John “Mal” Mallory is a beleaguered fireman who’s fought one too many fires. The most recent blaze killed two fellow firemen and sent his colleague Drew Smyth to intensive care with his life hanging in the balance. He feels tired and old and knows that he’s just going through the motions in his relationship. He loves Trish, and always will, but he is no longer in love with her.
Two weeks after they amicably split, Mal has a new apartment and finds himself at a local gay bar in his new neighbourhood. Although Mal has lived his life loving both women and men, he hasn’t been with a man in almost eight years. He’s about to order a second drink when the most beautiful man by the name of Will Justason asks Mal to dance. Over the course of the evening they dance and later end up in Mal’s bed having incredible sex. Although they arrange to see each other again, Mal warns Will that while he doesn’t do casual pick-ups he’s also not looking for anything serious at this time. But when Mal shows up to work only to find that the man he slept with the night before is now one of two new replacement firemen at his station, Mal’s plans for a quiet, easy, no-pressure physical relationship go up in smoke and both Mal and Will are put to the test working together, with ex-partners and family further complicating matters.
Warning: Mild Spoilers Ahead
Cheek To Cheek by Chris Owen is set in the 9-1-1 world with Mal and Will’s story taking place during the same time period as the 9-1-1 story.
This story is well written with excellent development of both main characters Mal and Will. Two very different men, each with his own take on life and love. True to her writing style, Chris Owen tells the story through only one character, Mal’s point of view, yet with some well-nuance dialogue and narration we know who Will is, how he works and what he’s thinking.
The character of Mal brings to the story a rich point of view in particular in respect of his feelings surrounding the break-up of his relationship with Trish and his reticence to getting involved in another relationship. What stood out most for me was how the issue of Mal’s bisexuality was treated. For Mal, his sexuality is not an either or proposition. Monogamous by nature he falls in love and can be with men and women — the deciding factor being what and who that individual person of interest is and not their gender. There is no conflict within Mal about any of this — it simply is what it is. Will is a much more lighthearted character that is witty and drips with sarcasm. He is younger than Mal but quite perceptive. He is stealth in stick handling Mal’s reticence to getting involved through laid-back charm and a fun-loving attitude all the while providing a comfort zone for Mal to ease into the relationship. There is much chemistry between these two. I loved their witty back-and-forth banter, which made me laugh out-loud quite a few times and they sizzled between the sheets.
There are a few complicating factors though. First, there is the issue of Mal and Will working together in the same firehouse. This is a source of great angst for Mal as he is not out to his co-workers and tries to use this as an excuse for not getting involved with Will. It takes the revelations of a trusted fellow fireman and his very real physical attraction to Will to ease Mal’s mind. Second is Will’s reaction to Mal’s former relationship with a woman. Will does have difficulty with this at first because he believes that Mal is just gay-curious and wants to use Will as his subject of research. Finally, Chris Owen throws into the mixed the issue of a biracial couple, with some of Will’s family having issues with the fact that Mal is white.
Where I felt this story fell a little short was in respect of the under-development of the character of Trish. Even though Cheek To Cheek is m/m romance and some folks have issues with any type of female character being thrown into the mix of gay romance and erotica, Mal is bisexual and for all intents and purposes Trish was his partner and up until their break-up, the love of his life, and therefore a very important secondary character to Mal’s overall development, his relationship with Will and the storyline. Yet I found the character of Trish to be one-dimensional in particular at the beginning of the story. We do get more insight into Trish later in the story. As a dance instructor, she helps Mal by agreeing to perform a dance number with him for his fire station’s annual fund-raiser and at the same time serves as a catalyst for bringing Mal and Will together, both on and off the dance stage. But I felt that even with her involvement in the latter part of the story it was not enough to make up for the lack of her character’s development overall.
All in all though Cheek To Cheek is a good read that I very much enjoyed. It was great to re-visit the 9-1-1 world and boys (Drew, Eric and Scott) even though they only make cameo appearances. Mal and Will’s relationship is just starting to take off and there is enough conflict and angst to make things quite interesting for them in the upcoming sequel Turn The Other Cheek.
Cheek To Cheek by Chris Owen is available at Torquere Press.