charles audio coverStory Rating: 4.75 stars
Audio Rating: 4.5 stars

Narrator: Cornell Collins
Length: 9 hours, 45 minutes

Audiobook Buy Links: Amazon/Audible | iBooks
Book Buy Links:  Amazon | iBooks

Charles Heppel has come to the Glynn Harber school looking for a job working with the younger children. Charles loves teaching kids, loves empowering them through play to grow and develop. But Charles’ dyslexia has kept him from getting a lot of educational training and so he’s ended up with one temporary job after another, with no one willing to take him on permanently. He is so hopeful, as Glynn Harber seems perfect for him, the kind of place that aligns with all Charles’ ideas of the best ways to work with children. When things go awry with the interview, Charles finds himself wandering into the school chapel and inadvertently revealing all his stress and frustration to a stranger. Charles is mortified to realize he has bared his soul (as well as lots of details about his rather enthusiastic sex life) to the school’s clergyman. But Hugo takes it all in stride, and over the course of the day, the two forge a connection of friendship.

Hugo had planned to be a military chaplain until he was injured in the line of duty. Now, Hugo is unsure what he wants for his future, or if he even wants to continue on to complete his clerical training. He is working at Glynn Harber while recovering from his injuries and figuring out his next steps. It has been rough going for Hugo and it has taken a while for him to come back to himself after his injury. But Charles makes Hugo smile in ways he hasn’t in a while.

Charles ends up sharing Hugo’s lodgings while he works at the school, in part because the headmaster hopes that Charles can continue to bring that spark back to Hugo. The early friendship between the men continues to grow and an attraction flares as well. Hugo is totally inexperienced, while Charles has had sex with more people than he can count, but the two of them find a connection that just soars between them. Charles never imagined he could want a relationship, never saw himself settling down with one person. But Hugo’s quiet strength and support, as well as the physical chemistry between them, gives Charles a happiness he never thought he would find. Yet, Charles still can’t help but fear he will never be good enough for Hugo, that there are others who would be a better fit for this solid, intelligent man. Now, Charles has to learn to trust in his bond with Hugo, and in Hugo’s feeling for him in return. If he can take that leap, Charles may find a happiness with Hugo he never thought he would experience.

Charles is my first book by Con Riley and, based on how much I loved this book, I have totally been sleeping on this author. I just adored this story and everything about it. Charles is the first book in Riley’s Learning to Love series. Apparently, Charles was a scene stealer in His Haven (part of the author’s His series) and his character gets spun off here to start a new series. I haven’t read His Haven, but I loved this book so much I immediately grabbed that one in audio, as well as book 2 in this series. His Haven features Charles’ best friend, Keir, and he does appear here as a side character, but this book works perfectly as a standalone. This story is everything I love in a contemporary — warm and sweet, but also sexy and romantic, and with really fascinating and engaging characters.

The book opens with Charles interviewing at Glynn Harber and we can immediately get a sense of his character. We learn that Charles has always struggled academically due to his dyslexia that was never diagnosed as a child. He is brash and confident about so many things, but this is clearly still an open wound for him and his lack of education (and the trauma of schooling) is something that he struggles with. We also learn about Charles’ conflicts with his older brother, with whom he used to be close, but since George took on the responsibilities of the family estate, the two have clashed. George doesn’t seem to respect Charles’ love of teaching and working with children, thinking it all frivolous and making Charles feel even worse about himself. Charles is such an interesting dichotomy between his self doubt in these areas, but also his complete confidence in himself in so many other ways, such as his skills working with children, or as a gay man who doesn’t apologize for his love of sex and his many partners. I loved how we get to learn so much about Charles so quickly, between his interview, his embarrassing accidental overshare with Hugo, and then a crisis at the school, where we see Charles step in to help a child in need. Riley just does a really amazing job giving us a sense of Charles and I found him such an appealing and compelling character.

The story is told from Charles’ sole POV, but I felt like I got a great sense of Hugo as well. He has clearly been through the trauma of war and faced significant injury and he is still healing mentally and physically. Hugo is in a transition point in his life and is uncertain about where he fits now that this idea of his future must change. There is just this wonderful steady strength from Hugo, a calm presence that gives Charles a renewed confidence. Hugo is also coming accept himself as a gay man, and now that he is no longer pursuing a life in the church, he is giving himself permission to really explore the idea of sex and a male partner. So while this story is so warm and sweet, it is also very sexy as Charles, with all his vast experience, introduces Hugo into the ways of sex. I just adored the two of them together; they fit so well and each man has something to really offer the other in terms of support and facing the future.

The conflict here comes with Charles still being unsure about his worth with someone like Hugo. Riley does a nice job laying the foundation for his insecurities, so when they flare up, they are well grounded in his character. I loved the little moments that allow us as readers to see that Charles is so much more than he thinks he is. I particularly enjoyed little Tor, a boy who gets lost early in the story, and who looks at Charles with such hero worship (and I cracked up at the way he uses Charles’ full name all the time). There is a nice resolution to it all as we see Charles finally come to see that he is the exact right partner for Hugo and realize how much he is loved. I appreciated that we also get some closure with Charles’ brother, and there are some really nice scenes late in the book with the two of them, as well as when Charles learns more about the history of one of his ancestors at the estate.

I’ll also throw in that this story has a really lovely sense of place. It is set at an idyllic school in Cornwall and Riley really paints a picture of the beauty of the surrounding area, as well as the charm of the school. I could really feel how this place is almost an oasis for the students and staff.

I listened to this one in audio with narrator Cornell Collins and he is soooo good here. Both Hugo and Charles have voices that perfectly fit their characters and that are nicely distinct from one another. Collins really brings them both to life so well. Collins also really handles conveying thoughts nicely here; Charles has a very active internal monologue, something that often doesn’t translate well to audio. But I could easily tell when Charles was speaking aloud versus when he was thinking, which was impressive narration. Collins also narrates the children well, and again, Tor steals the show with his “Charles Heppel” every time he sees Charles. I just settled into listening to this so easily and the audio experience was really enjoyable.

So as I said, I just loved this one. I can see why Charles is a scene-stealing character and I adored his book. Collins does a wonderful job with the narration and the audio format was a great way to enjoy the story. I can’t wait to explore more in this series, as well as more of Riley’s work.