Flat Whites & Chocolate Fish
When I read Powder & Pavlova, book one in Jay Hogan’s Southern Lights series, I was intrigued by the character of Adrian Powell, the handsome, enigmatic and tight-lipped barista who worked in the café owned by Ethan Sharpe and who, by the end of the book, had joined him in setting up a coffee roasting business. I was hopeful that the author would feature him as one of the leads in a future novel, so I was delighted to learn that Flat Whites & Chocolate Fish was to be ‘his’ book. Set once again amid the wonderful scenery of New Zealand’s South island – specifically, on the shores of Lake Wakatipu – Flat Whites & Chocolate Fish is an antagonists-to-lovers romance between two guys who have been knocked around a bit by life and who think that love is not for them. There’s an element of suspense to the story that amps up the tension in all the right places, but it never overshadows the romance, which, while it develops over a fairly short period of time, doesn’t feel rushed or undercooked.
When Adrian arrives at his lakefront cottage one afternoon in the pouring rain, he’s annoyed (to say the least) to discover a van blocking the driveway. He’s even more annoyed when, after several lengthy blasts of his horn, the guy who ambles over to his car and introduces himself as property developer Niall Carmichael informs him that he’s Adrian’s new neighbour. Adrian can’t help noticing the guy’s startling green eyes and rugged features, but not even the sex appeal oozing off him can tamp down Adrian’s growing horror at the news that his home, the place he’s come to regard as his retreat from the world, is going to have a building site next door and that the dilapidated property on the next plot is going to be renovated into a group of six luxury holiday homes.
He couldn’t keep the horror from his voice, his mind flying ahead to endless days of hammering and grinding and concrete mixers. And, after it was all done, people, goddamn people, coming and going and just being . . . people. Jesus, what had he done to deserve this?
Niall plans to stick around for a few months, until the building work is well under way and he can hand off to a manager before moving on to his next project. The distraction of a pissed-off yet gorgeous neighbour isn’t something he wants or needs, but something about Adrian’s sexy, prickly stubbornness is impossible to ignore.
Adrian and Niall make a point of avoiding each other as much as possible over the next few days, but even though they don’t cross paths, they’re each dismayed to find themselves unable to stop thinking about the other. A cautious truce leads to their becoming closer and starting to trust one another; both men have issues stemming from their pasts which have convinced them that they’re better off living solitary lives, and letting someone else in isn’t something either of them finds easy to do. Niall is divorced and knows he was a shitty husband, an arrogant arsehole and workaholic who was more concerned with his business than with making a life with the man he loved. Six years later, he’s convinced he’s not relationship material, unable to be open and honest with a partner about his feelings and incapable of giving another person what they need. Since his divorce, he’s contented himself with no strings hook-ups, sure he’s not cut out for anything else, but the feelings he develops for Adrian make him want to try again – and it scares the life out of him.
Adrian was a man of mystery in Powder and Pavlova, and even Ethan, whom he counts as his best friend, knows very little about him. Now, we find out why he’s been so cagey about his past and so determined to keep himself at a distance from those around him. Following a terrible childhood, he’s spent most of his adult life on the move, never making long-term connections, eschewing love and friendship in favour of trying to outrun his past. But now, for the first time ever, he’s got actual friends, people who care about him and are there for him, and a home and career he loves, yet he still finds it difficult to open up and let people in. Somehow, Niall is slowly getting past his defences and making a place for himself in Adrian’s life and heart, but when his past comes back to haunt him, the last thing Adrian wants is for the people he cares for to end up in the firing line.
The secondary cast includes members of Niall’s family as well as some of the characters we’ve met in the previous books, and I liked the various ways in which they showed both Niall and Adrian that they were important to them.
Jay Hogan crafts romances that are a lovely mix of tender, poignant, warm and sexy with a side of humour and snark – a combination that works really well for me. Her principal characters often fall into lust quite quickly, but she also takes the time to develop an emotional connection between them, so that by the end of the book the reader is left in no doubt as to their commitment to one another. Adrian and Niall are well-drawn and engaging characters who have good reasons to not want to get involved with anyone, but find it impossible to remember that when they start to really get to know each other. Beneath his grouchy exterior and all the layers of self-protection he’s built, Adrian is a sweet, caring man with a seriously geeky side, and I loved that Niall, while pretty down-to-earth and aware of his failings when it comes to romance, has no idea what’s hit him and falls hard for Adrian in spite of his determination not to.
A tender, emotional and steamy romance combined with a suspense plot that adds interest and depth, Flat Whites & Chocolate Fish is an entertaining read and one I certainly recommend. Although it’s the third in the Southern Lights series, it works fine as a standalone; there are cameo appearances from characters who appear in the other novels, but there are no ongoing story arcs or plotlines, so they can probably be read in any order. I don’t know if there are more books to come in the series (Niall’s flamboyant best friend Max seems to be begging for a story!), but if there are, I’ll certainly be picking them up.