Well Played – the second in Jen De Luca’s series of renaissance faire-centered romances – is a bit of a step down from the excellent Well Met. While the story itself is charming, and the heroine is wonderful, there are several rather frankly icky plot points that keep this one from a higher grade.
Renaissance fair actress by summer weekends and dental office secretary by weekdays and offseason, Stacey Lindholm is stuck in a holding pattern. The world seems to move around her, sweeping away her best friends into happy, fruitful lives, but Stacey is still in her parent’s home at Willow Creek, anxiously watching over her sick mother, prevented from staying out of town and pursuing her dreams of being a fashion designer.
The engagement of her friends and fellow actors at the Faire – Simon and Emily (hero and heroine of Well Met) – jolts her back to reality, the one in which she’s twenty-seven and not getting any younger. It’s time for her to get on with her life, and in light of that she vows to herself that she’ll have her life together by the time next year’s ren faire rolls around the following spring.
She’s also looking to resurrect her moribund love life. Stacey has feelings for her yearly faire hookup – handsome, muscular musician Dex MacLean, member of the Dueling Kilts. But Dex has also slept with almost every single woman who works at the fair, and seems not to be interested in commitment. Thus when Dex responds positively to an impulsive, drunken get-to-know-me-or-I’m-gone email, a correspondence begins, and Stacey is soon over the moon for him.
A year passes along as the Dealing Kilts travel and Stacey grapples with adulthood without major progress, although she gains a sense of hope thanks to her correspondence with Dex. But sign-ups for the faire bring a revelation into view when a repeated phrase in an email clues Stacey in to a startling fact – it’s not Dex with whom she’s been building a relationship over the past few months but his cousin and the manager of his band – quiet, geeky Daniel MacLean. Will she ever be able to forgive him?
The biggest problem I have with Well Played is its central conceit. Daniel is Cyrano-ing it up here, has been lying to Stacey for an entire year about who he is, and had no intention of telling her the truth – until he slips up. This is catfishing, and lasts for the first half of the book. How many pages does it take Stacey to forgive Daniel after she finally confronts him? Only thirty. He does apologize but she seems all too eager to shrug and adjust her expectations, and I desperately needed him to face some harsher consequences. Daniel is a beta hero and I love beta heroes, but he seemed to be setting himself up for a lifetime of passive victimhood.
Speaking of passive, the book tells me that Stacey’s true passion is fashion, but she doesn’t spend much time honing her designing or sewing skills. I wanted more of her doing that, wanted to understand who she was before her mom got sick, but the book’s breezy page length means we don’t get to linger.
Daniel uses Dex’s identity to get into Stacey’s pants, but he and his cousin do not really fight over this, nor does Dex put up much of a fight over his cousin (and business partner) falling in love with the woman he’s been having an annual fling with for years. That felt highly unrealistic in a lot of ways.
And yet Daniel and Stacey aren’t bad people – they’re just being manipulated by the plot in a way that’s uncomfortable. Stacey is the kind of heroine whom anyone could relate to, and Daniel is a nice guy who has been taught that approaching women will lead to bitter embarrassment every time. They’re understandable in spite of the plot’s creaky contrivance. When they’re being themselves, the romance is charming.
As always, De Luca does a beautiful job with the setting. Her take on renaissance faires and small town life is inspired and beautifully handled. All the quiet details of Daniel and Stacey’s relationship, too, are sweet and lovely to read. We get a lot of build up for Simon and Emily’s ensuing wedding, reminding us all of why we fell in love with De Luca’s work in the first place.
Well Played is weaker than the first entry in the series, but it’s not unreadable, and that means it’s worth a look, though not a top priority one.
Note to the cover artist: for the love of Mike, if the book tells us the heroine is plus-sized, please draw her that way!