Home > Cherish Hard (Hard Play #1)

Cherish Hard (Hard Play #1)
Author: Nalini Singh


   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—”

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