Desert Isle Keeper
Elle Kennedy has a special place in my heart. The Off-Campus series was my first foray into the sports romance genre and launched my love affair with all things new adult, contemporary and sports team related. Though I’ve since read many more (good and bad) series – it’s still #2 in my mental ‘best of sports romance’ list (Kristen Callihan’s Game On series is my favorite). Each Off-Campus book features a hockey player at the fictional Briar College. In this series, the four players are housemates, teammates and best friends; John Tucker is the last remaining bachelor in the house. The Goal is Tucker’s story, and it neatly ties up this terrific series.
Shortly before book #3, The Score, concluded, Tucker surprised his friend Dean (and Off-Campus fans) by nervously admitting he was about to become a father, and that the baby mama is Sabrina James. Readers didn’t know much about Tucker or Sabrina (except that Dean doesn’t like her), much less that they were in a relationship. The baby news was a major bombshell. The Goal picks up that storyline and takes place concurrently with The Score – senior year at Briar.
Shortly after school starts, Tucker, Dean and another friend are out when he sees a beautiful girl standing at the counter of their favorite bar. Dean also notices her and warns “Stay away from that one, kid. She’s toxic.” She doesn’t look toxic to Tucker, and he’s surprised to discover the smoking hot girl is the Sabrina that Dean dislikes so much. When she seems to sense Tucker’s stare, she turns, looks straight at him and…
Her gaze catches mine and holds it. There’s challenge in her eyes and the competitor in me rises to meet it.
You enough for me? she appears to be asking.
You have no idea, darlin’.
A spark of heat lights her gaze – that is until it falls on Dean. Immediately, her lush lips thin and she jerks up her middle finger in our direction.
Tucker, despite Dean’s warning and her ‘not interested’ signal, decides he’s going home with her that night. He buys her a drink and uses his sweet southern charm to convince Sabrina he’s worth her time. She soon finds herself leaving with him, and makes it clear she’s only interested in him for sex. He’s hot, sexy and an athlete – but she isn’t interested in anything more. Tucker is happy to go along with her plan (in the cab of his truck no less), but through his PoV we know he thinks there’s a good possibility he’s just met the love of his life. He’s adorable, she’s prickly, and the whole scene is delicious.
Sex with Tucker is (literally) life changing for Sabrina. It’s also dirty, hot and supremely satisfying for readers (yay!). When Sabrina exits the truck, she agrees to give Tucker her number only after he threatens to follow her home to ensure she makes it safely – but she’s mentally saying goodbye. Finishing up her senior year at Briar while living nearly an hour away with her out of work grandmother and creepy stepfather, working two jobs to pay tuition, trying to put money aside for next year when she’s hoping to attend Harvard Law School – Sabrina doesn’t have time in her life for a boyfriend.
Unfortunately, she finds herself unable to resist her intense attraction to Tucker. And he, sensing he needs just the right amount of patience and persistence to gain Sabrina’s affections, doesn’t give up on his pursuit. She gets into Harvard, and eventually, she decides to give into her feelings for Tucker and starts to spend time with him. From the start, their attraction to one another is intense, and when Sabrina sees how easily Tuck assimilates into her busy life, she’s thrilled – but scared it can’t last. She hasn’t planned for him, and tries to keep him at a distance. Tucker knows what Sabrina’s doing, but loves her anyway. He doesn’t want to scare her, and resolves to wait to tell her he loves her; Sabrina, emotionally damaged by her childhood, only reluctantly admits to herself she’s in love with Tucker. She’s too scared to tell him though.
Up until this halfway point, The Goal plays out much like other NA love stories – the angst is real, the HEA assured. But as promised in The Score, Ms. Kennedy has a major twist in store for these two. The romance and relationship take an abrupt wrong turn shortly after Christmas break. Sabrina, slow to recover from what she thinks is the flu, is nauseous and tired. It isn’t long before Tucker suspects she might be pregnant. She is. From this point, The Goal turns into a very different – and in the end, much more emotionally satisfying – love story.
Tucker is a terrific hero – the kind of guy that I swoon over in books, but have yet to meet in real life (and I’m married to a pretty great guy). He’s handsome and sexy, but also tender, charming, patient and kind. Raised by a single mom, he wears his ‘mama’s boy’ label loudly and proudly. He wants any version of Sabrina he can get, but knows she isn’t ready for the love he wants to give her. His patient, relentless pursuit of her – and then rock steady, mature response to the news he might become a father, is irresistible.
Sabrina is a nice contrast to Tucker. She’s never had the stable, deep abiding love that he offers – and it’s often frustrating to watch her reject his affection over and over again. More focused on where she’s going and who she’s going to be, Sabrina frequently minimizes her feelings for Tucker, and through much of the novel, you sense she is a page or two away from pushing him away for good. The pregnancy and subsequent changes in both their lives show Sabrina that Tucker isn’t going anywhere, and that giving in isn’t giving up; she slowly softens as she learns to love and appreciate Tucker’s TLC. A fierce defense of her love for Tucker in the face of his mother’s doubt, finally forces them to admit their feelings to each other. It’s a frustrating wait, but a sweet and satisfying conversation when they finally do.
A lot of romance readers are quick to dismiss NA (and sports romances) because they’re filled with beautiful people with too much drama to be believable. In The Goal, Ms. Kennedy demonstrates how great this genre can be when done right. The characters are all too human and they make mistakes, but when they start to figure things out, you believe in them and their choices. I’m giving this a A- mostly because I’m a mom, and I thought certain aspects of the second half read as slightly too good to be true. That minor quibble aside, The Goal is a terrific and supremely satisfying addition to this supremely satisfying (and addictive) series.