Only with You (The Best Mistake #1) - Page 28

He didn’t like it.

He wanted the old Sophie back. The one who breathed fire but also lit him on fire. But he knew he couldn’t have that.

Abandoning the idea of eating, much less finding somewhere to sit, he surreptitiously dumped his paper plate in the garbage. After he shook hands with a few more people he barely knew, he began making his way toward the activity tent.

Not because that was where Sophie and Jeff continued to laugh like an old married couple, he told himself. He merely wanted to determine if there were employees over there whom he hadn’t greeted yet.

“Hey, guys,” he said casually.

They broke off their conversation as he approached, and he pushed away the uncomfortable sensation that he was obviously an outsider in their party for two.

“Hey, boss,” Jeff said with his usual easy nature. “Great party you’ve got here.”

“It wasn’t really my idea,” he said honestly, his eyes settling briefly on Sophie, who was watching the festivities with a little smile on her face.

“Yeah, this has Sophie all over it,” Jeff said with a laugh. “She totally saved my butt last week when I was trying to plan a wine-tasting party for my staff. Couldn’t have done it without her.”

Gray didn’t miss the casual possessive note in Jeff’s voice and stifled a surge of resentment and the urge to snarl that Sophie was taken.

Especially since Sophie wasn’t looking at him. Gray couldn’t even accuse her of giving him the cold shoulder, she just seemed…disinterested.

Which was exactly what he’d wanted.

“Gray!” called an out-of-breath voice. He tore his eyes away from Sophie’s profile and looked to the source of the panting. Here was the stout Stan—now he remembered the man’s name—of the athlete’s foot, rushing toward him, Keri in tow. Gray stifled a groan.

“We just completed The Castle,” Stan said, panting slightly from his speed-walk across the park. “You’ve gotta try this thing!”

“The Castle?” Gray asked blankly.

Keri gestured toward the huge blow-up jungle-gym monstrosity on the far edge of the park. “Over there. It’s been the hit of the party. At first it was just the kids that were competing, but now the adults are going through. It’s a race to see who can get through it first.”

That sounded like…hell. Gray glanced toward Sophie with a raised eyebrow.

“The event coordinator highly recommended it,” Sophie said with a shrug. “Apparently it’s becoming quite the rage at corporate events, assuming employees don’t mind a little physical activity.”

What had happened to the days of cocktail parties? What was wrong with standing stationary and drinking a nice Scotch?

“That’s great,” Gray said awkwardly.

“Who won?” Jeff asked Stan and his wife.

Dammit. He should have asked that.

“I did,” Keri said proudly as Stan pouted.

“It was my socks,” Stan said defensively. “They’re new, and therefore very slippery. I’d recommend taking your socks off before going through, Gray.”

Gray didn’t know which disturbed him more: the athlete’s foot expert discussing going barefoot, or the fact that they apparently expected him to fumble his way through a blow-up tower in front of his entire company.

“Oh, I’m not really dressed for that,” he said noncommittally.

Sophie snickered. “Yeah, I’m sure your jeans and polo shirt are really going to hold you back. It’s not like you’re wearing a suit.”

He met her eyes. They both knew the only reason he wasn’t wearing a suit was because she’d called him that morning with a stern lecture on looking approachable and “not looking like a stiff.”

“Come on, Gray, the people will love it,” Jeff said, taking a sip of his beer. “The oh-so-proper CEO scooting through a plastic tube on his belly? It’ll be great for your reputation.”

Gray narrowed his eyes looking for an underlying insult, but Jeff’s face remained pleasant, and the sausage-making couple bobbed their heads in agreement. “I shouldn’t,” he said with sham regret. “I still have a ton of people to meet. But you should,” he said to Jeff. “You’re a vice president; it should have the same effect.”

“He can’t,” Sophie said. “Jeff’s got a bad ankle after his last tennis match.”

“Oh, and whose fault is that?” Jeff asked teasingly.

She shrugged innocently. “It’s not my fault you didn’t listen to my warning about my killer

backhand.”

What the hell? They’re playing tennis now? Together? She’d never asked him to play tennis. Friends did that kind of thing, right?

“I’ll go if you go,” he blurted out.

Four pairs of startled eyes glanced at him.

“Who are you talking to?” Jeff asked.

“Sophie,” Gray said, daring her to meet his eyes. “Come on, the president against his assistant? It’ll be great for company morale.”

He’d chosen his words deliberately. She was all about company morale. She narrowed his eyes at him, and he could see her mind reeling with possible excuses.

Finally she nodded. “All right. You’re on. But you should prepare yourself for a crushing loss. I’m extremely agile and flexible. It’ll be no contest.”

“I’m bigger. And taller.”

“I’m scrappy.”

“I lift weights.”

“I play tennis,” she snapped back.

“Okay, then!” Jeff said with a laugh. “Let’s see this battle go down, shall we?”

And suddenly Gray felt the lightest he had in weeks. Sophie had let her fake cheerful mask down for the first time since The Talk, and it felt good to have her back, if only for a moment.

Just this one stupid activity, he told himself. Just this one last moment to draw out the real Sophie. Then it was back to professionalism and talks about the weather.

* * *

Kicking off her sandals, Sophie stared up at the beast called “The Castle.” When she’d signed the contract to have the damn thing set up, she certainly hadn’t pictured herself going through it. It was supposed to be for kids.

She watched as the two teens in front of her began climbing up the tubes that marked the entrance to the death trap. A crowd of spectators cheered and someone wearing a striped ref outfit held a stop watch.

Why had she agreed to this?

She studied The Castle more closely, trying to gauge what it was like inside. There were a couple parts of the maze with see-through nets, and from what she could tell, The Castle was basically a combination of slides, ropes, ramps, and awkward-looking ladders. Most of the obstacle course was hidden from view, but every now and then she could see the two agile teenagers laughingly struggling to keep their feet as they pushed each other aside in a race to get to the next tube.

“Are you sure this is meant for adults?” Sophie asked a Castle employee.

“Oh, definitely,” said the pudgy worker, who looked like she couldn’t fit through the small spaces of The Castle if someone paid her. “Usually it’s the adults who end up hogging the whole thing after the kids have had their fun.”

“Yeah, fun,” Sophie muttered as she tucked her shirt into her shorts. Her cute yellow sweater set really wasn’t meant to be tucked into anything, but she’d take the fashion faux pas in order to keep this party family-friendly. Last thing she needed was to give all of Brayburn Luxuries a glimpse at her less-than-toned belly.

Where the hell is Gray? she wondered as she looked around. This was his damn idea and now he’s nowhere to be found. Maybe he chickened out.

Nope. There he was, laughing with Jeff as though the two were old long-lost friends. For a while there she’d thought that he might actually be jealous of Jeff, but obviously that had been her imagination. Or wishful thinking.

Because why would he be jealous if they were just friends?

It was better this way, she told herself for about the millionth time in the past month.

To be honest, he’d surprised her. She’d figured that his suggestion of being friends had merely been his polite way of saying Get lost, but to his credit, he did seem to be making an effort to actually be friendly. He’d invited her on a couple of morning coffee runs, rambled to her about sports (as though she would ever care), and even asked her advice on what to get Jack and Jenna for their birthday.

There was nothing romantic about it in the least. Nothing but buddy-buddy platonic chitchat. And that’s what irked her the most. It would have been cleaner if he’d merely decided to blow her off completely. That way she could just give him the finger, quit, and move on with her life.

But the man was actually trying. He was stretching his stilted, introverted ways and trying to reach out. Granted, it wasn’t in the way that she wished. And certainly not the way that her lady parts wished. But it was something.

The part of her that was a sucker for wounded creatures wouldn’t let her turn her back on him while he was clearly trying for self-improvement. However, the man didn’t look quite so wounded and needy at the moment as he laughed with Jeff and flirted with Rachel, the new

receptionist.

She found herself scowling at him. How dare he volunteer them to bounce around like idiots inside of an inflatable death trap, and then look completely unfazed.

Catching his eye, she jerked her head at him, gesturing for him to get over here so they could get this over with. He raised an eyebrow at her, but began making his way toward her. The yells on the other side of The Castle indicated that the kids in front of them were making their way through the final obstacle.

“You ready for this, Dalton?” he asked.

“I can’t believe I agreed to this,” Sophie muttered.

“Scared of losing?” The man looked downright giddy.

She scoffed. “We both know this is ridiculous. We’re going to look like fools, but I suppose it will be good for your people to see you when you’re down.”

Gray’s eyes followed her movements as she reached behind herself and pulled her foot back toward her butt, unconsciously moving into a pre-run routine.

“Are you stretching?”

Blushing, she dropped her foot. “No. Maybe. Gotta stay agile, you know?”

He rolled his eyes as The Castle employee headed toward them.

“You guys ready?” she asked.

“No,” Sophie grumbled.

But Gray gave a nod and kicked off his shoes, practically grinning as they stepped up to the starting line. Who would have thought that an inflatable toy and a bit of competition were all it took to coax a full smile from the man?

Word had apparently gotten out that the CEO and his assistant had lost their minds, because the crowd of people had doubled, and the whoops of encouragement and laughter grew deafening.

“You’d think they were watching gladiators,” he said.

“I’d be the gladiator,” Sophie replied. “You’d be whatever weakling they throw in there, who gets mutilated.”

“That’s not very friendly, now is it?”

“On the contrary,” she said. “It’s quite friendly. See, if we were more than friends, I might let you win for your delicate pride and all, and because I wouldn’t want to deal with you sulking over dinner. But since we’re just friends…well, then I don’t have to see you over dinner, now, do I? Therefore…I’ll happily beat you.”

She didn’t even know what she was talking about. Where had this case of verbal diarrhea come from? Gray looked at her with a thoughtful expression on his face, but didn’t respond.

“Okay, guys, are you ready to RUMBLE?” hollered the way-too-enthusiastic Castle referee.

“On your mark…”

Shit.

“…Get set…”

Dammit.

“GO!”

A whoop of laugher escaped Sophie as she and Gray rushed forward, pushing each other out of the way in order to be the first one up the tube.

“Hey!” Gray said, as she jabbed her elbow into his side. “You fight dirty.”

“Pussy!” she mumbled back, all thoughts of keeping this affair family-friendly forgotten.

Thanks to her pointy elbows and sharp fingernails, she managed to get to the tube first, giggling as she squeezed her way through the tight opening. It was more yielding than it looked, but it still required an awful lot of wiggling.

“Nice view,” she heard Gray mutter from close behind her as he followed her through the narrow opening.

“Enjoy the angle while you can,” she said back. “It’s the last time you’ll get this close.”

She yelped as a palm smacked her behind, just as she made her way into the next chamber.

“You spanked me,” she sputtered as she found herself in a pit of plastic balls that went up past her waist.

“No, no,” he said, looking around for the passageway out of the chamber. “I was just helping your h*ps fit through that narrow opening.”

She let out a little growl as she struggled to push through the sea of plastic balls, wading toward some sort of shaky-looking ramp. “Hey, no fair!” she exclaimed. “You’re taller, so you can reach higher.”

“Just like it was way easier for you to wiggle through that last tube because you’re smaller. Well, except for your hips.”

“My h*ps are fine,” she said, self-consciously touching the offending body part.

“Yes, they are,” he said matter-of-factly as he hoisted himself up the ramp using the strategically placed handles. He’d already shimmied up the squishy slope by the time she’d pulled herself to the base of the ramp.