June 17, 2024

Sneak Preview

Chapter 1

Emerson

The day I moved out of my parents’ house should have been a joyous occasion. I’d often dreamed of starting college, setting out on my own, being my own boss…

I’d never pictured wrestling a French bulldog for my sweater while a sassy parrot picked at my ear.

“Calm down!” I told the dog, Beggles, while simultaneously trying to get the bird, Soda, out of my hair–literally. These two had been on edge for days, sensing the change that was about to take place. Neither of them was a fan of having their life uprooted for the second time in a year.

Beggles had even tried to lift his leg at one of the moving boxes the day before, but I’d caught him in the act, so he’d simply peed on my foot instead, to make a statement.

All things considered, I really couldn’t blame all the potential roommates who’d turned me down when I’d gone apartment hunting. My two little darlings could be angels, but only when they wanted to be.

“At least be good for today?” I asked. “You need to make a good impression.”

My new roommate would be here with his car any minute help me move. Soda chirped into my ear, repeating several high pitched notes that I’d come to learn meant, “Feed me treats.”

“Will you go in your cage if I do?”

Soda sang a note that somehow sounded very non-committal. Meanwhile, Beggles managed to rip my sweater out of my hands.

“For fuck’s sake…” I gave up the fight. “You’ll love your new home, I promise!”

I had to keep reminding myself of this too.

My brother Lex knocked on my open door. “You about ready?”

“Yeah. Just gonna have to convince Soda to go into her cage.”

“I still can’t believe you’re taking that crazy bird.”

Ignoring my brother, I got a parrot treat for Soda out of the box I kept on my desk–one of the very last things I hadn’t packed. My brother and Soda did not get along. To be fair, Soda didn’t get along with most people. She had her favorites, and until I distracted her with the treat, she glared at my brother as if she knew exactly what he’d said about her. Eventually, though, I managed to get her into her cage.

“I’ll help you move these downstairs.” Lex stepped into my room and picked up one of the boxes.

“Thanks.” I grabbed another one.

“You’re taking a lot of shit.”

“My pets need a lot of stuff.”

“Sure. It’s all for the pets.”

I didn’t comment on that. So what if I owned a few more clothes and accessories than my boring ass brother did? Not everybody wanted to wear the same outfit 24/7.

Shortly after we’d started moving my things downstairs, a blue Hyundai pulled up to the house.

“Finally.” Lex went to open the door. “Looks like Zach’s here.”

“Great.” I tried to sound enthusiastic, knowing Lex had really only wanted to help me when he’d asked his best friend if I could move in. Apparently Zach’s original roommate had recently moved in with his boyfriend or something like that. A convenient coincidence, according to Lex.

A fucking disaster, according to me.

I watched as Zach parked and stepped out of his car. It was nice of him to offer me his room. Nice of him to come all the way out here to help me move. That was who he was. So damn *nice.*

But he was doing this for Lex, really, not for me. I wasn’t ‘Emerson’ to him; I was ‘Lex’s kid brother.’

It was all I’d ever be in his eyes.

So much for starting adult life.

With two pets and no stable income, though, I couldn’t be picky. His place was close to campus and affordable. I should count myself lucky.

I set the box I’d been carrying down, my eyes glued to Zach as he walked up to my brother before greeting me. He was wearing a loose shirt and a blue pair of jeans. Nothing special, but he didn’t need to be in nice clothes for me to take notice, because I knew what he looked like underneath his clothes. I knew what he looked like climbing out of a pool with just his swim trunks on.

I’d gotten my very first hard-on to visions of Zach Stauff’s half-naked body in our backyard.

That was the other problem with this whole arrangement. It wasn’t just that Zach saw me as his friend’s baby brother. It was that I saw him as the star of my wet dreams. *Had seen him* as the star of my wet dreams. That was in the past. Way in the past.

I could handle myself around him now. I was a grown-up.

Zach clapped my shoulder, jerking me out of my thoughts. “Good to see you, Emmy.”

The nick name made me cringe. “I go by Emerson now.” Really, what grown-up would want to be called Emmy? I wasn’t five anymore. “You can also call me Lobster if you want.”

“Lobster?”

“Yeah, because my last name is Lobb?” Maybe he forgot because that wasn’t Lex’s last name. Different fathers and all that.

“Oh.” Zach laughed. “For a second there I thought it was because of how red you used to turn.”

I said nothing, too busy not turning red at that very statement. If he knew the reason *why* I’d turned so red when he was around… No, it was better that he didn’t know. I might not have had a ton of life experience, but even I knew there was no point in going after a straight guy.

Especially not one who’d seen you eat mud cakes with great enthusiasm.

“C’mon,” Lex said. “Let’s get moving. There’s more stuff upstairs.”

Mutely, I followed my brother to my room, trailing behind Zach and trying not to stare at his ass. Why did he have to be so hot? It wasn’t just because he was on the school’s swim team and he worked out a lot. He had this smile that could–

*Stop,* I told myself.

This was never going to work out if I couldn’t keep this little crush under lock and key.

No mooning over straight guys. No lusting after my brother’s friends.

Simple rules to follow, right?

But then we reached my room and Zach picked up the box I’d labeled ‘books and school supplies.’ There *were* books and school supplies in there, yes, but I’d also stashed my vast collection of sex toys at the bottom. Zach had no idea what he was carrying. I couldn’t help but wonder how he’d react if he knew.

Hell, I almost wanted him to know.

*Look at me, Zach, I’m grown up now. I have sex toys. I shove things up my butt and I like it.*

But Zach didn’t know, and wouldn’t know.

Beggles yipped at me as I sighed to myself. He lay on the bed, on top of the sweater he’d successfully stolen from me. “Almost time to go, buddy,” I told him.

“Cute dog.” Zach looked at Beggles and their eyes met.

I have no idea what exactly transpired between them, but from one moment to the next, Beggles abandoned the bed and strutted up to Zach. *How cute,* I thought, until Beggles started humping Zach’s leg.

Jesus…

“Beggles!”

My dog ignored me.

Zach laughed and lifted his foot. Beggles clung on to him.

Quickly, I set my box down and tried to pry my dog off my future roommate. I managed to grab the dog, but Zach stumbled. He didn’t fall, but he lost his grip on my box. In my mind’s eye, I saw it falling to the ground with all its content spilling out. Sex toys and all. That didn’t happen, because I’d taped the thing shut very firmly, but my cheeks flamed anyway.

Zach grinned at me. “Lobster fits you.”

Damn him. And damn my dog. Beggles looked up at me like the very image of innocence, big brown eyes and all. “No treats for you,” I said.

He licked my cheek.

I couldn’t stay mad.

In her cage, Soda sang a little song because she couldn’t stand not being the center of attention.

“Wow,” Zach said. “The houses is going to be lively once you’re all moved in.”

“You’re gonna be living in a zoo,” Lex said. “A bird, a dog and a freak show.”

I scoffed at my brother. He’d been teasing me ever since I’d dyed my hair a bright shade of pink the week before, as if that made me a freak. Hah. He didn’t know the half of it. If he had any idea what I did online…

Zach didn’t seem to think that Lex was being very smart either. “You need to be nicer to Emmy,” he said.

There was that nickname again. Ugh. Besides, I could defend myself. With a scowl, I picked my box back up. “Can we just get going?”

“Eager to get out of here?” Zach asked. “I guess I can’t blame you.”

“Oh, shut up, you. I’m not a hardship to live with.” Lex was the first out of the door to my room. Zach followed, Beggles hot on his heels. Soda chirped at me again as I turned to go as well.

“I’ll get you soon enough,” I told my bird. She shook her little head quickly and made a huffing sound. Silly parrot.

It took us about fifteen minutes to load all my stuff into Zach’s car. I was placing Soda’s cage on the passenger seat since I’d be holding her during our ride to our new home, when my mom showed up behind me.

“You weren’t going to leave without saying goodbye, were you?”

“No!” I turned around quickly before Mom could do something embarrassing, but it was too late. She gave me a hug and her lipstick left a mark on my cheek that I surreptitiously tried to wipe away before Zach could see. Fortunately, my roommate to be was busy loading Beggles onto the backseat of the car.

“Don’t forget to call,” my mom lectured me. “And remember to wash your whites separately. Your underwear will stain if you throw it in with your shirts, and nobody wants to date a boy with stained underwear. Not even other boys.”

“Yes, Mom.”

“Did you figure out how to use your new alarm clock? I won’t be there to get your ass out of bed every morning.”

“Yes,” I lied. My mom had gifted me a new alarm clock for my birthday last month, but I hadn’t gotten around to fiddling with it. Why would I, when she always yelled up the stairs anyway? Our house was never quiet.

Mom ruffled my hair. “I can’t believe you’re old enough for college now. Seems like just yesterday you invited me for tea time with your toys.”

I forced a smile, my eyes darting to Zach, who was sadly not busy with the dog anymore. “I’m 19, Mom.”

“Oh, I know.” Finally she let me go. “I won’t embarrass you anymore. Just remember to call.”

“I’ll remind him,” Zach offered.

Great.

“I know how to use a phone!” I said a little more sharply than I’d intended. It got a chuckle out of everyone while I had no idea what was so funny. Sighing to myself, I grabbed Soda’s cage and climbed into the car and settled on the passenger seat.

Zach joined me only a moment later. I stared out the window rather than look at him. Beggles yipped when the car started, a happy sound. Such a strange dog. Only an hour ago he was ready to go to war over the idea of moving. My eyes found my parrot, but Soda stared out the window, same as I had been.

“Are you excited about college?” Zach asked as he got us onto the road.

I glanced at his profile. He was so close now. If I were still a teenager, the proximity would have messed with my head. I’d spent several summers hiding in my room rather than chilling out in the pool, simply because I couldn’t stomach being around Zach.

At least he wasn’t naked now.

Sharing an apartment was going to be rough, but as long as he didn’t make a habit of running around without his shirt on, I was going to be fine. Probably.

My eyes strayed to his fingers on the steering wheel. He had long fingers. Strong hands…

God, I could not let myself think about what those hands could do to me.

He’d asked me a question, hadn’t he? About college?

“I’m very excited about college.” That was a lie. I had other projects in the pipelines that I was way more excited about. I wouldn’t tell Zach about those, though.

He’d never take me seriously.