Desert Isle Keeper
Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series of hockey romances continues with Common Goal, the fourth book in the set and easily one of the best. It’s a gorgeous May/December romance between a silver-fox goalie close to retirement, and a bartender sixteen years his junior; it’s tender, funny, emotional and hot as hell – and don’t be surprised if it makes an appearance on my Best of 2020 list. I loved it.
New York Admirals Goalkeeper Eric Bennett is approaching his forty-first birthday and has reached the decision that this season will be his last. He’s in good shape and still playing well, but the career of a professional athlete is tough on the body and Eric wants to quit while he’s ahead and walk away while he can still walk! The trouble is that he doesn’t have much of an idea as to where he wants to go from here, and in addition to that, he’s struggling with being newly single following his divorce a year earlier from his wife of sixteen years, and with his sexual identity. He’s always known he’s attracted to men as well as women but had chosen to ignore that side of himself; he’d been happily married and had no reason to think about it. But now, with high-profile players like team captain Scott Hunter (Game Changer) openly out and proud and about to marry his fiancé, and other athletes being open about their sexuality, Eric is re-examining his choices. Facing a huge life change in terms of his career – and a lonely retirement – maybe it’s time to make another change and finally start to live as his truest self. But he’s been out of the dating game for such a long time, he isn’t sure how to go about dating anyone, let alone dating a man for the first time.
Grad student Kyle Swift is twenty-five and works as a bartender at The Kingfisher, a local gay bar that has grown in popularity since Scott Hunter started frequenting it. Kyle came to New York following an experience with an older, married man that left him badly burned and continues to haunt him, even seven years later. After that, he vowed to steer clear of older men, but they do it for him in a way most younger men don’t – and although he’s noticed Eric the few times he’s been into the bar with Scott, Kyle reminds himself that while Eric is exactly his type, he’s also exactly the type of man he shouldn’t allow himself to fall for any more.
On the night of Scott and Kip’s engagement party, Kyle’s resolve is tested when Eric actually initiates a conversation with him. The older man’s confidence is hard to resist, especially when it seems as though Eric might actually be flirting with him, and they chat for a while, discovering a mutual love of art and books and travel. By the end of the evening, Kyle is cursing a universe that has thrown this gorgeous, perfect and completely off limits man into his path, and Eric is wondering just how much of a mid-life crisis stereotype he’s become by even contemplating dating a man so much younger than he is.
What follows is a sexy, slow-burn romance (with an emphasis on the ‘burn’ because – phew! *fans self*) which starts out as Kyle offering to teach Eric a few things in a safe, non-judgmental way about the world of dating (and having “sexy times” with) men, but which ends up becoming so much more than ‘just’ a physical relationship. In fact, it’s clear to the reader very early on that there’s no ‘just’ about it when it comes to these two; they’re a perfect match on every level – intellectually and physically – but although they’re generally honest with each other, they’re both struggling with baggage and preconceptions that make it difficult for them to open up about how they really feel.
Both characters are genuine, good people who are extremely likeable and very well-drawn, and the chemistry between them is electric. Eric is – it seems to me – a pretty atypical sportsman hero; he’s got a degree in English from Harvard, he’s a connoisseur of fine art, and he’s well-travelled; I liked that he was so keen to fully embrace his bisexuality and really appreciated his quietly introspective manner and self-awareness. He knows that what he’s really looking for is companionship and someone to share his life with; not that the hot sex he’s having with Kyle isn’t all sorts of amazing, but Eric has never been one for casual sex. He wants more than that, but is concerned that his being so much older than Kyle is somehow unfair to him, thinking that Kyle really should be with someone closer to his own age. He’s also worried on his own account – a recent divorcé dating a pretty young thing is going to make him look like the worst kind of dirty old man.
The age-gap isn’t so much of an issue for Kyle; he has a history of falling for the wrong men, usually older men who only see him as a fun time, and part of him thinks he’s not good enough for a sophisticated, cultured man like Eric. His outgoing nature is the perfect counterpoint to Eric’s more cautious one, and the author does a great job of developing their relationship out of the bedroom – where they clearly have a lot in common and enjoy each other’s company as equals – as well as in it – where Kyle takes the lead and Eric is only too happy to let him. But Kyle’s doubts are as difficult to overcome as Eric’s, and unless one of them can find the courage to risk laying his heart on the line, they might end up missing out on the best thing ever to happen to either of them.
If I have a complaint about Common Goal, it’s that perhaps the age-gap hand-wringing goes on a little too long, and the lack of communication that piled up was frustrating, but in the end, they were only minor irritants. Reader favourites Ilya and Shane make cameo appearances – mostly Ilya who, of course, steals pretty much every scene he’s in, with his wicked sense of humour and arseholic-but-impossible-to-dislike personality – and we also get to see Scott and Kip finally tie the knot. Rachel Reid’s writing is accomplished and direct, the dialogue is sharp, and the sex scenes, besides being superbly written, are integral to the character and relationship development rather than being there for the sake of it. If you’re following the Game Changers series then you definitely won’t want to miss Common Goal; it’s warm and tender and charming (and, did I mention hella sexy?) and I finished it with a happy sigh and a fond smile on my face. Definitely one for the DIK shelf.