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The Roommate Arrangement by Vanessa Waltz (1)

1

Saffie

My brother lives in a whorehouse.

Bras hang on the gate of Los Albos Ranch like little flags. They swing violently as the mechanical hinge opens, revealing a gorgeous Mediterranean villa sprawled over an acre of pure, Californian paradise. I gape at the panties littering the lawn, the empty cups rolling down the driveway. Either last night was the scene of the world’s biggest orgy, or debris from a plane carrying women’s clothing exploded all over my brother’s lawn.

It’s disgusting.

Maybe all those years sucking on a silver spoon turned him into a slob. It’s been five years since I saw him, but I can’t connect the Henry I knew with this. Every day there’s an outrageous story about the San Francisco Grizzlies complete with a stream of lurid photographs. I was naive enough to believe they were Photoshopped.

When we were young, he was the apple of my eye. I rescued him from aunts who’d pinch his chubby cheeks too hard and make him cry. My baby brother could do no wrong. Looking at the lawn is like discovering that a beloved pet animal has gone rabid.

What the hell happened to him?

A rich guy falling off the wagon is a tale as old as time, but he couldn’t have trashed a more beautiful property. I roll down the window to get a better look, and salted air streams inside the cab. The house has a European flair. Warm sandstone walls and rounded terra-cotta shingles imply a rustic country house. If it weren’t for the lush gardens and gigantic palms lining the property, I’d think I was in Tuscany. It’s so beautiful it makes my heart ache, but the lawn is covered with garbage. My mouth gapes open at the hundreds of red plastic cups strewn on the grass. Balled-up napkins, plastic dishes litter the ground like trash, and crows fight over a half-eaten cupcake.

I grind my teeth so hard my jaw clicks. It reminds me of the hordes of yuppies trashing Dolores Park every weekend, the same rich people who drove rents high enough to price me out of the city and force me into my shack in Daly City. Every day after work, I’d navigate the piss-stained streets and take BART home, trying not to fantasize about the penthouse my brother owned downtown. He was the whole reason I got an apartment there. I had this stupid hope we’d do things together, maybe grab drinks after work and over time, he’d realize I wasn’t the monster Dad made me out to be. We’d be best friends like when we were young.

Imagine my disappointment when my phone calls went to voicemail, my invitations were ignored, and the text messages we exchanged dwindled to a curt Merry Xmas once a year. Dad made his feelings toward me clear years ago, but I thought Henry was on my side. It turns out I was a delusional idiot.

Whenever the loneliness is too much to bear, I watch his games at the local dive bar. Buying a ticket is out of the question. Otherwise I would’ve sat in the stands and let the energy of the crowd roll over me. Watching him play takes the sting away. It makes me feel closer to him.

There was a brief moment in my childhood when we felt like a family. All my cousins shipped off to private schools in New York the moment they were of age, but Dad wanted us to live together. He didn’t want us to grow into spoiled brats. Instead of resorts, we’d go camping. Everything was given in moderation—nothing in excess. Dad wouldn’t tolerate whining over whatever overpriced toy was in vogue. He taught us to be self-reliant, and I took that lesson to heart right up to adulthood, long after Dad cut me off.

And now I’m begging my younger brother for a place to stay.

I swallow my bitterness as the cab rolls up to the giant double doors. I’m in no position to give my brother a lecture on threatening wildlife, especially for what I’m about to do. Little bro thinks I’m here for a weekend visit. Three days, that’s it. He doesn’t know I lost my job, was evicted from my apartment, and have no place to go.

"We’re here," the driver croaks.

Red-rimmed eyes gaze at me through the rearview mirror, and I fight the urge to explain the state of the house. Mike is a bald man in his sixties with a kindly smile. He’s probably someone’s grandfather. I’m embarrassed, and this isn’t even my house.

Sorry, my brother is a slob. "Thanks."

"No problem," Mike says in his bullfrog voice. He gets out of the car and doesn’t stare at the panties displayed on the lawn. That alone is worth the twenty-percent tip. Maybe he’s used to the debauchery of a college town.

Mike opens the passenger door, and I swing my legs into the breezy air, which is already seventy degrees this early in the morning. Damn, it’s balmy.

"You visiting or moving in?" Mike pops the trunk and gazes at my four suitcases.

"Moving in." I hope.

Mike lugs out my suitcase. His biceps strain as he lifts it from the trunk. One for all my shoes and purses, the other for my clothes, the other two for everything else.

Everything’s gone. The furniture was left behind. I had a last-minute garage sale the day before I was evicted. I balled up in my sheets and had a good cry over all the keepsakes I chucked in the trash. There wasn’t enough room. I had to get rid of everything but the essentials.

I heave a suitcase up one step.

"Hold on, hon. Let me get that." Mike returns, hefting the luggage easily up the steps. "Grizzlies residence, right?"

"Yeah, how’d you know?"

"I’ve dropped off more than a fair share of girls here." He looks at me, voice softening. "Be careful, hon."

Mike thinks I’m a groupie for my brother’s pro soccer team. Seriously? I don’t even look the part. I’m in flip-flops, for Christ’s sake.

"Thanks," I say, staring at the door anxiously. "I’ll be fine."

Suppose Henry doesn’t let me move in? Then what?

"Take care, miss." Mike strolls back to the car and drives away, leaving me with my four suitcases and a brother who will be furious.

I raise my hand to the door and knock. It echoes thunderously. My heart pounds. How many years has it been? Five?

Heavy footfalls shake the floors, and then the door opens to reveal a sliver of a man I recognize. Henry was barely a man the last time I saw him. The baby fat is gone. His cheeks have hollowed out. Henry wears his dirty-blond hair shoulder-length. It frames a tanned, handsome face, his eyes crushing blue. My breath catches as I recognize our mother’s lips and eyes. I see her every time I look at him.

My life is in shambles, but I’m happy to see him. "Hey! Long time no see."

"Hey," he says, returning none of my warmth. A faint scowl knits his eyebrows together. "Are those all yours?"

"I stole them from the airport. Relax, I’m kidding."

The door widens, but he blocks the way inside as though doubting my identity. "You look the same."

He doesn’t. "Those protein shakes filled you out. You used to be so weedy." Now he looks like an athlete. There’s not an inch of fat on him. No trace of the boy prone to shyness, either. Guess his legion of fans changed all that.

His lips tug into something that might resemble a smile if his eyes weren’t so cold.

I grab a suitcase. "Could you help me with them? They're kind of heavy."

Wrinkles crease his forehead as he tests one, swearing. "Jesus, did you pack your whole wardrobe?"

Yes.

It won’t do to dive into that right away. "This is a beautiful property. I can’t believe you have it all to yourself."

"I don’t own the whole villa. Some guys on the team wanted a vacation home for summer, so we all pitched in to buy one." Grunting, he takes my suitcases and pushes them two at a time onto the white, marble floor.

I laugh, remembering the Forbes article plastered with my dad’s face. My brother must be worth millions by now. "Wow, that’s economical. Even for you."

"We bought it a long time ago. Way before the corporate sponsorships rolled in."

"How many of you?"

"Eight, including me." He rolls his shoulders back. "I don’t come here too often anymore. The wife prefers me at home."

Given a choice, I don’t think I’d ever leave. The inside is modern as hell; streamlined surfaces, narrow couches with square cushions, a giant stainless steel kitchen. Abstract paintings hang on the walls, their accent colors matching hues from the rugs, couches, and tables. They must have hired an interior designer. It’s all very tasteful and well put together, apart from the explosion of trash. Garbage bags filled with junk clash with the hipster décor.

My nose wrinkles. "Is it always this filthy?"

He sighs, wheeling my luggage down the hall. "That’s Grayson’s fault."

I rack my brains. Grayson. My memory jogs with the blurry image of a handsome face on the team roster. My brother’s professional soccer league, the San Francisco Grizzlies, which hasn’t had a shortage of bad press lately. Everyone’s seen the headlines: Debauchery at the Grizzlies Ranch. Neighbors Hate Grizzlies’ “Topless Thursdays.”

Makes me wonder what the hell he’s been up to. Henry gazes at the litter surrounding us, hopeless despair written all over his face.

I kick an empty beer can. "So the tabloids weren’t lying. I’m surprised. You always were a neat freak." He gives me a reproachful look. "What? Every other day there’s something in the news about this team."

"I can’t help it if the asshole decides to throw a party the day before you’re supposed to show up."

"Who is he again?"

His lips drag into an exaggerated frown. "Grayson’s the striker on the team and a pain in my ass." Henry stops in the middle of a hallway lined with team photographs, pointing him out.

"Why do you stay here if it causes so much trouble?"

"Because if I didn’t the stories in the tabloids would be a lot worse." He sighs as though the world’s fate rests on his shoulders.

Everywhere I turn, there’s a bedroom. "How many of the guys are staying here this summer?"

"Seven," he says, pushing my luggage into a cramped room. "They’re busy recovering."

From the party, I imagine.

He stops in front of a door and shoves it open. Out of every room, this is the only one that looks untouched from chaos. It’s hardly bigger than a walk-in closet, and the mattress is only a single, but it’s better than the streets.

Looking bored, Henry gestures toward the closet and dresser. "They’re empty if you’d like to use them for your clothes. Bathrooms are down the hall. The guys like to share the one two doors down. Trust me; you don’t want to go in there."

I test the mattress, wincing from its hardness. "Thanks for letting me stay."

He shrugs. "It’s only for a few days."

Yeah, about that. Blood rushes to my face as I open my mouth to beg my estranged brother to let me stay longer, but he sweeps out of the room before I get the words out.

He saunters down the hall, back toward the large foyer as his voice echoes through the cavernous ceiling. "Here’s the kitchen. It’s a mess, I know."

White tiles line the walls, juxtaposed with dark brown cabinets and white countertops. Beer bottles line the breakfast bar. Two enormous blenders sit side by side, their contents a greenish slush. Half-eaten burgers and hot dogs sit on paper plates. This Grayson guy must be quite the character.

"It’s not that bad, I guess." I grin at Henry’s stricken face. "There could be prostitutes passed out on the couch."

Instead of a hooker, a shirtless man wearing briefs patterned with yellow smiley faces lies fast asleep on the counter, his face buried in his arms. His snores rattle through the kitchen.

I point at the man, whispering. "Who’s that?"

"Titus." Henry glares at him. "I fucking told them you were coming."

My eyes sweep over the stains covering the kitchen table, the empty cups everywhere, the overfilled trash bags. "It’s okay."

"No, it’s not. Do you want me to show you the pool?"

The kidney-shaped pool lies past the kitchen and living room. The bright blue water ripples beyond the glass doors. "Um"

An ear-splitting chime rings from his pocket. "Damn it." Henry pulls out his phone and blanches at the screen. "I have to take this."

"No problem. I’ll make myself breakfast."

"Okay," he says. "The fridge is stocked with supplies. Help yourself. This shouldn’t take long." He smashes the phone against his ear and dashes out of the kitchen, leaving me with a sleeping man whose thunderous snores rattle on.

I attempt to clear a small patch of counter space, which proves futile because there’s nowhere to put the trash. Hunger claws at my insides as I grab six empty bottles of beer and open the cabinet door, revealing an overfilled recycling bin. Gently, I open the garbage bag left on the floor and place each bottle inside. The bag shifts and the glass with it, clanging loudly.

Shit.

The man’s snores cut off, and then a blond head lifts from the cradle of his arms. He gazes at me in a sleepy stupor. "Hey, there."

He reminds me of the beach bums in Santa Cruz. Thick blond hair falls in waves around a boyish face. Like my brother, he has the build of an athlete. Lean muscles ripple through his upper arms. He talks with a surfer-boy drawl that reminds me of a guy I knew in college who flunked out of statistics. Sweet, but a total ditz when it came to academia.

"Morning. I’m Henry’s sister, Saffie."

He pushes himself to a sitting position, eyes widening. "Titus," he says, wiping the sleep from his eyes. "Wait, you’re here already? Damn."

"Yeah, the flight came in at eighty-thirty." I turn away from him and yank the refrigerator door. "You guys have anything to eat?"

"Shit, I didn’t think you were coming on Friday." He blinks, slowly coming to awareness. "This place is a fucking mess."

"You seem pretty surprised for waking up in the middle of it."

Pink patches burn on his round cheeks. "I blanked that you were coming today." He slides from the stool.

I grin at the sight of him in his smiley-face boxers. "You don’t have to get up."

"I’ll make us breakfast." He flaps his hands at me. "Sit down. I’m not letting Henry’s sister lift a finger while she’s here. Do you like eggs and bacon?"

I want to point out that cooking will be a challenge with the stove covered with garbage, but he seems like a nice guy, and it’s a treat to watch him walk around shirtless. Are all Henry’s teammates this ripped?

Titus grimaces at the overflowing trashcan and cleans the stove, his ears burning bright red. "This is super embarrassing."

"We were all twenty-five once. Can I help you with anything?" I ask as he lays strips of bacon on a pan.

"Nope." He glances at me. "Just sit and—er—try to make yourself comfortable."

The smell of crackling bacon wafts through the house like a siren’s song for jocks. One by one, Henry’s teammates wander into the kitchen in boxers and peer hopefully over Titus’ shoulder. Titus introduces me to a strapping man whose hand engulfs mine.

"Chris," he says. "Nice to meet you."

I smile at Chris, who seizes a half-full Rolling Rock and takes a deep swig. "Best cure for a hangover," he proclaims.

I seriously doubt that.

Two more living Greek statues stagger from their rooms, men whose names I forget almost instantly because it’s overwhelming to stand next to their chiseled physiques, and none of them are shy about displaying their bodies. I feel like I’m experiencing a hyper-realistic wet dream. My tongue ties in knots at the broad smiles, the friendly banter, the slabs and slabs of muscle staring at me. They demand my attention and wring my hand. They want to hear embarrassing stories about Henry as a child. Halfway between shaking Greg’s—or was it Gary’s—hand, a man with a heart-stopping smile and short-cropped hair pushes Greg out of the way to take my hand, his eyes dragging up and down my body.

Hello.

Short black hair frames an angular face. His eyes are sunken and long eyelashes splay over hollow cheeks. A long, straight nose leads to a full mouth. My eyes linger on his jaw and jutting Adam’s apple, all the chiseled features belonging to a professional model. Tattoos cover his right arm. Black tribal marks swirl around his biceps. A spade of guilt hits me for staring, but he’s like a work of art. It’d be a crime not to appreciate this masterpiece.

"She’s Henry’s sister," Titus says.

Dimples carve deep into the man’s face as he refuses to release my hand. I’ve always been a sucker for dimples. "Nice to meet you, Saffie. I’m Grayson. You’re just here for the weekend?"

So he’s the troublemaker Henry bitched about. Good to know.

My hand tingles with his warmth. "Well, I’m hoping he’ll let me stay for the summer."

"Awesome!" Titus roars, grinning at me. "We’ll have a blast!"

"That sounds like fun," Grayson says, a feline smirk staggering across his handsome face. "I look forward to getting to know you."

"I—thanks. Me, too."

"I’m about to make a protein shake. Want one?"

He releases my hand. Blood roars in my ears. "I’m more of a eggs-and-bacon person."

These guys defy the asshole-jock stereotype. Every one of them is sweet, handsome, and helpful. Grayson faces the giant blenders, and I get a view of his powerful back.

Damn.

The team seems beyond ecstatic to meet Henry’s sister, especially Titus, who pushes a plate of food in front of me. They work together to clear off the kitchen table. I feel like the popular kid in school. Everyone wants to sit next to me, but I only have eyes for Grayson.

According to my brother, he’s the guy behind the outrageous parties and scandals filling my newsfeed. I didn't expect the guy behind Topless Thursdays to be so disarming.

He slides into the seat next to me. "So what brings you here?"

I debate whether I should launch into my pathetic story and decide on the Cliff-notes version. "I failed at life and chose a profession where jobs are scarce."

"Teacher?"

"Wrong. I was a lawyer for a small firm in San Francisco, and they laid me off. Couldn’t afford the rent after that, so I’m here for three days."

"That’s it?" Chris says from my left.

I smile at him. "Henry only agreed to three."

Grayson digs into his eggs. "He’ll let you stay longer."

Not sure about that. "I didn’t know you guys would be here for the summer." The table goes quiet as they eat breakfast, listening. "The last thing I want to do is impose, but I have nowhere else to go."

"You’re welcome here for as long as you want," Grayson says.

Patches of heat rise to my cheeks. "Really?"

"Nobody minds. Right?"

They chime agreements between mouthfuls of egg, and I ball my hands into fists under the table, blinking the mist away. "Thank you, but I’ll need to ask my brother first."

"Screw him, we already voted." Grayson sips his protein shake, eyeing me in a way that warms my skin. "It’s no big deal. You don’t seem like a psycho."

"Oh, just give me time. I’ll prove you wrong."

"You’re right," he says with a mock-frown. "When you go on your rampage, stab the others first. I’m the striker of the team. They can’t afford to lose me. Can’t say the same about some people."

Grayson jerks his head toward Titus, who flips him the bird.

A chuckle bursts from my chest. He’s funny.

He laughs. "Anyway, most crazy chicks just want my body. I’m not too worried."

I don’t doubt it. "What do the others want?"

"Child support." He grabs the plate of bacon and dumps a third of it on his eggs. "Do you have a boyfriend?"

He’s already diving into the personal questions. I roll with it. "As if any guy would be okay with this living arrangement. I didn’t have time for boyfriends in the city." I put off a lot of things just to fund my life in San Francisco. Dating was too expensive, so finding a boyfriend stayed on the back burner for years.

"No time for going on dates? Jesus."

"I’m a lawyer. It’s a lot of paperwork, and once you graduate from school, you have to work your way up the ladder. Some people never leave the mailroom. Being a soccer star is much more fun."

He toasts my glass of orange juice. "Maybe you’ll find a hot guy while you’re staying with us. You never know."

Yeah, I’m surrounded by seven of them.

I laugh, refusing to believe this six-foot-two, gorgeous man is flirting with me. "Will you be my wingman?"

His knee nudges my thigh, and his voice dips to a low whisper. "I’ll make you fly, girl."

I stare into his deep blue gaze as tendrils of heat wrap around my waist. It’s been ages since I’ve gone on a date with a guy, let alone flirted with one. I can’t tell if he's serious or fucking with Henry’s sister. What’s he playing at?

"Don’t pay attention to him, Saffie," Titus says, finishing his meal. "He’s just being"

"Suave," Grayson cuts in. "Right, Saff?"

Now he’s calling me by my childhood pet name and damn him, but it tugs at my heart. I don’t trust the oil in his voice. Everything he says is slicked with an innuendo, a suggestion, something to get a rise out of me. And it’s working.

My blood will never cool down around him. I twist a strand of hair around my finger—always been a nervous habit of mine. Grayson’s presence sends blood careening through my veins.

I don’t remember what the hell he said, only that I’m supposed to agree. "Yeah."

Titus’ silverware clatters on his plate. "Dick," he says, taking his dish away.

I bite my lip to keep from smiling, and Grayson chuckles. "You’re a troublemaker, aren’t you?"

He finishes the last of his shake. "I don’t know any other way to be, doll."

Doll. Always the undercurrent of suggestion. Always the shadow of a wink or a hint of a smile. What kind of guy flirts with his teammate’s sister? He’s a master at making my blood simmer. I might’ve lived under a rock the last couple years, but I’m not dead.

Grayson takes my shoulder and squeezes. "I’ve got to work out for the next few hours. Let’s hang out later?"

"Okay," I hear myself saying.

The chair scrapes back, and Grayson saunters out of the kitchen, his boxers pulled low on his ass. It flexes as he walks into the hall and past my brother, who glares at me.

Did he see me staring at his friend’s ass?

Fuck.

The distant echoes of Grayson’s footsteps fade away. Henry’s arms cross over his chest. "Saffie, can I talk to you for a second?"

Great, now I’ll get a lecture even though I’m the older sibling. I’m a red-blooded woman. Did he think I wouldn’t notice the seven hot bachelors strutting around this place?

Sighing, I follow Henry into a library. The door slams and all thoughts of asking him to extend my stay fly out the window. "What’s wrong?"

A shadow passes over Henry’s eyes. "Do me a favor and stay the hell away from Grayson."

I’m thrown by the hostility in his voice. "What do you mean—stay away? He lives here."

"He’s not a good man, Saffie," he continues in the same grave tone. "For the last year, he’s made my life a living hell."

"With the parties?" Henry clams up, pacing the length of the room. "Is this an overprotective brother thing? Because Grayson did nothing wrong."

"Not yet," he snaps.

My brother needs to remember I’ve been alive longer than he has. "I think I can judge him myself."

"No, you can’t." He strides forward, taking my shoulders. "Not in three days."

Worry lines his face. My head reels with the strangeness of it. Weeks ago, I was lucky to get so much as a five-minute phone call with my brother. He’s acting as though he has my best interests at heart.

When has he ever cared about me? Grayson was nice. Sweet, even. "What did he do?"

"I’m not willing to talk about it."

"You can’t expect me to"

"He’s an instigator, Saffie. He’s been pulling crap like what you’ve read in the tabloids."

I shrug. "Why?"

Henry chews his lip. "Because he hates me. I won’t get into why, but he’s made it his mission to make my life miserable. The man’s disturbed, and I won’t have him messing with my sister."

Something about this is off: the heavy-handed warning, Henry’s concern over me, his refusal to get into the details. Disturbed? I would have called Grayson snarky. It’s hard to imagine Grayson as a self-destructive mess, maybe because it’s always assumed that beautiful people always have their shit together.

Henry could be exaggerating, but there’s no point in goading Henry when I need his help. "Fine. Keep your shorts on, all right? I’ll do my best to steer clear."

A relieved sigh blows from his mouth. "Good."