If you’re feeling stressed by the approaching holiday season and are looking for a fairly quick read that has heat, humour, and heart but doesn’t require too much of a commitment or bog you down with too much unnecessary drama, Lia Riley’s Head Coach might be exactly what you need.
This is the second book in Riley’s Hellions Angels series but you don’t have to have read book one, Mister Hockey to enjoy this, because the author is kind enough to sum up the events that took place in that book and give background on the characters as they are related (in one case, literally) to the featured couple.
Mister Hockey was my first experience with this author and while I’m a total sucker for the sports romance subgenre, what made that book so refreshing and enjoyable in an unexpected way was the sense of reality Riley gave to her characters, specifically the superstar hockey player. She created a personality that was down to earth and far from the usual playboy we see in this particular flavour of romance. In Head Coach, she offers us a different dose of refreshing reality by way of the Denver Hellion’s coach, Tor Gunnar. No spring chicken, Tor is in his forties with a young child to whom he is devoted and co-parents with his ex-wife. He doesn’t date, doesn’t hook up, his job is his life. He’s failed at being a husband and unfortunately had a bad track record with relationships even before his marriage (but astonishingly there is no commitment-phobe trope present here – score!). The only thing he’s good at, apart from being a dad and his job as coach, is saying the absolute worst thing possible to the one woman who has managed to, despite his best efforts, claw her way under his skin, Neve Angel, the local sports reporter.
Like the man she considers her nemesis, Neve loves hockey. More than that, she loves her job. She has managed the impossible and is respected in her field, not for being a woman in a man’s world but because she’s hardworking and dedicated and not afraid to go toe-to-toe with gruff personalities; the Hellion’s Coach being one of many. Sure, she has to put up with more criticism over her looks than her male counterparts, but with her figure skating background she is used to the scrutiny; used to but notably not impervious to. Every casually cruel or purposefully mean, comment is a battle for her as she struggles not to relive the belitting comments dished out to her in her youth because she wasn’t traditionally pretty.
As with most stories that begin with a couple starting off on the wrong foot despite (or because of) the sparks between them, what throws these two together and gets the white flag of truce waving is a game of air hockey. Despite boasting of her skill, Neve manages to lose the match after foolishly agreeing to a bet. But when Tor cashes in, his request is not what she expected – he needs a date to his ex-wife’s wedding. A weekend away, enforced proximity, a shared hotel room, the romantic atmosphere of a wedding, the beautiful snowy Denver locale… it couldn’t be a more perfect situation for their snarky antagonistic banter to flame into something altogether more explosive and far more mutually satisfying. And it does.
While not having a long, dragged out dramafest is part of the book’s appeal, this means that things do feel a little rushed near the end as the author works to wrap everything up. Riley adds in a few situations to add more excitement and emotional resonance to the plot, but both events feel both a little out of place and forced, one of them more than the other.
That said, Riley’s story moves at a decent pace, without any lagging or too many filler scenes, helped by some great banter and one liners and also some pretty sizzling sexy scenes. However the dirty talk was kind of over the top for me; especially for a guy who has been in a seven year sexual dry spell. It feels a little like overcompensating; both for the character and maybe the author, too.
Otherwise, though, the connection between the two principals is good. It’s a bit of a slow burn despite the early mutual attraction and Riley manages to give both characters some growth and evolution as they progressively warm up to the idea of the other person being more than they appear to be. The characters are layered, both a little seasoned (she’s thirty to his forty), each with their own little faults or insecurities, and I like that the epilogue comes full circle for Neve as far as her self-worth is concerned. But. Again, but. The ending is wrapped a little too quickly and maybe a little too conveniently, which is where, in addition to one of those randomly-inserted plot devices, the points fell away a bit.
That said, Head Coach is light, enjoyable and swoonworthy, yet still manages to credibly contain a low-level hum of relevant commentary about gender inequality and sexism in the workplace without compromising the fun factor. The author also sneaks in a little teaser about where the series might be heading with one of book three’s leads. I’m definitely satisfied enough to read on and am looking forward to where things go next.