Shane Hollander and Ilya Rozanov have been hockey rivals since they were at the World Junior Hockey Championships at age 17. Then, Ilya led the Russian team to defeat Shane’s Canadian team. The next year, they entered the draft and Shane was picked ahead of Ilya—by bitter rival teams in the same division. As both were vying for Rookie of the Year, the media built up their extreme competitiveness to an on-ice/off-ice hate fest.
But, behind the scenes, Ilya, the closeted bisexual bad-boy he is, begins to press buttons that turn boy-next-door Shane way the heck on. Shane knows he is gay, but he also knows he can’t do anything about it and be a pro hockey player. He only ever messed around with one boy—another who had just as much to lose. And Ilya is a jerk. Really. He plays mind games on Shane, because Ilya likes the danger of turning on and turning out Canada’s hockey hero.
Heated Rivalry is far different from the first book in the Game Changers series. It’s told in vignettes spanning about 8 years. Ilya’s jerk persona isn’t attractive to Shane, but his commanding nature is. His brand of sexy-shaming-loving gets Shane so hot, and it’s impossible to turn Ilya away. Because they do not live near one another, their hook ups occur when their teams play, or when they are in Vegas together for the annual NHL awards, or at the All-Star game festivities. What starts as a bit of hate-love with mind games and shame grows over the years. It matures as Shane and Ilya mature. At first they don’t immediately depart an anonymous hotel room the second their need is sated. They cuddle and chat. They prepare snacks to share and sustain them. They begin to text one another, for no reason but to stay connected. Ilya inexplicably reveals the tensions of his Russian family, and the impossibility of returning there when he’s done with hockey. Shane calls to comfort Ilya when tragedy strikes. These steps toward domesticity are emotional landmines that drive Ilya and Shane closer, instead of apart. I loved every moment watching their love grow and develop.
Their trysts were happening maybe two or three times a year, and after the growth of a friendship between them, they recognize that this is no longer satisfying. Ilya stops seeking out other partners, Shane hardly ever sought any. Were they crazy, thinking they could make something permanent work? No…what was crazy was watching fellow player Scott Hunter kiss his boyfriend on the ice after winning the Stanley Cup. An out hockey player who wasn’t shunned? Was rather celebrated and beloved? Ilya is in shock. He needs to see this for himself first hand. And, he suddenly can’t imagine returning to the half-life of his Boston penthouse while his love, Shane, lives in Montreal and summers in seclusion in Ottawa.
This is almost two books in one. There’s the hot sex that changes both Shane and Ilya’s youthful outlooks, and then there’s the slow growth of an adult love story that changes their lives for the better. This isn’t a coming out book, though. Shane and Ilya have very important reasons for staying closeted, even after other players come out. Their “rivalry” has earned them a lot of money, and yet they mature enough to morph it into something else—something they can control. They become strategic partners in crafting their relationship so that they can be together without revealing all of their truths at once. While I’m a fan of true love winning out over all obstacles, I wasn’t disappointed in the end. Ilya and Shane are very happy lovers and boyfriends. They have a deeply committed relationship that is witnessed and applauded by their inner circle. Shifts in teams and priorities have brought them close enough to be able to have some semblance of a regular life together—for pro athletes on different teams who travel ten months of the year. Ilya hints they may come out—long before retirement. Without a doubt, this felt like a happy ending.