Playing it Safe
I haven’t read anything by Amy Andrews before, but the blurb for Playing it Safe – her first m/m romance and the seventh book in her Sydney Smoke series set in the world of Australian Rugby Union – caught my eye. It’s an enjoyable, well-written and steamy read, and although it’s nothing I haven’t read before, the author’s lively style and ability to create strong and engaging characters is a decent compensation for the unoriginality of the storyline.
Donovan Bane has known he was gay since he was about fifteen, but with his sights set on a career in professional rugby, he ignored the part of him that was attracted to guys – because gay men don’t play rugby. After a youthful fumble with his best friend Annie resulted in pregnancy, Donovan and Annie married, but divorced a few years later, and she and his now fourteen-year-old daughter Miri live in New Zealand. The divorce was an amicable break-up, and Annie is, to this day, the only person who knows the truth about Donovan’s sexuality – and he wants to keep it that way, intending to remain firmly in the closet until he retires in about five years’ time. He’s lived a very solitary life for years, and even though the loneliness is beginning to really get to him, he just isn’t prepared to subject himself, his loved ones and his team to the intrusive media scrutiny, the internet trolls and the hateful slurs that would inevitably result if he were to come out; and nor does he want to be some kind of trailblazer or poster boy for gay athletes. He’s living his dream – playing professional rugby at the highest level – he can wait a bit longer to have an actual life.
But when he meets Beckett Stanton – a new hire in the finance department at the Smoke – the prospect of waiting another five years before Donovan can have the sort of relationship he’s long denied himself suddenly becomes even more unattractive than before.
Why hasn’t there been some kind of sign from the universe that today would be the day he’d see a man that made the whole world tilt on its axis?
Beck is out and proud, he knows who he is and what he wants, he’s fun and flirty and comfortable in his own skin in a way that Donovan can only envy. When Beck first meets Donovan, he senses the other man’s interest, but also senses that any acknowledgement of that interest in public is a big no-no. He’s pretty sure that Donovan is queer but not out, and after a bad experience with a closeted guy in the past, has vowed never again to become involved with someone who isn’t prepared to fully own himself and his truth. Yet there’s something about Donovan that tempts Beck to break his own rules. He’s not up for investing in a relationship with someone who isn’t interested in honesty, but maybe if Donovan is open to something sexual only? That could definitely work.
If you’ve ever read more than a couple of m/m sports romances, then you’ll have read the storyline in this one several times over. But all romances are based on tropes, and Amy Andrews makes excellent use of this one, creating some seriously sizzling chemistry between her two leads and taking the time to develop a genuine emotional connection between them while at the same time ramping up the sexual tension, which is pretty much set to self-combust by the time these two actually get as far as the bedroom! (or the sofa…)
The characterisation is excellent, too, and is another of the reasons the story works as well as it does. Donovan is an imposing guy – a six-four wall of muscle with tribal tattoos (he’s part Maori), he’s driven and ruthless on the pitch, but behind the brawn is a gentle, sensitive soul, a quiet, sweet man with vulnerabilities he doesn’t show anyone and who longs for connection and someone he can make a life with.
Beckett is perhaps not quite as well drawn as Donovan, but he’s likeable nonetheless, and is exactly what Donovan needs. He’s wonderfully supportive and understanding of Donovan’s situation and does whatever he can to help him to feel comfortable, especially with the new experiences he’s introducing him to (*wink*). Ultimately, the author made me care about them and root for Donovan to get what he wanted; he’s such a lovely guy and really deserved to have someone in his life to love and care for who would love and care for him right back.
I believe that one of the things Amy Andrews is known for is writing steamy romances, and she certainly does that here. The terrific chemistry between Donovan and Beck leads to some seriously sexy love scenes, and the author does a great job of showing the development of their emotional bond through the development of their physical one in the first half of the book, although I have to admit that the second half got a bit sex-heavy, and I sometimes found myself skimming the sex scenes to get to the next bit of plot.
The massive doses of insta-lust at the beginning did make me wonder about reading on, but fortunately, the author very quickly turns that into an actual attraction between two people who are genuinely interested in each other as people. Also, there are a few turns of phrase I wasn’t wild about, some that made me cringe, some that made me laugh out loud (that I’m sure weren’t intended to do that) and some that made me do both, like this one:
“It was a magnificent specimen of manhood. It was the fucking Rolls Royce of cock”
Um. Yeah – No.
And finally, something that is probably ‘just me’. Donovan is a knuckle-cracker. In the early stages of the story, he’s described as doing it a lot, and for me, that’s worse than nails scraping down a blackboard. Whenever I read it, I could actually hear it – and I had to stop and look away.
But despite those reservations, Playing it Safe is a well-executed riff on a familiar trope, with three-dimensional characters you come to care about, plenty of steam, and genuine warmth and humour. It earns a low-level recommendation.