Overall Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
“She’s a no-fly zone. She used to be the cute kid sister of my best friend, but something shifted recently and I went from thinking of her as Owen’s younger sister to something more.”
I think there has been a run lately on forbidden romances that focus on dating (or not dating) your best friend’s sister. Kendall Ryan’s Playing for Keeps throws its hat in that ring and does it well. I’ve stated this in a prior review of this type of book that I sometimes struggle with this trope. I’m never sure why a sibling has so much power in deciding who can or cannot date their younger sibling. I get “bro code” or “girl code,” but, still, if my brother ever decided whom I could have dated, he and I would have come to blows. Seriously.
Kendall Ryan’s Playing for Keeps follows Justin and Elise. Justin is Elise’s brother’s, Owen’s, best friend. They have been best friends for eternity, and Elise has always existed in Justin’s world. However, at some point, Justin begins to see Elise as something more than Owen’s little sister; he’s attracted to all her amazing qualities. Elise, on the other hand, has loved Justin from afar for much of her life. Unfortunately, Justin and Owen are the epitomai of playboys. That’s easy when they are successful professional hockey players. However, Justin changes. He begins to realize that the meaningless hook-ups don’t bring him the excitement that they have before, and Elise is the type of girl whom he wants. But Owen has told everyone that she is “off limits.”
Even more, Justin carries baggage. He’s been raised by two parents who only see him as a bargaining chip, as a pawn between the two of them. This has stunted him emotionally within the realm of love. He doesn’t believe in relationships because he has never really seen a successful one, save for Owen and Elise’s parents. Eventually, sparks fly with Justin and Elise because their chemistry is palpable, but they must hide it from Owen and everyone else. Can Elise change Justin’s mind about love and relationships? That seems to be the focus of Ryan’s Playing for Keeps. Can Justin learn to accept that relationships can fulfill a deep yearning in him? Is Elise the girl to change his mind?
So, what’s to love about Playing for Keeps?
- Professional hockey players as lead characters. Justin and Owen (and their friends) have it all. They are handsome, well-built, athletic, and rich. Women flock to them, which, for purposes of this story, can be problematic. From the outset of the story, we find the guys having an intimate soiree at their penthouse following a successful championship hockey game. They can have any woman. However, we find a sullen Justin who cannot keep his eyes off of Elise. This is the beginning of their burgeoning interest in each other. And it sets the story into action.
- The chemistry and relationship between Elise and Justin. One thing I loved about this story is Ryan hurrying Elise and Justin into bed. Then, she destroys it. This is not an easy journey for these two. My heart hurt for Elise the day after their drunken night in bed because Justin is clueless and inept at handling the situation. And quite frankly, he stays pretty clueless through most of the story. One minute, their chemistry is palpable, and you want them to consummate it. The next moment, their path towards each other runs cold, and you feel the angst of separation between the two. This journey is a necessary one for Justin as he is emotionally stunted by his childhood. He needs this “back and forth” with Elise to help him grow and recognize that Elise is his soulmate. It’s this discord that keeps you reading the book. We feel their need for each other, their history with each other, and this necessary draw to each other, which is Ryan’s brilliance in crafting this story.
“It’s crazy how the chill in the air, and even the smell of the ice, can spark up nostalgia. This is us. Our history. And he planned the entire thing without me knowing.”
3. Elise. Even though she is the youngest person in the story, she is, by far, one of the most mature. When Justin acts regretful of their initial night together, she finds an inner strength to move beyond her disappointment. She is gutted, but she finds solace in her friends. She seeks out wisdom and uses her maturity to move past it. She is not catty; she is wise and helps Justin realize his need for her. I loved that Ryan made her so strong that she can stand up against these alpha-level men, and she’s the most reasonable character of the story.
4. The other characters. The additional characters of the book, namely Elise’s friends: Becca, Sara, and Bailey. These ladies act as both the voice of reason and the comedy relief of this story. When the tension of Justin and Elise’s romance overwhelms you, Ryan uses the ladies to lighten the mood. Additionally, Owen, Teddy, and Asher, Justin’s friends and fellow teammates, lend a lightness to the story. These characters are the comic relief and a respite from the, sometimes, angst and torture of Elise and Justin’s journey. They are also setups for future stories in this Hot Jocks series. In fact, the next book, Owen and Becca’s story, is one I’m very much looking forward to. Ryan teases a bit of it at the end of Playing for Keeps, and it seems like a good one based on that tease.
Playing for Keeps isn’t heavily angsty. It’s a story that isn’t trying to do something new with the genre. However, it is Kendall Ryan in all of her glory. She’s an author who understands character development. She creates heroes who are flawed and in need of a woman to set them straight. She crafts heroines whose inner strength can change and challenge a flawed hero. And she does it well in this new book. Is it a surprise that Justin and Elise find their happy ending? No. Yet, the journey there is one that will keep you reading this book until the very end.
“So instead I do what I do best, and focus on loving my girl. Which as it turns out, comes pretty naturally to me.”
In love and romance,