REVIEW: Playing Hard by Melanie Scott
Dear Melanie Scott,
Amelia Graham is an economist for a boutique investment bank on Wall Street. She grew up near the Castro family in the suburbs of Chicago – Emma is her best friend and Emma’s brother, Finn, is like a brother to her as well. Finn has been drafted by the New York Saints after being traded by the Cubs on the cheap; Finn is a talented player but a little immature (okay, a lot immature). As the “on-site” person, Amelia is tasked with being “Team Finn” – checking on him and encouraging him and holding his hand when he needs it. Amelia is beginning to think some tough love is called for however.
Oliver Shields is the New York Saints’ first baseman. Finn wants Oliver’s job but Ollie’s not going to make it easy for him. It’s fair to say the two men do not get along.
This is a problem when Oliver meets Amelia (when she accompanies Finn to a Saints party, part of her role on “Team Finn”). The Saints have made it to the Divisional playoffs. This is a huge deal and such a turnaround from the team billionaire buddies, Alex, Lucas and Mal, bought some four years earlier. (Their books are, respectively, Devil in Denim, Angel in Armani (which I reviewed at my own blog) and Lawless in Leather (on the TBR).) It’s worth celebrating their achievement but they don’t want to party too hard – there’s still ball to play. Finn, as he does, drinks too much and acts out at the party and Alex’s wife (and also his number two at the Saints), Maggie, asks Oliver to drive Finn home. If they send him in a cab, Finn will just go to a nightclub and get into more trouble. Oliver can be trusted not to listen to Finn’s blandishments and actually get him home. While Oliver is doing Maggie this favour, there is a car accident (not his fault) and both men are injured. Finn however, will be able to play in the Divisional series. Oliver will not. His hand was sliced up, damaging tendons, nerves and ligaments. His future as a baseball player is unknown and will remain that way for the next few months at least.
Amelia is not stupid and she doesn’t just take Finn’s word for it that Oliver is a jerk and an asshole. When she spoke to Oliver at the party, he was charming, friendly, sexy and funny. She thought they had a bit of a connection but then Finn got stroppy and dragged her away from Oliver and she didn’t get to continue their conversation. (Oliver feels ripped off about this too, as it happens.)
When Amelia gets a call from Em about Finn’s accident, she does what she always does; she goes to check up on Finn and make sure he has everything he needs.
While Amelia is a people-pleaser, there are reasons for her loyalty to the Castros and Finn in particular. Amelia’s dad was a college football player who knocked up Amelia’s mother. They got married and he gave up his chance at a pro-football career as a result. After a few years, he bailed and since then it was just Amelia and her mother. Amelia’s mum is very anti-athlete after her experience and Amelia avoided the jock crowd for the most part. The Castros lived close by and provided a family and a network for Amelia. When Amelia’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and after, through chemotherapy and various complications which arose as a result, the Castros were there for both women, even renting their over-the-garage apartment to the pair when they lost their house due to the financial strain of the medical bills. Finn did something even more heroic in Amelia’s eyes (it is explained in the book). For Amelia, the Castros are family. But my impression was that Amelia was never 100% confident in that space; my feeling was that she felt she needed to keep contributing something in order to preserve her place. It’s a feeling I can relate to; the idea that she alone was not enough, she had to bring something else to the table in order to be considered “worthy”. For the most part, I don’t think the Castros were conscious of those things, but I think they did take a fair bit of advantage of her good nature. Finn came across as a pampered and cosseted child, immature and needy and not good at taking responsibility for his actions. With his family and Amelia going out of their way to make excuses for him, they didn’t help. (While there is a lot of Finn in this review, he does not overtake the book. It’s just he’s integral to Amelia’s motivations so he is needed to explain context.)
Amelia’s plan was to work in a Wall Street bank for six years. She’s on year five. She wanted to save enough to help her mother buy an apartment, which she has now done. And then, she wanted to save for herself. She has always longed to travel. Very early in the story, Amelia hears rumours there may be a position with her bank opening up in Hong Kong. While it is only a possibility, she is excited. This is her dream. She has done all the things for everyone else and now it’s time for herself. It’s typical of Amelia to think of everyone else’s needs before her own but she is determined to travel. It’s what she’s always wanted.
Anyway, after the accident, Amelia is embarrassed that Finn has not called Oliver, who is in the hospital with a potentially career-ending injury, to apologise and to wish him well. Typical Amelia, she goes to the hospital to visit Oliver herself and apologise on Finn’s behalf. (Told you Finn was a jerk. I expect he’s going to eat some dirt, grow up and get his own HEA one day but in this book he was mostly a dick.) Oliver is depressed and scared. He finally had a chance to play in the Divisional playoffs and now he’s going to miss out. He may never play ball again. He doesn’t yet have a plan B. He thought he had a lot more time to consider future options. Now those decisions might be forced upon him before he’s ready. That Finn will likely play in the series at first base, after mouthing off to Oliver all year, is just salt in Oliver’s wound. Amelia is something of a light in the darkness to him.
However, Oliver’s feelings for Amelia are not just because he needs a distraction from his current woes. He was smitten from the first and the upside to his injury is that he has time to devote to getting to know her.
From the beginning, Oliver is different. He cares about what Amelia has to say and pays attention to her. When she fobs off questions about her work due to embarrassment at how boring everyone usually finds it, he encourages her to talk. If it’s something she’s passionate about, he wants to know about it too. He doesn’t need to understand it or find it interesting himself; he’s happy to listen to her just because she’s interested in what she’s saying. He’s also far more muscular and gorgeous than the guys she usually dates. He’s far more everything than the guys she usually dates. He’s not the least bit “safe” – something which had been a common trait in men she’d gone out with previously.
At first they keep things secret because of Finn and the playoffs. Oliver doesn’t want to hide their relationship but understands Amelia’s feelings on the topic. Oliver (like me) thought Finn should man up and get over himself. However, here Oliver also demonstrates why he is the better man; he doesn’t want to put Amelia in a position where she might be forced to choose between Finn/the Castros and himself. He will do what he can to smooth things between he and Finn. He’s not going to compromise himself but he’s not going to be a jerk about things either. Partly this is self-interest – he figures he’s the likely loser in any ultimatum, but it’s also because he doesn’t want to make things difficult for Amelia – something that very few other people in her life seem to even consider.
Mostly, the barriers between Oliver and Amelia are external – the potential for conflict with Finn, what might happen with Oliver’s career and, the potential of a job overseas for Amelia. Together, they make a great team. They’re respectful of each other, they enjoy each others company and they have excellent chemistry. Sex has never been this hot for either of them. They’re both mature adults who are smart and relatively self-aware. They fit together in ways that complement each other.
Oliver isn’t perfect; he has his cranky moments. But Amelia calls him on them and he doesn’t make excuses or try and deflect. And when she needs him, he focuses on helping her in any way he can, prioritising her well being.
“Do you want to talk about it?: he asked.
Another head shake.
“Do you want to go to sleep?” he asked.
“Do you want me to stop asking questions and you can just tell me what you need?”
Her mouth curled up at that. “You,” she said simply. “I just need you.”
I don’t want to say much more about how the couple overcome the barriers to their happy ending. I will say that I was very pleased with the resolution. More than pleased. Delighted.
In terms of things which didn’t work quite so well for me, well, once again, the romance was quick. Amelia and Oliver hadn’t been together very long when everything comes to a head. However, this was used in the plot in clever ways that made sense. I suppose I’d call the end of the book HFN because there are some things still left hanging. I expect those to be revealed in future books in the series (please say there will be more) and I fully expect Amelia and Oliver to have a HEA – it’s just that it wasn’t all there on the page. That isn’t in any way a complaint about the ending. It fit very well with the story.
There was one other thing I was curious about though. At one point in the story, the team owners ask Oliver to talk to Finn. While the reader knows he did, we don’t know what was said and it didn’t really play any part in the rest of the book. I wondered if maybe it might be revisited in some way in Finn’s book? The way it was in Playing Hard, it was kind of a little satellite on its own and didn’t really advance the story.
I also thought Emma and Finn both got off way too easy. I’m glad Amelia has found better friends in Maggie, Sara and Raina.
I feel confident that Oliver and Amelia will be able to successfully negotiate their future in ways that make them both happy and fulfilled.
I have yet to read Lawless in Leather (the curse of the TBR of Dooooom) but I plan to squeeze it in to my reading soon – the snippets of Mal and Raina in this book made me very keen to read their story. Even though I’ve only read three of the four books in the series, I’m still going to say that Playing Hard is my favourite (I just reserve the right to change my mind!).