Landlord Wars: Chapter 14

Max

I shoved my phone in the inner pocket of my suit jacket and pressed the intercom. “I’m leaving,” I told my assistant. “I’ll check email later for the contract on the updated landscape specs for Cityscape.”

“You got it,” Derek, my assistant, said.

“What is Cityscape?”

My dad was leaning against the doorframe to my office.

“When did you arrive?” I asked.

“Just a moment ago. I couldn’t help but overhear.”

Dread filled my chest. I’d been putting off this conversation for weeks, but it seemed I couldn’t avoid it any longer. “It’s our next big project,” I told him.

Karl Burrows blinked twice in a deliberate way I’d come to interpret as I’m not happy with you, but I’ll give you a moment to correct yourself. “Your company has the capacity for another project along with the Starlight building?”

I maintained an even expression. “My company decided to pass on Starlight.”

My dad straightened, and this time there was no blinking. Only rage shone in his eyes. “What are you talking about, Max?”

I tucked my hand into my suit pants pocket. “I investigated Starlight at your request. There aren’t enough investors, and city planners are pushing for quality, multi-residential buildings, not high-end condos that only the top one percent can afford.”

He laughed. “There’s no limit to the luxury this city can handle. Let someone else do affordable housing.”

I moved to the entrance of my office, pausing a few feet from my father. “That’s not the way I run my business. Profit is important, but it’s not the only factor. Besides, the Starlight project is cost-prohibitive, and frankly, more of a spec project.”

Color rose in my father’s cheeks. “We agreed Starlight was the way out for our family. This is about more than one of your pet projects.”

“You and Mom agreed this was the way out after the investment sank your finances—”

“Without which, you’d have none of this!” He waved his arm at the floor of cubicles and offices behind us.

I glanced at the executives who supported my real estate development company and noted their attention on us. I pulled my father into the office and closed the door.

“The last thing I want is for you and Mom to be destitute, but that isn’t the situation. You lost a fortune, there’s no doubt. But you’re still wealthy, and you will be for the rest of your lives. You made a poor investment choice and lost a jet, a luxury yacht, and a few vacation homes. But you have money in the bank and a mansion in the city. I won’t base my development choices on making you richer.”

My father threw up his hands. “Is this another one of your ‘help the people’ speeches?”

My parents had been on edge ever since my father placed an unfortunate bet on a hedge fund a college buddy of his had pushed. I understood where the stress and lack of empathy came from, but I refused to support it.

My jaw shifted and anger made its way up my chest. “I considered the business proposal for Starlight and decided my company’s time and resources were better spent helping a larger portion of San Franciscans—at a profit for my company, of course. Starlight might have earned back some of the money you and Mom lost, but not close to all of it. And that’s if we managed to keep costs down and find the right buyers. The biggest advantage in moving forward would be to your reputation. The gossip around Starlight would outshine rumors about the losses you incurred.”

My dad stepped forward confrontationally. “It wasn’t only our money.”

Karl Burrows might come across as a happy-go-lucky rich donor, but he could be ruthless. “You talked others into investing,” I said. “But that’s on you, Dad. Don’t pull me into this.”

“It’s on you too! Why do you insist on distancing yourself from your family?”

I let out a strained breath. “I have nothing against our family, and I would like for us to be close. But that doesn’t mean I’ll make the same choices you and Mom have.”

My dad shook his head and put his hands on his hips. “You wouldn’t have a fortune if it weren’t for us.”

I nodded. “This is true. You paid for my education, and friends of the family provided seed money for my early developments. Which made me lucky and more fortunate than most. But I’m in a position now to continue doing what I love while helping others. That’s what drives me.”

My father laughed. “Max, we’ve always given to charity. Why sacrifice your fortune for others? This is nonsense. Do the Starlight project, and make me and your mother proud.”

I closed my eyes briefly. “I had hoped that the choices I’ve made and what I’m doing already make you proud.”

My father hesitated for a moment before he spoke. “Don’t you think some of those things are a waste of time and effort? You could be earning so much more with Starlight. No need to sacrifice the bottom line for people who will land on their feet without companies catering to them.”

This conversation was pointless. My father was wrong. Starlight wasn’t a sure thing, and impoverished people didn’t pull themselves out of poverty by sheer will.

I’d lived an entitled life. But some people, like my dad, saw that as their due. I credited spending so much time with Jack’s family that I never had.

I checked my phone. “I need to be somewhere. Starlight is off the table, but feel free to pitch it to another company.”

I moved to pass him, but my father blocked the way. “You know you’re our only chance at getting Starlight off the ground. Are you really going to do this to your mother?”

I moved around him. “Like you said about those who have far less—you’ll land on your feet.”

My phone vibrated on my way to the parking garage, and I checked the screen.

Jack: Meet us at O’Malley’s in the inner Sunset.

The conversation with my dad about Starlight left a sour taste in my mouth. I rarely saw eye to eye with my parents, but I cared about them and wanted them to be happy. I just wished their happiness didn’t hinge on my doing their bidding. Hanging out with Jack would be a welcome distraction, and I was glad to see him getting out again.

Max: Be there in 20.

It wasn’t until I made it to O’Malley’s that a sinking suspicion replaced thoughts of Starlight and my parents. Jack had said “us” in his text message.

I scanned the room and caught sight of a familiar dark-haired woman with baggy slacks and white sneakers standing at the bar. Sophia was here, and suddenly my pulse kicked up a notch.

She was more interesting than I’d imagined, and I’d been fighting imagining her since the day she moved in with Jack. That near kiss in the kitchen last night had been less of an impulse and more a result of the attraction that had been building since we met.

Sophia stood near the bar, squeezed between a man in a dark button-down and a barstool. She was attempting to gain the attention of the bartender while seemingly fielding the man’s questions.

The urge to walk over and shove the guy away from Sophia was as intense as it was disturbing. Fighting for a woman’s attention had never been a consideration. Not until I met her.

I angled for Jack’s table and made my way across the busy pub. The place was old, with smooth, wide-plank wooden floors and tables with a thick, shiny finish over old-growth redwood. Some people looked like they’d come from the Financial District, while others were dressed casually.

Jack looked up. “You made it.” He was wearing jeans and an untucked button-down. I hadn’t seen Jack this cleaned up in months. Sophia’s sister was also there, drinking a beer and laughing at something on her phone.

I tipped my head toward the bar. “What’s going on?”

Jack’s gaze landed on Sophia. “She went to grab another beer. Guess she got distracted. This is our night to be each other’s wingman.”

A prickly heat filled my chest, and I looked her way. “I’ll head over. I could use a beer.”

“Bad day?” Jack asked.

I gripped the back of my neck. “I told my father I wouldn’t be doing Starlight.”

“Ahh,” Jack said and nodded. “He wasn’t happy.”

My parents and Jack had always gotten along because Jack was an exceptional person. He’d been among the few students clever enough to gain entrance on scholarship to the prestigious San Francisco private school I attended. Later, he received more scholarships to attend an Ivy League school. He also understood Kitty and Karl and their limited ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes, and he never judged them for it. “It’s the only life they’ve known, Max,” he’d tell me.

I turned to the bar, but Jack grabbed my shoulder before I could go anywhere. “Dude, don’t interfere in whatever Sophia has going on.” The woman in question was smiling at something the man next to her had said, and I almost heeded Jack’s advice. Almost.

“Me? Interfere? Never.” My words were casual—and didn’t hold an ounce of truth.

Jack’s look said he knew exactly what I was up to. “That kid is skittish with the male population. You saw her the night she went on the blind date.” He glanced at Sophia worriedly. “I should be over there helping her.”

Elise set her phone on the tabletop and placed her chin on her hand. “What are you two talking about?”

“Nothing,” I said at the same time that Jack said, “Sophia.”

Elise twisted around and looked at her sister. “Ooh, she’s hooked one. Nice!”

“Not particularly,” I murmured under my breath, and headed for the bar.

I heard Jack calling my name, but I ignored it, my hand in the pocket of my suit pants. I lifted my chin at the bartender, and she caught my gaze. I held up two fingers and said, “Guinness.”

The bartender nodded, and that was when Sophia looked up, her beautiful eyes widening ever so slightly. Her gaze flashed to the man beside her, then back at me.

I pulled up behind her and sent the man a direct message. It went something like this: Back the fuck off.

“Could have just said she’s taken,” the guy murmured and turned his back on Sophia.

She spun around in surprise. “What just happened? I was talking to him.”

The bartender slid two pints my way.

“Is there a problem?” I said innocently, and passed her a pint.

“Thank you,” she said, gripping the beer. “How did you get your order so quickly? I’ve been waiting for forever.”

“You sure you didn’t miss the bartender while talking to your friend?”

Her gaze narrowed. “Were you eavesdropping?”

“I would never do that.” Of course I would.

Her delicate jaw shifted. “I’m trying to date more—or really, at all—and you’re not helping. Jack is a much better wingman.”

I caught the guy she’d been talking to weaving his way across the bar. “Shall I bring him back?”

Eyes narrowing again, she sipped the dark malt. “Did you scare him away on purpose, Max?”

I’d never considered myself a territorial man. My ex-girlfriends would have been thrilled if I had exhibited this kind of caveman behavior with them. But I’d never felt possessive when it came to anyone else, only for the woman who was subletting a room from my best friend and spent an unusual amount of money on chocolate. Her animosity toward my dickish behavior coupled with her cute rear in baggy pants and fiery green eyes called to me. And I didn’t feel the least bit like fighting it anymore.

I slid a large tip to the bartender and casually inched closer to Sophia. “Now, why would I scare him away?”

She seemed to chew on that a moment. “Who can say? You also eat my chocolate even though I’ve threatened to maim you for it, but at least that I understand. I have good taste in chocolate.”

“This is true.”

A flash of dark hair crossed my vision before Sophia was shoved into my chest and beer splashed between us. The sticky malt was the least of my concerns, because all my senses homed in on Sophia’s soft frame and light scent.

“Whoa!” Elise said, and reached for napkins from the bar.

Sophia swiveled her head and glared over her shoulder at her sister. “What the hell, Elise?” She was still holding on to my arm, and I didn’t feel it necessary to point it out.

Elise thrust napkins at the two of us. “Sorry about that. This place is crowded. I overshot the bar when I beelined past the pub-crawlers. Let’s go back to the table.” She looked over to where Jack was sitting. “Your friend is avoiding me, and it’s getting boring.”

Jack avoiding an attractive woman was…unusual. Come to think of it, he’d been acting strange around Sophia’s sister from the start. I’d assumed he was steering clear of women for a while, but seeing him out tonight, I wasn’t so sure.

Sophia straightened, putting a bit of space between us, which I reluctantly allowed. We headed to the table, and the look on Jack’s face was one of relief.

“What took you so long?” He shifted in his seat, angling his body away from Elise as we sat down.

“I’m assisting Sophia with her dating life,” I said. “It seems her taste in suitors is lacking.”

Sophia shot me a furious look that got all my senses firing. “Excuse me? My taste is excellent.”

Elise choked on what looked like a half-full gin and tonic. “Your taste in men sucks.”

“Not anymore it doesn’t,” Sophia said, pushing her light-brown hair over her shoulder confidently. “I’ve turned over a new leaf, and Jack is helping me.”

I needed to have a talk with my best friend. His loyalty could use fine-tuning.

“Exactly,” Jack said, missing my cutting glare. “Speaking of which…” He turned to a group of men at the table beside us. “This is my friend Sophia I was telling you about.”

Four average-looking guys proceeded to check out Sophia.

I hated them instantly, as well as Jack. Had he not received my subliminal messages?

Sophia’s body stiffened at the attention, and she sank her head into her hands. “Oh my God.”

“Smooth,” I told Jack.

“What?” He leaned forward. “These guys are okay,” he said in hushed tones. “We’ve been talking while you all were at the bar.”

Sophia lifted her head. “Hi,” she said shyly—adorably—and started a conversation with one of them.

My blood pressure rose, and my chest felt uncomfortably tight. I should take off, let her do her thing. Being around Sophia while she was trying to meet other men wasn’t good for my health. But that wasn’t what I did.

“What do you do for a living?” I overheard the man ask her. An investment banker, by the look of his suit and dress shirt with no tie.

“I’m an interior designer by training.”

“She arranges plants,” I said, and sipped my beer. No need for this guy to realize how amazing Sophia was.

Sophia shifted until her back was to me. “I design interior greenspace,” she clarified.

“Huh,” the guy said, tilting his head as though confused. “That’s different.”

“Well, it is, actually,” she said hurriedly. “Most people don’t realize how important plants are for the flow and vibe of our indoor spaces. It’s—it’s, you know—vital that we feel good, and it can actually make the rooms feel less cluttered.”

Interesting that she used the word “cluttered.” It wouldn’t surprise me if her mother’s home had influenced her career.

Sophia tucked her hair behind her ear and cleared her throat. She was nervous, and it showed, but I wasn’t generous enough to help. Not when it came to another man pursuing the woman I was interested in. Because I was smart enough to realize I had a serious interest in Sophia, who should be off-limits, since she was technically my tenant. She also harbored feelings of loathing for me, so there was that too.

“Sophia here leaves her mugs all over the house and has frizzy hair when she gets off work,” I said. “She needs good greenspace to keep up the appearance of a decluttered room and person.”

Her back popped upright at the sound of my voice.

“So she’s messy?” the man said. “Messy can be fun.” He cast her a licentious smile I wanted to rip off his face.

Her head swiveled in my direction. “I am not messy, Maxwell!” Darts shot from her eyes, but at least she was looking at me.

“Oh, I get it,” the guy said. “You two live together.” His thick brow furrowed. “But your friend said you’re single.”

He was sharp, this one. Which made my confidence soar. As awkward as she came across with the opposite sex, Sophia was a bright woman. She wouldn’t date a moron.

“I am single,” Sophia said.

The man looked at me, then back at Sophia. “Right, well, it was nice meeting you,” he said, and turned toward the others at his table.

Sophia swiveled in her chair and faced me squarely. “Did you just cockblock?”

I checked my phone. “He was a creep, and you’re better off without him.”

She leaned forward, eyes hot with anger, and a waft of her soft-scented shampoo drifted my way, reminding me of the bar when she was pressed against me. The scent was some sort of coconut-vanilla fusion, tempting me to run my nose along her neck and breathe in. “That is for me to decide, Max. What is wrong with you?”

Good question. I tipped my chin at the bartender, who miraculously caught my eye and flagged the only waitress in the place. “I need another drink.”

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