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Landlord Wars: Chapter 13


If there was one person I didn’t trust to witness my mother’s house, it was Max Burrows. But not only had my rich, arrogant landlord seen the place, he hadn’t run away in horror.

Which was shocking.

Max had been polite to my mom and even escorted me home. It was more than I could say for Paul, or anyone else, for that matter.

My sister was my best friend, and that was because no one else had stuck around once they saw where I lived.

So Max wasn’t a total ass. A mild ass, an incremental ass, but not a total ass. Time would tell if the rest of his critical, food-stealing behavior improved.

“Elise, you can come over,” I told my sister over the phone, as I tended the small plants on my bedroom windowsill.

“Landlord Devil gone?”

“No, but he’s got virtual reality goggles on, and he and Jack are oblivious to everything going on around them. They’re bumping into furniture and shouting at the TV, being nuisances. Anyway, I’m not worried about you staying the night, because Max and I came to a weird truce.”

My sister made a loud hoot, and I pulled the phone away from my ear. “Soph, I’m so happy you’re staying there and that you worked things out.”

“Me too.” And I really was. Returning home would have been traumatic. Even my mom had sounded relieved when I told her my new place was going to work out after all. It probably had more to do with her not needing to remove items from my old bedroom, but still. She was happy, and I was even happier.

“You sure you’re okay with me living at the apartment?” I asked. “What about your issues with my roommate?”

“I’ve decided to rise above,” she said. “I won’t let your roommate get to me.”

Famous last words, I thought, but kept it to myself. Elise wasn’t known for her self-control. “Bring your school stuff. I’ve got work to do as well.”

An hour later, I opened the front door for my sister. Her hair was down, and she was wearing shorts that showed off her toned legs, with a long-sleeved shirt tucked in the front. “What’s with the lipstick?” I asked.

Her eyes darted to the side as she set her book tote next to the kitchen peninsula. “What? I always wear lipstick. You’re the one who shuns makeup.”

Okay, that was true. But her lipstick looked freshly applied, and she never put on makeup to hang out with me. My Elise radar went off.

We headed into the kitchen, and I handed her an orange-flavored soda water before we grazed on chips, salsa, and tiny Oreos she’d pulled from her bag.

Elise leaned on the counter, studying the guys in the living room. They were standing, wearing VR goggles and headphones, and staring in the direction of the TV, moving around jerkily like they were fending off monsters. “They really can’t hear us?”

I tossed a bite-size Oreo in my mouth. “Nope.”

Jack waved his arms in the air, and then he made a parkour move that nearly knocked over a lamp on the end table. He scrambled to his feet.

Max gripped his shoulder, as if to say, “Great job,” and I shook my head slowly. These knuckleheads were going to break something.

Elise waved a chip in their direction. “You’re going to need new furniture after they’re done. How old did you say these specimens of masculinity are?”

I looked up, mentally calculating. “I think Jack is twenty-nine. Max is the same age.”

Elise nodded. “So, old enough to not destroy furniture.”

Max nearly fell over the couch, and I winced. “Apparently not.”

Elise nodded. “Good, good. At least we agree.”

We headed into my room, where Elise proceeded to lounge on my bed while visually going through my closet and picking apart ninety percent of my wardrobe over the next hour. “Those side-zip trousers have to go.” She eyed them critically. “They’re way too big on you now.”

“I realize that,” I said, making space in one of the closet dresser drawers for Elise to leave some things at my place, “but I need work clothes. I can’t afford to replace my entire closet.” I stood and looked down my body. “Apparently, I was eating my emotions while living with Mom. As soon as I knew I was moving, I started shedding pounds without even trying. And that’s on a steady chocolate diet.”

“You weren’t overweight when you lived with us, but I know what you mean. You shrank.”

“Thanks for the lovely description.”

She pursed her lips in thought. “You must have been carrying around water weight, because you look exactly the same, just a bit smaller.”

It was a strange thing to drop ten pounds in what felt like overnight, but I had more energy these days, so that was a bonus. Stress was no joke.

“Speaking of attire,” I said, “I’m not sure why you’re critiquing mine. You live in athleisure.”

She sat up, affronted. “Hey, I’m on a budget.”

“So am I!” I argued. I couldn’t remember a time I wasn’t on a budget, planning for my schooling or Elise’s.

She rose from my bed and stretched her arms over her head. “I should probably get going.”

“Why? You just got here. Stay and study, and I’ll work. That’s the beauty of me having my own place; you’re not confined to Mom’s anymore.”

“You sure it’s okay?”

I wasn’t certain Max would accept Elise spending as much time here as I wanted her to, but considering how often he came by the apartment, it would be hypocritical of him to complain. “It should be. Not like anyone even noticed you enter.”

“Guys are weird when it comes to their video games,” she said. “I’ll grab my book bag. But let’s get more food. I’m famished. I ran out of corn chips this afternoon, and I’ve been hungry ever since.”

Clearly, Elise’s corn chip diet was still in full effect.

On our way to the kitchen, Max and Jack took off their goggles, and their skin was lined from the headgear they’d been wearing for hours.

Max high-fived Jack. “It’s pretty intense, man.”

“Told you.” Jack sank onto the couch and rubbed his face.

“What’s intense?” Elise pulled out bread, meat, and cheese, and proceeded to make herself a sandwich.

Max looked over, finally noticing us. He lifted his chin in Jack’s direction. “Jack built a VR world that’s going to change the way people game.”

Elise slathered mayo on a slice of bread. “Really? Can I see?”

Max held out the goggles, and she shoved her unfinished sandwich at me and walked over.

Jack’s face twisted. “I don’t know. It’s not out yet, and the software is proprietary.”

Elise rolled her eyes. “I’m a nursing student. Who would I tell? Besides, you need a woman’s viewpoint. I doubt you’ve even thought of how female gamers will perceive your new toy.”

Jack sighed. “Fine, but just for a minute. I want to make the fixes Max pointed out.”

Elise grinned and put on the headgear, adjusting it to fit her smaller head. And immediately started walking around and bumping into furniture.

Jack gently lifted the headset from her face, and she blinked up at him. “Stay put, will you? You can’t move more than a foot or two. Remember, we’re in my living room.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Elise reaffixed the VR goggles.

They had a bickery dynamic, those two, but who was I to judge? Not like Max and I always got along.

Speaking of the Landlord Devil, Max walked into the kitchen, comfortable as could be, and helped himself to one of Jack’s sparkling waters while I finished making Elise’s sandwich. He proceeded to scour the cabinets, lifting a cracker from this box, a granola cluster from another. All of which he shoved into his sensual mouth.

He was better looking now that I knew he wasn’t a total asshole.

I grabbed my mug from this morning (I was trying to get better about not automatically reaching for new ones), made myself tea, and tried to ignore Max and his sexy mouth. It wasn’t hard with Elise squealing every few seconds in the living room and dodging imaginary objects. Jack and Elise were pretty entertaining, though different than watching Max and Jack.

Elise hopped around like she didn’t know what in the hell she was doing, while Jack both maneuvered invisible objects and seemed to periodically rescue Elise.

“Can they see each other inside there?” I asked. “Like virtual avatars?”

Max looked up from his rummaging and walked over to where I stood. Then he tossed something into his mouth that sent a rush of heat up my neck.

He wouldn’t…

I leaned closer and sniffed—and received an unsettling dose of hot-guy clean scent and chocolate.

My gaze shot to his face. “Did you just eat my chocolate?”

Jack didn’t buy chocolate. There was only one addict in the house, and that was me.

Max looked down and raised an eyebrow. “It was in Jack’s section.”

I pressed my lips together. It was either that or I would spew molten lava from my mouth.

I let out a strained breath. “Jack doesn’t eat chocolate, and you know that. Not to mention, the cupboard hasn’t been cordoned off by roommate.”

“Which is why this roommate situation is perfect,” he said, licking his elegant fingers. No hairy digits for pretty-boy Burrows. “You eat chocolate, as do I, and I enjoy the stuff you buy.”

The nerve! “You enjoy it because I pay a small fortune for quality.”

He extended a hand to my chocolate stash, which he’d pulled out without me knowing, and popped a black forest truffle into his mouth. “You should watch how much you spend on incidentals.”

Heat inflamed my chest. Pretty sure smoke spewed from my nostrils. That was it. I didn’t care if he was my landlord or rich and hot. He was going to die.

I squared off in front of him and poked his chest, stepping forward until I had him pressed up against the stove. He wasn’t built huge like a bodybuilder, but he had athletic pecs that resisted my angry, poky finger. “You are not allowed to touch my chocolate. What did I say about your fingers and losing one?”

Max had eased back with each step forward I made, but he’d been smiling the entire time and seemed to be holding back a laugh. His expression softened into a look of innocence. “How was I supposed to know Jack didn’t buy that chocolate for me? He knows I like it.”

I reached up and wrapped my fingers around his muscular neck. “Do you have a death wish?” I wasn’t squeezing hard, but this pretty little rich boy had no shame. He needed to know I meant business.

His gaze dropped to my mouth. A second later, I felt the weight of his hands on my hips.

To hold me back? But it didn’t feel like he was pushing me away. His hands were hot and wide, gripping just a little, and shooting sparks down my lower belly.

I was all bluster. And without real intent, coupled with the slushy feeling taking over my limbs from his hands on my hips, I slid my palms to his collarbone and couldn’t catch my breath.

We stood like that, gravitating closer. His warm breath grazed my face, and my heartbeat grew erratic…until Elise let out a loud yelp.

I jumped back and knocked my elbow on the counter at the same time I caught sight of Elise on Jack’s back.

Only she’d missed landing squarely and was dangling partially off the side.

Jack tried to grab her, but they were off balance. And then they were falling.

“Shit,” I said, rubbing my elbow and running into the living room.

Jack was flat on his back with Elise straddling his waist, her mass of thick hair covering his head as she struggled to push herself upright.

“Elise, are you okay?” I asked.

Max must have been right behind me, because he lifted Elise’s goggles off her head.

She looked up, then down at Jack, and scrambled off him.

Jack sat up and jerked off his own headgear. “What the hell was that?” He glared at my sister.

Elise’s lips parted. “That thing was coming after me, and you have all the swords.”

Jack pinched his eyes closed and seemed to grind his teeth. “Which I can’t use against the monster if you’ve pinned my arms to my body.”

“How was I supposed to know that? This is why you need a woman to help you design the game. I should have had swords too!”

Jack groaned and rose to his feet. “You have to earn them in the game.” He looked at me pleadingly. “Sophia, help me out here?”

“Time to study, Elise,” I said and grabbed the crappy tote of books she’d left near the kitchen.

Elise rolled her eyes, but she followed me to the kitchen and swept up the sandwich I’d finished making for her. “Fine, alienate half your audience,” she said to Jack. “Just know, women aren’t going to like your little game.” She sauntered down the hallway, shoulders squared. “And what’s with the giant breasts on my female avatar?” she shouted behind her.

I shook my head. It wasn’t easy keeping Elise out of trouble.

But when I looked toward the living room, Jack wasn’t the one making eye contact with me, Max was. And he looked dazed.

The same way I felt.

Because what the hell happened in the kitchen?


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