Roommate Wars: Chapter 21

Jack

I wasn’t sure why I hated being in the office, but it was the thing I avoided the most in life. As a person who owned three companies (not including the ones I’d sold), that hadn’t always been easy.

Once Environ had grown large enough, I hired Thalia to be the one in the office instead of me. But today, I’d dragged my sorry ass out of the house and participated in two team meetings. The growth of our company should have kept my mind occupied, and it did. For a while. Now I had too much time to think about other things. So of course my mind wandered to Elise.

Never thought I’d find myself dating someone just to avoid an aggressive CEO. That was a first.

Who was I kidding? Sure, Thalia was more aggressive than other women, but that wasn’t the reason I’d wanted to date Elise. It was merely the excuse I used. I didn’t like the idea of Elise with someone else. It just about made my head explode.

I rubbed my temple and closed my eyes, leaning back in the leather chair of the office I used when I came into the building.

Was it such a terrible thing to date Sophia’s sister? Elise made me laugh. And she was loyal. Not something you often saw in the crowds Max and I ran in. She’d also been kind to my father—

My shoulders tensed. That there was the problem.

Most people weren’t all good or all bad, but I didn’t date sweet women. Dating women with a few ulterior motives made it easy to end things. But the ramifications of those past relationships had become too burdensome, so I’d stopped engaging. Then I’d grown lonely or possessive—was still trying to figure that one out—and here I was, dating another roommate, which I swore I wouldn’t do.

Two weeks wasn’t forever, and it would give me someone to take to work functions. So many fucking work functions. Somehow, the timeline made the whole thing palatable.

Thalia stopped at my office door and rapped lightly. “Am I interrupting?”

“Not at all.” I rested my elbows on my desk, hands crossed. “What can I do for you?”

She looked down, running her slender fingers along the edge of a yellow folder. She stepped inside the office and approached the floor-to-ceiling view of the Embarcadero instead of my desk. “I was just thinking about our engagement with the Napa investors.”

“Oh?” I stood and joined her, peering at the hustle and bustle below. The Environ offices had top-notch views of the bay, and traffic was picking up as people called it a day and got in their exercise along the waterfront. “You don’t think they’ll come through?”

Her expression remained bland, but I caught her eyes darting to the side for a split second. “I think they will…but they care about appearances.”

Where was she going with this? “Our company, along with the others I run, has a pristine reputation.”

“They do.” She looked over, meeting my eyes. “For now.”

I huffed out a breath of amusement. “You’re expecting that to change?”

Her gaze was back on the view. “Companies investing hundreds of millions in our technology won’t want anything to come between them and the bottom line. These days it can be something wrong with the technology…or a scandal.” She wiped an invisible smudge on the glass in front of her—likely causing a bigger smudge.

“Did you hear something?” I turned to her slightly. “Something I should know about?”

She sighed and looked at me. “It’s not about what I heard. It’s about what I saw. I wouldn’t want to pry into anything personal—”

I wasn’t so sure about that.

“—but your date at the dinner party the other night was unprofessional.”

The collar around my neck grew tight, and I unbuttoned the top. I wasn’t a fan of Thalia talking about Elise. “You mean my girlfriend. And my girlfriend doesn’t need to be professional.”

Her gaze narrowed infinitesimally, but I caught it. She looked annoyed. And also perceptive.

Thalia was no joke. Only now, I could honestly say that Elise and I were dating.

When I thought back, my proposal hadn’t been romantic, and yet Elise said yes. She’d trusted me. Elise was honest and open, and it made me furious to hear Thalia disparaging her.

“Thalia, stay out of my personal life.” My tone was low, a warning.

“All I’m saying, Jack,” she continued, ignoring the veiled threat, “is that you and your roommate are different. You’re one of the most successful businessmen in San Francisco, and she’s—what, a student?”

My chest burned. I hated the insinuation that Elise was less than. “She has a master’s and is a nurse epidemiologist for the city. She’s one of the unnamed public servants helping keep people like you and me safe.”

“Right.” She sent me a sad little smile. “You see my point, don’t you?”

Unbelievable. “Not particularly.”

“She doesn’t—well, I’m just going to be blunt—she doesn’t fit in with your personal and professional trajectory.”

Elise shopped at Target and grabbed my ass in front of a roomful of San Francisco’s high society. She liked to kick her pretty feet up on my coffee table and eat corn chips like a baseball player with a bag of sunflower seeds. She was feisty, yet could be incredibly kind, like when she’d entertained my father until I got home. And for unknown reasons, she got under my skin. A smile pulled at the corners of my mouth.

“Jack?” Thalia’s tone was filled with irritation. She likely thought I wasn’t listening to her, and a part of me wasn’t.

It was twilight—the view of the Ferry Building and its clock tower indicating the hour—with shades of pastel painting the beige buildings. “You know what they say about opposites.” I turned and strode toward the door. I stopped before exiting the office and caught Thalia’s open-mouthed look of surprise. “They attract.”

I left the building. It was time I got home to my new girlfriend.

Jack: Where are you?

Hot Stuff: Soph’s shop. Came here after work to help out.

Jack: Have you eaten dinner? Need any food?

Hot Stuff: Are you trying to woo me?

I grinned.

Jack: Just putting in my boyfriend duties.

Knowing Elise, she’d skipped lunch and only eaten corn chips since breakfast.

Hot Stuff: In that case, yes, please. Bring sustenance. Sophia says she’s craving enchiladas with extra cheese. Also, I haven’t eaten in a while, and we might have a hangry situation going on.

For some reason, this only made me happy. Because she needed me, and I wanted to take care of her, if only for a short time. Like, say, two weeks.

Jack: Understood. Coming soon.

When I arrived at Sophia’s shop, Max was there too—and it was mild mayhem.

“Sophia!” Elise reached for the phone Sophia was holding away from her. “That’s my job.”

Sophia put her hands on her hips, clutching the receiver. “You’re scaring the clients.” She turned to Max. “Can you get her a cracker or something? Her blood sugar is low.”

Elise’s face was bright red, and she had a crazed look in her eyes. She glanced up and saw me.

I lifted the large takeout bag I’d picked up, displaying the goods.

Sophia followed Elise’s gaze and let out a deep sigh. “Thank God.”

Elise snorted at her sister and speed-walked toward me. “You act as if you don’t get hungry,” she said to her sister, all casual, but she was reaching for the bag like a vulture.

I held it above my head and turned to the side so the family jewels were less vulnerable in case Elise’s knee decided to snap out.

She glared. “Boyfriend, do you have a death wish?”

This nickname I could handle, though even Jackson was growing on me. Because only Elise called me that. “I don’t trust you with the food. You won’t share.”

She pointed at my face. “I cook for you! I share that food.”

“You hoard what’s in the fridge, and if I accidentally touch something of yours, you snap at me.”

“That only happened once.”

She’d been saving a bagel she’d picked up from a specialty shop the day before. I knew better, but it had looked delicious, and I might have reached for it. “Once was enough. You almost broke a rib with the elbow jab you delivered.”

“Boyfriend?” Sophia said. She stared at Elise. “Why are you calling him boyfriend?”

Max walked up to Sophia, staring at us with the same perplexed look.

Shit.

“Shit,” Elise muttered, mimicking my thoughts. “Nothing, Soph. It’s nothing.” She dug her tiny fingers into my side to get me to release my grip on the takeout. It didn’t work. “We’re still fake dating,” Elise said. “It’s easier if we play it off all the time.”

“How’s that easier?” Sophia’s look was dubious.

I slipped around Elise’s grabby hands and set the food on a clutter-free desk. I hadn’t been expecting Max to be here, though I should have. In any case, I’d gotten extra tacos for Elise, so she’d just have to share.

Within seconds, chairs scraped the floor as we pulled them up to the table, and all talking ceased while the food consumption commenced.

But Sophia and Max were exchanging questioning glances and doing the nonverbal communication that drove me and Elise nuts. They didn’t seem entirely sure of the situation, but everyone was too hungry to stop shoveling food in their mouths.

“Mmm,” Elise said, her expression one of ecstasy. “Jackson, you are an angel.”

I bit into my chicken burrito with the works, ignoring her lusty look that had me thinking of other things. “I should have known food would be the way to your heart, since you’re so stingy with it.”

She smirked. “Don’t start with that again. But yes, food is important. Can’t you tell by how well I feed you?”

I would not fall for that and admit the quality of her cooking was debatable. I was just happy she fed me. It sucked making food for yourself. I much preferred Elise’s frozen concoctions.

Sophia pointed a chip at Elise. “Now that you’ve eaten, go home. It’s getting late. I’ve got this.”

Elise frowned. “You’re just saying that because I was cranky earlier.”

Sophia laughed. “You were, but don’t worry, I’m wrapping up and heading home too.”

“I’ll stay with Sophia,” Max said, tossing the final bite of his taco into his mouth.

Elise and I looked at each other, shrugged, then started cleaning up empty food containers. We headed toward the front of the store. “Are you sure?” Elise asked her sister once more, glancing around as though she was afraid to leave Sophia with all the work.

Sophia yawned. “The rest of this can wait until tomorrow. Max and I are right behind you.”

With that reassurance, Elise and I headed south on Polk, then cut over into our neighborhood. She was wearing a flared navy skirt with a pinstripe top and a pair of white Adidas sneakers. The skirt and top were basics I recognized from the loot I’d given her, but the sneakers were all Elise and made the outfit. She was professional and fashionable and pretty, and I had the urge to be closer. Which was a strange sensation, but I was rolling with it.

“Let’s hold hands,” I said. She looked up, comically appalled. I raised my eyebrow. “Get used to it. We’re dating.”

It was dark out, but I’d swear her cheeks flushed.

“I didn’t take you for a hand-holder.” She accepted my hand, and I nearly shivered like a maiden at the pleasure of her touch. And also because her palm was fucking freezing.

“I’m not, but it seemed like a good idea. What in the hell is wrong with your hands? They’re ice blocks.”

She tried to tug her palm free, but I tightened my grip. “They’re always cold. Don’t hold my hand if you don’t like it.”

“I like your cold hands.”

She sighed and stopped fighting. After a few more moments, she looped her arm through mine, bringing her body closer. “You like cold hands… How do you feel about cold feet?”

I glanced down. “Huh?”

“My feet are cold too,” she said, grinning. “Hey!” Her expression filled with excitement. “Now that you’re my boyfriend, does this mean I get foot rubs as well as hand-holding?”

I groaned, but it was halfhearted, because I liked the idea of doing boyfriend things for Elise. Though I’d keep that to myself. “I knew you’d try to take advantage.”

Her expression was all innocence. “You call foot rubs taking advantage, yet buying me clothes is acceptable?”

I looked ahead. “Buying you stuff is easy. Wish you’d let me do it more often.”

“No.”

I glanced at her set chin. “Stubborn.”

She peered up, a megawatt smile on her face. “Back to the foot rubs. My dogs are killing me. If I had a real boyfriend, foot rubs would be a requirement.”

I stopped her in the middle of the sidewalk and turned her to face me. I tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear and brushed her cheek with the back of my hand. “I am your real boyfriend.”

Her eyes widened.

Message received.

Sexual tension surrounded us like a San Francisco fog rolling in over the hills, and Elise delicately cleared her throat. “Should we watch TV when we get home?” she said, changing the subject.

It was late and a work night, but I was a night owl, though I didn’t think Elise was. “Sure, if you’re up for it.” We started walking again, and I reached for her hand—and this time, she didn’t say anything.

We returned to the apartment a few minutes later and changed into more comfortable clothes before meeting up in the living room.

Elise wore my boxers and T-shirt, and I was in sweatpants and a holey tee. So, our usual uniforms.

She eyed my shirt from her slouched position on the couch. “Don’t you think you should put that one out to pasture?”

I looked down and picked at the fabric. The original emblem was faded and cracking in places. “Nope. It’s my favorite.”

She shook her head. “I can tell.”

I sat beside her. Maybe a little too close, because my weight had her tipping against me. Okay, I might have planned that. And she didn’t seem to mind.

Elise snuggled up. “You’re like an electric blanket.”

“Feel free to wrap me around you.”

She side-eyed me. “That’s naughty, Jackson. Not sure how I feel about having a naughty boyfriend.”

I leaned closer, my gaze on her mouth. “You haven’t seen naughty, Elise.”

Her body jerked lightly, and I glimpsed goosebumps running up her arms.

She lunged for the remote. “What should we watch?” Her focus was on the TV, but the tension lingered.

We surfed Netflix and settled on a political drama that had just released.

Elise yawned and lay on her side, stealthily tucking one of her ice-block feet under my thigh.

She hadn’t been lying: those things were as cold as her hands. Had they been this cold the night we slept together? I had no recollection of cold feet, but then again, I’d been busy focusing on other things…

Her small body pressing against mine, waking me. Then her tensing at the realization of where she was.

I rolled over, facing her, and she looked confused for a moment—before she leaned forward and kissed me, seemingly surprising herself as much as me.

Elise had never been just Sophia’s sister. She’d always been intriguing and strong in a way I admired. So like any red-blooded man, I’d returned her kiss tenfold… But this was not the time to be thinking of hot sex. Not with her next to me and all too tempting.

I grabbed her foot and started kneading the arch to distract myself. Her feet were bony, with chipped light pink nail polish on her toenails. I smiled. They were cute, just like her.

She looked back, surprised. “Where’d you learn to do that?”

I leaned forward and punched the volume up on the remote a couple notches. “I have skills.”

Elise moaned, and the muscles in my arms bunched. Her moan wasn’t helping me forget about sex. “That feels so good,” she said and burrowed deeper into the couch.

Again, not helping.

We watched the show for a while, and at some point, I switched to her other foot. When I finally looked down, she’d fallen asleep.

Her hands were tucked under her head and her lips were slightly parted. She looked incredibly beautiful.

I searched the room for a throw blanket. Which, apparently, I didn’t own. Somehow Max had failed me on throw blankets. My best-friend home decorator would hear about this.

I was in uncharted territory—taking care of another human who wasn’t family. But did I wake Elise and tell her she should go to bed where it was warm?

No, I did not. I hunkered down closer and watched the show, closing my eyes for just a moment…

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