ARC Review: Illegal Contact by Santino Hassell

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“So, I’ve been here for an hour and so far, this is what I’ve got – there are two things that can bring out #ThatBrawleySmile. Playing football and his personal assistant.”
Thank you very much to Berkley Publishing Group for providing a copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review.

Santino Hassell has quickly become one of my favourite authors, and when I discovered he was releasing a novel – featuring my beloved hate-to-lovers trope – I could not hit that request button fast enough. Illegal Contact is an engaging slow-burn romance with gritty, stubborn characters that the reader immediately falls for, and a compelling storyline that I never wanted to end.

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The rules of the game don’t apply off the field in this first Barons novel. 
New York Barons tight end Gavin Brawley is suspended from the team and on house arrest after a video of him brawling goes viral. Gavin already has a reputation as a jerk with a temper on and off the field—which doesn’t help him once he finds himself on the wrong side of the law. And while he’s been successful professionally, he’s never been lucky when it comes to love.
Noah Monroe is a recent college grad looking for a job—any job—to pay off his mounting student debt. Working as Gavin’s personal assistant/babysitter seems like easy money. But Noah isn’t prepared for the electrifying tension between him and the football player. He’s not sure if he’d rather argue with Gavin or tackle him to the floor. But both men know the score, and neither is sure what will happen once Gavin’s timeout is over…

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If you know me at all, then you know I am not a sports fan – soccer, AFL … NFL  … basketball … what’s another sport, hockey? I don’t understand these things, so no one was more than I was that I lovedadoreddevoured a novel where sports is at the heart of the story – football literally saved one of the main character’s lives. And you know what? I could connect with him on that, even though I don’t understand football, or the meaning behind it, at all. This must be a testament to Hassell’s impeccable storytelling skills if someone like me is able to appreciate a sport. (But don’t expect me to be watching  AFL anytime soon.)

Hassell tore out my heart with this novel and then, tenderly, repaired it. From the MCs, to the supporting characters, to the plot, I loved everything about this book and had a huge smile on my face while I read it.

Apparently, the camera didn’t like me. The marketing people said my blank stare screamed serial killer.

But the main characters … the main characters are by far the strongest element of the novel, not only because of the tender romance developing between them, but because of the character development too. Gavin starts the novel as a rough-and-tough footballer who uses his weight, height and power to intimidate people, Noah included. He’s grumpy and unapologetically himself. But the closer he gets to Noah, the more he realises he doesn’t like the image the world has of him and actively tries to do better. It’s through Noah’s positive influence that this happens: a happy mix of burgeoning respect and intense romantic feelings.

The bi rep in this novel was written to perfection – Hassell has truly captured the hardship of coming out, made even more difficult by the inclusion of the NFL and their reputation of homomisia. I was also ridiculously pleased that Gavin was not ashamed of his bisexuality, and he had incredibly supportive friends. Also #ThatBrawleySmile killed me.

“Doesn’t matter as long as you root for me, baby. Next thing you know you’ll be tailgating.”
“I don’t know what that means.”

“I know, but listening to you come up with dumbass possibilities would be funny.”

But Noah was a true sweetheart and I want him to be my friend in real life. He’s nerdy, mouthy, and unafraid to stand up for what’s right. Even though he’s wary and a little frightened of Gavin, he doesn’t let Gavin boss him around (although he is Noah’s boss). They frequently butt heads, but somewhere in the midst of all the sexual tension, Noah learns the true side of Gavin, the one he tries to keep hidden from all but those he loves. It takes time – a real slow-burn – but it’s so worth it. The banter is unfiltered and the sex scenes are unabashed (and hot) – a perfect combination.

The supporting characters were all fully fleshed out and complex people. I detested Gavin’s manager Joe, but at the same time he cared a lot about Gavin, although he shows it in an unusual way. But the other characters were a real treat: I can’t wait to find out more Marcus and Jasmine because they seem like the world’s cutest couple, and I especially can’t wait for the sequel about Simeon! He’s already a favourite character, and I already know I’m going to love him even more in his own novel.

“I mean I want to be with you. Be the Lois to your Clark.”

The plot was soft and laid-back: it’s simply just two guys forced to spend hours every day together and getting to know one another, but that doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel – if anything, it enhances it. With a slow-moving plot, the book is able to focus on the development of Gavin and Nick’s relationship from antagonists, to friends, to lovers. (And you all know I love slow stories, so that’s another plus in the book’s favour.)

Illegal Contact was a gem of a series starter – I never wanted the novel to finish and I can only hope we get to learn loads more about Gavin and Noah’s relationship in Down by Contact, the sequel. While we’re waiting, I’ll be rereading this book over and over again.

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5 stars

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