Conflict of Interest

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CHAPTER 5

The slit where she had left the window open allowed the crisp morning air to gently push and pull the sheer curtains that hung in her bedroom. Cocooning the plush comforter around her body, Grace burrowed in and reveled in the feeling.

Grace cherished the quiet morning. She was thankful for the safety and comfort of her room, the protection of the house, for peace and silence. It was routine for her to naturally wake up ten minutes before her alarm sounded at five.

There was something about the dark. Only the glow of streetlights and stars, the moon if it was in the right position, hanging like a ceiling light framed by her beautiful, thickly-trimmed window.

These mornings always reminded her of her dad, Mr. Raymond Thomas, of Thomas and Jane LLC. The mornings were his time as well. “We have to beat the birds to their wakeup, Gracie,” he would whisper after tip-toeing into her room to coax her out of bed. It was their time — Dad and daughter against the world.

The tradition didn’t stop when she’d gone off to college or even when she’d moved out. It was always the same: up before five, have coffee and prep for the day. They didn’t have to race into work to be the first ones there – they always crossed paths at the Bistro beneath the building at five-forty-five.

With their fresh brews in hand, they would take the steps to the top floor and work with only their desk lamps lighting the still-dim office. Then Maggie Sheffield, who had become the company’s first administrative assistant would come in and turn on the floor lights to welcome in the rest of the staff as they shuffled in for a long day’s work.

She longed for one more moment with her dad. One more hug, one more coffee, one more wink across the hall of their office from his desk to hers. He was her support system, her confidant, her hero. All she had left of him was the company. She couldn’t allow for it to be lost. It’s not what he wanted. And she wasn’t ready to hand it over.

Still wrapped in her comforter, Grace moved her hands to her face with a moan, in a rare but seemingly necessary moment of worry. The what-in-the-world was she going to do moment. The company was bigger than her. It was business. It wasn’t supposed to be personal, but for her, it was overwhelmingly personal.

No, she thought, she would fight. Fight for the company, fight for her dad who wasn’t here to do it himself. For her mom, too. She was just as much a part of Thomas and Jane. Just as dedicated. Maybe not at the office, but making sure the rest of their lives were running just as smoothly.

If Grace thought it was terrible when she lost her father, she couldn’t imagine what it was like for her mother to lose her husband. The two of them were inseparable. They had chosen each other and never wavered in their decision. They were the perfect balance of compromise and stubborn. Both would give selflessly, and yet only on rare occasions did either one of them feel as though they were making a sacrifice. If Raymond Thomas was working late to make their lives and luxurious goals a reality, Lydia would make sure he, and all who were working late with him, had a home-cooked meal. And maybe a little doggie bag to bring home to their families. The thought made Grace smile. What a partnership, she thought.

It would be wonderful to have that kind of love. If it was even half as magnificent as her parents’ love, she would take it.

“Crap.”

Speaking of love. Grace rolled her eyes as the mutter came out, and the realization hit her. The date was tonight.

Maybe love could wait. At the thought of having to put herself together after a long day of work to meet a stranger, the idea of love suddenly seemed irritating. Besides, wouldn’t love just happen when the timing was right?

She leaned toward the nightstand and stretched for her phone, tapping the buttons with a hint of bitterness. She found the group message right at the top.

“Just because I’m going doesn’t mean I’m going to be nice or like it. In fact, I might be the worst version of myself to spite you all.” She spoke the words under her breath as she typed and hit send on the text.

Immediately the responses flooded in.

“He’ll love you.”

“Hard to get. Very nice.”

And from Casey, a string of pictures. She didn’t know what they meant, but she had to assume the worst.

“Gross.”

Grace rolled her eyes and finally flung the covers off and shimmied on the wool robe waiting for her at the foot of the bed. Without much thought, she began to pick out her wardrobe for the day. Something sleek and professional that she could transition to an evening date with a quick shoe change. A black pencil skirt with a sheer black blouse. Tiny little pearl buttons fit the shirt tight around her neck. Maybe she would tie her hair back in a long and low, thick blonde pony, and add a big wavy curl. Mom’s pearl earrings for a finishing touch. Yes, that will do just fine.

Thirty minutes later, nearly to the second – if Grace was anything, she was efficient – she was out the door. The air felt good when she stepped out into the morning. All the running around inside had left her walking out with her arms stretched wide, letting the fresh air flow around her. She might not care about her appearance tonight, but pit-stains were a little much.

She inhaled and knew this would be a busy day. She would be preparing for a lovely two-week stay-cation, and doing that wasn’t easy.

Glowing street lamps lit her way to the most precious view of her morning: The Bistro coffee shop, conveniently located on the street level of her office building. She could see Aimeé swiftly moving in and out of the kitchen with massive trays that seemed to dwarf the thin French woman beneath them. She could only assume they were delicious, flaky croissants or puffy chocolate beignets. The fragrant scent of sweet dough lured even the nuttiest of health nuts through the not so subtle white, French wooden doors, where they would be swallowed up by the only smell that could be better than a bakery: rich and savory coffee grounds made from the best decadent brown beans.

“It really is like walking into heaven. I’ll never get over it. Every single time, it’s heaven.” Grace shrugged before unbuttoning a fitted gray toggle coat that reached just past her skirt.

“Oui, oui! Food is not just the key to a man’s heart, sweet Gracie, but also the sensual way into a woman’s.”

Finally admitting it to herself and to the two elderly men who came in for their morning jolt, Grace smiled and said, “Yes. It’s true. I am in love with you, and you have sensualized my entire being with your chocolate beignets. I’ll take two, and a nonfat latte when you have the time. No rush.” Grace added as she made her way around the room that had transformed overnight into an autumnal haven of orange, red, and yellow flowers in tall, fat vases. Cinnamon scented pinecones were scattered throughout. Cleverly placed in coffee mug displays and resting in glass bowls on random tables. Amber candles adorned every table, nook, and cranny, allowing for dimmed overhead lights and an ambiance so immensely warm it made you want to live right there in the shop.

“Did you even go home last night?” she inquired loud enough for her voice to reach the back kitchen while bending down to take in the sweet cinnamon scent of a candle.

“Nope! She was here the whole night. Moving around like a mad-woman at three when I walked in.”

Jumping at the startle of the unexpected voice, Grace grabbed her heart, “Holy Jesus. Shit. Jimmy. Hi.”

“Good morning to you too. I’ve been waiting to have that effect on you since I was sixteen. Two years later and I have it.” Jimmy beamed as he tied the black apron around his waist and logged in to the cash register.

Jimmy was Aimeé’s favorite staff member. The rest of the kitchen and the customers loved him, too. He was dedicated and needed just a bit more sleep than Aimeé, which was probably around three to four hours a night. He didn’t have baking aspirations, seeing as he was going to school for business, but he had a love and an obsessive appreciation for great food. That and his charm, won Aimeé over when she’d been hiring two years earlier.

Grace laughed, “If only I were twelve years younger,” wistfully looking skyward for effect, “Jenna and I could battle it out for you – and bless her heart, she’d win because your girlfriend is the sweetest, most beautiful girl I’ve ever met.”

Jimmy blushed and nodded, “She doesn’t know it yet, but this job is going to get her the biggest diamond ring money can buy come graduation. Only four years away. Three, if Aimeé back there keeps letting me work the early shift to fit in an extra class or two in the afternoon.”

“Seriously. Do either of you sleep?” Grace said in disbelief.

As he made his way back to the kitchen to help his fearless baking leader, Jimmy’s matter of fact “Nope!” repeated its way to Grace’s ears. All she could do was smile at the pair.

The table – their table – was placed perfectly in the corner of the Bistro for an idyllic window-scape view of the entire city block. She flipped open her laptop to get a head start on emails and caught a glimpse of Christopher Finnegan outside the window, standing on the sidewalk.

Chris was Grace’s grade school friend and a serious goofball. He drove the teachers crazy and his classmates into hysterics. He usually got in a little too much trouble in school but had ended up a Minneapolis city cop, and one of the best. She tried to catch his attention.

What was he looking at? His eyes were fixed, no – fixated – she thought, on the lovely, Aimeé Beaulieu. As if on cue, Aimeé leaned back in a stunning bout of laughter.

Well, isn’t that something? Grace thought, bemused. She wrapped her knuckles against the window to get his attention. Chris smiled, and the action warmed the outside world by at least ten degrees.

As he jogged across the intersection, she couldn’t help but wonder how long he’d been pining over Aimeé. Had it been a recent interest, or years and she hadn’t taken the time to notice? He came in here almost every day, and they crossed paths regularly at casual parties or walking the streets downtown.

When he walked in the door, Grace saw his first look was most definitely not in her direction. He offered a quick, shy nod of the head and a boyish wave to Aimeé. This was adorable Grace thought, as she chuckled to herself. She watched as Aimeé brightened and offered a much more confident wave in return. It nearly stopped Chris dead in his tracks.

“Chris! Hi, how are you?” Grace hoped to bring him back with some friendly conversation.

He staggered but seemed to pull himself together nicely and turned toward her window table.

“Grace, I’m great. How are you doing? How is your mom?”

The bear hug engulfed and delighted her. It reminded her of William and the familiar, smothering hugs he would give her.

“You know, she’s been pretty good. She is keeping busy. Still making food for the masses upstairs at the office when she can. It’s weird. You know? Not normal seeing her show up to places by herself. Or walk into the office and not have Dad there to greet her. She probably doesn’t feel it, but now when I see her standing alone, my heart breaks for her. And I have no idea what to do or how to make it better.”

Realizing she’d said more than intended, she quickly apologized. “Sorry, I didn’t intend to pour that out. But she is good – we are good.”

“Don’t be sorry at all. Your dad was the best.” His genuine tone was a comfort, more than she’d expected.

“So...” The pause was deliberate. She continued, “What has you out and about on the early shift this morning? Most people usually come inside to take in the smells, the coffee, and the pretty sights.” Her voice was sly hoping she’d get a reaction out of him.

Grace stared expectantly. Not even a blink. Men, she thought. No gossip, just: “Oh, one of the guys just had a baby, and he’s trying to get up at night so his wife can sleep a bit more. I don’t mind the early shift. It’s kind of nice being up before the world. I never used to be one for mornings, but the older I get, the less sleep I need. It’s unreal. Everything mom and dad used to tell me would happen, is happening. It’s funny how things change.”

The older we get. The words echoed in Grace’s mind. Wasn’t that the truth. And, the older Christopher seemed to be a continuous improvement. His vibrant personality could have gotten him anywhere in life he’d have wanted to go. What she hadn’t realized before today was his transformation into a seriously attractive man. The slightly rounded cheeks from grade school had all but disappeared. There wasn’t a little belly hanging over his uniform as there had been his jeans and gym shorts. His shaggy hair was professionally trimmed, and the day-old stubble on his chin had him looking as handsome as ever.

“You know what I mean?” Chris brought her back to reality.

“More than ever.” Her full agreement was in every word.

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