Only with You (The Best Mistake #1) - Page 35

Brynn shifted awkwardly. “Don’t bring me into this.”

“I love you both equally,” Marnie said, her voice wavering.

“I know,” Sophie said, letting her voice soften. “Respect us equally too, okay? And if you don’t, fine, I guess. But I’m done caring about it, so get used to these jeans.”

Sophie gave her dad a hug, which he stiffly returned, and she planted a kiss on the top of her mom’s blonde head.

The parental units weren’t exactly vomiting out apologies, but they looked thoughtful. Maybe that was something.

Brynn followed Sophie out to the front door and watched in silence as Sophie put her shoes on. There were things to be said between them as well, but Brynn seemed to sense that Sophie had reached her emotional conversation quota for the evening.

“Call me later?” Brynn said after Sophie had grabbed her purse.

“Sure. Probably tomorrow.”

They hugged, and Brynn tucked a wayward curl behind Sophie’s ear. “Soph, you know all that stuff you were saying about just wanting to be happy?”

Sophie nodded.

“Well…are you happy?”

Sophie looked out at the pouring rain and considered. “No. Not yet. But I’m learning how to be.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Sophie was secure enough with herself to be able to admit her worst faults. The most prevalent flaw at the moment? Complete cowardice.

“Thanks again for meeting me,” Sophie said to Beth Jennings as they stood outside the Brayburn Luxuries office building. “I know that coming down on a Saturday night isn’t ideal, but I couldn’t make it earlier in the week and I need to pick up my stuff before Monday.”

She hated lying to Beth, but coming on a Saturday was the only way Sophie could retrieve the belongings she’d left in the office without risk of running into Gray.

“No problem,” Beth said as she buzzed open the front door. Sophie still had her key to the Brayburn office suites, but she’d lost electronic access to the building on the day she’d quit.

“Do you mind if I leave you here?” Beth asked, holding the door open for Sophie. “My friends invited me for a last-minute drink at a bar just up the street, and I’d love to meet up with them before it gets too late.”

“Oh! Of course,” Sophie said, guiltily. “Are you sure it’s okay if I just let myself up?”

“Sure,” Beth said with a shrug. “A little against protocol, but it’ll be our little secret. Just leave the keys in your desk drawer and I’ll grab them on Monday. Rachel packed all of your personal stuff into a box, but you may want to take a quick look around and make sure she didn’t forget anything.”

“Will do. And thanks again for coming all the way down here. I owe you one.”

“Don’t worry about it. You’d do the same for me. Hug?”

Sophie smiled and embraced her friend. Waving one last good-bye to Beth with a promise to stay in touch, she headed toward the elevator. Hitting the button for the fourteenth floor for the last time, Sophie waited for the usual wave of bittersweet emotions to hit her. She was well practiced at leaving jobs, and the series of emotions was always the same.

Regret at leaving new friends.

Excitement about future opportunities.

Doubt that she was making the right choice.

This time, she experienced the expected first and second emotion, and she braced herself for the third. It was always the worst.

But the doubt never came. She was making the right decision in leaving. There was no “maybe” this time. She’d enjoyed her time at Brayburn, save for the painful last day, but she’d never belonged here. She’d never invested herself, never let it define her, never let herself excel.

Sophie had nothing but respect for assistants and corporate staff of all natures, because it was a hell of a lot harder than people knew. But it wasn’t her passion. It was time to move on.

The past weeks since leaving Brayburn had been the most enlightened of Sophie’s life. It had been painful to realize that her chronic job-hopping had never been about spontaneity and following her heart. It had merely been a method of avoiding herself.

She’d spent years surfing on a wave of ambiguity over what to do with her life, which she should have tackled after graduation. But instead, she’d just avoided it. By never investing in anything, she could never be accused of failing. Never be disappointed.

But no more. It hadn’t taken much reflection to realize that she didn’t like office buildings and paperwork and suits. Didn’t like staplers or copy machines or multi-line phones. Hell, aesthetics aside, she didn’t even really like

high-heeled shoes.

The only aspect she’d liked about this environment had been the people. Sophie loved people. She loved watching them, talking with them, learning them. And she could admit now that she was damn good with them. The highlight of her time at Brayburn had been discovering what made people like the Blackwells tick. Seeing them as people instead of clients. As personalities instead of customers.

People were her passion, and she knew in her gut that this new insight was her path to true job satisfaction.

Granted, she still didn’t know exactly what that meant career-wise. Therapist, milkman, teacher?

But she had a little money saved up. Enough to provide a financial buffer while she figured it out. She’d gotten so adept at not being what other people expected her to be, that she’d failed to figure out what she wanted to be.

Stepping off the elevator, Sophie took a deep breath. This was the part she’d been dreading. Seeing Gray’s office again. Seeing the place of his first smile, their first fight, their first kiss.

Their last words.

Refusing to look toward Gray’s darkened office, Sophie marched to her desk with a mission.

Grab the box and get out. Fast.

She took a quick glance through the contents of the box. The potted orchid that Brynn had bought her, which Sophie had barely managed to keep alive. A condom from Will, “just in case.” A picture of her family. Some sort of fancy pen from her father that Sophie had never used for fear of losing or breaking it.

Her hand hesitated as she picked up the last item. It was the small bowl of creamers she kept at her desk to ensure Gray’s coffee was always perfect. She cringed, remembering how much she’d treasured his small half smiles when she’d gotten it just right.

She shook her head in shame. How could she have been so foolish? All that effort she’d put into pleasing the man, and the entire time he’d merely been seeing a competent secretary. A replaceable one, apparently.

Sophie had been stupidly trying to win a smile from Gray, when really all he’d expected was that she earn her paycheck from Mr. Wyatt.

Sophie stared down at the small packages of half-and-half. They seemed to represent everything that had been wrong about the pseudo-relationship. She pulled the garbage can out from under the desk and, with slow purpose, turned the delicate glass bowl upside down, listening as the small plastic containers crashed into the trash can.

“Ms. Dalton. Is that company property you’re disposing of?”

The glass bowl slipped from her fingers, shattering on the floor as she spun around with a shriek.

She should have been prepared for this. Of course, Gray would be here. Their entire relationship had been based on a series of coincidental meetings. It made sense that their final meeting would be yet another disastrous accident.

“Working on a Saturday night is pathetic, even for you,” she said with as much disdain as her thudding heart would allow.

Gray stood framed against his office door, arms crossed. She wished he were wearing a suit so she could distance herself from the CEO. But his dark jeans and casual gray shirt made her long for the man, not the employer.

“I’m not working tonight,” he said.

“So you’re just here hanging out?” she asked breezily. “I suppose that makes sense. At least in the office you have the occasional janitorial visit. At home you’re merely alone.”

She didn’t know where the cold words came from. It was as if cruelty was the only way of keeping her heart from shattering. He said nothing, just looked at her with unreadable gray eyes.

“Did Beth tell you I was coming by?” she asked tentatively, confused by his intense gaze.

“She mentioned it, yes.”

“And you didn’t think it would be wise to be anywhere else when I got here?” she asked incredulously.

“That kind of would’ve defeated the purpose, wouldn’t it? I specifically asked Ms. Jennings when you’d be collecting your belongings, and she seemed to have this crazy idea that Saturday evening was the only possible time you could squeeze this into your schedule.”

His raised eyebrow said it all. He saw right through her.

“I’ve had a busy couple weeks,” she said weakly.

He nodded once, but only continued looking at her with a steady gaze. Almost as though he were looking for something.

“Didn’t Beth think it was weird when you asked about me?” she blurted out.

“Probably.”

“That wasn’t your best plan,” she said stiffly. “Now she probably thinks something is going on between us.”

“Yes, she definitely thinks that. Well, actually, everyone does after your yelling in the

kitchen.”

The part of Sophie that had played assistant for so long slipped out, because she rushed to reassure him. “Well, she may have her suspicions, but it’ll blow over. And she’s in human resources, so she’s pretty much the dead end of the gossip train.”

“Ms. Jennings isn’t dealing in suspicions any longer, she’s dealing in facts.”

“You told her…that we…you know…”

“Not in those words, no. But I told her that I’d lost something, and I wanted it back. I think she put the pieces together.”

Sophie tried to process, but her brain didn’t seem to be keeping up with her racing heart.

“What did you lose?” she whispered.

“Come on, Sophie,” he said as he stepped closer. “You’re smarter than this.”

At the reminder of his assessment of her intellect, she stiffened. “I’m not coming back here, Gray. I’m not going to be your disposable assistant, and I sure as hell am not going to tiptoe around, trying not to embarrass you while waiting for you to decide that our relationship has run its course.”

He moved closer still, and she became captivated by the heat in his eyes. She hadn’t seen this expression before from him, and she felt nervous. So much for her being a people person. She’d never felt so confused.

“You don’t embarrass me,” he said, reaching for her hand. “You couldn’t. You’re the best part of me.”

Every self-preserving instinct in her body was screaming at her. Pull back. Run. Kick him in the balls.

She stayed. “What are you trying to say?”

“I want you back,” he said simply.

“As your secretary or bed partner?”

His eyes flashed angrily. “Don’t.”

“What else am I supposed to think? You made it perfectly clear that my role in your life was to lie on my back, while you could find any old employee to take care of your stapling.”

He opened his mouth, but shut it again, looking frustrated. She nearly softened. Like a foolish woman in love, she found it endearing that he was pushing himself so far out of his element for her.

But she couldn’t relent. Whatever plan he had in store for them would involve rules and boundaries and heartache. It would never work.

“I have to go,” she said softly.

He swallowed and nodded. He looked panicked, and she longed to help him with whatever he was struggling with, but he was no longer her personal project to be tweaked and prodded.

Blinking back tears, she grabbed her box and headed for the door. As far as closure went, it was a total bust, but sometimes cleaner was better.

“Sophie,” he called hoarsely.

Keep walking.

“Don’t, Gray,” she whispered, slowing her steps.

“Do you love me?”

The question sounded like it was torn from his throat, from his heart, and she faltered.

Her tears fell freely now. “You have no right to ask me that. No right.”

“Do you?” His voice was closer now.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said quietly.

“It matters,” he said roughly, close enough now to grab her shoulder. “It matters.”

He turned her toward him, but she sucked in a sob and refused to look at him.

“Don’t do this,” she begged. “I can’t be what you want.”

“You are what I want.”

The desperation in his voice made her look up, clutching the flimsy cardboard box to her like a security blanket. What she saw nearly undid her.

His eyes were damp and pleading. Please, they said. Please.

But he remained silent, and she knew he wouldn’t know how to say what was written on his face. He wouldn’t ever be able to say it, and she deserved to hear it.

She tried to turn again, but he held her still, his throat working in obvious effort.

“Let me go,” she said quietly. Firmly. She could do this.

“I can’t.” He shook his head. “I can’t.”

Sophie smiled sadly and pulled away. “I’m not the one for you, Gray. You’re looking for a good-time girl, and I know you think that’s me, but—”

“Dammit, would you stop talking like that!” he growled like an animal in agony.

“I want a family!” she said, her voice breaking. “I want a husband who’s proud of the stuff he burns on the grill, and a baby who yanks out my earrings, and a big dog who will probably smell when it rains. You don’t want any of those things!”