Desert Isle Keeper
Hockey season is in full swing and while I don’t watch a lot of games, as a Canadian it’s required viewing at least at some point during the year (or at any rate, someone in your family will have a game on TV while you’re sitting and reading on the couch). As sports romances go, ones with hockey themes are definitely very popular, spawning Facebook groups and Goodreads lists dedicated to the genre. My first exposure to Sarina Bowen’s hockey romances was with her Ivy Years new adult series that looked at the world of college hockey. Some of those players have grown up and are part of the professional hockey scene now, which brings us to her Brooklyn Bruisers NHL contemporary romance series. The first book, Rookie Move, highlighted the change for Leo Trevi going from a college team to a serious professional hockey career. Hard Hitter takes a behind the scenes look at a veteran NHL enforcer and the consequences of years spent on the ice, both personally and professionally. It’s also a sexy and emotional romance between two people who are due for a kind heart and a caring hand.
Patrick O’Doul is the captain of the Brooklyn Bruisers. At thirty-two, he’s already lived a lifetime of hard knocks both on and off the ice. Growing up in group homes where he learned to fight to protect himself, he turned that and his love of hockey into a career. But the years are starting to take their toll with a nagging hip injury and the personal dread he’s starting to feel before every game. When his coach insists he make regular appointments with the team’s yoga instructor and massage therapist Ari, he does so reluctantly, having a personal dislike of being touched for reasons he won’t share. Emotionally and physically, he’s exhausted. But under Ari’s soothing hands he finds a peace he’d never expected, and a woman who quickly becomes a friend, and more.
Ari Bettini loves her job with the Brooklyn Bruisers. She finds personal satisfaction in helping the players prepare for their games with mind and body centering yoga workouts and in using massage and therapeutic treatments to help them with their injuries. Nothing pleases her more than the feeling of muscles relaxing under her ministrations and knowing she’s playing a part in her client’s well being. But her personal life is a shambles. An eight year relationship recently ended on a violent note and now she’s being harassed by her ex-boyfriend, Vince. And not just that, but he seems to have been involved in something illegal, the consequences of which she’s being dragged into. When Patrick inadvertently discovers what she’s been going through, he makes a point of being there for her and the slow friendship they’d been developing becomes a passionate affair. Ari doesn’t want to date anyone, especially with the fiasco she’s undergoing with her ex. Plus, getting involved with a player could cause professional problems. But Patrick won’t be so easy to dissuade now that he’s got a chance to play the protector in real life, and not just on the ice. Can their relationship be the healing balm that provides their own happy ending?
I really enjoy sports romances that take a behind the scenes look at the players, the politics and the reality of life as a professional athlete. Patrick’s situation is not one I envy. Gearing up every day with the knowledge that you are going to get into a fight on the ice, that you have to win it to show that your team is the dominant one, and figuring out how to endure it with the least amount of injured pride and body is no picnic. As the captain of the team, he feels responsible for every win and loss, and has a definite superstition that if he loses a fight on the ice, it increases the likelihood that his team will lose the game too. As a result, he spends hours watching video footage of enforcers on the teams he’ll be playing, looking for weaknesses, and figuring out how to do his job without actually causing too much damage to the other player. Plus, with his own hip injury, he is cognizant of his need to protect himself because one wrong move and his career could be over. He can already feel the clock ticking, and he’ll do anything to keep from putting him on the sidelines. Sometimes this has resulted in some decisions that he now regrets but has to live with. But if he has to endure massage therapy with Ari to make the coach and the team’s owner happy, so be it.
A key element to anyone relaxing on a massage table is being able to trust the person who is putting their hands on you and it’s not long before Patrick finds that Ari is a woman he can trust. In part this is because she is a confident and experienced professional who is able to make people feel at ease with her manner and her hands. But it’s also because he finds himself in a position where she needs someone to trust, too, and a two way street opens up for them to share things with each other. Patrick comes across as a smart but weary man, a sweetheart when it matters, and a generous lover. He’s always been a loner, preferring to keep to himself for a variety of reasons, but Ari breaks through his shell and he finds himself seeking out her presence.
Ari’s situation is unfortunately not unique. A happy relationship at the start turns to one of control. Her ex-boyfriend got involved with some shady characters, began to exhibit jealous and emotionally abusive behaviour when she got a job with the Bruisers, and it just went downhill from there. Ari made the right call in kicking Vince out when he became physically abusive, but she feels foolish for not having seen the writing on the wall sooner. She would have kept the post breakup harassment she was experiencing quiet if it hadn’t come to Patrick’s attention. But she can’t deny that having Patrick around makes her feel safer. Ari is a lovely woman, full of vitality and spirit and her character is a perfect match for Patrick. They connect on an emotional and physical level in some super steamy love scenes (hello tantric sex!). Patrick is determined to convince Ari that their connection is something special and even though Ari is trying to keep a bit of distance between them, she can’t deny that her feelings for him are becoming equally strong.
The second half of the story ramps up the tension as the Bruisers get closer to the playoffs. Ms. Bowen is very competent in describing the game of hockey and her on-ice scenes are exciting and fast paced. But that’s not the only stress for Patrick and Ari, as Ari’s ex makes more than a handful of trouble. Action on and off the ice makes for a story that’s hard to put down, and the happy ending is just right for this couple. There are some hints as to what’s to come and I’m definitely going to be keeping my eye out for the next in the series. Hard Hitter gives the reader a behind the scenes look at the sport of hockey in a tightly crafted story alongside a sizzlingly sexy romance.