Desert Isle Keeper
Coming at a timely juncture, Liz Lincoln’s new contemporary sports romance Swagger, book two in the Milwaukee Dragons series, covers a lot of territory. Just like in real life, in this story about a football player and a PhD student, football and college are both in full swing for fall and the novel combines both aspects in a thoroughly enjoyable romance with a hint of the forbidden teacher/student trope. It also doesn’t shy away from some serious topics, dealing with them in an authentic and believable fashion.
Marcus James is on the injury list with a damaged knee and in physiotherapy rehab while the Milwaukee Dragons starts their season. Instead of pining on the sidelines (well, there might be some of that, too) he decides to finish up some college credits needed towards his degree. Physics is not his forte, but the bright and engaging teacher definitely makes it a smart choice. His parents are both medical professionals and are thrilled that he’s gone back to school. They hope it’s a sign that he’s going to quit football, especially on the part of his mother, who messages him weekly with new research on traumatic brain injuries. But Marcus isn’t looking to end his football career anytime soon – this is just an injury time out until he can get back on the field.
Bree Novak is in the final weeks leading up to her dissertation and hopefully her PhD in physics. She’s got a lame duck adviser, an older man who doesn’t think much of women in the workplace, never mind in a scientific field. He’s stuck her with teaching a class, one that turns out to be an admittedly bright spot in her day when her celebrity crush, Marcus, turns up as a student. From the first time they chat after class, to the tutoring sessions he’s sorely in need of, they have a connection; one that becomes a fast friendship and then something more.
Bree is cautious, not wanting to give her adviser any reason to derail her PhD by finding out she’s become involved with a student. Besides, the odds of Marcus wanting to actually be in a long term relationship are remote, or so her clinical anxiety likes to tell her. She doesn’t know where she’ll end up after she gets her degree, having looked at employment opportunities out of state. Are she and Marcus headed for the real thing or will their diverging futures leave a relationship in the dust?
There’s a lot to unpack in this solidly written and engaging story so let’s start at the top. Firstly, the teacher/student relationship isn’t one of particular concern with respect to their ages as they are both in their late twenties and Marcus is a few years older than Bree. Their friendship is out in the open (they have lunch together several times) and Marcus is seeing Bree for tutoring so it’s not surprising that they are spending time together. Whether someone finding out that they are moving towards a more intimate relationship could damage Bree’s graduate studies is a source of tension in the story but not an overwhelming one.
The environment the author creates for Bree as a grad student is (hopefully) familiar to anyone who has gone to college, realistically portraying the diversity of cultures and ethnic groups that study together. (At least, that is my personal experience so I was delighted with its portrayal here). Marcus is black and it’s great to see the book cover reflecting this. Bree’s best friend, fellow student and housemate Reina is Latinx, and uses a wheelchair in her daily life, and the author does a great job of incorporating all the details that can’t be overlooked when accessibility is an issue. Marcus and some of his football buddies own a nightclub and since one has a family member in a wheelchair, they’d made sure to include a ramp. That Marcus is not only a talented football player, a serious student, and thoughtful, to boot, is another kink in Bree’s original plan to keep him at arm’s length.
Though it’s becoming more common, it’s still not the norm to discuss CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy – in a romance, though it’s getting better as more is known about the dangers of concussions in impact sports. Anyone playing football is aware of the issue and Marcus more than most, with his neurologist mother having bemoaned his career decision from the start and now never missing an opportunity to try to get him to quit playing ball. Marcus loves football and has weighed the risks for himself, with plans to continue for at least a couple more seasons once his knee injury is healed. I appreciate that the author brings this up as an everyday topic the guys on the team discuss and debate.
You also don’t commonly see characters who deal with anxiety and depression in romantic novels, though it is becoming more prevalent in contemporary romances. It may seem odd to want to include story arcs that don’t automatically make you think of a happy ever after, but it reflects a growing trend in modern society and romance is nothing if not a reflection of trends and social norms. Bree’s anxiety will show up whenever it’s not wanted (of course) and the stress of dealing with a misogynistic professor who could derail her research efforts and her degree definitely doesn’t help. When Bree shares her mental health issues with Marcus, he’s understanding and offers help to her in whatever way she needs, having had a family member with a similar diagnosis. Marcus’s support helps her to regain her mental balance more quickly in tense times.
But what about the romance? Well, it’s exciting and sexy! It’s a slow burn at the start, since the reasons for the couple to avoid getting involved are pretty clear. But hanging out together, and meeting each other’s circle of friends, as well as Marcus’ genuine friendliness and good nature make their mutual attraction difficult to resist. The resulting love scenes are sexy and emotional. The sharing of confidences and the challenges they both face from not always supportive family environments provide another link to make the end of the school term not come quickly enough. Naturally there is a conflict that requires soul searching and compromise to resolve, but it all adds up to a genuine belief that this couple will have a fun and long-lasting future. Swagger takes football romance to the next level with a story that seamlessly blends important topics into a fun and engaging romance.