Although Contract Season is book two in Cait Nary’s Trade Season series, it can be read as a standalone; the principals from book one, Season’s Change, make a brief cameo appearance, but you don’t need to have read their story to understand this one. Like that book, this one gets off to a good start and I was quickly pulled into the story, but infortunately, and also like that book, things become repetitive, important issues are not dealt with and the pacing is wildly off because (once again) the HEA isn’t given time to embed; there’s so much build up and so little pay-off that it makes for a very disappointing ending.
Defenceman Brody Kellerman is known for his professionalism, his incredibly strong work ethic, his attention to detail and his intense focus. At the beginning of Contract Season, he’s recently ended a three-year relationship after his boyfriend finally got tired of hiding in the closet from all but Brody’s closest family and friends, and Brody blames his poor performance in that year’s playoffs on being distracted because of the breakup.
Seamus Murray is an up-and-coming country music star who arrived on the scene as a teenager when he appeared on an Pop Idol type TV show. Having been an awkward, gangly kid with zits and a face that took him a while to grow into, he struggles with the gap between his self image (of someone who was never particularly noticeable) and people’s expectations of him – which are based on his looks (at twenty-three, he’s seriously hot), his talent, his charm and the confidence he projects. He’s never had a relationship and he’s deeply embarrassed by his lack of sexual experience, believing he’s missed the window where it’s okay to be bad at sex and exploring. And as country music is “the one segment of the North American entertainment industry that was less queer-friendly than the Big Four sports”, Seamus – whose name is very annoyingly shortened to “Sea” – isn’t out to anyone other than his sister.
Brody and Sea meet at the wedding of two mutual friends. There’s an immediate and intense spark of attraction between them; they hook up later that night and exchange numbers before they part – but Brody, who is determined to avoid any distractions that might affect his performance on the ice, decides not to use it and ghosts Sea for months.
In the intervening time, Sea writes and records a smash-hit song about being ghosted, and Brody is traded to the Nashville Bucks – and moves to Sea’s home town. They meet again at a fundraiser and despite Sea’s hurt and Brody’s guilt over the ghosting, the attraction between them burns as hot as it did the first time and they head back to Sea’s house to hook up again. This time, it doesn’t go well and Sea – fearing he will somehow reveal his inexperience – kicks Brody out. They both think that’s that – until a couple of suggestive photographs of them taken at the fundraiser are leaked, followed shortly afterwards by footage (from the neighbour’s security camera) of them kissing outside Sea’s house. Their management teams immediately go into damage control mode, and suggest that Brody and Sea should pretend to date, the thinking being that two guys in a committed relationship may be more acceptable to the… conservative sports and country fans than two guys who were just hooking up.
A lot of this early part of the book works really well. The chemistry between Brody and Sea sizzles, the forced outing is handled sensitively, and I appreciated the attention given to the reservations both men have about being ‘the first openly gay hockey player/country singer’. I also liked that the author addresses the point that although the reactions from teammates and other artists are largely positive, Brody and Sea are never quite sure if that support is genuine or simply a way of avoiding being savaged on social media.
Brody and Sea are talented, hard-working individuals at the top of their game; they’re likeable and their connection is believable. But on the downside, Brody has practically no personality; all we really know of him is his tendency to single-mindedly focus on perfection to the exclusion of all else. The author tells us he’s understanding and amazing and well-balanced, but some of the things he says and does are very inconsiderate, and honestly, there were several points at which I thought Sea should just move on. There’s more depth to Sea, who is struggling with his professional image vs. his self-image and possibly an element of imposter syndrome, but he’s guilty of giving off a lot of mixed signals.
As I’ve said, the story starts strongly, but the more I read, the more I realised I was basically in the middle of one very loooooong Big Mis in which the characters would meet, connect and admit that they liked each other – and then one would say something dumb and hurtful, the other would bring the shutters down, they’d mutually ignore each other for a bit while obsessing over each other and thinking about how the relationship was doomed from the start because they’re so inexperienced/can’t afford any distractions – rinse and repeat. It goes like this for practically the entire book, so that by the time I was just getting into the second half, I was already mentally screaming at them to just TALK TO EACH OTHER. By two-thirds of the way through, I was thinking that they were so bad at communicating and so dysfunctional that any relationship between them was destined for disaster and that they probably shouldn’t be in one. Of course, this is a romance novel so they DO get together – but not until 93% into the story, when they have a single conversation about how they’re finally ready to give a relationship a try, they have sex and then BAM! it’s the epilogue set several months later in which they appear to have worked out all their problems and are in love. Er… what? After pages and pages of mixed signals, miscommunication and non-communication – I’m asked to believe these two are in it for the long haul without seeing them work through ANY of their issues or even saying “I love you” for the first time?
Sorry Ms. Nary – your readers deserve better than that.
In addition, I was really bothered by the way Sea’s drinking problem is glossed over. It’s clear he uses alcohol as a way of avoiding things, and that he frequently drinks heavily and often to the point of blacking out; the way it’s written, his relationship with alcohol is clearly poised to become a serious disorder. Near the end he confides in his manager about it and asks for help. (That he has other mental health issues is kind of hinted at but never really explored.) We’re told his manager gives him the names of some therapists, and later, that Sea is seeing one of them – yet he still knocks back two neat whiskies before he and Brody have their badly needed conversation! It’s great that he realises he has a problem and needs help, but because this happens so late, we never see him putting in any of the work to sort himself out and never see Brody getting to be a supportive partner.
There is so much the author could have done with this story. Brody and Sea both have incredibly demanding, high-profile, high stress careers that involve a lot of travel and time apart and they both have baggage they need to unpack, but instead of addressing those issues and having them working on communicating better and on how to make a relationship work, all we get is a continual cycle of misunderstandings, hurt feelings and ignoring one another until the next time.
One last thing that (probably disproportionately) annoyed me – the shortening of “Seamus” to “Sea”. The author has him explain that it’s pronounced “Shay” – so why not spell it like that? I know literally no one who shortens “Seamus” to “Sea”; a quick Google search found that Seamus is usually shortened to “Shay” or “Shae”or “Shea” as, presumably, anyone who spelled it “Sea” would get fed up with people calling them “see”. I can only guess it’s so Brody could enter Sea’s phone number using a wave emoji… which has no relevance to the plot whatsoever.
I looked back at my review of Season’s Change while I was writing this, and unfortunately, most of the things I criticised there are still present here; unresolved issues, poor pacing, repetitiveness and the really flimsy and unsatisfying HEA. I do still think Ms. Nary is a good writer, but there is too much reliance on issues at the expense of the development of the characters and their relationship – and when those issues aren’t even explored or dealt with properly, then it’s another nail in the book’s coffin. Contract Season is a second middling experience with this author (and earns an even lower grade than her début), so I’m not sure if I’ll be picking up her next book.