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A gym nemesis pushes a fitness influencer to the max in Amy Lea’s steamy debut romantic comedy.
Curvy fitness influencer Crystal Chen built her career shattering gym stereotypes and mostly ignoring the trolls. After her recent breakup, she has little stamina left for men, instead finding solace in the gym – her place of power and positivity.
Enter firefighter Scott Ritchie, the smug new gym patron who routinely steals her favorite squat rack. Sparks fly as these ultra-competitive foes battle for gym domination. But after a series of escalating jabs, the last thing they expect is to run into each other at their grandparents' engagement party.
In the lead up to their grandparents' wedding, Crystal discovers there’s a soft heart under Scott’s muscled exterior. Bonding over family, fitness, and cheesy pick-up lines, they just might have found her swolemate. But when a photo of them goes viral, savage internet trolls put their budding relationship to the ultimate test of strength.
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About the Author
When Amy is not writing, she can be found fan-girling over other romance books on Instagram (@amyleabooks), eating potato chips with reckless abandon, and snuggling with her husband and goldendoodle.
Read an Excerpt
The gym is supposed to be my safe place. The place I de-stress, reenergize, and ponder random wonders and mysteries, like: how was I delusional enough to think I could rock a middle hair part circa 2011?
That's why I'm equal parts horrified and appalled that my Tinder rebound, Joe, has sprung onto the treadmill to my right.
I brace myself for an awkward, clunky greeting, but thankfully, his attention appears fixed on the treadmill's touch pad. As he presses the dial to increase his speed, I catch a whiff of eau de wet dog. He not-so-subtly glances in my direction before averting his eyes.
Sure, Tinder Joe was kind enough to order me an Uber after our lackluster quarter-night stand two weeks ago. But it's highly coincidental we'd end up at the same gym, in all of Boston. I wonder if he's stalked me. Maybe I blew his mind in bed? So much so he went FBI on my ass, located my gym, and staged a casual run-in? Given my social media presence, it isn't out of the realm of possibility.
At every opportunity, Dad warns me of the dangers of posting my whereabouts on Instagram, lest I be kidnapped and sold into sex slavery, Taken style. Except Dad is no Liam Neeson. He doesn't have "special skills," aside from his legendary sesame chicken recipe. And so long as the Excalibur Fitness Center continues to sponsor my membership in exchange for promotion on my Instagram, I'm willing to risk it.
Tinder Joe and I lock eyes once again as I catch my breath post-sprint interval. Our shared gaze lasts two seconds longer than comfortable and I can't help but notice how his perfectly coifed boy-band hair remains suspiciously intact with each giraffe-like stride. Whether he stalked me here or not, my first instinct is to flee the scene.
So I do.
I take refuge in the Gym Bro Zone, aka the strength-training area.
As a gym regular, I exchange respectful nods with the other patrons as I enter. A familiar crowd of 'roid-pumping frat boys loiters near the bench presses while simultaneously chugging whey protein shakes like they're on the brink of dehydration. Today, they're donning those cringey neon tank tops that hang too low under their armpits. To their credit, they're nothing if not devoted to their daily routines. And after catching a glimpse of my sweaty, tomato-faced self in the wall-to-wall mirror under harsh fluorescent lighting, I'm not in any position to judge.
A guy man-splaying on the bench press grunts excessively, chucking a set of dumbbells to the floor with a loud thud. Normally this would grind my gears, but I'm too busy bounding toward a majestic sight to care. My treasured squat rack is free. Praise be.
The window squat rack is one of exactly two racks in this facility. It boasts a scenic view of a grungy nightclub across the street, a long-rumored front for a murderous motorcycle gang. The natural light is optimal for filming my workouts, especially compared to the alternative-the rack cloaked in shadow next to the men's changeroom, which permanently reeks of Axe body spray.
The window rack is close enough to the industrial-size fan to let me savor a stiff breeze mid-sweat, but not close enough that I'll succumb to wind-induced hypothermia. It's also in the prime position for gawking at the television, which, for unknown reasons, is cruelly locked to the Food Network. I worship this squat rack the way Mother Gothel regards Rapunzel's magic hair. It gives me life. Vigor. Four sets of squats and I'll be high on endorphins for at least a day, fantasizing about the strength of my thighs crushing the souls of a thousand men.
Giddy at the very thought, I stake my claim on the rack, setting my phone and headphones on the floor before heading for the water fountain. The man with a goatee, who rocks knee-length cargo shorts and an actual Sony Walkman from the nineties, approaches at the same time. He graciously waves me ahead of him.
I flash him an appreciative smile. "Thanks."
My back is turned for all of three seconds while I take a sip. Freshly hydrated and eager to crush some squats, I spin around to find an exceptionally broad-shouldered figure stretching directly in front of my window rack.
I've never seen this man before and I'm certain I'd remember the shit out of him if I had. He's tall, well over six feet, with a muscular build that liberally fills out his unassuming gray T-shirt and athletic shorts. One look at his enormous biceps and it's clear he knows his way around a gym. A black ball cap with an unrecognizable logo shadows his face. From the side, his nose has a slight bump, as if it's been broken before.
I shimmy in beside him to pick up my phone, purposely lingering for a few extended beats to transmit the message that this rack is OCCUPIED. He doesn't get the memo. Instead, he proceeds to clasp his massive hands around the barbell, brows knit with intense concentration.
Either he's fully ignoring me, or he genuinely hasn't noticed my presence. The faint beat of his music is audible through his earbuds. I can't identify the song, but it sounds hard-core, like a heavy-metal lifting tune.
I clear my throat.
"Excuse me," I call out, inching closer.
When his gaze meets mine, I jolt, instinctively taking half a step back. His eyes are a striking forest green, like an expanse of dense pine trees dusting untouched misty mountain terrain in the wilderness. Not that I'd know from personal experience. My exposure to the rugged wild is limited to the Discovery Channel.
I'm nearly hypnotized by the intensity of his eyes, until he barks a "Yeah?" before reluctantly removing his right earbud. His voice is deep, gruff, and short, like he can't be bothered with me. He momentarily lifts his ball cap, revealing wavy, dirty-blond locks that curl at the nape of his neck. It reminds me of the scraggly hairstyles worn by hockey players, the kind you just want to run your fingers through. And he does just that. My throat dries instantly when he smooths his thick mane with one hand before dropping his ball cap back over the top.
Deliberately ignoring the dip in the base of my stomach, I nod toward my headphones hastily strewn at the base of the rack. "I was here first."
Expression frosty, he arches a strong brow, regarding me with contempt, as gym bros tend to do when women dare to touch what they deem as their equipment. "Didn't see your stuff."
Undeterred by his brush-off, I take a confident step forward, laying my rightful claim. When we're nearly chest to chest, he towers over me like a behemoth, which is more intimidating than I anticipated. I expect him to back off, to see the error of his ways, to realize he's being a prick, but he doesn't even flinch.
Swallowing the lump in my throat, I find my voice again. "I'll only be a few minutes, max. We could even switch in and out?"
He sidesteps. For a second, I think he's leaving. I'm about to thank him for his grace and humanity . . . until he dares to load one side of the barbell with a forty-five-pound plate, biceps straining against the fabric of his T-shirt.
"Seriously?" I stare at him, hands on hips, gaze settling on his soft, full lips, which contrast with the harsh line of his stubbled jaw.
"Look, I need to get to work in half an hour. Can't you just use the other rack? It's free." As he ruthlessly balances the rack with another plate, he barely spares me a passing glance, as if I'm nothing more than a pesky housefly.
I pride myself on being an accommodating person. I wave other cars ahead of me at four-way stops, even if I have the right-of-way. I always insist others exit elevators in front of me, as my parents taught me. If he had just been polite, half-decent, even the slightest bit apologetic, I probably would have let him have it. But he isn't any of the above, and I'm shook.
"No," I say, out of principle.
His jaw tightens as he rests his forearms on the bar. The way he leans into it, stance wide and hulking, is purely a territorial move. He gives me one last, indignant shrug. "Well, I'm not moving."
We're locked in a stare-off with nothing but the faint sound of Katy Perry singing about being "a plastic bag drifting through the wind" over the gym sound system and a man grunting on the leg press a couple feet away to quell the silence. My eyes are dry and itchy from my refusal to blink, and the intensity of his stare offers no sign of fatigue.
When Katy Perry fades out, replaced by an Excalibur Fitness promotional ad, I let out a half sigh, half growl. This guy isn't worth my energy. I retrieve my headphones from the floor and stomp to the less desirable rack, but not before shooting him one last evil eye.
11:05 a.m.-Instagram Post: "Assholes Who Think They Own the Gym" by CurvyFitnessCrystal:
Real talk: This morning, an arrogant dickhead with nicer hair than me callously stole my squat rack. Who does this? And if you're guilty of this crime, WHO HURT Y'ALL?
I don't know him personally (and I don't want to), but he struck me as the kind of person who loathes puppies and joy in general. You know the type. Anyway, I ended up channeling all my anger into my workout while blasting my current jam, "Fitness" by Lizzo (trust, this song is fire).
Final thoughts: Most people at the gym aren't assholes. I promise. 99% are super helpful and respectful, even the steroid frat boys! And if you do encounter that unfortunate 1%, just steer clear. Never give them power over you or your fitness journey.
Thanks for listening to my TED Talk,
Comment by xokyla33: YAS girl! You're sooo right. You do you!!
Comment by _jillianmcleod_: I just don't feel comfortable working out at the gym for this reason. Would rather work out at home.
Comment by APB_rockss: U promote embracing your curves/size but all u do is work out and live at the gym? Hypocrite much??
Reply by CurvyFitnessCrystal: @APB_rockss Actually I spend one hour in the gym working out each day. Devoting time every day for yourself, whether it's at the gym, taking a walk, or in a bubble bath is hugely beneficial for all aspects of your life, including mental health. Also, you can both love your body and go to the gym. They aren't mutually exclusive.
After yesterday's incoherent Instagram rant, I took a much-needed soul-searching bubble bath. My response to the person who called me a hypocrite unintentionally sparked a fierce debate of epic proportions between my loyal followers and my haters. I try not to pay the trolls an iota of attention, but after Squat Rack Thief and two glasses of merlot, I was feeling a tinge combative. And it's been building for months.
For seven years, I've striven to shatter harmful, fatphobic stereotypes in the fitness industry. I've built an Instagram following of two hundred thousand based on my message of self-love, regardless of size. The drama over me being "too big" to be a personal trainer yet "not big enough" to represent the curvy community is typical in the abyss of the comments section. There's no in-between.
The crass body-shaming and occasional racist slurs have become more commonplace with the growth of my following. For the sake of maintaining a positive message, I've ignored the hateful comments. The fact is, I love my curves. Most of the time. I'm only human. Occasionally, the trolls manage to penetrate my armor. When this happens, I allow myself a short grace period to wallow. And then I treat them to a proverbial middle finger in the form of a thirst trap (a full-length body shot, for good measure).
But last night, sometime before my rainbow glitter bath bomb dissolved entirely, it occurred to me that my followers are probably equally, if not more, hurt by the comments. If I want to stay authentic and true to my body-positive platform, maybe it's time to start speaking out.
Today's workout is the perfect time to ruminate over my strategy.
But to my displeasure, Squat Rack Thief is back again, for the second day in a row. He's stretching in the Gym Bro Zone. Must he have such magnificent quads?
He narrows his gaze in my direction as I shimmy through the turnstiles. Instantly, his expression goes from neutral to a deep scowl, as if my mere presence has derailed his entire day.
I eye him sideways before shifting my faux attention to the generic motivational quotes plastered on the wall in an aggressively bold font: If it doesn't challenge you, it won't change you.
Evading him for the duration of my workout is harder than I expected. Wherever I go, he's looming in my peripherals, taking up precious space with his gloriously muscled body.
When I woke up this morning, it crossed my mind that he could be an Excalibur Fitness newbie who hasn't grasped the concept of gym etiquette. I fully intended to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he was simply having a bad day. Maybe he spent the entire night staring into the vast distance, roiling with regret. Lord knows I've had my fair share of rage-workouts.
All of these possibilities lose legitimacy when he conspires to out-pedal me on the neighboring assault bike. When I catch him eyeing my screen, I channel my inner Charlie's Angel and full-throttle it.
At the twenty-calorie mark, we both stop, panting, hunched over the handles. My "no-makeup" makeup has probably melted entirely, and I'm seeing spots. But my exertion was worth it-I beat him by a whole 0.02 miles. He practically seethes when he reads my screen. Evidently unable to cope with my victory, he pouts, promptly hightailing it to the machines.
Not half an hour later, it's officially game over when I witness him saunter away from the leg press without bothering to wipe down the seat. The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who don't clean the machines after use.
Compelled to speak up on behalf of all hygiene-policy-abiding gym patrons, I set my dumbbells down and march forth.
He's in the zone as he does a round of effortless pull-ups. I stand, mouth agape, unintentionally mesmerized by the taut, corded muscles in his arms flexing with each movement.