A guest review by Leslie S
Review summary: Emotionally fulfilling slow-burn romance between two real, believable men who are ready to work at their issues to find happiness.
Until it’s freed from the closet, love will only wither on the vine.
Cole Wheaton is out in every sense of the word – out of the closet, and recently out of a bad relationship. He hopes the new contract to design a garden for the McLeans will be the distraction he needs to get his life back on track, but there’s something about David McLean that intrigues him… and sets off warning bells.
Somewhere in the middle of a bonding chat with the passionate landscape designer, David realizes he’s attracted to Cole. It’s nothing new – he’s secretly been acting on these impulses for a while. But there’s something different, something stronger with Cole that tells his acting out with Cole will be a life-changer.
Determined not to saddle himself with another closet-case, Cole does his best to resist the temptation David presents. But David, watching Cole’s easy acceptance of his own sexuality, realizes it’s time to stop living a lie. An open marriage and cheap one-night stands aren’t enough, not anymore.
Cautious friendship grows into affection… then passion. But until they’re both ready to cut ties to their pasts, the obstacles still walling them apart could be too high for love to breach.
This is the second time recently when I’m going to moan about the Samhain blurb. This one isn’t completely misleading, but I think it does the book a disservice and slightly misrepresents the characters. Anyway, that could just be me – I enjoyed this book so much that when I typed out the blurb preparatory to writing the review I found myself thinking that I was glad I only skim blurbs and don’t pay much attention to them because otherwise I might not have picked this book up, and that would have been a pity.
Cole is an in-demand landscape gardener who’s just won the contract to work on the property of David and Stephanie McLean. It’s Stephanie who’s pushing for an entirely new garden, and David seems uninterested and more focused on his work. Stephanie’s family own a large timber/lumber business, and David works hard to prove that he earned the position on merit, not through marriage. Cole has big plans for the garden, and one night he’s working on a few details at the house when David returns home. The two men chat and get to know one another, but Cole is wary of mixing friendship with business.
Cole is just out of a toxic relationship with a very closeted guy, Gil, who works as an architect/project manager. Sick of being used as a booty call whenever Gil was drunk or horny, Cole finished the relationship but hasn’t quite got over him. On a night out with his friends, Cole is shocked to see David in a gay bar. He’s not sure if he should tell Stephanie or keep quiet, especially when David comes over to him and starts flirting. Cole shuts him down and wonders if he’s always going to be attracted to closet-cases.
Then, while he’s working on the garden, Cole overhears Stephanie and David talking about divorce. Finally David can admit that he’s gay, and although he delays in telling his family and friends, he feels a sense of relief to finally be himself. He’s also very lonely, and Stephanie, who still cares for her ex-husband, is concerned and asks if Cole would check up on him.
David’s courage in coming out inspires Cole to make a clean break with Gil, but though Cole and David are attracted to one another, Cole fears that they both have too much baggage to start a new relationship together. As friends they’re a great match, but anything else might be too much. Especially when there are still questions of family loyalty left unresolved…
We’ve had discussions on this site before about cheating in romances, and as you can see, David is a married man at the start of the book. He does cheat on his wife, but this situation is handled well and put into a firm and believable context that goes beyond the convenient ‘open marriage’ excuse. For years David and Stephanie have been attending couples therapy, and when Stephanie goes on business trips, she picks up men for casual sex, hoping that this will rouse David to jealousy or some other emotion. He’s hurt by it, but at the same time he’s prosaic because when she’s out of town, he’s gone out to gay bars and had casual sex, too. They’ve always been open and honest with one another through the therapy sessions, but – and this is a major theme in the book – nothing is as straightforward as it seems.
I have to admit I felt uncomfortable during the scene with the therapist because it was such an emotional read, but the author made the whole thing very realistic and neither character was lessened or demonised. David and Stephanie are both at different points along their emotional paths and I felt the dissolution of their marriage was fair and believable.
Even though Stephanie is a minor character in the overall scheme of the book, I was invested in her just as much as I cared about David and Cole. The author has great skill with secondary characters, giving them enough personality that they seem alive without making them more interesting than the leads. I particularly liked Cole’s friend Sasha, but even the smaller walk-on parts like Cole’s next-door neighbours are vibrant and interesting characters.
As for the two heroes, I loved them both. Cole is a wonderful character, incredibly passionate about his work and with a true artist’s eye for the big picture and for the little details. I really liked learning about landscape gardening (my garden is such a mess right now ) and even when it got technical, it kept my interest. From his love for his work, you can see how Cole got so caught up in his toxic relationship with Gil and why he was trying to fix it, and it’s also clear why he holds back from acting on his attraction to David for so long.
David was an interesting character, both conflicted and yet not at the same time. He knows he’s gay but he hasn’t had to admit it to anyone else but himself. The situation forces him to act, and once his decision is made, he’s almost overwhelmed by how he feels about himself. The scenes where he comes to terms with being finally, openly gay were very heartfelt and, for me, were one of the strongest parts of the book.
There’s a lot of gentle wisdom and truth in this book, but it’s never heavy-handed. The gardening = life/love/relationships metaphor appears several times, but it’s done with a light touch. I loved the sense of discovery and rediscovery that came with the unfolding of the story, and I enjoyed the fact that David and Cole didn’t rush things but gave each other the space to understand themselves as well as each other.
If I have any complaints it’s that I wished some scenes had been fleshed out more or revisited – the scene with the Yeungs, for example, while providing a catalyst for Cole to break free of his ex, left me expecting something more, and towards the end of the book there’s breaks of a couple of months that are narrated but not shown, and it would have been nice to spend more time with Cole and David during that period. However these are minor issues and I was satisfied with the ending and thoroughly enjoyed the book.
If you’re looking for a solid emotional read with two sympathetic characters and a good dose of realism, this is for you. Recommended.