Cherish hard, p.1
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       Cherish Hard, p.1

           Nalini Singh
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Cherish Hard


  CHERISH HARD

  A Hard Play Novel

  NALINI SINGH

  Contents

  She Walks in Beauty

  Prologue

  1. The Gardener with the Thigh Tattoo

  2. Isa's Path to Ruin aka the Incident with the Hot Gardener

  3. Always Keep a Clean Back Seat

  4. In Which Devil Isa Makes Her Debut

  5. Banging and Hammering (Unfortunately, Not of the Ecstatic Kind)

  6. Stubble Burn Is Hard to Hide from the Dragon

  7. Sailor the Merciless

  8. Misbehaving Devil Women

  9. Voodoo Games

  10. Public Nakedness with a Certain Gardener (Blame the Moonlight)

  11. Never Trust a Man Who Offers You Cookies

  12. Decapitated Teddy Bears and a Skeptical Dragon

  13. Sharp Kitten Heels and Fur-Lined Handcuffs

  14. Criminal Acts... and a Well-Deserved Punch to a Smug Face

  15. Isa the Barracuda

  16. The War of the Cacti (with a Cameo from a Swamp Creature)

  17. Operation Catch the Redhead--Stage One

  18. Temptation & Distraction

  19. Cheesecake and a Naked Gardener (in Very Close Proximity)

  20. Health Note: Sleeping in the Nude Has Many Benefits

  21. Knight in Gardening Armor

  22. Oh Dear. Only One Spare Bedroom

  23. Sizzle and Orgasm

  24. Dawn Light in the Shadows

  25. Bad Friends and Greasy Hair

  26. A Little Industrial Espionage to Spice Things Up

  27. Fur-Lined Handcuffs and an Executive Desk (Oh My)

  28. Lovefests, Face Slapping, and Strawberry Chocolates

  29. Watch out for the Deadly Face-Eating Fish

  30. Sailor's Mighty Horn

  31. The Cost of Dreams

  32. The Family Christmas Fiasco & a Love Muffin

  33. The Gauzy Tragedy Gown

  34. Happy New Year

  35. Isa and Nayna and a Bottle of Tequila

  36. The Photo Creepster Strikes Again

  37. Weasels, Rats, and Other Assorted Rodents

  38. Never Trust a Cute Redhead

  39. A Confession in the Moonlight (Also, Baboons)

  40. Dreams and Devotion

  Epilogue

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Other Books by Nalini Singh

  Copyright Information

  She walks in beauty, like the night

  Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

  And all that's best of dark and bright...

  From "She Walks in Beauty" ~ Lord Byron

  Prologue

  The Redhead and the Hardened Criminal

  SAILOR WASN'T SURE WHAT THE hell he was doing at a college party. He was technically still in high school. Okay, not technically. Actually. Not only that, but he was a high school kid with buzz-cut hair and a huge black eye. The only things going in his favor were that he'd had his growth spurt at fifteen and seemed as if he belonged at a college party.

  "He looks like he just got out of prison."

  Sailor put on his most charming smile and turned to the sneering blonde who'd whispered the words to her friend--while knowing he'd overhear. Girls generally liked Sailor when he didn't look like a prison brawler, and he liked them back.

  "Rugby," he said, pointing to his eye. "An accident with house paint that wouldn't come out." He pointed at his hair, which his older brother Gabriel had buzzed off for him earlier that day while their two younger brothers laughed hysterically. "I won't be making that mistake again."

  The two girls didn't look like they believed him, but hey, he'd been polite like his dad had brought him up to be. Since Sailor had never been drawn to girls who got all snooty and looked at him that way--down their noses, as if he were crap scraped off the bottoms of their shoes--it was no skin off his back what they thought.

  "You know, some girls go for cons fresh out of the slammer." The comment came from one of his rugby friends, the same one who'd gotten him an invite to this party for which he was definitely underage, even if he didn't look it, his tall body muscled as a result of the game they both loved.

  Punching Kane in the gut for that grinning comment, Sailor carried on through the crowd inside the gigantic metal-sided warehouse that a twenty-one-year-old named Cody had rented for this party. They were charging a ten-dollar cover to pay the rental fee for the warehouse and for the sound system that was blasting booming rock music through the cavernous space.

  Sailor figured he'd wasted ten bucks. He was tired from a full day at school followed by his part-time job, and he needed to rest. The only reason he'd come out was because his parents were worried that between school and the part-time jobs he kept picking up despite their telling him to take it easy, he was working too hard, with only a few games of rugby to break up the routine.

  When he'd unthinkingly mentioned this party, his mother's eyes had lit up. She hadn't even blinked when he'd added it was a college party and that alcohol would be a given.

  "I trust you, Sailor," she'd said, her clear gray eyes holding utter faith. "Go, have fun. Kiss a pretty girl. Get into a little trouble."

  And Sailor hadn't been able to bear breaking her heart.

  So he'd stay an hour, buy himself a Coke from the bar since he had no plans to get shitfaced, then go home and crash like he'd intended--and hopefully sleep till ten in the morning. Even though tomorrow was Saturday, he hadn't booked any lawn-mowing jobs because Gabriel had a huge game coming up that night and Sailor knew his brother would want him around during the buildup.

  Gabe didn't get nervous, not usually. But this was a seriously major deal. There were rumors he was being scouted for the national team, that if he played as he'd been playing for the past six months--like a fucking lightning storm--the next time he stepped out onto the rugby field, it'd be for his country.

  Sailor was freaking out on behalf of his brother, knowing Gabe was on the verge of achieving his biggest dream.

  Sailor loved the game too, but he had different goals.

  After finally managing to make it through the crowd to get his Coke, he'd just rejoined his teammates when he realized the group was still standing near the blonde with the beautiful face and the ugly insides. And she was being catty about someone else.

  "Ugh, can you believe Cody's dating that?"

  "I know, right," her flunky said.

  "Not for long though." The blonde's tone was smug. "I heard he's going to dump her soon."

  Sailor was facing the right direction to see who Queen Mean Girl was skewering this time. He wanted to laugh. No wonder she was being bitchy. The girl with the moonlight skin, flaming red hair, and curves that made Sailor's entire body go hot outshone her without even trying. If he'd been the guy lucky enough to have caught the redhead's attention, he'd stick close to her too.

  The redhead smiled.

  Sailor's stomach clutched. "Who's that?" he asked Kane, the other teenager having entered college this past year. He and Kane had met at the school's rugby training camp a couple of years back, the age gap between them meaningless when compared to the bond forged by their joy in the game.

  "Who?" Kane asked.

  "The girl with Cody." Sailor knew Cody because the older boy played rugby too; they'd met a few times when Sailor had joined in a social game outside school, but they weren't best buds or anything.

  "The redhead? Girlfriend I think." A nudge with one heavily muscled shoulder. "Out of your league, Sail. She's a college girl."

  Sailor had a strict "no poaching" policy when it came to his friends' girlfriends--because what the fuck kind of friend didn't understand loyalty? But even from the few times he'd met Cody, he knew
the other guy was a bit of an ass. So maybe Sailor would ask Kane to tell him the instant the redhead realized Cody's ass-ish nature and kicked him to the curb.

  Then maybe Sailor would see if he could get invited to a few more college parties, parties she'd also be attending. Kane would get him in. It might be that the redhead liked blue eyes. Possibly even enough to ignore the fact he was younger than her and still in high school. Of course, those blue eyes were currently bloodshot, with one circled by black-and-blue bruising.

  He was scowling at himself when the redhead looked at him a little shyly. Her glance scuttled away just as fast. She probably thought he was a criminal too. His mother and father would be so proud. His brothers, on the other hand, would crack up like maniacs when he told them this story.

  Cody stopped not far from them before turning to face the redhead. Sailor was annoyed that Cody's big head was blocking his view, but then the other kid moved. Whatever he was saying to the redhead had her going pale. Sailor saw her lips form the words "What? No, you--"

  He couldn't make out the rest.

  Cody's voice rose just as there was a break in the music. "Jeez! Do I have to spell it out? I realized last night that I can't sleep with a tub of lard like you, not even for a chance at your mother's corporation!"

  Sailor was moving toward the two even before Cody stopped speaking, but he was too late. Eyes glittering wet and face so stark that it was as if Cody had stolen the life out of her, the redhead took a shaken step backward, and then she ran through the silent crowd, her stunning hair flying behind her.

  The music boomed again. People began to dance.

  Forgetting manners and good behavior, Sailor kept on shoving through the crowd with brute force, imagining the dancers as opponents on the field. It worked. He went through the warehouse door seconds after the redhead had left it clanging.

  Stepping out into the silent and barely lit street--the warehouse was located in an industrial area--he saw her running into the night. "Hey!" he called out, feeling like he was letting moonlight stream through his palms. "Wait! You shouldn't be alone in the dark!"

  She turned, looked at him--and ran even faster.

  A taxi turned the corner at that instant.

  Flagging it down with a desperate hand, she jumped in, the taxi made a U-turn, and then she was gone.

  The next day, an ecstatic Kane got the news that he'd been picked up to play for a team in Japan, and Sailor lost his sole line of information on his redhead. He went through endless photos from the party on social media, but she'd been there such a short time that no one had caught her or tagged her in any of their images. Cody had erased her from his profile. And no way would Sailor ask that asshole anything about her; she deserved better than to have her name come from Cody's lips.

  It was as if Sailor had dreamed her up.

  His mysterious redhead with the moonlight skin.

  Seven Years Later...

  The way you feel when you kiss him

  for the first time.

  Like fire within your bones.

  From "That First Kiss" ~ Nikita Gill

  1

  The Gardener with the Thigh Tattoo

  HER OVARIES WERE MELTING. OR exploding. Or something.

  Isalind Magdalena Rain-Stefansdottir, known to everyone but her father as Isa Rain, told herself to step away from the window. Right now. Before the object of her fascination saw her and she turned as red as her hair. But her feet refused to move. Like a junkie, she had to have just a little more. Her teeth sank into her lower lip, her fingers curving over the edge of the window ledge.

  He wasn't human.

  That was the only explanation.

  No one was that perfect. Like soda-commercial perfect. Her toes had curled at first sight of him, but she'd managed to resist temptation for an hour. Then she'd peeked out because she couldn't help herself, and what was he doing but taking off his T-shirt! That was just wrong. It didn't matter if he was getting hot and sweaty doing all that manual labor fixing up the school's gardens; it simply wasn't fair to the female sex for him to take off his T-shirt and reveal all that rippling, golden muscle.

  If that wasn't bad enough, he was wearing khaki work shorts, and they were short enough to reveal the edges of a tattoo that circled the upper part of his thigh. Isa wanted to run outside and order him to put on some damn clothes. How was she supposed to keep her head down and concentrate on her lesson plans when he was out there exuding male pheromones like they were going out of style?

  "Ms. Rain, what's so interesting?"

  Jumping at the sound of the principal's voice, Isa turned--and tried not to look too guilty. Thank God she'd finally conquered the blushing that had tormented her through her teenage years. Sometimes Isa thought she'd spent ages thirteen to seventeen alternating between carrot orange and tomato red.

  Her mother had not been impressed.

  "How," Jacqueline had asked, "do you expect to negotiate multimillion-dollar deals if you can't maintain a poker face?"

  Never mind that Isa had never wanted to wheel and deal in the boardroom. Her desires were softer, yet far more subversive. They involved poets and novelists and a world of imagined wonders that CEO and financial powerhouse Jacqueline Rain simply could not see. At times Isa was sorry that her mother had no ability to experience the magic that colored Isa's world.

  The rest of the time when she was around her mother, she usually had to fight the urge to go homicidal.

  "Nothing," she said brightly to the principal. "Just taking a break."

  After fixing the long chain around her neck, the older woman walked over to the window. "Nice view."

  Isa felt her cheeks go hot red in flagrant disregard of all her commands and thoughts to the contrary. Mumbling something incoherent, she went to stand by her desk where she shuffled paper around just to give her hands something to do. She should be mortified--and she was--but she was also disappointed at losing that "nice view."

  Principal Cafferty laughed. "Admiring a fine hunk of a man is hardly a crime, Ms. Rain. If I were twenty years younger, I'd do more than get an eyeful." A wink that made Isa burst out in laughter herself.

  "Maybe we should give him detention for having abs-of-distraction," Isa suggested after catching her breath.

  "Ah, but then he might feel compelled to put his T-shirt back on. And that would be a crime against womanhood." Expression solemn but for the dancing light in her eyes, Principal Cafferty walked over to lean her hip against the opposite side of Isa's desk. "I just came to see how you were. You're still okay with spending your summer teaching the evening class?"

  "Of course." It was only a single ninety-minute class per week, which, when you threw in the preparation involved as well as the student work she'd be reviewing, worked out to about five hours overall. "Adult students who want to study poetry will be a nice change from fifteen-year-olds who think English class is the third circle of hell."

  Violet Cafferty grinned. "I had a little pushback when I hired you, young as you are in comparison to the other staff, but the students have excelled since your arrival. You'll have to tell me how you do it."

  "Music," Isa replied, finding her feet again as they settled on her favorite subject. "Good music, good lyrics--that's poetry too. Once I make them see that, they're willing to come along with me for Shakespeare and modern lit."

  "I'm glad you're with us, Isa." The principal, a bone-thin woman of forty-something with a penchant for tailored pants paired with brightly colored shirts, straightened from her leaning position. Today's choice of suit was a vivid red that would've made Isa look like a stoplight but was sophisticated and elegant on Violet Cafferty.

  "If you need anything," the other woman continued, "or if you have questions about student enrollments, there'll be a skeleton staff in the office for forty-five minutes on the days you'll be teaching--they're to arrive twenty minutes prior to the beginning of the class so you can clear up any outstanding issues."

  After getting Isa's n
od, Principal Cafferty said, "There'll be two other adult classes going on at the same time as yours. Diana Eastin and Jason Jeng will also both be present at the school on those evenings."

  Isa already had all that information but listened regardless. She knew Violet Cafferty was going over it again because Isa had just completed her first year at this school--and it didn't help that Isa still looked ridiculously young. Her appearance occasionally made people forget she wasn't a new teacher straight out of training.

  Maybe the principal was just being extra cautious because this was Isa's first time teaching a night class. Her previous school had only offered sports and craft classes at night. Isa and her best friend had taken one on fencing and had nearly succeeded in stabbing each other to death three times in a single lesson.

  The fencing master had given them children's wooden swords the next time around.

  "We'll be fine," she said once Violet Cafferty paused. "Have fun on your vacation and don't worry about us." Isa had long ago conquered the crippling shyness that had hamstrung her as a teenager plucked from a tiny village school in one country and thrown into a massive high school in another.

  Not surprisingly, her accent, red hair, and weight had quickly made her a target. A hint of the accent remained even after all these years, she still had the red hair, and she'd never be as thin as Principal Cafferty even if she ate nothing but celery for a month, but she'd quickly learned strength as a survival strategy.

  Then there was her mother. With the Dragon, it was either fight or die.

  "Rarotonga looks beautiful," she now said to the woman who'd put Isa's career on the fast track by hiring her to teach at one of the most prestigious public schools in the country. "Is your friend from New York already on her way there?"

  Violet Cafferty nodded. "She's champing at the bit to ring in the new year in a bikini rather than buried under a foot of snow." A beaming smile. "Sun, surf, and bottomless margaritas, here we come!"

  The principal left the room soon afterward, telling Isa she'd be available in her office for thirty more minutes before she was officially on summer break. Tempted as Isa was to return straight to the window and her own personal gardening porn show, she kept her head down and finished up her lesson plans; having never before taught adults, she was building in a lot of room for discussion and for following avenues her students wanted to explore.

 

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