Desert Isle Keeper
Jay Hogan takes the number of books in the Vino and Veritas series into double figures with Unguarded – the story of a closeted, repressed bisexual veterinary surgeon and an ex-pat Kiwi running from an abusive relationship – and it’s the best book of the series (that I’ve read) so far. If you haven’t picked up any of the earlier entries, don’t worry; all the Vino and Veritas books are standalones so you can jump in here and not feel like you’ve missed anything.
When Tai Samuels walked in on his long-term boyfriend Dion and found him having fun being the filling in a twink sandwich, he stormed out – of Dion’s life and of his life in Boston, where he’s lived for the past three years. It’s not the first time Dion has cheated on him, but it’s the last – Tai is done. He hightails out of there with nothing more than the clothes on his back – which are far better suited to a night out clubbing than to a night spent by the side of the road in freezing Vermont, which is where he’s ended up after getting in his crappy car and driving just about as far away as he could get.
Next morning, when he goes to the nearest bakery to get some breakfast, he realises the situation is even worse than he’d thought. His payment cards are declined – Dion has cleaned out all his accounts – and Tai has just three hundred dollars to his name. He knows how stupid it was to allow Dion to control every aspect of his life, but hadn’t wanted to admit it to himself before now; it was easier to look away and believe everything was okay. And now – broke, homeless, alone (and fucking freezing) – all he’s got is time to mull over his foolishness. Which he figures he might as well do in the warmth of the Vino and Veritas bookstore with a hot cup of coffee.
After a couple of hot drinks and a chat with Briar, the store clerk – who gives Tai a few tips about the local amenities – Tai’s attention is caught by another customer, a tall, blond, mouth-wateringly gorgeous man wearing a harried expression and carrying an empty cat-carrier. Tai can’t help watching as Mr. Gorgeous heads off into a hallway – and then reappears, the carrier now full of yowling grey cat. To Tai’s surprise, the man approaches him and introduces himself as Emmett Moore, the local vet – then asks him if he’ll keep an eye on the animal while he goes to the bathroom. Which is how Tai ends up dissing crappy boyfriends in conversation with a huffy feline.
Emmett is pretty much run ragged between running his practice and caring for his ten year old son Leo. His wife was killed in a car accident four years earlier, and he’s never really managed to get things back onto an even keel; a situation made worse by the fact that his receptionist has just quit, leaving him even more short-handed than he already was. So he’s relieved when Briar tells him he’s sending someone over who might be able to help out until Emmett can find a new receptionist – and then flustered when it turns out to be the beautiful young man with the cute accent he’s been fixated on since he left the bookstore. And that’s a can of worms he really wants to keep well and truly unopened.
There’s an instant spark of attraction between Emmett and Tai, but both men have their reasons for trying to ignore it. Tai isn’t planning on sticking around, and has just got out of an abusive relationship, while Emmett is a single dad and… well, it’s complicated. He’s always known he’s bisexual, but he’s not out; after he fell in love with his late wife – who knew about his sexuality – he never looked at anyone else and never thought he’d need to say anything about it. He hasn’t been seriously interested in anyone since Lu died, so he’s been content to continue to keep his queerness under wraps. Until Tai.
It isn’t just Tai’s looks that have captured Emmett’s attention, it’s everything about him; his vibrant personality, his sense of humour, his easy charm and intelligence – and the way he can be so brashly confident one minute and so quietly insecure the next intrigues him. But even though get on like a house on fire – they enjoy each other’s company and work together really well – both of them need to think seriously about next steps. Tai knows Emmett is nothing like Dion, but he needs to make his own way on his own terms, which might mean taking a bit of time and distance to make sure being with Emmett is what he wants; Emmett has to work out how to tell his son that not only is he dating someone new, but that he’s dating a guy. He hasn’t deliberately kept the truth about himself from Leo, but in the wake of their grieving and putting themselves back together after Lu’s death, Emmett… just hasn’t got around to it.
The romance between this unlikely pair progresses quite quickly, but it’s so superbly written and developed that it never feels rushed or as though any steps have been missed out. The chemistry between them is off the charts and there’s a definite opposites attract vibe going on – Tai is a force of nature, Emmett is quiet and considered – but somehow they’re each exactly what the other needs. Tai has spent most of his life feeling like he never measured up, and then his ex really did a number on him, seriously denting his self-esteem and sense of self. He’s used to being thought of as just a pretty face and nothing else, but Emmett quickly sees the kind, gentle man beneath the layers of brittle snark and doesn’t let him get away with talking himself down. Giving Tai the chance to work at the clinic makes him feel useful for the first time in ages, and Emmett provides the support Tai needs in order to re-locate his inner strength and to move towards realising his true potential. In return, Tai brings vitality and colour back into Emmett’s life, making him realise he’s just been going through the motions and that it’s time to start living again for real, that he deserves more in his life than work and a kid he’s crazy about – a loving relationship and to be proud of who he is. One of the things I absolutely loved here is the way Emmett is so sure of who and what he wants; he might not have had a relationship with a man before, but he knows himself, he knows what it feels like to fall hard for someone, and once he’s in, he’s ALL in.
Jay Hogan’s inimitable sense of humour, her talent for creating strong, relatable characters who are easy to fall in love with, and her ability to achieve a superb balance between light-hearted snark and thoughtful introspection make Unguarded a fantastic read in every way. Tai and Emmett are complex and fully three-dimensional, with real-life problems that are dealt with in a believable way, their romance is funny, tender, sexy and emotional, and Emmett’s relationship with Leo is just lovely. There’s a strong secondary cast, including Emmett’s colleague Ivy, who is wonderfully forthright and won’t let him get away with anything and Jasper, a friend who is also a widower (his story is coming soon in Kate Hawthorne’s Daybreak). You’ll laugh, you’ll tear up and everything in between; Unguarded is a contender for my Best of 2021 list, and I’m more than happy to recommend it.