Just Like This
This second book in Cole McCade’s series set at Albin Academy, a prestigious New England boarding school where wealthy parents send their (often) problematic sons in order to forget about them, is an antagonists-to-lovers story between the school’s football coach and its art teacher, a couple who couldn’t be more different if they tried. Just Like This finds this chalk-and-cheese couple reluctantly working together to help one of their students, and although it’s as insightful and beautifully written as the previous instalment, the writing can be overly detailed and a little florid, and the pacing really slows around the middle section of the book.
Art master Rian Falwell is surprised – to say the least – when the school’s PE teacher, Damon Louis appears in his studio demanding to know why one of his football players keeps missing practice. Rian is at a complete loss – and not a little bit annoyed at the other man’s rude, overbearing manner- until finally, Damon comes to the point; his star player, sixteen-year-old Chris Northcote, has repeatedly been late to practice because he’s been staying in art class after school, and for the last week, he hasn’t turned up at all. Damon demands to know why Rian is making Chris stay behind, his accusatory tone completely ruffling Rian’s feathers the wrong way. When Rian coolly – and somewhat snootily – explains that he’s doing nothing of the sort and that Chris gets out of his class as soon as possible saying he’s got football practice, Rian and Damon realise the boy has been lying to both of them – and that given he’s the sort of kid who’s doing well in school, is well-liked and never in trouble, he must be lying for what he thinks is a good reason. Which meant, in every mind except that of a desperate sixteen-year-old, it was probably a pretty fucking bad reason.
They go to see Assistant Principal Walden to express their concerns, and are frustrated at his response that as Chris isn’t failing in class or breaking any rules, there is little they can do, and by his instruction not to contact the boy’s parents unless they have very good reason to do so. Appalled by such a heartless response, Rian and Damon decide to take it upon themselves to try to find out what’s going on.
That’s the basic plotline and the impetus for the romance between Rian and Damon. They’re interesting, complex characters who come from very different backgrounds, have very different life experiences and yet, as they spend time together and get to know each other better, realise they’re both looking for the same thing, somewhere to belong and to feel loved and valued. Rian comes from money and has never really had to work for anything or do anything for himself. He’s a talented artist and felt suffocated by his family, as if he was only important to them as something pretty to be shown off and exhibited, so a few years earlier he decided enough was enough and struck out on his own when he took the job at Albin. He’s determined to stand on his own two feet and prove he’s worth something other than his or his parents’ bank balance, which sometimes causes him to try overly hard to do things for people and fix things. Damon is an adoptee of Indigenous descent, but knows nothing about his birth-parents or which nation he descends from, which leaves him in an uncomfortable limbo, feeling disconnected from his heritage. I loved watching them gradually shedding their preconceptions about each other and finding that common ground.
I was completely hooked for around the first third of the book; I wanted to know what was going on with Chris, and the chemistry and the push-and-pull between the two leads is intense and really well done. Their frustration and attraction (and frustrated attraction;)) bubbles so close to the surface that their first kiss is explosive, like the lid blowing off a pressure cooker! But things start to slow down not long after this, and the story begins to meander a bit; there isn’t a lot of progression in the Chris storyline and the back and forth I’d enjoyed at the beginning morphs into a kind of stalemate as Rian and Damon start to put obstacles in the way of their having an actual relationship. The conflict here is wholly internalised and stems mostly from preconceptions and misconceptions – and a pronounced lack of communication.
Things pick up again around the three-quarter mark though, and both the plot and the romance are propelled towards a satisfying conclusion. I argued with myself over the final grade because while I really liked the plot, the characterisation and the romance, the pacing issues and the (sometimes) overly detailed internal descriptions got in the way of the story and slowed its forward momentum. Ultimately however, Just Like This deserves a recommendation, because in spite of my reservations, I did enjoy this story of two strangers brought together by a common goal who find love and home and the lives they’ve always wanted.