REVIEW: Play to Win by Kelly Jamieson
Dear Ms. Jamieson:
When I started reading this book, I wondered if I had missed a previous book or two in your new series. Before Chapter 1, there’s an extensive cast-of-characters run-down of the Wynns. Once the book begins, the reader is almost immediately given backstory on the hero’s recent romantic woes in a way that made me think they’d occurred in a previous book. But no, I double-checked, and this was definitely book one in the series.
Play to Win opens with Theo Wynn being offered the general manager position for his grandfather’s hockey team, the Los Angeles Condors. Theo, currently the assistant GM for Las Vegas’s hockey team, is intrigued but wary. An ex-player who had to quit after an injury, Theo has made a career in analytics, first at his own company and later in his assistant GM role. He thinks he can help the Condors, who have been a bad team for a while, but his family dynamics are complicated and his grandfather, an ex-hockey legend himself, is difficult to deal with.
Theo ultimately decides to take the job, after being promised free rein in the position. A few weeks later he’s celebrating with members of his soon-to-be-ex-team at a high-end restaurant in a Las Vegas hotel. Theo plans on driving to Los Angeles the next morning.
His server is Lacey, and she’s having a bad day. Her twin brother Chris, a gambling addict, has drained her bank account and won’t answer her increasingly frantic calls and texts. She has to put on a happy face to serve Theo’s group, as well as another table consisting of two creepy guys, one of whom keeps getting overly familiar with Lacey.
In short order Theo see’s that Lacey’s having problems keeping her composure, and Lacey discovers that the creepy guys are goons who Chris owes money to. Chris has apparently suggested that Lacey may be able to earn back some of what he owes – on her back. When Lacey refuses, the goons get her fired, and Theo steps in to protect her.
Theo is normally extremely analytical and cautious. He’s recently been burned romantically – he found his girlfriend Emma in a compromising position with his brother, J.P. Now he has to go back to Los Angeles, where most of his family is, and face what feels like a humiliation – cuckolded by his own brother, with whom Theo had been close.
Lacey needs to get out of Vegas for a while – get away from the goons, and from Chris, whom she finally realizes needs to fix his problems himself. Theo decides he needs to bring a hot girlfriend with him to LA to convince his family he’s not bothered by the Emma/J.P. situation. Somehow, after some partying and a lot of alcohol, Theo impulsively decides a marriage of convenience is an even better solution to both their problems. Lacey agrees, and so it’s off to the 24-hour chapel.
The couple go to sleep together in Theo’s hotel room, but don’t act on their attraction (probably for the best, as they are both pretty drunk at this point). The next day they’re off through the desert to Los Angeles, husband and wife.
There’s a lot of suspension of disbelief in this scenario, and I just had to go with it. It’s presented as VERY out of character for Theo, and while Lacey is more of a “live in the moment” type of person, marrying a complete stranger and driving off with him from the only home you’ve ever known goes beyond just being impulsive and kooky. So it didn’t make sense, and I just had to reconcile myself to that and move on.
I actually appreciated that though they’d been kind of trashed when they married, neither had huge regrets the next day – they’d at least known what they were doing, even if it was crazy to do it.
Theo and Lacey have great chemistry, and in fact on the drive to LA discuss whether they will have a spouses-with-benefits arrangement during the length of their marriage (which they intend to end at some point). The two tentatively agree that they might as well, but later Theo has second thoughts.
Once they arrive in LA and get settled at Theo’s sweet, sweet beach condo (which is nicer than anything Lacey’s used to), things get complicated. Theo’s family is big and dysfunctional. There’s his grandfather, Bob Wynn, who he’s now working for. Theo’s father Matthew and uncle Mark are both suing Bob, their father, claiming he stole money from them. Mark was once the coach of the Condors, but his father fired him. Now he’s the coach for the rival Long Beach Golden Eagles, owned by Matthew. (Everyone in the Wynn family either plays hockey or owns a hockey team or works for a hockey team in some capacity.)
Then there is Theo’s fraught relationship with his brother J.P. Also, even though Bob has been married to his second wife for decades, and has four children by her, there is tension of long standing between Bob’s second family and Matthew and Mark (and by extension, their kids), in part because of a long-held belief that Bob was fooling around with the second wife before the first wife died.
So Theo and Lacey each have cause to be overwhelmed by aspects of the other’s life. Theo is not used to someone like Lacey, who draws people to her and creates connections effortlessly. Lacey is not used to a big and complicated family. When Theo’s mother, Aline, warmly welcomes Lacey into the family and tries to get to know her better, Lacey is flustered because she knows that her marriage isn’t real.
Beyond the unlikely set-up, there’s a lot that’s familiar in this story (and marriage of convenience stories aren’t exactly unique in romance, anyway). But there was still a lot to like about Play to Win. The hero and heroine were both quite likable – I’ve decided I enjoy the stuffy hero/footloose heroine combination (though Lacey isn’t really all that wild, aside from having once worked at a marijuana dispensary as a “budtender”). There’s an element of across-the-tracks in the romance, too, and because I liked Lacey, I was happy to see her settle into really nice surroundings, far from the cares of past in Las Vegas. (In addition to dealing with her loser brother, Lacey recently lost her mother – the only parent she knew – after caring for her through a cancer battle.)
Theo has it all on paper – good looking, smart, rich. But he had a tough time growing up – he was so smart that other kids picked on him, and it wasn’t until he got into hockey that he felt accepted. Then he took a puck to the eye and his hockey career was over. He has some insecurities that he has to overcome in order to be able to be with Lacey.
One aspect I liked and am looking forward to reading about in future books was this truly dysfunctional family. Too often in romances big families are portrayed as “crazy” but really everyone just adores everyone else, beneath the surface. The Wynns…don’t seem like that. Theo has aunts and uncles that are around his age (due to his grandfather’s second marriage), and there is real distance and wariness among them because of the way the family has been factioned.
I wasn’t too interested in the nitty-gritty details of Theo’s approach to hockey – it has a lot to do with a new approach to analytics – but I was impressed that the information was included, anyway. It made the character feel more fully realized and fit Theo’s wonky approach to the world.
Play to Win didn’t break any new ground for me as a reader, but likable characters and an entertaining plot were enough to merit a B from me.