Book Review: Strawberries for Dessert, by Marie Sexton

Genre: Gay Contemporary Romance

Published: 2010, Dreamspinner Press
My Grade: A

When Jonathan Kechter agrees to a blind date with Cole Fenton, he expects nothing more than dinner and a one-night stand… but he gets more than he bargained for in Cole. Cole is arrogant, flamboyant, and definitely not Jon’s type. Still, when Cole suggests an arrangement of getting together for casual sex whenever they’re both in town, Jon readily agrees.

Their arrangement may be casual, but Jonathan soon learns that when it comes to Cole Fenton, nothing is easy. Between Cole’s fear of intimacy and his wandering lifestyle, Jonathan wonders if their relationship may be doomed from the start—but the more Cole pushes him away, the more determined Jon is to make it work.

Disclaimer: I’ve known the author since I was eight. After reuniting on Facebook after 20+ years apart, we discovered that we share one brain. For those of you interested in reading erotica, you will be happy to know that she got the naughty half.

Strawberries for Dessert is the fourth, albeit loosely connected book in Marie Sexton’s “Coda” series. The set-up requires a tiny bit of back story. In her novella, The Letter Z, Jon runs into Zach, the man he left ten years earlier, while working in Las Vegas. Zach is on vacation with his boyfriend, Angelo, and two other friends (Jared and Matt), who invite Jon to join them for dinner before Zach can explain who he is. Jon behaves like an ass, attempts to break Zach away from his (insecure and very jealous) boyfriend, but in the end he accepts that what they had is long gone. Zach smooths things over with Angelo, and Jared tells Jon about a friend of his who lives in Phoenix (Cole).

Fast forward a few months. The first chapter of Strawberries has Jon walking through an airport when his phone rings. The caller introduces himself as Cole. Jon has no idea who he is, which annoys them both. They agree to a date, which flops due to Jon’s phone ringing non-stop during dinner. Cole’s amusement at Jon’s befuddled attempts at conversation between work calls is short-lived. He lays several hundred dollars on the table, leaves his card, and walks out.

This scene is clever in that it illustrates the personalities of both characters and the problems they will encounter throughout their relationship. They shouldn’t have become a couple. Realistically, they shouldn’t have gone on a second date. Cole is the type of man that someone like me—I am famous for my all-but complete lack of gaydar—would recognize as gay on sight. His wardrobe is trendy, his hygiene impeccable, and his mannerisms are “gay” to the degree of parody. If my back were turned, I’d know by speech alone. I’ve read reader reviews from gay men who were offended by Cole because he was too gay. Jon, on the other hand, subconsciously goes out of his way to appear straight as possible. They do end up taking another shot at it for the sake of casual sex and they decide to make a habit out of it for the same.

Cole is filthy rich. He has homes all over the world. He can buy anything he wants, but he has very few people he’d call friends. Everyone he’s ever known has used him…from his mother and father right on down to the men waiting for him to call when he’s in their town. He has never given this much thought; he has learned to use money and people to get what he wants. In his experience, this is the way things are. Jon is different, though. He derives his self-worth from working hard and providing for himself. It makes no sense to Cole, but he learns to accept it.

As for Jon, Cole’s behavior in public annoys him so much that they get into fights about it. We can cheer him on for not putting up with Jon’s attempts to change him. Much later in their relationship, Jon realizes that the affectation is actually a defense mechanism. The more uncomfortable or threatened Cole feels, the more flamboyant his behavior becomes. In one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever read, Cole is standing by hotel room window in his underwear, playing with the sheer curtains, when he bares his soul…literally and symbolically stripped bare. When Jon notices the affectation is completely gone, he fears that his touch will break the spell.

Slowly, over their months together, they fill holes in each other’s lives. Cole endears himself to Jon’s dad (who doesn’t really understand his son but tries really hard). They let their walls down and fall in love with each other. And that is a problem for them both. Cole is a restless soul; he cannot stay in one place long. Jon just lost his job; he has neither the cash to go on vacation, nor can he afford to put off his job search for months while his lover gets his restlessness out. By this time, Cole knows that Jon will be offended by an offer to pay the way. Sure enough, when the conversation comes up, it goes horribly.

To break the stalemate, Cole takes a risk and leaves Jon. He later hires him to replace his retiring accountant because Jon is the only person he knows honest enough to trust with his money. (Cole actually has no idea how much money he has, so he needs to be able to trust his accountant.) From the moment Jon accepts, he is able to monitor Cole’s travel from credit card purchases. No longer tethered to the dead-end career he was chasing, Jon lets go of everything that is keeping him in Phoenix and gets on a plane to surprise Cole in the Hamptons. But after all they’ve been through, can he convince Cole to take another chance on him?

Strawberries for Dessert is one of my favorite books. While it is composed as an erotic novel, the romance is far more prevalent than the sex. Marie simply mentions the activities that are casual in the narration. The scenes that are described in full are done so for plot and/or character development purposes. They are, in my somewhat prudish opinion, on the graphic side, so consider yourself warned.

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