Roommate Wars: Chapter 9

Elise

Last night I’d agreed to go out to dinner with a guy I met on a dating app in order to get out of the house. The key to survival while living with Jack was to not spend too much time together, where we could fight, or worse—where I could experience lingering longing. So when some guy posted a photo of his cute dog, I’d decided to give him a try.

Here was how that went:

  1. The guy didn’t have a dog. False advertisement on his part, though he clearly understood the female psyche and was willing to use our weaknesses against us. Point one to him.
  2. He brought a one-gallon bottle of water on the date and refused to drink the restaurant water because “it was contaminated.”
  3. An hour into dinner, he talked about how we’d celebrate our first anniversary.

Hell to the no.

And then Jack had added insult to injury when I got home and suggested I couldn’t handle myself on a date.

Maybe I was overreacting or imagining things, but I was sensitive to people not believing in me. Looking back, it almost seemed like he’d been waiting up for me like a parent.

Jack walked into the kitchen while I was pouring coffee I’d strengthened to the consistency of tar, and when I looked up, my eyes nearly bugged out of my head and the air locked in my chest. All frustration at him from last night dissolved. Because Jack was wearing casual gray sweatpants and—no shirt.

“Hey,” he said, yawning and running a hand through adorably rumpled hair. His skin was lightly tanned and smooth, except for light-brown hair on his chest that was less visible from far away but I knew existed because I’d run my fingers through it during our naughty night together.

This here was the problem. Jack was hot, and he was all casual about it. Like it was no big deal.

But it was a big deal. Because the casual attitude made him irresistible. So irresistible I’d gone on a date with a guy I should have screened better. In hindsight, if Jack had been worried about my going out last night, his point was valid.

For a second, I considered he might be walking around without his shirt as some form of retaliation for the shitty dinner I’d served. As though he knew my weakness where his body was concerned and wanted to rub it in. But his hair was sticking up every which way, and his sweatpants were rumpled. This was definitely an impromptu hot-guy moment.

He leaned against the kitchen counter, flexing his chest muscles and making my heart race. “So, about your date. You going out with the guy again?”

“My date?” I said, trying to act smooth while urging the neurons in my brain to fire for things other than his body. “Maybe. It was good—great, actually.” I plastered on a fake smile.

He reached for a mug and poured himself coffee, which I didn’t think he drank, so that was strange. “Good or great?”

“Huh?” I said, confused by the half-naked man and unusual coffee behavior.

“Your date,” he said and glanced over. “You said it was good, then you said it was great. Which was it?”

Crap. If I told Jack the truth, he’d laugh his ass off and tell me I told you so. He already had enough ammunition against me: I couldn’t pick a proper apartment—or afford one—I wandered around in the middle of the night into strange men’s bedrooms—or just his—and now I chose the worst people on dating apps.

It was all there, clear as day: I needed a keeper.

My sister’s overprotectiveness told me without words she thought so too. But hearing it from Jack? No—just no.

I was already beholden to Jack for letting me stay the month. He didn’t need to know I had terrible taste in men too. “It was great.” I smiled, but it was a struggle.

His gaze took in my stiff lips, then slid to my eyes. “Hmmm.”

On the surface, one might find Jack absent-minded—unobservant, even. But that man was a hawk. A half-naked hawk with ripped abs and mesmerizing V muscles I didn’t remember from our night together.

But that night had been all emotion and feel, and not so much visual because it had been dark. I was seeing more in the kitchen lighting than I had while we were naked together. And it was educational.

Gah! Stop thinking about it.

“Problem?” He leaned against the cabinet and sipped his coffee, biceps bulging. Then he glanced at the coffee and winced before clearing his expression to one of indifference.

Sophia said emotions played out on my face like a book. So I forced my expression to go blank to confuse the lustful thoughts running through my mind. “The date was a solid start. He works out a lot.”

Truth. The guy from last night was a gym rat, which was why I’d initially brushed off the water jug. I’d thought it was a part of his health kick. Then I figured out—nope, he was just a hypochondriac.

“He likes dogs,” I added. And freaking lied about having one.

The dog thing had pissed me off. But what had sealed his coffin was the reference to our future together. After one hour of talking! That part had terrified the hell out of me.

“He’s looking for something serious, though,” I said before I guzzled the rest of my coffee and set the mug in the dishwasher, ignoring the hot, half-naked guy on my right.

“And that’s a problem?” Jack was standing so close I could smell his laundry detergent.

Or what if it was his scent and not a detergent I found so delicious? Crap.

“Elise?”

I spun and leaned back over the sink, attempting to keep my distance from Jack’s pheromones. “What? Oh, yeah. I don’t want anything serious.” I scurried around him and into the living room.

I sank onto the couch that was soft as a cloud, then glanced up and attempted to act nonchalant. “You rolling shirtless these days?”

He rubbed a hand over his chest absently. “Haven’t done my laundry in a while. The person I hired is slacking.” He looked at me pointedly.

Right. Laundry. That was another one of my duties.

“Why?” he asked. “You got a problem with my not wearing a shirt?” I heard a hint of challenge in his tone.

I swallowed. “No problem at all.”

“Cool. When no one is around, I like to be comfortable. As long as you don’t have a problem with it.” He quirked one eyebrow in question.

He’s going to dress like this all the time?

“Um, sure. Make yourself at home.” Shit, this was not good.

“I’ll be home for dinner. Looking forward to what you come up with next. As for the laundry…” he said.

“On it.” And boy did I mean that. I needed to get this man a shirt, stat, or there’d be another midnight wandering into his bedroom.

I did not trust myself around Jack. With my luck, I’d sleepwalk right into his bedroom like I had the first time and take care of all the lustful thoughts I was experiencing.

Been there, done that. And this time I couldn’t call it an accident.


Later that afternoon, I did laundry. Hell yes, I did. This was an emergency. I was hoping Jack wasn’t serious about walking around half-naked every day. Time would tell, but at least now he had clean clothes.

Jack had set his laundry basket in the hallway, and I’d been immediately suspicious. Some of his things looked like he’d grabbed them from the clean pile, but whatever. The man had extra-clean clothes now, and I didn’t mind doing laundry. It gave me time to listen to the new audiobook from my all-time favorite romance writer. It was a “small town, brother’s best friend, neighbor, cowboy, single dad” romance, and I was all in.

I bundled Jack’s clean clothes and set them outside his door before heading out. He’d gone into the main office for something, and I didn’t feel comfortable going in his bedroom without him here.

Sophia was desperate for help at the shop, so I’d agreed to support her on the weekends. The benefits of a side gig helping my sister? Her shop was just a few blocks from Jack’s place, and it helped supplement my non-San Francisco-friendly income at the health department.

I entered Soph’s green design store on Polk Street a half hour later and was greeted by fresh air, a shit-ton of plants, and absolute chaos.

“What? No!” Sophia shouted into the phone. “You can’t quit!” She caught sight of me, her look wide-eyed and harried.

I set my purse on her desk in the back of the shop and glanced around. There were two other workers here today, a man and a woman, both around my age. The woman’s wavy black hair blocked half her face, and her head was tipped down as she jotted notes and spoke into the phone. The guy, meanwhile, wearing khakis and a white buttoned shirt, assisted walk-in customers and what looked like subcontractors.

“Sophia?” I said when she got off the phone. “What happened?”

She pressed her pointer finger between her brows and closed her eyes. “Two of my employees didn’t show, and my new coordinator just quit. Which means I have to hire and train someone all over again.”

“Why’d she quit?”

Sophia looked defeated and started shoving folders into her giant mom-purse. “Because one of my best customers is paying her double the salary as a full-time designer for their various estates across the country and in the Bahamas. In short, I lost a designer and a big client.”

“Shit. Yeah, that would do it; I’d quit to work in the Bahamas too.”

Sophia pouted, but the corners of her mouth pulled back as though she was fighting a smile. “You’re not helping.”

“But the Bahamas—can you blame the woman?”

My sister sank into her desk chair, cradling her work bag. “No. I’m considering quitting myself.”

“You own the shop; you can’t quit.”

She blew out a harsh breath and her bangs fluttered over her forehead. “Was I wrong to buy this place? I’m overwhelmed.”

“You’re overwhelmed because new clients are pouring in every day. You’ll replace that one client with ten more at the pace your shop is building business.”

Sophia sat forward abruptly. “Shit! We have to go.” She fumbled with her phone. “We’ll be late for an appointment.”

In addition to taking calls at the shop, I also joined her for Saturday appointments and typed answers into the spreadsheet she’d designed for new clients while she schmoozed.

I was an upscale typist. And totally okay with it because Sophia paid well. I figured I owed her too, given all she’d sacrificed for me…

Her teenage years.

Most of her twenties.

All to make sure I could pay my college tuition, minus the loans I’d been forced to take out, because even Soph couldn’t cover all of it.

My sister was only four years older than me, but she was smart as hell and extremely maternal. It was like having a second mom, only one who razzed me when I did stupid shit like climbing down the fire escape after I slept with her roommate. She was my sister, my bestie, and sometimes my mom, all rolled into one. Though that last one I’d like her to discard at this stage; one mother was enough.

After two lengthy appointments in Pacific Heights, Soph and I finally made it back to the shop around six.

She kicked off her heels and rubbed her feet. “Thank you for today. I thought we’d never leave that last appointment. Good thing I have my assistant to crack the whip when the clients drag things out.”

“Anytime,” I said, smiling. “I enjoy keeping rich people in check.”

“Speaking of wealthy people, how’s my old roomie?” she asked. “You and Jack getting along?”

My heart jumped in my throat. “Shit! I have to get home.” I downed a cup of water and slung my purse over my shoulder.

“Hot date?”

My mouth soured just thinking about my date from last night. “Not even close. I make dinner a few times a week for Jack, and I promised I’d make something tonight.”

Soph squinted. “What are you talking about? You don’t cook.”

I grinned mischievously. “I told him, but he didn’t believe me. He’s letting me live there rent-free in exchange for a few meals and laundry while I search for a better place.”

She shook her head. “That’s very conniving of you. And probably not so good for Jack once he figures it out.”

“Oh, he’s figured it out.” I laughed. “He doesn’t seem to mind my cooking. That man is a garbage disposal. He’ll eat anything.”

My sister nodded. “Probably why he and Max are such good friends. Max needs someone easygoing to mellow out his uptightness.”

I looked up, considering. “Their bromance finally makes sense.”

“Why not live in Jack’s spare bedroom and pay him rent instead of cooking? Jack didn’t go into specifics, but I take it your last place wasn’t so great.”

Absolute understatement.

I dropped her a comical look. “Me and Jack? We’re oil and vinegar.” Except in the bedroom, I thought. “I prefer the barter system, given my salary limitations and need to save.”

Soph sighed. “It’s highway robbery how little they pay you at the city for a job that required a master’s degree.”

“I could make more as a nurse, but halfway through school I realized I preferred sitting behind a computer working on health statistics to drawing blood. Thank you again for talking me into keeping the statistics courses.”

“You’re welcome. It was probably the first and last time you took my advice.”

“How well you know me,” I said and raced out of the store. “See you later!”

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