“Love is a commitment to protecting another person’s heart with the same passion you use to guard your own.” – Rob Hill Sr.
When Ethan and I finally got to State College, PA – who names a city that – it was almost three in the morning. Factor in some traffic along the way and all the pit stops we had to make so I could pee, a trip that was supposed to take eleven hours and a half ended up taking nearly fourteen.
By the time we checked into our hotel and showered, the two of us were exhausted and fell asleep immediately.
“McKenzie.” The sound of Ethan’s voice stirred me out of my sleep.
“Five more minutes,” I mumbled, turning on my other side.
“It’s almost noon.” He chuckled as I let out a loud groan. My eyes fluttered open and I stretched, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes.
“Tell me there’s coffee.” My eyes scanned the darkroom and they immediately landed on a tray resting on the little side table by the entrance.
“You really have an unhealthy obsession with caffeine,” Ethan said as I got out of bed. Pulling the curtain open so sunlight could enter the room, I glared over my shoulder at him.
“Look who’s talking.” I snorted, adding two sugars to my coffee. I didn’t bother adding cream because today was a black coffee kind of day.
Not only did I go to bed around four in the morning, but then I woke up two hours later with period cramps. I unwillingly dragged myself out of bed and began digging through my purse for a bottle of Tylenol, and when I couldn’t find it in there, I took everything out of the duffle bag in search of it. I eventually gave up and went downstairs to the small convenience store they had right next to the reception desk and bought a brand new bottle.
I felt bad for the poor lady coming off the night shift who had to interact with me that early in the morning.
After getting changed and popping another two of Tylenol, Ethan and I left the hotel and walked over to Zoey’s dorm room. Luckily she was staying in Pennypacker Hall, right off the main street, because otherwise, I wouldn’t have remembered how to get there from memory. Every building and street looked almost identical.
Raising my hand to knock, I waited patiently for Zoey to open the door. From the corner of my eye, I saw Ethan standing a couple of feet away checking his phone. “Those better not be work emails you’re checking.” My eyes narrowed in on his iPhone.
“Sorry.” He mumbled, pocketing it before I could reach for it.
“Vacation Ethan, vacation.” I rolled my eyes just as the door swung open to reveal my very tired, very much still half asleep sister.
“Kenzie?” Zoey grumbled, one hand rubbing her left eye and the other still holding the door open. She was wearing an oversized t-shirt from high school, and one of the pant legs on her pajama bottoms was rolled up to her knee. “And... Ethan?” From the looks of it, we were the ones to wake her up.
“Why are you still asleep?” I asked, scanning her appearance. “Don’t you have classes?”
“I just took my last final yesterday.” She stifled a yawn and stepped to the side, opening the door wider so that we could step inside. My eyes scanned the room and I turned towards Zoey, hands on my hips.
I opened my mouth to scold her on the mess everywhere, but she put a hand up to stop me. “Listen – I need to shower and wake up before you take that tone mom always uses when she’s about to yell at me.” Grabbing a towel and a change of clothes from one of the many boxes scattered around the room, she went to take a shower.
Gross – she doesn’t even have her own personal shower anymore, I scrunched up my nose as I watched her close the door behind her.
While Ethan and I waited for her, I began picking up some of what I presumed to be clean clothing and folded it neatly. Meanwhile, Ethan sat sulking in the chair underneath the bunk bed because I wouldn’t let him answer any emails.
I swear I was close to throwing his damn phone out the window.
When Zoey finally came back and saw me placing a folded pair of jeans on top of her bed, she raised an eyebrow. “You’re starting to resemble mom more and more every day.”
Ethan snorted a laugh before quickly covering it up with a cough, meanwhile, I flipped her off. “This place looks like a pigsty.” I scolded, gesturing to the clothes lying on the floor, the boxes of takeout on the window still and different pairs of shoes thrown around.
At first, Zoey stared at me before a smile broke out and she wrapped her arms around me. “I am so happy to see you guys! You have no idea how good it is to see a familiar face.”
“Mom was just here to visit you.” I laughed, returning her embrace.
“A familiar face I actually enjoy spending time with.” She corrected, now leaning against the bed frame. “So – what brings you to the middle of bumblefuck nowhere College State, Pennsylvania.”
My eyebrows shot up in a are you fucking kidding me way before I spoke, “How exactly were you planning on moving all of this stuff out of here?” I gestured around the room.
“I was just going to hire someone to do it.” She shrugged, kicking one of the cardboard boxes out of the way so she could reach the mini-fridge. “There’s no point in Dad driving all the way out here just for a couple of boxes.” She had a point, the drive here was horrendous, but there were more than just a few boxes to move.
“Did you already rent a storage unit?” I asked.
“Yeah.” Zoey grabbed a water bottle and unscrewed the cap. “Mom did it last week.”
“Are you still living in the dorms next year?” Ethan asked. I looked at him and he was watching us with rapt attention.
“That’s the plan.” Zoey nodded, taking another sip of water.
“They’re...” Ethan trailed off, his eyes scanning the small room. “Cozy.”
“I appreciate you trying to be polite,” Zoey laughed, “But they’re small as fuck and crowded.”
“There’s that honesty again.” Ethan laughed as I watched the exchange between the two of them.
“Why don’t you just get an apartment for next year.” I piped up. “You’re not a freshman anymore – you don’t have to live in the dorms.”
“I don’t know.” Her voice flattered a bit at the end. “I kinda like living with a roommate. Plus, Neeha and I already have plans to dorm together next year.”
“We’ll find a two-bedroom, that way you each get your own room but still share the perks of being roommates.”
“I don’t know...”
“Just think about it.” I flashed her an encouraging smile. “Talk to Neeha and see what she says. We saw a bunch of for rent signs on the way here.”
I understood where Zoey’s hesitance was coming from. She and her roommate clicked during the first semester when she was struggling to adjust. Neeha was her only friend for a while, and she didn’t want to lose that comfort by living off-campus.
“Now!” I clasped my hands in front of me. “Let’s get some of this shit packed because I am starving.”
The three of us spent the next two hours or so packing up the remainder of the boxes. While we grabbed a quick lunch at this vegan restaurant Zoey would not stop raving about, she washed the remainder of the dirty clothes that needed to be packed.
After every box had been taped up, Ethan went to get the car while I waited with Zoey. The two of us were sitting on the floor across from each other when she said, “So... I was kinda going to go to a party tonight...”
“Okay?” I blinked at her, unsure where the uncertainty was coming from.
“But I don’t have to go.” She quickly added, lifting her eyes to meet mine.
“I feel bad. You and Ethan came all this way for me.”
“Trust me, Ethan and I can find other ways to keep ourselves busy.”
“Not that you pervert!” I rolled my eyes, throwing my empty water bottle at her. Unfortunately, she dodged it and it bounced off behind her.
She continued to eye me wryly, her face scrunched up in disgust. “We passed by this Thai place that looked promising earlier. And they have a Cold Stone’s!”
“That’s what you and Ethan do?” She deadpanned, arching an eyebrow. “How old are you? Fifty?”
That’s what we do when mother nature comes calling, I thought. “Go to your party,” I reassured Zoey, just as Ethan came back through the door. “We’ll be fine.”
“Oh come on!” Ethan practically slammed his beer down as his attention continued to be held captive by the scenes unfolding on the large TV screen above my head. When we left the hotel to go out to dinner, the plan was to get Thai food. However, we walked past a sport’s bar and Ethan couldn’t resist going in. He said – and I quote, ”We’re in a college town, we might as well relive our college days.”
In the time that I had known him, I’d only seen this man drink beer once before now – and that was with Adam.
“Don’t you think you’re taking this whole reliving your college days a little too seriously?” I teased, reaching across the table to steal an onion ring off his plate. We both ordered cheeseburgers, except I got mine with regular fries and he got his with a side of onion rings.
“What?” His head whipped to the sound of my voice, and it was clear he didn’t listen to a word I said.
“Never mind.” I laughed, shaking my head and taking a sip of my Coke. I wasn’t mad he wasn’t paying me much attention – just being around him was comforting enough. As a matter of fact, I was relieved to see him finally relaxing.
It took some convincing, but once 5 P.M finally hit, I convinced Ethan to turn that damn work cellphone off. If the place really was on fire, I’m sure his dad would contact him on his personal phone.
“I’m sorry babe.” Ethan’s eyes softened as he reached across the table and placed his hand over mine. “It’s just that the umpire for this game is an idiot. That last pitch was a total backdoor!”
“Ethan,” I smiled sweetly, caressing his hand with my thumb. “I have no idea what the fuck you just said.”
Sports jargon – let alone baseball jargon– and I just didn’t mix. You’d think by now he knew better than to throw out terms like umpire and backdoor, but apparently not.
“You’re cute.” He smirked as he leaned forward. His hand slid to the back of my head and into my hair, just as his lips brushed against mine. The taste of beer on his lips made my nose scrunch up, but I nevertheless kissed him back.
Pulling back, I was just about to tell him how much I hated the smell and taste of beer, but the buzzing against the tabletop captured my attention. Glancing down, Zoey’s name flashed across my screen. “Zoey?” I answered, my eyes lingering on Ethan’s wet lips as his dark eyes continued to stare into mine.
“Kenzie...” Zoey’s voice came out slurred and barely audible over the phone.
“What’s going on?” I asked, panic beginning to rise in my chest. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t... I... don’t – feel so well.” I could barely hear her as the music continued to thump in the background. But even without the music, she didn’t sound like herself.
“I’m on my way to you! Stay put” I rushed out, my eyes already scanning the restaurant for our waiter.
“What’s going on?” Ethan asked, any hint of playfulness and desire from earlier gone. Instead, his voice was laced with concern.
“We need to go.” I quickly stood up, throwing a hundred-dollar bill on the table. That should be more than enough to cover the bill and the tip, I thought. ”Now.”
After checking Zoey’s location to see where she was and allowing Apple Maps to give me directions, it only took us about ten minutes to get there. It was on the West side of Campus where all the frat houses were, and as soon as we turned on the street, I immediately knew which house she was in.
There was only one house on the block with passed out college students on the front lawn, and blasting music.
Ethan hadn’t even properly braked when I opened the car door and ran out. Worst-case scenarios of God knows what situation I would find Zoey in, flashed through my mind. Anxiety prickled my nerves and quickened my heartbeat. “McKenzie –” Ethan shouted after me. “Wait.”
Ignoring him, I marched up the steps towards the front door, my eyes scanning for Zoey’s red crop top. I finally spotted her next to the porch swing with some guy with his hands all over her.
“Hey!” I yelled, quickening my last steps. A few people turned at the sound of my voice, including the asshole that had a half-unconscious Zoey pinned against the wall. “Get away from her.”
As soon as I was within arm’s reach, I yanked him away from her and wrapped my arm around her so she wouldn’t fall. “Zoey – can you hear me?” I grabbed her chin and made her look at me. Her eyelids were droopy, and she looked totally out of it.
“What did you give her?” I shouted, my shoulder starting to feel Zoey’s extra weight on me.
“Back off lady.” The little prick grabbed my arm but quickly removed it when he was yanked back by Ethan. “This is a college party, not bingo night at the nursing home.”
“Walk away, man.” Ethan stepped in front of him before he could take another step towards Zoey and me.
“Fuck off.” He spat, glaring at Ethan. “We’re just having some fun.”
“What did you say?” I spat, narrowing my eyes in slits.
“You heard me! I’m just having some fun with the little bi –” Before I could stop myself, my right hand flew out and my fist collided with his nose. Right on impact, a sharp pain erupted through my hand.
“Kenzie –” Zoey mumbled against my shoulder.
“You fucking punched me!” The prick yelled, clutching his now bleeding nose.
“Learn to respect women.” I glared at him, clutching my fist to my chest. That hurt a lot more than I thought it would.
“You... you – came.” Zoey continued to mumble incoherently.
“I did.” I nodded scanning her face. “What did you drink Zoey – do you remember?”
“Drink?” There was no use trying to get any answers out of her. She could barely put three words together.
From the corner of my eye, I could see Ethan whispering something to the asshole I just punched. Slowly, the smirk disappeared from his face and he turned a shade paler. He was furiously nodding when Ethan walked away from him and made his way towards Zoey and me.
“What did you say to him?” I asked, my eyes focused behind him and on the little shit still clutching his nose while mouthing off to his friends.
“Nothing.” Ethan shook his head as he took Zoey’s weight off me and began walking towards the car. “He slipped her some valium. She’s gonna need to sleep it off. I’m going to book another room to stay in tonight, that way you and Zoey can share the one we’re already in.”
“Ethan.” I gave him a pointed look. “Tell me what you said to him.”
“Fine –” He sighed, a hint of annoyance in his voice. “I may or may not have threatened to cut off his dick if he so much as got within a hundred feet of Zoey.”
“What?” I exclaimed, stopping dead in my tracks. “You cannot just go around threatening people.” I scolded.
“You’re the one that punched the guy!” Ethan defended, his expression a mixture of disbelief and humor.
“Ethan –” I let out a frustrated sigh, rubbing my face in irritation because I knew he was right.
Once we got Zoey in the car, Ethan gently shut the back door and made a move to walk around to the driver’s side, but I grabbed his hand to stop him. His eyes met mine, and I saw his eyebrows were creased in confusion.
I tried to think of something to say, but when no words came out I settled for wrapping my arms around his waist. “Thank you for always being so kind and sweet.” Somehow, he was always dealing with a hot mess situation when it came to me, and he never once complained about it.
“Always.” He gave my hip a gentle squeeze as he tilted his head down and pressed his lips to my cheek. Little shivers ran down my spine as I melted into his embrace.
This is why I love this man.
“I love you,” I mumbled, slipping into the passenger’s seat. Lifting my eyes to meet Ethan’s, I found myself lost in the specks of gold in his green eyes shining under the street lamp.
“I love you too.” His calm and soothing voice was enough to make me relax into my seat as he shut the door and walked over to the driver’s side.
To say I got maybe four hours of sleep last night would be an understatement. After we got back to the hotel, I made Zoey drink some water and coffee to try and flush the drugs and alcohol out of her system. I guess you could say it worked because she spent the next two hours on the bathroom floor – puking.
Once she did finally settle into bed, I had a hard time falling asleep because my mind continued to drift to the worst possible scenarios. I spent a good portion of the night just watching her sleep, making sure she was still breathing and not choking on her own vomit.
The next morning when I heard the rustling of sheets, my head immediately snapped towards the bed. Abandoning my cup of coffee, I rushed to Zoey’s side of the bed. “Are you okay? No – don’t get up too fast.”
“I’m fine.” Her voice was raspy and thick with sleep, but at least she was capable of formulating complete sentences now, which was a lot better than last night. “I just feel like I’ve been run over by a truck ten times.”
“Yeah.” I pinned her with a glare as I got up to pour her a glass of water. “Getting drugged will do that to you.”
“Drugged?” Her eyebrows shot up as she met my gaze.
“How much do you remember from last night?” I handed her the water before taking a seat on the edge of the bed.
“Um...” She lifted the glass to her lips and downed the entire thing in one go. “I remember getting there with Neeha and Sabrina. Then Sabrina’s boyfriend introduced us to a couple of guys who brought us some drinks. After that... it’s pretty much a blur.”
“You called me from the party last night.” I frowned, pulling both of my legs up on the bed. “You were totally out of it, Zoey. And when Ethan and I got there, some guy had his hands all over you.”
“He didn’t...” She trailed off, refusing to meet my gaze.
“No! No! No!” Shaking my head, I quickly added, “We got you out of there before anything happened. The dickhead slipped Valium in your drink.”
“Tell me you’re joking!” Her face contorted in disbelief before she placed the empty water glass on the nightstand and collapsed back on the bed with a loud groan. “That is so embarrassing. Ethan must think I’m such an idiot.”
Of course, that’s what she’s worried about.
Rolling my eyes, I said, “He doesn’t think you’re an idiot. I think he was actually pretty worried about you.”
“Even more embarrassing!” She propped up on her elbows and scowled at me. “I’m supposed to be the sane sister.”
“There’s no such thing as sane in our family.” I laughed, pulling the sheets off her. “Come on – I’ve had enough of this city. Let’s go home.” Since we had finished moving all of Zoey’s dorm room stuff into the empty storage unit yesterday, all that was left was to pick up a few things she would be bringing home and hand the RA her keys.
While Zoey was in the shower, I had texted Ethan to let him know we were awake and almost ready to go. The only other room available last night was on a different floor – something he wasn’t too thrilled about but didn’t comment too much on.
Ten minutes later, when I heard a knock, I opened the door for him and took in his appearance. Ethan was dressed in a pair of jeans and a form-fitted black hoodie that should be considered a sin.
Okay hormones, calm down.
“See something you like, Cupcake?” Ethan teased with a crooked smile, leaning against the doorframe.
“Maybe.” I bit my lip, before turning around and leaving the door open for him to come in. As his eyes scanned the mess around room, I took this as an opportunity for my gaze to linger on his sharp jawline and smooth lips.
Focus, McKenzie! Focus.
Just then, Zoey stepped out of the bathroom. When her eyes landed on Ethan, she mumbled a quick good morning before walking over to where her phone was charging.
“Do you guys need more time?” Ethan asked, scratching the back of his neck.
“No, we’re all good.” I rose to my feet, tossing my purse over my shoulder.
Meanwhile, Zoey stepped around me and walked up to Ethan. Once she was in front of him, she nervously glanced up at him before enveloping him a hug. I tried to stifle my laugh when Ethan shot me a helpless look as he awkwardly wrapped an arm around her shoulder and patted her back. “Thank you,” Zoey mumbled, pulling away and stepping back.
“You’re welcome.” Ethan flashed her a small smile before giving her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “If that asshole comes near you again, just remind him of our chat.” She gave him a small smile in return, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.
“Let’s get out of here.” Ethan cleared his throat as he grabbed the remainder of what belonged to us. “I believe there’s an ice cream parlor somewhere on campus, and I’ve been told ice cream is the cure to everything.”
My lips curled up in a smirk as I shut the door behind us.
I taught him well.
Who else wishes Kenzie did more than just punch the the guy from the party? 🙋🏻♀️🙋🏻♀️🙋🏻♀️
In the meantime, I’ll be off writing the last chapter of this book! Cue the waterworks because I’m honestly not ready to part with the characters from this book 😭😭
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