Roommate Wars: Chapter 29


I was chatting with my friend and fellow epidemiologist Lakshmi about our plan for obtaining samples this week from a bunch of smelly football players at a local high school for a staph outbreak when Jack texted.

Jackson: Lunch? I’ll pick you up.

Hanging out with Jack for lunch sounded a hell of a lot better than walking to the Starbucks around the corner. Who was I kidding? It had been a few hours since he’d left my bed, and I already missed him.

Jack had climbed into my bed last night, all stealth-like, after everyone left. The man smelled good, and I’d slept deeply with his arms wrapped around me. Too bad he’d left before I could get a good look at him without his shirt in the morning.

Elise: Sure. What time?

He gave me a thirty-minute window, which meant I needed to haul ass and finalize an email for the team on the staph situation before Jack arrived.

I was wearing a gorgeous lightweight beige sweater he’d bought me, along with dark gray slacks I’d coughed up and bought myself, so I was feeling pretty snazzy when he pulled up in front of the industrial public health building.

I rushed out and jumped in the car before he could get out and open the door for me.

He glanced over, a smile lingering on his lips. “Eager to see me?”

The truth would only go to his head. “Eager for food.” But I was eager for his company, which was scary to admit.

He took in my expression. “Tell me we don’t have a hangry situation on our hands.”

I held up my thumb and forefinger to indicate a small amount, and he punched the gas, pulling into traffic expertly, if dangerously.

I braced my arms on the door and seat. “It’s not dire, calm down!”

“Hell no. Have you any idea how scary you are when you’re hungry?”

His expression was so serious, I laughed. “Can’t be that bad. I’m way smaller than you. You could take me.”

He looked over comically. “I’d let you win that fight because I’m a lover not a fighter, and then I’d lose a couple of limbs.”

I grinned. “As long as you know who’s in charge.”

“That part’s crystal clear,” he said, a quiver in his voice to emphasize his mock fear.

For a moment there, Jack felt like my boyfriend. A really cute and funny one, whom I loved spending time with. It was exhilarating and also terrifying. I hadn’t planned on this.

I cleared my throat and stared ahead. “So why the sudden lunch date?”

“Work lunch.”

I glanced over and caught the stressed look on his face, then my stomach dropped. I’d hoped he wanted to see me the way I wanted to see him, but Thalia seemed to be the only reason Jack spent time with me outside the walls of his apartment. “Thalia’s still giving you a hard time? What is wrong with that woman?”

He frowned and turned on his blinker before double-parking in front of a nice-looking restaurant. “I don’t know, but I can’t lose her. She brought in a major client this week that will hold the company up. Tens of millions stand to benefit from Environ, and I need it to get off the ground.” He stepped out of the car, walked around to my side, and opened the door for me as a valet ran over and took his keys.

Jack pressed his hand to the small of my back and guided me to the entrance. Before opening the door, he said, “Sadly, Thalia’s the best at what she does. I can’t justify losing her.”

I hated that he felt stuck. “She’s certainly the best at sexually harassing you. Are you sure you can’t hire someone else?”

He shrugged. “Took me half a year to find her. Besides, I can handle her.”

“I can see that,” I said dryly. “You’re handling her by bringing along your fake girlfriend.”

His expression grew serious. “Real girlfriend. You’re mine for the rest of the week.”

A shiver racked my body, and goosebumps flittered up my spine and down my arms. Jackson was hot when he got possessive. “Exactly,” I said, acting like his comment hadn’t affected me. “Which is why we’re going all in today. We need to make sure that woman knows we’re together.”

“You sure about that? Because I won’t hold back.” He shot me a sexy look, which had me wondering what I was in for.

From the moment we entered the restaurant, Jack had his hands on me, and I was silently kicking myself for my overconfident talk about going all in. He wasn’t handsy in a pervy way, but attentive. His fingers lingered lightly as we passed velvet chairs and thousands of bottles of wine along the wall on our way to the table. Then, later, he brushed a lock of hair over my shoulder when he leaned in to say something low in his deep, buttery voice. At one point, he touched my knee beneath the table while talking to his neighbor. To reassure me? To reassure himself? No one could see him do it, so I wasn’t sure whom that had been for, but it had fired up parts of my body that needed to remain dormant for the remainder of the lunch. A lunch where I was trying desperately to make it clear Jack was taken. Because Thalia had seated her small butt directly across from us and was watching Jack like a cougar ready to pounce.

We had just finished eating, the dishes cleared, when Jack glanced at his phone. “I have to take this call. Will you be all right?”

The entire table of twelve or so people were chatting among themselves, including Thalia. All of them were sans significant others; I was the only girlfriend in tow. I gave him a supportive girlfriend smile. This was my job, after all, as he’d made clear by inviting me here today. “Of course.”

He leaned in, and for a moment, I thought he might kiss me.

And then he did. Slow and soft. Not a peck, but something like it, only ultra-sexy in a way that had my heart hammering and my breaths coming out choppy.

Son. Of. A. Bitch. What the hell was that?

Before I could figure it out, Jack was striding away with the confidence of a superhot rich guy, and the entire room stared after him because that kind of power and assurance commanded attention.

I swallowed and stood on shaky legs. People at the table were engaged in one-on-one conversations or chatting in groups. They wouldn’t miss me, and I could use a moment.

I made my way to the ladies’ room, but as soon as the powder room door of the ritzy restaurant was about to close, Thalia pushed her way inside.

She took in my hands braced on the counter. “Everything all right?” Her expression said she couldn’t care less if I was all right.

“Yep, all good here.” I started to wash my hands.

She moved to the sink beside me and pulled out red lipstick. “My trip with Jack this weekend should be fruitful.”

I blinked and looked at her in the mirror. Maybe it was the seductive peck Jack had landed on me, but I was suddenly feeling possessive. I hated the idea of Thalia traveling alone with Jack. And I really didn’t like her tone. “You mean for a client? I wasn’t aware there was a trip planned, but it sounds like things are going well with the company and investors.” Kill her with kindness, that was my motto.

“Very well,” she said and snapped her lipstick closed. “Fruitful with investors and fruitful between me and Jack. We make a great pair.”

Forget the kindness motto. I couldn’t let her last comment slide. “Thalia, don’t get any ideas. Jack is taken.”

She smiled, mouth closed. It was the most sinister thing I’d ever seen. “You never know.”

She turned for the door, and I grabbed her arm. “I’m only going to say this once,” I said in an overly sweet tone. “Back off my man. I fight dirty.”

Thalia seemed startled at the words if not the tone. She must not be used to people challenging her. She looked at my hand. “Do you mind?”

“I do mind. Sexual harassment goes both ways. Jack has made it clear he’s taken, and now I’ve made it clear. He’s not interested. Don’t push it.”

She delivered one last angry look, jerked her arm free, and left the bathroom.

I took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. The sexual fluster Jack had aroused was gone. Now all I felt was angry. I wasn’t sure Thalia would take my warning, and it put me in a rage to see someone try to manipulate a person I cared about.

As I returned to the table, I saw that Jack was back.

He looked up as I took my seat, his expression happy. And then his smile faded. “Something happen?”

I met his eyes. “Just Thalia being Thalia.” I smiled at one of the employees I’d chatted with earlier, who loved plants and talked about dropping by Sophia’s shop. “I don’t like it, Jack. I don’t trust her. And now you’re traveling with her this weekend?”

He glanced to the side as though confused, then back at my face, his expression softening. “I didn’t even think about that. I should have told you. I’m not used to being accountable to anyone. I’m sorry.”

“Not accountable. Just, you know, I would have liked to have heard it from you instead of her.” Coming here as a buffer for Thalia and then hearing the things she said—it all had me tense.

“Hey,” he said and nudged me playfully. “Don’t tell me you’re jealous?”

I pinched his arm.

He flinched, chuckling. “That one hurt. Remind me to block your hands when you’re mad.”

I scowled at him in irritation. “It was supposed to hurt.”

Jack glanced at the others, who were deep in conversation. Except for Thalia. She was looking over every few seconds, watching us.

He slid the wooden chair I was sitting in closer to his side. “Don’t worry about her. She won’t take me away from you.”

“You mean for the next few days?” My tone was cynical. “I’m sure I can hang on to you for that long.”

He frowned. “Is Thalia really what’s bothering you?”

I sighed. “Yes. No—I don’t know.”

Thalia’s behavior angered me. But I was also tetchy about my and Jack’s relationship and his reason for bringing me here today. I wanted to believe it was to spend time together, but now I wasn’t so sure. Our relationship was ending in a few days. And for my own sanity, I needed to move into a place of my own to prove I could fend for myself. But I wasn’t sure what that meant for me and Jack.

“If it’s about moving out—” he started, and then, by silent agreement, everyone at the table stood, noisily scraping chairs over the wooden floor and cutting him off.

Jack said his goodbyes to the others, and then we made our way to the valet, his car already in front.

“About earlier—” he tried again after we got in the car.

I wasn’t interested in talking about my feelings and why Jack only took me out when he needed to block Thalia. “Can we talk later? My head is pounding.”

I reassured him three times that I was okay, and he finally let it go.

Minutes later Jack pulled up in front of my work building. “What are you doing tonight?” He looked determined.

“Going home?”

“Good,” he said. “Don’t get home late. Your boyfriend has plans for you.”

And just like that, the butterflies returned.


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