Charles Heppel is the youngest son of a noble family in England. He’s fabulous and fun, having survived terrible educational experiences where his severe dyslexia went unnoticed and his marks were terrible. Despite these setbacks, Charles dearly loves to teach children and has been certified in experiential play learning. He works as a teacher’s aide in primary classes, exposing kids to day trips and art and nature, and helping them cope with the stressors of life and adapting to school. Not that this seems very “noble,” and Charles’ eldest brother would really love him to spend time near the family estate, managing the property and especially some of the renovations to the mysterious folly built by Charles’ departed namesake, an earl a couple generations back.
Charles doesn’t want to spend his time cooped up on the estate, not when he could be living it up with the London gay scene. Still, he’s a bit worn out and a little heartbroken that he can’t find a long-term permanent position doing what he loves. He has an interview at Glynn Harber, a boarding school in Cornwall, not too far from his family seat. Glynn Harber is known for small classes and experiential learning; set in a veritable forest glen, the kids have lots of outdoor and art education. Charles’ dearest childhood friend, Keir, lives near the school and Charles figures he can crash with Keir and his new beau for a bit while he pieces himself back together.
Charles plans to meet Keir after his interview, but is caught in a storm while on a walk in the woods to expunge the frustration of his poor showing. Keir directs him to shelter in a nearby chapel and Charles expects Keir will pick him up there. On a lark, Charles steps into a confessional and, when he thinks Keir has found him, he begins the most ribald confession to likely grace the chapel. Only, it’s to Hugo Eavis, padre of Glynn Harber, a man whose path to ordination was swayed by tragedy. Their hilarious, but touching, meet-cute is interrupted by a school crisis that Charles solves by being his best experiential-teaching self. He impresses the headmaster, Hugo’s longtime friend, who grudgingly hires Charles on two conditions: Charles must take the spare bedroom in Hugo’s accommodations, and he must help Hugo to overcome his melancholy from the tragedy that sent him to Glynn Harber.
Charles was a sweet and tender odd-couple romance between a seemingly flighty, flirty man and one whose gravitas and pondering have trapped him in personal and professional grief. Hugo had been on the road to a celibate clergy life—because he is gay and his church does not allow for same-sex marriages of clergy—but an opportunity to help another friend re-home Syrian refugee children caused him serious injury, from which he is still scarred and recuperating. He’s been rethinking his life choices, and he’s sure he truly wants to help people through ministry, but he’s also wanting a full and rich life with a loving partner. Charles’ irreverence is a balm, but so is just having such a vibrant man share his dwelling. Charles isn’t put off by Hugo’s scars; he sees the loving man for who he is, and that’s a strong, dependable, and thoughtful person—with whom he is scarily falling in love. Their emotional bond was triggered by Charles’ indecent confession, but their friendship and camaraderie are soon blossoming into more intimate feelings.
I just adored both Charles and Hugo. They are such good, decent, lonely men. They each need a keeper, it seems, one who will give them a hand back to feeling good about themselves. Charles’ connections to the children of Glynn Harber lead him to help connect Hugo, who’s let his scars act as a barrier to the kind of bridges he’d hoped to build. The growth for each man helps them reconnect with friends and family, and helps Charles feel more centered in his life and duties than ever before. I loved how his eldest brother and Keir are so loving and honest with him, and Charles finally accepts that they do not look down on him for his academic shortcomings. Also, the tenderness Charles and Hugo experience as a couple together is off the charts, giving both men first-time forays into true intimacy. Hugo is amazing, and I wanted to reach into the book and hug him tight on more than one occasion. Charles’ impulsive tendencies make for lively times, even when it works to his detriment. The historical revelations Charles gets from his brother are also touching, and help heal so many of Charles’ self-esteem issues.
It’s the first book of a series, and the next one will likely feature another couple finding love. I’d definitely read on!