Review: Learned Reactions – Jayce Ellis
by Jayce Ellis
Series: Higher Education #2
Also in this series: Learned Behaviors
Publisher: Carina Press
Publication Date: March 9, 2021
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:
Carlton Monroe is finally getting his groove back. After a year playing dad to his nephew and sending him safely off to college, it’s back to his bachelor ways. But when his teenaged niece shows up on his doorstep looking for a permanent home, his plan comes to a screeching halt. Family is everything, and in the eyes of social services, a couple makes a better adoptive family than an overworked bachelor father. A fake relationship with his closest friend is the best way to keep his family together.
If things between him and Deion are complicated, well, it only needs to last until the end of the semester.
Living with Carlton is a heartbreak waiting to happen, and once the adoption goes through, Deion’s out. He’s waited two decades for Carlton to realize they’re meant for each other, and he’s done. It’s time to make a clean break. But it’s hard to think of moving away when keeping up the act includes some very real perks like kissing, cuddling and sharing a bed.
Even the best charades must come to an end, though. As the holidays and Deion’s departure date loom, the two men must decide whether playing house is enough for them—or if there’s any chance they could be a family for real.
Content warnings: View Spoiler »homophobia (including bigoted parents/grandparents), side characters died in car accident (before book starts), « Hide Spoiler
I was a bit wishy-washy about the first book in this series, but I really enjoyed the author’s writing style and the characters, so I was interested in giving this next book a try, especially since it was a friends-to-lovers, fake relationship romance. This occurs concurrently with the first book in the series, so many events, like their coffee meetups, are now seen from Carlton’s POV. While it is the second in the series, it could easily be read as a standalone.
Deion’s a philosophy professor in Chicago who’s taking a sabbatical for the semester. He’s intending to visit his parents in London, but first he’s going to spend time with his best friend – and unrequited love interest – Carlton in DC. Carlton and Deion have been friends since college, and Deion’s been in love with him for nearly that long. Deion’s always wanted a family, and he realizes that his continued focus on Carlton is preventing him from having that. Carlton had been a confirmed bachelor before his sister’s death, but when his nephew Trey asked to stay with him rather than with Carlton’s conservative grandparents, he immediately stepped up to the plate and took him in. He was a high school senior, so he mostly just needed a place to study and someone to feed him. He managed it and launched him successfully, and now that Deion’s coming to visit for homecoming, he’s hoping to get back to the bachelor lifestyle. But seeing Deion again reawakens feelings in him as well, and it’s making things… complicated. The arrival of Carlton’s niece Olivia complicates things even more, and once he sees how good Deion is with her, Carlton asks him to stay a little longer. But as time goes on and they start meshing as a family – with a fake relationship thrown in – both men start to realize that this fake thing might be the most real thing they’ve ever had.
“I’m sorry, man. I shouldn’t have said that.”
Carlton cocked his head to the side. “Said what?”
“Teased about sleeping with you. Now’s not the time for that.”
Carlton crooked a smile and sidled closer, letting his hand fall on Deion’s hip. It felt right. More than it should have. “It’s never a good time for us, is it?”
Honestly, I wanted to shake both men at multiple points during the book. They both had valid reasons for being worried about getting into a romantic relationship and ruining their friendship. Carlton’s convinced the only way he and Deion are still such good friends is because he friend-zoned Deion. Deion’s used to going along with him, no matter what – even when Carlton lets Olivia’s social worker believe they’re together. He lets Carlton set the boundaries of the relationship and doesn’t push, and pretends it’s ok, even when he’s a giant ball of yearning on the inside. Plus, his mom doesn’t like Carlton, mostly because she’s annoyed that he doesn’t return his son’s feelings, and he’s been hung up on him for nineteen years. Carlton knows this and, given his own family issues, would never want to come between Deion and his mom. Their relationship – though it starts out “fake” – was sweet and so adorably domestic. Sure, there’s lots of steamy moments, but a big part for both men is having someone to come home to, to share dinner with, to go buy random decorative pillows with. I found their bleak moment extremely heart wrenching, though the grand gesture was a bit overdone for me, even if it was quite sweet.
“But you’re right. I took advantage of a situation, because I wanted you to stay a little longer.”
“Why?” God, why? If Carlton wasn’t interested in him, why on god’s green earth was he pushing this narrative?
“Because everything is better with you. I’m not as overwhelmed when I know you’re here. Even without Ollie or Trey or whatever, coming home and knowing you’d be waiting made the days smoother. I didn’t want to lose that.”
I really love the author’s voice, and I thought the pacing in this book was much improved. I especially loved how Carlton and Lawrence, who just happens to be a family lawyer and helps him with adopting Olivia, interacted, and how much of a reality check he gave him. It definitely makes me very interested in Lawrence’s and Vance’s book! As for cons, I’d just like to point that out college professor sabbaticals – especially for ones that are one year away from tenure – don’t work the way the book suggested, where it was basically a vacation for Deion. Normally that time would be spent hustling to publish.
Overall, I very much enjoyed this book, and I’m looking forward to Lawrence and Vance’s book!