Desert Isle Keeper
This fifth book in Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series is a fantastic read and has immediately gone onto both my keeper shelf and my list of series favourites (alongside Heated Rivalry and Common Goal). At the heart or Role Model lies a gorgeous, sweet and sexy opposites-attract romance, but the story also incorporates some serious issues as well as a coming out story and a redemption arc for a character we’ve met in previous books in the series and have come to solidly dislike.
Readers will recall Troy Barrett of the Toronto Guardians as the dickish friend/wingman/teammate of loudly opinionated sexist, racist, homophobic arsehole Dallas Kent. The pair of them were total shits to Scott Hunter (Game Changer) and then made it their mission to make Ryan Price (Tough Guy) miserable with their continual bullying, insults and all-round obnoxious bigotry. But when Role Model opens, that double-act has been broken up, because Troy has been traded to the Ottowa Centaurs – the “worst hockey team in the NHL” – following a very public bust up with Kent on the ice. At the time, Troy had just learned that a woman had accused Kent of raping her at a party – and that instead of taking the accusations seriously and investigating them, the league, team management and many of his teammates have closed ranks, determined to protect Kent and ridicule his accuser. Sickened that he’d ever called the man a friend and hating himself for not doing something to stop him, Troy calls him out in the middle of a practice session, the video goes viral… and it’s the end of his top-flight hockey career with the Guardians.
Troy’s trade/punishment comes hot on the heels of a recent-breakup (his equally closeted actor boyfriend dumped him for someone else) so he’s not exactly Mr. Happy-Clappy when he arrives in Ottowa. He’s thrown, too, by the completely different atmosphere there; the team members actually get along and even seem to like each other and the coaching style is completely different to what he’s been used to at Toronto (rather than being yelled at, the players are treated like human beings and encouraged). He doesn’t understand how his teammates can be so upbeat while losing games so often, and he really doesn’t know how to handle the positivity and camaraderie, so he keeps his distance – all he wants to do is play hockey and lick his wounds in private. But fortunately for Troy – and us – his larger-than-life team captain Ilya Rozanov isn’t about to let him stew in misery, and the pull of the team’s garrulous, sunny-natured (and total sweetheart) social media manager Harris Drover proves just too hard to resist.
I love a good redemption story and this is an extremely good one. There has been the odd glimpse before this that there might be a decent man behind the toxic, bullshit behaviour Troy indulged in, and his gradual transformation from the bigoted, stereotypically aggressive jock of the past to the Role Model of the title is completely believable and superbly done. It’s clear from the start that his outward homophobia was a way of hiding his own sexuality and that his friendship with a man who, for all his popularity, embodied all the worst qualities of professional sport, was a way of satisfying a powerful need to belong that began in childhood thanks to an arsehole dad who came from the same mould. I was completely won over by Troy’s determination to address the mistakes he’s made and become a better person, and by the journey he takes in order to get there.
Part of that journey towards self-improvement and self-acceptance is his romance with Harris, who is both his complete opposite and his true soulmate. Harris comes from a loving family and has lived in Ottowa all his life; he’s out and proud, he’s determined to make the most of what life offers and he’s an eternal optimist who is happiest when those around him are happy. To start with, Troy can’t wrap his head around the fact that his teammates have absolutely no problem with Harris being gay, and he’s completely baffled by this person who is always so cheerful – but somehow Troy finds himself craving the other man’s company, even if it’s just sitting quietly in his office while Harris gets on with whatever he’s working on. Harris realises that Troy is lonely and could really use a friend, so he sets out to be that friend and make him feel welcome, helping to draw Troy into the friendship and support the guys offer to each other and slowly enabling Troy to start to come out of his shell and realise that he’s someone worth knowing and worth loving. They have chemistry by the bucketload and their romance is sweet and sexy and swoonworthy. Best of all, these are two people who are good for one another and bring out the best in each other.
There’s a terrific ensemble cast including Troy’s new teammates and coach, cameo appearances from Eric, Kyle, Ryan and Kip – and last but certainly not least, a fabulous showing by the snarky, perceptive Ilya Rozanov, who continues to steal pretty much every scene he’s in while offering up small gems of wisdom and quite a few of the book’s biggest laughs. As fans of the series breathlessly await the conclusion of Ilya and Shane’s story next year, Ilya’s important secondary role here is a lovely and unexpected gift, and I loved the more mature, thoughtful side of him we get to see in this book.
I also loved the lack of manufactured drama in this story. There’s no Big Mis or dumb third-act break-up; instead we get more of Troy’s journey of self-discovery as he truly comes into his own, more of Troy and Harris being perfect for each other and an incredible, tear-jerking moment of triumph and acceptance that is worth All The Sighs.
Rachel Reid’s depiction of the toxic culture that continues to be deeply engrained in certain professional sports is, sadly, all too believable, with sexual assault victims openly disbelieved and ridiculed on social media, and Troy bearing the brunt of the fans’ displeasure and risking censure by the NHL for using his celebrity status to give a voice to those who are being shouted down. It’s heavy subject matter, and I applaud the author’s decision to include it, which she does very skilfully, integrating the plotline carefully into the story while not allowing it to overwhelm it.
Boasting two engaging leads, a lovely sunshine/grumpy romance, a superbly crafted redemption story, lots of warmth and humour (and a cute dog!) Role Model is another fantastic entry in the Game Changers series, and I’m happy to recommend it.