Tough Guy (Game Changers #3) by Rachel Reid


This title may be purchased from Amazon

They have nothing in common—so why does Ryan feel most like himself whenever he’s with Fabian?

Pro hockey star Ryan Price may be an enforcer, but off the ice he struggles with anxiety. Recently traded to the Toronto Guardians, he’s determined to make a fresh start in the city’s dynamic LGBTQ Village. The last thing he expects to stumble upon in his new neighborhood is a blast from his past in the fabulous form of Fabian Salah.

Aspiring musician Fabian loathes hockey. But that doesn’t stop him from being attracted to a certain burly, ginger-bearded defenseman. He hasn’t forgotten the kiss they almost shared back in high school, and it’s clear the chemistry between them has only intensified.

Fabian is more than happy to be Ryan’s guide to the gay scene in Toronto. Between dance clubs and art exhibits—and the most amazing sex—Ryan’s starting to feel something he hasn’t experienced in a long time: joy. But playing the role of the heavy on the ice has taken its toll on his body and mind, and a future with Fabian may mean hanging up his skates for good.

Rating: B

Tough Guy is book three in Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series, set in the world of professional hockey. While I wasn’t as utterly caught up in the romance here as I was in the previous book (Heated Rivalry – which made my Best of 2019 list), I nonetheless enjoyed the novel, and appreciated the way the author flips the stereotype of the confident, ripped jock so often found in sports romances (both m/f and m/m) and creates instead an endearing, gentle-giant-type character with severe self-esteem issues who struggles to reconcile the person he truly is with the one he’s expected to be on the ice.

At six-feet-seven inches, with a build like a bulldozer, Ryan Price knows how to intimidate.  On the ice, he’s an enforcer, someone other players actually aspire to fight with – especially rookies, for whom “paying the Price” is something of a rite of passage.  But it’s an image and a job that Ryan wrestles with, and which has been weighing down on him more and more as the years have passed, because that’s not who he is at all.  When the story begins, Ryan has just been traded – yet again – this time to the Toronto Guardians, and is being urged – ordered, really – by his coach to be more of a team player both on and off the ice, and unsubtly quizzed about his mental health.  Anxiety, self-esteem issues and finding social situations hard to deal with mean Ryan has always found it difficult to connect personally and professionally, and a well-publicised “freak out” the previous season (a panic attack) has made him even more self-conscious. This is the ninth team Ryan has played for in almost as many years; he’s never played anywhere long enough to put down roots or make any real friends, but this time he’s determined to change that, and finds himself an apartment in the vibrant, LGBTQ part of town.  Ryan is openly – albeit quietly – gay but that’s never been an issue, partly, he suspects, because he’s moved too often for anyone to really notice or care, and with a few other players – notably Scott Hunter (Game Changer) – coming out recently, it hasn’t seemed necessary to hide it. Sex hasn’t often been a positive experience for him; he  hasn’t had many partners, and those he has had haven’t really been interested in him as a person, or been able to see past his size or their own preconceptions of what he should like and want.  He’s lonely, the medication he’s on is screwing up his libido and… it sucks.

When Ryan enters  a local pharmacy in order to get a prescription filled, he’s surprised to see Fabian Salah working there.  When Ryan was seventeen, he’d been billeted with the Salahs, a Lebanese family who lived and breathed hockey and whose daughter was a rising hockey star, but whose son, a hugely talented musician, seemed hardly to merit their notice.  Even then, Ryan thought Fabian was beautiful and had a mad crush on him – which he suppressed, having quickly learned that Fabian despised everything to do with hockey.  Over the year Ryan lived with Salahs, Fabian’s attitude changed and they became friends, but they haven’t seen each other since Ryan made the NHL.

Fabian is Ryan’s complete opposite in just about every way.  Femme, confident and extrovert, he’s amazingly talented, completely adorable and has zero fucks to give about what others think or say about him. Plus he has the most fabulous group of friends I’ve read about in quite some time.  Fabian had quite the crush on Ryan back in the day (but thought he was straight,) and seeing him again brings back a lot of that old fascination and attraction.  Fabian isn’t pushy, but he does need to nudge Ryan out of his comfort zone a little to start with, and before long, they’re seeing each other regularly and fast moving toward couple-dom, helped considerably by Fabian’s ability to understand Ryan’s fears and anxieties and treat them as part of him and not something to be ashamed of or weird.

Tough Guy is a very different book to its predecessor, and anyone coming to it expecting more of the same may need to adjust those expectations.  It’s what I’d call a ‘quiet’ book in general; the romance evolves naturally and realistically, and the drama is mostly supplied by Ryan’s growing conviction that he’s not happy in his chosen career and his struggles to deal with his self-esteem issues and see himself as someone worthy of someone as vibrant and sexy as Fabian.  Ms. Reid handles Ryan’s anxiety issues very sensitively and never over – or under – plays them, and I appreciated her decision to write a main character who is experiencing sexual difficulties and isn’t always raring to go at the drop of a hat, something not often explored in romance novels.

I loved Fabian’s confidence and easy charm, although I was less than impressed with his actions towards the end, which actually felt like a deliberately contrived way of injecting some last minute tension into the story.  Fortunately, things are resolved quickly, but that short section felt like an insert rather than an organically evolved part of the story, and I had to knock the final grade down a bit as a result.

Following a book as good – and well-loved – as Heated Rivalry was always going to be tricky, but the author’s decision to do something completely different was a good one.  Tough Guy is a sweet, sensual and charming romance, and if you like opposites attract, gentle ginger giants and/or second-chance romances, then I’d urge you to give it a try.

My 2019 in Books & Audio

Before I started writing this post, I took a look at the one I wrote for 2018 – My 2018 in Books & Audio – to see what I had to say about the books I read and listened to and about the things I was hoping for from 2019.  Sadly, my biggest wish – for more winners in historical romance – not only didn’t come true, but didn’t come true in spectactular fashion; I read and listened to considerably fewer historical romances in 2019 (around 60) and of those, only 15 garnered a B+ (4.5 stars) or higher (actually, that was 11 historical romances plus 4 historical mysteries), and only two made the Best of 2019 list I wrote for All About Romance.  Looking at the upcoming release lists for 2020, I can’t see that situation improving; very few of the book blurbs for upcoming HR make me want to read them.

So… what did I read and listen to instead?  My Goodreads stats show that I read and listened to 299 books and audiobooks in 2019, (that figure includes maybe a dozen or so audio re-listens), which is over 40 books more than my total for last year.

Of that total, 66 were 5 star reads/listens, 184 were 4 star reads/listens – by far the biggest category – 35 were 3 star reads/listens, and there were 9 2 stars, 1 1 star and 1 unrated DNF.

Of the 66 highest graded, around a dozen were actual A grades; I award an A- 4.5 stars but bump the star rating up to five.  (And in the case of audiobooks, sometimes a B grade story will get bumped up because of A grade narration). The 4 star ratings cover books/audios I’ve given B-, B or B+ grades, which is quite a large spectrum as it ranges from those books which are given qualified recommendations (B- is 3.5 rounded up to 4 stars) to those which are almost-but-not-quite DIKs (Desert Isle Keepers), the 4.5 stars (B+) I don’t round up.  I had around the same number of 3, 2 and 1 star ratings as last year, which is at least consistent!

The books that made my Best of 2019 list at AAR are these:

(although I cheated a bit and actually included the whole Not Dead Yet and Borealis Investivations series!)

You can read about them in more detail at All About Romance.

I had a list of “also rans” that I would have included had I had more space:

Charlie Adhara’s Thrown to the Wolves was – I believe – originally to have been the final book in her Big Bad Wolf series, but she’s since announced there will be a fourth (yay!).  In TttW, we finally get some backstory for the enigmatic werewolf Park when he takes Cooper home to meet the family, together with a clever mystery, complicated family dynamics and a well-deserved HEA that’s perfectly in character. Cordelia Kingsbridge’s A Chip and a Chair was one of my most anticipated books of the year and didn’t disappoint, bringing the rollercoaster ride that was the Seven of Spades series to a rolliking, satisfying close.  KJ Charles’ Gilded Cage was (I think?) her first m/f romance; a sequel to Any Old Diamonds, it features tough-as-nails lady detective Susan Lazarus and the other half of the Lilywhite Boys in an intriguing murder mystery with a superbly written and swoon-worthy second chance romance.  Sally Malcolm’s Twice Shy is a lovely feel-good romance between a young man struggling to bring up two young children left to his care following the deaths of his sister and brother-in-law, and a school teacher still dealing with the fallout of a failed marriage and career.  The romance is warm and tender and funny and simply thrumming with sexual tension and chemistry and is guaranteed to warm the heart and produce happy sighs.

Historical Romance made another really poor showing in 2019; of the authors I’ve previously counted on to deliver really good stories full of interesting and appealing characters, only a few actually managed to do it.  KJ Charles and Mia Vincy made my Best of 2019 list, but Lara Temple (The Rake’s Enticing Proposal), Virginia Heath (The Determined Lord Hadleigh), Janice Preston (Daring to Love the Duke’s Heir) and Marguerite Kaye (The Inconvenient Elmswood Marriage) all put out excellent books this year, and I enjoyed Evie Dunmore’s début, Bringing Down the Duke and am keen to read whatever she comes up with next.  I still haven’t got around to reading Julie Anne Long’s Angel in a Devil’s Arms, which has appeared on quite a few Best of lists, so I hope I’ll enjoy it when I get around to it!

I also enjoyed a few historical mysteries; Sherry Thomas (The Art of Theft), Andrea Penrose (Murder at Kensington Palace) and Anna Lee Huber (Penny for Your Secrets) released new instalments in their current series and Cat Sebastian (Hither, Page) began a new one set in an English village post WW2 that combined a cozy mystery with a simply lovely romance.

Audio

I did a very quick count the other day, and think that, for the first year ever, I actually listened to more books than I read (by a very small margin).  I counted around 150 audiobooks (and probably missed a few re-listens because I often forget to mark those at Goodreads) which is half my total of 299 reads/listens. And according to the spreadsheet I maintain of books and audios I’ve picked up for review, I had an equal number of books and audiobooks to review in 2019. I have definitely struggled, at times, to find books I want to review and have filled the gap with audiobooks.  So many are released each month, and I especially love it when backlist titles are made available for authors whose work I enjoy but stand no chance of actually getting to in print!

I chose the following as my Top Five audiobooks of the year at AudioGals:

I also cheated here by including the whole Not Dead Yet series! – which is actually the only title (titles) written in 2019; all the other books were written before last year, but didn’t come out in audio until 2019.  But that’s par for the course with audio; not all of them are released simultaneously with the print/digital versions.  The “also rans” for my audio Best of 2019 list were:

All boast top-notch performances and got at least an A- for narration, and the stories got at least a B+ each; and quite honestly, I could have substituted any of them for the list I actually posted at AudioGals; my favourites tend to change depending on how I feel from one day to the next!  Had I listened to Lily Morton’s Deal Maker before I complied my list, that would certainly have made the cut, too!

So that was 2019.  What am I hoping for in 2020?  I’d like historical romance to get back on track, but I don’t see that happening in a big way and expect to be reading even more selectively in the genre than I’ve done this year.  I’m hoping for more from Mia Vincy and will be checking out more from Evie Dunmore.  Right now, most of the good HR is coming from Harlequin Historical authors, so I’ll definitely be reading more from them. In contemporaries, I’m looking forward to two new series from Annabeth Albert (Hotshots and True Colors) as well as to catching up with her Perfect Harmony series in audio, and to making my way through Lily Morton’s backlist – I’m eagerly awaiting the release of the audio of Risk Taker (with Joel Leslie at the helm) and hope she’s planning more audio releases in 2020.  I’ll be snapping up the finale of L.J Hayward’s Death and the Devil series as soon as it comes out, nabbing more Victor Bayne (and Gomez Pugh!) in the next book(s) in Jordan Castillo Price’s PsyCop series, and inhaling more Hazard and Somerset from Gregory Ashe. KJ Charles promises some 1920s pulp mysteries, there’s another book to come in Charlie Adhara’s Big Bad Wolf series, so I’m looking pretty nicely set for the first part of 2020 in terms of reading and listening!

I’ll (hopefully) be back again this time next year to tell you now it all panned out!

Heated Rivalry (Game Changers #2) by Rachel Reid

heated rivalry

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Nothing interferes with Shane Hollander’s game—definitely not the sexy rival he loves to hate.

Pro hockey star Shane Hollander isn’t just crazy talented, he’s got a spotless reputation. Hockey is his life. Now that he’s captain of the Montreal Voyageurs, he won’t let anything jeopardize that, especially the sexy Russian whose hard body keeps him awake at night.

Boston Bears captain Ilya Rozanov is everything Shane’s not. The self-proclaimed king of the ice, he’s as cocky as he is talented. No one can beat him—except Shane. They’ve made a career on their legendary rivalry, but when the skates come off, the heat between them is undeniable. When Ilya realizes he wants more than a few secret hookups, he knows he must walk away. The risk is too great.

As their attraction intensifies, they struggle to keep their relationship out of the public eye. If the truth comes out, it could ruin them both. But when their need for each other rivals their ambition on the ice, secrecy is no longer an option…

Rating: B+

Heated Rivalry is the second book in Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series set in the world of professional hockey. I haven’t read book one (Game Changer), but although characters from that book are mentioned in this one, it works perfectly well as a standalone.  Heated Rivalry is a kind-of-but-not-quite enemies-to-lovers story that takes place across the span of almost a decade as we follow the development of the relationship between two players from opposing teams. There are a few things about the novel that require the reader to suspend their disbelief a bit, but on the whole, this is a steamy and sometimes poignant love story that boasts a pair of engaging protagonists and plenty of snark.

In the prologue, we meet Shane Hollander, captain of the Montreal Voyageurs, as he faces off against Ilya Rozanov, his opposite number for the Voyageurs’ arch-rivals, the Boston Bears.  The on-and-off-the-ice rivalry between the two men has been ruthlessly stoked and fed by the media since before their rookie seasons years earlier; pitting the good-looking, easy-going, boy-next-door Shane against the big, brooding, ill-mannered Russian was like manna from heaven to media and fans alike, but while there’s no doubt that Rozanov can play dirty and deserves his reputation as the most hated man in Montreal, there’s more to their rivalry that meets the eye.  A lot more.

After the game that night, Shane heads off to the condo he owns but doesn’t live in for one of the intense but infrequent – hook-ups he’s had over the years with … you guessed it, Ilya Rozanov.  The explosive chemistry that ignited between them when they first met has never abated, and even though Shane knows it’s stupid and what’s at stake for both of them if they get caught; even though he’s angry at himself for continuing to crave Rozanov’s body, and even though he tells himself every time that this is the last time – he can’t stop.

We then jump back seven years to witness Shane and Rozanov’s first meeting at the World Junior Hockey Championships, then follow them into their first season with the NHL when they’re signed up by two rival teams  who play each other regularly and often end up competing for championships.  Even before that, each of them recognises in the other a serious opponent, possibly the only other player who can match them completely on the ice – and each is determined to get the better of his rival.  But neither of them had bargained for the intensity of the desire that ignites unexpectedly between them or the almost addictive need they feel for one another.  Over the next few years, they continue to meet up to fuck each other’s brains out when their schedules allow, even as both of them continue to berate themselves for letting this… whatever it is, go on for so long.

The first part of the book tells the story leading up to the hook-up in the prologue, and the second  picks up after it.  Shane and Ilya have been captains of their respective teams for a while and are widely respected within the sport – even if, in Rozanov’s case, not popular.  They’ve been hooking-up all this time without getting caught (which was one of my problems with the book – seven years of sneaking off to bang in secret – sometimes at the same hotel as their teams! – and nobody ever suspected or caught them out?) and they’re still telling themselves they need to quit it and find themselves a real relationship.  But it’s becoming harder and harder to do that, or imagine never seeing each other – other than as casual acquaintances – ever again.  Things between them are shifting; they try to tell themselves that all they’ve been doing for the last seven years is fucking, but emotions have somehow become involved without either of them wanting or realising it – and now they’ve finally woken up to what’s happened, how can they possibly carry on as they have been knowing the other most likely doesn’t feel the same way?

I liked both leads, although Rozanov is a bit of a dick at times.  He’s outrageously cocky and confidently bisexual – although of course, given the widespread homophobia in the world of professional sports, nobody other than the rare guys he hooks up with has any idea he shags men as well as women.  There’s also the fact that being openly queer in Russia could land him in prison, so he’s used to having to keep that side of him suppressed. By contrast, Shane is quieter and not as experienced sexually, and when he and Rozanov first meet, is only just starting to question his sexuality.  He sleeps with women, but over the years he realises that they don’t really do it for him and never have – certainly not in the way he’s coming to recognise that guys do. The author shows Shane and Ilya’s feelings for each other changing and growing in a subtle way; they still push each other’s buttons but there’s more affection and teasing behind it, and the moment when they just hang out together watching TV for the first time is nicely understated given it’s such a huge step for them.  I really liked the way we’re shown these two each giving the other something they’ve never found elsewhere.  Ilya has always had to hide part of himself and has built emotional walls to protect himself from the hurt heaped on him by his family (his father criticises him constantly, his brother only ever wants his money), but Shane shows him it’s okay to be vulnerable and let someone in, while Ilya helps Shane to uncover a different side of himself and gives him a space where he can truly be the person he’s meant to be.

While the overall tone of the story is fairly light, there are darker elements, mostly to do with Ilya and his family, and ultimately, both men have to make some difficult decisions if they want to be together openly.  This is one of the other things I had a bit of a problem with; not only do Shane and Ilya have to worry about coming out, but they also have to contend with the fact that they’re supposed to hate each other, a story that’s largely a media construct.  I didn’t really understand why they couldn’t just announce that they were friends and take control of the narrative whenever they wanted to, rather than the plan they come up with which means they have to continue living apart and concealing their status as a couple.  Still, the book ends on a very firm HFN, and left me hopeful for their future (maybe we’ll see them again in a future book in the series).

Heated Rivalry is a fun, steamy read, and I had a great time with it. I liked the characters, the structure really worked for me, the banter is great, the sex is hot, and when the romance kicks into gear, it’s charming and lovely.