Our book today is a romance novel revolving around the US football season and so by rights ought to feel like an autumn book. But Jaci Burton’s The Final Score, one of Burton’s “Play-by-Play” sports romances, features a Claudio Marinesco cover and enough hot-and-heavy bedroom action to make it a last-day-of-summer reading experience.
The basic template of the book’s plot will be familiar to anybody who’s read any of Burton’s dozens of earlier novels: a strong-willed man, usually a sports star of some kind, and a strong-willed woman, usually striking out on a new entrepreneurial chapter in her life, are powerfully drawn to each other and fight against it on purely rational grounds, knowing that they’re wrong for each other – until their attraction overcomes their reservations. At first The Final Score seems to be slotting itself directly into that pattern: Mia Cassidy has started a new career as the founder of a sports management company, and it’s brought her into contact once again with San Francisco Sabers star Nathan Riley. Mia and Nathan have been friends for a long time, and years ago in college they indulged in a bit of the aforementioned hot-and-heavy bedroom action. That aberration was never repeated; instead, Mia and Nathan became close, supportive friends.
But Burton is very good at digging into her romances and veering them off their expected tracks, and this starts happening right away in The Final Score. Romance novels in which the lead characters talk about not wanting to endanger their friendship by adding sex aren’t exactly rare in any publishing season, and they tend to share the same flaw: from the first page, you can practically hear the writer impatiently drumming her fingers, eager to shred that flimsy friendship facade and get to the pawing and mawing. Burton herself has been guilty of this in earlier novels, including earlier “Play-by-Play” books. But this time, she makes the friendship between Nathan and Mia so believable that the tried-and-true romance-reader’s instincts will be jolted a bit off balance: they’ll be rooting for the friendship and worried about the pawing and mawing.
A large part of the book’s magic derives from this happy inversion, and Burton makes it feel concrete by having Mia and Nathan believe in each other even more than they desire each other. In one scene, with no motivation other than purely being supportive, Nathan rushes to banish Mia’s doubts:
“Mia, I’ve never known anyone as loaded with self-confidence and drive as you. While other people our age were content with living off their parents or staying in school for as long as possible, you’ve been determined to forge a career for yourself. You came up with this amazing idea, and despite how daunting it was, you ran like hell with it. And not only did you run like hell with it, you spent a year putting it all together. So you didn’t rush into anything.”
Mia’s just as supportive in return, although her scenes tend allow more of Burton’s signature oddly snappy dialogue:
Nathan’s gaze was hot as he looked at her, from her face to her body and back again.
“It’s been three years since that night, Mia, and you know what? I’ve never forgotten a minute of it.”
“We were drunk that night.”
He undid the buttons of his shirt, then shrugged out of it. “Yeah, we were. I still remember all of it. How beautiful you were. You’re even more beautiful now.”
So was he. He’d always been lean and muscular, but he’d added some weight and more muscle. He was taller, more imposing. But she’d never felt threatened or powerless when she was with Nathan. He always made her feel safe and cared for.
She reached out and spanned her hands over his wide chest. “You’re beautiful, too.”
One corner of his mouth lifted. “You’re supposed to say I’m strong and muscular.”
“Yes, that, too. But there’s a beauty in the way you’re sculpted. You work so hard to achieve this strength. I admire it.”
When two main characters support and admire each other so fulsomely, you’d be within your rights to expect that the balance of the book would be fairly boring, but Burton hasn’t forgotten the deal implicit in that Marinesco cover: when Mia and Nathan finally decide to find out whether their rock-solid friendship can withstand the addition of bedroom romping, they throw themselves into the project with the skill and tenacity of the Army Corps of Engineers. But the best thing about The Final Score is that most readers will actually be very satisfied long before the lights go out.
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