Jay Hogan concludes her Style series with Sass, a warm, snarky and sexy age-gap/opposites-attract romance between the fabulous Kip Grantham, the sassy, fierce and super-capable manager of Rhys Hellier’s high-fashion store, Flare, and Leon Steadman, the gorgeous hunk who owns the tattoo parlour next door. There was a definite spark between them the minute they stepped on the page in the first book, and although it was tempered by a distinct air of frostiness on Kip’s part, it was an intensely combustible kind of spark that would have led to some serious sheet-burning had the pair of them actually made it as far as a bed. As it turns out however, they’ve never acted on their mutual attraction, spending the two years of their acquaintance barely on civil, one-word-acknowledgement terms.
Kip was attracted to Leon the moment he came through the door of Flare, a week after Kip started working there. He was the hottest thing Kip has ever seen and provided more than enough fuel for his fantasies right up until around a month later when they met at a party, and Leon rejected his invitation to do more than just chat. Kip has never made a secret of the fact that he’s not into relationships; he enjoys men, he enjoys sex and isn’t about to feel bad or apologise for it to anyone. He knows when a guy is interested in him, and Leon was definitely interested – so his rebuff was a bit of a surprise; and not only did Leon turn Kip down, he did it in a really shitty, condescending way that more than implied a disapproval of Kip’s lifestyle. Kip was – quite rightly – furious and put Leon firmly in his place before storming off.
Kip couldn’t possibly know how hard it was for Leon to say no that night. Leon had recently decided it’s time to give up what his sister-in-law calls his “whoring ways” and he’s planning to settle down. He wants the whole package, the white picket fence, kids, a dog… it’s time to focus on finding someone he can make a life with and when he meets Kip, it’s the first big test of his resolve. He’s utterly smitten with the vivacious, beautiful younger man and previously, would not have thought twice about taking him up on his offer – but even on such short acquaintance, Leon recognises the potential danger to his heart Kip represents, and sticks to his guns. He just does it in a really unpleasant way.
That was two years earlier, and Kip and Leon have maintained an uneasy détente ever since. Leon has tried repeatedly to apologise for being such a dick, but Kip isn’t interested, despite the fact that Leon is the only man who has ever taken up real estate in his brain.
When Sass opens, Rhys and his partner Beck are about to leave for New York – for work, and then for a short break – leaving Kip in charge of Flare. While they’re away, the space above Leon’s shop (which he rents from Rhys) is going to be converted into a proper studio for Rhys, and Leon, who has been camping there while his house purchase is completed, is going to have to go to stay with his parents for a few weeks. He gets on well with his family, but still isn’t looking forward to it; but when Alec and Hunter (Strut) hear about it, they offer Leon the use of their apartment (above Flare), as they, too, are going to be away for a few weeks.
Kip is… well, ‘ugh’ might best describe his reaction to that news. It’s bad enough that he has to see Leon and deflect his attempts at conversation every now and then, but having him living upstairs and walking through the shop to get there… he’s not wild about the idea.
The chemistry between Kip and Leon is electric from the start, and Jay Hogan does a terrific job with building their slow-burn romance, which starts out with small, thoughtful gestures on Leon’s part, such as bringing Kip coffee or his favourite pastries when he knows he hasn’t been able to find time to eat, and builds into a friendship in which the two men come to feel comfortable enough around each other to talk about things they’ve never really spoken about with anyone else and most importantly, about the things that have lain between them for the last couple of years. Both have suffered trauma and loss; seven years before, Leon’s twin sister was killed in a car accident and he’s struggled, ever since, to really come to terms with it, while Kip has been estranged from his family for a decade because they disapprove of his lifestyle and for reasons the author reveals gradually as the story progresses.
I’ve said this before, but one of the things you can rely on in a Jay Hogan romance is that the characters speak and act like adults, they support each other and, for the most part, they communicate. There are no silly misunderstandings or contrived drama; the conflict in the romance arises organically and as a result of who these characters are, and while Sass is, perhaps, a less angsty read than the other books in the series, it’s far from lightweight and the author nonetheless tackles some difficult issues with her customary sensitivity and understanding.
Both leads are likeable, but this is Kip’s show. Vibrant, funny and blisteringly snarky, he made an impact the moment he stepped onto the page in Flare, and his force-of-nature personality has made him a series favourite. The author does a good job of showing why Kip eschews relationships, his deeply rooted fear of abandonment telling him it’s easier to just avoid setting himself up for it. And despite being a spitfire and having a natural talent for organisation and innovation, deep down, he’s insecure about taking the formal managerial role that Rhys is urging him towards. He’s doing the job already while Rhys focuses on his designing, but while on the one hand he knows he’s damn good at what he does, on the other, he doesn’t quite believe he can handle it, worrying secretly that being “mouthy as shit with a dangerous dose of charm” is no compensation for his lack of education or qualifications. Watching Leon gently bolster him and boost his confidence is lovely; he’s wonderfully supportive, helping Kip to think problems through and to find and own his belief in himself, but that support doesn’t only go one way. Kip stands beside Leon, too, helping him to better understand his family’s concern for him and untangle a complicated and sensitive family situation.
I have to make mention here of the character of Drew, the young trans man we first met in Flare; now nineteen, he’s really growing into himself and shows signs of becoming a force to be reckoned with. His friendship with Kip is superbly written; their snarky back-and-forth provides some of the book’s funniest moments, and their obvious affinity and genuine care for one another is lovely to see.
Sass is a terrific character-driven romance and a great series finale, and although it didn’t quite hit DIK level for me (I would have liked a bit more grit overall), I really enjoyed it and am more than happy to give it a strong recommendation.