Roommate Wars: Chapter 1

Elise

I stepped into the kitchen with my shoulders back and my head held high like I owned the place. Technically, I rented, but I had to show this apartment and its inhabitants who was in charge.

The kitchen’s yellowing wallpaper cast a sallow glow, with one pitiful window that looked onto the concrete jungle of San Francisco’s lower Pacific Heights. The neighborhood wasn’t bad, with charming restaurants and architecture here and there, but not this building. This building sucked. But the apartment had been the only thing I could afford when I signed the lease two weeks ago. Now I understood why it was so damn cheap.

There was more than ugly wallpaper and grease-caked appliances to greet me in my new home.

I stormed across the kitchen and flung open the sink cabinet like Rambo preparing for battle. The roach motel sat exactly where I’d placed it last night to seduce my unwanted guests to their demise.

And those menaces were having none of it.

Roughly five black bodies the size of my thumb scurried from the light, avoiding the roach motel as if it were a contamination zone.

My skin crawled and my heart thumped. “Gah!” I flung the cabinet door shut and ran out of the room, hopping as though the ground were lava.

How did they know to avoid the trap?

Bang, bang, bang, came pounding on my living room wall, followed by a shout to keep it down mixed with an f-bomb.

Some of my new neighbors were nice, working-class folks. Others were scarier than my roaches. The guy next door fell in the second category. I’d only seen him from a distance. He was stocky, with unwashed hair, and wore the same dark-stained hooded sweatshirt and jeans every day, but it was his demeanor that had me hiding in my apartment. He turned his TV to max volume and played it throughout the night, but if I made so much as a peep, he complained through the thin walls.

As I contemplated my roach dilemma and tried to ignore my neighbor, another knock sounded, this one coming from the front door.

Normally my neighbor kept to yelling through walls, and that suited me because I did not want to encounter him face to face. Was he stepping up his game? My head grew woozy, and my hands began to sweat.

I was determined to live alone for the first time in my life, without student loans and without my sister’s help, but it wasn’t easy. Rent in San Francisco was astronomical, and my neighbors were unpredictable. Not to mention, the place I’d found had…issues.

More knocking sounded at the front door, and I rubbed my eyes. I was exhausted after putting in a long day at my new job with the city health department, and no, it hadn’t escaped my notice that I worked in public health and lived in a place that should probably be condemned.

I grabbed my phone and positioned my finger over the 911 emergency button, just in case, before I slowly opened the door with the chain latched.

Only the person on the other side wasn’t my scary neighbor, or any of my neighbors.

“Jack?”

My sister’s old roommate stood with one hand tucked into the front pocket of his jeans, a blue crewneck sweater stretching over an athletic build I’d secretly ogled when I visited my sister at her old place. The outfit was an upgrade from the sweatpants and holey T-shirts I usually saw him in. But his slightly ruffled, goldish-brown hair and piercing forest-green eyes were all Jack, set against an expression of inconvenience.

I hadn’t seen Jack in months, as I was avoiding the man. He was literally the last person I wanted to find me here.

I glanced at the living room behind me. Everything I owned was a hand-me-down and on full display: a pleather recliner that had been hidden for a decade beneath Mom’s clothes and other items back home and a wobbly white side table I’d pulled in off the street. No pictures. No plants. Nothing to make the place homey because I hadn’t gotten around to that part. I also couldn’t afford such luxuries. I would do anything to be independent, even suffer roaches, sketchy neighbors, and hand-me-down furniture. Didn’t mean I wasn’t embarrassed as hell that I couldn’t afford better.

“You planning on letting me in?” He looked me in the eye without a single fidget. I was the only one lacking confidence here.

Somehow Jack had discovered where I lived, and it wasn’t like I was hiding anything; he was several inches taller and could look over my head. I unlatched the chain and opened the door wider.

He stepped inside, and his gaze scanned the living room, then landed on me like a stone. “This is where you chose to move? Your sister is worried, and I can see why.”

From what my sister Sophia had said, Jack was wealthy, but you’d never know it from his living arrangement in a two-bedroom unit inside his best friend’s building. It made sense he’d assume my shithole apartment was a choice. “Was there a point to your visit?” Given the roaches, my neighbor, and now Jack, my irritability was in peak form.

I hadn’t expected my overprotective sister to send Jack to hunt me down. Sophia knew how tense things had been ever since the night I’d stayed over six months ago and sleepwalked into Jack’s bedroom. I might have also accidentally-on-purpose landed on his penis. Oops. That one-night stand resulted in the worst walk of shame, and I was still recovering from both. Sophia must have been desperate to find me if she’d sent him along.

I intentionally hadn’t given Sophia my new address until I could find time to spruce up the place. I couldn’t get away with holding out forever, but I thought I’d make it past the first week.

Jack folded his arms loftily. He could pass for a normal tall guy—until he crossed his arms and the biceps popped out. Underneath those casual clothes were well-defined muscles and a swimmer’s build I was trying to forget. “Sophia’s worried.”

“Nothing to worry about,” I said with fake cheer. Ever since that night, I’d been extremely awkward around Jack, and now was no different. Especially when memories of his naked body flashed before my eyes. My brow wrinkled as I considered something else. “How’d you find me here, anyway?”

His expression turned bland. “I asked around.”

I eyed him suspiciously. “I made it a point to not tell anyone my new address, so what do you mean you asked around?”

He stepped farther into the small space, ignoring my question. “What’s that smell?”

“Curry. From my neighbor across the hall.”

“No, that smells good. I’m talking about the odor.” He peeked inside the kitchen, his nose curling.

Oh, that smell. Yeah, that smell had been around since the day I moved in, and I didn’t want to think too hard about its origin.

“No idea what you’re talking about, and I take offense to your suggesting my place stinks.” I tucked the wool scarf primly around my neck. September in San Francisco could be blazing or it could be nippy. These things became apparent when your heater was on the fritz.

Jack let out a low sigh, taking in my bundled-up appearance. “It’s freezing in here, Elise. Why isn’t your furnace on?”

“I turned it down to save money.” He didn’t need to know just how decrepit my place was. He’d run back to the flat he rented from his best friend—my sister’s boyfriend—and blab. Sophia would then find out and insist I move in with her and Max in his lush apartment on the top floor of his Victorian building, and that wasn’t happening. I needed personal independence. “I have lots of sweatshirts and thick socks, so no worries.”

He studied me so long a chill ran down my arms, reminding me of other chills he’d elicited via sexy, tender touches a few months ago. Damn those memories!

I forced my gaze blank. “Feel free to tell Sophia I’m safe and sound and will be in touch soon. Anything else I can do for you?”

His eyes narrowed and held for a beat. “Why are you so stubborn?”

Jack Townsend had been relaxed around my sister, but for some reason, I agitated him. Well, the feeling was mutual. We must bring out the worst in each other. Except the night he’d worshiped my body like a temple…

I needed to stop thinking of that night.

“Why are you so bossy?” I tilted my head and blinked several times, glaring in a way I hoped spelled doom for him.

He sighed as though he was tired of my antics. “I’ve never been bossy. Not even with my employees.”

Jack’s business comings and goings were somewhat of a mystery. I’d only recently learned he owned an entire company. No idea what the guy did, since I’d only seen him when I visited Sophia, and back then, he’d been milling around the kitchen searching for food in his bare feet or playing video games with Max.

A devious look crossed his face. “I need to use your bathroom.” He strode across the living room, then stopped abruptly and retraced his steps over the squishy floorboard I made a practice of walking around for fear of dropping onto my downstairs neighbor’s lap.

Jack bounced on the floorboard, and it gave way too much. I rubbed my forehead, and he cut me a look. “Nice flooring you got here.”

Yes, the floor was a problem. But not the biggest.

Jack continued down the hallway.

“Wait!” I ran after him. “The flush is a little tricky. It takes a tender touch. I’ll get it after you’re finished.”

He stepped inside the tiny bathroom, which required tucking one’s arms in to turn, and closed the door in my face.

Shit. He’d picked up on the smell, the floorboard, and now he’d know there was an issue with the toilet. Also, exactly what personal crap had I forgotten to put away in there?

I performed mental gymnastics, running through the space: toothpaste on the sink, panda shower cap on the door hook, hair bands in a jewelry bowl—nothing too egregious. Except—

I slapped my hand over my mouth, biting back a scream. I’d left out the bleach for the peach fuzz above my lip on the counter!

Son. Of. A. Bitch.

I’d never lived with a guy. In fact, no man had ever come over to my place because I’d always lived with my hoarder mom in the Sunset District, and now that I thought about it, some of the stuff in my bathroom was mortifying.

Jack was still hot, but my crush had ended the night we slept together. I’d purged him from my system through meaningless sex. Fine, I was in the process of purging, but even so, this was just awkward. Crush or no crush, no woman wanted a man to know her hygiene habits.

“You almost done in there?” I paced the hallway. And then I heard it. The sound of the toilet tank cover scraping over the base. Noooo! “Jack! What are you doing?”

He let out what sounded like a frustrated groan, then said, “What the hell, Elise?” He opened the bathroom door so fast I nearly fell onto his broad chest. “What is going on here?” His green eyes were darker than normal, and his full, kissable lips were set like granite.

My mouth formed a silent O. “What? Not everyone has a place as nice as yours.”

“Your apartment is a piece of shit. I wouldn’t let my dog live here.”

“You don’t own a dog.”

“And what’s the deal with the furnace? You didn’t just turn it down; you turned it off. It smells damp. Actually—” He looked over my shoulder into the small one-bedroom we San Franciscans called a “junior one-bedroom,” because it was essentially a closet we stuffed a bed in. His nose wrinkled. “Is that black mold?”

Shit, shit. I stepped backward and reached behind me, fumbling with the bedroom doorknob and trying to close the door. “It’s mildew. No biggie.”

He pushed past me and opened the door, where more of my single-lady paraphernalia lay haphazardly: undies drying on a drying rack, though they wouldn’t dry because it was too damp and cold in here, plus mounds of blankets to prove him right about the furnace.

He grabbed my hand and dragged me down the short hallway. “You can’t stay here. It’s toxic.”

I karate-chopped his hand, and he pulled back with a wince. “Don’t tell me what to do, Jack Townsend.”

He rolled his eyes. “Elise, people get sick from black mold. I’m surprised you haven’t noticed symptoms. It’s toxic to even be standing here.”

“Symptoms?” I said, as though I didn’t know what he was talking about. I was a registered nurse with a master’s in public health. I knew. I’d just been ignoring the chronic headache, brain fog, and weird metallic taste until a better apartment came along—which I was desperately working to find. No point in telling him he was right and that I’d slept with a mask at night since the day I moved in. Or that I’d been begging my new landlord to fix the furnace.

The place had been fine when I checked it out a month ago, but apparently things could go south fast. It didn’t help that my apartment had been occupied when I viewed it, with the mold situation hidden behind furniture and drapes.

“Like a chronic headache, that sort of thing?” he prodded.

Was he some sort of mind reader? He was supposed to be the easygoing guy my sister roomed with for a few months. When the hell had he become intuitive? Or knowledgeable about toxic mold?

I waved my hand. “I’ll buy bleach and take care of it.”

“You’d need more than bleach; you’d need a hazmat suit.” As though he’d just reminded himself of how bad it was, he looped his arm around my back and shuffled me to the front door.

“Hey!” I said and took a step back.

“We’re leaving, Elise.” His expression was pure masculine obstinance.

I planted my feet. “You’re leaving. This is where I live.”

He shot me a look that had my hackles rising. Because that look was calculating. “I have an extra bedroom now that your sister moved in with Max. You can stay at my place while your landlord takes care of this”—he looked around in disgust—“situation.”

Hell to the no. Had he lost his mind?

Jack’s apartment was only a floor below where my sister lived with Max. Not to mention the living with Jack part. I was trying to get over my crush, but I hadn’t quite succeeded. He was beautiful, and he’d been incredible in bed. These were temptations only the strongest of independent women could overlook, and I was determined to be one of them. “I’ll pass.”

His mouth twisted in annoyance. “Still thinking about that night, are you? It wasn’t that good. I’ve entirely forgotten about it.”

My face heated and a twinge of pain shot through my stomach. It wasn’t that good?

A memory flashed of Jack gently gripping my face and passionately kissing me, his tongue teasing my mouth while his hands roamed. I’d quivered at that kiss, and the sex had been explosive…and he’d just said he didn’t remember it?

Asshole!

“It’ll only be for a month,” he continued and checked the time on his phone, as though what we were discussing wasn’t the major upheaval I didn’t need. “Just long enough for you to find a decent alternative.”

A woman had her pride. “No.”

Bad sex? Was he trying to piss me off?

He lifted his eyebrow. “Not even rent-free?”

Say what?

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