Heated Rivalry is the second book in Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series set in the world of professional hockey. I haven’t read book one (Game Changer), but although characters from that book are mentioned in this one, it works perfectly well as a standalone. Heated Rivalry is a kind-of-but-not-quite enemies-to-lovers story that takes place across the span of almost a decade as we follow the development of the relationship between two players from opposing teams. There are a few things about the novel that require the reader to suspend their disbelief a bit, but on the whole, this is a steamy and sometimes poignant love story that boasts a pair of engaging protagonists and plenty of snark.
In the prologue, we meet Shane Hollander, captain of the Montreal Voyageurs, as he faces off against Ilya Rozanov, his opposite number for the Voyageurs’ arch-rivals, the Boston Bears. The on-and-off-the-ice rivalry between the two men has been ruthlessly stoked and fed by the media since before their rookie seasons years earlier; pitting the good-looking, easy-going, boy-next-door Shane against the big, brooding, ill-mannered Russian was like manna from heaven to media and fans alike, but while there’s no doubt that Rozanov can play dirty and deserves his reputation as the most hated man in Montreal, there’s more to their rivalry that meets the eye. A lot more.
After the game that night, Shane heads off to the condo he owns but doesn’t live in for one of the intense but infrequent – hook-ups he’s had over the years with … you guessed it, Ilya Rozanov. The explosive chemistry that ignited between them when they first met has never abated, and even though Shane knows it’s stupid and what’s at stake for both of them if they get caught; even though he’s angry at himself for continuing to crave Rozanov’s body, and even though he tells himself every time that this is the last time – he can’t stop.
We then jump back seven years to witness Shane and Rozanov’s first meeting at the World Junior Hockey Championships, then follow them into their first season with the NHL when they’re signed up by two rival teams who play each other regularly and often end up competing for championships. Even before that, each of them recognises in the other a serious opponent, possibly the only other player who can match them completely on the ice – and each is determined to get the better of his rival. But neither of them had bargained for the intensity of the desire that ignites unexpectedly between them or the almost addictive need they feel for one another. Over the next few years, they continue to meet up to fuck each other’s brains out when their schedules allow, even as both of them continue to berate themselves for letting this… whatever it is, go on for so long.
The first part of the book tells the story leading up to the hook-up in the prologue, and the second picks up after it. Shane and Ilya have been captains of their respective teams for a while and are widely respected within the sport – even if, in Rozanov’s case, not popular. They’ve been hooking-up all this time without getting caught (which was one of my problems with the book – seven years of sneaking off to bang in secret – sometimes at the same hotel as their teams! – and nobody ever suspected or caught them out?) and they’re still telling themselves they need to quit it and find themselves a real relationship. But it’s becoming harder and harder to do that, or imagine never seeing each other – other than as casual acquaintances – ever again. Things between them are shifting; they try to tell themselves that all they’ve been doing for the last seven years is fucking, but emotions have somehow become involved without either of them wanting or realising it – and now they’ve finally woken up to what’s happened, how can they possibly carry on as they have been knowing the other most likely doesn’t feel the same way?
I liked both leads, although Rozanov is a bit of a dick at times. He’s outrageously cocky and confidently bisexual – although of course, given the widespread homophobia in the world of professional sports, nobody other than the rare guys he hooks up with has any idea he shags men as well as women. There’s also the fact that being openly queer in Russia could land him in prison, so he’s used to having to keep that side of him suppressed. By contrast, Shane is quieter and not as experienced sexually, and when he and Rozanov first meet, is only just starting to question his sexuality. He sleeps with women, but over the years he realises that they don’t really do it for him and never have – certainly not in the way he’s coming to recognise that guys do. The author shows Shane and Ilya’s feelings for each other changing and growing in a subtle way; they still push each other’s buttons but there’s more affection and teasing behind it, and the moment when they just hang out together watching TV for the first time is nicely understated given it’s such a huge step for them. I really liked the way we’re shown these two each giving the other something they’ve never found elsewhere. Ilya has always had to hide part of himself and has built emotional walls to protect himself from the hurt heaped on him by his family (his father criticises him constantly, his brother only ever wants his money), but Shane shows him it’s okay to be vulnerable and let someone in, while Ilya helps Shane to uncover a different side of himself and gives him a space where he can truly be the person he’s meant to be.
While the overall tone of the story is fairly light, there are darker elements, mostly to do with Ilya and his family, and ultimately, both men have to make some difficult decisions if they want to be together openly. This is one of the other things I had a bit of a problem with; not only do Shane and Ilya have to worry about coming out, but they also have to contend with the fact that they’re supposed to hate each other, a story that’s largely a media construct. I didn’t really understand why they couldn’t just announce that they were friends and take control of the narrative whenever they wanted to, rather than the plan they come up with which means they have to continue living apart and concealing their status as a couple. Still, the book ends on a very firm HFN, and left me hopeful for their future (maybe we’ll see them again in a future book in the series).
Heated Rivalry is a fun, steamy read, and I had a great time with it. I liked the characters, the structure really worked for me, the banter is great, the sex is hot, and when the romance kicks into gear, it’s charming and lovely.