Matt Ruiz is a quietly gay, 30-year-old math teacher in a small Texas town. He teaches at the same middle school he attended as a child, and is well respected there. In addition to teaching, Matt works as an athletics aide, while also taking night classes towards his Masters degree, looking to get into school administration. He was raised by his maternal grandparents who have retired to their own small local cattle ranch, which his younger sister manages, and Matt often pitches in on the weekend.
Despite being single, Matt is very busy. And now he’s tasked with assisting a newbie substitute teacher with a long-term assignment covering for a colleague out on maternity leave. It’s frustrating, but tempered by the fact that the sub, Sawyer Evans, is charming and gorgeous. And also gay—and not super quiet about it.
As Matt assists Sawyer in getting settled at their school, he learns all about his past as an executive chef for a successful restaurant up in the northwest. He enjoys their moments of friendship, thinking he really doesn’t have time in his life for a boyfriend. Matt’s about data and spreadsheets and priorities. He gave up his dream in engineering when he grandma’s cancer was diagnosed in college, but this dream of shaping curriculum and changing education from the inside is one he doesn’t want to abandon, not for anyone. That said, the attraction simmers, and by Thanksgiving Matt and Sawyer finally take the steps beyond friendship into more.
Matt thought Sawyer had it all together, choosing his life plan and moving on when life got tough, so he’s surprised to admire Sawyer’s tenacity building a new career by vlogging about regional cuisines he’s studying on his travels. Sawyer accepted the long-term sub job knowing he’s way over his head, but thinking Texas would be a good place to learn southwest cuisine, and Sawyer does know math and people. But teaching middle school math is an art, like haute cuisine, and he’s eager for Matt’s expertise in making this a more manageable situation. Matt’s desire for a relationship seems almost nil until he’s in the middle of one with Sawyer. But, life in a middle school is tenuous, and when people begin to notice that Matt and Sawyer are an item, it goes against all of Matt’s quiet, fly under the radar ways.
This story had so many interesting and real-world scenarios about teaching and small-town life. I loved the inclusion of Matt’s family, and how central their love and acceptance was to his own emotional well-being. Matt has deep abandonment issues, stemming from his parents leaving him and his sister behind in their childhood. That’s why Sawyer’s mobility is a struggle for Matt to overcome. Sawyer is enchanted with Matt’s remaining family, as they are so loving, in comparison to his own. Grandma is particularly adorable, and Sawyer soaks up her cooking lessons with gusto. The town and school settings were also well described, and had plenty of allies and advocates who truly cared about both Matt and Sawyer. The separation, when it comes, is difficult for both of them, and there are ripples in the community that bring Matt unexpected straight talk he needs to hear at just the right moments. Sawyer is a good man and a solid partner, and Matt’s plans, while admirable, won’t keep him company in the cool spring nights. He has to make some new calculations, but it’s soon clear that Matt’s life is greater with Sawyer in it. And, well, that makes for a happy ending.
There are moments of grief and pain, and Matt and Sawyer both have ghosts to lay at rest. Their connection is strong enough to weather Matt’s issues, though, and their combined plans are right for each other. I liked that there were glimmers of a future that’s obtainable. This book ends in a way that’s settled, but could easily extend into another story. I chose this book for New-to-Me Author Week in our Reading Challenge Month because my day job is teaching, and a plot surrounding middle school teachers connecting was one I could not resist. As this is the first novel from this author, I feel like I jumped in just in time to catch the rise of a new star.
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