Aaron Sheftall has dedicated his life to the art of men’s figure skating. It’s been a long, tough road and with very little reward. He works hard, but what Aaron’s earned through hard work and determination comes naturally to the uppermost echelon of skaters. It’s part of the reason why Aaron has never seriously thought about the Olympics: his very best is barely enough to medal. But when a freak accident opens up a single spot on Team USA’s men’s team, Aaron is ready to sacrifice his sliver of normalcy on his family’s remote, island home to train like he’s never trained before. It will take more than a few extra months of work with his trainers, Katie and Brendan, though. Aaron has to focus on getting on several podiums at major events later in the season. The caveat comes in the shape of a former war journalist who just might be someone who Aaron can let into his heart and his most personal, most private inner circle. If a pesky bit of writing for a sports magazine doesn’t undo everything.
Zach Kelly is not sorry he’s no longer getting shot at for stories or seeing humanity at its absolute worst. Nor is he sorry to see his ill-advised marriage come to an end. He is, however, looking for something to occupy his time other than packing up his old life in Florida. That comes by way of an old friend named Sammy, an editor at a sports magazine in need of an expose on the drama currently unfolding in men’s figure skating. Zach agrees to travel to Minnesota to profile a skater with sudden Olympic aspirations. Differences aboud in the world of professional, competitive skating compared to Zach’s former world of war. But his subject, one Aaron Sheftall, makes it clear that men’s figure skating is not for the weak. It turns out Zach’s subject is just about the most enticing thing in the whole assignment. And the feeling seems to be mutual. But how can Zach maintain his journalistic ethics while falling in love with Aaron?
Ink and Ice is the second installment in Erin McRae and Racheline Maltese’s Twin Cities Ice series. The first book, After the Gold, appears to be a cishet romance about pairs skaters named Katie and Brendan who contend with their icy hot feelings towards each other. The pair work as skating coaches, participate in skate events, and run a small dairy farm. I thought the authors did a lovely job flashing snippets of who Katie and Brendan are without having them steal the show. Katie, in particular, serves as an excellent support character for Aaron as he goes after his Olympic dream. The story is arranged in chapters chronologically and they’re labeled with, honestly, some of the most helpful subheadings about WHEN the action we are about to read takes place. For example, “After Aaron’s Free Skate, Zack’s Apartment” or “Later that day, Aaron’s Apartment.” It’s such a small thing, but with frequent scene breaks (usually represented with a little graphic, but as the story progresses…this inexplicably shifts to a series of asterisks or large black dots), I really liked knowing how much time had passed. It also helped me keep up with the story because sometimes there are some jumps in time of several days to a few weeks.
I really enjoyed the story for the most part. On the surface, I would say this has some strong instalove qualities to it. Aaron and Zach are clearly attracted to/interested in one another from the get-go, but they don’t immediately fall into bed or even into a definite relationship. The boundary between Zach and Aaron doing things in the name of journalism and because how else do you get to skate with the Hot Guy was delightfully blurred. The scene were Aaron, the petite and slender skater, is giving Zach, the ostensibly hardened war correspondent, a skating lesson contained this line: Zach felt more absurd than he had in at least a decade as Aaron skated backwards so he could hold Zach’s hands as he marched on the ice. This just created a wonderful mental image in my head (who hasn’t “marched on the ice” the first time they have skates on?). I just liked the whole set-up to big old Zach learning just how tough a skater is, and Aaron learning that Zach may look like Captain Buff’n’stuff, but he didn’t think skating was easy.
One thing I really enjoyed about the structure of the story is the pacing. Aaron and Zach getting together seems like a foregone conclusion and they are in some kind of relationship about halfway through the book. But we also learn that Zach has a side hustle in erotic/bondage photography that he doesn’t get around to mentioning to Aaron. Rather than being blow-out of a stumbling block, it was just a thing for Aaron to take (mostly) in stride. Aaron himself enjoys being on the receiving end of such ministrations, so it seems to work out. It does, however, raise the spectre for readers about how this photography hobby and subject matter could spell disaster for Aaron and I spent almost the entire book in suspense. The whole subplot of “will they take erotic pictures together” and “what happens if/when those pictures get hacked or leaked” was enticing to consider in an ice skating type setting. Side note: I appreciated the authors’ subtle nods to the strict expectations of conformity on appearance for figure skaters as well. Aaron notes Olympicans often get the olympic rings tattooed to themselves…but only in places that won’t offend the judges, meaning Zach’s own sleeve tattoos would be taboo were he a skater.
The ages weren’t specifically given, but I had the image of Aaron being somewhat younger given he’s still reasonably a contender for the Olympics and it’s unusual to be much over 30 and at that level of performance. Zach seems older, having been married and served as a war correspondent long enough to get PTSD and a fear of flying. But the way Zach interacts with and is treated by other typical “authority” figures like Aaron’s coaches and Aaron’s parents makes me wonder if he’s not closer to Aaron’s age.
I also liked that these two characters are developed enough to be interesting to read outside the context of their romantic entanglements. Generally, I thought the writing was very sharp. Again, the authors have a way of writing prose that seemed to really capture scenes with language that really resonated with me personally. One example was when Zach was driving back to his rented apartment after his first kiss with Aaron:
He flipped on the radio…and that was the thing about radio in the dark. No matter where you were, the experience of it was more or less the same; a bunch of songs you didn’t necessarily love whispered into your ear by a DJ that felt like he was speaking just for you.
I know I certainly have felt like people on the radio (or, more recently, podcasts I guess) are speaking directly to me, regardless of reality. That said, the longer I read, the more I noticed some mechanical errors in the book. They were just small things like capitalization errors or superfluous commas, and a few poorly constructed sentences. With such a strong and charming start, it was just a bit of a shame that the same attention to detail didn’t hold throughout the whole book.
Overall, I think this is a great read for a was-gonna-be-an-Olympic-year (albeit summer). I’m not a fan of sports stories, but the number of on-page descriptions of skating are surprisingly few. Aaron participates in many high-stakes events and I thought there was an excellent mix of “hoping for the best, preparing for the worst” and a lot of focus on how Aaron’s mental state can affect his performance. If you aren’t usually into sports stories, I think you’d still enjoy this book. The focus on the relationship that grows between Aaron and Zach is delightfully complex, messy, rushed, and full of emotion. I admit, I was surprised at just how accepting Zach is, especially when he knows he’s in the wrong regarding his writing. Yet, it all works out for the best. There’s also a touch of mysticism in the form of fresh water seals that adds some magic to the story as well.