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.