Emily Dilbert gripped the steering wheel and ground her molars into paste. Headlights from passing cars flashed in her eyes. Her boyfriend, Zach, lay dazed in the passenger seat, hammered out of his mind. Normally, Emily loved Addison State University’s proximity to the beach. Today, she cursed its nearness and cursed herself for giving in to Zach’s insistence they go soak up the sun.
All he did was pound beer after beer with a new group of friends.
All she wanted was to pound some sense into his stupid stubborn head.
As the starting quarterback for Southeastern State, Zach Chamberlain drew a crowd wherever he went—his school or hers. Every time she’d tried to rein him in and talk today, he’d waved her away or tried to get her to join. If Emily had thrown common sense to the ocean breeze and started partying with him, neither of them would have been able to drive, and then where would they be?
He rolled his head in her direction. “You’re so pretty.”
He thrust his enormous hand in her face. “Zach.” She lurched to avoid him poking her in the eye. Her car lurched into the other lane. She swerved back and shoved Zach into his seat. She couldn’t take any more of his sloppy petting or the drunken declarations pouring from his putty-like lips.
“I love you, Emily.” He goofy-grinned in her direction. “We’re going to have a great life together.” He leaned against the window and his eyes drifted closed.
His slurred endearments bordered on desperate, especially after he’d gotten blisteringly drunk with strangers when he knew—he knew—she wanted to talk to him. Yes, she was mad. Yes, he’d apologize tomorrow. And yes, Emily was tired of the disappointment/apology routine they replayed every time they were together.
“Five years.” Her voice a bitter growl, burning, boiling, bubbling with doubt. “It feels like five wasted years when you can’t spare me five minutes without getting wasted.”
Dating since her sophomore year of high school when she’d been more awed than infatuated, their relationship was skidding like her wheels against the pavement. If she didn’t talk to him about her fading feelings before he left for training camp tomorrow, it would be more than a month before she’d see him again.
Emily pulled into a parking space in front of her apartment. She cut the thrum of the engine, but not the thrum of her anger. Zach twitched beside her, a drop of drool clinging to a corner of his mouth. He didn’t move when she opened her door. He didn’t budge when she got out. He didn’t stir when she stood staring at the steps to her building.
Even Zach Chamberlain, quarterback extraordinaire, couldn’t scale a flight of stairs completely unconscious.
Emily grabbed her bag and made her way to her second story apartment, leaving blitz-drunk Zach snoozing in the car.
She found her roommate, Kayla, lounging on the couch watching a movie. “Hey.” Emily dropped her purse on the side table.
Kayla looked up. “Wow, you’re burnt.”
Emily brushed her blonde ponytail from her shoulder and touched her sunburnt skin. “I can handle blistered skin. My loaded boyfriend, not so much. Are you the only one home?”
With Kayla’s petite size and slender build, she was the least suited of Emily’s roommates to help with anything physical. But help was help. “Can you do me a favor and help me get Zach up to the apartment?”
“Where is he?” Kayla got to her feet.
“Out cold in the car. He’ll be dead weight.”
Kayla scrunched her face. “I can try.”
Emily led the way down the stairs. “Where are Reagan and Shelby?”
“Reagan’s at a study group and Shelby’s at work.”
Emily knew all three of her roommates would struggle getting Zach to the apartment. She may have been taller than Kayla, but both of their legs were skinnier than Zach’s arm. This promised to be an adventure.
They stopped at Emily’s car.
Kayla peered inside the window. “Wow, he’s out.”
“I told you.” Emily reached for the passenger door handle.
Kayla stepped forward. “Be careful he doesn’t fall out.”
Emily opened the door, shoving her hip into Zach’s body to keep him from slumping to the ground.
Kayla reached for Zach’s arm. “How can we do this?”
Emily propped Zach against the seat and geared up for the challenge, cursing his lack of control. “I don’t know, but we’ve got to try. I can’t leave him in the car.” She knelt and pulled Zach’s arm around her shoulder, grabbing his hand in both of hers. “I’ll get him onto his feet. When I stand, you get under his other shoulder and hold on like this.”
Kayla gave Emily a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me look. “I don’t know, Em. He’s so big. It would be one thing if he were awake, but totally out like this? I don’t think we’ve got the strength to pull this off.”
She was probably right, but they had to try. “Sure, we do. We just have to be careful and take it slow.”
“If we somehow manage to get him out of the car, how are we going to get him up the stairs?”
“One stumbling step at a time.”
Kayla stretched her neck and cracked her knuckles. “Okay. We can do this.” She got in position and counted. “One, two, three.”
Emily pulled Zach and managed to get him halfway out of the car, his whole body leaning on hers. “Get under his other arm.”
“I can’t get under there until you pull him out some more. The door is in the way.”
Emily gritted her teeth and firmed her grip. Why couldn’t Reagan have been home? Her fit roommate would’ve happily manhandled an unconscious Zach. “If I pull him out more, he’s going to end up on the ground. Just step over him.”
“Do you ladies need some help?”
Emily jerked at the sound of a male voice. She spotted a dirty pair of tennis shoes, worn jeans, and an old gray T-shirt. Their neighbor and all-around nice guy, Dash Carter, stared at them, a guitar case over his shoulder, an amused expression on his face.
“Oh, yes, please.” Emily eased Zach back into the seat. “We need help.”
Dash handed his case to Kayla. “I never turn down a chance to play the hero.”
Dash took Zach’s arm from Emily and asked her to grab his other side when he lifted Zach. With one heave, Zach came out of the car, nearly knocking Dash over. Emily grabbed Zach’s other side. “Good grief.” Dash staggered back. “This guy’s a beast.”
“Six-three, two-twenty.” Emily had stared at his program profile enough to know his stats.
“Who does he belong to?”
“Me.” Emily lifted her brows but couldn’t lift the stain of shame. “He’s my boyfriend.”
Dash and Emily chugged toward the stairs, Zach’s feet dragging behind. Thank goodness he’d worn his tennis shoes.
“Your boyfriend had too much to drink?” Dash sounded winded like a sprinter after a race.
“Oh, yeah.” They stopped at the base of the stairs. “Should we take the elevator?”
Emily, Dash, and Kayla glanced down the length of the building to the elevator.
“The stairs are closer.” Dash shifted dead-drunk Zach. “Just take it slow. You ready?”
For the nightmare to end. “Absolutely.”
“Be careful,” Kayla shouted from behind.
They eased Zach up the stairs until they stumbled over the threshold of the apartment and dumped him onto the couch.
Dash grabbed his knees, sucking in air. “Holy cow. I wasn’t sure we’d make it.”
“Me neither.” Emily rubbed her aching shoulder. She stared at Zach, at his head propped at a weird angle. Grabbing a pillow, she wedged it under his head and tucked his arms over his chest. “I can’t thank you enough for your help.”
“Yeah.” Kayla blinked up at Dash. “Emily and I never would have gotten him up here.”
Dash glanced around the apartment, took his case from Kayla, and slung it over his shoulder. “No problem. You should lay him sideways in case he gets sick.”
“I will. And thank you. Really, thank you so much.”
“No worries. Y’all have a good night.”
Dash closed the door behind him, and Kayla crossed her arms over her chest. “What happened?”
Emily yanked Zach’s arm, pulled him onto his side, and took off his shoes. “I wanted to have a serious talk. Getting drunk was his way of blowing me off.”
She grabbed a blanket from the basket in the corner and flung it over Zach, tucking it under his arm and over his feet. “I should have talked to him this morning, but I chickened out and went to a sorority event instead. When I got back, he came up with this ridiculous idea of going to the beach. He blared the music on the ride there and the second we arrived he started drinking.”
“This sounds serious.” Kayla grabbed the remote and turned off the TV. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know. I’m just … frustrated. Every time we’re together, he’s either preoccupied with something football-related or aggravated at me for putting demands on his time.”
Kayla shrugged, wrinkling her nose. “That’s kind of how he’s always been.”
“I know. Part of me feels like I trained him to treat me this way. I’ve never asked for anything more than slivers of his time.” Emily gave in to fatigue and sat on the floor next to Zach. “And he’s not a fan of my messy emotions.”
“Are you going to talk to him in the morning?”
She pinched the bridge of her nose. “He’s got to leave first thing.”
“When will you see him next?”
“He’s got training camp and then the season starts. I told him I’d go for homecoming, but game weekends are crazy. Maybe I’ll drive up on his bye weekend and try to talk to him then.”
“When is his bye weekend?”
Defeated and dreadfully tired, Emily tried to think. “I don’t know. November, maybe?”
“Emily. It’s not even August. That’s way too long to wait.”
“What’s another few months if it spares his game? You know how much football means to him. A strong start is important. He needs to stay focused.”
“Don’t you think if he knows something’s wrong between you, he won’t be able to focus on the game?”
“That’s the thing about Zach. When it comes to football, everything else is a distant second. Even me. Especially me.”
Kayla studied Zach, a notch between her brows. “I always envied your beautiful boyfriend and perfect life.”
“Pfft.” Her perfect life was as sad as her sunburnt skin. “My love life’s a mess.”
“What are you going to do?”
Emily looked at Zack, brushed the hair from his face, wished she felt more than indifference and a foreboding sense of dread. “I don’t know. Splitting up would shred my relationship with the Chamberlain family. I don’t know if I can do that.”
“You’re worried about Dylan?”
“He’s his brother.”
“He’s your best friend.”
Emily rubbed her temples, ignored the twist in her gut. “You know what happens in a breakup. People pick sides.”
Kayla’s head swayed, tangling her hair in her lashes. “Not Dylan.” She pulled the strands from her face. “He won’t turn his back on you.”
“He may not want to, but he will.”
Kayla rocked back on her heels, her brows jutting skyward. “You’ll stay with Zach to keep your friendship? That’s messed up.”
“I just have to be gentle. Let Zach down easy.”
Emily stood, staring down at her boyfriend. “I don’t know.” Zach’s behavior and her cowardice bought her some time. “But I can’t do anything now. Now he sleeps it off.”