Roommate Wars: Chapter 24

Elise

I set a ridiculously expensive cut of meat in the pan while talking to Soph on the phone, and it started to sizzle.

Was the temperature too hot?

I checked the stovetop, but according to the filet mignon directions on YouTube (the font of gourmet cooking), I was preparing it correctly.

Sophia squawked through my earbuds. “You’re cooking? I thought you were joking when you said you cooked for Jack. Do you even know how?”

“I can use an oven, Soph. And I’m a master at the microwave.” I thought back. “I also make killer fresh popcorn.”

“Since when?”

The popcorn was a recent development, and Jack’s dad might have had to shout out pointers to me from the TV room, but it came out amazing. “Since this week. Anyway, why are you bitching? You’re no chef. It’s a lucky thing you nabbed a billionaire who likes to make you food. Besides, is it any surprise that neither of us can cook? That was the one thing Mom did well.”

Mom was good at preparing food. She even washed and put away dishes. It was the insane collection of random shit that had been the brunt of her hoarding problem. Until she had a stroke several months ago and finally got therapy for a fifteen-year-old trauma. Our mom was doing much better now—not perfect, but better. Sophia and I occasionally saw her struggling with the desire to hold on to something, but her house was no longer a hazard zone. And she sounded happy when I called her these days, which made me happy.

“Exactly,” Sophia said, “so why are you going to this length if you and Jack are only fake dating?” She sounded suspicious.

If I told her the truth, and that Jack and I were dating for real, though only for the next week or so, I’d have even bigger issues. I liked Jack, and waking in his arms had been incredible, if accidental. I wanted to do something nice for him. But I kept the real reason for the food prep to something Sophia would not freak out over. Well, not as much, anyway. “I might have fallen asleep in Jack’s bed last night.”

What?” Rustling and scratching sounds came through the earbuds, as though she’d dropped her phone, then, “Elise Marie!”

“Look, Soph, the cat’s out of the bag. Jack and I have already slept together. Figuratively and literally. Is it such a big deal if we shared a bed?” This was all bravado on my part, because waking up in Jack’s arms had been startling. And also the most natural thing in the world. But I’d worry about that salient fact later. “I sleepwalk; what else is new? Your old roommate is used to it by now.”

“Only because the last time you also landed on his penis and boned! I can’t take you anywhere!”

“Boned? Really, Soph? Show some class.”

We’d so boned. I’d boned that man good. And had been thinking of doing it again this morning when I took in his bared, muscular chest. It had required an enormous amount of mental fortitude to drag my tired ass out of Jack’s arms.

“In any case,” I said, “I’m cooking to make up for the sleepwalking and late-night intrusion. It’s all good. Jackson loves my cooking.”

“Jack would eat crocodile meat if you put it in front of him.”

Ew. “Isn’t that supposed to taste like fish?”

“I don’t know. But you understand my point. He’s not picky.”

“Which works to my advantage, because I might have just burned this astronomically expensive steak. Gotta go!”

“Don’t you dare hang—”

I hung up. I wasn’t joking. The meat was looking crispy. I flipped it over and turned off the heat, then heard him entering the apartment.

He walked into the kitchen, his T-shirt drenched with sweat, clad in running shorts and shoes.

“What’s that smell?” he said, setting down a bag of groceries on the counter a few feet away.

I punched my fists to my hips. “Is that how you greet your chef who’s been slaving for hours to prepare you a home-cooked meal?”

He delivered a disbelieving look. “Has there been cooking involved? Your form of meal prep is heating up frozen items in the microwave.” He walked over, and I noticed his damp T-shirt sticking to the chest muscles I’d investigated thoroughly this morning. Then he leaned over my shoulder and pulled the top off the pan. “Hey, that doesn’t look like it came from the frozen food section. And it smells good.”

Jack must have been doing rigorous exercise prior to coming home to build up all that sweat, and yet all I could smell were hints of body soap, laundry detergent, and a hot-guy scent that was putting thoughts in my head. Naked, sweaty thoughts.

I bumped him with my hip. “Back up buddy—Hot Stuff is in the kitchen and making magic happen.”

He chuckled and returned to the counter and the groceries he’d brought and started pulling items from a reusable shopping bag with Max’s company logo on it. Jack was nothing if not frugal. “My friend Lizzie is coming over this week. I picked up beer, a few appetizers, and corn chips. Noticed you were out.”

My hands froze as I prepared a flavored ketchup, and I looked over. “You bought me corn chips? Why?”

No one bought me my favorite food, not even Sophia. She was always too busy complaining they weren’t a part of the food group pyramid.

He shrugged. “You like them.”

Shit. First the domestic shutting down of the house in the dark so I could go to bed first, and now this?

I pressed my lips together and checked the homemade baked fries I’d prepared, distracting myself. He’d bought me something—without my asking. Without my even pointing out that I liked it. He just noticed that I did and got me more.

This was a slippery slope, and it was already too late because I’d fallen half in love with him.

“When will food be ready?” he asked, running a hand through damp, wavy locks.

“Soon,” I said, my voice shaky. I was suddenly incredibly nervous. When had I started to fall in love with Jack?

“I’m taking a shower.” He headed toward the hallway. His haggard T-shirt was thin from overuse and giving me an indecent view of his back muscles. So now I had the visual of his body through his tee and the knowledge he was getting naked in a minute. Not to mention the falling in love part. I’d never been in love; why’d it have to be with Jack?

He returned to the living room a few minutes later, showered, shaved, and with a newer T-shirt that didn’t hug the muscles as much as the ratty one. I’d complained last night about his tee needing to be thrown out because it was too old. Now I saw the benefit of the thin ones.

I leaned over the dining table and set a pink peony inside a glass I’d filled with water.

He glanced at the place settings with blue cloth napkins I’d found buried in a kitchen drawer. I’d bet money Jack had never used those in his life. “Flowers?” he said. “To what do I owe this effort?”

“I owed you.” I straightened a napkin nervously. “For last night.”

He hunted in an upper kitchen cabinet. “You don’t owe me anything.” Then he glanced over with a wink. “I liked having you in my bed. You’re a cuddler.”

I covered my face, which had heated to a thousand degrees. “How embarrassing.”

“Like I said, I enjoyed it.” His lusty gaze shifted to one of annoyance. “Until you left without saying goodbye.”

My mouth parted. “But I left a note. Didn’t you get it?”

“I found it.” He set what looked like a very expensive bottle of red wine on the table, then rummaged around in a drawer and pulled out a corkscrew. But not the cheap type. This one was black matte with a polished wooden handle that worked like a crank.

He placed the corkscrew on top of the bottle, pushed down, then pulled up, and in one smooth move the cork was out.

The cheapo corkscrews I used would have left cork floaties, but the wine he poured into a glass was floatie free and looking delicious.

“Note or no note,” he said, “I would have preferred to find you there.”

I looked up to him staring, sending some sort of message my lady bits immediately interpreted even if my brain was slow.

My nervous system popped like uncorked champagne, and I set a bowl of sautéed brussels sprouts and bacon on the table, attempting to keep my hands steady. “But this is a platonic dating thing.” I might be falling in love, but that didn’t eliminate the potential combustibility of dating Jack long term. He was head and shoulders above anyone I’d been with, and he was Max’s best friend. There’d be no escaping him if things went south.

He chuckled, the sound deep and rumbly. “It’s not platonic.” He made his way to the table and set the glass of wine down.

The wine, his words… Was he trying to seduce me?

I’d been seduced by his sweaty body and holey T-shirts. What would happen if this man actually tried?

It would be all over.

“Jackson, you said this relationship wasn’t physical.” I was scrambling at this point.

He lowered himself into one of the four chairs at the table. “It isn’t. But if we decide to mix pleasure with business, even better.”

“So this was always for sex?” I was pretty sure it wasn’t, but desperate times and all that. Not like I hadn’t just been fantasizing about his naked body.

He leaned forward, arms braced on the table, a tinge of atypical anger flaring behind his eyes. “You know it isn’t only sex between us.”

He was right. We’d agreed to date for practical reasons, but I’d agreed to see if all that initial attraction was fleeting. Only the spark hadn’t fizzled. Not one bit.

I liked Jack a lot. And things were about to get hot. Because I was starting to think Jack might want me as much as I wanted him.

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