Landlord Wars: Chapter 12


Growing up, I rarely invited friends to my house. On the few occasions I did, before I knew better, those kids either said horrible things about me at school or ghosted me, or both. Either way, I lost whatever connections I had outside the home.

Max Burrows wasn’t like the friends who discovered my secret. He wasn’t a part of the middle class, so even if I’d grown up in a typical middle-income home, that wouldn’t have been normal to him because he mingled among the elite. He hadn’t liked my pink panties dangling off the couch or my mugs—or pretty much anything about me, and that was before he’d seen the worst of it.

I kicked a blown-up exercise ball in the hall out of the way and scurried to where Max stood, my heart racing. “What are you doing here?”

I attempted to shove him back out the door, but the darn man wouldn’t budge, not even when I was inches away and glaring at him.

He smiled at my mother, then spared me a glance. And that was when I realized how close I was and that I still had my hands on him.

Leave it to Landlord Devil to have a firm body beneath the buttoned-up exterior. I dropped my hands and stepped back.

“I came to give you this,” he said, and handed me an envelope. He was wearing a suit, per usual, this one a subtle gray plaid with a zippy charcoal tie, and he appeared polite, revealing nothing of his thoughts.

Which I had to give him credit for, because my childhood friends had never waited until they were out the door before they said exactly what they thought about the house.

“This is the address on your lease application,” he said. “I was on my way to an appointment and thought I’d drop off your deposit check.”


“Can I get you something to drink?” the older woman, presumably Sophia’s mother, asked. She’d also been the one to answer the door.

“No, Mom.” Sophia grabbed my arm with a firm grip for someone so small. “Max was just leaving.”

“I’d love a glass of water.” I smiled, and Sophia frowned. She was cute when she was angry. Cute at other times too, but especially when I’d riled her up. She didn’t seem the type to anger easily, and I took special pleasure in arousing it in her.

“I’ll be just a moment,” her mother said and hurried off into what looked like a kitchen. Difficult to tell, as the room was full of disparate items. Was that a dog kennel on the counter? I hadn’t seen any dogs or cats. Though I’d seen a lot of other things wrong with the picture.

The home Sophia’s mother lived in was extremely cluttered, to put it mildly. There was very little space in which to walk and a distinctly unpleasant odor.

I glanced at the small hand on my arm, tightened in a death grip and attempting to tug me back the way I’d come. “You need to leave,” Sophia said in a low voice. “My mom isn’t well.”

It was clear there was an issue with the house, quite possibly from a habit of the mother’s, but Sophia’s mom seemed like a warm person and in possession of her faculties. “I’m good.”

Sophia’s lips compressed, and her fair eyes glowed with anger.

If looks could kill, I’d be dead right now.

Her mom reappeared a second later, carefully holding a glass with sunflower decals along the top edge. “Here you go,” she said, handing me the glass. “Sophia mentioned your name was Max?” Sophia promptly dropped her hand from my arm, her body taut and vibrating with frustration beside me. “She doesn’t bring many people around,” her mother said, looking up in thought. “It’s been, what, a year, Sophia, since your friend Paul visited?”

Sophia’s face paled, and her green eyes grew haunted.

A hollow sensation swept through my gut. It was all fun and games when Sophia was feisty, but not when she was upset.

I gulped down the water and handed the glass to her mother. “Thank you. I didn’t realize how thirsty I was until you offered. I should head out.” I touched the underside of Sophia’s elbow. “Can I give you a ride? I’m headed back to the apartment.” I wasn’t, actually. I’d been on my way to an appointment, but I’d decided to reschedule it because this was more important.

She peered up as though confused.

“Go, go!” her mother said and ushered us toward the door. “Don’t worry about a thing, Soph. I’ll have that room cleared out in no time.”

Sophia winced, but she reached back and gave her mom a tight hug that had my chest constricting.

She might be ashamed of the house, but not the mother.

I was envious. Appearances were everything where I came from, the downside of growing up in a place that was rigidly controlled. The warmth and overt caring between Sophia and her mother was the opposite of what I’d experienced.

We walked down the steps to the concrete sidewalk, and I maintained a light touch on her arm the entire way. Sophia seemed out of it, and I worried she’d trip and hurt herself if I let her go.

I guided her to my car and opened the passenger-side door, regretting my decision to come here more by the second. Had I known it would be this distressing for Sophia, I wouldn’t have done it.

She shook her head as though finally realizing where we were standing. “I can catch a ride.”

“I’m going home anyway. I don’t mind taking you.”

She hesitated a moment, but she must have been too exhausted to argue, because she stepped inside the car and settled in the front seat, setting her workbag on the floorboard.

I let out a heavy sigh of relief as I rounded the rear bumper. Sophia was upset, and I did not feel good about letting her find her way to the apartment. I would have, in fact, turned into the stalker I wasn’t and followed her to make sure she got there safely.

As soon as Sophia fastened her seatbelt, I started the car and pulled onto the street. Her silence was worrisome. “Are you okay?”

Her voice was soft and faint when she replied, “Why did you come today?”

Why had I come? It suddenly seemed less about the deposit and more about understanding this woman. Only now I was regretting my decision. I hadn’t wanted to hurt her, and that seemed exactly what I’d done. “I already told you.”

Her glare on the side of my face was weighted with anger. “You gave me an excuse about the deposit, but no rich landlord personally delivers a check. Especially not before a tenant has moved out.”

My office could have mailed the check, and typically that was done after a tenant moved out, but there was another reason for my visit. “I’d like you to reconsider breaking your lease.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes. “Why?” she said with a look of exhaustion. “Or you’ll sue me for breach of contract?”

Okay, I deserved that. I’d been surprised and then annoyed when she told me she was moving. But it wasn’t because of money. “Jack wants you to stay, and he believes I’m the reason you’re leaving.” That was the truth. Just not the whole truth.

There was a chance I’d pushed an innocent woman to flee. I wasn’t proud of it.

I also didn’t want to see her go.

Her eyes met mine briefly, filled with equal measures of anger and hurt. “And if I don’t stay?”

I gentled my tone. “You are free to break the lease without repercussions.”

She shook her head. “Are you doing this out of pity? Offering me my room back after you saw my mom’s place?”

I looked over, brow furrowed, before returning my gaze to the road ahead. “There’s nothing wrong with a humble home.”

She made a derisive sound in the back of her throat. “Humble… That guy my mom mentioned—Paul? He was my last serious boyfriend. He dumped me as soon as he saw where I lived, after we’d been dating a year and were considering marriage. He told me he didn’t want my mom to be a part of his future family. It’s more than just the home.”

My hands gripped the steering wheel. On the outside, I had the ideal family, but it was all smoke and mirrors. “That guy you dated was a shallow excuse for a human being.”

“Agreed,” she said, then seemed to catch herself. She looked as though she hadn’t expected my response.

Imagining Sophia hurt by others for things out of her control… It bothered me. And I was the dickhead who’d added to her pain on the rooftop, and probably a few other times because of my trust issues.

“No pity,” I finally said. Because I didn’t pity her. What I felt was admiration. “My best friend’s happiness is important, and he says you’re a good roommate. And that I have been…rude.”

She snorted, and I took that for agreement.

I wasn’t a total ass, just occasionally when my protective instincts fired in the wrong direction. “You asked for the deposit, and it caught me off guard. Jack passes on the reduced rent to whoever sublets. I’m not used to someone giving up a thing of value. Especially not when it comes to the opposite sex. That’s the world I live in, and people rarely sway from their roles.”

“So what you’re saying is, women don’t turn down your money.” Her expression was pure annoyance, and relief flooded my chest. The distress she’d exhibited at her mom’s had me antsy and prepared to bust down buildings to protect her. “Maybe those women actually liked you?” she said.

I sent her a look.

She smiled. “Right. I can see why women wouldn’t like you for who you are on the inside, what with your handsome looks and fancy sports car blocking the view.”

“Do I sense sarcasm?”

“You realize you can be rich, good-looking, and genuinely liked? Though that last one could be a struggle.”

Swinging briefly into oncoming traffic, I dodged a double-parked car. “I deserved that.”

“I’m just saying,” she continued, rubbing salt in the wound, “that if you were a kind person, which I question, there might be people who could tolerate your presence.” She shifted toward me, and the side of my body lit up. “For the record, I’m not one of them. I have a particular distaste for arrogant, rich men. No amount of money can compensate for a chocolate-stealing thief who shows off his wealth with his suits and expensive sports car.”

I rubbed my chest in mock pain. “Ouch.”

Her lips twitched in what looked like a smile. She didn’t hate me. I hadn’t won her over yet, but she didn’t hate me.

There was a Machiavellian side of me that enjoyed riling up Sophia. She didn’t back down when I was being an ass, and I respected that. But I was even more pleased to make her smile.

We drove the rest of the way in relative silence, except for the erotic tension that filled the air—possibly entirely on my end.

I let out a sigh. I was attracted to a woman who hated me. Because of course I was.

Back at the apartment, I followed Sophia up the stairs, trying hard not to stare. I’d been on dates since Gwen and I separated, but you’d think I’d been locked up in a monastery. Now that I’d mentally admitted my attraction to Sophia, the floodgates had opened, and my gaze snagged and held on a pert little rear. I had issues.

She stopped on the landing and swung around. “I’ll stay at Jack’s as long as you don’t pity me.”

I didn’t dare breathe, worried she’d take it back. Which solidified my ruination when it came to this woman.

“No pity.” There was something undeniably appealing about her holding to her convictions.

“And one more thing,” she said, one curvy hip cocked. “My sister will be staying now and then, so don’t give me a hard time about it.”

“Whatever you and Jack work out is fine with me.”

She turned for her apartment, and I was about to head up to mine, forcing myself to remain cool and not look back, when I heard her say, “Oh, I forgot…”

I looked back, and the view was worth it.

“Touch my chocolate again,” she said, fire in her eyes, “and you’ll lose a digit.”

A vision of a jerry-rigged finger guillotine inside her chocolate cupboard flashed before my eyes, and I smiled.

I liked this girl.


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