TBR Challenge – What Remains by Garrett Leigh

what remains

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Web designer Jodi Peters is a solitary creature. Lunch twice a week with his ex-girlfriend-turned-BFF and the occasional messy venture to a dodgy gay bar is all the company he needs, right?

Then one night he stumbles across newly divorced firefighter Rupert O’Neil. Rupert is lost and lonely, but just about the sweetest bloke Jodi has ever known. Add in the heady current between them, and Jodi can’t help falling hard in love. He offers Rupert a home within the walls of his cosy Tottenham flat—a sanctuary to nurture their own brand of family—and for four blissful years, life is never sweeter.

Until a cruel twist of fate snatches it all away. A moment of distraction leaves Jodi fighting for a life he can’t remember and shatters Rupert’s heart. Jodi doesn’t know him—or want to. With little left of the man he adores, Rupert must cling to what remains of his shaky faith and pray that Jodi can learn to love him again.

Rating: B+

Garrett Leigh’s What Remains is a touching, heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting story about a couple who are forced to rebuild their lives and relationship after one of them is involved in a serious accident. I’ve been meaning to read it for ages so this month’s “Blue Collar” prompt gave me the excuse to push it to the top of the TBR because one of the leads is a fireman, although his job doesn’t feature heavily in the story.

Late at night one Boxing Day Jodi Peters stumbles, somewhat worse for wear, out of the dodgy gay bar just round the corner from his home in Tottenham (North London). He’s started walking (none too steadily) when he a fight breaks out in front of the pub up the road and he  watches as the pub’s bouncer – tall, blond and the hottest guy Jodi has ever seen – breaking it up. Sitting at the bus stop opposite (although he doesn’t need to catch a bus), Jodi watches calmly through his buzz until the police have arrived to pick up the troublemakers; he’s still there when the pub closes. The bouncer – whose name is Rupert – approaches Jodi and asks if he’s alright, and when Jodi says he lives just round the corner, offers to see him home. It’s well past midnight, but Jodi can’t quite bring himself to say goodnight and invites Rupert in for a coffee; they get talking and Rupert admits that he’s only recently come out – and that it hasn’t gone down well with his family. Jodi can sympathise. He’s bisexual but has only really become comfortable with the part of him that’s attracted to guys in the last couple of years. Rupert is gorgeous, he’s a bit awkward and a lot sweet, and Jodi is completely smitten. After sharing a passionate kiss – Rupert’s first with a bloke – they part, but not before Jodi tells Rupert to come by the next day and maybe they can pick up where they left off.

It’s a month before Rupert and Jodi meet again, and over pizza and a cuppa, they fill each other in on their jobs – Jodi’s a web-designer, Rupert’s a fireman – and talk about their lives in general – Rupert has a daughter with his ex (who is a bit of a cow, frankly), while Jodi’s most recent ex- girlfriend is now his best mate. The chemistry and attraction crackles between them and over the following weeks and months they get to know each other, and being with Jodi helps Rupert to start to feel better about himself and being himself. They’re head-over-heels for each other; they eventually move in together, Jodi gets on well with Rupert’s daughter and they’re very happy for the next four years – until Jodi sustains a TBI (traumatic brain injury) after being hit by a car.

I really liked the way the first part of the book is structured as we switch between timelines, seeing, in a series of vignettes, the progression of Jodi and Rupert’s relationship from their first meeting up until the point everything undergoes that devastating change, alternating with Rupert’s thoughts and feelings as he sits at Jodi’s bedside waiting and hoping for him to wake from his coma. I like flashbacks as a narrative device when they’re done as well as they are here, and the author does a great job of rounding out their past relationship before going on to contrast it so strongly with what happens next.

The second part of the story is told in linear fashion, and it starts from the moment Jodi wakes up calling for Sophie, his ex-girlfriend-turned-best-friend. Jodi thinks he and Sophie are still a couple and he has no idea who Rupert is or that he’s bisexual – all he knows is frustration and annoyance that this bloke he doesn’t know – and doesn’t want to know – is hovering over him instead of Sophie. Jodi has lost the memories of the last five years of his life, and you can feel Rupert’s heart breaking every time Jodi rejects him – especially as he’s not at all kind or subtle about it. He’s a completely different person to the one who fell for Rupert and his personality changes are really well portrayed – before the accident, he’s funny, hard-working and almost obsessively neat; after it, he’s an aggressive slob who lashes out all the time and can’t be bothered with even the most basic cleanliness – personal and in his surroundings.

The weeks go by and there’s no sign that Jodi is regaining any of his memories of Rupert or the life they’d built together over the past four years. Rupert’s quiet devastation is palpable, but he does whatever he has to do in order to stay strong and not to fall apart, accepting his role-change from partner to carer without complaint. Maybe he’s a bit too good to be true, but in his PoV, we’re privy to his frustration and sorrow and anger, and to the mental toll the situation is taking on him – but he has to lock it down to be able to keep caring for Jodi, no matter how cold or uncaring Jodi is. Like anyone pushed to their limits, however, there does come a point when Rupert starts to wonder if things are ever going to change and if he’s going – somehow – to have to move on.

Without giving away too much, the eventual HEA in this story is really well done, and I liked, very much, that it’s not the HEA you might expect in that there’s no magical cure for Jodi’s memory loss. Instead, we get to watch Jodi and Rupert slowly finding their way back to each other as Jodi, through determination and hard work, accepts the things that have changed, begins to regain control of his life and, eventually, and with Rupert’s constant love and support, makes a new one.

What Remains is a compelling read and one I enjoyed a great deal. The two leads are, for the most part, likeable and sympathetic, and the insight into how such a life-changing injury affects not only the injured but also their loved ones, is articulated very well. There’s humour, warmth and hope sprinkled in among the darker, angstier moments so that the story is never mired in misery, and I always love reading dialogue that feels familiar in its rhythms and idioms – I feel I’m reading about people I could conceiveably have met or lived down the road from. If you’re in the mood for some hurt/comfort and a rocky path to happiness, I definitely recommend this one.

Christmas Mountain by Garrett Leigh

christmas mountain

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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.

Rating: B

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.

Heartscape (Vino and Veritas #2) by Garrett Leigh

This title may be purchased from Amazon

I’m not the obvious choice to run Burlington’s coolest wine bar—quiet, brooding, clueless about tannin content, and always one wrong turn away from another downward spiral.

But no one seems to mind that I’m a wreck. Besides me. I just focus on getting through each shift until the night a beautiful stranger appears, looking as lost and damaged as I feel.

When a mutual friend calls in a favor, the sexy newcomer winds up crashing on my couch. I don’t know if it’s his melodic Cornish accent, or his ocean blue eyes, or the rock-hard body with the mysterious scars, but I get the feeling whatever happened to him runs far deeper than those wounds.

Having Jax in my home makes my chest warm. Makes me shiver. Makes me want more. But I’ve got a pile of baggage and I don’t want to be a burden on anyone let alone a man who seems to have enough demons of his own.

Our chemistry is off the charts. His arms feel like home. The last thing I want is to screw this up. Is it wrong to hope we can heal each other? Or will one of us die trying?

Rating: B+

Earlier this year, I reviewed Sarina Bowen’s Roommate, which was the starting point for the new multi-authored True North World series, which comprises four mini-series of books set within the world created by Ms. Bowen in her True North stories.  The Vino and Veritas novels are LGBTQ+ romances – mostly m/m but there are a few f/f romances, too – that revolve around the Vino and Veritas wine bar (the “Vino”) and bookshop (the “Veritas”) in the small Vermont town of Burlington.

Heartscape is – and I mean this in a good way – typical Garrett Leigh; a heartfelt, emotionally charged story featuring two damaged, lost souls just trying to get by and navigate their way through life following traumatic experiences they haven’t properly dealt with.  Their romance is beautifully developed and tugs at the heartstrings in the very best way

Tanner Reid is not, perhaps, the most obvious choice to run a wine bar. Never too far from a downward spiral, he’s a bit grumpy, a lot broody and knows next to nothing about wine, but somehow, none of that matters, and he’s making it work.  It’s clear that he’s struggling with something that happened in his past, but it’s quite a while before that’s revealed to the reader; Tanner’s friends don’t push him to talk about it (because they don’t want to send him back to whatever dark place he’d found himself in a year earlier), and he avoids thinking about it – and that suits him just fine.

When a fire burns down the hostel across the street – fortunately there are no fatalities – Tanner is asked by his brother’s girlfriend if he can put up a friend of hers for the night.  Although she met Jax at university in England, he’s been living in the US for a number of years now and has recently moved from California to Vermont to work as a wildlife videographer.  Fortunately, most of his equipment was at the office of Wildfoot Adventures when the fire broke out, but he lost all his clothes and right now, doesn’t have the money to pay for somewhere else to stay.  Tanner agrees to let Jax sleep on his couch for the night – and the next day, says he might as well stay for a bit longer; he won’t be in the way given that Tanner works in the bar until the early hours most days and Jax has to be up and out early.

Days turn into weeks, and a genuine friendship develops between the two men, a soul-deep connection that, completely unexpectedly, gives both of them a sense of peace, safety and comfort,  something they’ve long needed but almost given up on finding for themselves.   Both have suffered intense trauma – physical and emotional – that they find difficult to talk about, and I admit that sometimes the lack of open communication between them was a little frustrating, especially as Tanner’s continued avoidance of talking or even thinking too much about what happened to him is damaging in itself and has the potential to screw him up even further.  But conversely, I really liked that they were so patient with each other, and allowed one another the space to unpack their baggage and begin to heal.

Tanner and Jax are complex, fully-rounded characters whose grumpy/sunshine characteristics complement one another perfectly.  Tanner is a bit of a grouch and doesn’t find it easy to be around people, while Jax is more sociable and seems a bit more ‘together’ – but underneath, he’s working hard to rediscover his self-confidence following a relationship gone seriously wrong.  I loved the way their romance grows so naturally out of their friendship, and the way the secondary plotline – which focuses on Jax’s work along the various wilderness trails in the mountains – is so skilfully woven into the main narrative.

There’s a great secondary cast, including Tanner’s brother Gabriel, and his sort-of-but-not girlfriend Eve (I’m not sure if they might feature in another book in the series – they certainly deserve a story of their own!), bartender Molly, and Jax’s boss  Jerry, who all have important parts to play in the story.

The pacing is fairly leisurely, but it never feels too slow. The early interactions between Tanner and Jax are so awkward and sweet and lovely, and the romantic tension between them so palpable that I just couldn’t get enough of it.  And once they give in to the attraction that’s been thrumming between them since the start and become a couple, that sense of the comfort and safety they find in one another is amplified and the foundations of their love have burrowed so deep that by the end of the book, there’s no question that these two are absolutely solid and in it for the long haul.  I don’t always get that feeling at the end of every romance I read – sometimes I reach the HEA and wonder if the couple will still be together in five years – not so with Tanner and Jax.

Heartscape is a quiet book, the sort of book that creeps up on you and hits you in the feels when you least expect it, but does it in such a balanced, nuanced way that you’re smiling through the hurt.  It’s a wonderful combination of dark and light, deep emotion and unexpected humour, tenderness, hope and compassion that will leave you sighing with satisfaction.

Unforgotten (Forgiven #2) by Garrett Leigh

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Billy Daley hasn’t been home in years, and he likes it that way. He’s just fine on his own—he has a cash-in-hand job at a scrapyard, a half-feral cat to keep him company, and many miles between him, his hometown and all the baggage that comes with it.

Until the job goes sideways. Suddenly he’s back in Rushmere, working for none other than his brother’s best friend—a man whose kiss Billy can’t seem to forget.

Gus Amour’s memories of Billy Daley are all spiky edges, lips crushed against lips and a reckless streak that always ended in trouble. But when Billy needs a place to stay, Gus steps in. He’d do anything for the Daley family, including living, and working, side by side with a man who makes his heart beat too fast and his blood run too hot—two things he’s been running from for years.

It doesn’t take long before their easy banter, lingering touches and heated glances become a temptation too hard to resist. But falling into bed and falling in love are two different things, and love has never come easy to either Billy or Gus. Only when fate threatens to steal away their opportunity for a second chance will they realize they don’t need easy.

They just need each other.

Rating: B

The first book in Garrett Leigh’s Forgiven duology tells the story of Luke Daley and Mia Amour, teenaged sweethearts whose youthful romance hit the skids after Luke took off without a word and joined the Navy in order to provide for his family following the death of his father.  Luke left behind a younger brother, Billy, who has never really forgiven him for leaving as he did, and although Mia and Luke get their HEA in Forgiven, and she continues to enjoy a good relationship with her brother Gus (who is also Luke’s best friend and co-worker) Luke and his brother don’t enjoy anything like the same closeness.  In fact, Billy hasn’t been back home for years, and that’s the way he intends to keep it.

Unforgotten is a direct sequel to Forgiven, and while Luke and Mia do have large parts to play in the story, the focus switches to Billy and Gus, and there’s enough detail given as to the history these four characters share to enable you to jump in here (as I did) without having read the previous book.

Billy was always a bit of a tearaway, running with a bad crowd, constantly in trouble with the police and regularly sporting the evidence of fights on his knuckles.  He’s moved around a lot since he left town, never staying anywhere more than a few months and not interested in putting down roots anywhere, let alone back in Rushmere.  But when he pisses off his boss at the breaker’s yard (where he also lives in a caravan on site) once too often, Billy finds himself – and the stray cat he’s adopted (or who adopted him) – both jobless and homeless, and with no other option, he gets in touch with Luke to ask for help.

Just as the Daley brothers were hit hard by their father’s death, so Mia and Gus were devastated by the death of their mother. But while Luke, Billy and Mia all ran from their grief, Gus stayed behind – and was still there when they gradually drifted back home.  With no one close to him to lean on, Gus locked away his feelings and decided emotional commitment wasn’t worth the potential for hurt.  So now, he buries his residual resentment beneath the calm, easy-going face he presents to the world and contents himself with a regular diet of Grindr hook-ups and no strings sex.

When Gus hears that Billy has actually reached out to Luke, he’s surprised but pleased, and offers to have Billy stay with him.  It feels a bit weird though; a few years earlier, he and Billy had shared a deeply passionate kiss Gus has never been able to forget – and when Billy shows up, just as gorgeous and scowl-y and prickly as ever, Gus knows he’s in trouble.

That kiss was every bit as memorable for Billy as for Gus, but when Gus ended it and pushed him away, Billy, embarrassed, pretended to be tipsy, not realising that Gus hadn’t wanted to take advantage of him – or that Gus was scared of the intense feelings it had aroused in him.  Billy is still carrying a torch for Gus, but the fact that Gus seems to be out shagging a different bloke every night is intimidating, to say the least, given Billy’s relative lack of sexual experience.

The pair settles into a routine, however, and Billy goes to work with Gus at Daley’s Roofing while Luke takes a bit of a break.  They work well together and are spending more and more time together outside work, but Billy’s relationship with Luke seems to be going from bad to worse. They can never find anything to talk about, and on the rare occasions they exchange more than a few grunts, they rub each other up the wrong way.

One of the things I really liked about the book is the relationship between Billy and Luke.  It’s tough going for both of them;  Billy is still holding onto a shedload of resentment over what he sees as Luke’s abandonment, and Luke just doesn’t know how to handle it or the spiky, hot-tempered brother who knows just how to push his buttons.  They have a lot of work to do if they’re going to be a family again – something they both need so desperately – and I loved seeing them at last start to let go of their anger and preconceptions and take baby steps towards compromise.  They’re frustrating characters though;  Luke clams up at the first sign of confrontation, Billy is deliberately gobby and aims to wound.  I understood why Billy acts as he does – he’s got a self-destructive streak a mile wide – but he’s a difficult character to like a lot of the time.

I can’t say I liked Mia all that much (so perhaps it’s just as well I didn’t read the previous book!), but Gus is a total sweetheart and the peacemaker among the group.  He’s usually got a smile and a joke for everyone and appears to have everything sorted, but in reality, he’s as much of a mess as Billy is, hiding the pain inside whereas Billy wears it on his face and in his manner.

But even though I liked Gus and Billy, I couldn’t quite get behind them as a romantic couple.  I liked the relationship they built together and the way they were able to help each other to start to heal – not by trying to fix each other, but just by being there and ready to listen. But the romance feels rather under-developed; Billy and Gus think about their feelings for each other quite a lot, but then never actually say anything to one another about them.  They have good chemistry and the sex scenes are nicely steamy but I couldn’t quite work out what they saw in each other.

As a fellow Brit, I always love it when I get to read familiar speech rhythms and idioms and settings, and the village/small-town vibe here is spot on.  Most of all, whenever I read a Garrett Leigh book, I find myself impressed all over again with her skill at capturing the messiness of relationships – familial and romantic – and showing how badly we can mess them up sometimes without really knowing why or how we’re doing it… and then steering things back on track in a way that feels realistic and completely true to the characters.

Unforgotten is intensely readable and well-written, the characters are vibrant and three-dimensional, and their struggles and reactions are very real. I enjoyed it enough to give it a recommendation despite its flaws.

Angels in the City by Garrett Leigh

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A fake relationship with a stranger. An office romance with doughnuts and white knights. An addictive arrangement—friends with benefits—fast turns to love.

Jonah Gray is rich, successful, and the most eligible bachelor in the city, according to his mother, at least. But the truth is, despite her efforts to pair him off, he’s fine on his own. All he needs is a date to the Christmas ball.

Sacha Ivanov is a lone wolf, content in the cycle of long days, late nights, and anonymous hook ups, but when a chance encounter in a broken-down lift brings a gorgeous copper-haired CEO into his life, everything begins to change.

As Christmas fast approaches, a favour for a stranger blooms into something more. He doesn’t do second dates or relationships. But for kind-hearted Jonah, his angel in the city, he might just change his mind.

Rating: A-

Garrett Leigh’s Christmas-themed Angels in the City really hit the spot.  It uses some of my favourite tropes, it’s got just the right amount of angst, just the right amount of humour and festive cheer, and an emotional, sensual, opposites-attract romance between two endearing and attractive leads. I practically inhaled it in one sitting.

Jonah Gray is young, handsome and successful and is, according to his mother, the most eligible bachelor in the city.  The story opens on the night of the annual Ball held for the charitable foundation run by his parents, which Jonah is dreading for a number of reasons –  not least of which is his reluctance to face yet more of his mother’s matchmaking schemes and questions about his relationship status.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, he’s all togged up in his Armani best and on his way out of his office when the lift gets stuck on the way down to the lobby.  Mind you, the prospect of  being stuck in the lift for hours may be preferable to spending a few hours at the Gray & Gray Christmas Ball – especially when Jonah has company in the form of an absolutely gorgeous man he’s seen working at the app development company that occupies the office space opposite his.  After Jonah puts a call out to the engineers, he and his lift-mate strike up a conversation that’s just a teeny bit flirty – which ends when the lift starts moving again… and Jonah sort-of-but-not-really-jokingly invites the other man to accompany him to the Ball.

Sacha Ivanov isn’t quite sure why he says yes to the invitation. He’s a loner, content to fill his life with work and one-time-only hook-ups and isn’t looking for that to change, but something about the gorgeous auburn-haired executive from the office across the way has him completely entranced.  When they arrive at the ball, their ‘act’ as the perfect couple is seemingly effortless and Sacha is the ideal fake-boyfriend, charming Jonah’s mother, and somehow knowing what Jonah needs even before Jonah does himself.  The attraction that’s been building between them since they met gets stronger as the evening progresses, and things move to their inevitable conclusion when they go back to Jonah’s penthouse for a night of bone-melting, life-changing sex.  The next morning, Jonah is a bit disappointed – although not surprised – to find Sacha gone.
A week goes by. Jonah and Sacha see each other in passing at the office, but make no attempt to engage. Jonah can’t forget the night they spent screwing each other’s brains out, and wouldn’t mind repeating it, while Sacha keeps reminding himself he’s a one-and-done type of guy and tries hard not to keep looking through the glass partition that separates the offices in hopes of a glimpse of the gleaming auburn hair that had felt so silky, tangled around his fingers. It’s not until another late night at the office brings them face-to-face again that Sacha and Jonah actually talk, and in a somewhat roundabout conversation full of Sacha’s typically inscrutable pronouncements, agree that they both want to pursue a friends-with-benefits arrangement. The problem comes when one of them realises that he has no idea how to do the ‘friends’ part of the equation, and the other that he doesn’t want the ‘benefits’ without it.

The intense chemistry between Jonah and Sacha leaps off the page from the moment they meet and burns bright throughout the novel, but it’s clear from the start that this is much more than attraction and that there’s a real connection there, too. Jonah is the first to admit that that connection is something he’s been searching for and that he wants more from Sacha than a few no-strings fucks, while Sacha, who learned early on in life that the only person he could depend on was himself, seems intent on keeping things casual.

Jonah is lovely; charming, funny and inherently sweet, he’s a good boss and a good man, and is content with the way things are until a “moody, contradictory Russian computer nerd” comes into his life and turns it upside down. Sacha is his total opposite, an (adorable) grouch who doesn’t suffer fools and makes no secret of it. He sometimes uses the fact that English is not his native language to obfuscate and create conversations that go around in circles, but as the book progresses, it seems he’s just as much of an enigma to himself as he has made himself to those around him. His instinctual reaction to keep his barriers up causes him to deliberately push Jonah away even though it’s really the last thing he wants to do, but he’s been doing it for so long that it’s a hard habit to break.

I adored both Jonah and Sacha, a pair of complex, likeable, believable characters who, in spite of their quite different personality types, really are a perfect fit. The communication issues and the way Sacha keeps getting in the way of himself are frustrating, but it doesn’t go on for too long, and the emotions that so obviously radiate between the pair are so raw and honest as to be almost palpable. And even when they’re foundering and unable to be honest about how they feel, there’s no question that Jonah and Sacha have fallen deeply and irrevocably in love; the journey to reach their HEA may be a bit bumpy but it’s lovely and completely swoonworthy nonetheless.

There’s a small, but strong secondary cast, notably Jonah’s mum and his BFF Lily, who is awesome, and I really liked the way the author integrates some Russian holiday season traditions, from the yolka – the tree put up to celebrate New Year – to the delicious-sounding Krendel (Christmas bread – I immediately went to look up a recipe!) and pastries.

Sexy, funny, warm and emotionally satisfying, Angels in the City captivated me from start to finish and has earned itself a place on my keeper shelf as a festive favourite.

The Sex Coach by Garrett Leigh

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Toby
There’s nothing attractive about a twenty-four year old virgin, especially not one who blushes every time a hot dude looks his way. But I can’t help the heat that ripples through me every time I see Cole Maguire. And the clench of my heart when I realise how unhappy he is. He’s a city boy with a baby on his hip—we have nothing in common—but if he can teach me how to own my sexuality, perhaps I can teach him he’s worth loving.

Cole
I don’t like horses. But I love my daughter, and there’s nothing I won’t do for her, including leaving the city for life on a farm. I’m ready for that, but I’m not ready for blushing stable hands who make my heart race and my blood run hot. Toby has no idea how beautiful he is. I can teach him that, if he can handle the heat, but after one night with him…damn.

Maybe it’s me that has a lot to learn.

Rating: B

Garrett Leigh is an author I keep meaning to read more of, so I eagerly pounced on her latest release, The Sex Coach, a standalone story that is loosely related to her Skins trilogy.  (It’s not essential to have read that series, although I did find it helpful to have done so). Set on Whisper Farm, the horse sanctuary/health farm in Cornwall run by Joe Carter and his husband Harry, it takes place around five years after their story (Whisper) ended and re-introduces readers to Toby, who was taken in by Joe after he was more or less abandoned by his family when he was a kid.  Even though Toby has lived and worked on the farm for over a decade, Joe and the others still see him – and treat him – as the kid he was, and not a strapping man of twenty-four, which irks him a little.  But he loves them, he loves his job and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else – even though being around a group of gorgeous men who are so obviously sure of who they are and secure in their sexual identity is just more than a little overwhelming.

Toby knows he’s queer;  he’s been with a handful of women but never with a man, and although he wants to, he has no idea how to go about it or what to do… and to make things worse, attractive men melt his brain and turn him into a dribbling idiot who[ falls ]apart at the first sign of affection.  He worries he’ll never be sufficiently confident enough around a guy to have a relationship, that he’ll never have what his friends have.  That he’ll never be… enough.

Eight months earlier, pilates teacher Cole Maguire became the father of baby Ella (the result of a one-night stand) and has taken a temporary gig standing in for physical therapist Angelo (Dream) at Whisper Farm so that he can continue to see Ella after her mother decided to move to Bude in Cornwall.  He’s not the greatest fan of horses, but there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for Ella, and he reckons that between his work schedule and her visits, he’ll be too busy to spend time around the farm – which is just how he wants it anyway.

Cole is out, proud, pan and drop-dead gorgeous – which of course flusters Toby completely – but despite that he’s completely smitten and unable to hide it.  Cole is surprised to find himself captivated by Toby’s innocent, gentle charm, and before long – and in spite of Cole’s determination to keep himself to himself – they become friends. When Toby confesses his lack of sexual experience with men, his fears and insecurities over his lack of confidence and his own attractiveness, Cole suggests he needs to spend time around a guy and just “let it happen ”. He offers Toby the chance to explore his sexuality in a safe environment with someone he can trust not to hurt him or push him into something he isn’t ready for.  The plotline – a virgin receives sex lessons from someone more experienced – isn’t an uncommon one and there are potential pitfalls all over the place, but fortunately, Garrett Leigh avoids all of them, making this a sexy yet thoughtful and insightful story about two very different men with very different sets of baggage and terrible communication skills learning to shed their inaccurate self-perceptions  and accept themselves and each other as they are. The circumstances leading to Cole becoming Toby’s sex coach are perfectly believable because the author sets up his character and his internal conflict so well; the strength of his attraction to Cole is palpable and his insecurities are really well articulated:

“It’s just hard when everyone around me is so sure of who they are. It scares me…”

And I loved how perceptive Cole is; he realises almost immediately that what Toby really needs is to learn about himself  – and that the very best thing he can do for him is to try to instil a little confidence, to assure him he’s beautiful and worthy of love and affection.

While the chemistry between the pair burns hot right from the start and their sexual relationship commences fairly early on in the story, the emotional side takes a while to catch up – or rather, Toby and Cole take a while to catch up with what’s obviously happening between them.  The sex scenes are plentiful and steamy but most importantly, they’re integral to the story and the romance; through their physical encounters, Cole and Toby discover things about themselves and each other

There’s a lot to love about this book – the writing is gorgeous, the characters are all loveable and flawed and human, and the longing and passion thrumming between Toby and Cole really leap off the page.  And while Cole is giving Toby the support and reassurance he needs, Toby is doing the same for Cole, reminding him that he’s a good man and a good father.

The story does has its weaknesses, however.  Cole seems less well-fleshed-out than Toby, for example, and it was difficult to understand Cole’s reasons for holding back from making a commitment to Toby, especially as he so clearly loves him and is miserable without him.  Also, while I’m not the biggest fan of children or babies in romance novels, Ella is really underused.   Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t want pages about dirty nappies and colic, and I really liked the few scenes when she was with Toby – but she’s so peripheral to the story that she felt a bit like a plot device, something else for Cole to angst over.

With those reservations in mind, however, I still enjoyed The Sex Coach and would certainly recommend it.  It’s a gentle, low-angst story full of warmth and honesty, with a beautifully drawn relationship at its heart.

The Edge of the World by Garrett Leigh (audiobook) – Narrated by Dan Calley

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Shay Maloney is living his dream – on tour with his pirate/folk-rock band. But you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’re from, and that’s where moody filmmaker and researcher Ollie Pietruska comes in.

The band’s management persuades Shay to let a television company film a documentary about his roots beyond his adoptive Irish family, and Ollie comes into his life knowing more about Shay than Shay’s ever known about himself.

But while Ollie holds the key to Shay’s past, he’s also hiding deep scars. Even as the hardships of the tour bring them closer, Ollie’s demons threaten the blossoming romance. They might both reach the breaking point before Ollie realizes he’s been standing on the edge of the world for too long, and it’s Shay who holds the key to his future.

Rating: Narration – B-; Content – B

I’ve enjoyed the handful of books I’ve read and listened to by Garrett Leigh, who one of those authors I keep promising myself I’m going to read/listen to more of. Her latest novel, The Edge of the World, is a beautifully written slow-burn romance between two flawed but likeable characters who are drawn together when one of them embarks upon a journey into his past while the other is trying desperately to forget something of his.

Shay Maloney and his pirate/folk-rock band Smuggler’s Beat have begun to make a name for themselves and when the book opens, are playing to packed houses and large crowds on their UK tour. Shay has always known he was adopted as a toddler, and before the tour began was asked by the band’s manager to take part in a kind of Who Do You Think You Are? genealogy-tracing documentary being made for the Sky Arts channel. At a low ebb following the death of his mother, Shay agreed and then promptly forgot about it, so when he’s told that filmmaker and researcher Ollie Pietruska will be joining the band on the last leg of the tour, he’s not sure what to think – especially when he discovers he had mistakenly expected the documentary to be about his adoptive family and not the actual family he knows nothing about.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Whisper (Skins #2) by Garrett Leigh (audiobook) – Narrated by Shaun Grindell

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Lonely physiotherapist Harry Foster has the world at his feet. A full client list, a six-figure Instagram following, and a publishing deal for a book he doesn’t have time to write until his agent offers him a break – a retreat to the wild southwest coast.

Cornish horseman Joe Carter is lonely too. Rescuing horses and managing Whisper Farm takes up most of his days, and by night he plays chicken with the farm’s perilous bank accounts.

At his sister’s unwelcome suggestion, he rents his only bedroom to a bloke from the city, and when Harry arrives, he’s everything Joe isn’t – calm, patient, and gorgeous enough to be exactly the kind of distraction Joe doesn’t need.

Harry doesn’t have time for distractions either – even shirtless farmers riding bareback past his bedroom window – but his moody host proves impossible to ignore.

On paper, they have nothing in common, but Joe is beautiful . . . glorious, and when an accident puts his life in Harry’s healing hands, the whisper of true love is inevitable. If the trouble that put the farm on its knees in the first place doesn’t get in the way.

Rating: Narration: C; Content: B-

Whisper is the second book in Garrett Leigh’s Skins series, and in it, we move away from London and into the West Country – specifically to the farm and horse sanctuary run by Joe Carter and his family. It’s a gentler, less-angsty story than Dream (the first book in the series), but although it’s certainly not without drama and the characters aren’t without their problems and hang-ups, I wasn’t as invested in the story or characters as I was in Dream – and I’m not sure if that was due to the issues I had with the narration or because of the story itself.

Harry Foster is the brother of Rhys (who continues to have the occasional hook-up with Dylan and Angelo from Dream), and is a highly successful and sought-after physiotherapist. His blog – on which he’s dubbed himself “Holistic Harry”- has a six-figure following, he has a full roster of clients and has recently signed a book deal, but the trouble is that not only is he tired, he’s lonely, his deadline is looming and he’s way behind with his writing. His agent suggests he goes on a writer’s retreat; that he holes up somewhere quiet for the next couple of months and concentrates on his writing – and although he’s not completely sold on the idea, Harry agrees. Which is how he ends up driving to a horse farm just outside Newquay in Cornwall where he’s planning to stay for the next ten weeks.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Dream (Skins #1) by Garrett Leigh (audiobook) – Narrated by Shaun Grindell

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

When unrequited love leaves Dylan Hart sleepless and nursing his wounds, instinct draws him to the one place he’s found mindless respite in the past – Lovato’s. It’s a place for every fantasy, where a night of insane NSA sex brings relief.

It should be a perfect escape, and for one magical night it seems that way, but then worlds collide, and reality bites when Dylan’s hookup desperately needs a friend. Surely Dylan can’t trust his instincts when friendship has bruised his heart so badly before?

The deck is stacked against former ballet dancer Angelo Giordano ever finding real love. At least visiting Lovato’s offers respite from a life defined by illness; a glimmer of light in the dull gray of his so-called life without dance. But then he encounters Dylan, who makes his heart pound once more with purpose.

Angelo’s mind is blown by this man, but the disease that ended his career won’t let him bask in new love. He’s drowning, and Dylan can’t save him while insecurities swamp them both. The only way to make it means confronting their demons. If Dylan can turn his back on the past, and Angelo can face his uncertain future, maybe they can chase their dreams together.

Rating: Narration: B-; Content: B

Garrett Leigh is another of those authors I’ve not managed to get around to reading yet, and once again I’m really pleased to see her novels being released in audio format so I can play catch up! Dream, the first book in the Skins series, is an angsty but deeply romantic story featuring two young men who are struggling to adapt to big changes in their lives – and not always dealing with them well.

Dylan Hart has been in love with his best friend Sam for years, even though he knows Sam isn’t into him “that way” – and he’s been (sort of) content to make a regular third in Sam’s relationship with his girlfriend, Eddie (their story is told in What Matters, although it’s not necessary to be familiar with it in order to enjoy this novel). As Dream opens, Dylan has finally admitted to himself that it isn’t enough for him, and that he needs to cut the ties if he’s to stand any chance of finding the sort of love they have.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.