The first book in Garrett Leigh’s Forgiven duology tells the story of Luke Daley and Mia Amour, teenaged sweethearts whose youthful romance hit the skids after Luke took off without a word and joined the Navy in order to provide for his family following the death of his father. Luke left behind a younger brother, Billy, who has never really forgiven him for leaving as he did, and although Mia and Luke get their HEA in Forgiven, and she continues to enjoy a good relationship with her brother Gus (who is also Luke’s best friend and co-worker) Luke and his brother don’t enjoy anything like the same closeness. In fact, Billy hasn’t been back home for years, and that’s the way he intends to keep it.
Unforgotten is a direct sequel to Forgiven, and while Luke and Mia do have large parts to play in the story, the focus switches to Billy and Gus, and there’s enough detail given as to the history these four characters share to enable you to jump in here (as I did) without having read the previous book.
Billy was always a bit of a tearaway, running with a bad crowd, constantly in trouble with the police and regularly sporting the evidence of fights on his knuckles. He’s moved around a lot since he left town, never staying anywhere more than a few months and not interested in putting down roots anywhere, let alone back in Rushmere. But when he pisses off his boss at the breaker’s yard (where he also lives in a caravan on site) once too often, Billy finds himself – and the stray cat he’s adopted (or who adopted him) – both jobless and homeless, and with no other option, he gets in touch with Luke to ask for help.
Just as the Daley brothers were hit hard by their father’s death, so Mia and Gus were devastated by the death of their mother. But while Luke, Billy and Mia all ran from their grief, Gus stayed behind – and was still there when they gradually drifted back home. With no one close to him to lean on, Gus locked away his feelings and decided emotional commitment wasn’t worth the potential for hurt. So now, he buries his residual resentment beneath the calm, easy-going face he presents to the world and contents himself with a regular diet of Grindr hook-ups and no strings sex.
When Gus hears that Billy has actually reached out to Luke, he’s surprised but pleased, and offers to have Billy stay with him. It feels a bit weird though; a few years earlier, he and Billy had shared a deeply passionate kiss Gus has never been able to forget – and when Billy shows up, just as gorgeous and scowl-y and prickly as ever, Gus knows he’s in trouble.
That kiss was every bit as memorable for Billy as for Gus, but when Gus ended it and pushed him away, Billy, embarrassed, pretended to be tipsy, not realising that Gus hadn’t wanted to take advantage of him – or that Gus was scared of the intense feelings it had aroused in him. Billy is still carrying a torch for Gus, but the fact that Gus seems to be out shagging a different bloke every night is intimidating, to say the least, given Billy’s relative lack of sexual experience.
The pair settles into a routine, however, and Billy goes to work with Gus at Daley’s Roofing while Luke takes a bit of a break. They work well together and are spending more and more time together outside work, but Billy’s relationship with Luke seems to be going from bad to worse. They can never find anything to talk about, and on the rare occasions they exchange more than a few grunts, they rub each other up the wrong way.
One of the things I really liked about the book is the relationship between Billy and Luke. It’s tough going for both of them; Billy is still holding onto a shedload of resentment over what he sees as Luke’s abandonment, and Luke just doesn’t know how to handle it or the spiky, hot-tempered brother who knows just how to push his buttons. They have a lot of work to do if they’re going to be a family again – something they both need so desperately – and I loved seeing them at last start to let go of their anger and preconceptions and take baby steps towards compromise. They’re frustrating characters though; Luke clams up at the first sign of confrontation, Billy is deliberately gobby and aims to wound. I understood why Billy acts as he does – he’s got a self-destructive streak a mile wide – but he’s a difficult character to like a lot of the time.
I can’t say I liked Mia all that much (so perhaps it’s just as well I didn’t read the previous book!), but Gus is a total sweetheart and the peacemaker among the group. He’s usually got a smile and a joke for everyone and appears to have everything sorted, but in reality, he’s as much of a mess as Billy is, hiding the pain inside whereas Billy wears it on his face and in his manner.
But even though I liked Gus and Billy, I couldn’t quite get behind them as a romantic couple. I liked the relationship they built together and the way they were able to help each other to start to heal – not by trying to fix each other, but just by being there and ready to listen. But the romance feels rather under-developed; Billy and Gus think about their feelings for each other quite a lot, but then never actually say anything to one another about them. They have good chemistry and the sex scenes are nicely steamy but I couldn’t quite work out what they saw in each other.
As a fellow Brit, I always love it when I get to read familiar speech rhythms and idioms and settings, and the village/small-town vibe here is spot on. Most of all, whenever I read a Garrett Leigh book, I find myself impressed all over again with her skill at capturing the messiness of relationships – familial and romantic – and showing how badly we can mess them up sometimes without really knowing why or how we’re doing it… and then steering things back on track in a way that feels realistic and completely true to the characters.
Unforgotten is intensely readable and well-written, the characters are vibrant and three-dimensional, and their struggles and reactions are very real. I enjoyed it enough to give it a recommendation despite its flaws.