Contract Season (Trade Season #2) by Cait Nary

contract season

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Brody Kellerman has a plan. First, become the best defenseman in professional hockey. Second, get over his ex-boyfriend so he can focus on his game. Hooking up with the singer at his buddy’s wedding was the perfect solution, but it was never meant to be more than a one-night stand.

Seamus Murry has never planned a thing in his life, including hooking up with a smoking-hot hockey player. Being ghosted sucks, but at least one good thing came from it—the breakout hit song of the summer. Now he’s one of country music’s brightest stars, but one slipup—or in this case, video—might cost him his career.

When their video goes viral, Brody and Seamus agree to fake a relationship. But soon it’s impossible to remember what is real and what’s pretend, and although Brody has no intention of falling for freewheeling Seamus’s charm…life doesn’t always go according to plan.

Rating: C

Although Contract Season is book two in Cait Nary’s Trade Season series, it can be read as a standalone; the principals from book one, Season’s Change, make a brief cameo appearance, but you don’t need to have read their story to understand this one. Like that book, this one gets off to a good start and I was quickly pulled into the story, but infortunately, and also like that book, things become repetitive, important issues are not dealt with and the pacing is wildly off because (once again) the HEA isn’t given time to embed; there’s so much build up and so little pay-off that it makes for a very disappointing ending.

Defenceman Brody Kellerman is known for his professionalism, his incredibly strong work ethic, his attention to detail and his intense focus. At the beginning of Contract Season, he’s recently ended a three-year relationship after his boyfriend finally got tired of hiding in the closet from all but Brody’s closest family and friends, and Brody blames his poor performance in that year’s playoffs on being distracted because of the breakup.

Seamus Murray is an up-and-coming country music star who arrived on the scene as a teenager when he appeared on an Pop Idol type TV show. Having been an awkward, gangly kid with zits and a face that took him a while to grow into, he struggles with the gap between his self image (of someone who was never particularly noticeable) and people’s expectations of him – which are based on his looks (at twenty-three, he’s seriously hot), his talent, his charm and the confidence he projects. He’s never had a relationship and he’s deeply embarrassed by his lack of sexual experience, believing he’s missed the window where it’s okay to be bad at sex and exploring. And as country music is “the one segment of the North American entertainment industry that was less queer-friendly than the Big Four sports”, Seamus – whose name is very annoyingly shortened to “Sea” – isn’t out to anyone other than his sister.

Brody and Sea meet at the wedding of two mutual friends. There’s an immediate and intense spark of attraction between them; they hook up later that night and exchange numbers before they part – but Brody, who is determined to avoid any distractions that might affect his performance on the ice, decides not to use it and ghosts Sea for months.

In the intervening time, Sea writes and records a smash-hit song about being ghosted, and Brody is traded to the Nashville Bucks – and moves to Sea’s home town. They meet again at a fundraiser and despite Sea’s hurt and Brody’s guilt over the ghosting, the attraction between them burns as hot as it did the first time and they head back to Sea’s house to hook up again. This time, it doesn’t go well and Sea – fearing he will somehow reveal his inexperience – kicks Brody out. They both think that’s that – until a couple of suggestive photographs of them taken at the fundraiser are leaked, followed shortly afterwards by footage (from the neighbour’s security camera) of them kissing outside Sea’s house. Their management teams immediately go into damage control mode, and suggest that Brody and Sea should pretend to date, the thinking being that two guys in a committed relationship may be more acceptable to the… conservative sports and country fans than two guys who were just hooking up.

A lot of this early part of the book works really well. The chemistry between Brody and Sea sizzles, the forced outing is handled sensitively, and I appreciated the attention given to the reservations both men have about being ‘the first openly gay hockey player/country singer’. I also liked that the author addresses the point that although the reactions from teammates and other artists are largely positive, Brody and Sea are never quite sure if that support is genuine or simply a way of avoiding being savaged on social media.

Brody and Sea are talented, hard-working individuals at the top of their game; they’re likeable and their connection is believable. But on the downside, Brody has practically no personality; all we really know of him is his tendency to single-mindedly focus on perfection to the exclusion of all else. The author tells us he’s understanding and amazing and well-balanced, but some of the things he says and does are very inconsiderate, and honestly, there were several points at which I thought Sea should just move on. There’s more depth to Sea, who is struggling with his professional image vs. his self-image and possibly an element of imposter syndrome, but he’s guilty of giving off a lot of mixed signals.

As I’ve said, the story starts strongly, but the more I read, the more I realised I was basically in the middle of one very loooooong Big Mis in which the characters would meet, connect and admit that they liked each other – and then one would say something dumb and hurtful, the other would bring the shutters down, they’d mutually ignore each other for a bit while obsessing over each other and thinking about how the relationship was doomed from the start because they’re so inexperienced/can’t afford any distractions – rinse and repeat. It goes like this for practically the entire book, so that by the time I was just getting into the second half, I was already mentally screaming at them to just TALK TO EACH OTHER. By two-thirds of the way through, I was thinking that they were so bad at communicating and so dysfunctional that any relationship between them was destined for disaster and that they probably shouldn’t be in one. Of course, this is a romance novel so they DO get together – but not until 93% into the story, when they have a single conversation about how they’re finally ready to give a relationship a try, they have sex and then BAM! it’s the epilogue set several months later in which they appear to have worked out all their problems and are in love. Er… what? After pages and pages of mixed signals, miscommunication and non-communication – I’m asked to believe these two are in it for the long haul without seeing them work through ANY of their issues or even saying “I love you” for the first time?

Sorry Ms. Nary – your readers deserve better than that.

In addition, I was really bothered by the way Sea’s drinking problem is glossed over. It’s clear he uses alcohol as a way of avoiding things, and that he frequently drinks heavily and often to the point of blacking out; the way it’s written, his relationship with alcohol is clearly poised to become a serious disorder. Near the end he confides in his manager about it and asks for help. (That he has other mental health issues is kind of hinted at but never really explored.) We’re told his manager gives him the names of some therapists, and later, that Sea is seeing one of them – yet he still knocks back two neat whiskies before he and Brody have their badly needed conversation! It’s great that he realises he has a problem and needs help, but because this happens so late, we never see him putting in any of the work to sort himself out and never see Brody getting to be a supportive partner.

There is so much the author could have done with this story. Brody and Sea both have incredibly demanding, high-profile, high stress careers that involve a lot of travel and time apart and they both have baggage they need to unpack, but instead of addressing those issues and having them working on communicating better and on how to make a relationship work, all we get is a continual cycle of misunderstandings, hurt feelings and ignoring one another until the next time.

One last thing that (probably disproportionately) annoyed me – the shortening of “Seamus” to “Sea”. The author has him explain that it’s pronounced “Shay” – so why not spell it like that? I know literally no one who shortens “Seamus” to “Sea”; a quick Google search found that Seamus is usually shortened to “Shay” or “Shae”or “Shea” as, presumably, anyone who spelled it “Sea” would get fed up with people calling them “see”. I can only guess it’s so Brody could enter Sea’s phone number using a wave emoji… which has no relevance to the plot whatsoever.

I looked back at my review of Season’s Change while I was writing this, and unfortunately, most of the things I criticised there are still present here; unresolved issues, poor pacing, repetitiveness and the really flimsy and unsatisfying HEA. I do still think Ms. Nary is a good writer, but there is too much reliance on issues at the expense of the development of the characters and their relationship – and when those issues aren’t even explored or dealt with properly, then it’s another nail in the book’s coffin. Contract Season is a second middling experience with this author (and earns an even lower grade than her début), so I’m not sure if I’ll be picking up her next book.

Season’s Change (Trade Season #1) by Cait Nary

season's change

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Olly Järvinen has a long way to go. He’s got a fresh start playing for a new team, but getting his hockey career back on track is going to take more than a change of scenery. He’s got to shut his past out and focus. On the game, not on his rookie roommate and his annoyingly sunny disposition—and annoyingly distracting good looks.

All Benji Bryzinski ever wanted was to play in the big leagues, and he’s not going to waste one single second of his rookie season. Yoga, kale smoothies and guided meditation help keep his head in the game. But his roommate keeps knocking him off track. Maybe it’s just that Olly is a grumpy bastard. Or maybe it’s something else, something Benji doesn’t have a name for yet.

Olly and Benji spend all their time together—on the ice, in the locker room, in their apartment—and ignoring their unspoken feelings isn’t making them go away. Acting on attraction is one thing, but turning a season’s fling into forever would mean facing the past—and redefining the future.

Rating: B-

Season’s Change is the début novel from Cait Nary, a sports romance set in the world of professional hockey that follows veteran (at twenty-four!) player Olly Järvinen and rookie Benji Bryzinski through a hockey season as they go from roommates to friends to lovers.  It gets off to an incredibly strong start and I was utterly captivated by the characters and their UST-laden and slightly angsty slow-burn romance, but around the two-thirds mark, things began to slow down and became repetitive. Had the book ended as strongly as it began, it would have been an easy DIK, but as it is, I had to knock the grade down for a number of unresolved issues and most of all, the way what had been such a promising romance limps along to a not-completely-satisfying HFN.

When we meet him at the beginning of the book, Olly is a mess.  He’s been playing professional hockey for three years, and is just starting out with the Washington Eagles, but weeks of not sleeping and not eating properly on top of extreme anxiety and stress following an incident at his previous team in Minnesota mean he’s not in a good place physically or mentally.  He’s determined to push through it though, to make a fresh start and leave the past behind, to – as his Dad has so often said – toughen up, and focus on getting his career back on track.

Benjy is twenty-one and all he’s ever wanted to do is to play hockey.  He might be “just a dumbass from Duncannon, Pennsylvania”, but he’s bright, he’s keen and he’s determined to make the most of every minute of his rookie season.  He hits it off with his teammates straight away, although his new roommate Olly Järvinen takes a bit longer to warm up to him.

Season’s Change is a friends-to-lovers story which, as I said at the beginning, starts extremely well.  Olly has some serious issues to deal with, which the author reveals gradually to have stemmed from a homophobic roommate and coach in Minnesota who bullied and assaulted him when they found out he was gay. By this point, he’s absolutely terrified of anyone else finding out about his sexuality, and he fervently believes he can’t be queer and be a hockey player, so he’s decided he’s got to put that part of himself on the back-burner until he retires.  It’s been fairly easy to do that; despite spending so much time around well-built attractive men, he’s never been tempted to hook up with any of them… until now.  Benjy is all sunshine to Olly’s gloom; he’s honest and good-natured and funny (and hot) and becomes a very good friend, someone Olly can turn to and lean on when he’s at his lowest.   But Benji is straight – and even if he wasn’t, he’s off limits.

The progression of Olly and Benji’s relationship in the first part of the book is very well done.  Their friendship is superbly written and their romance is a fantastic slow-burn with lots of longing and chemistry and sexual tension that leaps off the page.  I loved it.

But things start to fall apart in the last third of the book – which means it’s difficult to talk about specifics because we’re into spoiler territory, but I’ll do my best!  The biggest problem is that the romance, having been built up so beautifully in the first part of the story, stalls and doesn’t go anywhere until the very end.  There’s too much repetition and extraneous detail taking up word-count that should have been used to bring the romance to a satisfactory conclusion instead of the flimsy HFN it gets at pretty much the last minute.  In a book of almost 400 pages, there should have been plenty of time for the author to get the leads together and show us a happier Olly doing a better job of managing his mental health and realising he can have all the things he’s dreamed of having with Benjy.  We don’t get to see them navigating life as a couple and truly being themselves, and we don’t get the chance to relax and be happy for them before the book is over.  Given everything they go through, they don’t get the ending they deserve, and that’s a crying shame.

It bothered me that when Olly and Benji finally start a sexual relationship, Olly thinks it’s just a case of them ‘helping each other out’ and that Benji is straight and will eventually find a woman he wants to be with.  He never tells Benji he’s gay – in fact, they never talk about what they’re doing at all – and I found it hard to believe that Benjy never once wonders if Olly is queer.  And Benjy talks about having fooled around with guys before and having had threesomes with girls and guys, but it never occurs to him that he might be bisexual until the very end.

Highlight to read spoiler:

Speaking of threesomes… There’s one in the book, and it felt like a scene of dubious consent.  Benji brings home a woman and convinces a very sad, very drunk Olly to have a threesome (MFM – she blows Olly while Benjy fucks her.)  Olly has never been with a woman in his life and has never wanted to, and is so distressed  in the morning that he immediately throws up and spends days after avoiding Benji.  I didn’t see the point of it and it felt unnecessary cruel given everything Olly is going through.  It made me really uncomfortable.

Other smaller niggles. This is a sports romance, and I know that hockey fans will probably disagree with me, but there is too much hockey stuff in the last third of the book.  I freely admit I’m not into sports (and know next to nothing about ice hockey) BUT my issue isn’t so much with the inclusion of sports-related detail – I accept that a story built around hockey will have stuff about hockey in it! – it’s that it uses valuable word count that could instead have been spent building a proper HEA for Olly and Benjy.

Probably going along with the ‘hockey stuff’ is the ‘bro speak’; maybe it’s accurate, but I found it irritating (and sometimes incomprehensible!), and the same is true of Benjy’s tendency to, like, use the word “like” in every, like, sentence.

Assigning a final grade to Season’s Change was difficult.  The first two-thirds is DIK standard, the central characters are engaging and their romance – up until they start having sex – is gorgeous and frustrating and they have chemistry by the bucket-load . The author creates a wonderful team camaraderie, the writing is strong overall and Olly’s anxiety and fears are presented skilfully and sympathetically.  The complicated family dynamics are well done, too – Olly has one of those pushy ‘hockey dads’ who is always on at him to do more and do better, and Benjy’s sister is in a toxic relationship and can’t or won’t admit it. This plotline doesn’t reach a firm conclusion, but that feels realistic and I liked the way Ms. Nait handles this complex situation.

But while Season’s Change has a lot of really good things going for it, the final third and the ending drop down into C territory, so I’m going with a low-end B overall.  It’s worth checking out if you’re into hockey romances and looking for a new author to try, but I can’t recommend it without reservations.