Just Like That
The new Carina Adores line from Carina Press promises highly romantic, feel-good stories with a strong central trope featuring LGBTQ+ protagonists getting their Happily Ever Afters. Carina has a pretty strong track record when it comes to queer romance and I’m really looking forward to trying the new-to-me authors in the line as well as to reading new books from ‘old’ favourites. Cole McCade has been on my radar for a while (I even have some of the books in his Criminal Intentions series on my Kindle – I just haven’t got around to reading them yet!) and I eagerly jumped into Just Like That, an exquisitely written May/December romance between a professor and former student that, while somewhat melancholy in tone, delivers a deeply felt, sensual love story.
Seven years earlier, Summer Hemlock left Albin Academy, a prestigious boys’ boarding school, and fled to Baltimore, intending to shake off the hopeless, invisible boy he’d been, find himself and learn not to be afraid. He’d intended never to return to his home town, but he knows his mother isn’t getting any younger, so he takes up a TA position at the academy – in the psychology department – in order to be closer to her.
He arrives to find the school on fire. Well, not all of it, just the chemistry lab. Summer well remembers Dr. Liu’s propensity to set things on fire from his own time at the school, and makes his way inside to see what he can do to help. The first voice he hears is one that stirs up many memories of hours spent listening to it in a class full of boys who were more than a little afraid of the man it belonged to – the same voice Summer now follows through the smoke, to find the tall, severely elegant form of Professor Fox Iseya – upon whom Summer had a massive teenage crush.
Fox had forgotten about the imminent arrival of his new TA and certainly doesn’t give much thought to his former students, so he’s surprised, when Summer introduces himself, to find himself actually able to recall the gangly, shy boy Summer had been, and then contrasting that memory with the attractive, athletic young man standing in front of him. Once the fire is out and he and Summer are finally able to talk, Fox wastes no time in making clear his reservations about Summer’s ability to do the job:
“They will push those boundaries at every turn, and considering you haven’t changed a bit from when you were a student… I don’t think you’re capable of dealing with that.”
Summer angrily refutes that suggestion, which leads Fox to issue a challenge. Summer is to do one thing that takes him out of his comfort zone every day to show that he’s prepared to take the necessary steps “to face down a classroom of unruly, disrespectful children” on his own. Goaded past irritation at Iseya’s dismissiveness, Summer accepts the challenge and makes an immediate start on doing things that scare him – and fulfils a long-buried secret longing. He kisses Fox – then panics and leaves, feeling like a complete idiot.
Summer returns the next morning, intent on doing his scary thing for the day – to find Fox and apologise. The conversation they have here is wonderfully open and honest; Summer is upfront about his attraction to Fox – who is upfront about not understanding exactly what Summer finds to like about him – and I loved the way Summer talks openly about his anxiety and explains how every so often, he hits “fuck-it mode”, a breaking point where he just has to say or do what he has to regardless of how scary it may be. This talk engenders a kind of… if not exactly trust or friendship, then the makings of it, and leads Summer to issue a challenge of his own. He has learned that Fox suffered a terrible loss when he was around Summer’s age, and that he has built incredibly thick emotional walls to protect himself from ever again experiencing such pain. Summer suggests that perhaps Fox is ready to start living again only to find himself caught in a cage of his own making, and offers him a deal. Refusing to listen to Fox’s insistence that he’s old and used-up and has nothing to offer, Summer tells him that when he (Summer) does something out of his comfort zone each day, he will ask Fox for a kiss as a reward – which Fox will give only if he really wants to.
Okay, yes, the kiss-a-day premise is a bit creaky, but Mr. McCade makes it work, allowing both characters to learn about each other, reassess their preconceptions and become closer as the days and weeks – and kisses – pass. But even as Fox is starting to see the truth of Summer – a young man who is willing to challenge himself at every turn, to face down fears he couldn’t control every day, wired into his brain by chemical tractions and triggers – and to realise that for the first time in years, he might actually learn to be happy again, he’s also terrified. He’s falling for Summer – young, optimistic, bright and oh, so sweet – and what will he do when, as is bound to happen, Summer tires of being with someone so broken who doesn’t know how to love him back?
The writing in this book is insightful and utterly captivating, and the characters are both complex and compelling. The growing intensity of the emotional connection between them is described in prose that is both lyrical and beautiful, and made those emotions leap off the page and get under my skin in a way that doesn’t happen very often. I loved seeing Summer finally finding himself and his purpose; he’s a wonderful mix of strength and vulnerability and I was as charmed by him as Fox was. Fox’s self-imposed aloofness and detachment make him a bit harder to like, but the author does such a good job of showing why he is the way he is that I began to warm to him quickly, especially when he starts to let down his guard a little and let Summer in.
But on the downside, some things, such as Fox’s insistence on having nothing to offer someone as vibrant and present as Summer and that Summer will soon get tired of being with him got a bit repetitive, and there was just a little bit too much introspection at times. The grand romantic gesture at the end is a bit TSTL (which the author admits in his notes!) and made me roll my eyes a bit, and as I said earlier, the kiss-a-day thing, while rather charming, was also a bit of a stretch.
Even so, I really enjoyed Just Like That and would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for an emotionally satisfying, slow-burn romance. I’m looking forward to the next in the series.