Desert Isle Keeper
When I reviewed Perfect Day, the first in Sally Malcolm’s series of m/m contemporary romances set in the fictional Long Island resort of New Milton, I called it “the sort of book you finish with a heartfelt sigh of satisfaction and a dreamy smile”. Something about the author’s writing just clicks with me; her protagonists and secondary characters are always three-dimensional and attractively flawed, the dialogue flows naturally and her stories are imbued with genuine warmth and humour. Best of all, she writes the most gorgeously romantic romances; not sappy or tooth-rottingly sweet, but romances that evolve organically and contain what is – for me, anyway – the perfect amount of angst and conflict. She manages this all over again in her third full-length New Milton novel, Twice Shy, in which she introduces us to school teacher Joel Morgan, who retreated to New Milton after his marriage – and his life – imploded, and Ollie Snow, a young, single, gay man whose life was changed irrevocably a couple of years earlier when his sister and brother-in-law were killed in a car accident and he was given custody of their two young sons.
Ollie was just twenty-two and enjoying life at grad school – where he was studying to be an architect – when he received that life-changing news. He was surprised, to say the least, to be named guardian of baby Luis and four-year-old Rory, and immediately put his life on hold in order to fulfil his sister’s last wishes, despite the fact that her husband’s parents disapproved and did everything they could to try to gain custody of the boys themselves. It was tough on Ollie, whom they tried to paint as too young and flighty for such responsibility, but the will was iron-clad and after the case was settled, he moved to New Milton in hopes of making a fresh start. He dropped out of school and now works at a dead-end job in a call centre in order to support his small family. It’s not easy and money is tight, but he loves the boys dearly and even though he’s pretty much always exhausted, and often just downright lonely, he’s determined to do the best he can for them.
Joel Morgan had a seemingly perfect life as an investment banker in New York until his wife divorced him after he told her he was bisexual. It’s not that he deliberately hid it; he was in love with Helen and that was all that mattered to him, but after eight years of marriage, Joel realized he needed to tell her the truth. Not because he wanted anyone else, but because it felt wrong to keep it a secret and because he felt the need for her to see him as the person he truly was. But Helen’s reaction – one of utter disgust – floored him and sent him into a downward spiral of depression which took him a long time and a lot of therapy to crawl out of, and ever since, he’s taken great care to put himself and his mental health first, having cocooned himself in his safe, unentangled life. Once he got himself back together, Joel retrained as a teacher and now works at the Elementary School in New Milton. Being one of the few male members of staff, he frequently gets roped into helping with the various fundraising events run by the PTA (Parent Teacher Association), which is where he first meets handsome, charming and obviously out and proud single dad Ollie Snow, and feels, for the first time in years, a visceral pull of awareness… one he ruthlessly suppresses. He’s only too aware of his tendency to fall hard – and has therefore made up his mind it’s best not to fall at all.
Ollie and Joel find themselves teamed up to help out at various events throughout the school year – from Welcome Cookouts to Charity Car Washes and Fun Runs – and a friendship develops between them, Ollie finding the small amount of time he spends with Joel a welcome piece of adult interaction (anyone who has ever parented young children will immediately recognize Ollie’s relief at being able to have some adult conversation!) that serves to alleviate his loneliness a little. Ollie is attracted to Joel but assumes he’s straight at first – although he’s soon reassessing that opinion; no way would a man who is completely straight look at him with the sort of lingering intensity he sees in Joel’s eyes whenever he catches him watching him.
After a few months of PTA meetings, fundraisers and friendship, the two men eventually give in to the sizzling attraction that’s been building between them. But with Joel not keen on coming out publicly (given his profession, it’s easy to understand his reluctance to face the likely bigotry of some parents) and determined to hold himself back from stronger, deeper emotions, it starts to seem as though heartbreak – for both of them – is going to be the only inevitable outcome to whatever it is they’re starting to become to one another.
The romance that unfolds between Joel and Ollie is worthy of All the Swoons. It’s warm and tender and funny and simply thrumming with sexual tension and chemistry at the same time as it’s very grounded in who they both are as people. They’ve both seen the lives they had planned for themselves thrown off course and are dealing with the fallout as best they can, and not always successfully. Unlike so many other characters in romances whose previous bad relationships have caused them to swear off love – and have to be taken with a pinch of salt – Joel’s fear of the possible effect of strong emotions on his mental health gives him a good reason for caution. But even so, he can’t help falling for caring, endearing Ollie, who so obviously adores his boys but who is so determined to show their grandparents that he can raise them alone that he refuses to ask for help when he’s struggling. Ollie’s doubts about his ability to parent Rory and Luis will be familiar to parents everywhere; we’ve all asked ourselves ‘am I doing this right?’ at one time or another, and wondered if we’ll ever be good enough, and Ollie’s insecurities have been magnified by the accusations levelled at him during the custody battle when the boys’ grandparents called him irresponsible and reckless, and also clearly didn’t like the fact that he was gay. And while I’m not the biggest fan of children in romances, Rory and Luis are very well-characterised as well as being completely integral to the story, and Ms. Malcolm has written them and their interactions with Ollie and Joel amazingly well.
There’s a secondary plotline in the novel surrounding Ollie’s desire to connect with a relative he didn’t know he had until recently; the who and why is revealed early in the book, but I won’t spoil it here. I will say that it does provide a bit of conflict that is perhaps a teeny bit contrived later in the story, but that is honestly the only criticism I have of the entire book, and it’s a minor one at that.
Twice Shy is a superbly written, beautifully romantic story that is guaranteed to warm the heart and produce many happy sighs and those dreamy smiles of contentment I mentioned earlier. It’s another winner from Sally Malcolm and another book of hers headed for my keeper shelf.
Buy it at: Amazon
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