Jay Hogan marks the beginning of her new Style series with Flare, a story set in the world of high fashion featuring talented up-and-coming designer Rhys Hellier and Beckett Northcott, an English professor who wouldn’t recognise haute couture if it asked him out for a drink and then got up and danced on the bar. It’s an odd-couple pairing but it works brilliantly, the author’s trademark mixture of warmth, humour and heartfelt emotion combining to create an immensely satisfying romance between two people with a lot of baggage to unpack.
Rhys is thirty-four and has worked hard to make a name for himself on the New Zealand fashion scene. After learning his craft working for a prestigious label, he’s going it alone with his own boutique – Flare – and label of the same name. Running a business, designing, establishing himself and getting ready for the upcoming Fashion Week leaves little room in his life for anything else, but he loves what he does and is absolutely committed to making Flare a success.
One afternoon, Rhys returns from a coffee run to discover that his assistant Kip has caught a teenaged boy attempting to steal some jewellery from the shop. The police officer called in tells Rhys the boy’s uncle – whom he lives with – is on the way, and also that she believes the lad – Jack - when he says he’s never done anything like this before. While they wait for Jack’s uncle to arrive, Rhys suggests that, as this is a first offence, perhaps it would be better to have Jack make amends by working in the shop for a few hours a week after school than charge him with theft and put him into the system. Rhys has just put the idea to Jack when his uncle arrives – and Rhys is rendered temporarily speechless. Beckett Northcott is absolutely not the sort of guy Rhys usually goes for, but something about this big, broad-shouldered man with the scruffy beard, nondescript, ill-fitting clothes and the beautiful eyes completely captivates him – and It’s been a long, long time since Rhys has felt such a strong pull of attraction to anyone.
Beck, an English professor at the local university, has recently become guardian to his sixteen-year-old nephew following his sister’s imprisonment for stealing thousands of pounds from her employer. Jack is understandably a mess of emotions, full of anger and resentment towards his mother for caring so little about him that she’d do something so stupid, angry at himself for still loving her, and he’s acting out, the attempt at shoplifting just one way of trying to work through his feelings. Beck sees all this and recognises it – he’s just as furious at his sister’s selfishness as Jack is – but is trying to do the best for Jack in difficult circumstances. He agrees to the idea of Jack working at Flare after school, and can’t deny that the chance to see the store’s gorgeous owner again won’t exactly be a hardship.
Rhys and Beck are likeable, well-rounded characters who are complex, flawed and very real. Rhys is a survivor of sexual assault (see note below), who has refused to let it hold him back; he’s tough, resilient and determined to succeed, but has never really processed what happened to him, instead locking it away and acquiring a variety of coping mechanisms that enable him to compartmentalise and control his life – but which can’t keep the bad memories at bay all the time. One of those mechanisms has been a no-relationship rule; casual sex and one night stands are things he can control, and the one time he did try something more, it blew up in his face, his partner eventually becoming fed up with Rhys’ unpredictability and unwilling to give him the time and space he needed to feel comfortable with different ways of sexual interaction.
Rhys has vowed never to get involved with anyone again, but something about Beck tempts him to break all his self-imposed rules. Beck’s quiet strength, his gentleness and understanding make Rhys feel safe in ways he’s never experienced before – but is letting him in worth the risk of heartache when Beck decides Rhys has too much baggage and just isn’t worth the trouble? That Rhys and ‘normal’ aren’t words that belong in the same sentence?
In Flare, Jay Hogan has created a wonderful, sexy, slow-burn romance with chemistry so strong it leaps off the page, as, after a couple of false starts, Rhys acknowledges that he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life letting his past trauma interfere with his chance to be loved, and decides to take a leap of faith and go for it with Beck. It’s not plain sailing – and Rhys’ blow hot/blow cold attitude is somewhat frustrating - but Beck, the big marshmallow with a love of flannel and romantic poetry, is there for him all the way, ready to catch him if he falls and to provide a safe space for him to begin to face and deal with his issues. As is always the case in books by this author, the romance is beautifully written and developed, full of humour, insight and poignancy, and it’s clear that she’s taken great care to treat Rhys’ situation with sensitivity and respect.
The vibrant supporting characters add depth and richness to the story; I suspect sassy Kip and Rhys’ long-time friend, photographer Hunter, will feature in their own stories later in the series, and I really hope we’ll see more of Jack and his friend Drew, a young trans man for whom Rhys provides the safe and non-judgmental space he doesn’t have at home.
There’s an interesting secondary plotline running through the story that begins when Rhys discovers that someone has stolen one of his most successful designs and is now producing cheap copies. I liked the insight into the workings of the fashion industry this provides and it certainly amps up the tension and intrigue in the story – but there’s an event near the end that felt like overkill; Rhys and Beck have a lot to overcome (Beck has his demons, too) and their emotional journey provides plenty of tension and drama on its own, which made this particular event feel a little redundant.
That’s my only criticism however, and it didn’t in any way detract from my overall enjoyment. Flare is another terrific story from the pen of this talented author; a compelling tale of love and healing featuring well-developed characters , a close-knit family of blood and of the heart, and plenty of sass, humour and feels. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am eagerly looking forward to the next in the series.
Note: The prologue describes the lead up to a sexual assault, which, while not graphic, is distressing to read; the assault is referred to throughout the novel. There are also instances of homophobic and transphobic language.
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