Play to Win
Play to Win is a big old Cinderella fantasy, starting off Kelly Jamieson’s new hockey series about the somewhat dysfunctional Wynn family. We begin with the story of older brother Théo and the cocktail waitress whom fate brings into his life.
Théo Wynn has been given an unexpected windfall. His grandfather Bob – an ex-hockey player and owner of the California Condors team – wants Théo to come work for him as a general manager. Théo is skeptical – mixing business with family has not worked out for the Wynns; all he has to do is look at the never-ending feud between his grandfather, father and brother over their two competing teams for proof of that. But when Bob offers Théo the opportunity to rebuild the Condors from the ground up without interference, he wavers and agrees to join. Otherwise, Théo wants little to do with most of his big, fucked-up family, much less to live within driving distance of his brother JP, who plays for the California Golden Eagles and is living the dream Théo lost – right down to the fact that he and Théo’s ex-girlfriend, Emma, got together while Théo and Emma were still a thing. Théo incurred a career-ending injury six months into his pro career, so looking at JP is like looking at the future he dreamed of (well, minus the blatant infidelity).
Lacey Olson just had her bank account wiped out by her asshole gambling addict twin brother, Chris. Distraught, she forces herself to go to in to work at her job waiting tables at a high-end cocktail bar. When she spies Théo and his friends celebrating his new position in her lounge, she looks at him… and assumes he’s an accountant!
When a friend clues her in, she can only hope he’s a big tipper. They have a pleasant conversation that’s interrupted when her boss fires her for messing with a receipt (she didn’t), then two bookies show up and try to pressure her into hooking to fulfill Chris’ debt to them, threatening her with worse if she won’t comply. It’s enough of a fuss that Théo intervenes, and he and Lacey end up spending a night on the town together, sharing life-stories, getting drunk, jumping into pools fully-clothed, and flirting up a storm. By midnight he’s decided he wants her to go to California with him to pose as his girlfriend so he can make JP and Emma jealous and prove to his family he’s not the loser Wynn brother. And hell, Lacey has nothing left to lose – in fact, Théo offers her the kind of protection from Chris’ thugs she can’t get on her own. So when he suggests they take it up a notch with a quickie midnight marriage the idea sounds good to her, but their wedding morning ends with Lacey sobbing over her brother’s betrayal instead of hot sex. They agree to a friendship and a name-only deal, but both soon begin to yearn for more.
As Lacey begins to enmesh herself (awkwardly) with the Wynns and build a new life for herself in California, Théo throws himself into rebuilding the Condors, Emma tries to worm her way back into Théo’s life, and the threat of attack from Chris’ creditors looms. All the while, they try to keep things platonic. These two are going to have to commit to some fancy footwork to make themselves look like a fully committed couple. True love might be knocking – but can they also knock down their demons to win it?
You have to love a Cinderella fantasy to really lose yourself in Play to Win, but there’s a lot bubbling along under the surface besides that to keep readers engaged.
Théo isn’t your average alpha hero. Strong and opinionated without being cruel, caring about Lacey and about people in general (even JP who severely wronged him) and able to lose a give-and-take with his wife gracefully, he’s a very compelling, memorable hero.
I can’t really say the same for Lacey, who, while having many spunky moments that make her enjoyable and refusing to ever be pushed around by Théo, feels slightly less well-formed, and her real problems come at her from outside places instead of internally (and those problems, incidentally, never properly pay off once she leaves Vegas. Turns out loan sharks will leave you alone if you leave the city limits!). She’s daring and sassy and outrageous, but she’s messy and needs help and sometimes it all feels like a front. I did like that she’s determined to grab her own (minimum wage!) job and continue attending college courses.
Théo and Lacey have a charming, easy chemistry, and things don’t happen between them as quickly as you might guess. They’re at their best when they’re making dirty Beatle song jokes and lovingly ribbing each other. They mostly bond on a goofy road trip from Vegas to LA and it’s cute.
I loved some of the secondary characters – mostly Théo’s mom, Aline, a native French speaker who’s charming, enthusiastic, and drops realistic-feeling malapropisms.
But the book has a couple of problems, and those start when we reach LA in the second act and are suddenly inundated with Wynns, presented with their problems, told their backstories, and tossed into their drama without warning. I know this is an attempt at world-building the universe that will follow, but it’s awkward and sucks the spotlight away from Lacey and Théo.
The other problem is Emma. We can’t have JP be too villainous in having bonked his brother’s girlfriend (and he’s naturally needed as a future hero for the series), so of course, all of the villainous cheating stuff ultimately falls on Emma’s shoulders as she keeps chasing Théo even though he’s married. When JP and Lacey are caught together behind closed doors later, it’s all a Big Misunderstanding (groan).
Other problems – like Lacey’s tendency to end up talking about cocks with her new friends (and no matter how hard they try or how realistic it is, a guy groaning “Lick my balls, baby” during a blowjob scene will never be sexy) are minor. Ultimately, what keeps Play to Win on the sunny side of a B grade is how good the two leads are to each other – and how much we care about their relationship scoring a win.