Ticking the Boxes
Book two in L.J. Hayward’s Gold Coast Collage series, Ticking the Boxes is a sexy and emotional character-driven romance about two men who lives have diverged from the paths they’d had mapped out, and the importance of not closing yourself off to possibility.
Sean Sale had it all worked out from an early age; get an education, get a job, get a life partner, get a couple of kids… and by twenty-six, he’s got it covered. He got a good education, has a job he enjoys, a handsome fiancé, a nice apartment (and mortgage to go with it) a cute dog he adores, and even though he wishes Brett – a dentist – wasn’t pushing him to change his job, Sean is blissfully happy. Until, that is, he comes home from work early one day to find Brett banging one of their friends in their bed. Needless to say, Sean is devastated; the life he’d dreamed of has crumbled around him and he’s left with… nothing.
Lucas Harrison was on track to get his PhD, but his life was derailed when his younger sister ran off leaving him – literally – holding the baby. All his life, his scientist mother drilled into him the importance of concentrating on his studies and acquiring knowledge with no distractions or deviations from the set path, insisting on making sure he wasn’t “wasting his life and intelligence”. Home-schooled until the age of fourteen, then sent to a boarding school for a couple of years before university, Lucas never had the time for friends or relationships, but after his sister left him with Amy, he decided he’d had enough of living up to someone else’s expectations, and despite his mother’s insistence that he was throwing his life away, he left the PhD programme to bring up his niece. Over the years, Lucas took a variety of fairly menial jobs in order to support them, and now works as the manager of a housing complex, but has kind of resigned himself to remaining single. Being so focused on his studies, then caring for a baby, he’s had no time to make a life of his own – which is why he’s still a virgin at the ripe-old age of thirty-three.
He’s getting one of the newly-vacant homes ready for a public viewing when one of the residents asks Lucas if a friend of his might come by to look at the place. This friend has recently been made homeless because of a break-up, and has been couch-surfing for a few weeks, but is rapidly running out of friends to stay with. Lucas is a bit wary, but he’s also someone who believes in paying it forward and helping people who are down on their luck, so he agrees to let the guy have a look around before the main viewing starts.
Sean arrives late to the appointment because fate hadn’t finished fucking up his life yet; he’s just lost his job so he probably won’t be able to afford the rent anyway. But the manager shows him around, and agrees to let him the place on a short term basis; as soon as Sean gets another job, he can sign a longer term lease.
Lucas can’t believe it when the guy who turns up to look at the vacant unit is none other than Sean Sale, the guy he’d had a massive crush on years earlier while he was doing his PhD and Sean was an undergrad. It’s clear fairly quickly that Sean doesn’t recognise Lucas – which, Lucas supposes isn’t all that surprising since he’d been way too shy and awkward to even speak to Sean. Still, he’ll tell Sean about their shared past once he’s settled in… only of course stuff happens, and Lucas keeps putting it off.
Sean and Lucas are attractive, likeable characters, and I liked them individually and as a couple – but I didn’t like the amount of miscommunication and misconception in the early stages of their romance. For instance, after an intense make-out session, Sean asks Lucas if he’s bi, pan, or heteroflexible, Lucas says he isn’t, and Sean immediately jumps to the conclusion he’s straight. Before Lucas can tell him otherwise, Sean legs it, feeling betrayed and stupid for fooling around with a straight guy, while Lucas thinks Sean leaves because Lucas is a virgin (because he admitted to never having kissed a guy before). They both leap to conclusions, and Sean decides he’s going to avoid Lucas, which gives rise to more misunderstandings. The omission of a single word – ‘are you bi, pan, heteroflexible or GAY?’ – is such an obvious contrivance by an author I know is perfectly capable of creating sophisticated plots and character conflicts (see her fantastic Death and the Devil series).
Much better handled is the conflict that occurs later on. Of course, the fact that Lucas has never told Sean that he recognised him and why blows up in both their faces, and while hints as to their shared history are dropped throughout the story, when we finally get the full picture it’s an unpleasant and, for Sean, quite a traumatic one. Sean’s reaction to finding out the truth is completely understandable, and his heartbreak is palpable – but fortunately this far more serious misunderstanding is given the respectful treatment it deserves, and I was glad that Sean took the time he needed to work through his issues and become ready to move forward with his life.
I liked the way that both men are so attuned to each other, and are – apart from that one thing – upfront and honest with each other. Lucas tries to show Sean that life doesn’t have to be one long to-do list and that sometimes one has to follow life’s detours; Sean shows Lucas that life can’t be about taking those detours so as not to have to face things that might be difficult or uncomfortable.
Also well done is the relationship between Lucas and Amy, who reads like a real kid and not a plot-device; she and Lucas clearly adore each other, but parenting is no picnic and the author does a really good job of showing them navigating the inevitable lumps and bumps that come with the territory of both being eight-years-old and being a parent.
While this is book two in a series, and a couple of the characters from The New Normal make cameo appearances, Ticking the Boxes works perfectly well as a standalone (readers of the previous book may remember Sean as the sunny-natured phlebotomist Brian turns to for advice and gay sex tips!). My reservations about the misunderstandings and contrivance did cause me to knock the grade down a little, but I enjoyed the book overall, and will be picking up the next in the series when it comes out.