Fearne Hill and I got off to a bit of a rocky start – the first book of hers I read didn’t work well for me – but her most recent output has proved that that one was the anomaly in the pack, because I’ve enjoyed everything of hers I’ve read since. Her latest novel, Cloud Ten – book one in her new Nailed It! series – Is funny, clever and sharply observed, and, despite a couple of niggles, also sits firmly on the positive side of the equation.
PA extraordinarire Frankie Carter is Good. With a capital G. But it’s proving more difficult than he’d anticipated to land himself the kind of job consummate with his impressive qualifications and extremely strong skill-set. When Frankie sees the ad for an experienced PA at Cloud Ten Construction, a well-established, family-owned business with a strong commitment to sustainability, diversity and equal opportunities, it sounds like his dream job. The idea of whipping a brand new exec into shape while focusing on developing and promoting the company’s new environmental plan is hugely appealing – but a brief glance at Cloud Ten’s website reveals that, yeah, all the executive PAs are women. So much for equal opportunities. Frankie’s brother Tristan quietly suggests that maybe Frankie should pretend to be a woman; he’s a knockout in drag and even slobs around the house wearing their sister Maddie’s stuff occasionally. They both reckon he could pull it off – and he won’t be lying about anything on the application if he ticks the “prefer not to say” box on the gender question, will he? Frankie isn’t too sure at first – but with his siblings and friends all telling him he should go for it… he applies.
And a few weeks later exec PA Ms. Frankie Carter reports for duty at the Canary Wharf offices of Cloud Ten Construction.
Lysander St. Cloud has recently returned to England after living in the US for the fifteen years, pretty much strong-armed into taking a seat on the board of the family firm that was founded by his grandfather. Cloud Ten’s CEO – his no-nonsense, straight-talking half-sister Daphne – wants Lysander to head up the company’s newly expanded green agenda – Lead the scene and keep it green - but Lysander is so far out of his comfort zone as to be on another planet. He has no business experience and finds much of the detail goes over his head – although he does agree with what Daphne is aiming to do. He just doesn’t think he’s the right person to “spearhead” it, especially as the thought of being in the media spotlight again makes him feel ill.
It takes Frankie no time at all to realise that his new boss is completely out of his depth – and to take him under his wing. It’s clear that Lysander has issues with anxiety and self-confidence – which is not surprising considering he’s been thrust into a role he has no experience for – and that he struggles to process information that is just thrown at him in massive chunks. Frankie quickly sets about finding ways to present it that are more manageable, provides an excellent sounding-board for ideas and, in short, very soon becomes indespensible.
The job is absolutely everything Frankie had hoped it would be – he loves working with Lysander and is fully on-board with the company’s ethos and the changes they’re trying to make, but although he always intended to confess to his lie as soon as he’d proved himself to be an asset to the company, that idea has become complicated in a way he hadn’t forseen. He and Lysander have become close over the months they’ve been working together, and lately, it’s started to feel as though their friendship could be on the cusp of becoming something else – but Lysander is straight and thinks he’s attracted to a woman, and Frankie is miserable at the idea that he could actually hurt Lysander and destroy their friendship by owning up.
When I read the synopsis for Cloud Ten, I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially in regards to the romance – that whole ‘straight man thinks he’s falling for a woman’ could go horribly wrong, and I admit, I had my doubts. But Fearne Hill is a talented author and I trusted her to make it work – and she does, avoiding the obvious pitfalls and making the most of the opportunity for some very pertinent and insightful observations about sexism in the workplace and the fluidity of gender and sexuality in a way that feels organic to the story and character development.
I realise that lying is a big no-no for some readers, but I really would urge you to set that aside if you can because it’s never treated as unimportant and Frankie is always very conscious of what he’s done. But we’re also very aware of why he’s done it, and I have to say that seeing the gender bias in the workplace working in the opposite direction is a refreshing take – and for balance, there’s a terrific moment in the second half where Daphne gives him a well-deserved bollocking and talks about what it’s like to face constant discrimination. Plus, the deception doesn’t go on for too long; as soon as Frankie realises that Lysander is attracted to him as a woman – and that he’s already in way too deep and headed for a broken heart himself – Frankie fesses up. Lysander’s shock and sense of betrayal are palpable and Frankie is devastated, but even though he offers to resign, Daphne – not pleased by the deception but nonetheless impressed by Frankie’s “chutzpah” - insists he stay on.
It’s awkward, to say the least, but things get easier as they both begin to understand that nothing has really changed about the way they interact or feel about each other. For all his hurt and confusion, Lysander is just as attracted to Frankie now as he was to Frankie before - and he’s not sure what that means. And while Lysander is trying to work that out, Frankie is also realising that perhaps his gender identity isn’t as binary as he’s always believed.
I loved all of this - I even enjoyed the parts about the construction business and how they could go about reducing their carbon footprint (Ms. Hill has really done her homework here!) - and the characterisation is terrific all-round. Frankie is a big-hearted force of nature, energetic, sassy and full of ideas, where Lysander is quiet and reserved; it’s clear early on that something must have happened to force him back to the UK and into the family business he’s so clearly not cut out for, and I liked that he’s not one of those boardroom alphas that populate so many contemporary romances. He blossoms with Frankie’s help and support, and I really liked that shift in the power dynamic.
Their slow-burn romance is lovely, their chemistry crackles and the deep and genuine understanding that develops between them is wonderful, but as soon as Lysander accepts his attraction to Frankie, it’s suddenly full speed ahead!, especially when it comes to the physical side of the relationship. I’d have expected a bit more sexual exploration, but their first time together is strangely cut short (it’s not fade to black but we only get half the story!) and then, what seems to be only a few days later, they’re fucking in the office - which is something of a pet peeve, especially as it’s during the day and they’re not exactly quiet! - and Lysander is suddenly completely confident and behaving like having sex with a man is something he’s been doing for ages.
The supporting cast is very well-written and rounded-out, too, and I’m especially intrigued by Frankie’s much quieter brother Tristan – who is hearing impaired and has mobility issues - and his sister Maddie’s boyfriend Darren, who, at first, seems to have no idea of acceptable boundaries, but then shows himself to be rather insightful and a lot more than the twenty-year-old Jack-the-Lad he seems to be. I hope we get to see more of them in future stories.
My qualms about some aspects of the romance aside, Cloud Ten is an excellent read and one I’m more than happy to recommend. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.
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Yes, the area we live in, espeically where you live, is pretty accepting. My kids use Duke Medical for all…
That is a good thing–there are so many books that the e-versions have vanished. I hope more authors do republish!
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That is just awful IMHO.