His Last Christmas in London by Con Riley

his last christmas in london

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Falling for his final client won’t make leaving London easy…

Ian ~ A talented, young photographer desperate to stay in London.

Guy ~ An older, fierce food critic, determined to keep him in his city.

Ian shouldn’t be attracted to a scathing food critic like Guy Parsons, not after the last time he fell for someone older, arrogant, and gorgeous. He knows better than to let dramatic good looks sway him since his last heartbreak. Besides, he’s accepted a new job at the far end of the country and won’t be staying in London.

Having one month left doesn’t seem enough now Ian’s fallen in love with the city. Working as Guy’s photographer for December might help him afford to stay for longer, even if he hates Guy’s brand of restaurant reviewing. When Guy turns out to be worlds away from the last man Ian fell for, shared meals soon result in shared secrets and feelings.

More than attraction sparks between them as Christmas approaches. Intimate moments lead to intense passion, but is being well matched in the bedroom enough to stop the clock counting down to Ian leaving London, and Guy, for good?

Rating: A-

Romance novellas are very often hit-and-miss for me. Truth be told, the majority of them ‘miss’, usually because the characters and relationship are underdeveloped, so I generally approach with caution. But every so often, a novella or ‘shorter novel’ comes along that defies my expectations – and I’m pleased to say that Con Riley’s His Last Christmas in London did exactly that. It’s a lovely, poignant and sensual age-gap romance that hit me right in the feels and left me sighing happily when I finished it.

Twenty-four-year-old Ian Fisher has decided it’s time to give up on his dream of making a living as a freelance photographer in London and take a secure short-term job back home in Cornwall. It’s going to be a massive wrench; he loves the city and he loves his two flatmates, Seb and Patrick, but he’s making next to nothing thanks to his arsehole of a former boss – and former lover – who is holding out on giving him a reference after Ian realised the guy had been gaslighting him for ages and passing Ian’s work off as his own, and left both his employ and his bed. His confidence in his abilities has been severely shaken, and without the reference, it’s proving next to impossible for Ian to get any work, so he’s resorted to selling off some of his equipment just so he can afford his rent, even though Seb and Patrick have said they’ll spot him until he starts earning again. But Ian doesn’t want to be a drain on them, and decides it’s time to face facts, suck it up and take the six-month teaching contract he’s been offered while he works out what his next move should be.

Doing a favour for his ex is the last thing Ian wants to do, so when Lito Dixon – who is clearly partying – calls and asks Ian to “go and take some food shots” for a high-profile client, Ian’s first instinct is to say no. But realising Lito is desperate, Ian demands both his reference and three times his usual fee – it’ll keep him afloat for a little while longer – and when Lito begrudingly agrees, Ian takes the job.

Guy Parsons is a well-known restaurant critic whose reviews have often been labelled as “career-ending” and “business crushing”. Still smarting from just having to deal with one utter bastard, Ian is in little mood to deal with another, and arrives at the restaurant predisposed to dislike Parsons on sight. When he arrives, he can’t help noticing how very striking the man is – with his flow of dark hair and warm, dark eyes – and is even thrown by the hostess’ description of him as “lovely”, which Ian decides must be just a front he maintains before going in for the kill. He wastes no time in making his opinion of Guy perfectly clear when he arrives at the table, but the wind is taken out of his sails when Guy calmly (and somewhat mischievously) plays up to the hostess’ assumption that they’re a couple. Confused and surprised at the powerful attraction he’s feeling for the other man, Ian slowly lets go of his preconceptions as Guy proves himself to be funny, charming and insightful – anything but a bastard, in fact – insisting Ian joins him for dinner, giving helpful advice to the new proprietors of the restaurant, and showing genuine concern for Ian and a real appreciation for his talent.

The chemistry between Ian and Guy simply leaps off the page, the intense current of attraction running between them from the moment Ian sits down growing even stronger through the meal. It’s as though this… thing… between them has taken on a life of its own, neither of them quite believing they’re about to do what they’re about to do as they race back to Guy’s flat. For ‘dessert’.

Lito calls the next morning, angry that Guy has requested Ian for the remainder of his pre-Christmas photo shoots, but Guy is a prestigious client and Lito has to go along with it. This affords Ian a short reprieve before he has to leave London, and he determines to make the most of it – hopefully, with Guy. Ian told Guy he would be leaving London soon, so whatever is happening between them comes with an expiry date, but at least they both know where they stand. Over the assignments and the days and weeks that follow, Ian gets to know the real Guy, the Guy who knows his way around a kitchen and is free with his help and advice, the Guy who is an excellent listener, the Guy who is kind, funny, thoughtful, and possessed of a true generosity of spirit – the Guy who is just emerging from the stark grief of losing of his husband three years earlier. This Guy is a man Ian can’t help wanting to know more of, to spend more time with – a man he could even love… but that expiry date is looming.

This is a poignant and gorgeously romantic story about finding true love in the most unexpected of places, about second chances and about finding what, who and where you’re meant to be. I was so glad to know that Guy’s marriage was a very happy one (so often in romances the previous partner was a shit) and I loved the parallels the author draws between that relationship – Guy’s husband was a lot older than him when they first met – and Guy’s relationship with Ian, with Guy now the older man offering support and understanding, knowing that what Ian needs is someone to have his back, but not to fight his battles for him. The imbalances that come with a twenty year age gap (the established career and economic security are all on one side) are not ignored, but they truly don’t matter as much as what these two men have to offer each other or what they come to mean to one another, with Guy helping Ian to re-kindle his confidence and belief in his abilities and Ian reminding Guy what it’s like to feel truly valued and bringing love and light back into his life.

His Last Christmas in London bowled me over in much the same way Ian and Guy bowl each other over. Their romance is beautifully written and utterly swoonworthy, and the strong, passionate emotional connection that develops between them is superbly drawn. They’re likeable, engaging characters with plenty of depth snd real, rounded personalities, and the London setting is perfectly and vividly described through Ian’s photographer’s eye. The handful of secondary characters – especially Seb and Patrick – are strongly realised, and I loved the little ‘Easter Egg’ throwbacks to His Haven. Warm, touching, funny and sexy, it’ll make you smile, will bring a tear to the eye in the best of ways, and is the perfect book to cuddle up with on a grey winter’s afternoon.

Heppel Ever After (Learning to Love #5) by Con Riley

heppel ever after

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Because every epic romance deserves an epic happy ending…

All Charles Heppel wants is a wedding. It’s not much to ask now that he’s set his playboy days aside for his almost-ordained fiancé. He can’t wait for a lovely, lazy beach honeymoon with His Holy Hotness to continue Hugo’s education in the bedroom.

Surely this third wedding date will be the charm and won’t get cancelled, will it? After all, Hugo’s followed his calling almost to the end of his path to ordination. Nothing should keep him from gaining his own parish with Charles as his husband.

Hugo’s calling thinks differently, demanding he leaves for the remote island of Kara-Enys without Charles.

That news should be shattering, but if Charles Heppel has one thing going for him, it’s that he’s relentlessly optimistic. And romantic. Most islands have beaches, don’t they? He’ll join Hugo to have the honeymoon first on their own version of Love Island. They can get married later!

All he needs to do is find him…

Rating: A-

In my review of Charles, the first book in Con Riley’s Learning to Love series, I said that he seemed to be one of those characters who elbowed their way into an author’s brain and demanded their story be written. Vibrant, funny, larger-than-life and a complete scene-stealer Charles Heppel certainly lit up the pages whenever he appeared, and the book was one of my top reads of the year. Charles and his fiancé Hugo (aka His Holy Hotness) have made cameo appearances in the other books in the series, so I was pleased when the author announced that she was writing a series finale that would once again put Charles and Hugo centre stage and take a peek at them after their happy ever after.

Heppel Ever After is definitely best read as part of the series – after Charles (and maybe Luke) – and is the only book in the set that doesn’t really stand alone. Please be aware there may be spoilers for the rest of the series in this review.

Charles and Hugo have been engaged for a year, but something always gets in the way of their actually being able to set a wedding date. They’ve had to change it twice already because it’s been so difficult to fit in around Hugo’s duties as school padre and ‘stand-in’ vicar for the various local parishes. Hugo is still waiting to secure a permanent post, even though his experience as an army chaplain and at the school should have made it an easy next step, and Charles is convinced that he is the weak link. As a vicar’s spouse, Charles will be expected to play a key role in the community and so he, too, has to go through an interview process – and he (so he thinks) just can’t seem to get it right. When the book begins, they’re on their way to another interview, but Charles’ old insecurities about not being good enough have come roaring back, that small voice telling him that maybe Hugo would be better off with someone smarter, someone more sophisticated and better informed rather than someone who seems to cost him every job he’s interviewed for. Hugo, of course, believes nothing of the sort. He knows just what an asset Charles will be, wherever they end up, and is adamant that he isn’t prepared to accept a position anywhere that won’t also welcome Charles with open arms. Charles knows Hugo loves him and wants him to be as happy and fulfilled by their new life as Hugo hopes to be – but that little voice just won’t go away.

Sadly, the interview doesn’t go well – which is completely the fault of the bigoted old farts on the parish council who make clear their disapproval of Charles and Hugo’s living arrangements and belittle Charles’ profession. Hugo decides then and there that it isn’t the place for them and terminates the procedings, but Charles worries that they may have lost their last chance to find somewhere in Cornwall that’s close enough for Charles to be able to continue working at Glynn Harber school. Hugo, however, is very chipper about it, firmly believing that the inner voice that has guided him thus far will speak to him again and point him where he needs to go when the time is right.

It’s the last day of the term at school, and Charles and Hugo make it back just in time to say goodbye to the maggots for the summer holidays. Charles is quickly surrounded by kids while Hugo heads off to phone his supervisor to tell him about the interview. Half an hour later, Charles is heading home when he picks up a message from Hugo, apologising for leaving without saying goodbye. The bishop is sending him on a short assignment to a small island off the Cornish coast, a kind of welfare check on the elderly Duke of Kara-Enys, who has suddenly become very reclusive and has begun closing off the island. Hugo is sure that Kara-Enys is where he’s supposed to be, and assures Charles he’ll be back as soon as he can.

Somewhat downcast, Charles heads off to Casterley (his family home) alone. He misses Hugo dreadfully and, after a couple of days, decides to follow him to Kara-Enys, although he’ll need a bit of help to get there. As it turns out, help is at hand in the form of one of his former – er… conquests. Not only does Rex Helligan own a helicopter, he knows the island like the back of his hand. Which he should do, seeing as the Duke of Kara-Enys is his grandfather and he was practically brought up there.

Heppel Ever After is a lovely continuation of Charles and Hugo’s story, and is so much more than the simple wrap-up novella full of cameos I’d been half-expecting. The couple is solid and as much in love as ever, but here, on a quiet island with time to themselves away from the hustle and bustle of life and work, they get a chance to take a breath and step back to take a good look at where they are and where they want to be. Their conversations are funny and philosophical, tender, heartfelt and sometimes difficult, but they’re always honest, as both men come to realise what is most important to them indivudially and as a couple. At the heart of the story is Charles’ continued growth and his coming to accept that he’s important, too. He so badly wants Hugo to be happy and to get a parish of his own, but still can’t believe he’s worthy of the same degree of personal satisfaction, and Hugo badly wants Charles to be able to clearly see himself as an equal partner who is fully deserving of happiness and fulfillment.

“We’re going to tie the knot, right?”

Charles nodded.

“One that’s going to hold fast?”

Charles nodded again, harder. “Forever.”

“Then it can’t constrict you.”

As Hugo says later, “It can’t be all about me.” He works hard to show Charles, in different ways – some big, some small – that he really is enough, just as he is – dearly loved and wonderfully imperfect, but perfect for him. And while they’re working on their relationship, they also get to do what they both do best, which is to help others through some tough times.

I really appreciated the way the matter of Hugo’s faith is handled in this book. I’m not religious, but it strikes me that Hugo is exactly what a man of God should be; dependable, compassionate and loving, believing his faith will guide him to do the right thing. And Charles, while he may not be an obvious choice to be a vicar’s spouse, is a genuinely good and kind man with a huge heart – and a naughty streak a mile long *wink*.

If you enjoyed the other books in the Learning to Love series, then you probably won’t need any encouragement from me to go out and pick this one up, but just in case you’re wavering, then let me assure you that Heppel Ever After is well worth the read. It’s an emotional, funny and charming story that is both a wonderfully happy ending and a beautiful beginning to Charles and Hugo’s future together.

Austin (Learning to Love #4) by Con Riley


This title may be purchased from Amazon

Can Austin learn to love the opposite who attracts him?

Austin Russell doesn’t belong at a small school like Glynn Harber. He’s meant to be a high flyer in finance not a book-keeping bursar. Now there’s only one renovation project left to budget, it’s time he toughened his soft heart and got back to climbing the corporate ladder.

The truth is he’d rather climb Maisie Dymond’s father.

That urge doesn’t add up—Dom Dymond is his polar opposite—but when a near-miss brings them together, Austin discovers there’s more below his laid-back surface, especially as Dom’s determined to win the bid for the school’s last rebuilding project.

Working in proximity means Austin can’t deny that they’re opposites who don’t only attract, they combust whenever they’re close. Telling himself it’s only a fling doesn’t ring true when Dom opens up about what keeps him in Cornwall. He’s there to heal his fractured family, and he wants Austin as part of it.

That openness makes Austin want to share too, but will Dom still feel the same attraction once he knows what drives Austin to keep climbing his ladder?

Rating: B+

The fourth book in Con Riley’s excellent Learning to Love series is Austin, a touching and heartfelt story about learning not only to love, but to forgive, let go of the past, and move on. Austin Russell had a significant role to play in the previous book, Luke, when he was sent by his employer, then the owner of Glynn Harber school, to carry out an audit they fully intended to use to force the school to close. Although he came across as rather uptight and snappish, it was clear that Austin’s heart was really not in the job he’d been sent to do, andin the end, he helped headmaster Luke to gain control of the school (with the help of some new financial backers) and agreed to stay on as bursar while things got up and running.

But now, Austin has decided it’s time to leave and get back to his high-flying financial career full of corporate ladders to climb, six figure salaries to earn and big bonuses to accrue. He’s really not meant to be keeping the books at a small, specialist school, yet he’s found a home in Cornwall and friends at the school, and he doesn’t really want to leave.But he’s going to have to if he’s going to meet the financial targets he’s set for himself.

His current project at the school – overseeing the budget and bids for the renovation of the art department – will be his final one, and he intends to hand in his resignation at the end of the breakfast meeting he’s having with Luke and Glynn Harber’s new backers, but that idea is scuppered when he observes a little girl tip-toeing along the sea wall. His heart in his throat, Austin fumes inwardly as he realises it’s little Maisie Dymond, who has, once again, been left completely unsupervised. Many’s the time Austin has waited with Maisie at the end of the school day for her dad to arrive to collect her – he’s never on time – and now, here she is again, left on her own. It’s impossible to prevent the sight of Maisie from bringing back memories of another little girl who came to harm because the person supposed to look after her didn’t – and Austin is up and running almost before she falls into the sea, diving in without a thought for his own safety.

Maisie’s father, Dominic Dymond, arrives in time to help get both his daughter and Austin out of the water, but even though Austin is a little banged up, it doesn’t prevent him from giving Dom a piece of his mind – “When will you start being there for her when she needs you?” At the hospital later, he’s surprised to find Dom waiting for him outside his cubicle – and equally surprised to see a very different man to the one he’s seen arriving at school late every afternoon. This man’s eyes are full of care and worry and his body language speaks of someone way past exhaustion – and when he tells Austin that Maisie’s mum was supposed to be looking after her, Austin realises he’s jumped to some very wrong conclusions.

This new understanding – Austin of how he’s misjudged Dom, Dom of how he needs to make changes to keep Maisie safe – also marks the beginning of a new awareness of each other and of the acknowledgement of a mutual attraction. Even though Austin plans to leave Cornwall as soon as the deal for the renovation project is sealed, Dom hopes he might change his mind and makes no bones about the fact that he’d love to get to know Austin better. Collaborating with Dom on the building project really brings home to Austin that he doesn’t want to go back to his old life, but he’s torn; not doing so will mean letting down someone equally important to him and not paying the debt he’s been carrying for many years.

While perhaps a little less angsty than some of the other books in the series, Austin is still full of the emotional depth I’ve come to expect from Con Riley’s stories. Austin has a reputation for being ruthless in business dealings – in his own words, he’s a “cutthroat bastard” – but the author slowly strips away the protective layers he’s built up over the years to reveal the gentler, more vulnerable man beneath, who has, for many years and for the best of motives, been shouldering a burden he should never have had to carry. If you’ve been following the series, you’ll remember that Austin and Sol (Glynn Harber’s art teacher) used to be a couple but that Austin walked out not long after Sol took custody of his then thirteen-year-old nephew, Cameron. I really appreciated getting the other side of that story and learning that Austin’s decision was born more of a desire to protect them than from any distaste for family life or parenthood. I liked watching him and Cameron coming to a kind of truce, too – and seeing how far Cameron has come since we first met him in Sol.

As with the other books, Austin is single PoV so we don’t get into Dom’s head, but the author does a great job of presenting him to the reader through Austin’s eyes. He’s a good dad and a genuinely decent man trying to do the best for the little girl he adores and the other people in his life while he also helps out his dad and runs a high-end, specialist business. His plate’s pretty full, but he’s absolutely determined to get it right, to be a good partner to Austin and a good father to Maisie. The chemistry between the two men sizzles nicely, and I really appreciated that theirs is a very adult relationship, with lots of give-and-take and a willingness to compromise and learn together.

I loved getting to spend a bit of time with the secondary cast of Glynn Harber regulars – especially Charles whose words of wisdom are priceless and who continues to steal every scene he’s in – and I loved finding out that the school’s new lease of life came courtesy of the company owned by Nick from His Compass.

Austin is, put simply, a lovely book. Immensely readable, with engaging characters, a nice dash of humour and a sexy, slow-burn love story, it’s a wonderful way to spend a lazy afternoon. There’s a final Learning to Love book in progress (featuring, I believe, Charles and Hugo’s various attempts to get married!), and I’m certainly looking forward to joining this group of characters I’ve come to love for one last hurrah later this year.

His Compass (His #2) by Con Riley (audiobook) – Narrated by Cornell Collins

his compass

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Tom has one rule: Don’t sleep with the crew. A second chance with a younger, gorgeous deckhand tempts him to break it.

After a busy season as a charter-hire skipper, Tom yearns for some downtime. His lonely heart also aches for adventure with someone special, but paying his bills has to come first. A surprise sailing contract and huge bonus offer his first glimpse of freedom for years. There’s only one catch: he must crew with Nick, a deckhand who jumped ship once already.

Nick’s as young and untested as the new yacht they’re contracted to sail, and he’s just as gorgeous. Forced to spend a month as Nick’s captain, Tom discovers depths he hadn’t noticed. He’s captivated, and happier sailing with Nick than he’s been in forever. However, their voyage is finite, and both men keep soul-deep secrets.

As the contract draws to an end, they must get honest about what’s in their hearts if they want to share a life at sea, and love, forever.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – A-

Con Riley’s His trilogy continues with His Compass, a May/December, forced proximity romance between a forty-something charter-hire skipper and his younger crewmate. The characters are beautifully drawn and their romance is nuanced and emotional; I loved the book when I read it back in 2021 and was only too pleased to be able to experience it all over again in audio.

Tom Kershaw has spent most of his life at sea, and now works as a skipper on a luxury charter yacht. He appeared briefly in the previous book (His Horizon) when he made an unscheduled stop at Porthperrin in Cornwall in order to return his deckhand Jude home to deal with a family emergency. Tom thought highly of Jude and was fond of him, but sadly, Jude’s replacement was something of a disaster; lazy, messy and unreliable, Nick might have been sociable and great with the guests, but he never finished a task he was given and his claims of growing up around boats and crewing from a young age were clearly lies, as he couldn’t do any of the jobs Tom needed him to. Then one day, he just up and left without a word, leaving Tom in the lurch.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Luke (Learning to Love #3) by Con Riley


This title may be purchased from Amazon

Headmaster Luke Lawson is committed to saving his boarding school before a cash crisis sinks it. He’ll do anything to keep it afloat, even if that means accepting help from the man who broke his heart at uni.

Nathan’s offer to teach for free could be a blessing as long as Luke can harden his bruised heart. That’s tough when they’ll need to share living quarters and have a history of hook-ups. But Luke knows being compatible in bed isn’t enough to build trust. It can’t be when Nathan has always left him before morning.
This time around, it feels different. Nathan’s work overseas has changed him. Touched him. Opened a locked chamber in his heart that Luke is beginning to think must have been bruised in the past too.

As pressure mounts, can Luke trust that Nathan’s committed this time—not only to his school but to a shared future with him long term?

Rating: A-

Luke, book three in Con Riley’s Learning to Love series, is a beautiful and powerful second-chance, friends-to-lovers story full of the exactly the sort of emotional soul-searching and insight I’ve come to expect and enjoy from this author.  As in the other books in the series, the glorious Cornish settings are vividly described and the characters are complex, flawed, likeable and easy to root for.

Luke Lawson, headmaster of Glynn Harber school in Cornwall, is drowning in problems – or rather, one single, massive problem. Ever since the school was taken over by the Supernus Group, there has been constant pressure on him to cut costs, and no matter that he’s already pared expenditure down to the bone, there’s just no way he can keep the school going in its present state if even more funding is cut.  We know from the previous books that the school is a labour of love for Luke, and he’s passionately dedicated to Glynn Harber’s ethos of providing disadvantaged children with a safe space in which to learn and grow.  The constant pressure to prioritise balancing the books over the learning and wellbeing of the children in his care is a heavy burden however, and one he’s shouldering almost entirely alone – but he’s determined to fight to keep the school open until the bitter end.  And right now, that end is looking closer than ever.

Like, Hugo (see Charles) Nathan Ridd has spent a number of years working for aid organisations in some of the most dangerous places in the world.  He was with Hugo when Hugo was injured in a shelling attack in Syria, and continues to come and go, returning to England for brief periods and then returning to continue his work overseas.  Luke, Hugo and Nathan have been best friends since their university days, and there are strong hints in the previous books that Luke and Nathan were probably more than friends at one point, and even though we’ve seen very little of Nathan so far, the chemistry between him and Luke has been intense.  Despite a youthful relationship that didn’t work out, it’s very clear that neither man has ever been able to get the other out of his system, and we discover that over the years, whenever Nathan has been back in England, they’ve been hooking up on the quiet.  But Luke has always wanted more than that from Nathan, and has decided it’s time he stopped hurting himself by hoping for more from someone who so clearly doesn’t want it.  Nathan is coming to Glynn Harber to give a career talk, and Luke will tell him he can’t handle casual any more and wants to go back to being friends… without the benefits.

But the Nathan who returns to Glynn Harber is… different.  Quieter.  Tired.  Slower.  And ready to stay.  After so many years of loving Nathan and being left by him, can Luke trust that Nathan means it when he tells him he’ll stick around for as long as Luke needs him?  And what if that’s forever..?

Luke is full of heartfelt emotion and intense longing that leaps off the page as these two lonely, damaged men slowly find their way back to each other and find their places in each other’s lives.  It’s a story of forgiveness, personal growth and learning to let go as they are finally honest with each other – and with themselves – about what they want and what’s been holding them back.  They’ve both been shaped by years of unprocessed trauma, experiences that have caused them to build thick emotional walls, and that they have both transcended their upbringings to become such selfless and compassionate men is testament to their massive resilience and inner strength.

Based on what we’ve learned of him prior to this, it would be easy to think of Nathan as a bit selfish and oblivious, but it quickly becomes clear that he’s not like that at all and that he’s serious about making things right with Luke. And Luke, who has seemed rather severe and stoic is, beneath it all, a warm, generous, big-hearted man who is utterly devoted to guiding the young people in his care towards becoming the best they can possibly be.

I really liked the way the author slowly drip-feeds the important information about Luke and Nathan’s history together through the novel, each flashback or recollection coming at exactly the right time. Their honesty and willingness to communicate their wants and needs is something that has stayed with me; it’s not easy for either of them but they know they need to do it if they’re going to break free of the unhealthy patterns they’ve fallen into, and I absolutely loved that Luke, who is such a staunch advocate of good communication for his pupils and believes passionately that they should be able to speak their truths, is prepared to put his money where his mouth is and apply the same principles to himself.  The journey the on which the author takes Luke and Nathan – and the reader – is one filled with self-doubt and vulnerability, with friendship and compassion, as they learn it’s safe to let go of the past and that they’re finally on the same page at the same time and in the right emotional space to begin to make a life together.

The school community is an important part of this story, and I found myself wishing so hard that Glynn Harber was real, that every child could have the opportunity to go to a school like this where they’re allowed and helped to heal as well as to learn.   The educational system here is so focused on exam success that the acutal kids are often forgotten in the rush to climb the league tables – but that’s a diatribe for another day.  I can’t leave the subject, however, without saying how hard I grinned at the name of the bad guy in the story; take out one letter and it’s the name of probably the worst Education Secretary in living memory.  I don’t know if that was deliberate or not, but nice one, Ms. Riley 😉

Passionate, moving and tender, Luke and Nathan’s story will make you smile, make you tear up and tug at the heartstrings in the best way.  Luke joins Charles on my keeper shelf, and is highly recommended.

Sol (Learning to Love #2) by Con Riley

Sol 2

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Solomon Trebeck’s heart broke the night of his bi-awakening.

Fifteen years later, Sol’s back in Cornwall where it happened, single, shy, and oh-so lonely. Teaching art to kids wasn’t his life plan. Neither is raising a teenage nephew, but with no family left to support him, a live-in job at a boarding school becomes his life raft.

Problem: that life raft is sinking.

Solution: Sol’s first love could have the cash to keep it afloat.

Reconnecting with Jace Pascoe might save the school—the one place Sol’s nephew is happy. Asking for his help opens old wounds, but Jace helps to heal them, fusing Sol’s broken heart back together. However, Jace has his own shadows, no matter how brightly his smile dazzles.

Falling for Jace again could be so easy. It could also be a huge risk when neither of them plans to stay in Cornwall forever….

Rating: B

Con Riley has become a must-read author for me over the last couple of years, and she earned high grades for her last three books, which I gave DIK reviews.  The most recent of these – Charles, book one in the Learning to Love series – was always going to be a tough act to follow due to its incredibly loveable and engaging titular character, but I had high hopes that book two, Sol, would wow me, too.  I’m a fan of second-chance romances, and have been looking forward to learning more about Solomon Trebeck, the quiet, reserved art teacher at Glynn Harber school.  However, I can’t say that I loved the book as much as I’d hoped to.  It’s a poignant and beautifully written story about a man struggling under the weight of commitments, trying to sort his life out, and to allow himself not just to learn to love (as per the series title) but to accept it – but the insta-love nature of the romance didn’t really work for me.

A couple of years before the story begins, Sol had to take custody of his teenaged nephew, Cameron, who was brought up by his grandmother – Sol’s mother Mary- owing to the fact that his own mother is unable to take care of him.  When Mary Trebeck died unexpectedly, Sol had not only to deal with his own grief at her loss, but to take on the responsibility for his grieving nephew, too.  To start with, Sol moved Cameron into his home in London, but when he realised that uprooting the boy from the life he’d known in Cornwall had been a mistake, he took a job teaching art at Glynn Harber school.  Teaching is not a job he’d ever wanted to do, but his position there at least provides him with somewhere to live and means Cameron’s schooling is paid for.  But as much as he loves Cameron and wants to do the best for him, their relationship is going from bad to worse, and Sol is at a loss as how to repair it.

As was hinted at in the previous book, all is not well at Glynn Harber.  The finances are strapped and there’s the strong possibility that the head will have to take the drastic step of dispensing with the free places and scholarships the school offers if he’s going to balance the books.  It’s not something he wants to do at all; those free places go to kids who really need the kind of security and nurturing environment the school specialises in, kids who were “given up on before they got here” – and he believes, passionately and wholeheartedly, in continuing to give those children what they need to succeed.  But unless he can come up with a way of bringing in more money, those places will have to be cut and the whole school may eventually be forced to close.  He suggests to the staff that they all try to find a benefactor with money to invest, or talented people willing to be associated with the school whose names might help drum up more fee-paying parents.

Sol finds himself thinking, not for the first time since he returned to Cornwall, of Jace Pascoe, the object of his first ever same-sex crush and the boy whose kisses had revealed a truth about himself that Sol hadn’t known before – that he liked guys as well as girls.  He and Jace haven’t seen each other since the night they kissed fifteen years before; Sol promised he’d return later that evening, but instead found himself whisked away to live in London by his father without a moment to spare and with no money to even make a phone call. But Jace’s mother Emily was a well-known artist and her paintings sell for massive amounts of money – could Jace be persuaded to help save the school?  Sol can’t believe he’s even considering asking, or that Jace will listen, given they haven’t seen or spoken for fifteen years, but he’s willing to try anything if it means keeping Glynn Harber open and providing much-needed stability for Cameron in a place that makes him happy.

Sol and Jace’s reunion is as awkward as you might expect, but it doesn’t take too long for them to become comfortable around each other again.  They have great chemistry and it’s very clear that the feelings that were developing between them as teens have never gone away, but things move so fast in the present that it feels like a strong dose of insta-love rather than a second-chance romance in which the couple spends time learning about the people they are now – and it didn’t really work for me.  I find it difficult to accept that two people who haven’t been in contact for fifteen years could just pick up where they left off – and being so young the last time they saw each other makes it an even harder sell because we change and grow so much in the years between fifteen and thirty.

That, though, is my major gripe about a book I otherwise enjoyed a lot.  Sol is the story’s sole narrator, so we see everything through his eyes, but all the characters are superbly drawn and their motivations are clear.  Sol is a complicated character with a lot on his plate – family tragedy and loss, a nephew he can’t connect with, a job he doesn’t really want but needs, the possibility of losing it – and Ms. Riley does a great job of conveying how utterly overwhelmed he is by it all.  He’s easy to sympathise with but difficult to like sometimes – his passive-aggressiveness towards Jace doesn’t paint him in the best light, and the almost continual sense that he’s waiting for the other shoe to drop can be exhausting  – and yet I could understand where he was coming from, and I appreciated the way we’re shown him coming to realise the difference between being responsible for someone and genuinely caring for them.  Unlike Sol, Jace is outgoing and sociable; he’s also kind, insightful and completely upfront with Sol about how he feels – which I found very refreshing – and it’s he who finds a way for Sol to begin to reconnect with Cameron (who has started to go off the rails a bit).  In fact, one of the real highlights of the book is watching Cameron’s slow transformation from surly, resentful teen to a caring, determined and passionate young man.  But Jace seems to have no flaws and comes across as too good to be true at times. Still, there’s no doubt that he and Sol feel for each other very deeply and are good for one another, and although this may seem an odd thing to say, while the romance didn’t work all that well for me, the relationship did.

Con Riley excels at crafting quiet stories full of genuine emotion, featuring ordinary, relatable characters with ordinary, relatable problems, and those things are much in evidence here. Sol’s journey towards learning to accept himself and that he’s worthy of love is very well done, and it, together with the lyrical but understated prose, the beautifully realised setting and the wonderful sense of community the author has created around Glynn Harber earns Sol a recommendation.

Charles: Learning to Love (Learning to Love #1) by Con Riley

charles learning to love

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Life should be a breeze for a playboy like Charles Heppel. As the third son of an earl, he lives for the moment, partying and playing. Settling down isn’t for him. Not when London is full of beautiful men who he hasn’t one-and-done yet.

To escape his family’s nagging, Charles applies for a temp job that matches his playful skill set. A role in a Cornish classroom could be his until the summer, if Charles meets two conditions: he must move in with the headmaster’s best friend, and teach him to be happy.

Living with Hugo should be awkward. Charles is a free spirit, but Hugo’s a man of faith, with morals. A man who almost took holy orders before disaster changed his direction. Only far from being a chore, Charles finds that making Hugo happy soon becomes his passion.

Together, they share physical and emotional first times. Ones that change Charles, touching his soul. He wants Hugo for longer than they have left, but learning to love with his heart, not just his body, will take a leap of faith from Charles — in himself as well as Hugo.

Rating: A

I’ve often heard/read authors say – ‘this character just took over my brain and demanded their own book’.  I don’t know if that’s what happened to Con Riley when she created Charles Heppel, a major secondary character in His Haven, but whatever the case, he’s one of those characters.  Vibrant, funny, larger-than-life and a complete scene-stealer, Charles lit up the pages whenever he appeared, and I was delighted when I learned he would be getting his own book.

Charles: Learning to Love is book one in the Learning to Love series, and it’s a gorgeously romantic, sexy and poignant story about two quite different men learning not just to love, but about themselves, who they truly are and what they truly want.  The writing is superb, the setting is expertly rendered and the characterisation is excellent; I honestly can’t think of anything about this book that I didn’t love or that didn’t work for me.

Readers of His Haven will already know that Charles has a somewhat uneasy relationship with his older brother George – heir to their father’s earldom – and that he goes home to the family estate, as infrequently as possible.  When this book opens, Charles is trying to sneak out without George knowing; he’s got a job interview and isn’t in the mood to listen to George criticising (again) his choice of profession (Charles works with pre-schoolers, helping them learn through play) and his lack of success in finding or holding down a permanent position.  Alas for Charles, he can’t get away that easily. George catches him and isn’t pleased; he wanted Charles to stay to help him out with the various projects he’s got going on, but Charles knows he’ll only screw up, and that would make things between them even worse.

Glynn Harber is a small, independent school close to The Haven in Cornwall and although the job is another temporary position, Charles likes the place immediately. Unfortunately, the interview doesn’t go well leaving Charles once again feeling like a total failure who is just Not Good Enough.

Heartsick and defeated, Charles decides to go for a walk, taking shelter in the chapel in the woods when it starts to rain.  The quiet soothes him a bit, and he sits behind the curtain of the ‘confessional’, allowing himself a few moments of honesty to feel his disappointment. Then he hears someone sit down on the other side of the curtain, and assuming it’s Keir (his best friend) come to pick him up, decides to have a bit of fun and starts to confess his sins, in a typically self-deprecating way:

“Father, first I need to confess about all of the sex I’ve had before marriage…   It’s a lot, and we probably don’t have time for a complete run-through but would you pass on my thanks for making me both gay and a magnet to men?  Especially to the ones I like best – allergic to commitment like me?  It’s made being a man-whore so much easier.”

But can’t keep up the act in front of his oldest friend:

“… it keeps getting harder to do this.  I get to know the children, and learn all their maggoty ways.  Then I have to leave them.  I never, ever get to see any of them flourish.  Grow their little wings and take off.”

Of course, it’s not Keir on the other side of the curtain at all – it’s His Holy Hotness, aka Hugo Eavis (whom we also met briefly in His Haven), formerly an army padre who is temporarily in charge of pastoral support at the school.  He immediately puts Charles at his ease by sharing something about himself, explaining that he “stepped off the ordination track” a year earlier and decided to take a sabbatical overseas which didn’t end well.  He was injured in a shelling attack in Syria, and now he’s at one of life’s crossroads. He’s returned home to rest and recover from his injuries and to work out what he’s called to do next.

While they’re talking, they’re told about a missing child and immediately rush to help. All ends well when Charles finds him, and the combination of Charles’ obvious affinity with young children and the way he’s making Hugo smile for the first time in ages, makes the headmaster of the school extend an olive branch and an offer.  He asks Charles to stay to help the very pregnant class teacher until he can find a suitably qualified replacement – but most importantly, Hugo is a dear friend he’d like to see happier… and he thinks Charles is the man for the job.

Charles is, as I said at the beginning, one of those characters who just leaps off the page.  He has a huge heart and an equally huge capacity for joy, love and compassion; his dedication to the children in his care is inspiring and it’s clear that not only does he love his job but he has a deeply insightful understanding of the way children develop and how important play is in that development.  And yet, owing to severe but undiagnosed dyslexia and low working memory, Charles has been made to feel like a failure his entire life and believes himself to be “shallow as a puddle”,  good for little other than a good laugh and a good fuck. Yet he’s so intensely loveable, a deeply good, kind person (to everyone but himself, that is), and his inability to see that his value is beyond price is heart-breaking.

There is so much to love and enjoy about Hugo and Charles’ romance.  It’s funny, it’s touching and real and insightful; Hugo is Charles’ opposite in many ways, yet they just click;  his unconditional understanding and ability to listen to what isn’t said as much as what is encourages Charles to open up about things he’s never spoken of, not even to Keir, and Hugo’s unwavering belief in Charles, in his ability to change lives for the better – including Hugo’s – and to see him and celebrate him for the man he is give Charles something he so desperately needs, especially at those moments of almost crushing self-doubt.  And in return, Hugo flourishes under Charles’ care and support, learning to smile and enjoy life again even as he is trying to understand the true nature of his spiritual calling and to work out what he wants to do with his life.

The secondary characters are wonderfully drawn, especially a little boy named Tor with whom Charles develops a special bond, and George.  I adored the relationship between the brothers, and how Charles comes to a new appreciation of what George has been dealing with.  It’s clear that George loves Charles dearly, even though sometimes he’s a bit tactless, and Charles realises that he’s been struggling and determines to be a better brother.

It’s not unusual for me to find myself tearing up or with a lump in my throat while reading an  emotional story, but something about this particular story really got to me – tugged at my heartstrings, hit me in the feels, however you want to describe it – and I cried tears of happiness and heartbreak through the last quarter of the book!  Charles gradually coming to see himself the way Hugo sees him and really, truly beginning to believe in himself is unforgettable and just marvellously written, as is the moment where he fears he’s been mistaken and he’s Not Enough after all.

I feel as though I’ve barely scraped the surface of Charles: Learning to Love, because there’s so much more to it than I’ve had space to talk about here.  Charles himself is a truly memorable character, and watching him falling in love with possibly the most unlikely man makes for one of the most beautiful romances I’ve ever read.  This book earns Con Riley another DIK and puts her firmly on my list of ‘must read’ authors.

His Haven (His #3) by Con Riley

his haven

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Once jilted, twice shy…

Keir Brodie is a lawyer with good reason for his trust issues. A year after his groom didn’t show up at their wedding, he’s still heartsore and hurting. Work has been his saviour, but a new project sets alarm bells ringing — his favourite client wants to buy a house for someone Keir thinks is a liar.

Mitch’s nice-guy act doesn’t fool Keir, and he can’t let sparks flying when they’re together distract him. That’s just the flare of opposites attracting, not the lifelong connection he misses. Besides, no amount of passion is worth risking his heart, especially with someone only down for onetime hook-ups.

Their shared project chips away at Keir’s first impressions. As the truth, and Keir, unravel, Mitch pieces him back together in ways Keir couldn’t have predicted. Trusting Mitch with more than his client’s money will take a leap of faith, in himself, and in a man Keir hopes won’t leave him waiting.

Rating: A-

The third book in Con Riley’s His series of contemporary romances, His Haven is a gorgeous, angsty opposites-attract romance between an uptight lawyer and an open-hearted gentle giant of a man, and it’s every bit as good as His Compass, which I adored.

The books in this series work as standalones, but I’d advise reading His Compass before this one, as it will provide a bit more background detail about the relationships between the main characters.

The beginning of His Haven finds lawyer Keir Brodie aboard The Aphrodite, the charter yacht owned by Tom Kershaw and his partner Nick, together with Tom’s younger brother Justin and Justin’s carer, Mitch, a specialist in severe brain injury rehabilitation.  Nick comes from an extremely wealthy family, and Keir sees it as part of his job to protect him from poor decisions and to make sure he isn’t taken advantage of financially, so when Nick and Tom ask Keir if he will work with Mitch to find Justin a house somewhere near Porthperrin harbour, alarm bells start ringing. Property in the area is far from cheap and Justin can’t live independently; Keir suspects Mitch is behind the idea, that he’s sowed seeds of doubt in Tom’s mind about The Haven (the facility Justin and Mitch live in) becoming a bit run down, and is out to get himself a very valuable property without paying a penny.  Keir’s suspicions are only increased by the fact that Mitch has been blatantly flirting with him all day but wears a silver band on his ring finger – and in Keir’s eyes, cheaters are the lowest of the low.  But it’s his job to do what Nick instructs him to do, even if it means spending time with Mitch and constantly shutting down his flirty innuendo.

It’s apparent right away that Keir is tightly wound and the way he jumps to conclusions about Mitch makes him seem like a class A prick.  But it’s also clear that there’s something else behind his suspicions, something that doesn’t really have anything to do with Mitch at all.  Almost a year earlier, Keir’s fiancé jilted him on their wedding day, and since then, he’s thrown himself into his work rather than deal with the emotional fallout.  It’s obviously left him with serious trust issues, but Ms. Riley slowly and skilfully shows us that those issues go a lot further back than his aborted wedding.  He’s wounded, hurting and lost and the author does an amazing job of portraying him as a man close to the edge, the raw emotions that lurk behind his rigidly maintained self-control a tangible presence.

By contrast, Mitch is pretty much an open book.  He’s kind and patient and understanding and he’s one of life’s givers; he’s devoted to Justin and to making his life the best it can be, and he regularly goes above and beyond at The Haven, helping to care for all the residents and being an important part of the community there.  He’s a skilled professional, too – he senses straight away that Keir is carrying a huge burden and genuinely wants to help; there’s a lovely scene early on where he helps Keir through a panic attack which shows exactly the sort of person he is – he notices everything and acts accordingly and that moment is something of a turning point in his relationship with Keir.
Keir is definitely attracted to Mitch but he fights it all the way – until he decides he’s tired of feeling empty and alone and that maybe a fling with Mitch is just what he needs. Mitch has made it clear he’s not looking for anything long term, and that suits Keir just fine; they’ll have a no-strings affair while they’re house-hunting for Justin and once that’s done, so are they. Simple.

But of course, it’s not simple at all, and it doesn’t take long at all for both men to realise that there’s more than ‘just sex’ to whatever is going on between them. The romance between this unlikely pair is beautifully written and superbly developed as they learn more about each other – their pasts and insecurities – and Keir comes to fully appreciate the role Mitch plays in Justin’s life and to see him for the genuine, caring man he is. He is also, with Mitch’s help, able to start letting go of some of the experiences and misconceptions that have been holding him back and to begin to move forward with his life. The amount of character growth Keir experiences is phenomenal; one can almost feel him slowly lightening up as he learns to trust – and to love – Mitch, who makes him feel truly wanted and fully present in a way he hasn’t ever felt before, as though he’s enough and worthy of being held on to after a life full – one way or another – of rejection.

Mitch isn’t without his demons; we learn here of the guilt he carries over the incident that happened in his younger days that prompted him to specialise in brain injuries, and how it informed his attitude towards relationships. He’s such a thoughtful, compassionate person, and he thoroughly deserves someone who’s going to look out for and be there for him, someone who sees him and understands what’s important to him. The chemistry between these two very different men is so strong that it leaps off the page, and their romance is peppered with moments of such perfect honesty and understanding as to be almost breathtaking.

Although Keir is the PoV character, the author does such a great job of bringing Mitch to life through his eyes that I didn’t for one moment miss a second perspective, and the same is true of the secondary characters. Justin is extremely well-written and the limitations he lives with as a result of his injury feel very realistic; he’s endearing and sweet, but there’s no question that looking after him can be difficult at times. I loved catching up with Nick and Tom, and meeting Keir’s best friend and flatmate Charles, who is huge fun and completely irrepressible, but who clearly has issues of his own to deal with. I was delighted to learn that he’s getting his own book soon and I’ll be at the front of the queue waiting for it!

A warm, tender and emotionally satisfying romance featuring two memorable leads and a superbly characterised secondary cast, His Haven will tug at the heartstrings and bring a tear to the eye in the very best way. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

His Compass (His #2) by Con Riley

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Tom has one rule: don’t sleep with the crew. A second chance with a younger, gorgeous deckhand tempts him to break it.

After a busy season as a charter-hire skipper, Tom yearns for some downtime. His lonely heart also aches for adventure with someone special, but paying his bills has to come first. A surprise sailing contract and huge bonus offer his first glimpse of freedom for years. There’s only one catch: he must crew with Nick, a deckhand who jumped ship once already.

Nick’s as young and untested as the new yacht they’re contracted to sail, and he’s just as gorgeous. Forced to spend a month as Nick’s captain, Tom discovers depths he hadn’t noticed. He’s captivated, and happier sailing with Nick than he’s been in forever. However, their voyage is finite, and both men keep soul-deep secrets.

As the contract draws to an end, they must get honest about what’s in their hearts if they want to share a life at sea, and love, forever.

Rating: A-

His Compass – the second book in Con Riley’s His series – is a beautifully written, emotionally charged May/December love story featuring two characters we met briefly in book one, His Horizon.  That was the first book I’ve read by this author, and while I liked it, it didn’t knock my socks off. His Compass, however, is a completely different matter and my socks are long gone 😉

When Tom Kershaw, skipper of the charter yacht Aphrodite, took his crewmate and friend Jude Anstey home to Cornwall, he had to fill Jude’s shoes pretty quickly so he could move on to his next charter.  Unfortunately however, Jude’s replacement proved to be something of a liability; gorgeous, sociable Nick’s claims of growing up around boats and crewing from the moment he left school proved at best, to be highly exaggerated and at worst, to be outright lies.  Sure, Nick was outgoing and good with people, but he was also lazy, messy and unreliable; he never finished a task he started, he couldn’t cook or do any of the jobs Tom needed him to do – and one day, he just up and left without a word.

A few months later, Tom is offered the chance to sea-trial a brand spanking new yacht – so new, she doesn’t even have a name yet – for a big fat bonus he badly needs.  He’s apprehensive and worried that this new vessel may be poised to replace his beloved Aphrodite and that perhaps, once the trial is over, he will find himself out of work – but those worries fly from his mind when he steps aboard to discover that the deckhand he’s been assigned is the last one he’d ever want to sail with again.  Tom is angry (and maybe a little relieved to find out that Nick is safe and well) and ready to storm off and insist on getting another deckhand – but Nick pleads to be allowed to stay, promises he’ll try harder and Tom reluctantly agrees to let him.  But there are conditions.  First, that Nick must always be completely honest about what he does and doesn’t know; second, that Nick stops bullshitting about his experience.  Tom doesn’t want to hear any more excuses.

Most of the story is set aboard the yacht on the month-long sea trial, during which Tom comes to the realisation that there is a lot more to Nick than he ever suspected, and that far from being lazy and incompetent, he’s bright and enthusiastic and capable – and that all he’d really needed to unlock his potential was someone to encourage and believe in him.  The story is told solely from Tom’s PoV, but he’s so strongly attuned to Nick that it’s almost as good as hearing from Nick himself and the author does a fantastic job of showing us Nick’s thoughts, actions and motivations through Tom’s eyes.  There’s a very good reason we don’t get Nick’s side of the story until quite late in the book, but I never once felt the lack of his viewpoint.

Tom is a lovely man who feels a strong sense of responsibility for those he cares for, although his desire to do the best for them sometimes blinds him to the fact that he might be trying to do too much.  He’s in his early forties (the silver fox cover model is perfect!) and is extremely good at the job he loves – but he’s tired after a long season… and tired of being alone. Nick is his opposite in many ways – younger (he’s twenty-five), bubbly and sunshiny to Tom’s grumpy – he has never, in his entire life, been expected to amount to much. Such low expectations have given him zero confidence and made him believe that what people think of him must be true, and he’s grown used to using insouciance and an appearance of carelessness to hide what he believes are his deficiencies. Tom is the first person he’s ever met to have demanded anything of him, and for Nick, having someone who believes in him is a huge deal  and something that will ultimately spur him on to do things he’d never thought he’d be capable of.

Their romance is extremely well developed, the attraction and strong chemistry between them clear from the very start.  Tom has always followed his cardinal rule of not sleeping with the crew – but something about Nick calls to him, something more than his pretty face and his lively nature, a sense that he’s a kindred spirit who sees the world through a similar lens. They agree to a short-lived fling for the few days before the trial starts while Nick isn’t technically ‘crew’, and both hold to that agreement… until they can’t deny the strength of their feelings for one another, or that they both want something more.

Nick and Tom are superbly drawn, multi-faceted characters; wounded souls who gradually find healing in each other, their stories a wonderful mixture of heart-breaking and uplifting.  I was really impressed with the way the author gradually unfolds Nick’s backstory, and with the amount of character development he undergoes during the course of the book, the confidence and self-belief Tom instils in him giving him the determination to succeed. His transformation is amazing to watch, yet he remains very much himself at the same time. But it’s not all one-sided, as Nick helps Tom to learn that it’s okay to accept help and that he doesn’t have to shoulder his burdens alone any more. Tom’s relationship with his younger brother Justin – who lives in a permanent care facility owing to a TBI – is beautifully rendered, and I admit I may have teared up once or twice at certain points in the story (the photo – sniff!); Justin’s larger-than-life carer, Mitch is great fun, and I enjoyed checking in on Jude and Rob at their now thriving business in Porthperrin. 

But Tom and Nick are the stars of the show, and as Tom starts to shed his preconceptions and to see the real Nick – charming, insightful and kind – it’s impossible not to root for them to be together.  I loved their banter, their honesty and their willingness to be vulnerable to each other and to learn from one another.  That sort of openness and give-and-take really makes a romance, and watching Tom and Nick growing together, learning together and finding their forever in each other was an absolute delight.

His Horizon (His #1) by Con Riley

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Jude’s drowning in guilt when he can’t save his family business single-handed. The last person he expects to throw a lifeline is Rob, a rival chef who once beat him to first place in a cooking contest.

Two chefs working together won’t be easy. Not when Rob is everything Jude isn’t—popular, extroverted, and a one-time hook-up. What’s worse is that Rob wears his heart on his sleeve while Jude’s still in the closet.

Jude’s dilemma doesn’t end there. Rob’s rescue package comes with conditions that mean sharing everything from the profits to Jude’s sleeping quarters. Sleeping with the enemy will either be a disaster or signal a much brighter future, but only if Jude can meet Rob’s final condition and love him in the open.

Rating: B

This is the first book I’ve read by British author Con Riley; she’s been recommended to me a few times by friends with similar tastes, and as His Horizon is the first in a new series, it seemed like a good place to start.  It’s a charming character-driven romance in which a chef and his former rival end up working together to save the family business – but don’t go into it expecting a full-on enemies-to-lovers story. Despite the what the blurb says about sleeping with the enemy, that isn’t the vibe here at all; in fact most of the rivalry has already happened by the time the novel begins.  Once you’ve adjusted your expectations though, you’ll find a sweet, low-angst and emotional story about acceptance, grief and coming to terms with loss.

Jude Anstey was on his way to winning a prestigious television cooking competition when he received the terrible news that his parents had been lost at sea and were presumed dead.  He dropped everything and left to search for them, ending up as chef and crew on a luxury yacht which followed a similar route and enabled Jude to ask questions and even search for wreckage along the way   When His Horizon begins, Jude is returning home to Cornwall, dejected, frustrated and burdened by guilt, in order to help his sister Louise through the summer tourist season at The Anchor, the pub his parents had run for years.

He’s surprised when his key won’t fit in the lock, but as he’s returned in the very early hours of the morning (without letting anyone know), he decides against knocking on the door and waking Louise, and instead takes himself to the boathouse intending to sleep there.  Here, there’s another surprise in store; this time, the sight of Rob Martin – who was his main competition on the cooking show (and who went on to win it) – asleep in the bed that had been Jude’s as a kid.

Later that morning when he enters the pub, Jude is confused and angry at all the changes he sees – this isn’t the place he called home.  But after learning the reason for it – that Porthperrin’s  tourist industry has been devastated following a terrible storm – he understands why a radical re-think was needed in order to stop the business from going under, and why, when Rob reached out after winning the competition, Louise decided to accept his offer of a partnership. Together they’ve worked hard to get The Anchor ready to open as a boutique hotel complete with fine dining from “Britain’s best new chef.”

Jude is, fortunately, not stupid, and understands that Louise acted for the best – but that doesn’t stop him feeling dreadfully guilty about not having been home to help, and wondering what Rob is doing working round-the-clock to try to save a failing business – that might fail yet – when he could have had a cushy life as heir to his father’s London restaurant empire.

The romance between Jude and Rob develops at a leisurely pace, with Jude starting to learn more about Rob and Louise’s vision for The Anchor and and getting to know Rob better.  During the competition, Rob had been like an annoying thorn in Jude’s side, always cracking jokes or playing silly practical jokes… as he says later, if Jude had had pigtails, Rob would have pulled them!  But Jude – closeted because of his fears of his father’s rejection should he ever come out – just kept his head down and ignored practically everything except the competition, until the night after the semi-finals when he and Rob shared a passionate kiss… right before Jude received the devastating news about his parents.

There’s a nice undercurrent of mutual attraction running between the pair that evolves naturally and without any overblown drama.  In fact, the storylines about getting the hotel ready and about Jude’s search for his parents play almost as big a role in the story as the romance does – which isn’t to say the romance is sidelined, because it isn’t; rather it’s part of a bigger picture in a story that wouldn’t work nearly as well without any of the other elements.

Jude and Rob are opposites in almost every way.  Rob is chatty and outgoing, the sort of guy who puts people at their ease and always knows the right thing to say, while Jude is quiet and introspective.  After realising he was gay, Jude decided that cooking was a way to get away from Porthperrin, and he left home as soon as he could because he couldn’t bear feeling that he was unable to be truly himself there.  Coming from a family who were so obviously devoted to each other, I did find it difficult to believe Jude’s reasons for thinking his parents wouldn’t accept his sexuality; he made a rather large leap of logic about his father’s reaction to something that felt somewhat tenuous.  But Jude isn’t the only one with ‘daddy’ issues, as becomes clear as the story proceeds; Rob struggles under the weight of his father’s expectations, but Rob’s determination to move out from under his shadow and make something on his own blinds him to the fact that he is making some serious misjudgements of his own.

The author brings the Cornish setting to life – the decsriptions of the cobbled, narrow streets and the gorgeous views are really evocative – and speaking as a Brit, it’s always a treat to read a romance set in England by someone who gets the speech patterns and colloquialisms right… so why does the author use words like “pants” and “vacation”, which threw me right out of the story every time?

His Horizon was an enjoyable read featuring two engaging protagonists and a wonderfully rich setting.  The humour and brighter moments are nicely balanced by moments of sadness and reflection, Jude and Rob are engaging protagonists (although the secondary characters are not all that well developed) and while the whole story is told in Jude’s PoV, Rob is so well depicted through his eyes, that I didn’t feel the lack of a second perspective.  I did have a problem with the ending though – and this is going to sound odd considering that we’re all here for the HEA – because it was just TOO pat.  I know, I know, it’s an oxymoronic complaint to say that the happy ending was TOO happy…  it was just a bit overly sweet and the big red bow was just a bit too neat.

But I enjoyed the book overall, and if you’re looking for a low-angst, feel-good read and don’t mind a bit of syrup, His Horizon might just fit the bill.