Ashton Sellers and Walker Ronson are partners in an advertising firm, but despite being in business together, neither man is particularly comfortable with the other. The pair are so different on the surface that they end up intimidating each other. However, when Ashton’s apartment is being fumigated and he needs a place to stay, Walker offers him a room at his house (with a little encouragement from their third business partner, Casey).
At first, things are super awkward between the men, as neither really knows how to relate to the other. But it doesn’t take long before they realize that they actually mesh quite well. Ashton loves the warm and peaceful home Walker has created and he feels safe and cared for with him. And Walker loves Ashton’s sunny presence and appreciates his company and having someone to look after. It doesn’t take long before the men become friends and Ashton begins to open up to Walker about his past and his abusive family. Ashton doesn’t share his story with many people, but he begins to trust Walker and really open up. The men are getting along so well, they even cook up a plan to pose as fake boyfriends at Walker’s sister’s wedding in order to stir up some gossip and deflect the family’s judgmental heat away from Walker’s sister.
Ashton is definitely not Walker’s usual type; he is bisexual and the men he typically dates are country club golfer types like himself. But something about Ashton really sparks with Walker and there is a mutual attraction growing. As the men start acting on their feelings, they each begin to consider whether they could make a relationship work between them. It seems like there is a chance for a real future for Walker and Ashton, and they make each other feel safe and cared for in a way neither has ever experienced. But trust is still not easy for Ashton given his traumatic past, and when he learns a secret about Walker’s history, it could derail everything the pair have built together.
Mr. Jingle Bells is the third book in Leta Blake’s Home for the Holidays series, but it works perfectly as a standalone. Casey and Joel from Mr. Frosty Pants appear here as side characters (Casey is Ashton and Walker’s third business partner), but you don’t need to be familiar with their story to enjoy this one and, as far as I can tell, the guys from Mr. Naughty List don’t show up here at all.
There is a lot happening in this story, but the part that spoke to me the most was Ashton’s journey. Ashton grew up with a drug addicted mother and, upon her death, was then raised by a violent, religious zealot grandmother. His father was never a part of his life and essentially abandoned Ashton to the abuse and neglect of his mother and grandmother until Ashton was an adult. On the surface, Ashton is all smiles and charm. He is gorgeous and enjoys makeup and beautiful clothes. He is lovely and endearing and pretty much everyone loves him. But inside, Ashton is hiding tremendous pain from what he endured in the past and has PTSD from the trauma that often manifests when he feels unsafe. His family is still a disaster and Ashton has had to pretty much cut them out of his life in order to kept some mental sanity and stop himself from being pulled back into their mess. So as a result of all that, Ashton has some major trust issues, and a deep fear of addicts in particular.
I was really impressed with how well Leta Blake develops Ashton’s character and the author really gives him such depth. I could feel his pain and his fear and I feel like as readers, we are right there with him as he is dealing with all his issues. This story can be intense, particularly as Ashton deals with ghosts of his past, so be aware, especially if you have triggers for issues such as abuse and addiction. This is a heavier book than the others in the series, but I really think Blake builds this character so well and gives him an interesting journey. It also allows Ashton and Walker to have a really lovely romance, as each of these men are so in need of love and companionship and don’t think they will ever find someone to care about them. So there is a sweetness to this story and a nice sexiness when the men ultimately get together.
While Ashton and his backstory are really well developed, I feel like there are other areas that don’t feel as fleshed out. For example, Walker has something in his past (mild spoiler:) that ends up playing a big role in the ultimate conflict. Though we know the basics, I don’t feel like we ever really learn exactly what transpired or get much detail on what fueled the problem, and it is all explained to Austin off page. We also know that Walker’s dad has issues with him being bisexual and basically accepts it only if Walker dates what his dad considers “manly” men (which is why his dad has some issues with Ashton, who is much more femme). But Walker also definitely seems to have internalized some of these issues around more femme men and that never really gets addressed or worked through. He falls for Austin, but it doesn’t seem like he ever really confronts or deals with his feelings directly. So there felt like a lack of balance for me in terms of the focus on Austin’s background versus Walker’s character development.
This is also a very long story (about 500 pages) and honestly, it just felt too long for me. In addition to all the issues above, there is another storyline featuring Walker’s sister’s wedding. His family is wealthy and his sister is marrying a tattoo artist that used to be married to her cousin. So there is lots of judgy family and she is worried. Given that Ashton is a femme guy and one that a lot of Walker’s family would dislike, he and Walker decide to pose as boyfriends to distract the gossips and have them focus on the two of them instead. I hate to say it, but this whole storyline felt unnecessary to me. It gets brought up in the first half of the book, but the wedding doesn’t even take place until the second half, so we are more than 250 pages in before this plot even really starts. There is so much going on already with both Walker and Ashton’s personal journeys and, by this point, we have seen them meet, work through many of their issues, and fall for one another. So then to start a new subplot where the guys show up at the wedding trying to scandalize everyone just felt like a detour to a story that already felt largely over. They aren’t even fake boyfriends at this point, they are really dating. The guys get the full buy in of Walker’s sister, and to her credit, she does express concern about whether the men really want to put such a target on themselves like that. But at that point, the idea that Walker is bringing his boyfriend to this wedding just to have him be the subject of gossip and ridicule from his family just seemed awkward and unpleasant. For me, this whole plot line felt unnecessary and didn’t add enough to an already really long story.
Overall, I think where this book really shines is in the well-crafted backstory for Ashton and the way Blake develops his character and the resulting relationship with Walker. We can really see how Ashton’s past impacts their relationship and the unique challenges the men have. I think other areas get a little less development than they needed however, and the fake boyfriend plot line was a little too much of a distraction from the main story for me. But I found this one an interesting character study and Ashton and Walker make a sweet and appealing couple.