Desert Isle Keeper
Heppel Ever After
Back in 2021 when I reviewed Charles, the first book in Con Riley’s Learning to Love series, I said that he seemed to be one of those characters who elbowed their way into an author’s brain and demanded their story be written. Vibrant, funny, larger-than-life and a complete scene-stealer Charles Heppel certainly lit up the pages whenever he appeared, and the book was one of my top reads of the year. Charles and his fiancé Hugo (aka His Holy Hotness) have made cameo appearances in the other books in the series, so I was pleased when the author announced that she was writing a series finale that would once again put Charles and Hugo centre stage and take a peek at them after their happy ever after.
Heppel Ever After is definitely best read as part of the series – after Charles (and maybe Luke) – and is the only book in the set that doesn’t really stand alone. Please be aware there may be spoilers for the rest of the series in this review.
Charles and Hugo have been engaged for a year, but something always gets in the way of their actually being able to set a wedding date. They’ve had to change it twice already because it’s been so difficult to fit in around Hugo’s duties as school padre and ‘stand-in’ vicar for the various local parishes. Hugo is still waiting to secure a permanent post, even though his experience as an army chaplain and at the school should have made it an easy next step, and Charles is convinced that he is the weak link. As a vicar’s spouse, Charles will be expected to play a key role in the community and so he, too, has to go through an interview process – and he (so he thinks) just can’t seem to get it right. When the book begins, they’re on their way to another interview, but Charles’ old insecurities about not being good enough have come roaring back, that small voice telling him that maybe Hugo would be better off with someone smarter, someone more sophisticated and better informed rather than someone who seems to cost him every job he’s interviewed for. Hugo, of course, believes nothing of the sort. He knows just what an asset Charles will be, wherever they end up, and is adamant that he isn’t prepared to accept a position anywhere that won’t also welcome Charles with open arms. Charles knows Hugo loves him and wants him to be as happy and fulfilled by their new life as Hugo hopes to be – but that little voice just won’t go away.
Sadly, the interview doesn’t go well – which is completely the fault of the bigoted old farts on the parish council who make clear their disapproval of Charles and Hugo’s living arrangements and belittle Charles’ profession. Hugo decides then and there that it isn’t the place for them and terminates the procedings, but Charles worries that they may have lost their last chance to find somewhere in Cornwall that’s close enough for Charles to be able to continue working at Glynn Harber school. Hugo, however, is very chipper about it, firmly believing that the inner voice that has guided him thus far will speak to him again and point him where he needs to go when the time is right.
It’s the last day of the term at school, and Charles and Hugo make it back just in time to say goodbye to the maggots for the summer holidays. Charles is quickly surrounded by kids while Hugo heads off to phone his supervisor to tell him about the interview. Half an hour later, Charles is heading home when he picks up a message from Hugo, apologising for leaving without saying goodbye. The bishop is sending him on a short assignment to a small island off the Cornish coast, a kind of welfare check on the elderly Duke of Kara-Enys, who has suddenly become very reclusive and has begun closing off the island. Hugo is sure that Kara-Enys is where he’s supposed to be, and assures Charles he’ll be back as soon as he can.
Somewhat downcast, Charles heads off to Casterley (his family home) alone. He misses Hugo dreadfully and, after a couple of days, decides to follow him to Kara-Enys, although he’ll need a bit of help to get there. As it turns out, help is at hand in the form of one of his former – er… conquests. Not only does Rex Helligan own a helicopter, he knows the island like the back of his hand. Which he should do, seeing as the Duke of Kara-Enys is his grandfather and he was practically brought up there.
Heppel Ever After is a lovely continuation of Charles and Hugo’s story, and is so much more than the simple wrap-up novella full of cameos I’d been half-expecting. The couple is solid and as much in love as ever, but here, on a quiet island with time to themselves away from the hustle and bustle of life and work, they get a chance to take a breath and step back to take a good look at where they are and where they want to be. Their conversations are funny and philosophical, tender, heartfelt and sometimes difficult, but they’re always honest, as both men come to realise what is most important to them indivudially and as a couple. At the heart of the story is Charles’ continued growth and his coming to accept that he’s important, too. He so badly wants Hugo to be happy and to get a parish of his own, but still can’t believe he’s worthy of the same degree of personal satisfaction, and Hugo badly wants Charles to be able to clearly see himself as an equal partner who is fully deserving of happiness and fulfillment.
“We’re going to tie the knot, right?”
“One that’s going to hold fast?”
Charles nodded again, harder. “Forever.”
“Then it can’t constrict you.”
As Hugo says later, “It can’t be all about me.” He works hard to show Charles, in different ways – some big, some small – that he really is enough, just as he is – dearly loved and wonderfully imperfect, but perfect for him. And while they’re working on their relationship, they also get to do what they both do best, which is to help others through some tough times.
I really appreciated the way the matter of Hugo’s faith is handled in this book. I’m not religious, but it strikes me that Hugo is exactly what a man of God should be; dependable, compassionate and loving, believing his faith will guide him to do the right thing. And Charles, while he may not be an obvious choice to be a vicar’s spouse, is a genuinely good and kind man with a huge heart – and a naughty streak a mile long *wink*.
If you enjoyed the other books in the Learning to Love series, then you probably won’t need any encouragement from me to go out and pick this one up, but just in case you’re wavering, then let me assure you that Heppel Ever After is well worth the read. It’s an emotional, funny and charming story that is both a wonderfully happy ending and a beautiful beginning to Charles and Hugo’s future together.