My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...
Last year, I discovered Mariana Zapata with this awesome MC romance called Under Locke. It wasn’t like any other MC romance I’ve ever read. Pretty different in style, not as gritty but there was a hot tattooed hero, a part of an MC club, who owned his own tattoo parlor and a heroine who was the sister of a member of said club. It was so good that I’ve been waiting impatiently for a sequel. Well, Kulti is not *really* a sequel but Dex and Iris do make a very small appearance... :D
The story opens up with our fabulous h, Sal or Salome (who also goes by as Salami, Salamander... even Taco LOL) inside her coach’s office, completely floored hearing the most astonishing news of her life. You see, Sal is a footballer (or soccer player whatever you like calling the game) playing for the Pipers. She’s the lead goal scorer and seems to be on her way to a terrific career.
I’ll be back to that astonishing news soon, because for that we need to know more about Sal. She’s a pretty laid back girl. Smart and extremely hardworking (you just gotta read her day to day routine). She’s also very kind and fiercely loyal to the people she loves and cares for. Sal’s not whiny, pretty much rooted in her reality, except for one little thing. Or big thing, depends on one’s perspective. And that would be the football megastar; THE German forward, Reiner Kulti. Sal had been crazy about him ever since the first Altus Cup (I gathered that’s something akin to the WC) where she was introduced to him. Reiner Kulti became Sal’s teenage crush, her obsession and her ultimate inspiration in becoming a footballer. Talk about posters, letters, daydreaming of being Mrs. Kulti and having little Kulti babies... haven’t we all done that at one point or the other in our lives? :D Her obsession remained up until, #1, the day Kulti got married and broke her heart and #2, then got in trouble with Eric. Kulti injured him badly in a FC game. Eric is Sal’s elder brother, who is a pretty good footballer himself and has made a promising career out of it. He plays in the Euro leagues (which is why he lives far away from his family and the reason why he’s not seen the story unless by mention). After those 2 incidents, it was time for Sal to ‘grow up’ and focus on her career, not moon over a man who’d never be a part of her reality.
Sal has done pretty well so far, making her parents proud. Her father is a die-hard football fan and unsurprisingly, Kulti is also his most favorite player. Among his three offspring, 2 play football. The old man is in haven! Now comes that part where Sal is floored by that news. When coach Gardner calls Sal in his office to impart this bit of information, Sal didn’t know how to react. I mean how do you react when you hear the man who has dominated your fantasy, and reality, equally, for the most part of your life is coming to coach your team?! Yep, it seems the Pipers have finally found their assistant coach; Coach Kulti!
Sal is dumbfounded. She knows... well, she doesn’t know how to react. But she’d put her ‘big girl socks’ on and deal with it. Even if she’s a little star-struck, she’d make it work!
Kulti had retired about 2 yrs. ago but Sal has kept track of him. He had also been divorced very soon after his marriage. Kulti has a history of injuries like many other athletes, one of the reasons behind his retirement. It was also because he was pushing 40, making him around 12 yrs. older than Sal. After his retirement though, Kulti more or less went off the spotlight. This is the man who had his face plastered everywhere around the world, been modeled for underwear and made men and women alike scream with his mere presence. He has millions of fans worldwide who worship him in literal sense even after his retirement. So what happened that this man will be coaching this lesser known club, a women’s club at that, when he can have a job in any big and popular clubs around the world? It’s a question that pokes and prods at Sal for a long time, even after Kulti arrives and starts showing up in their practice sessions. The answer is revealed at the end that definitely floored Sal once again, this time for good! :D
It goes without saying that Kulti’s presence is both positive and negative for the team, including Sal. Everybody wants a piece of him, so reporters are hounding the Pipers players to get the juicy bits. Sal hates doing interviews but she soldiers on to get them off her a$$ each day before they start their practice. Yet what surprises Sal the most is the man himself. Kulti has aged gracefully, still breathtakingly handsome to Sal. She invents this ridiculous, yet an ingenious way of reminding herself that Kulti is just a man so that her silly brain doesn’t freeze up around him (you hate to read the book to find out exactly what she did LOL). She finds her teenage self poking thru once in a while looking for his appreciation, which unfortunately isn’t forthcoming. In fact, Kulti didn’t even give her a second look at the intro! It hurt, seriously and trust me, I could feel her dilemma. Her brain knows it’s silly, yet her heart won’t listen to her.
Then, Kulti always seems to be in a grumpy mood. When he’s not a silent specter hanging over the team’s practice session, not moving a leg to do anything, he’s glowering at them. What’s up with that? It seemed like he has no interest in being a coach, then why the hell is he here? Sal would like to know but he’s so unapproachable that she shrugs it off. Then there was the time when she found him drunk and passed out in a bar and dragged him to a motel, not knowing the address to his residence. There was no thanks forthcoming, typical Kulti. Instead, Sal finds herself under threat. If she makes a peep about that incident, she’ll be benched without a second thought! Turns out, Kulti had an issue with alcoholism, which his people are trying to keep covered. Sal is not at all amused by his attitude. I mean how long can one take this? By then, she was used to with his bullsh!t, so she lets it pass. But that doesn’t mean his continued a$$hatty-ness didn’t hurt her.
You can only imagine what was happening at Sal’s home, especially with her father. Oh man, I loved this family as Sal began ruminating about who is the biggest drama queen of the family; her father or her youngest sister, Cecilia. LOL I don’t have a younger sister, but a brother... you get the point. Drama galore! But I digress... Sal’s father is so awestruck that he can’t even mention it over the phone without hyperventilating. She knew it but she was also happy they’re all coming to her next match and maybe, her father could meet their idol in flesh. But things go wrong when Sal’s father do venture out to meet Kulti and he’s a complete jerk to him, hurting his feelings. This sets Sal off so badly that she gives him a big what-for, not bothering that this might see her out of the tournament. But Sal has had enough of his bullsh!t, more so now that it’s about her family.
In a few days, as comments start flying from inside the team, Kulti begins loosening up. He begins spending a bit more words at the team, even if that meant always pointing out their lacks. The team is happy that at least he’s making an effort. He was still a grumpy a$$hole though and it seemed, has had his eyes on Sal. She’d be the center of his attentions and would be worked to exhaustion, with his cutting negative comments ringing her ears. Sal doesn’t know if she should regret making herself known to a perfectionist or be happy that she’s getting her training from her one and only idol.
It’s then Kulti surprises Sal completely by making a total out-of-character gesture. Though Sal was expecting to be benched or something, her father informs her that their idol has send him some great autographed stuff, apologizing for his rudeness. That must’ve been the greatest gift that her father has ever received! Sal is extremely happy and thanks the man in question for his generosity. He doesn’t say much but it does loosen up the tension a bit. He’s still on to her in the training sessions but an unlikely friendship begins blooming. Kulti is not a man of word but it seems that he wants Sal’s companionship, even seeking it out when she least expects it. He supports and defends her many-a-times when she needed it. At one point, he begins hitching rides with Sal to his home from practice. One day, two, three days, and this becomes sort of a ritual for them. At first, as usual no thanks was forthcoming. The next, Kulti offers her money for the ride as if he can buy her out, which pissed Sal off. But I saw it as desperation, also as if he didn’t know any better. As if he’d always bought what he wanted with his money. Kulti was alone, so alone and he desperately wanted Sal to be someone to him, even if he initially went about it the wrong way. Sal was totally confused but no matter what, she also couldn’t deny the fact that she still cared for this a$$hole. Even if her idol didn’t turn out exactly how she’d dreamed of but he’s still her German. The man she still loves and wants. Not like the girl crush of a teenager but something else. She only wished she knew how to handle this whole situation.
Aside from official practice sessions, Sal and Kulti begin practicing together and soon their budding relationship was blossoming into something deeper. Kulti begins dropping by at her small apartment, making himself at home. He also helps Sal with a few free youth training camps that she attended a couple of times a year not only by bringing in some International football superstars but also, by buying the kids his signature shoes. And then, he nabs an invitation to visit Sal’s parents on occasion of her father’s birthday. It struck me again that he was alone and he chose to be with Sal specifically, a fact that she also recognized but was scared to give a name to. He’s a great guest, without any whining or moaning having to accommodate to their small house. He even shares this double-story bed with Sal, which brings forth some really awkward, yet funny encounters. There was that scene on one early morning and what Sal witnessed when Kulti caught her by surprise by rising from the bed only in his briefs... I was like ‘Oh.My.Gawd, whadda.....?’ *dies laughing*. :p
This visit does narrate some really good scenes that not only solidifies Kulti’s place among Sal’s people but also his place as her friend. They also now no longer deny the attraction between them, though none is inclined to acknowledge it yet, let alone talk about it. Well, we know Sal has always been crazy about him but what does Kulti exactly feel for her? It’s difficult to know since the man is as tightlipped as ever, his face giving away almost nothing. But maybe she should be happy that she can make him smile now more than ever, that they can have conversations where he speaks more than one word. That he had mowed her father’s lawn without so much one complaint; did good job of it too. Maybe she should be happy that if not anything else, Reiner Kulti counts her as a close friend. I mean he calls her ‘Taco’ when the mood suits him and she’s free to return the favor by calling him ‘Berlin’ or ‘Sauerkraut’ or the best ‘German Chocolate Cake’ etc. LOL
Note that the name calling between them was absolutely hi-la-ri-ous! But it was when Kulti started calling Sal schnecke is when I knew he’s gone pretty deep. No, I didn’t know what it meant, and though I could’ve googled the word. I wanted simply wanted to know what it meant from him. But I had this feeling that it meant something special, though a few times I totally expected Sal to go ‘are you calling me a snake or something?’ because their relationship by then was rather fun. :D
But their time spend together doesn’t go unnoticed, especially to the nosy media people. Pictures sprung up in the internet, alongside threats from Kulti Fangirls. Questions undoubtedly begin arising about the nature of their relationship. The Pipers management also brings it to forefront because any fraternizing between a coach and a player is prohibited. Kulti stands strong in supporting Sal, sort of publicly acknowledging their friendship, when the sleezebag manager tries to downgrade her with insinuations. It warms Sal’s heart but she has no idea where they’re going. She has already realized that she’s still in love with this man, teenage crush and the rest of the world be damned. It’s now more than just a crush, knowing the way she knows her ‘Rey’, her German. He might’ve been an a$$ but he’s now beginning to open up to her. Kulti had a big trust issue, closing up whenever he felt threatened (that’s how I felt) and vulnerable. But it was pretty obvious that Sal passed had already passed that test and that he’s now willing to let her into his life. But is there any chance for her to where his heart is concerned?
When, finally, it seemed that their relationship is going to put Sal’s career in line, as their team secretly begins planning on exchanging her even though she was best among the girls, Sal had to look inside herself to really think about it. Is it worth it? Is she going to trade her future for Kulti? Because the ultimate reason why she was being traded was her relationship with him. Unsurprisingly, the answer was an unequivocal YES. Though she hated the prospect of being traded, felt betrayed after her contribution to the team, Sal wouldn’t trade her relationship with Kulti for anything. Besides, he’s always telling her how much she’s like him in her game play, reminding him of himself at his prime. Also that he believes in her abilities. They also already had begun talking about moving to some European club for better opportunity. Sal is a little apprehensive, the fear of unknown and all that, but she’s not the type of back off or give up so easily. If it meant moving away from her family, Sal would do that too, if that’s what she has to do to stay with Kulti, who has already let it be known that he’d be with her no matter what.
Honestly, I can go on and on and still have something to talk about. Kulti was another wonderful addition to Mariana’s rather short backlist, which I’m hoping would expend to a long one in the years to come. I’ve been waiting for almost a year after I finished Under Locke to read something new from her. I have to note it here, just how much I love this about her characters, especially her heroines. They’re so relatable that I always feel as if I’m a part of their world. I can relate to their thoughts, as if they’re my best friends. Iris of Under Locke, I really liked her, vulnerabilities and all. And though I’m decidedly not an athletic person, I still could relate to Sal and her views of the world. Even though some might find her day-to-day routine monotonous, I found it educational. I loved reading about the length she went to keep herself strong, sharp and fit. And that’s how I found myself being engrossed in her life;her sometimes awkward and silly, yet oftimes affectionate, monologues about Kulti. Same goes for their relationship.
Which brings me to this, my one complaint about their relationship. It took them a long while to get used to with the idea, then acknowledge ‘love’ what it was for. I particularly didn’t mind this delay seeing how Rey/Kulti’s trust issues played out. It was believable because of his fame and all the baggage that come with it. He had other issues, disappointments too but he wasn’t the type to chitchat about them. It was also because I knew the mighty would fall and fall hard when he finally does. Sal was more or less an open book and I appreciated her honesty, also her baffling thoughts about Kulti’s feelings, if any, for her. Really, what does he feel for her? Just a friend? A close friend? Something more...? I understood why she knew it’d be best if Rey was the one who took the first step, which he did. Their relationship went from frenemy, to friends to someone-a-little-more-than-friends and it was that way for a long time when it went BAM!... to lovers. It felt rushed where I had a tough time wrapping my head around this development. It definitely wasn’t their age difference. The connection they shared with each-other was superb. It wasn’t lack of sex scenes (though I would’ve loved more of that too :p). I’m not saying it took them too long, what I’m saying is that after reading chapters of Rey and Sal weathering the obstacles thrown their way, I would’ve LOVED to read more about Rey and Sal in love. I needed that, really. A few more chapters of them going lovey-dovey (as much as Rey can get lovey-dovey that is). *snort* I also thought it would’ve helped if I could get inside his crabby little head to know him better. Seriously, sometimes I totally felt Sal’s frustration!
I believe Kulti would be a great read for sports romance lovers. I’m an aberration here. I don’t generally read sport romances but I made an exception for the author as I enjoy her stories. And because of that, I knew when I started reading that it’ll be a difficult book for me to review. Before wrapping up, have to mention again that I was thrilled have a glimpse of Dex and Iris when Rey goes to finish a tattoo by no other than The Man himself. *sighs* Overall, this book was an amazing experience for me. 4 stars and highly recommended!