Playing it Tough
Grade : B+

I’ve been reading the Sydney Smoke Rugby series by Amy Andrews since the first book, Playing by Her Rules was released in 2016. Seven years later, Playing it Tough, book eight, has the same energy, strong characters and sexy romance as the previous entries, a feat indeed.

Unlike previous entries though, the hero of this story is an American import instead of a native Aussie. Ronan Dempsey is aiming for a spot on the US Olympic team but competing internationally with the Sydney Smoke and hoping to be noticed by the US scouts for his performance on the field. He knows he’s been distracted lately by his many fans (especially the female ones) and that he needs to knuckle down and put aside the distractions if he wants to make the cut. When a fire at his apartment building forces him to look for temporary lodgings, the pool house on the property of a family friend is just the place to hide out and take his celibacy pledge seriously.

Orla Stewart doesn’t know what to think of the big, brawny rugby player who has moved onto the property where she is housesitting, but she does know that he’s not going to dissuade her from her current plan of healthy eating, exercising, and avoiding relationships. A cosmetic tattoo artist who specializes in covering scars and wounds, Orla has a family history of breast cancer that has taken her mother, her sister, and other female relatives, and she’s determined it’s not going to take her, too. Having a pre-emptive double mastectomy and regular cancer checkups have relieved some of the stress of watchful waiting, but having children who could have her bad genes is something she isn’t willing to contemplate – hence the no relationship stance. Her chest is covered by a profusion of flowers in place of breasts, something she keeps hidden and doesn’t show her occasional lovers. She’s determined not to be tempted by her new neighbour, a feeling that is mutual.

But it’s not long before their close proximity results in an unexpected friendship, and then something more. When things heat up between them, will Orla’s fears keep her from her chance at love?

Clearly the subject matter of this story is a heavier one, and Orla’s grief is not sidelined, but a part of her daily life. She’s taken that grief and channeled it into a successful and rewarding career, helping other women with their hurts and scars. I enjoyed her character and the growth she experiences as she meets Ronan and discovers that having swung from a super wild lifestyle (after her sister died) to an overly strict one with no room for errors hasn’t made her any happier. With him, she learns a bit of balance again, and the chance to live her life instead of hiding from the future.

In contrast, Ronan is a less serious character but one who is still strong and determined to keep his rugby career moving in the right direction. He is friendly and cocky and challenges Orla in the best of ways, but also becomes supportive of her as he learns more of her history. His admiration is real (and not based on pity) and when the opportunity comes to show her how his feelings have become more serious, he has his work cut out to convince her that they’ll be better together than alone. It doesn’t hurt that they have sizzling chemistry and some steamy encounters to reminisce over.

With plenty of previous stories in the series, there are lots of secondary characters making appearances which make me want to revisit the earlier books. Locker room shenanigans and banter showcase the strong friendships and camaraderie between the players. Their partners are happy to welcome Orla into the fold and offer her friendship, relationship advice and support. All the books in the series have unique and strong characters with varying themes (some more serious than others) and together they make for a set of great contemporary sports romances. Ronan and Orla’s eventual happy ending is a satisfying one and leaves me hoping the series will have more books on offer soon.

Reviewed by Maria Rose
Grade : B+

Sensuality: Warm

Review Date : May 6, 2023

Publication Date: 04/2023

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Maria Rose

I'm a biochemist and a married mother of two. Reading has been my hobby since grade school, and I've been a fan of the romance genre since I was a teenager. Sharing my love of good books by writing reviews is a recent passion of mine, but one which is richly rewarding.
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