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.

Review: Love Hard by Nalini Singh

Review: Love Hard by Nalini SinghLove Hard by Nalini Singh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, sports romance
Series: Hard Play #3
Pages: 340
Published by TKA Distribution on March 10, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Jacob Esera, star rugby player and young single father, has worked hard to create a joyous life for his six-year-old daughter. After the death of his childhood sweetheart soon after their daughter’s birth, all Jake wants is safety and stability. No risks. No wild chances. And especially no Juliet Nelisi, former classmate, scandal magnet, and a woman who is a thorn in his side.

As a lonely teenager, Juliet embraced her bad-girl reputation as a shield against loneliness and rejection. Years later, having kicked a cheating sports-star ex to the curb, she has a prestigious job and loyal friends—and wants nothing to do with sportsmen. The last thing she expects is the fire that ignites between her and the stuffed-shirt golden boy who once loved her best friend.

Straitlaced Jacob Esera versus wild-at-heart Juliet Nelisi? Place your bets.

My Review:

Until now the Hard Play series has been kind of a prequel to the author’s Rock Kiss series, but this entry is loosely a sequel to my personal favorite book in that series, Rock Hard. And while it was great to see the Mouse and T-Rex put the icing on the cake of their HEA with a wedding, Love Hard is not their story.

So you don’t have to read that, or any of the rest of the series, to like Love Hard. Not that it isn’t great to catch up with the friends from the rest of the series(es), but this one does stand alone.

In fact, it’s kind of about standing alone – and discovering that maybe it’s time not to have to.

Juliet Nelisi is the Mouse Charlotte’s best friend, and we saw plenty of her as a secondary character in Rock Hard. But that wasn’t her story just like this isn’t Charlotte’s. In spite of Jules’ status as Charlotte’s long-time bestie, we learn in Love Hard that if there’s one thing Jules isn’t used to, it’s having someone to stand in her corner. She’s done plenty of that standing for other people, but very few have ever stood for her. Starting with her family.

The one person besides Charlotte who always stood in Jules’ corner was her high school bestie, Calypso. But Calypso died of meningitis not long after giving birth to her beautiful daughter Esme, and Jules still misses her every day.

Jules isn’t the only one still missing Calypso. Jacob Esera, little Esme’s father, is raising his daughter not exactly alone, but the help he has comes from his parents, his brothers, and his extended family. Between his top-flight professional rugby career and raising his daughter, he’s kept himself away from the groupies and the scandals that can come with being a young man at the top of pro sports.

Jake, at 24, feels like he buried the young man he used to be in the grave with Calypso, but he’s mourned and moved on. He has to keep going for Esme, for his family, and for his career.

The one thing he doesn’t factor on is Jules resurfacing in his life. Not like that. Jules and Calypso were besties, Calypso was Jake’s high school sweetheart, and the friend of his girlfriend, was, at best, a frenemy. They got along for Callie’s sake. Just barely.

At the time, Jules was trouble with a capital T. And everything that has happened in her life, at least the parts that Jake knows about from the gossip rags, say that she is still trouble. Big trouble. Huge trouble.

But their contentious encounter as part of the wedding party for T-Rex and the Mouse show Jake that Jules has grown into a beautiful woman who pushes all his buttons. Both the buttons that make him want to rile her up and piss her off, and the buttons that make him want to rile her up and take her to bed.

She drives him crazy in every possible way. And shakes him out of the staid, grey, safe zone he’s tried to live in since Callie’s death. But starting a relationship with Jules isn’t just ill-advised. It’s downright stupid. The gossip rags are still following her around after the juicy breakup of her marriage to a cricket star. Those same gossip rags are the last thing he wants in his life, especially sniffing around his 6-year-old daughter.

Jules has tried her best to live a quiet life, out of sight of the gossip rags, if not ever completely out of mind. Getting involved with another sports star will drag ALL of the old crap out of the woodwork, and set her up for yet another round of having her life invaded. She doesn’t want any part of that, and she especially doesn’t want any part of that invading Jake’s life with Esme, or his family.

But she wants Jake in spite of every instinct saying this is a really bad idea. The question is whether it is a good enough bad idea to take the risk?

Escape Rating A-: There are parts of this story that make me feel guilty for even looking at the headlines on the grocery store gossip magazine shelf, let alone ever clicking on a clickbait gossip headline on social media.

Speaking of which, have you ever noticed that, when it comes to the media, men are always talked about for who THEY are and what THEY do, but women are still almost always talked about in terms of who they married, regardless of their own accomplishments?

Both of those thoughts play into Jules’ side of this equation in a big way. While she may have been a troublemaker in high school, well, there were reasons. And it was high school, a big part of the point of which is to make mistakes and learn from them so you don’t make them later.

But her marriage, well, that mess was so not her fault as to be ridiculous. But he was the star and she was the girl from nowhere, so when the relationship ended, he controlled the narrative and got all the sympathy, while her reputation got trashed and trashed and trashed. It made for great clickbait and left her shell-shocked and gun shy. Especially since it seemed that everyone who even glanced at a tabloid made up their minds about her in an instant. Those rags got lots of mileage out of painting her as a gold-digging, lying, cheating predator, never mind that she signed an iron-clad prenup, so she didn’t get a dime, and that he was the liar, the cheater AND the predator.

It’s that past that both comes back to haunt Jules, and in the end teaches her that you can survive just about any storm if you have good people down in that storm shelter with you.

Her ex tries to resurrect their past scandal to put his name back in the headlines. His career is fading fast from too much “Life in the Fast Lane’, and he’s hoping to trade his remaining celebrity status for a cable TV show.

Jules wants to hide until the storm blows over, but Jake won’t let her. Instead, he stands with her, his entire family stands with her, and they all help her not just weather the storm, but turn it back against her ex. And in that process, she learns that she has someone who will stand with her through thick and thin, help her celebrate her wins, and help her recoup from her losses. It’s something she’s never had before.

But their relationship isn’t all one-sided. He needs her to be the wind beneath his wings, to get him out of that safe, staid, grey rut he’s been in. They do a whole lot better than just get by with a little, or a lot, of help from their friends.

So, on the one hand, this is a hot and steamy frenemies to lovers romance. On the other, it’s a story about not just finding but also accepting the right people to stand with, and to stand with you. About finding the person who helps you be strong in your broken places. And that’s a story that always makes for a very satisfying romance!

Review: Rebel Hard by Nalini Singh

Review: Rebel Hard by Nalini SinghRebel Hard (Hard Play, #2) by Nalini Singh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Hard Play #2
Pages: 409
Published by TKA Distribution on September 18, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

New York Times bestselling author Nalini Singh continues her Hard Play series with a sweet, sexy romance featuring big, fat, OTT weddings, a meddling grandma, and a too-serious hero who needs to be unbuttoned…

Nayna Sharma agreed to an arranged marriage in the hope it would heal the fractures in her beloved family… only to realize too late that a traditional marriage is her personal nightmare. Panicked, she throws caution to the winds, puts on the tiniest dress she can find, and ends up in the arms of a tall, rough-edged hunk of a man who has abs of steel—and who she manages to mortally insult between one kiss and the next.

Abandoned as a child, then adopted into a loving family, Raj Sen believes in tradition, in continuity. Some might call him stiff and old-fashioned, but he knows what he wants—and it’s a life defined by rules… yet he can’t stop thinking about the infuriating and sexy woman who kissed him in the moonlight then disappeared. When his parents spring an introduction on him, the last woman he expects is her. Beautiful. Maddening. A rulebreaker in the making.

He’s all wrong for her. She’s all wrong for him. And love is about to make rebels of them both.

My Review:

The Hard Play series is a prequel to the author’s Rock Kiss series, linked by my and the rest of the Book Pushers favorite alpha male, Gabriel Bishop, better known as T-Rex. But you certainly don’t have to read Rock Kiss or even Gabriel’s book, Rock Hard to get right into Rebel Hard.

As I said, this series is a prequel, so those events haven’t happened yet. However, the series is absolutely marvelous!

Rebel Hard is the second book in the Hard Play series, after last year’s Cherish Hard. Again, absolutely awesome. But you really don’t need to read Cherish Hard to get into Rebel Hard, because these two stories are happening in parallel.

Isa, the heroine of Cherish Hard and Nayna, the heroine of Rebel Hard, are besties. Really, really solid besties and have been forever. Both stories begin at the same time and place, the party where Isa meets Sailor, and where Nayna meets Raj. And it both cases it’s at least lust at first sight, if not something more.

In Cherish Hard, we saw what transpired between Isa and Sailor after this fateful party. Now it’s Nayna’s turn. And while her story, both before and after the party is completely different, both do end in the same place.

Rebel Hard isn’t really a story about rebellion, at least not in a big way. But it is about the kind of small rebellions that happen in everyday lives. And that’s true even though the chapter headings of Rebel Hard reflect the way that Nayna’s life seems to be taking a turn straight into a Bollywood melodrama.

This is, in the end, the story of Nayna’s rebellion. She begins the story as her parents’ “perfect” and perfectly reliable daughter. Nayna has suppressed her own desires, and had them suppressed for her, in the wake of her older sister’s very big rebellion – where she married someone completely unsuitable, ran away from home, and eventually got divorced.

In their fairly traditional Indian family, Maddie went pretty far off the rails – and it seems that Nayna is the one that was punished for it, with her movements and teenage life claustrophobically restricted by their frightened parents. Now Maddie is back, and she and Nayna are both adults, but Nayna is still letting her parents control her life while Maddie seems to get away with everything.

Nayna feels resentful and taken for granted – and she feels the walls of her world closing in. She had agreed to let her parents arrange a marriage for her, but now that the process is underway Nayna feels like her cage door is closing. That the candidates she meets turn out to be self-absorbed douchebags probably isn’t helping.

So she and Isa break out one night, and go to what to them seems like a fairly wild party – not that it actually is. But they are among strangers, and for one night they can be whoever and whatever they want to be. They are free from the different but equally restrictive expectations they live with.

And Nayna, intending to take a little bitty walk on the wild side, meets Raj, and discovers a part of her that wants to be wild – but only with him.

Of course he turns out to be the next candidate her parents introduce her to. Because that’s the way these stories always work. Just as she’s finally figured out that as much as she loves her parents, and as much as they love her, she has to experience life on her own terms before she gets married. And that she wants to marry someone who sees the real her, whoever that turns out to be – even though her parents don’t.

The story here is the tug of war, both within and between Nayna and Raj, and with all of the conflicting sets of expectations set up by not merely the two of them, but between both of their close, loving and hyper-involved families.

Everyone wants what’s best for everyone else. But in the end only Nayna and Raj can make that decision – no matter how much pressure is put on them, from each and every side.

Escape Rating A-: It took me a long time to get into this one – longer than usual for one of Nalini Singh’s books. In retrospect, I don’t think it was the fault of the book. I just wasn’t in the mood for a romance for several days.

Once I got into it, it turned out to be a breathlessly fast read, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Part of what made this story so interesting was that it is steeped in the Indian expat culture as it is lived in New Zealand – the setting from which the author herself springs. The families are very close-knit, as is the entire community. The interconnectedness of family and community is something that used to be a lot more common. People used to rely on not just their marital family but also their birth family and their extended family all their lives, and that’s something that doesn’t happen in the wider Western society as much anymore.

Nayna is a great character through which to portray both how lovely that can be and equally how smothering it can be. At the same time, the recognition that she has caught herself in her own trap is familiar no matter what culture one comes from. She has become the “good” daughter because her sister was the “bad” daughter, so she feels that she will only be loved if she is perfect. And she is afraid of what will happen if she isn’t.

Her relationship with Raj is fraught, not because there is anything wrong with him, but because she doesn’t want it to seem like she has given into expectations, and she is afraid that she will give into his. Not that she doesn’t fall for him, and very much vice versa, but he has always claimed that he wants a traditional wife, and Nayna doesn’t want to be that. Not that she doesn’t want to be a wife, she just doesn’t want to be that kind of wife. They have to work hard, both with and against all the various family pressures, to figure out a way to be together that satisfies what they both want and need – not just during the first flush of love, but for always.

Their sometimes desperate realism about what will and won’t work for each of them is what makes this story sing. And dance. Definitely dance.

Review: Cherish Hard by Nalini Singh

Review: Cherish Hard by Nalini SinghCherish Hard (Hard Play, #1) by Nalini Singh
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Hard Play #1
Pages: 374
Published by TKA Distribution on November 14th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times bestselling author Nalini Singh kicks off her new Hard Play contemporary romance series with a sizzling story that’ll leave you smiling…

Sailor Bishop has only one goal for his future – to create a successful landscaping business. No distractions allowed. Then he comes face-to-face and lips-to-lips with a woman who blushes like an innocent… and kisses like pure sin.

Ísa Rain craves a man who will cherish her, aches to create a loving family of her own. Trading steamy kisses with a hot gardener in a parking lot? Not the way to true love. Then a deal with the devil (aka her CEO-mother) makes Ísa a corporate VP for the summer. Her main task? Working closely with a certain hot gardener.

And Sailor Bishop has wickedness on his mind.

As Ísa starts to fall for a man who makes her want to throttle and pounce on him at the same time, she knows she has to choose – play it safe and steady, or risk all her dreams and hope Sailor doesn’t destroy her heart.

My Review:

I found myself reading Cherish Hard in the middle of reading yesterday’s book. Not that yesterday’s book wasn’t good and absorbing, but I realized that I was still in the mood for another romance – and Nalini Singh always delivers.

As I got into the book, and we were introduced to the hero’s marvelous family, someone sounded familiar – so I had to check. And OMG it was T-Rex. Sailor’s older brother Gabriel is the absolutely delicious hero of one of my favorite books of the past few years, Rock Hard. So it looks like the Hard Play series is kind of a prequel to the author’s Rock Kiss series.

This is fantastic! Rock Hard was a universal favorite among the Book Pushers. We all wanted more. It looks like we got that more, and with bells on.

But Cherish Hard is not T-Rex’s story. Instead, this is the story of his brother Sailor, and the woman Sailor first meets at 17, and watches in a combination of teenaged lust and adult horror, as her then-boyfriend dumps her, in public, with the nastiest words possible, and she runs out of a party in devastated shock.

Even then, Sailor doesn’t want to let his mystery redhead go. But she gets away before he can break out of the overcrowded room. Which doesn’t stop her from being the fuel for all of his fantasies for six long years.

When they meet again years later, at first neither of them remembers the other. When they finally do, Sailor rushes towards the woman who has fueled his every fantasy, while Isa Rain wants to run far and fast from the man who witnessed her humiliating heartbreak.

But they can’t keep away from each other. Because Sailor has just signed a contract with her-mother-the-dragon to design the landscaping for her company’s new series of organic restaurants. And Isa has just caved into her mother’s blackmail to serve as vice-president of the family crafting business for the summer.

What Isa doesn’t know, but her mother does, is that Isa’s project as VP is to manage the organic restaurant start-up, including Sailor’s contract.

The Dragon Mother believes that one summer of being VP will awaken Isa’s inner dragon and turn her away from her dream of being a teacher. She may also be counting on Isa getting the hot and sexy Sailor out of her system.

The best laid plans of mice, men and dragon mothers often go astray…

Escape Rating A: As much as I squeed about the link between Cherish Hard and Rock Hard, you do not have to read Rock Hard or the Rock Kiss series first. Although they are absolutely marvelous and you might just want to. But the events of Rock Hard occur after Cherish Hard. I’m not quite sure just how long after, and I may treat myself to a re-read to find out, but the stories aren’t really linked. Or at least not yet.

The romance between Isa and Sailor sizzles on every page of Cherish Hard, from Sailor’s reaction to Isa at their first disastrous near-meeting to their second encounter outside her school to their unexpectedly hot relationship the moment they finally do manage to really connect.

At the same time, this is a romance between two people with serious abandonment issues. Issues that they both acknowledge, but have only half worked through, if that. Sailor’s bio-dad left him, his older brother Gabe, and their mother when Sailor was five, after first cleaning out all of the family’s bank accounts, even Gabe and Sailor’s boyhood savings. He’s slime, and Sailor sees the man’s face every time he looks in the mirror.

Sailor has a plan to become a successful businessman, at pretty much any cost, in order to feel like he is not the man his bio-dad was. And he seems to be driven to sacrifice everything to that goal, at least until he falls for Isa.

Isa was abandoned in place. Both her parents are still alive, but neither seems to have any emotional investment in Isa or any of their children, whether separately or together. Isa’s only sources of real support and affection were her grandmother, now deceased, and her best friend. But Isa is determined to give her siblings, her half-sister Catie and her stepbrother Harlow, the grounding and emotional support she never had, no matter what.

She’s 28, and looking for a relationship with a man who will put her first, as no one in her life ever has. Instead, she falls for Sailor, even though she believes he isn’t ready for the kind of commitment she needs, and has admitted that his business comes first, and will for a long time.

They seem to be at an emotional impasse, and the conflict that they have to overcome is to find a way to make it work, because they are both all in whether they are ready to admit that or not.

Watching them find a compromise that gives them both what they really need, and not just what they thought they wanted, is beautiful.

I can’t wait to see how the rest of Sailor’s brothers find their matches, because I already know it’s going to be awesome.