This author’s books might have romance at their core, but he never fails to suck me into the overall story that is always so much greater than the spark between two characters. Morgan certainly isn’t looking for romance at the beginning of this book. He’s barely looking for a home, but he’s resigned to playing for the Outlaws. That resignation lasts for all of two seconds; this story verges into darkness quickly until Morgan promptly drags everyone back out. Bauer gives us a glimpse of toxic masculinity on steroids while deftly balancing it with the heart that I find in each of his heroes. And in this particular instance, Morgan truly is a nontraditional hero. For a significant portion of this book, I almost didn’t need the romance aspect – I just wanted some peace and happiness for this entire ridiculous hockey team.
But this is still a romance, albeit the hottest slow-burn romance ever, between Morgan and the unexpected connection he builds with Shea. Bauer proceeds to smack us repeatedly with their pining, and okay, I lied. I did also need the romance aspect of this book because I fell as quietly in love with Morgan and Shea as they did with each other. Bauer balances the heaviness at the beginning of this novel with a palpable sense of recovery for these men as they find true friendship, and then love. Bauer could have played with so many tropes here as stumbling blocks, from the slight age gap to the issue that they are technically coworkers. However, how he always refrains from leaning into the obvious conflicts is one way that elevates his storytelling from cliché to classic. As in Gravity, the unconnected novel that takes place in the same world, I thoroughly appreciated that the rest of their team is not made up of oblivious idiots, but rather genuine friends who supported their teammates finding happiness.
This doesn’t mean that the ending of the book is conflict-free. Bauer is also excellent at switching between high-octane moods that kept me invested in the story even when I was 99 percent certain the happily ever after was guaranteed. This book was more than just a romance the way this was also more than just a hockey story. A good ending isn’t just about winning games, but about building something that the reader believes will live on beyond the last page (the rest of the story, to borrow a phrase). This, of course, wouldn’t stop me from enjoying more glimpses of this team as Bauer continues to craft compelling “hockey romances” that are every bit as intense and satisfying as his more traditional romantic suspense novels.