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Rebel Hard (Hard Play #2)
Author: Nalini Singh

1

In Which Our Heroine, Nayna Sharma, Enters the Indian Marriage Mart (and Encounters an Animal of the Asinus Variety)

The arranged-marriage mart got off to an inauspicious start.

The prospective groom and his parents were late because their Jaguar’d had a flat tire. Nayna knew their car was a Jaguar because they mentioned it approximately five times in the first ten minutes. The rest of the time, they spoke about how their one and only child, their “ek lota beta,” was a prodigy at his job as a lawyer and would “surely, surely” be partner in only two or three years.

“You mark my words,” Mrs. Kapoor said with a wave of a hand bejeweled to within an inch of its life, “my Dilip will be winning all the cases at his firm. He’s smarter than the partners, but you know the politics. He has to spend time as a junior.”

While Nayna’s parents tried to get a word in edgewise, Nayna glanced at Dilip Kapoor. She expected to see a familiar, embarrassed look on his face. Parental bragging was pretty much status quo when Indian families got together. The children generally grimaced and bore it while exchanging “I can’t stop them” shrugs and commiserating grins with one another. With this being an arranged-marriage introduction, the stakes were even higher.

However, the man who’d ended up Nayna’s first introduction—courtesy of a few words dropped in Nayna’s parents’ ears by a helpful auntie—was smiling with the kind of smarmy self-appreciation Nayna had previously only seen on the faces of Bollywood movie villains.

Not only was he not embarrassed, he broke into the conversation to say, “The senior partners come to me for advice. Everyone knows it, but…” He tapped the side of his nose while braying out a laugh that grated like nails on a chalkboard.

Nayna sat back in the sofa. As far as possible. Any farther and she’d be in the kitchen.

Beside her, her grandmother murmured near silently, “Nayna, bitia, if you accept this donkey, I’ll have to disown you.”

Nayna barely stopped herself from snorting out a laugh. She couldn’t look at her aji or she knew she’d lose it. Barely holding herself together, she poured more chai for Mrs. Kapoor when the woman imperiously held out her cup for a refill.

“We’re really looking for someone fairer for Dilip,” Mrs. Kapoor was saying. “But with your daughter being an accountant, we thought we should give her a chance.” Her tone was magnanimous.

Other women might’ve been insulted, but Nayna was overjoyed. Her college-professor father adored his own dark-skinned bride and would allow no disrespect. Which meant she wouldn’t have to come up with reasons to reject this match on the horrific chance that her parents liked him. Or were desperate enough to grab at any opportunity.

At twenty-eight and unmarried, Nayna was a cause of constant despair to her family.

“I thought you were intelligent people,” her father said with his usual brusqueness when someone annoyed him. “But clearly I was wrong if you’re clinging to outdated standards of beauty seeded in our culture by colonialism. As I have no desire for idiotic grandchildren, let us end this meeting now.”

Mrs. Kapoor stared at him with her cup halfway to her mouth. Mr. Kapoor blinked and looked straight ahead—Nayna had the feeling he didn’t much talk.

Dilip Kapoor ate a third samosa, the crumbs from the first two littering his shirt, then let out another bray. “Good one, Mr. Sharma.”

“Young man, you should see an ear, nose, and throat surgeon as soon as possible. That doesn’t sound healthy.”

Nayna had to hold her breath to fight the laughter and the tears.

It turned out Mr. and Mrs. Kapoor weren’t as dense as their genius son. With a “Come on, Dilip!” they got up in a huff—or at least Mrs. Kapoor did. Mr. Kapoor followed with a weak smile aimed at no one in particular. “We have another meeting tonight anyway. We were only stopping here as a favor to Babita.”

Nayna’s aji waited until after her father had closed the door on the Kapoor family to say, “I’m sorry, Nayna. Such a disappointment to you. No little donkeys running around.”

Nayna lost it.

2

A Bandage Dress and a Good Girl Gone Bad

Three weeks after the night formally referred to as the Donkey Incident in the Sharma household and Nayna was no longer laughing. Four more introductions later and the reality of her situation had hit home.

Ass number 1 had been followed by Asses 2 to 5, but her parents weren’t giving up the hunt. She’d crossed her fingers behind her back and hoped they’d surrender, but Gaurav and Shilpa Sharma weren’t the giving-up type. And they had something to prove. One daughter might’ve run off with a boy from college and brought shame on the family, but by God, their other daughter would do everything exactly right.

Education. A good job. Marriage. Grandchildren. The end.

Travel? Pfft. Do that on your honeymoon.

Adventure? Humph. You’ll have plenty of adventure once your first baby comes.

Love? Oho! You young people, always talking about love-schlove. Love comes after marriage, with your husband.

Telling herself to breathe, that the cage doors hadn’t shut quite yet, Nayna smoothed her hands over the dress she’d bought in a fit of Madhuri-induced insanity. Her scandalous older sister, young divorcée and all-around gorgeous glamour-puss, had dropped by for a visit the previous Sunday while Nayna was preparing a traditional meal for lunch for her parents and grandmother.

At the time, Nayna had been wearing old sweatpants and an equally old T-shirt stained with ink from the time she’d broken a fountain pen and sprayed herself a beautiful shade of aqua blue. She’d been perspiring from working at the stove, her infuriatingly straight hair pulled loosely back into a bun that had begun to fall apart.

Madhuri had been curled and perfumed and vivacious.

She’d hugged Nayna and told her she had to look after herself or she’d never find a man to marry. “You think I wake up like this?” A perfectly manicured hand indicating her va-va-voom curvy body in its fitted dress of delicate green lace. “It takes work, Ninu. I woke up at eight to give myself a facial and do my hair.” Then she’d hopped up on a breakfast stool and begun to touch up her lipstick while asking Nayna if she minded making her a cup of coffee.

Nayna loved her sister, and she was beyond happy that Madhuri was no longer estranged from the family, but sometimes she had to fight the compulsion to strangle her. Surely the judge would rule it justifiable homicide? Or maybe she could use the insanity defense? Speaking of which…

“You must’ve lost your mind,” she muttered, running her hands over the dress again.

It looked like she’d wrapped a wide and lightly shimmering black bandage around herself and called it done. There were even slivers of flesh visible where the bandage crisscrossed her body. Not that it covered much of the rest of her either—the so-called dress stopped high up on her thighs, leaving far more of her legs visible than she’d ever before shown in public.

She ran her hands nervously over her not-va-va-voom hips—which the dress managed to make look hot—and felt the heavy line of her panties. She’d already gotten rid of her bra after it proved impossible to either hide it or make it look like she was showing her bra on purpose. It helped that she had small breasts and the dress was tight.

Sad as it was, she didn’t have a jiggle problem.

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