Rating: 4.5 stars
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With the Olympics around the corner, Alejandro (Alex) Cantu has taken on the role of captain and leader of the U.S. Men’s Swim Team. It is another piece of his busy life, between swimming, work, and taking care of his family. But Alex is honored to have the position and works hard to help lead his team. It is not always easy, however, with the presence of Dane Ellis, freestyle super star and Alex’s former lover.
Ten years ago, when the men were 16, they attended a summer training program together. There the young men fell for one another until Dane’s refusal to stand up to his controlling family and be honest about his feelings left their relationship shattered. Now Dane is swimming’s golden boy, with sponsors and a carefully controlled media presence run by his fame-seeking parents. Dane still refuses to stand up to them and admit who he is, and it is all Alex can do to be around him. Yet be around him he must, especially as Dane ends up on the medley relay team along with Alex.
As much as Dane pines for Alex, he has never been able to stand up to his parents or the giant machine they have created around his career. He knows he can never have the man he wants if he is not able to defy his parents’ expectations, but they are a force he can barely fight against. When Alex’s career is threatened by doping allegations, however, Dane knows he can help him. He also knows it is time to finally stand up for himself and reclaim the man he loves.
I am a huge fan of Layla Reyne’s romantic suspense Agents Irish and Whiskey series, so I was really excited to see what she could do with a more straight contemporary. Relay has many elements I really love, including an enemies to lovers story and a focus on elite athletes. I can also see Reyne’s style here, particularly with the bit of a suspense storyline toward the end of the book. The focus here is on the relationship between Alex and Dane, but it is set under the bigger picture of the Olympic Games and the members of the swim team preparing to leave for the competition.
From the romance end, we get a great enemies to lovers setup here, as these guys have been at odds for the last ten years after falling for each other one summer as teens. We can feel both the hostility between them, but also so clearly how much the men are still pining for one another. Alex struggles as the team leader to not let his feelings interfere with the team dynamics, but it is almost impossible for him to hold back his emotions, especially when Dane’s family keeps turning everything into a media spectacle. Alex still hurts from Dane’s rejection, and even when Dane shows signs of changing, Alex is wary of being hurt again. For Dane’s part, he loves Alex and always has, but he hasn’t been able to figure out how to get out from his parent’s influence. He is so used to falling in line, and they steamroll through just about everything, that even his little forays into independence get quashed. This story has quite a bit of angst as these guys struggle with their feelings, and in Dane’s case, struggle with taking an action that will change the course of his life. But I also like that Reyne pulls together the relationship end of things early enough on that we can really see the love the guys have for one another and then gives them an external conflict that they can work together to resolve.
I do wish we had a better sense of exactly what went on that summer ten years ago. We know that Alex feels betrayed, that Dane somehow rejected him in favor of falling in line with his parents, but we never really get details. Given that this event is the lynchpin for the story’s conflict, I wanted to better understand what happened. Particularly because we are talking about the actions of a 16 year old living under the control of his parents, not an adult. I needed to better understand what Dane did that was so bad to cause this ten years of hurt. Along the same lines, I also wanted more detail on their relationship itself back then. These were 16 years olds who were together for a couple of months ten years ago. It is very much presented as the two being in love and the feelings they had have carried through the intervening years. Given their age, the amount of time passed, and the short time they were together, I had a little trouble quite feeling the intensity of their connection with no real detail given to it in the story. Now I know people can fall in real love at 16; I started dating my husband at that age so I know it happens. But for me to really get the connection between them after so long, I wanted to see a little bit of it, or at least hear more details.
As I mentioned, in addition to the romance, this story focuses on the swim team and the lead up to the Olympic Games. Relay is the first book in a two-book set that features the four men on the medley relay team. Dane and Alex get their story here, and then Jacob and Bas are featured in Medley, which comes out in April. I’ll say that despite being a connected story in terms of the big picture of the Olympic team, this book totally stands alone as far as the romance. The relationship between Alex and Dane is fully developed and resolved here and we aren’t left with any loose ends. We meet the guys from the other story, as well as other members of the team, but this feels fully like Alex and Dane’s story and I wasn’t left with a sense of it being unfinished in any way. So while I am really excited about the next book, I think you can definitely read this one without waiting for the second.
Relay is romantic and engaging with two heroes who are so clearly pining for one another, but sure that they can never be together. I loved their relationship and the way we see growth from both of them, Dane in particular. The chemistry between the men is intense, and when they get together they are all kinds of sexy. I loved the setting within the larger swim team and the details on their lives as athletes. I think Reyne really has set this up nicely and I am eagerly looking forward to the second story in the set.
This sounds like a story I’d enjoy. Thanks for the review, Jay.