Jerk Boss: A New Highland Romance

CHAPTER 1

 

SHE LIED TO HER BOSS. Just one tiny falsehood. So sue her.

It was March Ulrich's own fault for knocking on her door without warning two days ago. The ass did that a lot. It would take the man ten seconds to pick up his phone and dial, giving her a little warning so she could straighten up the place, put on some decent clothes and prepare herself for a blast of extreme pretty-boy hotness.

But no. Instead, he brought his elegantly garbed body to her front door and banged on it whenever he wanted her.

And because he was her boss and landlord, the owner of this exclusive eight-unit apartment building, she always jumped to greet him in a panic.

"The power's out," he'd greeted her. A real greeting was, of course, too much to expect from this man. If he ever gave her a real smile devoid of mockery, she'd probably pass out from the shock. He was sarcastic and rude and half the time she saw him he was on his phone.

But then, perfect people rarely were friendly in her experience. And March Ulrich, with his trendy stubble, classic jawline and long, tapered frame, was nothing if not perfect. He was always stylish, like he spent his mornings preparing just in case he was needed for a photoshoot. Today he modeled a plush blue sweater and chocolate slacks the color of his hair that made her eyes hurt, they were so beautiful on him. But she refused to be impressed by a guy who was such a superior, smug know-it-all.

Even if he did happen to be a big-shot genius at Feehan Engineering and his fancy blue blood made women fall at his feet. He spoke in a cultured accent, flirted outrageously, and just acted like he expected adoration as his due. Not that he ever tried anything with her. He’d never so much as touched her. He knew she wouldn't put up with any unprofessional crap. Plus going by his online presence, he went for glam, not women who stashed Leatherman multitools in their belts.

She just wished he wouldn't get in her face all the time.

"Hello? Lia? You in?"

She ignored his sarcastic smirk. "Yeah, I heard you. The power's out." Her patience was in short supply. She'd just spent all day on her feet at the SpeedeeGo, her convenience store day job, followed by an evening controlling Trisha's screaming preschoolers. It was ridiculously cold. She was not in the mood for work. She was ready to curl up under her comforter and unwind with a good action movie, on her phone if nothing else.

He looked down his nose at her. "You are aware of what's going on?"

"You mean the fact that the whole block has lost power?" Come to think of it, did her phone even have Internet right now? She'd check as soon as March Ulrich took his gorgeous tight butt away.

"It's a much bigger area than that. The electric company says we're looking at well into next week before we get power again. The heat is out in all the units and temperatures are headed into the single digits tonight."

"Shoot. I mean shit. I mean shoot." Shit. Working in customer service, she'd trained herself out of uttering anything cruder than darn and fudge. Around March Ulrich, though, she tended to lapse into profanity. Her boss he might be, but he barely looked older than her. And his attitude just made her feel...well...rude.

His mouth twitched as if he found her awkwardness so delightfully amusing. He leaned against the door post, his gaze sweeping the length of her, taking in her raggedy tee shirt and sweats. She tongued the inside of her cheek. Whenever he gave her one of his I can't believe what a loser this broad is looks, she wanted to deck him.

"What do you want me to do?" she challenged. "Go out and buy a generator?"

He answered crisply, "No need for that. I want you to clear everyone out of here tonight. And take down a list. If any tenant doesn't have a place to stay for the week, I'll be putting them up at The Rubicon or Hotel, whichever is more convenient for them."

"Seriously? Wow. Okay." The Rubicon was a five-star hotel. Hotel was New Highland’s spanking new convention center. (The board of directors had settled on the generic "Hotel" after an outcry from local residents had fostered the way too unwieldy name, The Cambury-Shoals-Wethers Hospitality and Convention Center of New Highland.)

March's offer was flamboyant and generous. As far as she knew, he was under no obligation to provide luxury accommodations when the units became uninhabitable. At least she didn't recall anything like that in the new leases Mr. Lord of the Manor had issued when he'd taken over.

The new leases were the first of many changes she'd kept an eye on since March's grandmother had died and left him the building last year. Lia had met him briefly at the funeral, then again in an interview where he asked Lia if she wanted to stay on.

Because he unsettled her—no landlord should be this attractive—she'd read every word of the revision and addendum carefully. It was standard legal fare, but...weird. Now there was a three month notice period—it used to be thirty days—and he proposed to "decrease" her rent from the token amount she'd been paying to nothing. The addendum stated that her rent would remain at zero for as long as she was employed as building manager. For the life of her, she couldn’t see how giving her free rent benefited him, but that must be why he was the rich one, not her.

At the moment, she had no plans to leave. This was a great gig. Forty years ago, when nearby Marmot Canyon University had undergone its expansion, the building had been converted from a fancy inn into luxury off-campus apartments for faculty and graduate business students. As the building manager, she provided services similar to the hospitality services that were once offered to the guests. Here she was paid for far more than collecting rent and fixing toilets. She was basically the resident all-purpose gopher. She didn’t love the job, but she didn't hate it—not all the time, anyway—and the fact was, she needed it.

"That's good of you to offer them that," she said grudgingly.

An arched eyebrow rose. "I'm glad you approve, Lia."

Well, that put her in her place—something he loved to do. "I'm just saying the tenants will appreciate it."

"It's only what they expect." He paused, gazing at the carpet at her feet. "Where's that feline hellion of yours hiding?"

Lia refused to respond to his taunt. "He’s not here."

"So you did decide to loan the little monster to the wax museum."

She ignored the way her chest tightened, remembering. "No. I had to take him to the vet's."

"For?"

The man would not take a hint. "He's..." She didn't want to talk about this. Her cat, Max, had developed feline aortic thromboembolism. After days of unsuccessful treatment, she'd been forced to go with the vet's recommendation to end Max’s misery. Even now, two weeks later, she wasn't over the grief of losing him.

She made her voice brisk to get him off the topic. "He's not coming back. A couple weeks ago I had him put down."

His eyes met hers quickly. "You had your cat euthanized?"

"Yes."

"I didn’t know it was that old."

Her hands tightened into fists. If he dared to criticize her for her decision, she would slug him, bossman or not. "Max was eleven. Not that old."

He studied her face, then said softly, "I'm sorry."

His gentle tone confused her. Sympathy from a self-centered playboy who hated cats...it had to be nothing more than a social act. She shrugged, playing it like losing Max was no big deal.

"He’d had heart disease screenings, but they had no idea anything was wrong. He was a mixed breed and susceptible. It happens."

"Are you...all right?" The words seemed torn out of him, as if it was so hard to say something polite to her.

"Sure. Of course. I mean, it's over. I'll survive." She felt tears sting her eyes and blew out an angry breath. God, this man annoyed her. He always got in her business.

He didn’t say anything for a while, just stared down at her until she fidgeted under his silent regard. Then he said, "I liked watching you with the cat."

That flummoxed her. "Uh, what?"

"When you play with it—pardon me, played with it—you were a different person."

"Huh. I didn't realize we were putting on a show for you."

"You were always petting it and laughing. With the cat, you're...different."

Different from what? She scowled. "Why do you always call him it? Cats have a gender, just like people."

His eyes hooded. "Yes, I'm aware of the fact."

Her hand tightened on the doorknob. "Is that everything you need?"

He opened his mouth as if to reply, but ultimately just deepened his frown. The assessing way he eyed her got on her nerves.

Quite literally her nerves. Whenever this man looked at her, her nervous system jangled, either from annoyance or just the sex vibes he emanated. Even knowing the man’s abrasive personality, she wasn't immune to his appeal. However, since banging him was out of the question, she wanted him gone.

"No, that's not everything," he said in measured tones. "After all the tenants are out, please make sure everything is off in all the units. You might as well do a quick clean, too. I don’t want them coming back to moldy counters and refrigerators when the power comes back on."

"Tonight?"

"Sure, you can get started tonight."

Lia's fists clenched until they whitened. Easy for March, who’d never worked a day of hard labor in his life, to say—oh, servant girl, while you’re at it, go ahead and clean all the units tonight. Never mind that you just spent a long week dancing attendance on people, or that for all I know, you might have a date. You are the resident building manager/housekeeper/maintenance worker/errand girl/robot grunt, aren't you? Go on, jump to it, bitch.

But hey. That’s what she was here for, to work. At least it would keep her warm.

"Won't they mind me going in there?" she said stiffly. "I just cleaned last Wednesday. Dr. Mueller gave me a hard time for doing it so soon after the last time. She says she doesn't like people pawing through her things."

March shrugged. "Unless somebody complains to me, they get what their leases say—'services as needed.' If there are any complaints, refer them to me."

"Great. Terrific. I mean, yes, sir."

His eyes narrowed. "The security firm should be coming by Friday morning with batteries and adapters for the lobby and hallway cameras. Can you make sure they get installed okay?"

She kept her gaze stony. "Yes."

He folded his arms over his chest. "What about you? Do you have a place to stay until the power comes back on?"

"Sure," she lied through clenched teeth. "I'll camp out with my friend Trisha. She's over on Highland Hill. The power wouldn't dare go out there."

That was Thursday. Lia wasn't absolutely positive she was lying then. There was still hope that she wasn't. But she had strong suspicions which turned out to be correct. For when she texted Trisha a few minutes after Marcus Ulrich left—Hi, the heat is out here and it's freezing. Could I sleep over there for a few days?she got back, Seriously? You know we hate people staying overnight. Why don't you just go to a hotel or a shelter or something? And a few minutes later, Alex says OK since you're begging one night only & you have to get the girls to daycare.

Lia barely stopped herself from throwing her phone at the wall.

Or from replying as she wanted to.

Oh, thank you dearly, friend. Not. And you know what? You can go take a flying leap off Highland Tower. With your attitude, I'd rather sleep in a ditch than spend one hour at your place being treated like a charity case.

But of course, she didn't say any of that. She just texted back a few minutes later that she'd decided to make other arrangements.

In a way it was true. She had made other arrangements. After discovering that the nearby hotels in her price range were all booked up, she'd arranged with herself to stay right here in her apartment, cold drafts, no electricity and all.

Far better to stay in a refrigerator than be forced to put up with Trisha's barbed insults all week. Even if the temperature was—she peered at the thermostat thirty-six hours later—four degrees above freezing.

And even if the silence was kind of eerie, with the power off and no activity in the building. There was a dearth of traffic noise drifting in from the normally bustling street, only an occasional car driving past at low speed.

She knew she was the lone resident left in the building, having been through each unit yesterday before locking it up. She'd spent Thursday night through Friday morning cleaning, ending with March Ulrich's own fancy loft mere hours after he'd cleared out.

His place was already spotless, but she'd gone over it with a vacuum anyway, making his huge bed with its handmade artisan quilt and scrubbing every surface of his bathroom and kitchen. God forbid the spoiled jerk would have to suffer coming back to a stray invisible hair floating somewhere.

She felt a stab of guilt. She knew she was being too hard on the man, mostly because she was hopelessly attracted to him. Really, to have to work for someone who made her skin tingle—tingle in a sexy way, not only to smack him upside his haughty head—it was too much.

She missed his grandmother, Susanna Ulrich. The old lady had been a strict but kind employer. She'd never acted superior, despite her being born to one of the oldest families in New Highland and having had everything handed to her on a silver platter.

The tenants were also spoiled, most of them retired MCU faculty who’d lived here for decades being catered to like kings and queens. With one exception, the new guy two floors up who was hot but otherwise kind of a deadbeat—she got the impression Karl was an old friend of March's—they were a demanding bunch. But all in all they treated her decently, and she didn't really mind.

March Ulrich, though...he absolutely rubbed her the wrong way.

He seemed to take great delight in making fun of her. At his grandmother’s funeral, he'd made a sarcastic comment about the cat she held in her arms. And making her life difficult seemed his other ambition...just a week into his new role as landlord, he'd set up a phone app allowing tenants to directly request services from her at any time, day or night.

It was a chance to earn extra cash, so it hadn't seemed so bad at first. But then the work started piling on crazy-fast. When she challenged him on it he asked her coolly if it was too much for her, all but calling her a lazy ass. She scoffed at his insincere offer to remove the app, silently told him to go fuck a flea, and started putting the extra money aside for her education fund.

Finally finishing in Ulrich’s unit, Lia returned to her ground floor apartment and fell into bed too beat to do anything but shiver. She still hadn't gotten used to coming back to a Maxless home. If he'd been around, she’d have cuddled his warm body close and read in bed—or tried to—not always easy with Max's attempts at sabotage. Max had kept everything from seeming bleak.

She slept, awoke to a frigid dawn, and went to hunt down food. Piling the dregs of the peanut butter from the industrial-sized jar of Jif onto crackers, she glanced repeatedly at the spycam display with its view of the entry lobby, trying not to feel like the lone survivor in a frozen ghost town.