by Wendy Qualls
Series: Heart of the South #3
Also in this series: Worth Waiting For, Worth Searching For
Publisher: Lyrical Shine
Publication Date: August 14, 2018
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
For two gay men in the Deep South, fighting for love and family can lead to one beautiful, sexy, and unexpected knock out . . .
In college, an “are you sure you’re gay?” experiment with his (female) best friend left Sterling Harper married with a baby on the way. Eleven years later, his life is flipped upside-down—his wife has died, his “little boy” is transitioning to her new life as a girl, Alexa, and his embittered in-laws have proven too transphobic to babysit for the summer like they’d planned. They’re fighting for custody of Alexa, though, so Sterling can’t afford to give them more ammunition. If only there were a nice, conservative, trans-preteen-friendly nanny available on short notice . . .
Jericho Johnston doesn’t do “conservative,” but Alexa takes to him immediately. He’s got a teaching job lined up for the fall, a killer smile, and loads of charisma . . . but he is not going back in the proverbial closet. It doesn’t take long for the two men to go from comrades-in-arms against their rarified community to two men in love. This kicks off the looming custody battle with Sterling’s bigoted in-laws, though, and the idea of two gay men raising a trans daughter isn’t going over well with anyone. Now, with so much to lose, Sterling and Jericho must fight harder than ever—for themselves, for Alexa, and for their future.
Trigger warnings: racism, homophobia, transphobia
I think this could easily have turned into an after school special sort of book. After all, we’ve got a gay black special ed teacher who’s just back from volunteering in Haiti, a closeted widower, and a trans tween girl with autism, all set in a rich, white Southern neighborhood. However, what we end up with instead is a sweet story about both love and family.
“God, was Jericho some kind of sexier, trans-friendly Mary Poppins?”
When widower Sterling has to look for a summer nanny on short notice – thanks to his in-laws’ complete inability to accept that Alexa is trans, including forcibly cutting her hair – he lucks out with a reference for special needs teacher Jericho, newly arrived back in the States after spending a few years volunteering in Haiti. Not only is he amazing with Alexa, he’s also easy on the eyes, though that’s something that firmly-in-the-closet Sterling tries to ignore. As the summer progresses, though, and they find themselves acting more like a family than a nanny and his employer, both Jericho and Sterling must decide whether what they have has to end with the summer, or whether they’re willing to fight for their new love.
“You’re the best daughter a dad could ever hope for,” Sterling said, and pressed a kiss to the top of her head as soon as she held still long enough. “I’m happy for you to feel pretty, Pup, but no matter what you look like you’ll still be you. And I love you more than I can ever say.”
I will be the first to admit that I don’t have a ton of experience with trans people, especially trans kids, but it felt like everything was handled with sensitivity. Sterling was, in some ways, the poster dad for how to handle a trans kid, and Jericho seemed perfectly placed with ties to the community to help both him and Alexa. At times she did seem too mature for her age, but I’ve found that to be true with some kids on the spectrum. Alexa hesitated to tell her dad just how badly the kids at school were treating her – just how badly her grandparents were treating her – out of not wanting to burden him anymore. Where Sterling failed, though, Jericho was there to fill in the gaps. One of the sweet things about them as a couple was how well they complemented each other, plus their romance was absolutely adorable. Yes, there’s lots of chemistry and it’s plenty steamy, but the moments that stuck with me are the adorable ones – for instance, them holding hands during sex. Even as their romance progressed, though, they both understood why Sterling wanted to keep it secret, and why it couldn’t continue past the summer.
“You’re the upstanding, heterosexual widower, who doesn’t date anyone and devotes himself to his child and…I don’t know. Learns knitting, maybe. Bonsai. Spends every day pining over your late wife’s memory. You’re worried that if you stop pretending, someone’s going to see that you aren’t actually the dad equivalent of June Cleaver, and it’s all going to come crashing down.”
My biggest pet peeve with the book was that the grandparents were just so stereotypically bad people. While care was taken to point out that their bigotry was not religiously motivated – they’re the kind of people who attend church more because it’s simply what the right sort of people do rather than out of any sort of actual faith – they’re not only blatantly transphobic but also racist and homophobic, going as far as to basically accuse Jericho of being a pedophile. Honestly, I would’ve preferred if they’d been a bit more gray morally – if they’d been portrayed as people who deeply loved Alexa but just struggled with ingrained prejudices and truly thought they were doing what was right for their grandkid. As it was, we’re left more with the sense that the only reason they had any relationship with her was because it was the thing to do. A more minor quibble was that the “black moment” happened so late in the book that there was very little time left to resolve both it and the big custody battle.
Overall, this was such a lovely, inclusive romance, and I will definitely be looking forward to Ms. Qualls’ next book!