Author: Laura Florand
Rating: 4 Stars
Release Date: February 3rd, 2015
I've been savoring this one. Once Upon a Rose, the start to a new and all-too-beautiful romance series set in the South of France, nearly begged to be read carefully. Each page a petal, thick and heavy with the perfume of roses; meant to be wafted, not inhaled.
Because I just didn't want this book to end. Florand's Amour et Chocolat series ranks among my favorite, ever, so of course I cracked open the spine of Once Upon a Rose with sky-high expectations. Florand's prose can move me to tears, affect me with emotion of the acutest kind, and render me hopelessly in love. I thought, after five full-length novels, three novellas, and two short stories that I knew the intricate ins-and-outs of Florand's writing style and ability. After all, she had covered such a wide range and scope of characters, love stories, and depth within her debut series. But I was wrong.
What I hadn't known was that Florand's prose has the ability to make me grin like a lovesick fool, giggle like a young schoolgirl, and squeal at the absolute adorable-ness on the page. As an avid reader of Florand's, I'd come across sexy, arrogant chefs; ambitious, motivated, and passionate. But few things delight quite the same way that a strong, rugged, and handsome French countryman who blushes does.
Layla Dubois is a rockstar. After winning a Grammy for her debut album, Layla--known as "Belle" to her fans--has hit a wall. Unable to find the inspiration she needs to write another album, Layla leaves Paris and journeys to the South of France to find the countryside home that has recently become part of her inheritance. It turns out that Layla's cottage is a part of a rose valley owned by Matthieu Rosier. When we first meet Matt, it is his thirtieth birthday party and the adorable man is drunk and absolutely besotted with Layla, who he affectionately calls "Boucles." It's an encounter that will leave Matt utterly embarrassed the next morning, when his shyness takes over and renders him grunting grumpily in contrast to the chatter of the previous night.
But it's all just so cute. I wanted to read and re-read every interaction between Layla and Matt; I wanted to savor it and prolong it and live in their world for as long as I could. Because Matt, despite the tough act, is all gooey on the inside. And I love that. I just have to share one of my favorite scenes because it captures the essence of these two characters so perfectly and it was the precise moment I fell insanely in love with their love:
"What do you want now?” Matt growled at her, tightening his arms around himself.
“I only need directions!” Layla snapped back at him. “I can’t believe how unhelpful you people are being!”
Matt blinked. He slid the oddest glance toward the other men, almost—vulnerable? “They couldn’t give you directions?”
Tristan shook his head woefully. “Even Damien,” he said sadly, “proved unequal to the task.”
Matt stared at them for a moment. And then his sunburn seemed to get worse than ever, and he rubbed his chest, as if it felt strange to him. Clearing his throat, a rough growl of sound, he took her map from her. “Where do you need to go?”
“I’ve been lost enough around here, thank you,” Layla said. “I don’t need you to get me lost some more, just to punish me for inheriting a house.”
Matt scowled at the map. “Where do you need to go?” he growled again.
Tristan coughed a little into his hand. “Ahem, Matt. People skills!” he stage-whispered.
Matt glared at him.
“He’s really a nice guy,” Tristan told her out loud, cheerfully, as if Matt wasn’t even listening. “No, I swear.”
Matt transferred his glare back to the map.
Again, Layla fought the urge to just lay her hand against his chest. It was a really hot chest, that probably explained it. She kept imagining all that growly tension relaxing away from him in surprise. And then what would he be like? That cute, enthusiastic, uncontained man he had been drunk?
“Where?” Matt insisted. He cleared his throat again. And then managed to get words out that were still rough, but considerably quieter. “Where do you need to go?” he repeated, carefully.
“I don’t even know where I am.”
“You’re in the Rosier valley,” Matt said blankly and put a callused finger to her map. “Here.”
His gruff voice elaborated as he wrote: “A three-story house with blue shutters will be on your left. It has lace curtains. If not, if it’s a house with blue shutters and roses climbing up the walls but no curtains, you’ve taken the wrong exit. There’s a little bar two buildings farther down, with a faded red awning. Be careful, there’s a pale orange tabby cat that likes to lie right in the middle of the road there, and he will not move. You have to stop the car and pick him up and carry him to the garden of the little house with the jasmine climbing up the green gate. That’s where he belongs. Then you—”
Layla watched his square hand around the pen, his big body bent over the hood of her car as he wrote. His bare back curved and she stalwartly fought the need to reach out and see if it was as smooth as it looked. As warm. To see if his voice would grow more or less gruff when he was being petted.
He knew a particular cat might be sleeping in the middle of the road on her route. And he stopped and picked it up. He made sure she stopped and picked it up.
From this angle, his face was in shade and the sunburn didn’t look as bad, his skin less ruddy under the matte tones. Her head tilted.
It wasn’t sunburn, was it? Sunburn didn’t subside like that.
This big, growling man had been blushing.
“You’re way better than a smartphone,” she said wonderingly.
Actually he was more like a…guitar. Someone she wanted to run her fingers over to see what sounds she could pull out.
He made a sound of acknowledgement that was pretty darn close to a grunt.
She grinned. Definitely a bass guitar. “And you have a much better voice. Do you think I could record you giving the directions instead?” Except, of course, she didn’t have a phone to record with. If she wanted to hear that rough bass talking to her again while he blushed, she’d just have to figure out a way to keep getting him to do it.
A musician had to, you know, coax her instruments into making the sounds she wanted sometimes.
She bit back a grin.
He stopped writing and turned his head just enough to look at her. The color started to mount back into his cheeks again.
Her smile started to escape her efforts to restrain it. “Do you need help with your sunscreen?”
That stern upper lip relaxed its pressure on the full lower one. He stared at her, frozen.
Her smile deepened. Whether it was the pure fun of flirting in French—a language that had, after all, been refined for centuries to that purpose—or the vulnerable blush on someone that big and rough and growling, this whole moment was developing a delicious zing.
“You’re pretty cute, you know that?” she tested softly.
The streak over those strong cheekbones turned ruddy bronze. He looked back at her journal, and the pencil lead broke. He stared at it, apparently not having a clue what to do with himself.
See what I mean? An absolute teddy bear if there was one. But Once Upon a Rose is so much more than the developed love story between Matt and Layla. As the inheritor of so much land, Matt is burdened with living in rose valley and caring for her roses constantly. While his cousins travel the world and date gorgeous women, Matt's first love has always been the land he is rightfully heir to. From Matt's perspective, nothing is in black-and-white. Matt recognizes that his cousins yearn for the land Matt owns--and Matt is proud to be the sole inheritor of the Rosier valley and he selfishly loves his roses--but he also envies his cousins for the freedom they possess for, unlike him, they are not tied down to the land of their ancestors. Matt's relationship with his cousins is complex, however, for in brief glimpses we are able to see that his cousins care deeply for Matt and, contrary to what he may believe, they aren't looking for weaknesses in his character to exploit so that they can take his inheritance away from him. We see time and time again that Matt's cousins are there for him and, eventually, Matt, too, comes to realize that there are more options in front of him than he believes, if only he would open himself up to others and allow them to help.
Layla, too, undergoes her own journey of growth over the course of the novel but it is Matt's character who has stuck with me, long after my languid read of Once Upon a Rose. At its core, this is a story of two people who, by finding love, find that they have room in their hearts for so much more than they imagined. It's about finding the courage to be brave enough to accept change, invite help, and alter your entire world-view. In addition to the Rosier cousins, there are a handful of other vibrant secondary characters who make this novel that much more special and, as always, the cameo appearances and mentions of characters who we've met in previous novellas and short stories is such a delight. Once Upon a Rose, though different from the Amour et Chocolat books, still possesses a hero and heroine who are equally matched, who bring out the best in one another, and who share a riveting passion--whether it be for chocolate or roses, believe me, they're both just as romantic, sensual, and swoon-worthy as the other. I am still unable to adequately express just how deeply I feel for this novel; it's soft, sweet, and oh-so-very hug-able. Between Parisian chocolatiers and Southern countrymen, I'm going to have a difficult time deciding where to stop first when I eventually visit France to find my future husband! ;)