NFL football player Isaiah Blackwell lost his husband three years ago and is raising their teen son alone. He lives his life as quietly as his job allows, playing ball to support his family but trying not to draw unwanted attention. His quiet life is shaken up when a mutual friend introduces him to Victor, a visiting principal ballet dancer who is everything Isaiah is not.
Brash and loud, Victor Aleksandrov has applied for political asylum to avoid returning to Russia, where gay men are targeted and persecuted. He’s been outspoken about gay rights in his home country, and if he doesn’t get asylum, going back to Russia is a death sentence.
Their one-night stand turns into a tentative friendship, a relationship they both agree is temporary... until Victor’s denied asylum. Isaiah can’t offer Victor a happily ever after, but he can propose something that’ll keep Victor in the US and safe... marriage He just doesn’t expect his new husband to dance away with his heart.
This was my first foray into this author's writing, but hopefully not my last.
I found this to be an excellent use of the "marriage of convenience" trope, showcasing a romance between a still-grieving widowed football player and a somewhat effeminate Russian ballet dancer seeking and being denied asylum in the US, who get married avoid deportation and potential death in the homophobic climate of Mother Russia.
I adored Viktor, the ballet dancer and activist, who's not afraid to use his fame position to shine a light on homophobia and the persecution of LGBTQ people everywhere. He was loud in his advocacy, but also thoughtful and kind and generous and loving. And very insightful, too.
Isaiah on the other hand is much more reserved and chooses to live his life much more quietly, afraid to rock the boat, even though everyone knows he's gay, considering he was married to a man before his husband's untimely death. He's unwilling to confront homophobia in others, and prefers to focus on his football career and on raising the teenage son he and his late husband adopted. He's also still grieving and unwilling to open his heart to a second chance at love, thinking that it would diminish what he had before.
Viktor and Isaiah meet, spend a hot night together, but decide to part as friends. When Viktor's asylum request is denied and he's faced with having to return to Russia, Isaiah steps in and offers marriage and the subsequent Green Card, but takes sex completely off the table.
Isaiah is an interesting character. I was wondering many times whether his reluctance to live his life "out loud" was because of his career choice and the still rampant homophobia among NFL players/teams/coaches/owners, or because of his skin color, or because of his need to keep his son Evan safe and protected, or just because that's who he is - quiet, introverted, and perhaps just a little spineless.
Obviously, Isaiah's desire to keep a lid on Viktor's activism backfires spectacularly. But that's not the only thing that backfires - his plan to keep his hands off Viktor and not fall for the man crumbles just the same. For a lot of the book, there's a ton of tension in the relationship, and more often than not, I was angry with Isaiah for making Viktor feel like he had to walk on eggshells. There's clearly a power imbalance at play as well, what with Viktor dependent on keeping the marriage "alive" for as long as he has to until he's no longer in danger of losing his immigration status.
The two men have zero issues getting along in the bedroom, and there were plenty of steamy scenes inside. And still, Isaiah is reluctant to examine what he's feeling for Viktor, and ends up pushing the other man to his breaking point.
Of course, this being a romance, a HEA is expected and was delivered, in a grand romantic fashion when Isaiah pulls his head out of his ass, listens to his son, and runs after Viktor to grovel. While I loved the romantic conclusion, I was a little irked for two reasons. One, Isaiah's change of heart came way too quick for my taste, and two, he didn't have to grovel nearly long enough before Viktor took him back. Yes, yes, I know - the grand romantic gesture - but that didn't excuse the hurt Isaiah inflicted on Viktor before that.
Still, all's well that ends well, right?
I'm definitely interested in reading the next book in this series. The story flowed well, there were no massive time jumps or lulls in the plot, and the writing was not overly purple. The characters' actions and reactions were, for the most part, reasonable and realistic, and the dialogue felt organic as well.
** I received a free copy of this book from its publisher via Netgalley in exchange of a fair and unbiased review. **
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