed his name, and started over.
Since then, he hasn’t let anyone get close—not his classmates, not his roommate, and definitely not his hookups. The strategy has served him well for over three years. Why would he change it now?
But Joel doesn’t plan on the articles about his boyfriend’s death being used as a case study in one of his classes. And he doesn’t plan on Paulie McPherson, who is sweet and giving and fun. In Paulie, he finds a home for the first time in years.
But love isn’t simple, and lies have a tendency to get in the way. Joel must figure out if he’ll allow his grief to rule him, or if his connection with Paulie is worth letting all of his walls come tumbling down.
Hello! I’m Erin, and welcome to the blog tour for my m/m college romance, Controlled Burn! I can’t wait for you to meet Joel and Paulie, and hope you enjoy their romance as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Follow along as I stop off at several blogs throughout the week, and don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a $25 Riptide Publishing gift card!
Why I Write About Oklahoma and Kansas
The majority of Controlled Burn takes place at a made-up college in a made-up town in western Oklahoma, and both of the main characters—Joel and Paulie—are from the Midwest with no desire to leave it. The reason I chose to create a college and college town, rather than using a real location, was because I wanted to write about Oklahoma, but I also wanted to have the freedom to craft a college and town that I wish actually existed there.
I started writing Controlled Burn soon after I moved out of Oklahoma for the first time, and, frankly, I was a little homesick. Writing was a way for me to hold tight to those connections in Oklahoma that I missed.
Now, don’t get me wrong—there are also some things I don’t like about Oklahoma. The state legislature often seems more concerned about anti-LGBTQIA+ bills and a statue of the Ten Commandments at the Capitol than figuring out how to fund public schools or help its citizens. For me, the politics can be frustrating. It hurts when your neighbors vote against their best interests or disregard your autonomy and humanity at the ballot box.
But even with all of the things I dislike about Oklahoma, I loved growing up there, and I’ll always consider it my home. I have seen firsthand how Oklahomans rally around each other during disaster—man-made or natural. We have the Thunder (Russell Westbrook is the best player in the NBA, don’t @ me). I like the starkness of the landscape and the violence of the weather. And I like the resilient, diverse, hardy, strong-willed, creative Oklahomans I am lucky enough to have in my life.
And that was why I set my story in Oklahoma. I wanted to write the Oklahoma that I love, and there is so much to love, but I also wanted to write the Oklahoma I wish for in the future. One that is more accepting and open and diverse.
Joel and Paulie spend a couple of chapters in the Flint Hills region of Kansas, which is actually where the book gets its name. The title is in reference to the controlled burning of grasslands. These controlled burns have taken place in the Flint Hills since Native Americans first roamed the plains and are still very prevalent today.
Both of my parents are from the Flint Hills, and it’s the place I’ve always thought of as my extended family’s home. When I started writing Controlled Burn, I made the Flint Hills Paulie’s home because I wanted to revisit it, even if only in my imagination.
Kansas gets a bit of a bad rap for being flat and boring, but that is certainly not the Kansas I grew up visiting. The Flint Hills have rolling limestone hills, the world’s largest tallgrass prairie, and some of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen.
Sweat prickled on my neck as soon as I walked into the auditorium classroom. Why was it always hot as balls in here? It was going to make it hard to stay awake today.
I slunk to my normal seat at the very back. I would gladly skip Ethics in News and Media if I could. It was a huge class, so it wasn’t like Dr. Milner would notice—it wasn’t like he even knew my fucking name. But his snooty TA, Jacob, took attendance, and it was something like fifteen percent of our grade.
“Well, hello, Joel Smith!” I looked up blearily at the owner of the purring voice, only to be confronted by my obnoxiously perky classmate Paulie McPherson. “Rough night?” he asked with a chuckle.
Paulie was this cute, swishy guy who had claimed me as a class buddy because he’d recognized me from the local gay bar. His name, he told me before the first class, was Paul, but everyone who was anyone called him Paulie. That first day, he grabbed a seat next to me, told me he had a 4.0 GPA, and always found a responsible person to befriend in case the world ended and he had to miss class. “Then I’ll be able to borrow your notes, and you can borrow mine if you miss,” he’d said. “You take good notes, right?” After a mumbled reply from me, he’d smiled and asked, “You’re not dumb, are you? I could go find someone else.” I assured him I was not dumb and would take excellent notes on days he was absent. Besides that exchange, we’d hardly spoken.
Or, well, I’d hardly spoken. Paulie always tried to draw me into conversation.
Good luck with that.
“I’m okay,” I told Paulie. He shrugged, settled into his seat beside me, and arranged his pile of sticky notes and different-colored highlighters.
This was definitely my least-favorite class. Journalism was not my thing. But my advisor had “advised” me to take it since I still needed my mandatory ethics credit, and the class was notorious for being easy. Which was what I wanted in my general education courses. Easy.
The class clatter quieted as Dr. Milner approached the podium, and his TA dimmed the lights. The projector flicked on. Can I sleep without anyone noticing? I’d stayed out at the Lumberyard way too late yesterday, especially for a Wednesday night. And the evening had been a complete bust: not only had I gone home alone, but Travis, my best friend and housemate, had gotten lucky and kept me up even later. Loud bastard.
I laid my head on the little tablet desk and closed my eyes.
Dr. Milner cleared his throat. “As most of you know from the syllabus, today we’re focusing on the treatment of minors in the press, and we’ll continue to evaluate what constitutes private versus public matters.” Dr. Milner plodded on for a couple of minutes, and I tried to ignore the scratching of Paulie’s pen as he took notes.
I pulled my jacket off the back of my chair and folded it up under my head as a pillow. The hot room and the hum of the professor’s voice were going to lull me to sleep.
“Our case study is from a little-known incident in a small town in Nebraska, in which a young man died in a car accident while reading a text message from his alleged boyfriend. After his death, he and his boyfriend, both minors at the time, were outed by the press. Jacob is passing around a packet of the articles we’ll look at today, the first of which is titled ‘Online Exclusive: Local Baseball Star Dies Reading Sext from Boyfriend.’”
I jerked my head up and almost tumbled from the chair. The newspaper article on the projector at the front of the class caught my eye.
Horror climbed my esophagus like bile. No, wait. That was actual bile.
“Please take a few minutes to read the article,” Dr. Milner continued. “Make sure to consider . . .”
Dr. Milner droned on, and I swallowed convulsively so as not to blow chunks. The girl next to me handed me a stack of packets, and I took one and passed them on to Paulie.
Diego stared at me from the front page of the packet. It was his senior picture, and even though the copy was black-and-white, I knew his sweater was green and his eyes light brown. I knew he hadn’t liked this picture as much as the one in his letter jacket.
This couldn’t be happening. I’d outrun this.
Everyone in the room was rustling around, trying to find the article in their packet, but I didn’t need to read it to know what it said. The article quoted a source from the local police department that claimed Diego and his boyfriend had been sexting at the time of his death. It had the contents of one message: I love your mouth. You have the sweetest mouth in the world, D.
My hands shook as I reached for my backpack. I couldn’t be here. I couldn’t do this. I knocked my packet onto the floor, and it flopped open to another article: “Sweet Mouth Texter Incident May Lead to New Driving Legislation.”
The room spun sickly. For some reason, that news article always hurt the worst. Probably because it proved the depth of Diego’s parents’ hate. They hated me so much that they started a pointless vendetta with a slimy politician from their church to penalize people if they texted someone they knew was driving. It hadn’t worked, but it still hurt.
Dr. Milner’s voice filtered in through my panic as I shoved everything into my backpack. “Jared Smith’s name wasn’t released in the press until he turned eighteen, a couple weeks after Diego died, but a substantial amount of personal information about him had already been exposed by one journalist in particular. She was eventually fired due to . . .”
Three years and two states between my past and me; I’d changed everything to escape it. Even my name was different. Dr. Milner had no way of knowing that I had any connection to that boy in the news article with the perfect lips and killer smile.
Acid rose in my throat, and thick saliva filled my mouth. I stood up, ready to flee. Which was what I always did. Run. A weight clamped on my elbow, holding me steady.
From very far away I heard, “Joel, honey, you okay?” The room was tunneling to fuzzy gray, but I recognized Paulie’s sweet, lilting voice. I felt like the ground had turned to mush, and it was only affecting me.
“Joel, you look like you’re going to be sick. You gonna ralph?”
I nodded. My perpetually weak stomach lurched a little. He scrambled over his backpack and rushed me out of the classroom with surprising efficiency.
By the time we made it down the long hallway to the bathroom, my dizziness had cleared, but blood still pumped in my temples. I told Paulie I was fine, and instead of retreating to one of the bathroom stalls “to ralph,” I slid down the wall to sit on the floor across from the urinals, bathroom germs be damned. Paulie wrinkled his nose before crouching beside me.
“If you’re going to puke, you better warn me so I can move,” he murmured before his soft hand landed on my forehead. Hysterical laughter tried to escape my chest, but I pushed it down and closed my eyes.
My God, I was not well. If seeing those articles for the first time in years could undo me so completely, I was obviously still a big fucking mess, which really shouldn’t come as a surprise to me. I lived in my head every day. It wasn’t pretty.
After a couple of minutes of deep breathing on my part and endless questions on Paulie’s—“Is it food poisoning? Are you hungover? Do you have the flu? How do you feel? I’m the worst nursemaid ever. I need you to tell me if you’re gonna ralph”—I finally opened my eyes.
“It’s fine. I’m fine. I’m not going to ralph, but I can’t . . . I don’t think I should go back to class.”
“Well, let me drive you home, honey. You look positively green,” Paulie said.
“I live right across the street. It’s one of the reasons I took this class,” I said.
“Well then, I’ll walk you home. It’ll be a pleasure,” he said with a sassy laugh. “Let me just go grab our stuff and tell the TA.”
Paulie was on his feet so quickly and gracefully that the room spun again. As he left the bathroom, I called after him weakly, “But then no one will be here to take notes for you.” He either didn’t hear me, or didn’t care about class notes today, because he didn’t react at all.
He also didn’t question me on the walk to my house, which was a relief. I didn’t want to delve into the pain of losing Diego without either the ability to sleep it off or a lot of liquid courage, and I simply did not feel strong enough to dredge up a lie for Paulie’s sake. The last thirty minutes, from the moment class had begun to the whole walk with Paulie, was almost like a dream—one where all of a sudden you’re naked in public or the nice guy next to you has a knife to your ribs. A bad dream. The type that makes you sweat through your pajamas and grind your teeth so hard your jaw aches for days. But nope. This sweat was purely the waking kind.
So I shut down. Clicked my brain off like a light switch, something I was rather adept at, and guided Paulie to my home, which was an ancient, crappy two-bedroom house that was a five-minute walk from the campus cutoff. Paulie’s silence left me little to do but distract myself by staring at him. I’d never really given him more than a passing glance before. He was unfairly pretty in a slightly androgynous way. He made my skin prickle, but I didn’t find him attractive, exactly. Sure, he was attractive from a purely objective definition of beauty, but he wasn’t really my type. Short for a man, probably only about five foot seven, with dark hair shaved close to his scalp and a square jaw. He was already fighting a five-o’clock shadow, even this early in the afternoon, and his skull trim left his face exposed and open. Yeah, pretty.
I stared, and he must have felt it because he glanced over at me and smiled. His lips looked plump and wet, and I was struck by the slight gap between his two front teeth.
“You have a gap,” I said because I was a dork who wasn’t coping well at all. “I’ve never noticed it.”
He side-eyed me like I was losing my nut, which was obviously the case. “I don’t think you’ve ever looked at me before today, Joel. It’s been quite the hit to my ego. Must be losing my charm.” He glanced at me through eyelashes so black and thick I thought he might be wearing makeup. There was teasing in his voice, and it made my stomach dip.
He smiled again and skipped ahead of me. At least for a two-minute space of time, I hadn’t thought of Diego.
The two men couldn’t have been more different.
I let Paulie in through our front door, and we were immediately confronted with Travis, in his underwear, lying on the couch playing the ukulele. Poorly. He played every instrument poorly.
Paulie gasped out, “Well, hello, Hot Pants!” in his musical baritone.
Travis was seriously smoking. A six-foot-three black guy with long muscles and a spanking fetish—which, like his near-nakedness and bad musical ability, I was used to—Travis turned heads everywhere he went.
“Hey! I know you,” Travis said. “Paulie, right? I’ve seen you at the Yard. You’re a good dancer.”
“See, at least some people notice me, honey,” Paulie whispered to me darkly before wandering over to the other side of the living room, where some of Travis’s weird avant-garde decorations covered the wall.
When Paulie turned his back, Travis swiveled to me, and his eyes bulged like they were going to pop out of his head. Travis and I both had men over frequently enough, but not usually before 10 p.m., and he had certainly never seen me with anyone like Paulie.
Travis’s brow furrowed. “You all right, man? You look terrible.”
I felt terrible but didn’t exactly relish hearing that it was so obvious.
“He got sick in class today. That’s why I walked him home,” Paulie piped in from across the room. He swiveled back to me. “You’re still a little pale. Maybe you should get something to drink.”
“You’re probably right. Want anything? We have beer, Dr Pepper, and water.” I headed for the kitchen. Was it too early for beer? Some days I wished for an IV drip. The thought of drinking anything, even water, made my stomach flop, but I’d gladly take the buzz of beer over the ringing in my ears.
“Milk is fine,” Paulie called after me. I hadn’t mentioned milk, but he sounded distracted. Travis had that effect on people.
After stealing some of Travis’s expensive organic chocolate milk, for which I would surely owe him later, and downing a huge glass of water, not beer, I was less nauseous, but it still felt like a weight was pressing down on my chest.
I led Paulie to my bedroom, and he plopped down on my bed.
“Oh! This is nice,” he said and patted the mattress next to him. “Comfy too. So much room for activities.” He smiled up at me, and I wasn’t sure if he was flirting or if that was just how he talked to everyone. And, well . . . shit. He was sonot my type—he wasn’t quite anonymous enough for me—and I didn’t want to give him the wrong impression. I sat in my desk chair on the other side of the room.
“Your boyfriend is pretty hot,” he said slyly.
I narrowed my eyes slightly. Travis and I did not give off boyfriend vibes.
“He is, but he’s not my boyfriend.”
“Oh, good. Think he’d want to be mine?” He grinned at me. A twinge of something—disappointment that I’d read his interest wrong, that he was interested in Travis, maybe?—echoed through my gut. That pang made me more honest than I probably had a right to be.
“That depends, Paulie. Trav is a bottom, and he likes it rough. You think you could do that for him?”
Paulie blew a big raspberry, which made me laugh and his cheeks pink. “He wants a bossy top? That’s definitely not me.” He sipped the chocolate milk demurely, both hands wrapped around the cup like a child.
“Why not?” I wanted to hear him say it, to hear him say he wasn’t into the things Travis was.
“Well, you have eyes, sweetheart. Everyone assumes I’m a femme-y bottom. I know what I look like, and I don’t fight it anymore.”
I flinched. I’d goaded those words from him. And I wanted to apologize, to tell Paulie that appearance wasn’t everything, and that no one should ever make him feel like he had to be a certain way in bed because of how he looked or spoke or walked. But then he threw a proverbial bucket of ice water on my head, and all those nice, conciliatory words I wanted to say disappeared.
“The TA said we could complete the class assignment together and turn it in next Tuesday before class. We just have to create a list of all of the ethical issues in those texting articles, and then write a couple of paragraphs in support of the journalist’s decision to write the articles and the choices she made.”
All the muscles in my body clenched up and bile burned my throat again. Fuck no. Absolutely not. “I’ll take the zero,” I gasped. Then, before Paulie could catch on to my weird behavior, I said, “A zero on a class assignment won’t hurt too bad, and I have a lot going on this weekend. You’ll get a better grade without having to work with me on it.”
I felt pretty proud of how normal that excuse sounded, until Paulie’s eyes narrowed. He stood up slowly, sat the half-gone milk on my bedside table, and walked toward me. He touched my forehead again and sighed. “You still feel clammy. You should get some rest. I’ll take notes for you if you’re not better by class on Tuesday.” Then he grabbed his backpack and left.
Low voices reached me from the living room and then Travis’s booming laugh. The front door shut a couple of seconds later. Something terrible and unwanted—like loneliness—rushed through me. I clenched my eyes shut until the wave of emotions dissipated, but I couldn’t deny, couldn’t ignore that I wished Paulie had run his fingers through my hair. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had done that to me.
Read more at: https://riptidepublishing.com/titles/controlled-burn (just click the excerpt tab)
Erin McLellan writes contemporary romance, often set in the South or Midwest—particularly Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas—with characters that are complex, good-hearted, and sometimes a little quirky. Erin likes her stories to have a sexy spark and a happily ever after.
Erin has a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Oklahoma State University and a master’s degree in library and information studies from the University of Oklahoma. She has always enjoyed writing, but becoming a librarian and meeting enthusiastic romance readers helped her find her own writing passion. Now Erin cheerfully writes romance with characters across the LGBTQIA spectrum. A former public librarian, she still enjoys being surrounded by books and readers, but Erin hopes to find her stories on the shelves as well.
Originally from Oklahoma, she currently lives in Alaska with her husband, and spends her time dreaming up love stories set in the Great Plains. She is a lover of chocolate, college sports, antiquing, Dr Pepper, and binge-worthy TV shows.
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