All of the books in the Chicago Stars contemporary romance series are built around the world of professional athletes and the women who want to climb them like trees. It’s a rarefied bubble that allows for the same kind of lifestyle fantasy as the aristocratic and wealthy world of historical romance. Almost every story also features an older couple getting a second chance at love.
- It Had to Be You
- Heaven, Texas
- Nobody’s Baby But Mine
- Dream a Little Dream
- This Heart of Mine – only Kresley Cole has ever made me angrier
- Match Me If You Can
- Natural Born Charmer – very entertaining and I recommend it
Susan Elizabeth Phillips is a good writer with a successful formula and a long career. She’s clever and witty, but more than one of these books suffers from tropes that are outdated and/or offensive. Since Natural Born Charmer is the most recent of the series, it is the one I would recommend. I did try Call Me Irresistible and The Great Escape from her more recent collection. The former never captured my attention and the latter had a love scene involving the literal use of a licorice whip. Yowch.
It Had to Be You – 1994
From Amazon: The Windy City isn’t quite ready for Phoebe Somerville—the outrageous, curvaceous New York knockout who has just inherited the Chicago Stars football team. And Phoebe is definitely not ready for the Stars’ head coach, former gridiron legend Dan Calebow, a sexist jock taskmaster with a one-track mind. Calebow is everything Phoebe abhors. And the sexy new boss is everything Dan despises—a meddling bimbo who doesn’t know a pigskin from a pitcher’s mound.
I might have enjoyed this one more, if I had read it when it originally came out, but a lot has changed in the past 20 years and I found It had to Be You dated. The hero really does refer to the heroine as a bimbo and uses terms like “sissy”. He is otherwise a very kind and caring man, but I was predisposed not to like a book built around professional sports and the dated elements did not help. The ending was ridonkulous. You heard me. RIDONKULOUS!
The heroine, Phoebe, is cramazingly beautiful, smart, kind, and more than a little lost. She has history of sexual assault and some self-esteem issues she endeavored to overcome by using her attractiveness as a finely honed weapon. I had mixed feelings about using her feminine wiles to manipulate business situations at the same time as I couldn’t blame her for turning the tables on men who chose to act like idiots in her presence.
Bonus Points A: Dan drives an obscenely expensive car, but when he bought it, he wrote a cheque to a charity for the same amount to offset the extravagance. I always tell myself I would do things like that if I was suddenly rich as Croesus.
Bonus Points B: A love scene built around the simple power that the word “stop” should have.
Heaven, Texas – 1995
The hero of this book is named Bobby Tom. I didn’t get any further than that.
Nobody’s Baby But Mine – 1997
Cal is a professional football player at the tail end of his career. Noticing he is in a slump, his friends decide to buy him a prostitute as a birthday present. (It gets worse.) Promised a chance to add another notch to her football player bedpost, one of the servers at their favourite watering hole agrees to find a suitably classy hooker to bang Cal back to cheerfulness. Her physicist neighbour, Jane, agrees to the “date” because her biological clock is ticking like a metronome on crack and she thinks Cal will bring balance to her gene pool. With a sabotaged condom and a pink gift bow around her neck, Jane sets out to turn her first trick. They have some uptight sex and she returns the money thus apparently absolving her from prostitution, but not from being scummy. [Tirade waived because I’m saving my strength for This Heart of Mine. ] After their second encounter, Jane becomes pregnant and Cal finds out. They end up living together in his hometown and encountering his wacky relatives. There’s more, but let me sum up: eccentric grandmother, unhappy parents, life after football.
Despite her manipulations, Jane is not the tiara winner for Worst Heroine in the Chicago Stars series. That peach is up right after I skip this next book.
Dream a Little Dream – 1998
Reluctant faith healer. I’m out.
This Heart of Mine – 2001
Molly is the step-sister of Phoebe from It Had to Be You. Not blessed with her sister’s looks, she is that average-looking and brainy-but-scattered woman so popular in romance. She writes children’s stories about a bunny named Daphne and the reader is treated to snippets as a chapter framing device. I learned to skip them very quickly as Molly’s writing technique is to project her adult life experiences onto children’s picture books. It was hella twee.
Every once in a while, Molly has an “incident”. First, she does something bizarre to her hair and then she acts out in an extraordinary fashion. When This Heart of Mine opens, she has just lopped off most of her locks and dyed the remainder bright red, so her family knows an escapade is imminent. She has a crush on the Chicago Stars quarterback, Kevin, who has just gotten into trouble for participating in extreme sports off the field and, unbeknownst to Molly, been sent to Dan and Phoebe’s lake house to meditate on his sins. Molly has decided she needs to get away and she ends up in the same place. I’d say hijinks ensue, but what follows is a felony.
One evening, after her new platonic friend has gone to sleep, Molly finds herself wandering into his private bathroom and then his bedroom. She climbs into bed with him, stimulates him, and when Kevin awakes from what he thought was a dream, he finds himself having sex with Molly. He is not happy. He asks what she would have called it had he done the same to her. The answer, of course, is rape. He’s right. That’s rape. The heroine is a rapist. It was at this point that my decision to finish reading This Heart of Mine became an act of spite. Am I supposed to like this woman? Why? Because she gave her fortune to charity? Because she lives in her sister’s shadow? Because she just couldn’t control herself? FUCK YOU, MOLLY.
Owing to an overdeveloped sense of honour, or some bullshit, Kevin marries his rapist because the condom Molly stole from his shaving kit broke and she is pregnant. He does not tell her family the truth and he discourages her from doing so. In an expected trope, Molly miscarries the baby that was the result of Kevin’s victimization and falls into a deep depression. Not about the felony, mind you, about the loss of the pregnancy. Kevin learns of Molly’s depression and takes her to his upscale family campground to help her heal. He is a saint and the felonious Molly does not deserve him.
At the campground, Kevin the Saint and Molly the Felon grow closer. Molly the Felon has a simply adorable habit of creating drama when she thinks her soon-to-be-canonized-pseudo-spouse is bored; for example, going cliff diving or pretending to drown so he has to rescue her. Way to use up that microscopic speck of sympathy the miscarriage garnered you, Molly the Felon. She swims out into the middle of the lake, sees Kevin the Saint looking less than delighted, assumes he is bored, and decides to pretend to be drowning so Kevin the Saint can liven up his day by saving her. That is “bitches be crazy” levels of messed up.
Kevin the Saint eventually figures out that Molly the Felon has a strong imagination that she likes to indulge in drama. For reasons I cannot begin to fathom, he overlooks her behavior, forgives her, and they consummate the relationship. It’s a big relief to Molly the Felon when the sex is great. She had some concerns about Kevin the Saint’s performance because the rape had been sexually disappointing for her. Again, FUCK YOU, MOLLY.
Match Me If You Can – 2005
Heath Champion is a relentlessly ambitious sports agent looking for a perfect wife. Annabelle Something has inherited her grandmother’s matchmaking business and is hired to locate Heath’s helpmeet. They fall in love and he grows a soul. Okay, he kind of had a soul before, but his character never worked for me. Even though Annabelle called him on his manipulations, he was too slick and entitled by half.
I never really got into Match Me If You Can, even though it was funny and well written. In real life, men like Heath make my skin crawl and their fictional counterparts, no matter how decent at heart, are of no interest to me. On another front, the plot moppet, Pippi, was a hoot.
Natural Born Charmer – 2007 – It seems I read the best one first.
Tagged: Bonner Brothers, book reviews, Chicago Stars, contemporary romance, Heaven Texas, It Had to Be You, Match Me If You Can, Nobody's Baby But Mine, romance review, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, This Heart of Mine