Take one shy French gardener, mix in a naughty aristocrat, add a splash of water, a dash of sunshine, and wait for love to grow.
If only it were that easy.
Reuben Costaud counts his blessings daily. His run-in with crime is firmly behind him. He has a wonderful job gardening on the Rossingley estate, a tiny cottage all to himself, an orphaned cat named Obélix, and a friendly bunch of workmates. The last thing he needs is a tall, blond aristocrat strolling across the manicured lawns towards him.
Falling in love is not part of his plan.
Viscount Aloysius Frederick Lloyd Duchamps-Avery, Freddie to his friends, is in big trouble with everyone, from his father and his modelling agency, to his controlling older boyfriend. Seeking solace and refuge, he escapes to Rossingley and his adored cousin Lucien, the sixteenth earl. To take his mind off his woes, Lucien finds him a job with the estate gardening team.
Mutual attraction blossoms amongst the gardening tools, and Freddie charms his way through Reuben’s defences. But as spring turns to summer and Freddie’s London life collides with their Rossingley idyll, Reuben’s trust in him is ruptured. Will their love flourish or is it destined for the compost bin?
Fearne Hill is a new-to-me author, and having heard good things about the first book in her Rossingley series, (To Hold a Hidden Pearl), I decided to try the second, To Catch a Fallen Leaf. It’s a cute romance about second chances and the family you make, but sadly, I can’t say that it was a complete success. I liked the setting, the found-family element and the gardening theme (I’m not a great gardener myself but I love visiting them at stately homes!); but while the protagonists are engaging, the romance lacks chemistry, and the Big Mis near the end just made me groan.
The series is set on the estate in the south of England owned by Lucien Duchamps-Avery, who became the sixteenth Earl of Rossingley on the tragic deaths of his older brother and his young family. Lucien’s closest relatives are his now his uncle, an MP, and his cousin Aloysius Frederick Lloyd Duchamps-Avery aka Freddie (who is incorrectly referred to as a viscount for some reason.) Freddie is a highly sought-after model, who, at the beginning of the book, has rather allowed a typically high-octane, fast-moving lifestyle to get the better of him, and a massive scandal is about to break over his recent arrest in New York for possession of an illegal substance and public vagrancy after a drunken, coke-fuelled binge left him slumped over on the pavement outside Macy’s. Even worse, Freddie’s father is the Home Secretary, known to take a particularly hard stance on drugs and crime, and Freddie’s slip could jepoardise his career.
After returning to England, Freddie takes himself off to Rossingley and Lucien – the only person in Freddie’s life who’s given a damn since the death of Freddie’s mother when he was twelve – who tells him to stay there rather than checking into some ghastly high-end rehab clinic. Freddie is grateful and relieved, and looks forward to a quiet time of rest and recuperation, but that isn’t quite what Lucien has in mind. He suggests that Freddie will soon grow bored with nothing to do and basically – but oh, so nicely – tells him he’s to join the estate groundskeepers and that the fresh air and exercise will do him good.
Reuben Costaud has been a gardener at Rossingley for just under a year, and he loves everything about being there – his job, his little cottage, his cat and the guys he works with, including one nicknamed Gandalf who is coaching him for his English GCSE exam. Reuben is French and came to England after being released from a ten-year stint in prison (we don’t find out what he was in for until late on); he’s determined to make something of himself and plans to enrol in Agricultural College later in the year, hoping that maybe one day, he’ll be able to take over the care of the grounds at Rossingley.
Reuben is adorable. He’s smitten with Freddie straight away, but thinks Freddie is way out of his league and Freddie is utterly charmed by Reuben and offers to help him with the other subjects he’s studying. He wants a reason to spend time with Reuben, it’s true, but he also genuinely wants to help – and anyway, he has no idea if they’re even batting for the same team.
Of course that question is answered before too long as Reuben decides to make the most of whatever time he can have with Freddie, and Freddie slowly starts to sort himself out and to work out what he wants and what are the most important things in life.
There’s a strong secondary cast, notably Lucien (who is such a scene-stealer!) and his partner Jay, and the other gardeners, who are all well-defined, with a great sense of camaraderie between them based on typical British Bloke-y Banter. Freddie’s father is an insensitive upper-class twat and I was pleased when Freddie stood up to him at last.
But I had a few problems with the novel that brought the grade down to just middling. Firstly, although we see Freddie and Reuben spending time together and getting to know each other, and feeling attraction towards one another, there’s little real chemistry between them, so the romance feels flat and underdeveloped. I liked them as friends; the way Freddie is so supportive of Reuben and sincere in his admiration for Reuben’s desire to do better is just lovely, but they didn’t work for me as lovers. And the darker themes the author tries to inject into the novel are awkwardly juxtaposed with the overall tone of light and fluffy; Reuben was sexually assaulted in prison and clearly has lingering issues as a result, but they’re mostly glossed over, and I found it hard to believe that someone as innocent as he was – and is – could have spent ten years behind bars and not have come out with some hard edges or developed a protective shell. And then there’s Freddie’s problem with booze and drugs, which he dispenses with quite easily because, he tells us, he was never really an addict, so giving them up is no biggie. There’s not much by way of character development either; although Freddie does grow up a bit, he and Reuben are essentially the same people at the end as they are at the beginning.
As for the Big Mis near the end … *heavy sigh*. It’s painfully contrived and relies on Reuben immediately jumping to conclusions with no evidence – although it does prompt a fantastic scene between Reuben and his workmates in which they make it clear just how protective of him they’ve become. Also – I couldn’t work out how the shit-stirrer got to Rossingley to shoot his mouth off before Freddie got back.
So To Catch a Fallen Leaf is a bit of a mixed bag. I liked the premise and I liked the characters and the humour, but the story doesn’t flow well and the lack of chemistry between the leads sank the romance. There are things to enjoy here, but they aren’t enough on their own to earn this one a recommendation.