Desert Isle Keeper
Against the Grain
Jay Hogan returns to her Auckland Med. series with Against the Grain, which features a romance between sassy spitfire pathologist’s assistant Sandy Williams (who appeared as a key secondary character in the last book, Up Close and Personal) and Miller Harrison, a member of the Wheel Blacks elite wheelchair rubgy team as well as a new member of staff at the busy hospital. During the course of the story, the author explores some important issues around disability and gender, adds in a bit of gripping drama and develops a warm, sexy and very genuine romance between the two leads, weaving it all seamlessly together to form a very enjoyable, cohesive whole.
After a car accident put paid to his dreams of playing for the All Blacks, Miller fought hard to get his life back on track, and now, ten years later, has competed – with the Wheel Blacks – in two Paralympics and is aiming to make it to a third, and maybe even a fourth. But wheelchair rugby isn’t known as ‘murderball’ for nothing; like any elite sport, it’s incredibly tough on mind and body, and at thirty-five, Miller knows he’s only got a few years left playing at that level and is utterly determined to keep doing it for as long as he can. He’d never really looked beyond professional rugby as a career when he was younger, and he’s just as focused now, having little room in his life for anything but his sport and his job. That narrow focus is the main reason he’s never come out to anyone but his family; after his accident he prioritised his rehab, knowing it was going to be hard enough to adjust to living with a disability without the added drama likely to follow an announcement about his sexuality. But it’s not really an issue, as he doesn’t have time for anything more than the occasional casual hook-up anyway.
Sandy Williams – “six foot three of insecure, gangly, potty-mouthed confusion who struggles to find a dress size to fit” – is out and unapologetically proud. He’s not a great believer in labels; the only one he’ll attach to himself is that he’s sexually attracted to men, but when it comes to gender identification, that’s more or a fluid issue and he’s doesn’t see why he should have to fit into a particular box. He wears whatever reflects the way he feels on the inside on any given day, be it jeans or skirts, heels or Doc Martens, and fuck anyone who doesn’t like it. He’s fought to be who he is almost his entire life; school bullies, an arsehole dad who left the very same day Sandy came out, boyfriends who wanted him only for the novelty value or wanted him to be other than he was – and it’s taken considerable time and effort for him to get to a place where he knows who he is and is comfortable in his own skin.
Sandy and Miller make an inauspicious beginning when, after sustaining a gash to his arm during practice, Miller needs to visit the ER at Auckland Med, where he’s recently taken up the position of Clinical Governance Coordinator. He’s exiting the staff accessible bathroom in the ER and almost collides with Sandy, who – not having seen him before – asks rather sharply to see his ID. Miller’s already had to deal with an insensitive arsehole in the car park who had a go at him for parking in a disabled space, he’s injured, he’s worried about a pain in his hip that might be getting worse, and the last thing he needs is some jobsworth going off at him about which bathroom he’s using. Even through their mutual animosity, the sparks fly like nobody’s business, and thankfully, the misunderstanding is sorted out and they go their separate ways. But not before Miller has become smitten by Sandy’s take-no-prisoners attitude and striking good looks and Sandy… well, he’s surprised to find that Miller ticks so many boxes he never knew he had, but ultimately being seriously hot is no excuse for also being an arsehole, so he mentally consigns him to the ‘jerk’ pile.
Another chance meeting a few days later seems like it’s going to go the same way, until they find themselves laughing together at something totally random and silly, and the ice is broken. A cup of coffee, some conversation and a bit of subtle flirting later, and they’re getting on really well, finding lots to talk about and thoroughly enjoying each other’s company. From there, it’s a short step to an actual date, to spending more time together getting to know each other and then to deciding that they want to see if this thing between them has legs.
The relationship development in this book is stellar, and although Sandy and Miller’s life experience has been very different and they make mistakes along the way, the author clearly shows that these two people are perfectly matched on every level. Miller has never had a long-term relationship at all, let alone one with a man, and doesn’t have much of a clue how to go about it, but he tries hard to do the right thing and the little things he does to show he cares are very sweet. Being in a committed relationship is new to Sandy, too; being with someone who sees him so clearly and loves him exactly for who he is is liberating and wonderful. He and Miller make a point of being honest with each other and talking through things that bother them, and I loved watching the progress of a genuinely adult relationship between two ordinary-yet-extraordinary people who love each other and are prepared to do whatever they need to do to make things work. Their relationship is really put to the test near the end, when a work-related situation threatens to drive a wedge between them, and the way they find their way back to one another is extremely well done.
I’ve enjoyed all the Auckland Med. books, but this is the best yet. Jay Hogan has obviously done a lot of research into Miller’s disability and his life as a disabled man, integrating this fully into his character so there’s never any suggestion of her just parroting her research or underplaying the problems he faces every day, whether it’s misunderstanding and prejudice of others or his own fears that his condition might be worsening and threatening his future in professional sport. I was engrossed in his journey, in watching him realise how life in the closet has developed an instinct in him to keep his head down and not draw attention, and then watching him push his way through the barriers he’s erected, to realise that if he wants to be with Sandy he needs to do better. The sub-plot centred around Sandy’s relationship with his father, and his struggles for acceptance are equally well-rendered, and I loved his inner strength and the way he is so true to himself throughout the story.
There are a couple of really well-done sub-plots, and a lovely found-family aspect to the story, and I was delighted to see some of the characters from the other books in the series cropping up, most notably the “Yoda of sass” himself, ER Charge Nurse Cam Wano, who can always be relied upon for the snarkiest smackdowns and the biggest hugs.
Funny, warm, poignant and scorchingly sexy, featuring a fantastic cast of characters and a superbly developed romance that arrives at a hard-won, well-deserved HEA, Against the Grain is a compelling and hugely entertaining read. It earns a strong recommendation and a place on my keeper shelf.