Landlord Wars: Chapter 9

Max

The dinner party my parents were hosting was packed with people I’d grown up around. All wealthy, and most fairly entitled, though some were cognizant of how the rest of the world lived.

I greeted familiar faces as I made my way to my mother, who did not fall in the aware category. But I loved her despite her shortcomings.

“Max,” she said and squeezed my arm while peering across the room. “Doesn’t Elizabeth look stunning?” A woman I’d known most of my life was walking toward us. I used to steal candy from the front pocket of her backpack when we were kids.

Lizzie looked a little different these days. She’d lightened her red hair to reddish blonde, and she’d replaced her glasses with contacts. Or maybe she’d gotten eye surgery? Either way, she was more polished now compared to our school days, but she still possessed the same mischievous smile I’d come to appreciate.

“Kitty,” Lizzie said, and leaned in to peck my mother on the cheek. “How are you? And Max. I haven’t seen you a decade. You almost look handsome now that you’ve grown into your ears.”

I grinned. Lizzie had never cared that my family was rich. Perhaps because her own was filthy rich too. Instead, she ribbed me at every opportunity. “How are you doing, Lizzie? The East Coast treating you well?”

“I don’t live on the East Coast anymore, Maxwell, and you would know that if you bothered to return my calls.”

I chuckled. “Apologies. I’m not a good phone person.”

“Or a good text person, or an email person.” She shook her head. “You’re a tremendously annoying friend, you know that?”

“In fact, I do. Jack tells me on a regular basis.”

My mother sent Lizzie a look of approval. “I’m glad you’re here, Elizabeth. Someone needs to put my son in his place. You two catch up.” She gave Lizzie’s shoulder a squeeze. “Don’t be a stranger,” she said and walked off, waving to someone across the large foyer.

My parents’ foyer was one of the grandest in town, with a four-story domed ceiling painted by the artist William Hahn in a one-of-a-kind San Francisco street scene. Most of the parties began and stayed in here until dinner was served.

I glanced around to see if my father’s investors had shown.

Lizzie sent me a side-eye. “You don’t deserve Jack for a best friend,” she said thoughtfully.

“This is true.” I lifted my champagne glass in a mock toast. “I’ll be better about keeping in touch. I’ve missed you. Forgive me?”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m immune to your charm, Burrows. Just pick up my calls, dammit.”

Lizzie was the only female who gave me a hard time, and I always deserved it.

But maybe not the only person. These days, Jack’s new roommate was especially triggering.

Something about Sophia had set me off from the beginning, and I couldn’t explain it. My adrenaline kicked in when she entered the room, her pert little mouth taunting me. I’d initially thought Sophia had designs on Jack, which had my hackles up. My best friend had been screwed over by his last roommate/girlfriend. Then Sophia went on a date with another man last night and shredded every theory I had about her.

Sophia wasn’t interested in Jack—it only took me a week or more to figure that one out. Instead, there seemed to be something going on between Jack and Sophia’s sister.

I’d been wrong all around, and now I was mentally cringing, thinking back to the occasions I’d been an ass to Sophia, believing her to be someone she was not.

What could I say? I was protective of the people I cared about.

But that wasn’t the worst part. Normally, Sophia’s deplorable wardrobe and frazzled hair did nothing to recommend her. Offhand, I’d say she wasn’t my type. Particularly in the beginning, when I thought I’d seen beneath the veneer of a beautiful smile and suspected her of a secret interest in my friend. Then later, of trying to grow her business by using my family and friend connections.

Only she hadn’t looked frazzled last night. She’d been composed and beautiful, and it nearly sent me into a panic. Watching her walk out the door to meet another man made my skin itch and my heart race.

I’d been wrong about her when it came to Jack, and I might have overreacted to her conversation with my father.

I might have also underestimated my interest in her.

Lizzie nudged me in the rib. “Am I already boring you?”

I sent her a reassuring smile. “Never.” I was spending far too much time thinking about the woman who shared Jack’s apartment. “It’s just been a busy week.”

“Well, I might be able to help with the workload,” Lizzie said. “I returned to San Francisco for a partner position at Johnson and Robe.”

I nodded in appreciation. “The lawyers who handled the Emerson deal? Congratulations. They’re a good group.”

“I’m glad you think so, because I want you to hire us on retainer.”

I looked over with mild surprise. “My company has had its legal battles, but a retainer isn’t necessary.”

“There’s more to an attorney than lawsuits, and you know it. Contracts are numerous in real estate, and you need experts who have your back.”

“Jack loves contracts. I usually throw anything unusual his way.”

Her mouth twisted to the side in mock disappointment. “Abusing your best friend again, I see.”

“He enjoys the abuse. Never seen anyone get more excited over legalese than Jack.”

“Well, if Jack ever tires of doing pro bono work for his best friend, and you find you need an excellent team on your side, give me a call.”

I wrapped my arm around her shoulders and squeezed. “It’s good to have you back, Lizzie. And it’s good to have a moral law firm at hand. Not that morality and lawyers go together.”

She wiggled out of my grip and laughed. “You’re the worst, Maxwell. Call me when you need me. Or to hang out. I could use a Max-and-Jack beer fest.”

And then she pulled a true Lizzie and caught me off guard with her next comment. Narrowing her gaze, she said, “I heard you broke things off with Gwen. How’d that go?”

I set my glass on the tray of a passing waiter instead of smashing it into a thousand pieces on the marbled floor. Gwen had always been determined, but she’d taken things too far. We weren’t together anymore, not that she cared. “Gwen and I broke up several months ago. She’s in denial.”

Guests had started moving into the formal dining room, but a few of us were still milling about in the foyer. My head was beginning to pound. I was beyond frustrated with my parents’ attempts at getting me and Gwen back together, and I’d stayed up way too late last night thinking about why Sophia had looked distraught when she returned from her date. Essentially, other than Lizzie moving home, the women in my life were a problem.

Lizzie’s mouth twisted, and she looked off in the distance as though pondering. “We grew up together, but I never did like Gwen. You’re too nice for someone so cold.”

“I thought I was cold and didn’t return calls?”

She nodded. “You’re terrible at returning calls, but you’re nothing like the ice maiden. She’d sell her firstborn child for a membership to Villa Taverna. Speaking of exclusive clubs, doesn’t your mom have a membership there?”

That was a harsh characterization of Gwen, though after my parents’ financial crisis and Gwen’s reaction to it, Lizzie wasn’t entirely wrong.

Not many people knew about my parents’ money troubles, but I’d shared them with Gwen, and her response had been enlightening. She’d told me we should put our relationship on hold until we knew how society would react. I’d never shared the reason we broke up with my parents; they were paranoid about their financial losses as it was.

“My mother has a membership to Villa Taverna,” I said to Lizzie, “but the roster is tight-knit. It’s been decades since Gwen’s family set down roots in San Francisco, but apparently that’s not long enough, even with my mother’s support.” I tipped up my chin at an acquaintance across the foyer. “I suspect Gwen hasn’t told her friends about the breakup because for now being tied to my parents is a boon. Her family are still considered newcomers, whereas my parents are at the top of the pecking order.”

Lizzie shook her head. “This city is full of assholes. And of course Gwen didn’t tell anyone you broke up. Why would she let go of Maxwell Burrows?”

I lifted an eyebrow. “You say that as though dating me is a good thing.”

Lizzie made a disgusted sound in the back of her throat. “If you’re into pain-in-the ass rich guys, then yes, it could be a good thing. However, not all of us are masochists.” She shot me a comical look to show she was only half serious.

If I ever needed an ego lashing, I could pick up one of Lizzie’s calls.

Her expression grew serious. “You weren’t a good fit with Gwen, and I never understood why you were dating her to begin with.”

“Not a good fit…” I considered that a moment. “You’re the first person to think so.”

My mother, and everyone else hobnobbing in the mansion tonight, had thought Gwen and I would get married, and they supported it.

As though her ears were burning, Kitty took that moment to look up. I loved my mom, but she was partially responsible for the reason this town believed Gwen and I were still together. Even my own mother wouldn’t acknowledge it was over.

Never underestimate the influence of a mother hellbent on making a good match for her son.

With the moves of a linebacker, in her Jimmy Choo pumps and silver embroidered cocktail dress, my petite mother shouldered past Mr. and Mrs. Drake on her way to intercept me and Lizzie. “What are you two whispering about?”

“Just telling Lizzie here how much happier I am now that I’m single.”

My mother frowned. “Said like a man who has everything. One day you’ll wish you had the support of a good woman.”

Gwen wasn’t a bad person. But she was too caught up in appearances to genuinely love anyone. It was a casualty of wealth and power. “I don’t plan to be single forever.”

I’d thought I could spot a schemer from a mile away after my breakup with Gwen and Jack’s horrendous relationship with his last roommate.

Now I wasn’t so sure.

I’d been wrong about Sophia. And a part of me was uncharacteristically pleased about that.

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