Desert Isle Keeper
I’m a bit late to the Garrett Leigh fan club. I had read another novel by the author in 2016, and though I liked it, I wasn’t blown away. Scrolling through my TBR pile a few months ago I realized I owned another Leigh book, Misfits, and decided to try her again. I’m so glad I did, because I loved it and couldn’t wait to get my hands on book two in the Urban Soul series. Fortunately, I didn’t have long to wait and Strays is as good as or better than its predecessor. Urban Soul is the restaurant business owned by Tom, Cass and Jake (featured in Misfits) that links each book in the series. While Strays could be read as a standalone, I wouldn’t recommend it because the business is ever present, almost like a well-developed secondary character. But if your dollars are limited, the relationship at the heart of Strays is terrific and worth your time.
Strays opens in Lenny Mitchell’s PoV. Formerly a dancer at a popular gay nightclub, Lenny has moved, switched jobs (he’s now a waiter at Misfits, the restaurant featured in the first novel), closed all his social media accounts and done anything and everything else he can think of to shake the man who is stalking him. A visit to the police to lodge a formal complaint proves fruitless, and Lenny is at his wits end. Angry, frustrated and miserable, he’s a shadow of the man he was before the stalker targeted him. Things reach a tipping point when he opens a letter sent to him at Misfits and finds nail clippings – the ones he left in his apartment trash the previous evening. Scared and depressed, he tries to drink away his misery and that’s when Cass finds him.
Nero, whom we caught enigmatic glimpses of in the previous book, is the man Urban Soul turns to when they need an expert chef/manager in one of their kitchens. A loner by choice, Nero is haunted by demons in his past that he’s never shared with anyone. Handsome, mercurial and a whiz in the kitchen, Nero is Urban Soul’s go-to guy. When Cass asks him to take on a new apprentice – one with no back of house experience, Nero is willing but wary. When Cass also asks him to let this new, mysterious employee bunk with him in the apartment upstairs, he knows something is off, but agrees.
When Nero discovers Lenny on his couch a week or so after Cass’s request, he’s intrigued by his attractive new roommate. Despite the fact they’re complete opposites, there’s an instant attraction between them, but both men are battling demons in their pasts and neither is ready or willing to trust the other with his secrets. Nero quickly puts Lenny to work in the kitchen and between shifts and shared nights in the upstairs apartment, they form a friendship. When Lenny never leaves the confines of the restaurant and apartment, Nero is curious but protective. Lenny is quite obviously afraid to go outside and/or be seen by any outsiders, but he seems unwilling to confess why and Cass is similarly tight-lipped.
Lenny and Nero soon find a rhythm together in the kitchen and at home, though their slowly simmering attraction to one another becomes harder and harder to hide. Over smoke breaks and beers late at night on the fire escape (Lenny just inside the window where he can’t be seen), they slowly get to know and like one another. On one of these evenings, Nero tries to coax Lenny outside and loses his temper when Lenny won’t join him or explain why. Sensing Nero is angry and about to shut him out just when they’ve reached a new level of openness and honesty in their relationship, Lenny decides to share why he’s been hiding away.
Unfortunately, Lenny’s confession doesn’t earn him the same honesty from Nero. And though he finds himself falling for his roommate, he knows there are walls that Nero hides behind and despairs of ever breaching them. Eventually, mutual lust gives way to passionate kisses and sex… and more significantly, an emotional and physical bond neither one can deny. Both men fall hard and deep for each other and though they don’t hide their feelings, the invisible wall of Nero’s past and Lenny’s very real fear of leaving the cocoon of their home keep these two together but apart.
Lurking in the background of this romance is the stalker and Nero’s hidden past. I don’t want to spoil any of these story lines except to say they cast a pall over the pair from start to finish. Ms. Leigh has crafted a sexy, inspiring romance and the opposites attract trope (my current favorite) is used to great effect. Lenny is like a glittering star in Nero’s gloomy world – he’s bright, shiny, out and proud, and lights up Nero’s life. Nero is brooding, solitary, tough, and Lenny represents his first relationship with a man (he’s bisexual). It’s obvious why they are drawn to each other and Ms. Leigh deftly illustrates how the relationship is a balm to both their souls. It’s a slow burn until they give into their physical attraction, but once they do, Ms. Leigh turns up the heat inside the bedroom and… well, somewhere else too!
Once Lenny and Nero become intimate, and it appears Lenny can once again emerge from the cocoon of the apartment, the story pivots and the focus returns to the enigmatic Nero and the past he’s never shared. Lenny worries that Nero will never open up to him about it, and Nero convinces himself he can’t open up and hold onto Lenny. Eventually, his love and affection for Lenny convince Nero that honesty is the only way for them to move forward, but Nero’s past is ugly and brutal. When he finally opens himself up, he’s rewarded by Lenny’s tender and sensitive response. The confession helps Nero to shake off the sins of his past, but Ms. Leigh doesn’t deliver their happily ever after quite yet.
One last twist awaits and though I saw it coming, it’s well paced and plotted, and further cements for each man how deeply they love each other. Lenny are Nero are a couple you find yourself rooting so hard for! Both men are so vulnerable and real with each other… you suffer right alongside them. When they finally get their happily ever after, it’s satisfying emotionally and physically, and very much in context within the greater Urban Soul universe.
As a former waitress and self-professed foodie, I particularly enjoyed the passages detailing the Urban Soul business process from concept to opening night, the glimpses of the chef and staff at work in a busy restaurant kitchen, and the spot-on descriptions of the dynamics between front and back of house personnel. Ms. Leigh really seems to understand the restaurant industry, but it’s a clever bit of storytelling in how she parallels the development of each Urban Soul restaurant with the romantic relationship at each story’s heart. Urban Soul is both sanctuary and family to the men (and women) who work there and if it’s all a bit too good to be true… that’s just too bad, because it works.
I loved Strays; the setting, the principals and the sneak peaks at the ongoing relationship between Cass, Jake and Tom from Misfits. Have I mentioned I think the series is terrific? I’m hoping there are more books (and restaurants) to come – this is one series I don’t want to end.