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Landlord Wars: Chapter 16


This Saturday, Green Aesthetic had a few events to coordinate, and considering the trucks lined up in front, every vendor in town had shown up on our doorstep.

“No, not the Presidio,” Victor said into his cell phone, his back to me. He pointed feverishly at a man with a stack of boxes on a hand dolly and gestured for the guy to move out of the way. “The white miniature rose plants,” Victor continued, “are going to the 40 Under 40 Awards at the Fairmont.” His long-sleeved, tucked-in button-down was wrinkled in the back, and his short blond-and-gray hair was sticking up at odd ends.

I stepped aside for the guy with the dolly, and Victor caught sight of me, his shoulders sinking as relief flooded his features.

He covered the phone. “You came at just the right time to save my sanity.”

“What’s going on?” I said, as a crew of workers loaded parlor palms onto a truck at the curb. “Why are the plants here and not at the venues?”

Victor let out a long breath, closing his eyes briefly. “Because James quit, and I haven’t had time to hire another coordinator.”

On the plus side, Victor was good at his job, and everyone wanted to work with him. On the downside, Green Aesthetic didn’t have enough coordinators to handle the load, and it looked like my boss was ready to crack. “Why didn’t you call me?”

If James had quit suddenly, and Victor was running all four venues, this was bad. Victor was a genius at design, but he was terrible with running the daily ins and outs.

We moved out of the way of more workers taking product from the back of the store to the street, and Victor said, “I screwed up. But I’ll fix it. That’s not why I wanted you here today.”

Glancing around, I wasn’t so sure he could get things running smoothly. This would be a tough one for me to untangle, but I loved this sort of challenge. “I don’t mind helping.”

Victor gestured for me to enter the shop and followed behind me. “Forget all this. I have something more important to talk to you about. Do you remember when I hired you that I told you I’d retire soon?” Yeah, and I’d hoped he hadn’t been serious. Working for Victor had been a dream, and I wanted it to continue. I wasn’t ready to find another job. “I said I would give you as much experience as possible, remember? Well, time’s up. I’m retiring.”

“Now?” My voice came out in a squeak.

This was too soon. No one would hire me with less than a year of managerial experience. And there were only a couple shops like Victor’s in the city to begin with. But Victor had worked his ass off for decades; who was I to begrudge him his retirement?

“I understand,” I said, my heart sinking.

The plans I’d laid were once again not going well, although this time it wasn’t due to my neurosis. I’d have to find another job immediately if I wanted to hold on to my apartment and continue helping Elise with tuition and Mom with her bills. I pressed my fingers to my forehead at the pressure building behind my eyes.

Victor touched my shoulder and smiled gently. “Sophia,” he said. “I’m not laying you off. A couple years ago, I couldn’t have imagined being able to hand off the business to someone else. But everything changed the day you walked through the door. You have the passion and talent I was looking for in a design manager, and you’ve even grown the business in the short time you’ve been here. I’m offering for you to take it over.”

This was the second time in the last twenty-four hours that my brain couldn’t catch up to reality. First with Max and that naughty kiss, and now with Victor. “Wait, what? Are you serious?”

He laughed. “There’s no one I feel more comfortable entrusting the business to than you, not even my son.”

I swallowed, holding back a well of emotion. From the moment we met, Victor had felt more like a father figure than a boss. And now he was offering me something I’d only dreamed of having sometime in the distant future. It felt too good to be true.

“You’re the best boss I’ve ever had,” was all I could come up with, blinking back tears. “When I finally managed to branch off on my own, I thought I’d be building from scratch. I never dreamed of anything like this.”

Victor rubbed his jaw and looked around. “Not from scratch, but things don’t look too good at the moment, do they?” He chuckled. “Today’s chaos is my fault. In all honesty, I don’t have the energy anymore, and I want to retire.”

Regardless of how incredible this opportunity seemed, the truth was I’d only just moved out of my mother’s house and was barely keeping my finances in check. “I’m honored that you would consider entrusting the business with me, but I don’t think I can afford it.”

His face brightened, a twinkle in his eye. “I already thought of that. From what I’ve gathered, you’re the sole provider for your family, and that’s a big responsibility. If you run the place, I’ll maintain the capital so you don’t have to. I have no doubt you’ll build the business in ways I never could, and in turn, I’ll take a portion of the profit. We’ll set up a contract so that you can buy me out over time. It would be an investment for me and a career for you.”

He looked around the storefront. “I love this place, but I just can’t do it anymore, doll. I’m in my fifties, but physically I might as well be fifteen years older. Tim is threatening to leave me if I don’t step back and reduce my hours.”

Tim was Victor’s boyfriend of twenty years. Victor had come out later in life after a rocky adolescence of trying to fit in. He’d had a son with his one high school girlfriend when he was just eighteen—talk about surprise and confusion mixed together. But Victor had always said that raising his son was the best blessing he’d ever been given. He’d also stayed close with his son’s mother, regularly checking in on her.

“Tim would never leave you,” I said. “He adores you.”

Victor smiled. “Maybe, but we’d like to live out our golden years together, and he deserves more of me. You’ve already brought in new clients with your unique twist to green design, and our customers are beginning to associate the place with you. It’s as much yours moving forward as it is mine.”

“But I haven’t even been here a year,” I said, still unable to believe his words. Was I the only one thinking logically?

“And every client we have asks for you,” he pointed out.

He was flattering me. Maybe. I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that he was offering me a golden opportunity. “I love the idea. I’m just not confident I can do it.”

“I know it’s a lot, but think about it, okay?” He looked down at his phone, which had begun to ring nonstop. “I’ll have my lawyer draft a business proposal. There’s no rush. If today hadn’t been so chaotic, I would have taken you out to lunch to discuss it. But”—he crossed his eyes comically—“things didn’t go according to plan.”

I chuckled. “I will consider it. And no matter what I decide, thank you, Victor. It’s a huge honor that you’d think of me.”

He grinned. “If I’d had a daughter, I would have wanted her to be as smart and tenderhearted as you, Sophia. Instead, I have an incredible son, who sadly works as an engineer.” He shook his head. “How did an artist produce an engineer?”

No one was more committed to their son than Victor, no matter how much he poked fun. He talked lovingly of his son and his son’s long-term girlfriend nearly every day, and I was fortunate to have Victor rooting for me too.

I never had time to think about how much I missed my dad. I’d hit the ground running to help my mom, and I never stopped. But times like this killed me in all the best ways, reminding me how much I missed having a father and how lucky I was to have people like Victor in my life.

I reached over and hugged him.

He gave me a tight squeeze before pulling back and shouting at workers near the front door, “Hey, hey, not there!”

He shook his head, holding up his phone and showing me six phone calls he’d missed during the few minutes we’d spoken. “These knuckleheads. I should do a better job of taking over James’s coordinating. In the meantime, would you be able to run one errand? I wouldn’t normally ask on your day off, but this is a top-tier client who reached out. Can’t say no when influential people come a-calling.”

“Gosh, no,” I said. “Half of the business I’ve brought in has been through word of mouth from large clients I’ve acquired. Word of mouth is everything. What’s the address?”


My mother rarely called me to the house, but today she had insisted.

I let myself into the mansion on Franklin Street and made my way to her private salon. Dozens of priceless paintings covered the paneled wood-and-fabric walls, and there had to be an equal amount of art spread over the furniture in the large room. Every table held marble and fine-jeweled curios, along with silver and crystal serving wear. The furniture was upholstered in bright shades and patterns, with pillows to match. Some might call it high style; I called it blinding.

Expecting a pitch to invest in my father’s development project, I searched the room for my mother. But she wasn’t the only person here today.

My mother didn’t immediately catch sight of me—not with my entrance on the far end. And not with all the commotion.

A woman, bent at the waist, was dragging a plant twice her size slowly across the floor, scraping the pot noisily against the hardwood. “Over here?” she asked in a lightly winded but familiar voice.

I looked sharply at my mother standing in front of floor-to-ceiling paned windows, heat spiraling up my neck

“I changed my mind,” my mother said, tapping her lip, focused on the circus she’d created and not my presence. “I’d like it on the other side of the room.”

Unable to stand it any longer, I said, “What is going on?”

My mother spun her head in my direction, her face brightening at the same time Sophia’s head snapped up and her lips parted in surprise.

Sophia’s light-pink blouse featured a dirt smudge down the front, and my blood boiled. No telling how long my mother had enslaved her with a half-dead sixty-pound plant inside the ancestral home.

Had my mother sniffed out my interest in Jack’s roommate? I wouldn’t be surprised if Kitty had hired a private investigator to look into my personal life. She was a wily one, and she wanted me to marry a society woman.

“Maxwell, you’ve arrived,” my mother said, her gaze sliding to the far corner of the room—where Gwen was sitting primly on a robin’s-egg-blue velvet couch, sipping coffee from hundred-year-old china.

“Max,” Gwen said and set her drink on the mahogany table that had been in this room since I was a toddler. My mother wasn’t a hoarder, per se, like Sophia’s mom, but she had her share of clutter. Just really expensive clutter.

Gwen glanced at Sophia, who quickly brushed soil from her hands, avoiding my eyes. “Josie Gates hired Green Aesthetic, and she raved about their design,” Gwen said. “I forwarded the tip to your mother.” She smiled at my mom. “Aren’t they just fabulous, Kitty? They even move plants during a consult.”

Sophia turned away as though ashamed.

Disgust and rage coursed through me. Gwen’s actions were somewhat surprising, but not entirely. My mother’s, however, were more so, and I’d never been more ashamed.

Moving plants was not a part of Sophia’s job duties. But my mother never thought about things like that, and neither did Gwen, which I’d realized too late in our relationship.

Head held high, Sophia brushed back a few strands of hair that had fallen in her face and grabbed a worn leather bag next to the floral couch with a weird bamboo base I never could figure out. She gave my mother a stiff smile. “I’ll draw up some design suggestions and get them to you later.” She hurried toward the door.

I subtly reached for her arm as she passed. “Are you okay?”

She shook off my touch and kept walking, her face flushed.

I wanted to run after her and apologize, but I got the sense she wouldn’t welcome it. Not right now.

I leveled a look at my mother. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“My, my!” Kitty said. “Don’t be so dramatic, Maxwell. I’m hiring a designer. I met Sophia at your rooftop party, and then Gwen recommended her.”

Gwen glanced between us nervously, but she didn’t say anything, and she didn’t get up to leave.

I crossed my arms. It was possible my mother knew nothing about my interest in Sophia, but she’d humiliated a friend. “Sophia is a highly educated, skilled designer. Ordering her to move heavy objects is not a part of her job. Not to mention it’s insulting.”

My mother rolled her eyes. “Pish. I was nice, wasn’t I, Gwenny?”

Gwen delivered a charming smile to my mother. “Of course.”

Bullshit. I could only imagine how Sophia had felt being bossed around by a rich client. She probably hadn’t believed she could say no. And then there was Gwen, coddling my mother’s ego. “I’m leaving,” I said.

My mother’s forehead wrinkled. “But we haven’t discussed the reason I asked you here today.”

I turned my back on her and walked to the exit of the stuffy salon no amount of light and air could break through. “You have a phone. Use it next time.”


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