Roommate Wars: Chapter 23


Jack

It was incredibly odd to rely on someone for help who wasn’t a person I paid. When Elise offered to visit my dad, I’d automatically refused, but then she reminded me that she was my girlfriend.

My girlfriend. I’d had them before, but those relationships were different. Max would say I chose the wrong women. In truth, I’d chosen the right women: people who were superficial and allowed me to keep things surface level.

Elise wasn’t anything like the women I’d dated in the past, and she reminded me of it this morning by insisting on visiting my father, when none of my exes had known his name. My dad liked Elise, and she had been kind to him. Letting her go made sense.

I shook my head and made my way to my next meeting. This was how you got attached—little kindnesses and building trust—but I couldn’t seem to push Elise away.

Max was already on the scene when my mother died, so he’d been grandfathered in, but anyone else? For over a decade, I’d managed to keep people out. And yet, with Elise, I couldn’t. Mostly because she wouldn’t let me, but also because I didn’t want to keep her away. What I wanted was to hold her close. What the fuck was happening to me?

“Jack?”

I looked up, and Thalia was standing in the meeting room, staring at me staring off at nothing. “Yes?”

“Our new clients arrived. Are you—okay?”

I pulled out a seat at the table and set my laptop down. “Yes, call them in.”

I had tech support and engineers who could go over the technical aspects of this project, but if I handled it, I knew it would get done right. My need to control this aspect of the job drove Thalia crazy. She said it made for bad optics to have the owner doing menial tasks.

I didn’t care.

The clients walked in, and the meeting went well. We were amassing more investors than anticipated and had the ear of government agencies and a few foreign entities, who wanted to know where and how climate hazards would impact their communities and bottom line. Environ was growing faster than our team of fifteen could handle, and Thalia had left the meeting with a directive to hire experts in other fields to bulk up the program.

This was all good news, but now it was ten at night, and I still hadn’t gone to check on my dad.

The doctors were hopeful they’d rid my dad of cancer, but I didn’t trust doctors and I didn’t trust cancer. The medical staff had said my mom was in remission too, and then the cancer came back a year later and killed her within weeks. Nature could fuck you in a heartbeat and take everything.

I pulled up to the parking space I paid a fortune to reserve a short walk from my dad’s apartment and hurried up the stairs to his place, checking the time. It was closer to eleven than I would like.

Elise had stopped by, because she’d texted me when she was on her way to drop off the prescriptions, so at least one person had touched base with him. Even so, my dad hadn’t called or replied to my text messages over the last few hours, and I would feel better confirming he was okay.

I let myself into the apartment, expecting things to be quiet and the lights to be dimmed, but that wasn’t the case.

“Yes!” came a shout from my dad’s mancave, followed by the sound of feminine laughter.

Elise couldn’t still be here…

But apparently she was, because a second later she rushed out of my old bedroom, her hair pulled into a low ponytail tilting on one side and mussed. She was wearing a sweatshirt of mine she must have found in one of the closets.

Her eyes widened. “Jackson! Hurry back. The climax is about to begin.” She whipped past me and into the kitchen. “I’m getting more popcorn.”

Climax? The direction my brain went was obviously not what she was referring to. She must be talking about a TV show.

She dumped kernels into an ancient popcorn maker I didn’t know we still had, then grabbed half a stick of butter and placed it in the microwave. She looked over, her brow pinched in frustration. “It’s starting—what are you waiting for?”

This was weird. My dad wasn’t in distress, my new girlfriend was at my childhood home, and they were—hanging out?

I walked to the TV room, following orders.

The same show I’d watched with my dad was on the screen, about the couples introducing their parents on the first date. In this episode, one family was Mormon, and one was Muslim.

My dad looked up, but only briefly—his eyes glued to the television. “Where’s Elise? She’s about to miss it. Elise!” He fumbled with the remote and paused the show while I sank onto the couch.

Elise came in like a hurricane and half sat on my lap—which I didn’t mind—to catch the “climax,” spilling popcorn over the side of the bowl as she handed it to my dad.

My dad proceeded to give her a quick recap. “The Muslim mother-in-law’s eyes went wide when the Mormon family wore shoes inside their home, but they got over it quickly. The one thing the two families agree on is no sex before marriage. They might have more in common than they think.”

Strangely, the show was engaging, particularly while listening to my dad and Elise’s commentary.

“No!” Elise shouted.

My dad covered his eyes. “I can’t watch.”

Elise reached for my dad’s hand. “Tom, we do this together or we don’t do it at all.”

“Right you are,” my dad said.

Was this the Titanic sinking or a reality show? I reached for the popcorn, amused at the two of them.

My dad had decent color tonight, though he was wearing a blanket over his legs that Elise adjusted when it started to slip. She’d also brought him a glass of water when he paused the show and got up to use the bathroom. They acted like they’d known each other for years.

I tipped my chin up at Elise while my dad was in the bathroom. “You decided to stay?”

“Tom got me sucked into this show. I’ve watched four episodes straight. I might stroke out from all the secondhand embarrassment and drama.”

“Is that the reason for the crazed look in your eyes?”

She patted her face, then seemed to come to her senses. “Jackson, this show is addictive. How can you not like it?”

“Oh, I like it. My dad got me hooked on it the last time I was here.” I didn’t mention that I had planned to tell her about the show. “Just curious how you two ended up hanging out for several hours.”

“Well,” she started, “I was hungry, so I grabbed takeout for the two of us. I figured we could eat together and then I’d go home. But then your dad gave me a tour of your old bedroom and photos—”

“Photos?” My voice took on an unusually high pitch. “What photos?”

She smiled devilishly. “You as a naked baby…another after you’d dressed yourself for kindergarten. Then one where you were taking a girl to an eighth-grade dance. What was with the peach fuzz on your lip? Didn’t you think to shave that caterpillar? And was that girl six feet tall? You were, like, a foot shorter.”

I closed my eyes briefly. “My God, he showed you everything.”

“He did. Tom and I are besties now.” She looked up, scrunching her face. “I should introduce him to my mom. Not as a dating thing, but as a parents-who-could-hang kind of thing. I think they’d get along.”

“Wonderful,” I said dryly. “We could bring Kitty and Karl along and make it a parental party.”

“Excellent idea!”

“I was joking.”

Her brow furrowed. “Hasn’t your dad met Max’s parents before?”

I thought back. “Max’s family had a driver who took Max everywhere until we could drive. And my dad worked a lot—so no, I don’t think their paths ever crossed. Max’s parents were busier before they lost most of their fortune.”

She rested her chin on her hand. “Right, all the hoopla about Max’s family fortune being squandered due to poor investing.”

Sophia must have caught Elise up on Max’s family drama.

I shrugged. “They didn’t listen to Max when he told them not to invest.”

“Curious.”

“His parents not listening to him?”

“No, the part about you guys being best friends and your parents never meeting.”

My dad walked in, un-paused the show, and sank into his recliner. The man was so excited, he’d taken the remote into the bathroom with him.

I wasn’t as fastidious as Max in the cleanliness department, but even that curled my nose. “Dad, maybe we should wipe down the remote.”

He waved me off. “I left it on the counter and didn’t touch it until my hands were clean.”

So he may be using pop vernacular, but he hadn’t lost all dignity due to reality TV.

We finished the rest of the episode in relative silence, except for my dad and Elise’s dueling commentary.

“He did not just say that,” Elise said.

My dad shook his head. “Doghouse for that boy.”

I found their camaraderie more entertaining than the show and had to put effort into watching the TV and not the two of them.

When the episode was finally over, I stood. “We should get going, Elise.”

She checked her phone and sighed. “Yeah, probably a good idea.” She leaned over and hugged my dad. “Same time next week?”

“You better believe it.” My dad grinned, thrilled at his new friend. You’d think he’d won the lottery, he was beaming so wide.

After locking up the place, I walked Elise to my car and opened the door. She yawned and sank into the passenger seat.

On our way back to the apartment, I glanced over. “Thank you for taking care of my dad.”

She tilted her head against the passenger seat headrest, and another yawn escaped. “It was no trouble. Anytime.”

Once we got back to our place, Elise went into autopilot. She toed off her shoes in the entry, dumped her purse onto the counter, and walked to her bedroom, eyes half-lidded. “Night, night, Jackson.”

She was cute when she was tired. I grinned and locked the front door, then grabbed a glass of water before heading to bed. I’d just checked my phone alarm and closed my eyes when I felt a dip in the mattress.

A second later, a small, warm body pressed against mine.

Am I dreaming?

I carefully rolled over to find Elise curled on her side, her hands tucked under her cheek, sound asleep. She’d sleepwalked into my bedroom.

The first time Elise had done this, it ended in a one-night stand, after which she ditched me by leaving via the fire escape from Sophia’s then-bedroom across the hall. I’d learned later that Elise was a notorious sleepwalker. But even though she’d wandered into my room asleep, she hadn’t remained that way. She’d woken, realized where she was, and then kissed me. I’d been lusting after Elise for months by that point. Her kiss had been all the encouragement I needed to reciprocate.

I brushed a lock of hair from her eye, wondering if she’d wake the way she had that night and how I’d respond. Probably the same—eagerly.

But tonight, she only slept. And was snuggly. She scooched closer at my touch.

This should be awkward, but it wasn’t. It was amazing.

I stared up at the ceiling and sighed. How was I going to keep up my end of the bargain and let Elise go in a week? I was falling for her, and I didn’t want her to leave.

On that thought, I pulled her closer and breathed in her scent, soaking it in while I could and hoping it wouldn’t be the last time.


When my alarm went off at seven, I woke to déjà vu of the night Elise and I had slept together months ago. Because she was gone.

Had I dreamed she’d come into my bed last night? The tent I was pitching this morning said she’d been here.

I picked up the pillow she’d laid her head on and smelled it: buttercream and strawberries and something floral. The scent did nothing to chill my erection. Elise had definitely been here.

My chest tightened. Had she left without saying goodbye?

I reached for my phone and saw a note scribbled on the back of a grocery receipt.

Sorry about the sleepwalking! Geez! My subconscious likes your bed. I’ll make up for it tonight with dinner. Make sure you come home hungry.

Elise

Elise’s handwriting was neat and elegant. I don’t know what I expected, but not something so pretty.

Dinner? More frozen food? Fast food? Didn’t matter; I was game.

I rushed through my morning routine and was at my bedroom desk by eight, making phone calls and emailing my assistant to book a helicopter to Napa for me and Thalia a week from today for an investor lunch. By the time I checked the time, it was only three in the afternoon. Fuck, this day was dragging.

Elise should be home around six, which meant I had several hours until I saw her. I decided to catch up with Max.

Jack: Have you heard from Lizzie? She was text-harassing me for two months straight, but I haven’t heard from her in a couple of weeks.

Max: Had lunch with her about a month ago. She traveled to the East Coast for work, but she’s back now.

I’d met Lizzie at the same time I met Max, probably because she’d been Max’s friend first. Lizzie came from the same high society Max did, but like Max, she wasn’t anything like the people in their world. Lizzie was open, inclusive, and warm, and extremely fun to be around.

I’d spent quite a bit of time around Max’s parents and their friends, but it wasn’t until I sold my first company at the ripe age of nineteen for a fortune that high society gave me a second glance. Suddenly, I had value. Suddenly, they wanted to do business with me. Suddenly, they wanted to introduce me to this person or that person in exchange for an early in on my next project. Max’s parents were decent people underneath it all, but the others… Most were fuckers.

I typed out a text to Lizzie.

Jack: Where are you? Where’s my daily dose of ridicule?

Almost immediately, I received a response.

Lizzie: Calm down. I’m dealing with client drama. I don’t have time to send you reels.

Lizzie’s harassment usually came in the form of funny animal reels she sent daily. One of a chicken chasing a dog or a dog stomping on a pig to get it to play. Now that I thought about it, this was probably her way of saying, “Come hang out.”

Jack: What happened to friends before work?

Lizzie: Was that ever a thing?

Jack: I just made it one.

Lizzie: (eye-roll emoji) Says the guy who’s running multiple companies and shows up to lunch in sweatpants—when he bothers to show up.

Jack: I’ve stepped it up. I wear jeans now.

Lizzie: Are you and Max in cahoots? He just texted me. I hear nothing from you knuckleheads for weeks, and suddenly everyone wants a piece of me.

I chuckled. Same old Lizzie.

Jack: Beer night?

Lizzie: Sure, I could use it.

We moved to a group text with Max and discussed dates while bickering about availability, because when Max and I were free, Lizzie wasn’t, and she liked to point out how difficult we were. We finally settled on a time and day, and the text thread went silent.

When I glanced at the time again, it was only half past three. I groaned, unable to focus.

Instead of hanging around the house pretending to work and waiting for Elise to get home, I changed into running shoes. I had a lot of pent-up energy that had begun this morning after waking fully aroused. Running up and down Russian Hill a few dozen times should help cool the jets.

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