In Risk Taker, the third entry in Lily Morton’s wholly entertaining and charming Mixed Messages series, we finally get Henry’s story. He’s the charismatic and witty best friend of Gabe (Rule Breaker) who’s made memorable, scene stealing appearances in each of the previous instalments; fans, like me, have been eager to know more about him. Wealthy, intelligent, handsome, surprisingly wise and always irreverent, Henry somehow always knows just the right thing to say whenever his friends find themselves lost on their road to happily ever after. His proclivity for casual sex in nightclub loos – uncommitted, unemotional, and purely carnal – however, has always seemed at odds with the ease with which he imparts thoughtful and insightful relationship advice. Henry always deflects and redirects inquiries into his own bachelorhood status, and readers have been left to wonder why.
After yet another less than memorable hook-up, Henry, the “Hook-Up King of London”, decides he’s had enough. His closest friends – Gabe and Dylan – are happily coupled up with their respective partners and he wants what they have. Leaving the club, he ruminates on his relationship with best friend (and one-time step-brother – Henry’s father was once married to Ivo’s mother) Ivo, and the time he’s wasted pining after someone who doesn’t return his romantic feelings. Twenty years ago, Ivo rebuffed his one and only attempt at more, and Henry never tried again. So although it hurts to even consider it, he’s resolved to move on – even after he’s startled to discover Ivo outside his front door, slumped over and bleeding from a bullet wound. He’s conscious – barely – and Henry frantically hauls him into the house, scolding him all the while, and calls his brother Silas – a veterinarian – to stitch him up.
Henry spent his childhood splitting visits between his vain and snobbish mother, and his violent and overbearing father. School terms were a welcome respite, but after he was caught in flagrante with another male student in his teens, he was expelled. His father was mid-tirade about how he’s a disappointment and embarrassment to the family when they were interrupted by Evangeline, his father’s new fiancée, and her teenaged son Ivo. Ivo, (who we later learn) had a similarly dysfunctional childhood – moving with Evangeline as she drunkenly flitted from wealthy to wealthier husband, whilst worshiping his largely absent photojournalist father – appears to find Henry amusing. Henry’s intrigued by his smirking, handsome new stepbrother, and once his father’s attack is over, he seeks him out. They bond over their similarly horrid parents, eventually becoming devoted friends.
Told almost exclusively via Henry’s point of view, Risk Taker uses fragmented flashbacks to detail the history of Henry and Ivo’s friendship. It’s clear Henry and Ivo fall in love with each other almost from that first moment they meet, but anxiety about ruining their friendship keeps both men from confessing the truth. When Ivo returns and is placed on a forced sabbatical to ‘get well,’ Henry is thrilled – but he tries to squelch hopes for more and stick to his resolution – no more pining for Ivo. Unbeknownst to him, however, Ivo has made his own resolution: fess up to his feelings for Henry and try for more.
Risk Taker is a study in contrasts – before (Ivo nearly dies), and after (when he’s barely made it home alive) – and Mixed Messages is an apt title for the series, and this book in particular. You’d be forgiven for assuming that since Risk Taker is Henry’s story, he’s the titular risk taker. And you would be wrong (sort of). A more apt and accurate title might be Reluctant Risk Takers©. Henry is risk averse; Ivo is… well, his career as a photojournalist, willing to put his life on the line for a story, is risky and it wreaks havoc on Henry’s emotions; and much to my dismay, Risk Taker turned out mostly to be about Ivo and the repercussions of his (selfish) choices.
I’m not crazy about Ivo, but I am crazy about Henry who’s just as lovely and wonderful as I hoped. Ginger haired, freckled, sweet, funny, well dressed and clever, Henry is a terrific foil to Ivo’s intensity – and devastating to Ivo’s plan to keep his distance. Henry is thrilled Ivo is home, but concerned about his mental state. He insists Ivo see a therapist and slyly nurtures Ivo’s gifts as an artist, hoping it will tempt him to stay. Meanwhile, he has Dylan set him up on a series of blind dates. Friends, the dates are hilariously awful and weird and terrible; Ms. Morton’s writing simply shines in these scenes. Finally, after a series of increasingly horrible dates, a bewildered Henry finally confronts Dylan. When Dylan finally admits they (Dylan and Gabe) did it to make Ivo jealous, Henry is dismissive, insisting Ivo doesn’t want him as a lover. The pair then decide it’s a good idea to get drunk… and stoned, and their night is alternately charming, funny, and sweet. Equally amusing is the moment when Gabe and Ivo discover the pair of them in this state. The whole sequence is wonderful – it also marks the beginning of the end of their simple friendship. Ivo finally loses it. Henry re-surfaces the following evening, prepared for a night out, and Ivo can no longer control his jealousy.
I wanted Henry and Ivo to be together, but after the relationship transitions from friends to lovers, I grew easily frustrated with the pair. They have terrific sexual chemistry (and as usual, Ms. Morton steams up the pages with terrific sex scenes – and there are plenty of them!), but Ivo dodges Henry’s questions about what they’re doing – and Henry lets him. Ivo’s inability to articulate what he wants and unwillingness to reflect on his life choices grows tedious. He’s dismissive of his talent as an artist (despite the commercial success he’s achieved with little effort of his part), choosing instead to follow in his father’s footsteps, hoping to earn approval that’s never, ever coming. Even after he almost loses his life – and Henry – he persists in his elusive quest for approval. Henry… well, he endures. And that grows old quickly too. Their happiness as a couple is palpable – and they still manage to screw it up. UGH. In spite of Ms. Morton’s excellent prose, charming secondary characters (including Silas who I hope stars in the next Mixed Messages novel), settings and pairings, my dislike of Ivo’s selfish behavior and Henry’s (unappealing) willingness to accept it detracted from my ability to fully enjoy the story and the long awaited happily ever after for these two.
My feelings about Risk Taker are mixed (ha!). Yes, I love Henry and the Mixed Messages universe – but I didn’t love this story. Despite all the things that work, Ivo’s characterization and the evolution of the relationship don’t (work) and have prevented me from awarding a higher grade. I’d still recommend the book, but with reservations.