These contemporary romances are ensconced in the world of professional athletics and fitness, but emotional lifting takes greater precedence than squats.
In The Dating Playbook, the second rom-com in Farrah Rochon’s knockout Boyfriend Project series, a personal trainer with a struggling practice teams up with a high-profile former NFL player facing multiple hurdles to give him a second chance at playing pro ball.
Taylor Powell has always felt like the black sheep in her high-achieving family. While her siblings soared, school meant suffering and panic attacks for Taylor. She squeaked by in high school, but her lack of college degree has been the deciding factor in several lost professional opportunities. Now she works as a personal trainer and has a tight circle of female friends, a sisterhood of women (introduced in The Boyfriend Project) who all learned through social media that they were dating the same sad-sack, low-rent player. And yet, despite their generosity and support, their professional prowess exacerbates her feelings of failure by comparison, a situation made worse by Taylor’s undiagnosed ADHD.
Jamar Dixon, on the other hand, is used to being a star. He excelled at football and got a dream job playing professionally right out of college. But an injury in his first season cut his career short. Taylor’s relative anonymity will help Jamar keep his training a secret, away from the prying eyes of the press and the public pressure to come back better than ever. And apart from the overdue bills that this lucrative gig will help Taylor pay for, being the architect of a successful comeback for a football star could be just the career-making boost she needs. To make sure Jamar’s training remains a secret until he’s ready to return and she’s ready for the spotlight, they agree to pretend to date in order to throw everyone off the scent.
It’s a great setup and well executed, with each character scratching just the right itch for the other. They both have a lot riding on their professional partnership and ample reason to keep it under wraps. Like the best rom-com couples, Taylor and Jamar are much more than the sum of their individual parts. They’re absolutely lovely together, making Rochon’s choice to have the friend group play a lesser role in this installment a wise one. The Dating Playbook is a gentle and relatively low-angst romance that makes a great comfort read in stressful times.
The comedy is a bit broader and the chemistry is more volatile in Alexis Daria’s crazy, sexy, cool second-chance romance A Lot Like Adiós.
After a young lifetime of being badgered and bullied by his parents, Gabe Aguilar was desperate to get out of the Bronx and away from his judgmental and domineering father. In an act of defiance, unbeknownst to Michelle Amato, his best friend and next-door neighbor whom he always had a crush on, Gabe applied to UCLA, got a scholarship and left everything behind, including the friendship that sustained him for most of his life. Thirteen years later, Gabe is a physiotherapist and co-owner of a successful Los Angeles gym called Agility. Michelle and Gabe are thrown together again when Fabian, Gabe’s business partner, sees a splashy marketing campaign that Michelle designed and recruits her to work on the launch of their first East Coast branch.
Gabe and Michelle have a ton of unresolved sexual tension, and they’re both curious about and longing to see each other. The main challenge, apart from the fact that he thoroughly ghosted her in order to make a fresh start in LA and never really explained why, is that Gabe isn’t ready to deal with being back in New York. Even beyond his issues with his family, not knowing how to push back against other people’s expectations has long been a problem for him.
Michelle’s terms for accepting the job include Gabe staying with her on this trip, so they can hash out their differences. She wants closure, so she engineers a little forced proximity to force the issue. To say that the scheme works is an understatement. Gabe and Michelle share a connection that is instinctual and hot like fire—not just habanero or scotch bonnet hot, but ghost pepper hot. In the bedroom, at the zoo, in the basement gym, everywhere they go, there’s heat. Daria masterfully blends that steam with character building and emotional connection from the start. Their love scenes are nothing short of spectacular, full of communication and creativity as well as physical spark.
Daria portrays Gabe with particular sensitivity. His character is specific and concrete, his wariness, dysfunction and emotional pain palpable on the page. In an effectively cringeworthy scene, Gabe’s worst fears come true when he and his father finally come face-to-face. It’s tender but also funny in a Larry David-esque way, excruciating and human all at once. Unfortunately, the story skims over his path to healing, narrowing the steps Gabe takes to mend his psychological wounds to one significant epiphany with not much in the way of follow-up. Readers’ mileage may vary when it comes to the resolution and HEA, which lean hard on embracing the love and support of family, making it almost sound like a miracle cure. It’s a curious note in an otherwise truly irresistible arrangement.