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Jake checked on Esme—who was having a grand old time running wild with the other children—then went hunting Jules.
He was starting to think she’d ditched the reception when he finally saw her seated in a hidden alcove with a giant slice of wedding cake on a saucer. She cut into it with a fork as he watched, slipped the tines into her mouth. Her lashes drifted shut, her lips pursed; he could almost hear her moan of pleasure.
His cock twitched.
No, no, no. He couldn’t twitch for Juliet.
Yet he haphazardly grabbed a slice of cake for himself before going over to join her in the alcove.
She glared at him. “This is my spot. Go. Away.”
“I don’t see your name on it,” he said and took a seat. The alcove wasn’t that big, and his shoulder brushed hers, his hip pressing into a lush feminine curve. He was crowding her on purpose. Because the thing was… he wanted to fight with Juliet. Dangerous as it was, he hadn’t felt this alive in a long, long time.
Her eyes flashed. Then she elbowed him under the guise of getting comfortable.
“Oof.” He rubbed his ribs.
“Oh, did that hurt?” She pointed her fork in his direction. “So, so sorry.”
Jake was grinning when his father appeared nearby.
“Son,” he said. “Sorry to interrupt, but Uncle Tama wants to get home and his car isn’t starting.”
“I’ll have a look.” Jake took the keys his father held out… before he turned to Juliet and said, “It’s dark out. Mind coming and holding the torch for me?”
Joseph Esera broke in. “Oh, I can do that.”
“No, Mr. Esera.” Juliet’s smile was warm and generous. “It’s your son’s wedding. Stay, enjoy. I’m sure it won’t take Jake long to fix things.” She kept up that smile as Joseph patted her on the shoulder and told her she was a good girl before he walked away to tug Alison into a dance.
At which point Jake got the death glare magnified.
Driven to antagonize her by a madness he couldn’t shake, he took a bite of cake before rising to put his plate down on the alcove seat. “Cake’s gonna have to wait, Jules.”
“Where’s the damn torch?” She put down her own cake and stood.
“In my car,” Jake said automatically before realizing they’d come here in a limo. “On second thought—we’ll have to use our phones.”
Juliet took his phone when he handed it to her, then swung by the head table to pick up hers too. They’d just stepped outside when his phone flashed with light, a message popping onto the front screen.
Shuddering, Juliet handed it over. “I think it’s one of your groupies. Take it before I gag.”
The text was from a Trixi Kitten. “For your information,” he muttered after quickly scanning it, “that’s the name of my great-aunt’s cat.”
Juliet stared at him. “Do I look like I was born yesterday?”
“Read the message.” He held it out.
Folding her arms, she tilted her head to the side, just daring him to continue.
He held it up right in front of her face so she couldn’t miss the message: Jake, dear, are you checking your uncle’s car? Can you come look at Great-auntie’s in the next week? It’s making a strange noise and it scares me. Meow – Trixi Pussy
A kind of strangled sound erupting in her throat, Juliet nudged aside his phone. “Does she always…”
“Write messages as if it’s her cat?” He nodded. “She’s a perfectly sane human otherwise. Last week she beat everyone in her local pub quiz so she could win a nodding-cat thing.”
“The whole… er… pussy thing?”
“She’s eighty-nine. As far as she’s concerned, it means cat.” Jake rubbed his face. “She stood next to me while I was inputting her number and kept asking me why I didn’t list her as Trixi Pussy.”
Juliet’s laughter sounded like it was torn out of her. And the cock twitching got worse.
That didn’t make sense. Why was her laughter turning him on? Or maybe it was the way she looked when she laughed, so open and warm and… as if she’d make him that way. Not this staid, solid stranger he sometimes felt he’d become.
Shaking off the thought because his solid and staid nature was what made him a good dad, he pointed to a pale blue VW Bug. “That’s it.”
The two of them walked across the parking lot, which was empty of all other signs of life. Just rows of cars—some bedecked with flowers and streamers in honor of the wedding—and a few standing lamps that cast just enough light so people could find their vehicles.
Useless, however, for looking at an engine.
The land sloped down on the other side of the car, the old theater surrounded by manicured grounds that often hosted outdoor plays. Maybe he’d bring Esme to one of those, he thought absently as he unlocked his uncle’s car, then tried to start it to see what sounds it made, if any.
Juliet stood outside, tapping her toe on the tarmac and looking like a fantasy straight out of the midnight hours, times when Jake’s brain went its own merry way. Sex dreams weren’t exactly a surprise for a single male who had a sex drive he hadn’t been feeding, but the dreams had always been amorphous and erotic. No faces, nothing but sensations that led to frustrated arousal.
He had a feeling that was about to change.
When the hell had Juliet grown those curves?
Wishing he hadn’t left his jacket in the event space, he popped the hood before getting out of the driver’s seat; hopefully the dim lighting would conceal the interest in his pants.
“Here.” He handed her his phone. “I think I know the problem,” he said, propping the hood open.
The scent of Juliet washed over him as she stepped close enough to shine the torchlight from both phones into the engine.
“Tell me where you want it,” she said, and his brain decided to put those words in a totally different—and dirty —context.
Gritting his teeth, Jake said, “Where you have it is good.”
Not responding to Jake’s comment because she’d become fascinated by the way his muscles moved under the fine white fabric of his formal shirt as he bent over the engine, Juliet told herself to breathe. She also reminded herself that she’d already had this conversation with herself and decided the physical attraction was pure nonsense.
But jeez, did the universe have to make him so gorgeous?
There, fine, she’d admitted it. The gearhead jock had grown up into a panty-melting adult who adored his daughter, loved his family, and was kind to his elders. Even a great-aunt who liked to text using her cat alter ego. He might have a stick up his butt, but Juliet would still like to see that butt.
Juliet Nelisi, you stop checking out Jake’s butt. STOP.
But the man was muscled everywhere. It was hard not to eat up the eye candy when it was right in front of her. Also, since a visual was all it would ever be, she might as well enjoy… except, this wasn’t just a random hot guy.
This was Jake.
Juliet had missed the wedding rehearsal because the plumbing in her kitchen had chosen that day to pack it in, flooding the entire area. She’d felt terrible for canceling, but Charlotte had assured her it was fine. She’d then sent through a quick list of instructions, so Juliet was prepared to slide her arm through Jake’s as the bridal party followed the newlyweds.
Molly and Fox. Ísa and Sailor. Mei and Danny. Aroha and Harry. Juliet and Jake.
She’d actually found the idea of seeing Jake again in this context kind of funny. Who would’ve thought the two of them would end up arm in arm in a church wedding? Had a fortune-teller forecast that back when they’d been teens, they would’ve both gagged and asked for their money back while Callie groaned.
Anyway, it was just a short walk. No biggie.
Except for the frisson of… something that had hit with a vengeance the first moment they laid eyes on each other in his brother’s backyard. She wanted to brush it off as irritation or annoyance, both things she was very used to feeling around Jake, but she knew full well the weird fluttering in the pit of her stomach was nothing of the kind.
The last time she’d felt anything near that flutter, she’d been on her couch eating strawberry-swirl ice cream while wolf whistling at the fit actor who played her favorite doctor on Shortland Street. But that had been a mere whisper in comparison to this massive reverberation that had zapped her entire system to speechlessness.
Guilt bit into her.
She shook it off, almost able to see Callie rolling her eyes at her. Her best friend knew Juliet’d had zero salacious thoughts about Jake when he’d belonged to Callie. Her thoughts had leaned more toward culpable homicide. She had no reason to feel guilty just because her adult body was insane enough to be attracted to Jacob Esera—who smelled far too good next to her.
Like freaking mountains and manly man and all that other stuff they talked about in aftershave commercials. She’d always made fun of those commercials, but now she was like the token brainless woman in the most recent ad, the one who wanted to snuggle up to her man and just smell him.
Well, too bad.
Her urges weren’t getting no satisfaction. She’d rather stick a fork in her eye.
“He’s amazing, Jules. Just give him a shot.”
“With a tranquilizer dart you mean?”
Even as the memory of Callie’s laughing shove against her shoulder made her lips twitch, Jake’s muscles clenched under her palm. He was probably also clenching his jaw. At least if she wanted to confirm, she could just glance across—they were the same height, but only because she was wearing heels. At five eight in bare feet, she was tall for a woman, but all the men in this family were over six feet in height.
It irritated her that Jake had the physical ability to look down his snooty nose at her.
She and Jake didn’t say a word to each other as they walked to the second stretch limo. It was big enough to fit the entire bridal party and yet somehow—thanks, universe—Juliet found herself trapped in a corner with the heat of Jake’s body pressed to hers. He’d gotten a whole lot bigger since the last time she’d been this close to him: big shoulders, muscled thighs, ripped biceps, all were kind of a given with rugby men. He was sleeker than heavily built Gabriel, but in rugby, muscle was a matter of degrees.
A sleek, elite rugby player was still pure hard muscle and bursts of incredible speed on the field, their fitness and toughness legendary. Jake’s thighs were probably like rock.
For all that’s holy, Juliet, stop thinking about Jake’s thighs!
Her mind immediately wandered to what it’d be like to bite down on one of those thighs and whether his warm brown skin was dusted with black hair all over or—
Stop, Juliet! Stop this insanity at once!
Copyright © 2020 by Nalini Singh
“I absolutely loved Love Hard – 5/5 would definitely recommend! Juliet is a bad ass; Jake is a sweetheart; Jake’s daughter, Esme, is adorable; and together they make magic.”
~Ally Only Reads HEA’s on Twitter (@HEAorBust)
“Be prepared to read this in one sitting.”
~ Darlene M. on Netgalley
“This book is soft and had me tearing up because I was so happy. I mean, it literally starts with one of my favorite couples of all time getting married. How was I supposed to survive without crying?”
~ Jenica on Goodreads
“A beautiful, sexy must-read that will thrill Nalini Singh fans.”
~ Anne M. on Netgalley
“…sweet and steamy, lovely and full of heart-eyes…”
~ Maida on Goodreads
“One of my favourite things about Singh’s stories are her characters. Just like her Psy-Changeling series, her Hard Play series is full of loving characters that truly value family, friendship and living vibrantly.”
~ Naomi D. on Netgalley
“Ms. Singh always gives her readers a story with the right balance of love, laughter, and realistic challenges as well as the bliss of a well-deserved happily ever after…”
~ LynnL @Outlander Book Club
“First, Jake was awesome, but the real star in Love Hard was Juliet. Man did Juliet win me over. Learning her story firmly placed me in her corner and I wanted her to have Jake so badly…What a gem this book turned into.”
~ Mindy Lou’s Book Review on Goodreads
“Jacob is a keeper… I loved this one.”
~ Johanna S. on Netgalley
“LOVE HARD has the stellar storytelling and well-rounded and fascinating characters I’ve come to expect from this author.”
~ Miranda @Fresh Fiction
If you’d like to read Gabriel’s story, Rock Hard is currently available everywhere.
Book 3: the Hard Play series
New York Times bestselling author Nalini Singh brings you the next sizzling story in her Hard Play contemporary romance series…
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.