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The probation officer caring for his dead brother’s baby. The wounded gentle giant with the biggest softest heart.
Rami: Sweet Fen Hawthorne is my favourite thing about working in the prison. His broad shoulders and sunny grin. His twinkly flirtation. And he likes me as much as I like him. More seems inevitable until life happens.
One day I’m there, then I’m not, and second chances don’t really happen when your car breaks down halfway up a snowy mountain, do they?
Besides, I don’t remember flirting with a bearded lumbersexual, only dreaming about one.
Fen: Do dreams come true?
Christmas Mountain is my home. But it’s the one place on earth I never imagined seeing Rami Stone again, and now I’m snowed in with him. Trapped, with only a roaring fire for company, and it’s a fantasy come true. The air is thick with more than snow and the eighteen months we’ve been apart fades away.
As the snow clears, though, so does the haze. Rami says he comes with baggage.
But so do I, and I’m here for the heavy lifting.
I’m here for forever.
Christmas Mountain is a sweet, sexy and emotional opposites-attract/second-chance love story featuring two guys who sort of ‘just missed’ each other when both their lives took unexpected turns before they could get around to going on a date. Their rekindled romance is a slow-burn with lots of longing and pining, the family dynamics – both biological and chosen – are well done, and the two central characters – one quiet and stoic, the other snarky and with a bit of a temper on him – are relatable and appealing.
Rami Stone and Fen Hawthorne know each other through their work – as a probation officer and corrections officer respectively – at HMP (Her Majesty’s Prison) Manchester. They’ve each other around on a fairly regular basis and like what they see; Fen is about to ask Rami out one day when he’s called to deal with an emergency – and when Rami gets home he’s called to an emergency of his own. His messed-up younger brother has died from an overdose, leaving Rami – literally – holding the baby, his infant nephew, Charlie.
When Rami returns to work after an extended leave, he’s surprised and saddened to find that Fen no longer works there, learning a few months later that Fen left his job after he was stabbed by a prisoner and almost died. When Christmas Mountain begins, it’s eighteen months after Rami’s brother died, and he’s been sharing – sort of – parenting duties with Charlie’s mum Leanne, who isn’t exactly a model parent. But now, the day he’s been dreading has arrived, and Leanne has simply buggered off. Rami has managed so far by working part time and having Charlie part time, but he’s not cut out to be a full-time parent and, exhausted, worried, furious and desperate, he panics. He’ll take Charlie to his sister Safia’s place in the Lake District – his one thought is that Charlie will be safe there – so despite the worsening weather conditions, and without stopping to pack anything for himself, he straps Charlie into the back of his crappy old car and heads out of Manchester, towards Safia’s home on the colloquially named Christmas Mountain in Cumbria.
Alas for Rami, his car gives out in the midst of a snowstorm when he’s not far from Durdle Fell, but his phone is dead (not that the service around there is great anyway) and no way can he leave Charlie in the car while he goes for help. He hadn’t told Safia to expect him, so nobody will be looking for him when he doesn’t arrive. There’s nothing for it but to wait the storm out.
A few hours later – Rami is surprised he managed to fall asleep – comes a tap on the window and, filled with relief, Rami gets out of the car expecting it to be his brother-in-law, but it isn’t.
Incredibly, it’s Fen who, after the attack, left the Prison Service and returned to his roots in Cumbria, where he now runs the Christmas tree and timber farm that’s been in his family for generations.
Rami and Fen have been through a lot. They’ve both been hurt – physically and emotionally – and seem to have reached a point where they don’t know how to move forward with their lives and are in danger of getting stuck in a rut of existing without really living. Rami is dedicated and cares deeply about helping those he works with to get their lives back on track, but has been so worn down by grief and the extra responsibility he’s had to take on that he’s lost his way and doesn’t quite know what he wants for his future any more. He can be a bit prickly and sometimes gets in his own way, but his confusion and the feeling of being pulled in so many different directions at once that he just can’t think straight any more are portrayed extremely well. And while Fen seems content with the new direction his life is taking, he’s struggling with some residual trauma from the attack and finds it difficult to let people in.
It seems Fen and Rami have never been far from each other’s thoughts over the past eighteen months, and the attraction that sparked between them when they were working together doesn’t take long to spark again and for things to start warming up. But despite their obvious physical attraction they don’t jump into bed straight away, and I appreciated that; it gives their relationship a chance to breathe as they reconnect and start to re-assess where they are and what they want, and to process the ways in which their experiences have changed them. Rami has never had a serious relationship and doesn’t feel he has the wherewithal to commit to one; Fen is demi-sexual and doesn’t do one-night stands, so they both have to give some serious thought to what – if anything – can happen between them and what it will mean for both of them.
This wouldn’t be a Garrett Leigh book without a bit of angst, and there’s just the right amount here; some of the Christmassy stories I’ve read so far this year have been mostly pure fluff – and that’s fine – but I can’t deny that I enjoyed the extra bit of grit in this story. That’s not to say that the angst is overwhelming or depressing – it isn’t – but the issues keeping Fen and Rami from acting on their attraction aren’t trivial ones and I liked the honesty and realism that this brings to their story. For me, the balance was just about right; Rami and Fen are wonderfully real and the chemistry between them sizzles, and there’s enough Christmas magic in the story to balance out its more serious aspects without it tipping over into cheesy schmaltz.
The few secondary characters are strongly characterised, the children feel like actual kids rather than plot moppets, and the setting is vivid; Safia’s home is full of genuine warmth and love and Christmas spirit, and Fen being the owner of a Christmas tree farm is a nice touch.
I do, however, have a few small niggles that keep this one from a higher grade. The final bit of drama, while certainly plausible given the location of this story, felt a bit tacked on, and the solution to Rami’s work situation is just a bit sudden and convenient – and that nobody thought of it earlier seemed a bit odd.
Overall, however, Christmas Mountain is a heartwarming story about two people finding each other again at exactly the right time in their lives and I’m happy to recommend it. All the ingredients – hurt/comfort, Christmas spirit, humour, chemistry, angst and steam – are perfectly balanced to make for a touching and satisfying seasonal read.