Review: Kiss Hard by Nalini Singh

Review: Kiss Hard by Nalini SinghKiss Hard (Hard Play, #4) by Nalini Singh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, sports romance
Series: Hard Play #4
Pages: 329
Published by TKA Distribution on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

New York Times bestselling author Nalini Singh brings you a sinfully playful contemporary romance between two sworn enemies turned partners in crime...
Daniel Esera is a young god on the rugby field, a sexy and charming man who's got the world at his feet. There's just one problem: his sudden potent attraction to his number one nemesis--Catie River. No. Just no. Not happening.
Catie River is on her way to Paralympic gold, and she's not about to allow Danny "Hotshot" Esera to derail her plans. Too bad her body isn't cooperating. Even worse? Her heart might be coming along for the ride. No. Nope. Never.
The pair are united in their desire to remain enemies... until a stranger's reckless action threatens both their careers. Now, the only way out for Catie and Danny is to pretend to be in a relationship. How bad can it be? They're adults in full control of their hormones and their hearts. There will be no kissing. No PDA. And definitely no falling in love.
Let the games begin.

My Review:

The Hard Play series has been all about the sons of the Bishop/Esera clan of New Zealand Rugby “Royalty” finding their HEAs, beginning with big brother Gabriel “T-Rex” Bishop in the precursor story, Rock Hard. T-Rex and his story were universal, squeeing, over-the-moon favorites over at The Book Pushers, so I’m always happy to see just how happy his and his “Mouse’s” HEA has turned out to be.

Gabriel Bishop is Danny Esera’s half brother – not that any of the Bishop/Esera brothers ever waste a breath on that half. The first “official” book in the Hard Play series, Cherish Hard, was all wrapped – like a vine – around the romance between Sailor Bishop, the second son in the family, and Isa Rain, the (half) sister of Catie River, Danny’s frenemy in the blended family from the day they met.

So long-time readers of this series have met these people before, back in that earlier book, and an earlier time in both their lives, as Sailor and Isa are more than a bit older than their (half) siblings. Again a half that only matters for the amount of time between their parents’ marriages and not anything to do with the amount of love in either family. (You don’t have to read the earlier books in the series to get right into the action in this one, but they are all delicious so why wouldn’t you?)

Which leads to a big part of this story, in that there was and is plenty of unconditional love in the Bishop/Esera clan, while Isa and Catie mostly had just each other. Not that their parents aren’t all still among the living, but that their presence in their daughters’ lives is a bit, shall we say, lacking.

Jacqueline Rain has always been more interested in being a corporate shark than a mother, while Isa’s father was every bit as invested in his own corporate sharkhood and not so present for his daughter. While Catie’s dad was an unreliable gambler who let his luck and the wind blow him wherever the next good time happened to be. Clive Rain loves his child, but he’s only rarely there for her. He stood steadfast for one, long, big, huge time when her legs were crushed along with her dreams of being an Olympic sprinter. But the rest of the time, Clive has been the one running.

Now Danny and Catie are all grown up, they are both sports stars in their own respective rights – Danny on the New Zealand National Rugby Team and Catie as a medal-winning Paralympic sprinter. They are also the best of enemies, snarking at each other at family gatherings and in social media. If there’s a poster couple for frenemies, Danny and Catie are it. They snark not to wound but to one-up each other in ways that are intelligent and funny rather than truly hurtful.

So, when Catie sees clean-cut, clean-living Danny stumbling and slurring his words at a big party, she knows something is wrong. Danny doesn’t drink to excess, and he doesn’t do drugs – because there’s too much riding on his good image and his success. In the best frenemy tradition, she gets Danny out of the party before he either passes out or does something stupid and unforgiveable.

Only for the news that they are holed up in her apartment in the suddenly snowbound city to potentially be as damaging to both their images as pictures of Danny under the influence might have been.

Which leads to damage control for the damage control. A fake relationship will explain their sudden cozy snowbound interlude. A fake relationship that lasts a reasonable amount of time will make the whole thing acceptable to both sets of fans and keep the media away from the real story.

And in the best tradition of fake relationship romances, when the fake turns real, neither of them are sure that the other is able to trust their very mutual change of heart.

Escape Rating A-: At first it seems like this one hits the “Trope Trifecta” – it’s a snowbound, fake relationship, enemies to lovers romance. But under those easy-to-spot covers is something with a whole lot more delicious nuance.

The one part of the trope trifecta that is unequivocally true is the snowbound part. Catie and Danny do end up spending a couple of nights stuck in her apartment during a freak snowstorm. But those other two tropes, not so much – in a very good way.

This isn’t really an enemies to lovers romance because Danny and Catie aren’t truly enemies. Not that their mutual snarkfest isn’t real, rather that it doesn’t represent real enmity. They are constantly trying to one-up each other, and they are very salty to each other both online and in person, but it’s all very much in jest in a way that only works with someone you trust not to hurt you. Which they do.

Their relationship isn’t exactly fake, either. Or rather, they already have a relationship – a relationship of true friends who snark and play-fight to keep the world at bay. They already love each other, if not romantically. There’s nothing shameful or wrong in loving your friend, and that’s what they are to each other underneath all that snark.

So this is a story about both of them reaching for more with a person who is already inside their circle of trust – but who they are afraid to trust too much because of the emotional baggage they are carrying from other relationships in their lives when that trust was broken.

Especially Catie, who loves her father but was forced at a young age to recognize that he was not in the least trustworthy – and that he’d always walk away without a second’s notice.

To make a long story short, Kiss Hard is every bit as worthy a successor to the rest of the Hard Play series as Daniel Esera is to the tradition of his family’s rugby dynasty. The joy in the story is watching Catie and Danny turn their salty friendship into a beautiful romance.

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