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Landlord Wars: Chapter 29


I was nervous. Nauseated, shaky hands, heart-racing nervous.

I stared at myself in the mirror. The dress Jack helped me pick out was classy, in deep emerald silk satin, the length nearly touching the floor. The fit was column, with the waist in the same material cutting in like a wide belt. Pleats in the bodice made my bust look more proportional, and it featured a collar neckline, so there was no cleavage nor leg anywhere. But the gown didn’t need to show those things, because it was sexy in its simplicity and cut.

The quality was excellent and more luxurious than anything I’d ever owned. It shouldn’t cause a negative stir among San Francisco’s finest. And yet I felt like a girl from the Sunset District mingling with people she had no business being around.

It didn’t help that Max had called this afternoon and asked if Jack could take me tonight. He’d seemed nervous, and I could tell he was conflicted.

“Something came up,” he said. “My parents managed to get a meeting with someone from the city who could help get Cityscape back on track, but I won’t be able to escort you to the ball.”

Attending the ball without Max ratcheted up my nerves, but I understood how important this project was not only to him but also to the city. “Of course you should go,” I said. “Don’t worry about me.”

Apparently, Jack attended all the balls with Max and his family, as though he were one of the upper class. And if Jack could do it, I could too.

Now I just needed to believe that.

Jack stopped at the door to my room and leaned his shoulder against the frame. With his hair combed back, he looked extremely dapper in a simple black tuxedo.

He nodded slowly and whistled. “Looking good, Soph.”

I flattened my hand down the front of the dress. “You promise I’ll blend in?”

“No way will you blend,” he said proudly. “You’ll stand out.”

Panic filled my chest, and I swallowed hard. “But I don’t want to stand out.”

“Too late. All the rich yuppies will try to steal you from Max, and Max will turn into a beast and tear them apart.” At my shocked expression, he said, “Not physically. But they’ll suffer because Max fights dirty. He’ll steal their ill-gotten properties. Do not go up against Maxwell Burrows. Unless you’re Sophia Markos, apparently. You’ve turned my beastly friend into a puppy dog.”

And then it occurred to me. “How did you find out we were dating?”

Jack made a disbelieving sound. “That guy doesn’t ruffle over anything, and he’s been acting like a lunatic from the moment you moved in. I knew there was something going on weeks ago.”

Internally, I smiled, and my chest filled with warmth. Max had been giving me a hard time since the day we met, and I’d been dishing it right back. That was the best part about dating him—watching the stoic man turn soft and gooey.

Though only in hindsight did I enjoy this. For a while there, I wanted to drop-kick him.

I reached for a black satin purse that was one of the few items I considered truly invaluable. Passed down from my mother, who’d received it from her mother, it had an understated vintage look with tiny black pearls along the closure. The clutch didn’t completely go with my new gown, but it worked. More important, it gave me courage to have something of my mother’s with me tonight.

We made our way from our apartment to the street, where a white limousine was waiting. I turned to Jack. “Did you arrange this?”

He scoffed. “Of course not. You do remember who you’re dating, don’t you?” Jack opened the back door, not waiting for the driver to make his way around. “Your boyfriend insisted. He’s been harassing me for the last hour to make sure you’re okay and to get you there on time.”

We settled in the limousine, and Jack popped the cork of a champagne bottle. “Another of Max’s orders—Dom Perignon.” He poured a glass and handed it to me, then poured one for himself.

The car was enormous, with supple cream leather upholstery and a bar along one side, where two more champagne bottles were chilling. It was glamorous and exciting, but I wished Max were here too. No matter how thrilling, the experience wasn’t as fun without him.

Traffic to downtown was heavy, and it took at least half an hour to make it to San Francisco City Hall. I’d thought it strange to host a ball there—until we pulled up.

The dome was lit in blue, brightening the darkened sky and taking my breath away.

Jack helped me out of the limousine, and we got in line with other elegantly dressed people making their way up the steps to the entrance off Van Ness. If I thought I was nervous at the apartment before, the sensation now grew tenfold. But as soon as we entered the building, some of my nerves dropped away, because holy shit.

We passed the pink and ecru marble vestibule and entered what could only be a fairytale. Marble arches along the entire lower level were draped in two-story velvet lilac curtains with gold frill along the edges, while royal-blue velvet drapes covered the arches of the second level. Roman columns and marble statues were carved into the walls of the top of the Grand Staircase, with seven-foot floral arrangements strategically placed on either side. The lower and upper levels were lit by pedestalled chandeliers and the light coming in from the dome at the center of it all.

When I thought about it, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe had gotten married here, so yeah, even without the grand ball décor, the place was spectacular.

“I hate these things,” Jack grumbled, tugging at the sleeve of his tux.

I swiveled my head to him in surprise. “Then why do you come? Max says you go to all the events.”

He shrugged one shoulder. “I work with a lot of these people, and it’s the one time I get out and mingle. Gotta put in face time.”

He worked with these people? “I thought you designed video games, and your law degree was an added bonus.”

“I do, and it is, but I run a few businesses as well.”

Okay, maybe Max had mentioned something about Jack having his fingers in multiple businesses. I clearly needed to pump him for more information on the topic when we weren’t at a gala.

“Can I get you anything to drink?” he said, peering across the room to a corner where the glitter of barware and staff was set up. “At the very least, these things have great food and drinks.”

The people surrounding us were incredibly glamorous, and my nerves kicked back in. “Yes, please. Make it a stiff one.”


I bit my lip. “Maybe not that stiff. Glass of red wine?”

He laughed. “So not stiff at all.”

“What?” I said, laughing as well. “I’m a lightweight.”

“One glass of red wine coming up.” Jack weaved his way across the crowd, and that was when it dawned on me.

I was alone. Like, alone alone.

Gah! Why hadn’t I gone with him?

I turned and looked for something to do while I waited for Jack. Spotting an object that was right up my alley, I meandered over to a floral arrangement that had a plant sprouting from the center.

Had to give the designer props on originality.


My shoulders tensed, and I spun around.

What the hell was my ex doing here?

Paul was dressed in a deep red velvet tuxedo jacket that complemented his hair, which he’d darkened to its natural black. The woman Elise and I saw him with at our favorite dim sum restaurant was on his arm, and she was wearing a light-rose gown with large ruffles along the asymmetrical hem and collar line that looked like something from a runway. She was also glaring darts at my head.

Running into Paul again was shit-poor luck. Couldn’t he pretend to not know me? “Hi, how are you?” I said, trying to keep things casual.

He looked annoyed. “Why are you here?”

Heat rolled up my chest, and it was a good thing my dress came to my neck with only the arms and shoulders exposed, because I was pretty sure I’d turned red. Only not with embarrassment but anger.

It was one thing for me to feel I didn’t belong at the ball, and another for my ex to assume I had no business being here. “I’m with my boyfriend.”

Well, not technically. Max still hadn’t shown up, but Paul didn’t need the dirty details.

He chuckled. “Your boyfriend? Who might that be?”

This was where things got sketchy, because no one outside of our small group knew Max and I were dating. But Max was about to announce it to his parents tonight. How bad would it be to mention it first to my ex? “Max Burrows. Do you know him?”

Paul’s fiancée laughed. As in, bent at the waist, honking loudly in mirth. But Paul didn’t flinch. His jaw tense, he said, “Is that so?” He looked around dramatically. “Where is he? I don’t see him with you.”

I caught sight of Jack dodging bodies and carrying two glasses of wine, and I’d never been more grateful. “He’s taking care of a few things. I’m waiting with his friend Jack.”

“Hey,” Jack said, sidling up and handing a glass of wine to me. “Sorry. Long line.”

I gestured to my ex, who was looking Jack up and down. “Jack, this is Paul.”

They shook hands, and Jack said, “I’ve seen you at a few events, haven’t I? Park family, right?”

Paul’s expression lightened. “That’s right. And this is my fiancée.” He introduced the woman beside him, even though he’d never bothered to introduce me to her. Not that it mattered. I was well past caring what Paul was up to, and more concerned about Max.

I glanced over the crowd, hoping to finally catch sight of him.

Jack and Paul talked for a few minutes, while Paul’s fiancée held his arm and looked anywhere but at me.

After a little while, their conversation wound down, and Paul said, “Good to see you again, Jack.” He tipped his chin up at me. “Sophia.”

He walked away, dragging his fiancée, who in her five-inch heels scurried precariously beside him.

Jack glanced over. “I sensed tension. You know him?”


He rubbed his clean-shaven jaw. “His family attends these events occasionally. Don’t know much about the guy, though.”

“He’s not terrible. But he’s heavily influenced by his family.” Was this becoming a theme in my life? Did other people struggle with pleasing the parents of their significant others?

It never occurred to me I might run into my ex tonight. It should have. Paul’s family was filthy rich. It made sense that his parents mingled with San Francisco’s most influential.

Jack raised his hand, smiling at someone I couldn’t see above the crowd, even in my heels.

A rush of excitement filled me, and I rose on my tippy toes to see if it was Max. I caught a flash of blonde, and my heart sank. Gwen was making her way over.

Jack probably knew Gwen well, since Max and Gwen had dated for a while. They might even be friends.

She walked up in an off-the-shoulder fuchsia gown that dusted the floor, her light hair parted down the middle and straightened. Large diamond ball earrings swung above her shoulders as she held a champagne flute. The woman beside her had short black hair and a midnight silk dress. The two of them together looked like Hollywood celebrities, and I shifted uncomfortably.

Gwen gave Jack a side hug. “You know Sloane.”

Jack greeted the other woman and introduced me.

Gwen tilted her head to the side like a curious bird. “How charming your purse is, Sophia.” Leave it to Gwen to find the one thing in my ensemble not worth a penny.

“Is it vintage?” the other woman asked. “The Haight has incredible vintage couture.”

“It was my grandmother’s.”

Gwen’s friend smiled kindly, but Gwen sent me a sad little look. “How nice,” she said, which was the San Francisco equivalent of the Southern “Bless your heart.”

Jack’s chest puffed up, and he straightened his tuxedo tie. “Sophia looks incredible, if I do say so myself.”

I grinned, thankful for my roommate’s presence. “Jack helped me pick out the dress.”

Come to think of it, Jack had helped me choose a blouse for my date with Victor’s son’s friend too. Living with a man had its perks.

“Nothing but the best for Max’s girl,” Jack said, and my back stiffened.

After Paul and his fiancée’s reaction to my dating Max—or disbelief, rather—I was less confident about sharing the information. Particularly with Gwen.

Sloane’s eyes widened, and Gwen’s placid smile dropped.

“Really?” Gwen said, though her tone was flat. “Did he buy that dress for you?” She looked at my sparkly shoes. They were the fancy kind, with red bottoms. Louboutin, the brand was called. I didn’t want to think about how much they cost, but I knew it was far above my pay grade. The entire ball was above my pay grade.

I gave a shaky smile, and Jack grabbed an appetizer off a tray by a passing server, oblivious to the tension.

“He’s always doing charities,” Gwen said, and I swallowed, my throat suddenly dry.

Gwen was trying to ruin the Pretty Woman shopping spree Max had gifted me, and I wouldn’t let her. That said, Max had better show up soon, or I was going to kick his butt. I wasn’t built for this kind of criticism.

“Jack,” Gwen said, her face pulling into a brilliant smile. “Come with me a moment? I want to introduce you to one of my good friends.”

Jack glanced at me. “Can it hold off? I’m waiting for Max to show up.”

Gwen pouted. “It’ll be quick. Promise.” She looked over at me. “You’re okay, right, Sophia?”

If I said no, I looked unsophisticated and childish, unable to socialize on my own. But if I said yes, I was in what felt like a shark tank of beautiful people who came across more foe than friend.

I would kill Max later, but right now, I’d hold on to my dignity and show I was competent. “I’m fine. I’ll be”—I looked around, uncertain—“in this general vicinity.”

Jack knew these people better than I did, though I suspected most of their pettiness went over his head. After a moment, he nodded and said, “I won’t be long.”

I smiled in return, and Jack moved to walk off with Gwen and her friend.

But not before Gwen’s foot caught on “something” and her glass of champagne tipped, spilling liquid down the lower half of my silk gown.

Gwen covered her mouth. “Oops.”

Jack’s eyes widened, and he hurriedly reached for a napkin off a nearby table. “You okay, Soph?” He handed me the napkin and then looked down my dress, concern filling his face. “Will that come out?”

No, it probably won’t, I thought but didn’t say.

I dabbed the spot and said, “It’s okay,” though the spot was black and obvious against the deep emerald of the finest thing I’d ever owned. A crushing feeling filled my chest. I would not cry. I would not let this woman get to me.

I should be fuming with anger. Instead, I was resigned. The more I was around Gwen, the more I saw her true colors. But I wouldn’t let her ruin this night. “Go on ahead,” I told Jack. “I’ll run by the ladies’ room and see if I can get this out.”

Gwen grabbed a reluctant Jack’s arm and tugged him in the opposite direction.

He held up his hand like a phone. “Okay, but call if you need me.”


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