Landlord Wars: Chapter 31

Sophia

When I reentered the ballroom after unsuccessfully attempting to remove the stain from my dress, champagne was being passed out to everyone in attendance, which I wasn’t feeling after having Gwen’s poured down the front of me.

Heat burned behind my eyes. I would not cry. This was a fancy date Max had set up, and I needed to hold out a little longer until I found him.

Just as I managed to blink away the tears, I finally caught sight of him at the top of the massive staircase.

Relief filled me. Until I saw the woman he stood beside.

For a moment, I was back at the rooftop party, watching Max and Gwen arm in arm, looking for all the world like the Golden Couple.

Max’s face was expressionless as he stared straight at me, his jaw tense, while Gwen beamed up at him.

A loud female voice came over invisible speakers, welcoming everyone.

Max’s mother?

She’d spoken of a gala she was planning when I first met her, and this must be it. She went on about donors over the loudspeaker, and then said, “It is my husband’s and my greatest pleasure to announce the betrothal of our son—”

The rest of her words turned into a loud buzzing sound inside my head.

Max was getting married? To Gwen?

Memories flashed before my eyes: Gwen at Max’s mother’s house, sipping tea… Gwen leaving Max’s apartment the other day… Gwen’s look of surprise when Jack called me Max’s girl.

Had they been together the whole time, and I was the idiot who never knew?

The thought cut like a thousand knives to my chest. I wobbled in my heels, the world spinning, my chest rising and falling rapidly.

Even though I hadn’t seen much of Max this week, in my mind, we were together. He’d checked in every day and made sure I ate lunch, which I often forgot. When I was with him, my world was lighter. He made me laugh, and he supported me in ways that made me believe I could conquer the world.

But not his world.

After everything I’d experienced tonight, it was clear I’d never fit into Max’s world.

My hands shook, and I swiveled in a circle, not knowing where to go but knowing I couldn’t stay. And locked eyes with Paul.

I’d gone numb after the announcement, and all I could do was stare at my ex.

He was alone this time, no fiancée clinging to him. But Paul didn’t look smug. For once, he looked concerned.

I didn’t remember leaving the ball, but in the next moment, I was walking down Van Ness, the expensive heels Max had bought me hurting the balls of my feet, my ankles wobbling every time I stepped in the cracks of the concrete.

Max had never taken me out on a proper date. Never introduced me to his friends. No one knew we were together except Jack, who was only marginally a part of Max’s society.

Was Gwen Max’s official girlfriend and I the secret?

Elise was wrong. A person didn’t need to be married to have a sidepiece. They could be so heavily entrenched in the upper crust that outsiders would always be “other.”

A wave of dizziness washed over me, and I stumbled. The heel of one shoe scraped the ground loudly before I caught my balance.

Maybe this had been a setup by his family. I didn’t know. I couldn’t process it. What I knew was that I had no value in the eyes of his parents, nor anyone at the ball—the people he rubbed shoulders with daily. Even if he wanted to be with me, I’d never be welcome.

Tears burned behind my eyes, but they didn’t flow. They sat there choking me. I wasn’t angry enough to cry, as numbness filled every cell.

It wasn’t until I was halfway home that I reached for my phone to call for a ride and remembered I didn’t have it. The phone wouldn’t fit inside my grandmother’s purse, so I’d left it in my workbag.

By the time I got home, my arms were covered in goosebumps and my teeth were chattering. I crawled up the last steps to my apartment and entered the darkened living room, not bothering to turn on the lights. Inside my bedroom, I kicked off my shoes and fell facedown on the bed, hiccupping before the tears finally came.

The sound of my moaning filled the room. Even if tonight had been one huge mistake, being cut daily by these people would slowly kill me.

I couldn’t do it.

My head pounded, and eventually a wave of exhaustion took me under.


“Sophia?”

Someone was shaking my shoulder lightly. A second later, the shoulder nudge grew stronger. “Sophia, are you okay?”

Jack. I opened my eyes, and the blurred room oriented itself until I could see tuxedo-clad legs beside my bed.

I pushed up on a shaky arm, still wearing my dress.

Jack crouched in front of me. “You okay?”

“No.”

“Elise called me.”

I didn’t know what time it was. A dozen hours could have passed or none. “Is everything okay?” Elise was avoiding Jack like the plague. She’d never willingly call him.

Jack rubbed his eyelids like he’d been up half the night. “Elise contacted Max when she couldn’t get a hold of you. She got his number the night we all went drinking.”

That’s right. Elise had drunkenly demanded Max’s phone number because she “needed someone to pay for drinks while she was in school.”

I leaned forward and sank my pounding head in my hands. No matter if it was twelve hours or one, it felt like only minutes had passed since I’d fallen asleep. After a moment, I crawled across the floor to my workbag and dug for my phone.

I’d missed twelve text messages and six phone calls from Elise. Max had called me four times. “What’s going on?”

Jack let out a low sigh and ran a hand through his rumpled hair. “I’m sorry, Sophia. You’ll have to talk to Max about what happened earlier tonight.” He shook his head. “I can’t believe Gwen did that.”

“I mean with Elise.” I tugged the skirt of my gown where it was tangled in my legs, frustrated and wishing I’d bothered to put on sweatpants when I got home. “What happened with Max doesn’t matter. It’s over.”

Jack’s expression went from tense to sad. “It’s not over. Not for Max. But you’re right to worry about Elise. You need to get to the hospital. Your mom had an accident. That’s why we’ve been trying to reach you. Max said he pounded on the door earlier, and when you didn’t answer, he rushed off to the hospital, thinking you’d gone there.”


Still wearing the green ball gown, I ran into the emergency room of the University of California San Francisco hospital, half my eye makeup running down my cheeks.

I searched frantically for the front desk while Jack parked out front.

The nurse behind the counter looked to be in her thirties, her hair pulled into a messy bun, with blue scrubs and a cream sweater to combat the freezing hospital air conditioning.

I flattened my hands on the counter of her station. “Can you tell me the room number for Brenda Markos?”

The nurse took me in, her eyes widening slightly before she looked down at her desk. She ran her finger over a clipboard. “Room 224. But there’s already someone in there. One person at a time.”

And that was when I saw Max walking toward me, his bow tie undone, hair perfectly kempt. He was fucking gorgeous, and I hated him.

“I don’t want to see you,” I said, rushing toward the door of my mother’s room.

He grabbed my shoulders gently, and I flinched.

Max dropped his hands and took a step back, and that was when I noticed the strain in his eyes. “Your mother is stable, but she’s with the doctor right now. She had a stroke, Sophia.”

My face crumpled and my body shook. “What?”

He reached for me again, but I stepped back.

Max swallowed, his expression pained. “Your sister is getting coffee and should be back any minute. She found your mother on the floor of the kitchen and got her to the hospital right away. It would have been much worse if Elise hadn’t found her when she did.”

This wasn’t real. This couldn’t be happening. I should never have moved out.

I crouched and grasped my head.

A second later, I sensed Max crouch beside me, but he didn’t try to touch me again. “The best neurosurgeon in town is on her way to see your mother. She’ll be well taken care of, Sophia.” He let out a harsh breath, and I heard the scratch of his hand running over stubble. “About earlier tonight… Gwen and I are not engaged. I’ll never forgive my parents for what they did.”

This was what he wanted to talk about?

I squinted, not believing what I was hearing. “Are you kidding me right now? My mother is fighting for her life, and you’re still the poor little rich boy who can’t manage his society parents.” I shook my head. “Go home, Max.”

His eyes raced over my face, his expression pained, as I stood and moved to meet Elise walking toward us from down the hall.

I gripped my sister in a tight hug, my body shaking.

She pulled back after a moment and looked over my shoulder in Max’s direction with a sad expression.

I refused to look back. This wasn’t about Max anymore. My priority was to my family.

My sister and I made our way into my mother’s hospital room, where I sat at my mom’s bedside and grabbed the hand that wasn’t hooked up to an IV. Her eyes were closed, and she looked pale. Had those dark circles under her eyes always been there? She looked entirely too fragile.

Tears ran down my face, while Elise spoke quietly in the corner with the doctor.

Screw the hospital rules and their one guest at a time bullshit. They could carry me out kicking, because I wasn’t leaving my mom’s side.

Elise came over and hugged me. I wiped the tears off my cheeks and scooted over for her to sit.

After a long moment, she said, “Jack told me what happened at the ball. It’s understandable you’re angry with Max.”

“I’m not angry. I’m empty.”

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