Tough Guy is book three in Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series, set in the world of professional hockey. While I wasn’t as utterly caught up in the romance here as I was in the previous book (Heated Rivalry – which made my Best of 2019 list), I nonetheless enjoyed the novel, and appreciated the way the author flips the stereotype of the confident, ripped jock so often found in sports romances (both m/f and m/m) and creates instead an endearing, gentle-giant-type character with severe self-esteem issues who struggles to reconcile the person he truly is with the one he’s expected to be on the ice.
At six-feet-seven inches, with a build like a bulldozer, Ryan Price knows how to intimidate. On the ice, he’s an enforcer, someone other players actually aspire to fight with – especially rookies, for whom “paying the Price” is something of a rite of passage. But it’s an image and a job that Ryan wrestles with, and which has been weighing down on him more and more as the years have passed, because that’s not who he is at all. When the story begins, Ryan has just been traded – yet again – this time to the Toronto Guardians, and is being urged – ordered, really – by his coach to be more of a team player both on and off the ice, and unsubtly quizzed about his mental health. Anxiety, self-esteem issues and finding social situations hard to deal with mean Ryan has always found it difficult to connect personally and professionally, and a well-publicised “freak out” the previous season (a panic attack) has made him even more self-conscious. This is the ninth team Ryan has played for in almost as many years; he’s never played anywhere long enough to put down roots or make any real friends, but this time he’s determined to change that, and finds himself an apartment in the vibrant, LGBTQ part of town. Ryan is openly – albeit quietly – gay but that’s never been an issue, partly, he suspects, because he’s moved too often for anyone to really notice or care, and with a few other players – notably Scott Hunter (Game Changer) – coming out recently, it hasn’t seemed necessary to hide it. Sex hasn’t often been a positive experience for him; he hasn’t had many partners, and those he has had haven’t really been interested in him as a person, or been able to see past his size or their own preconceptions of what he should like and want. He’s lonely, the medication he’s on is screwing up his libido and… it sucks.
When Ryan enters a local pharmacy in order to get a prescription filled, he’s surprised to see Fabian Salah working there. When Ryan was seventeen, he’d been billeted with the Salahs, a Lebanese family who lived and breathed hockey and whose daughter was a rising hockey star, but whose son, a hugely talented musician, seemed hardly to merit their notice. Even then, Ryan thought Fabian was beautiful and had a mad crush on him – which he suppressed, having quickly learned that Fabian despised everything to do with hockey. Over the year Ryan lived with Salahs, Fabian’s attitude changed and they became friends, but they haven’t seen each other since Ryan made the NHL.
Fabian is Ryan’s complete opposite in just about every way. Femme, confident and extrovert, he’s amazingly talented, completely adorable and has zero fucks to give about what others think or say about him. Plus he has the most fabulous group of friends I’ve read about in quite some time. Fabian had quite the crush on Ryan back in the day (but thought he was straight,) and seeing him again brings back a lot of that old fascination and attraction. Fabian isn’t pushy, but he does need to nudge Ryan out of his comfort zone a little to start with, and before long, they’re seeing each other regularly and fast moving toward couple-dom, helped considerably by Fabian’s ability to understand Ryan’s fears and anxieties and treat them as part of him and not something to be ashamed of or weird.
Tough Guy is a very different book to its predecessor, and anyone coming to it expecting more of the same may need to adjust those expectations. It’s what I’d call a ‘quiet’ book in general; the romance evolves naturally and realistically, and the drama is mostly supplied by Ryan’s growing conviction that he’s not happy in his chosen career and his struggles to deal with his self-esteem issues and see himself as someone worthy of someone as vibrant and sexy as Fabian. Ms. Reid handles Ryan’s anxiety issues very sensitively and never over – or under – plays them, and I appreciated her decision to write a main character who is experiencing sexual difficulties and isn’t always raring to go at the drop of a hat, something not often explored in romance novels.
I loved Fabian’s confidence and easy charm, although I was less than impressed with his actions towards the end, which actually felt like a deliberately contrived way of injecting some last minute tension into the story. Fortunately, things are resolved quickly, but that short section felt like an insert rather than an organically evolved part of the story, and I had to knock the final grade down a bit as a result.
Following a book as good – and well-loved – as Heated Rivalry was always going to be tricky, but the author’s decision to do something completely different was a good one. Tough Guy is a sweet, sensual and charming romance, and if you like opposites attract, gentle ginger giants and/or second-chance romances, then I’d urge you to give it a try.