Just as we often complain about wallpaper historical romances, I’ve come to realize there are also wallpaper “sports” romances featuring heroes whose careers could be switched from “star quarterback” to “rock star” or “journalist” with no impact. That’s not the case in Anna Sugden’s latest New Jersey Ice Cats romance featuring star hockey player Jean Baptiste – J.B. – Larocque. The book is filled with hockey details that lend an air of authenticity. Despite having a number of things I normally dislike including a young, rather selfish hero and an unplanned pregnancy, the author made it work and I enjoyed the read.
The book opens as the Ice Cats have just lost game seven of the Stanley Cup finals after J.B. missed a shot and the opposing team recovered and scored. While drowning his sorrows with teammates, J.B. gets drunk and accidentally knocks over a hockey groupie starting a brawl. Apparently J.B. had a bad incident in his rookie season and to avoid another round of bad publicity, J.B’s teammate Mad Dog convinces him to leave immediately for a resort on Antigua.
Private school teacher Issy is in Antigua as a treat from her best friend Sapphie. Friends since grade school, they share a similar past, each the child of irresponsible, heavy drinking parents. Issy lives a frugal, conservative life, striving to be the opposite of her parents.
The first day at the beach Issy and Sapphie spot J.B. and Mad Dog (and yes, about this time the names of our main characters started to drive me nuts). Sapphie’s attracted to Mad Dog, and as a hockey fan, figures out within a few hours they’re stars of the NHL franchise in Sapphie and Issy’s home town.
Mad Dog’s attracted to Sapphie and asks J.B. to keep Issy entertained that evening. J.B. doesn’t want anything to do with Issy; he’s had bad experiences with uptight women and that’s how he pegs Issy. But when he sees her at the cocktail party she doesn’t seem quite as uptight, and he’s attracted despite the mixed vibes she gives off.
And Issy is definitely sending mixed messages. She doesn’t do flings, doesn’t want anything to do with an athlete, but she’s attracted to J.B. Slowly, they develop a friendship, having sex on Issy’s last night at the resort, with no intentions to ever see each other again.
But of course, things don’t go as planned. Despite precautions, Issy becomes pregnant. I found the circumstances surrounding her pregnancy, as well as her prior sexual activities, a bit distracting and worried this would turn into a clichéd secret baby book. Instead, Issy quickly meets with J.B. and makes no attempts to hide her pregnancy; she also expects nothing in return. While I didn’t care for J.B.’s reaction, it felt real. J.B. accuses Issy of lying and a host of other transgressions. Even after thinking about it for several days J.B. doesn’t get all mushy and decide he wants to marry Issy and become a father. His reaction is much more complicated.
At 25, J.B. has no plans to start a family for years; hockey is his sole focus. Issy wants a stable, secure life, and while unplanned, is excited about her baby. Ms. Sugden makes these differences – and their eventual compromises – work by setting the action over a year. Each has many doubts and they encounter many problems over the year. J.B.’s single-minded focus on hockey frequently comes across as selfish, but he reads as a realistic 25-year old in this situation.
Both Issy and J.B. give off numerous mixed signals over the course of the year. J.B. says he doesn’t want a relationship, doesn’t want a family, but regularly volunteers to help Issy with a variety of tasks, calls her each night when the team travels, invites her to team parties, and then there are the kisses and touches. Issy claims to know J.B. is bad for her, but gradually gets sucked into his world.
If you dislike sports, this may not work. Hockey is key to J.B.’s life, and Ms. Sugden includes numerous details from scenes set on the ice during practice, to strategy discussions between J.B. and his teammates, to Issy watching him play on TV and thinking about the action. As a sports fan, it worked for me and helped me understand J.B. a bit more.
While not perfect, at the halfway point I found myself enjoying this so much that I purchased the earlier entries in the series. While numerous characters from the earlier books are included here, I felt this worked as a standalone, but I look forward to reading their stories.
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