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Landlord Wars: Chapter 33


Two days later, my mom was still in the hospital, though getting better every day, and I was about to head over and see her. The doctors had run extensive tests yesterday and expected a full recovery, as long as Mom took it easy. Max had reached out several times over the last couple days, but I refused to answer his calls or text messages. I wasn’t ready.

Jack said Max was the person who’d found the best neurosurgeon in town, waking the poor woman in the middle of the night, and I didn’t know how I felt about that.

“He pulled strings to get the doctor’s information,” Jack had said this morning. “Made his assistant drive over and knock on her door.”

On the one hand, anyone with enough money and power could get someone to show up in their pajamas. I was grateful on my mom’s behalf; the surgeon he’d found had taken excellent care of her. But I wasn’t comfortable accepting anything from Max right now.

Elise was at home, packing for her internship in Europe. She’d wanted to cancel the trip, given Mom’s health, but both Mom and I convinced her it was only three months and to not give it up. I also assured Elise I would take excellent care of Mom, and somehow my stubborn sister had agreed to go.

I didn’t want Elise to miss one moment of building a life for herself, and this internship in international healthcare was a wonderful opportunity. She’d been down for weeks, and I was worried. She seemed to know she needed the break too.

I’d swung by the shop this morning, but Victor shooed me out. “Go. Take care of your mom,” he’d said, supporting me and giving me time away.

The plan had never been for Victor to immediately drop the business in my lap, so it worked out for me to take a few days off until I got my mom settled.

I entered the hospital room wearing sneakers, a dark, flowy floral skirt, and a cream sweater. “Hey, Mom,” I said, carrying a small plant. “A gift from Victor. He sends his well wishes.”

They’d moved her from the intensive care unit to a normal room, and she was expected to be discharged tomorrow.

Her face brightened, and she was sitting upright. Her fair skin was paler than normal, but she seemed to have regained some of her energy. “That was kind. Please send Victor my thanks. Everything going okay at the shop? Shouldn’t you be there?”

I shook my head and set the plant in front of the window. “Nope. I’ve got a few days off.”

She frowned. “Please don’t take time off on my behalf.”

That was so like my mother. The woman was in the hospital after suffering a stroke, and she didn’t want anyone to fuss.

The day of her stroke, my mother’s speech had been slurred, and Elise and I freaked out. But Mom was lucky, and her speech went back to normal within hours. Everything else seemed okay, except for the exhaustion. She was moving slower than normal.

“Mom, I could use a few days off, and Victor agreed this was a good time.”

“Well, if Victor says it’s okay. They’re letting me out tomorrow, and I’ll be able to go home, so you won’t need to be around.” She worried her lip. “How are my houseguests?”

I groaned. “I assume you’re referring to the rats. They’ve been uninvited.”

I sat in the chair beside her bed and reached for her hand, my expression sober. “Elise and I talked about it. You’ll stay with me while I get the house packed. If we do it over the next week before Elise leaves, she can help.”

My mom’s body went very still. “I don’t—”

“Time’s up, Mom. This is for your health. And for the health of me and Elise.”

Her eyes grew watery, and she pressed her fingers to her lips. “I suppose it’s time.”

It was long past time. But a near-death experience was rock bottom, and my mom knew it.

“It’s not safe to live in the house the way it is,” I said. “The doctors told us your stroke was due to high blood pressure. He’s sending you home with a medley of medications, but your lifestyle is unhealthy, Mom.” I swallowed, tears burning behind my eyes. I’d turned into a watering pot lately. I looked up, forcing them back. “I also want you to see a therapist.”

“I know, sweetheart.” She patted my hand, her eyes red, tears spilling over. “It’s hard for me, you know? But I understand.”

My mom sank her head back onto the pillow and stared blankly at the ceiling. “I had hoped I could do it on my own. But I just can’t bring myself to get rid of anything.” She lifted her head and looked at me. “I don’t want to be there when you move it out, okay, honey?”

“I’ll make sure you’re kept busy.” I didn’t know how I’d keep my mom away from the house without her panicking and racing over to rescue everything, but having her stay with me was a good start.

I rose and kissed her cheek. “I’m going to grab a cup of coffee. You need anything?”

She smiled and closed her eyes. “Nothing for me. I’ll just rest a bit. All this lying around is tiring.”

I smiled. Thank goodness she still had her sense of humor.

Head bent, pondering exactly how I’d orchestrate the packing of a hoarder house, I walked out of my mom’s room and nearly ran into Max holding a massive bouquet of violets and yellow roses.

We stood awkwardly just outside my mom’s hospital room.

“Hey,” he said, jamming a hand in his jeans pocket. “How’s your mom?”

The blue eyes I’d thought cold when I met him were all warmth, and they drew me in the way they always had. But there was too much on my plate. Even if my instinct was to run into Max’s arms, I refused to be a part of his world, where they treated me like garbage.

I glanced down and plucked at my skirt, avoiding his eyes. “Better, thank you. She’ll go home tomorrow.” I hesitated, then said, “Thank you. For getting her such good care. I couldn’t have managed it on my own.”

He looked away as though frustrated. “Sophia, I want to be here for you and your family. Always.”

His expression was sincere. I believed him. But it didn’t matter how much I cared about Max. Or even how much he cared for me. I couldn’t be with a man whose entire world didn’t accept me.

Who I was and where I’d come from would never change. My mother might get better, but she’d always be a poor, widowed woman from the Sunset District. These things were fundamental.

And then something occurred to me, and my spine straightened as I remembered the list of rules Max had shoved under the door after I moved in. I didn’t know where things stood with us. Didn’t know where I wanted them to stand. But I wasn’t putting up with any bullshit. I’d already cleared things with Jack.

“My mom is staying with me while she recovers. Jack offered his room, but I told him my mom will sleep in my room with me.”

He nodded thoughtfully.

“I need to get her house cleared out, and it could take more than a week… You don’t have any rules you want to throw at me about overnight guests, do you?”

His mouth turned down. “Are you trying to torture me? I was being an ass when I gave you that list, but I thought we’d moved past that. I want to be with you. What happened at the ball was horrible, and I’ll forever be sorry for my mother’s actions and how I handled things leading up to that moment.”

He glanced down, and when he looked up, I realized how tired he appeared—there were two days of stubble on his jaw, and he was wearing jeans and a long-sleeve Henley instead of his usual dress slacks or suit. Even his hair appeared disheveled. Though I always liked that look on him. Still, this wasn’t like Max.

“I love you, Sophia,” he said, closing his eyes briefly. “I made a mistake in not telling my parents about us sooner, and I wish I could go back and do things differently.”

My heart raced at his words, and the urge to go to him was strong.

Keep it together, I told myself. Don’t be weakened by a remorseful man. Only this felt genuine…

My emotional reserves were tapped, but I couldn’t back down. His family… I couldn’t forget how they’d treated me. I did not deserve it. Not ever again. I’d promised myself that Paul would be the last man who rejected me as unworthy. In this case, it was Max’s family, but was there a difference?

The only problem was, I loved Max, and though I’d cared deeply for Paul, I realized now that I was never in love with him.

Maybe Paul had known I didn’t love him the way he’d loved me, and he’d used my mother as an excuse. I didn’t know. Either way, the situation with Max was different, and even I could admit that.

“I spoke to my parents and Gwen,” he said. “Gwen agreed to tell her friends there is no engagement.” His mouth twisted as though he were frustrated. “She wanted to say it had been called off, but I refused, and she agreed to explain there was never any engagement.”

He’d shown up at the hospital that night and said as much. “Does it matter? No one will believe you’re dating me. I ran into my ex at the ball, and even he didn’t believe it.”

The skin around Max’s eyes tightened. “I don’t care what your douchebag ex-boyfriend thinks. I also don’t care what my parents and their social circles think. I care what you think, and the rest of them can hang.”

He stepped closer, but he didn’t reach for me. “Family is important, but I won’t stand for disrespect toward my friends, and especially not toward the woman I love.”

He reached for my hand, and I let him hold it in his warm, firm grip. Mostly because I longed for his touch.

“Please forgive me,” he said. “I should have told my parents about you as soon as I knew I was serious. I also should have cut off all contact with Gwen after she dumped me over my parents’ lost fortune.”

I shook my head. “Wait—that’s why you broke up?”

He exhaled heavily. “I’d been thinking about ending things long before that, but the financial debacle was the impetus. Gwen recently had a change of heart, however, which I suspect had more to do with my parents’ influence in town. As far as I was concerned, whatever we had was long over.”

Paul had broken up with me because my mother didn’t fit in his world, and now Max was telling me he’d been dumped because his family name would be tarnished. What the hell was wrong with people? Had they no integrity?

Maybe it wasn’t that I didn’t fit in Max’s world, but that he didn’t fit in his world either. And if he didn’t fit in his world…then he was in my world.

I took the flowers out of his hand. “You should know, I’m in love with you too.”

His shoulders sank and he pulled me to his chest. “I’m an idiot, but I promise to be a better idiot.”

My chest grew lighter as my heart broke out of its protective shell. I leaned back. “What every woman wants to hear.”

He grinned and kissed me on the lips, quickly, sneaking it in before I could protest. “Those flowers are for your mother, by the way.”

I frowned, but he wouldn’t let me pull away. “Where is my token?”

Holding me around the waist with one arm, he reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a red box. “It’s not La Fleur au Truffe. That place is high maintenance, with its two-week ordering.”

My eyes widened at the pretty red packaging. “You got this in Noe Valley, didn’t you? It’s a good backup.” I opened the box and popped the chocolate in my mouth as fast as I could. “This close,” I said, chewing, “I don’t trust you not to steal it.”

He wrapped his arms around me, lightly smashing the flowers, and held my head to his chest. I breathed in the clean Max scent that felt like home. “God, Sophia, these were the worst days of my life. Don’t ever leave me.”

We stood there for a minute until he said, “You know, if you moved in with me, your mom could live in your old room while her house is being cleaned. She’d be close, and Jack would love it. He misses having a mom.”

I tilted my head back and studied his eyes. He was dead serious. “My mom is a hoarder who’s going into therapy for her problems, and you want her to move in alone with your best friend?”

He shrugged. “Jack is adaptable. I’m telling you, he’d love it. Or she could move in with us.”

I actually could see my mom enjoying being Jack’s roommate. She used to love having people over before my dad died.

I blinked several times. “Are you asking me to move in with you?”

“What’s this about moving?” a cultured voice rang out.

Max looked over my head and frowned, and I turned.

Max’s mother was standing in the hallway in a lavender skirt suit, with her hand on her hip.


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