What it’s about: (from Goodreads) “Trust me, I’ve wanted to punch you in the face a time or five.”
When the man you worshipped as a kid becomes your coach, it’s supposed to be the greatest thing in the world. Keywords: supposed to.
It didn’t take a week for 27-year-old Sal Casillas to wonder what she’d seen in the international soccer icon – why she’d ever had his posters on her wall or ever envisioned marrying him and having super-playing soccer babies.
Sal had long ago gotten over the worst non-break-up in the history of imaginary relationships with a man who hadn’t known she’d existed. So she isn’t prepared for this version of Reiner Kulti who shows up to her team’s season: a quiet, reclusive shadow of the explosive, passionate man he’d once been.
What worked for me (and what didn’t): Kulti is a slow burn, enemies to friends (well, at least one enemy anyway), then friends to lovers story and it is fabulous. Sal Casillas is a professional soccer player. She’s a woman so of course, she doesn’t get paid as much money as her male counterparts and her team doesn’t draw huge crowds but she’s as talented and skilled and dedicated to her sport as any man. Sal has a job doing gardening and landscaping work as well as playing soccer.
When Sal was seven years old, she first saw Reiner Kulti play and from then on, all she wanted to do was play soccer too. Oh, and marry Kulti. When Kulti got married to a starlet he met on an a plane, Sal’s teenage heart was broken and then, her brother, Eric, was seriously injured in a professional soccer game by King Kulti himself and she decided she hated him. Family loyalty comes first. (Sal’s dad, who is a massive Kulti fan, still wears Kulti’s jersey though.)
Kulti is now retired and Sal is as surprised as anyone when he joins the Houston Pipers as an assistant coach. Sal is tongue-tied, overwhelmed and irritated at this development. Even though he divorced the starlet shortly after they were married, Kulti did break Eric’s leg and this is a big deal to Sal. In a ploy which was initially funny (but which got tired and less funny the more often it was used) Sal imagines Kulti pooping in order to maintain her calm around him.
Kulti is a mostly silent German man who doesn’t give anything away. The first few weeks of his tenure he doesn’t speak to anyone except a few words to the head coach and the team captain. When he eventually does start talking he addresses the players by their jersey number. Sal is “number 32”. He’s not a warm and fuzzy guy.
It’s not just Sal who needs to take time warming to the great man. I did too. But slowly, ever so slowly, he showed glimpses of not being a dickbag and I began to see the romantic hero under the brusque persona.
It helps that Sal doesn’t take shit from him. She stands up for herself and pushes back. I think it was probably this which led Kulti to actually respect and like her. I tend to find my alpha quotient rises where the heroine pushes back strongly and I had a fairly high tolerance here because Sal doesn’t cut him much by way of slack.
I still didn’t completely understand why Kulti had been such a douche the other day with the kids, but he’d apologized, and in his book that was the equivalent of giving me his kidney, so I’d take it and demand an explanation later.
I loved Sal’s relationship with her dad and laughed at how awed he was by King Kulti. He wouldn’t even talk to “Rey” – rather he would ask Sal to pass messages along – when Kulti was sitting right there. It was funny and terribly sweet.
Over time, Sal’s and Kulti’s relationship slowly morphs into a strong friendship and, eventually, without Sal really realising it, into something more. And that slow reveal was delightful. Kulti’s character, which we only see through Sal’s first person point of view, was doled out to the listener over a period of months and many conversations and shared activities. When things get hard for Sal, Kulti is all in for her. He is gentle with her but fierce on her behalf, using his ruthlessness for her benefit without compunction. It was delicious.
“Schnecke,” he said in the softest, most affectionate tone I’d ever heard. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” I managed to blabber out. I was shaking and my upper body was convulsing with soundless cries.
“Stop with your lies and tell me why you’re crying,” he ordered even as he scooted forward and stroked a big hand down my spine.
“I’m not crying.”
“You are the worst liar I have ever met.” He moved to rub my shoulder. “Why are you upset?”
Every time he asked, I somehow managed to cry harder, my body shaking more; there were actual noises coming out of me. “It’s stupid.”
“More than likely, but tell me anyway,” he said in a gentle voice.
Kulti is always a bit of a jerk to almost everyone other than Sal and her family – he doesn’t have a personality transplant or anything. But he is 100% on Sal’s side and seeing him soften for her, when he had not ever for anyone else, was a joy.
It could have been a bit creepy that Sal had “loved” Kulti since she was seven years old, but it really wasn’t. Sal’s love for Kulti as shown in the book is something which grew from knowing the real man as an adult. I didn’t ever feel that there was any unfair advantage taken, even if there were some coincidences which made me roll my eyes just a little, even as I was charmed by them (because I’m contrary like that).
It was one of those books which built over time to the point that by the two thirds mark, I started reading the digital version when I couldn’t listen because I just wanted to know what was next – not because I was worried, but because it was so good. (And because I had the digital version, you get quotes in this review.) Sometimes I listened to the same bit I had just read (or vice versa) because I was enjoying it so damn much.
What else? The narration was very good. Callie Dalton’s Spanish felt authentic (I’m not an expert but it sounded like she knew what she was saying and the accent didn’t feel put on or caricature-ish). It seemed to me she actually speaks the language. I’ve been known to DNF audiobooks for mangling accents so this is important to me. There isn’t a lot of Spanish in the book but it is sprinkled throughout enough that I was very glad Ms. Dalton’s accent was good.
She also nailed the growing emotional connection the story portrayed between Kulti and Sal and I loved her comedic timing. There were parts where I laughed out loud. I’m not sure whether I’d have found the lines quite so funny in print alone – maybe I’d have smiled but something about the delivery turned some of the phrases into real zingers.
As I’ve said before, I don’t skim on audio whereas I do in print. So repetition is something I notice far more in this format. While it was initially amusing than Sal had to think of Kulti pooping in order to form coherent sentences around him, it got old really fast. I don’t think I’d have reacted so strongly to this in print but on audio I was rolling my eyes a bit and wishing Sal would move on already.
Structurally the book is a unusual for a contemporary romance. There are intimate scenes but they are all at the very tail end of the book. There are not even kisses until close to the end. When people tell you this a slow burn romance, believe them. Even though the structure wasn’t typical, I’m glad that the sex scenes were there – they capped off the story nicely and gave me confidence their chemistry wasn’t theoretical. I also liked the epilogue which gave me enough information to cement the HEA nicely.
Kulti was mostly an audio delight – I enjoyed the slow reveal of Kulti’s character and the way certain actions of his were reframed when further information was uncovered late in the piece. There were a couple of things I still had questions about – why did Kulti refer to Sal’s brother as an “imbecile” and was there something more to the story of Kulti breaking Eric’s leg during a game? How did Kulti and Eric get along after Sal and Kulti hooked up? – but they were minor niggles in an otherwise very smooth and captivating listening experience.
“I’ve been waiting, and I will keep on waiting until the time is right. You are my equal, my partner, my teammate, my best friend. I’ve done so many stupid things that you’ve made me regret— things I hope you will forgive me for and look beyond— but this, waiting a little longer for the love of my life, I can do.