Rating: 4 stars
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It was supposed to be a fun, relaxing fishing trip on a gorgeous yacht off the Florida coast for Heath Harris and Bran Phillips. But when Bran’s wife goes into labor, Heath is left to “enjoy” the trip without his best friend. His fellow attendees don’t seem like much company either—a middle aged fishing fanatic, a wealthy and shallow man with his trophy wife, and Sam Crawford, a quarterback who just finished his first year in the NFL warming the bench of another team. Heath is desperate to find something to fill his time, but he never expects it will be Sam Crawford. Not only because they are both quarterbacks and thus something akin to natural enemies, but because Heath has never felt the need or desire to get close to anyone. All that changes with a single interaction with the effervescent, and appealing, Sam. Of course, they only have three days of fun in (and out) of the sun. Heath hopes a taste of what his life has always been missing will be enough.
When life returns to normal, Heath discovers his trip to Florida has affected him far more deeply than he ever could have imagined. Being gay is never easy, but being gay in the hyper masculine world of professional football—well, Heath’s just happy that Sam is on the other side of the country. As much of a distraction as his newly discovered interest in men is, it takes a backseat to the weakness he and his coaches at the LA Riptide have identified in his throwing shoulder. But not even the best doctors can figure out what is wrong. Desperate times call for desperate measures and the team decides to get a new backup quarterback…none other than Sam Crawford.
Sam never expected to be welcomed to the Riptide with open arms. He is, after all, untried and untested on the game field. Not only that, but his devil-may-care antics that made him famous with his old team follow him around like a bad stink to LA. It is going to take some tough lessons to learn what it takes to be a real ball player. Having Heath, his walking wet dream, as an unwilling mentor and closet case doesn’t help. Setting up a not-quite-friends-but-definitely-with-benefits arrangement only seems to add fuel to the fire. Only time will tell if Sam and Heath can withstand the pressure.
First, let me be clear that I have zero knowledge of football. In fact, I barely understand what the quarterback even does beyond throwing the ball. For such a reader, I found Bolden’s descriptions of the actual football events (both games and practices) easy to follow. The actual game scenes are peppered throughout, but I don’t recall ever reading through an entire game. Usually, the prior scenes set up what kind of opponent Heath and Sam and the rest will be facing and what kind of practice they need to do to play their best. This builds opportunities for Heath and Sam to talk shop together and build rapport (or not, depending on how moody/defensive/fed up the characters are) outside of their blatant (to them and the reader) sexual attraction. In this way, Bolden creates scenarios where it feels natural to jump into a scene where the guys are in the middle of their game and, usually, worrying about how much they’re sucking at playing football. All that is to say, if you don’t know much about football, that won’t prevent you from being able to follow and appreciate what the actual game-related scenes are doing.
As far as characters go…Heath is Messed Up. We get a super clear picture that Heath is hyper-overcompensating for his childhood, which we learn involved an emotionally and physically abusive alcoholic father, though the father only pops up here and there on the page. Bolden is ambitious in setting up Heath as a character who needs to be successful in football because if he fails at the sport, he’s conditioned himself to believe it means he must go back to his abusive father. Over the course of the book, this absolutely becomes clear, but I felt like there was very little explicit on-page discussion of how Heath finally acknowledges and starts to address this facet of himself.
Sam was more balanced, if only because he wasn’t struggling with identifying his sexual preferences. There did seem to be a clear “break” in how I saw Sam as a character. Before Sam actually has to start playing for the Riptide, he actually seems like a mix of sexy-distraction and I’m-here-to-take-your-spot. This is a great source of irritation for Heath, to be sure. But after Sam starts to play, I saw similarities between him and Heath. Sam blames himself for not doing a better job playing and lets his failures eat away at his confidence. But he lacks the history of needing football as a lifeline to let that failure drive him to success. It was interesting to watch.
The romance that develops between the two is fraught. There were more than a few occasions where Heath and Sam are getting hot and heavy and you just feel like this is the scene where the head coach walks in or a reporter is lurking nearby and they get outed in spectacular fashion. In addition to scenes that practically beg the Sam/Heath relationship to be discovered, there are several allusions to fear of discovery—like when Sam starts making bi-weekly visits to Heath’s and the fact that Sam leaving looking “just fucked” would start the rumor mill. Somehow, Bolden weaves all this tension due to possible discovery into many many scenes, but still manages to let Heath and Sam figure out how they want to proceed with their relationship in their own terms.
My biggest complaint about these two is how…mercurial they both seem. Sam is especially volatile in terms of how much of himself he is willing to sacrifice to be with Heath. For one thing, Sam isn’t out, even though he’s known he was gay for a long time. It was weird to me that Sam resented Heath wanting to keep their relationship underwraps when Sam never came out before (in point of fact, I felt the narration was unclear as to who, in Sam’s previous relationship, did NOT want to come out of the closet). As for Heath, his problem is mainly described as him being an asshole, another coping mechanism from his childhood I suppose. But it was sometimes tiresome when so many Sam/Heath moments end with a wedge between them because Heath can’t not be a jerk a lot of the time.
As far as sports stories go, I think this book has a good balance between sports action and romance. The romance is extremely messy and I thought Heath’s personal background wasn’t clearly explored, even it it was clear it was his family life than made it hard for him to have personal relationships as an adult. I thought the most interesting thing about this book is how little the concept of rivalry plays (yes, it is front and center briefly when Sam first joins Heath’s team, and then creeps back in for a cameo at the very end). The rivalry isn’t between Sam and Heath so much as it is between Heath and himself, wanting desperately to be like everyone else who can accept good things without the self-destruction.