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I couldn’t make out the writing on the Post-it notes that were stuck to my ceiling in the dark. I could barely make out how many there were. The ceiling and walls of the dorm were completely covered. Her handwriting had a manic scrawl to it. 

The roommate from hell was lying on her bed less than ten feet from me, buck ass naked. She did it just to make me uncomfortable. It worked. I was uncomfortable. It was her goal and she succeeded. 

I rolled over and faced the wall. This sucked. College sucked. Living with a complete weirdo really sucked. 

Randomly assigned roommates was a horrible idea. At first, Roberta had seemed nice. She hadn’t responded to the email I sent when we were assigned, but when I moved in, she was all smiles. Of course, I had my crew with me then, so all my football playing friends and some of my bestie’s brothers were milling around in the common room. Her smiles were fake. Or for them. 

For me? As soon as everyone hugged me goodbye, and Peaches fake sob cried, and then cried for real, that was the last I saw of Roberta’s smile. 

When I was unpacking my stuff into my closet, I tossed her some easy, small talk questions.

“So, where are you from?” I tucked my tank tops next to my underwear. 

From behind me I heard what would most likely be described as a growl. 

I waited for a few seconds before I turned around. She was standing in front of her now opened closet with her hands on her hips. 

“Um. Hi.” I had two more tank tops in my hands.

 

Roberta’s eyes were slits, like a shark’s, and her lips curled downward. 

“Enjoying that closet?” She slid her gaze to my new closet and all the empty space inside. Well, all was a strong word. The closet was far from generous. 

“I guess so?” I wasn’t sure what the correct answer was. I looked past her into her closet that was jammed so full of stuff it resembled a shipping container. 

“That was my closet.” She pointed at the offending space with her pinkie. 

I glanced around, confused. Clearly, Roberta was on her side. Her bed was on her side, and she had a footlocker on her side. But it was cluttered. Like really cluttered. Like she had brought far too much stuff for the size room she was assigned kind of cluttered. It was giving me flashbacks to home and the things that gave me hives.

“Aren’t we in a shared dorm room?” I held my tank tops out like they had the answers she needed. 

She snatched them out of my hands. I looked at my now empty hands and tucked them under my armpits. 

“Oh, you’re funny now? Now you’re the funniest girl? You know, when you were moving in, I thought to myself, maybe she’s sweet. She has a stuffed animal.” She pointed my tank tops at the teddy bear on my bed. “But ever since I’ve met you, I’ve got a bad feeling.” She shifted her shoulders around like she was low-key practicing a TikTok dance. 

“We met like an hour ago.” I pulled my phone out of my back pocket. Okay, an hour and thirty-four minutes, but still.

“Yeah. Exactly.” Roberta took my tank tops and crammed them in her closet. I was surprised it didn’t burst from the added material. 

Oh no. Roberta was an angry person. I was living with someone that didn’t want me there at all. I had to reach out an olive branch. “Uh, if you need to put some of your stuff in the closet…”

I was careful not to call it mine. 

Roberta’s eyes got wide. “Yeah. Ya think?” 

And that's how I wound up rolling all my dresses into my one suitcase and jamming it under my bed. Somehow, Roberta filled up two closets to the brim with her bullshit. And she was still mad. 

That was four weeks ago. Four horrible weeks ago. I found out from our suitemates that Roberta had lived in our dorm room by herself for a full year. She was technically a sophomore. 

Oh, and my suitemates? They steered clear of me. I was a marked woman. Roberta would make their lives hell if she caught them talking to me. That information was whispered to me when I was in the shower, so I didn’t get to know who had bent a little in the kindness-to-Taylor direction. 

I was miserable. Even Teddi and Peaches, my two incredible friends, were worried. They were busy, though. Peaches was in school in Michigan, hoping to become a veterinarian. Teddi was in school as well, staying with friends. She hadn’t declared a major yet, but she was so driven I was sure it would happen soon. 

I heard Roberta fart. A naked fart, with her whole ass out of her comforter. Then, there was a knock on our door. 

I rolled over and Roberta stuck her tongue out at me, then spoke up, “Come in, babe.”

Our door opened. Roberta had it rigged so it couldn’t lock so that Peter could come in whenever he wanted. 

It was Tuesday at 2:00 a.m.

He took off his shoes and his shirt as he stumbled in the door. “Smells like burning cigars in here. Ugh.” 

The smell hit me as soon as he said it. 

Roberta pointed at me. “She farts all night. Get me the Post-it notes.” 

Peter put his hand on her dresser and came back with the bright yellow notes. In her accusatory scrawl, Roberta spoke while she wrote, “FARTS ALL NIGHT!” And then she slapped the note on the space next to her. 

Peter leaned over to take off his socks and grabbed his ankles with his butt facing me. “I got you, babe. No worries.” Then Peter farted in my direction. 

I snapped. I snapped, I snapped, I snapped. I had had enough. I was sick of Roberta’s bullshit. Her blatant bullying and her naked ass crack. 

I tossed my blanket aside and picked up my backpack. In it I tossed my essentials—my phone and charger. My wallet was already in the front pocket. I grabbed my teddy bear and keys and yanked the door open. 

“Oh, she’s mad now. Look what we did, Peter. She’s leaving.” 

I put my hand to my forehead. I couldn’t knock on any doors because everyone here was afraid of Roberta. My resident assistant? Also afraid of Roberta. I had only one person in the city I could call at this time. On this night. He was a nuclear option, but I was about to blow.

I slammed the door on my way out. All my shit was still in that room, but screw it. I pulled out my phone and scrolled to the one name that set my heart beating every time I saw it. 

My bestie’s older brother, Austin Burathon. I hit the button and the ringing started. 

* * *

Fine, I had a crush on him. Fine, I’d had a crush on him my entire life. Fine, I wasn’t over it. Wasn’t planning to get over it either. But, and that’s a huge but, I was never going to step over the boundary beyond harmless flirting. 

Which was why he was the nuclear option. Who was Austin? Austin was, first and foremost, Teddi’s older brother. And when you’re really young, four years older can seem like a lifetime. I mean, when he started driving, we were twelve. 

He drove us a lot. He was good like that. Being Teddi’s friend came with perks. Instead of her parents picking us up from cheer practice, sometimes it was her piping hot brother. 

What was it about him? Girl, sit down. You wouldn’t understand the amount of fuck-hot sexuality that poured off this man. He wasn’t even fair. Just swoon and yum and exotic while also being the realest person you spoke to all day. He was a flirt. You could be a boy or girl. He’d flirt. It was so hot. He was like a beautiful movie star in the midst of us normal people. He’d wear skirts sometimes and nail polish other times. He was the first real human boy I ever saw wearing eyeliner and it sculpted how I viewed my dream guy. The confidence to put that on and just...be himself? Everyone wanted to know him and be around him. And I was lucky enough to have that happen quite a bit. 

Austin was super involved in his family’s affairs. They seemed to be collecting teenagers lately. First, it was Gaze, just a year younger than Austin, who was a foster kid for the last few years of his teens. Then, Ruffian showed up on the Burathons’ doorstep, and like the superheroes they were, they just folded him into the family. 

Ruffian fell in deep love with my friend, Teddi. Later on, he robbed our friend-enemy, Meg. It was a little complicated, but the good news was, he was out of prison and Teddi was still in love.

I did a stint at community college while living at home, and now, finally, I was transferring my credits to college in Loveville City, the same city as Austin. 

I got a text message back from him:

 

AUSTIN: Stay in your foyer. I’ll be by in a few minutes.

 

And that’s how I was in the vestibule of the dorms in my Wonder Woman pajama set waiting for my dream man.

I wasn't sure what car to look for when a figure walked up to the door and rapped his knuckles on it. 

How did this feel so personal? Well, usually Teddi was involved, and now it was just us. Austin and I. 

“Kitten. What’s up, baby?” When I opened the door to let myself out, his arms were waiting. 

I just shook my head slowly in his chest. He wrapped his hands around my back and my head. 

“There, there. This city can be an ass buster. I’m sorry. Let’s go back to my place.” He put his arm around my shoulders. And even though I was scurrying out of my dorm room in the middle of the night, I still felt a thrill. People walking by would think we were together. Like together together. 

“Wonder Woman’s having a tough one?” He pulled out his phone and ordered us a car service. He took my backpack and slung it over his shoulder and we strolled to the nearest stoplight. I finally took a look at him. He gave me a soft smile. His eyeliner was smudged, and I was pretty sure there was glitter in the crease of his eyelid. He threaded his fingers in mine. “We have to wait for like four minutes. Do you want to talk about it?”

I didn't have to as the window three stories up cranked open. “Run, bitch, run. I told you you couldn’t hang.” 

Austin took one look and then glanced back at my face. “Oh. She’s expanding the window a little. Don’t look now. That’s her butt crack. Sweet Jesus. Her butt crack.” 

I wiped at my eyes with the back of my hand. “I know what her butt crack looks like better than I do my own. Literally, she's naked so much. It’s so uncomfortable.”

Austin pulled on my hand and I buried my face in his chest. 

“Oh? You got a boyfriend now? Tell him how you can’t put your shoes away and you steal phone chargers in your spare time!” Roberta’s voice echoed off the surrounding buildings. 

“She’s charming.” He turned his head to shout up, “Hey, wild person, can you stop freaking yelling and put some clothes on?”

Roberta’s voice was fired up now. “Oh, really, pretty boy? You want to come up here and say that to my boyfriend?” 

“No, sweetheart, I don’t do deliveries. But if he comes down here, I’ll be happy to kick his ass.” Austin pulled me in closer. 

“Don’t get in trouble because of me.” I turned my head and saw a car approaching. Judging from the blinker, it was getting ready to stop near us. Most of the road was deserted. Even in a city, this late at night on a weekday was quieter. “Uber’s here.”

Austin turned me by my shoulders and opened the back door. “Hop in, angel cake. I just want to tell these two assholes something.” He shut the door and hollered a few more things at Roberta and her boyfriend before coming around the side of the car to get in the backseat near me. 

“I can’t believe I hate those people so much. And I just met them.” Austin gave a middle finger out the back window while telling the Uber driver his address. 

“Thank you.” Sitting with him now, I realized how tense I was in the dorm room. He was a bit of home and it made my emotions bubble up inside. 

“Come here.” He put his arm around me and pulled me in. 

I rested my head on his chest. He smelled good, like the outdoors and a muffin. He was cuddling me like he did his sister, Teddi, all the time. If I wasn’t so freaking discombobulated and tired, I would have loved to take a selfie. And maybe get a shirt made with the picture on it. 

I had issues. He was wild to be close to. My heart was beating so hard. Austin knew I needed hugs—ugh. He was so intuitive. 

The Uber pulled over. Austin gave me a quick squeeze before opening the car door and throwing my bag over his shoulder in one swift movement. He held out a hand like I was royalty or dressed for the Oscars or something. I took it and held it still after thanking the driver. 

Austin pulled out his phone and led me toward the front door. He tipped the driver on the app and swiped to his key for the building app without letting go of my hand.

Why was he so physical? I was eating it up. I was feeling so safe. Lord, help me, this man was too much. 

After the app granted us entry, Austin pulled me along to the elevator. The doors opened immediately. 

“Why were you out?” I was realizing he’d appeared so quickly—he had to have been close by, and not at this building. 

“I was partying with friends. Tuesdays can be Saturdays, if you know the right people.” He winked at me. 

My ovaries found a way to clap for joy inside me. 

“Just a heads-up, though. My roommate and I were fighting—although he was gone when I left earlier, he might be back now. Just ignore him. I pay all the rent, so he gets no say in who comes and goes.” 

I nodded, feeling bad for interrupting. “I’m sorry if this is a rough time for me to be here for you.”

“Baby, you’re family. You need help, you get help. No other choices.” The elevator dinged on the tenth floor and Austin reached out a hand to hold the door open. His rings clanked against the metal. 

I was grateful to be given this out, but part of my heart kicked rocks because if he and I were family, we weren’t ever going to be kissing buddies. 

Austin opened his front door with a code and stepped inside, propping the door open for me to enter behind him. His place was so freaking awesome. He had a very lucrative social media platform, and his apartment was the set for many of his videos and pictures. The furniture was all curves and block colors. Some sharp pieces with black and white were edged in. A wall had all different ring lights and filming equipment hanging on it like art. The whole place had a musky lavender scent that I associated with Austin. 

“Have a seat. You need a drink? Hungry?” He set my bag next to me.

 

“I’m good.” Was I feeling out of place? Was I feeling rescued? All of it. 

Austin went to the fridge that was painted with a subtle pattern and filled up a glass with ice and water. 

He came and sat down next to me, holding out the glass. I took it gratefully, tipping it back to quench my thirst. 

“See, angel? I knew what you needed.” Austin reached over and moved some of my hair away from my face, the edge of his finger skimming my temple. 

Did he know what that touch did to people? I couldn’t imagine that the whole world wouldn’t feel that tender contact in both their soul and their naughty bits at the same damn time.

There was a gentle tone from the front door. Austin mumbled, “Shit.” 

The door flung open before he could explain. Stumbling in the entry was a tall guy, his face scribbled with tattoos all over it. When he snarled in our direction, I could see some of his teeth were capped in gold. 

“That’s how it is. Quick, right?” The door swung closed and slammed from the weight. 

“Taylor, please ignore everything he’s about to say.” Austin moved my bag and slung his arm over my shoulder, holding his hands over my ears. It didn’t matter, I could still hear perfectly. 

“Oh, Taylor? She’s hot. Fuck hot. I bet she’s perfect for you. Into you.” I was gathering this was the roommate from the earlier fight. He was latching onto my name and just rolling me into their fight. The man looked me up and down. “Young for you, though.” 

“She’s my little sister’s best friend. So maybe be a little respectful, asshole.” Austin stood and held a hand in front of me, signaling for me to stay put, I was assuming. 

“Oh, so picking up some trash from home, I see.” The roommate stepped forward and squared up with Austin. 

He was for sure wobbly, like his executive functions were off. Drugs. I bet he was on drugs.

Austin’s eyes flared and his hand shot out. He had the man’s jaw in his hand as he hissed, “Respectful.”

I’d been around plenty of boys in fights in my day. Teddi and I had run with the football players and her brothers our entire life. But there was something different about the way this guy and Austin were threatening each other. It was almost…sexual. 

Oh. Then I figured it out. They were roommates and possibly lovers. Hence, the extra anger and tension. 

The other guy gave Austin a harsh, hollow chuckle. “So you haven’t been able to replace me after all, then. What did I tell you? My leftovers are tainted. You won’t find anyone to love you.”

I felt my eyes go wide. This guy was straight up gaslighting Austin. And this sure, headily awesome human that had so much confidence was knocked down a peg. I watched as the man’s words hit Austin’s self-worth.

Austin shook his head and hissed, “Mind your business.” 

Pushing up from the couch, I strode over to Austin. He wasn’t getting told that he was less than in front of me. I stepped between the two men, and Austin let go of the man and put his hands on my shoulders. I saw embarrassment and concern swimming in his eyes. 

Wrapping my arms around Austin and rising on my toes, I did something I had been dreaming about all my life. I kissed Austin Burathon. I kissed him with how much I wanted him. I kissed him with how hot I found him. I made sure my lips told him I was awed by him, and his kindness, and his bravery. 

He kissed me back. Austin kissed me back with such skill that I literally swooned and he had to steady me. His lips tasted so good, his talent so sure. I was dying. I was dying right here. 

The only thing that snapped me out of it was a hard slam of a door. 

I jolted back from the shock of the noise. I had been instantly transported to another world in Austin’s kiss. 

I covered my mouth as the realization of what I did hit me. Oh God. I kissed him? I kissed him! 

He looked over my head in the direction of the door and then gave me a sad smile. “I guess we’re busy saving each other tonight, huh?” 

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry I kissed you. It was the only thing I could think to do because I’m pretty sure that dude would not have been affected by a punch from me.” I thumbed the indication over my shoulder. “And I had to do something. Fuck him. Wow. Fuck him so much.”

Austin shook his head and held out his hand. I took it. “I’ve fucked him a lot, angel. It doesn’t change who he is—I’ve tried.”

“Who is he?” I followed Austin as he stopped to grab my backpack and I got my water glass.

 

“Him? That’s Torin.” Austin opened his bedroom door and I was treated to another magazine layout. The furniture was all low and minimal. The brick wall behind his bed towered to a high ceiling. 

He set my bag on top of the dresser. 

“Endgame,” I offered as the stories shared by Teddi flooded my mind. She never referred to Torin by his name, only Austin’s complicated ex-boyfriend that everyone called Endgame. Austin and he were so much in love, but Teddi didn’t like Endgame at all. She felt he was a toxic hanger-on that didn’t value Austin. The last I’d heard of Endgame had to be my senior year of high school. 

“Teddi told you.” Austin sat on his bed. 

I sat next to him. “She’s not a fan.”

“I know. My sister is opinionated. It is what it is.” He flopped backward onto the bed and a sliver of his toned stomach peeked out from under his shirt. There was a hint of a tattoo there. 

I flopped back as well, both of us staring at the ceiling.

 

“Yeah, she hates the hell out of him. I hope I didn’t make things more awkward by kissing you.” The entire kiss replayed in my mind—a flashback of literal minutes, but I was grateful to have the memory nice and clear. I'd revisit it for the rest of my life. 

“Nah. The kiss was fire. Thank you for that. He and I were likely to get into a hate brawl anyway. It was a total mood diffuser.” He turned his head to look at me and I kept my eyes firmly on the ceiling. The last thing I wanted our kiss defined as was a mood diffuser. He propped up on his elbow and turned his hips toward me. “So what are the implications of you walking out tonight? You had to be in a rough spot.” 

And just like that, Austin switched the moment to be about fixing my problems and ignoring his own. 

I let him move the conversation in that direction because I was still hurt that the kiss hadn’t meant the world to him. The moon to him. 

I sighed. “Roberta, the roommate, had a single dorm room before I came along. I guess it was luck of the draw or whatever. She really wanted it to stay that way.” I turned to pop up on my elbow, facing Austin. Lord, he was pretty. Sexy. 

“And she decided to make your life miserable so she can have it back that way again,” Austin correctly surmised. 

“Yeah. And I like to imagine I’m tough, but when her boyfriend farts at me in the middle of the night? Apparently, I bounce the hell out.” I ran a hand through my hair as amusement hit Austin’s face. 

His unrestrained smile was lighter fluid on my heart. It started clodhopping around in my chest. I was the one that made him smile, and I knew I was addicted to that whole feeling instantly. 

“So can you find a new roommate?” He asked me.

He narrowed his eyes like he was trying to plan my future for me. 

“It’s difficult because I’m on two scholarships. And they are tied to my room and board. The college is super picky about the awardees maintaining a proper decorum. Roberta knows this and has threatened to tell the whole college all the ways I’m evil. She has literal fistfuls of Post-it notes with my flaws wallpapering the dorm room.” I touched my neck.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. Crap.” He held out an arm and we hugged briefly, on our sides. “That’s so rough. Fuck her so much.” 

“Yeah. She’s really like all of my problems right now.” I rubbed my thumb on his comforter. 

“Listen, stay with me. What can they do if you just move out?” He tilted his head. 

In every crush dream I had about Austin since I was old enough to fall in love, this conversation would happen over and over. “Really? That’s a lot to ask.” 

“Nah. You and I can be boyfriend and girlfriend, which keeps me away from Endgame and him away from me. Plus, you can live here and not have that stress from Roberta and her revenge farts.” Austin held out his hand for a shake. A special deal. A secret. I wanted to lick his hand, but instead, I shook it. 

I was going to live with my dream man and pretend to be his girlfriend. I knew the long-term damage was going to be substantial to my heart, but there was no way in hell I was saying no to him. 

“You’ve got a deal.” 

* * *

Sleeping was easy, and I wasn’t expecting that. Leaving a dorm room in the middle of the night was exhausting. Austin had me in a cuddle. He was a touchy guy. Hell, it wasn’t even the first time we’d ever cuddled. 

I tried to etch the feeling of the weight of his arm on my hip. Too bad a feeling couldn’t be a tattoo. 

The alarm on my phone went off. The trill of a pop song was like a knife to my eyeball nerves. I clamored out of bed to silence it. I stood there, trying to get my act together. I glanced down at my Wonder Woman pajamas. I couldn’t wear those, even a little. 

Austin rolled onto his back and put his arms behind his head. I was distracted by him. The way he was muscled was my favorite. He was so complete and so well hidden under clothes, but when I got to see his chest, it was sigh-worthy. He had more tattoos than the last time I had been face-to-face with his bare chest at a pool party Teddi had in senior year. 

“Kitten, you look lost. You okay?” He propped himself up and reached inside his end table drawer. He popped a piece of mint gum into his mouth. I covered my own mouth. I forgot my toothbrush. 

“I need all my stuff. Like all of it. I’m supposed to go to class and I’m wearing this.” I waved my hand in front of my body. 

“How much time we got?” He flipped the covers off and got out, stretching. 

How was a girl supposed to talk when he was doing…all that? He was wearing black fitted boxers and still had on his chains. 

I looked down at my phone’s screen like it had the answers. “Class is at ten. It’s 9:45.” 

“I got you.” He tossed me the pack of gum and I slid out a piece. 

He rushed into his closet and I realized it was far more than what I was expecting. It was a full-on extra room, which made sense. Austin made money on social media. He was known for fashion and eclectic ways of framing everyday items. Most people my age were following him on TikTok. He was pretty good at shielding his actual appearance, so he had found a way to be sort of mini-famous without actually having too many of the pitfalls. 

I trailed behind him. He had all kinds of cameras, makeup, and clothing, and it was meticulously organized. I felt every girly part of me swoon. 

He studied me up and down in a way that seemed clinical, and then he flipped through the options. “I’ll drive you. What building is your class in?” 

I caught the soft, long, black skirt he tossed and slipped it on over my shorts. Then I had a tank top and a sweater to manage. Next, I had a pair of boots. The outfit was quick and effortlessly perfect for walking in the city. “Parker, Eastside.” 

Austin grabbed a ponytail holder and a makeup case. “Let’s go.”

While he was picking out my stuff, he’d been building his own outfit. Jeans, a white sweater, and a slouchy beanie were all I could see. I grabbed my backpack and phone as Austin threw open his door. A wall of weed smell hit us. 

Austin peeked over his shoulder, mouthing, “Sorry.” 

There were so many actual humans in his living room. I was counting at least five. Two of them were naked. 

Endgame was slouched in a chair holding a glass, swirling the caramel colored liquid inside it. 

His eyes were mostly red. His voice was quiet and meant for only Austin, but I heard him anyway. “Done with her that quick?”

“Shut it,” Austin bit out his reply and I had no idea why his words made tears prick in my eyes. 

Endgame rolled his eyes. 

Austin opened the door and held it for me. I hustled through it. Once I was in the hall, Austin leaned back in the apartment and hissed something I couldn’t hear. 

He closed the door before I could hear any response. I knew I was madly in love with Austin, but moving in with him while he navigated a breakup might be a poor choice. 

The girl in love in my head stomped her feet. She didn’t care if anything made sense as long as she could be near Austin. 

He held out his hand and I took it. We ran through the hall and down a set of stairs. Austin reached for my backpack before taking the burden from me. When we hit the garage, we all-out sprinted, still holding hands until we skidded to a stop at his vintage white CRX. I heard the doors unlock and grabbed the passenger door. Austin had the car in reverse the second my door was closed. 

“You’ll be a few minutes late, sugar.” He pushed up the sleeves of his sweater while he waited for the parking garage arm to let us out. 

I rested my head back and watched him. I woke up with Austin Burathon. He dressed me and was driving me to school. Teenage Taylor was dying one thousand deaths of happiness.

“Thank you.” I watched as he navigated the manual transmission like a boss. Why were his forearms so defined? 

“You wanna get your stuff after class? What time do you get out?” His warm brown eyes met mine and he offered me a small smile. 

“I don't know if I’m ready to battle Roberta and her boyfriend yet.” I unzipped my backpack and slipped my phone into the front pocket. 

“Oh, sweetheart, they won’t be allowed to talk to you. I’ll be there and I’ll have some of my friends with me.” He double parked in front of the Begonia Building, which was near the Parker Building. 

“Okay. Eleven-thirty is when class ends.” I opened the car door while the drivers of the vehicles behind us laid on their horns.

“I’ll be in this exact spot then. I’m going to sit here the whole time so these bastards get so mad their panties light on fire.” Then Austin winked at me and we had a date. 

I closed his car door and headed to class. 

This was all great. Super awesome. I was so happy and confused that all I wanted to do was talk to my best friend, and she was Austin’s sister.

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