Desert Isle Keeper
Strut is the second book in Jay Hogan’s Style series of romances set in the world of high fashion, and in it, the action moves from New Zealand to New York as we follow events in the life of model Alec Williamson. We met Alec, an up-and-comer, in book one, Flare, where he made his mark at Auckland Fashion Week in designer Rhys Hellier’s first collection. There was an obvious frisson of atrraction between Alec and Rhys’ friend, fashion photographer Hunter Donovan, and I’ve eagerly been awaitng their story. Jay Hogan doesn’t disappoint, delivering a sexy and tender second-chance romance alongside a fascinating – and sometimes disturbing – storyline centred around Alec’s experiences in the modelling world. If I have a complaint it’s that the romance takes a bit of a back seat to the plot once it gets going, but the book is nonetheless a compelling read that I found difficult to set aside to do things like work, eat and sleep!
In a prologue set a year before the story proper, we learn that Alec and Hunter had a very quick club hook-up one night – and that immediately they were finished, Hunter merely mumbled an apology and left like someone had lit a fire under his arse. Alec berates himself for his stupidity; he knew Hunter was a one-and-done type, but he can’t help being embarrassed at the knock to his ego and hurt when Hunter immediately puts distance between them and then ghosts him.
A year later finds Alec in New York where he’s slowly making a name for himself, but modelling is an incredibly tough gig. The author doesn’t pull any punches when she writes about just how hard it is for newcomers – and even slightly more established guys like Alec – to make a lliving, especially as their lives are in hock to the modelling agencies, who house them, often in awful conditions (Alec shares a three bedroom house with NINE other models!) and take rent and any other expenses from their fees so they’re often deeply in debt to them, even when they are working. It’s a well-known fact that male models earn less than their female counterparts (surely one of the few industries where that is the case), even at the highest level, and they, like the women, have to put up with some seriously awful shit if they’re not to end up being dismissed as ‘difficult to work with’ and find their careers suddenly curtailed. Ms. Hogan has clearly done her homework when it comes to this part of the story; it’s real train-wreck reading, mesmerising and repulsive all at once.
But Alec is gaining traction as a model and starting to get noticed. When they worked together in Auckland, Hunter recognised in Alec that special something that would set him apart from the pack – and it looks like Alec’s hard work might be about to pay off when he’s shortlisted for an ad campain for a prestigious men’s label. He’s shooting an assignment for a magazine editorial when an unexpected visitor arrives at the studio at the end of the shoot – Hunter Donovan. Heart in his throat, Alec can’t help but take him in, all rakish mischief and charm, surprised at Hunter’s genuine delight at seeing him and caught completely off guard when he’s swept into a crushing hug.
Flustered, Alec isn’t sure how to respond when Hunter asks him if they can catch up over coffee. Hunter ran out on him and then ignored him for over a year, and Alec isn’t keen on being made a fool of again, but there’s something about Hunter’s manner that pulls him in and he agrees. To coffee. That’s all.
Hunter has had a lot of time to think and to regret walking away from Alec all those months ago. He’s admitted what he was in too much denial to own up to at the time, that Alec had got under his skin during those few months they’d worked together for Flare and that it terrified him. He doesn’t really know what the hell he’s doing now – all he does know is that Alec is unlike any guy he’s ever been with (and there have been plenty) and he can’t turn away. Not this time.
Jay Hogan is so good at writing believable adult relationships. At just twenty-two, Alec is one of her youngest protagonists, but he’s level-headed and has a very mature approach – both of which are impressive considering the industry he’s working in. Hunter is a few years older, and although he’s a dick to Alec to start with, he more than redeems himself during the course of the story. Alec is understandably wary of starting anything with Hunter – he knows Hunter is a player, whereas Alec is looking for connection and intimacy – and I absolutely loved that Hunter is prepared to let himself be vulnerable and put himself out there; he’s honest with Alec about why he did what he did, and just as honest when he says he’s likely to fuck up in future but that he hopes Alec will give him another chance anyway. He’s in New York for a few more weeks and hopes they can spend some time together – even if it’s only as friends.
Alec is torn. He’s as strongly attracted to Hunter as he ever was, but he can’t afford to be derailed by a broken heart, not when his big break might be just around the corner. When Hunter proves to be not only persistent, but intuitive, Alec can’t help melting inside, just a little bit – and finally agrees to give them a shot. Life is looking up; just before agreeing to date Hunter, Alec got the call destined to change his life. Unfortunately, it’s not going change it in the way he’d expected.
The second-chance romance between Alec and Hunter is filled with tenderness and honesty and sizzling chemistry. They go on dates and they talk – about the past and about what they want for the future – but Alec doesn’t let Hunter off the hook easily. He makes it clear how deeply Hunter hurt him and that he’s not interested in travelling that road again, and I appreciated that, though it’s not easy for either of them, they’re so wonderfully open with each other about their hopes and dreams and fears – their road back to one another is beautifully done.
I won’t say any more about the plot, because that would take us into spoiler territory, but I’ll add a warning here that the story does deal with workplace sexual harrassment and assault (not graphic, but disturbing nonetheless) and makes no bones about how hard it is for victims to come forward and be taken seriously, even now after several years of #metoo.
Mention the words “male model” and then add in “sexual assault”, and Alec was on the receiving end of three hours of incredulity, scepticism [and] scorn
The way the author writes about what happens to Alec – both physically and mentally – is masterful; you’ll want to cry with sorrow and rage, you’ll want to scream and throw things and you’ll want to wrap him up in the biggest, fluffiest blanket you can find – but Hunter is with him every step of the way with all those things and more, not caring that his own career could take a hit through association. He’s Alec’s rock – so supportive, understanding and loving through the lowest point of his life, and I was pleased to see Rhys and Kip again as they rally round to support their friends. I thoroughly appreciated the realism of the ending; there’s an HEA for Hunter and Alec of course, and a very satisfactory ending to the plot, but it’s clear that it hasn’t come easy and that there is still a long way to go if real change is to be effected.
Alec’s storyline in Strut is not an easy one to read, but then it’s not meant to be; it’s hard-hitting, shocking, well-researched and brilliantly told. Jay Hogan chalks up another DIK with this emotional, thought-provoking love story..