Conflict of Interest

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CHAPTER 6

Like they had for years, the office lights came on behind her, and she knew her time alone had come to an end. The chaos of another workday was about to begin. She’d listen to strategy, make decisions while wondering if they were the right ones, she’d analyze reports and emails from top to bottom, and take more than one look at their bottom line.

The smell of coffee found its way to her desk. She stood, stretched her neck, and grabbed her mug for a fresh cup. Maggie always started a new pot upon her entry to the office.

Her dad’s old corner office – now Grace’s – and her old corner office sandwiched Abbi’s on the far end of the building. Maggie’s desk sat like a guard in front of the three rooms. She acted like one too. If guards gave out candy, extended an ear to listen to, offered a shoulder to cry on, and had the ability to keep the three of them – or the two of them now – and the entire company on schedule. Maggie was like Yoda or Mary Poppins. If either of them had been administrative assistants.

“That’s not a terrible view to start my day,” Grace joked as she walked up behind Maggie. The smile on her face grew as she watched Maggie’s bottom half shift back and forth like a pendulum on her swivel chair as she reached for something under her desk. The muffled laugh that came from the trenches offered a slight shake to Maggie’s rear movements.

The plump bum disappeared and a round face with a light-colored cap of hair appeared as Maggie spun around. Grace couldn’t tell when the hair had gone from blonde to subtle gray, but the color was so similar that maybe it had always been that way. Perhaps the face under the hair was the only thing that actually changed. The face had rounded out over the years, wrinkles crackled the edges of her eyes, and the smile got bigger. She could easily have doubled for Mrs. Claus, in the looks department and baking skills.

“Well look at you today!” The exclaim came as a bit of a surprise when their eyes finally met. “You just don’t know what a knockout you are.” Maggie made a spinning motion with her pointer finger as silent instruction to make a turn so she could get a full view of Grace’s outfit.

“Do you have a meeting today? Special occasion? Oh, I know.” Maggie’s hands rested on the sides of her hips and smiled knowingly.

“What do you know?” Grace asked, her tone dubious as she rounded out her twirl.

“Well, for one, you’re not wearing your typical blouse, skinny trousers, and loafer combo today – and I do love a good patent leather – reminds me of the good ’ol days. Anyway, this is much more play to your usual business.”

Maggie stepped around her fortress to get a better look and agreed with herself, “Yes, I think there is a little more going on here. The black is pretty and shows off your curves and your enviable legs. I’m allowed to say that because I’m old enough to be your grandmother. If I were a betting woman, I’d say that extra curl in your ponytail has a pair of matching heels in your bag.”

Amused, Grace wondered, How does she do that?

“Who is the guy, what does he look like, and where are you going?” Maggie asked the matter-of-fact questions as she made her way back to the perch on the other side of the desk. Seven o’clock on the dot. It’s like she knew she had exactly two minutes of conversation before she needed to retreat and flick on the computer to begin the day precisely on the zeros before continuing her inquisition. Unreal.

It was impossible to be discouraged while talking to Maggie, so she let it spill: “The girls did this to me. They set me up on a blind date. I would show you a picture, but I can’t, because – well – blind. Do you know what kind of people want to go on blind dates?” She continued to answer her question, “The ones that think you might not talk to them if you knew what they looked like. I agree that everybody is attractive in their own way, but Mags, come on. These girls are killing me. I’ll be trapped. I’ll have to find an excuse to turn down dinner after drinks. Then find a way to nicely tell him after the fact that I’m not interested. Then I’ll be on to, what is it, date number at-least-ten with nothing to show for it?”

Maggie just smiled at her with compassion. “Honey, you’ve got to keep getting out there. He may be attractive, or he may not be, but he might be wonderful. I believe that’s the very essence of a blind date. You’re stunning, but that’s not the most beautiful thing about you. And no, you’re not shallow, and being attracted to a person is very important, but don’t count him out before you even get a glimpse of this guy. He could be very handsome. The good news is if he’s not, you can always try and fix that. A little haircut here, a new shirt there, and ta-da! A handsome man! That’s what I had to do with my Fred down there. Personalities don’t usually change, but looks…” Her head nodded to the front of the building where Fred Sheffield had his desk. More than 30 years of marriage to each other and they still goofed around like school kids.

“I hope you know it’s impossible to find a guy like Fred out there in the world.” Grace joked, but Fred was indeed a great man.

“Don’t I know it. He’s one of a kind, but he’s my one of a kind. You’ll find your one of a kind, and when you do, you’ll know. Something about him will make you smile without trying. You’ll catch yourself in one of those smiling moments, and it will hit you. You’ll be head over heels and in trouble. The good news is, whoever it is, he’ll get one look at you and be in love. So, you’ll have your pick of the litter. Choose wisely. Now run and get your refill and I’ll have your agenda by the time you get back so you can have a kick-butt day before heading out for your date. And,” she added, “you start your vacation next week. Drop off any files you need me to take care of while you’re gone and don’t worry about a thing.”

She did have files that needed to be taken care during her vacation, but dang it, did she leave them at home? Grace’s eyes looked to the ceiling, trying to remember where she’d been working on them. It wasn’t like her to forget. This date was throwing her off.

“I do, but I think they are still on my desk at home. I’ll run there tonight and have them on your desk by Monday morning.” Before Maggie could tell her not to inconvenience herself, Grace argued, “I have to run home anyway and give myself a little touch-up, so it’s no trouble at all.”

“You’re a sly girl, letting me think it’s a good idea for you to run home.” There was teasing in her voice. “But thank you.” Maggie leaned in and lowered her voice just a bit even though the office was vacant. “Have you heard the rumors?” She was undoubtedly referring to the Wallace acquisition.

“I will not agree that any such rumors exist,” Grace said coyly. “But, if such rumors were true, I would say that as of yet, we have not heard of any actions taken.”

Maggie’s excitement wasn’t for the takeover of the company, and Grace knew that. Maggie liked the challenge of keeping up with the demands of a fast-moving company and all that entailed. Wallace would be a lucky man if he saw in Maggie all she was worth. Less an administrative assistant, more the wheels that kept the company rolling. Maggie would see right through him if he was anything less than honest. Grace supposed she liked the thought of that, as long as Maggie got to keep her job and keep ruling the world from her post guarding the executive offices.

Coffee was just the refuel she needed. An extra jolt of morning happiness. She sighed as she leaned against the counter in the kitchenette, savoring the feel of the warm mug in her hands. Everybody had a comfort food, and this was hers. It made her pity those who didn’t drink it. To live a life without even the smell of coffee was no life at all.

Her dad used to say that to Aimeé nearly every week, first when she came over to the Thomas home during their college breaks, then when she’d opened her Bistro. Aimeé loved him a little more for it. They agreed on nearly everything, but their love of coffee is what bonded them straight away.

Grace found her dad’s thoughts and voice in her head so much these days. It was a comfort and a sorrow. To know he was still there, but knowing she couldn’t have him back.

“Aren’t you a vision.” The words jolted Grace back to the present. “I would say if Raymond could see you now, he’d be hooting and hollering. But then again, he knows how beautiful you are.” Abbi’s wistful voice filled the kitchenette, and it comforted Grace knowing she wasn’t the only one who missed her dad.

“I heard from a little bee you were down here and looking pretty today.” Grace watched Abbi’s eyebrows flutter up and down.

“Good news really does travel fast,” Grace responded dryly. “Did this bee also tell you he’s probably hideous? And no, since you asked,” Grace felt herself pour on the pity party, “I can’t show you what he looks like. Because, my friends are terrible.”

“Absolutely, and I was sent here to reinforce that it is not always about beauty, my dear,” Abbi put on her best Maggie voice, “it’s the beauty inside of him that will make you fall in love. That, and he better darn well make you laugh. That’s just my two cents though.” Abbi grew silent as she filled her cup from the thermos, fragrant steam rising from the carafe. She looked at Grace when she was finished. “You know, I have a good feeling about tonight. I don’t know what it is, but I think something wonderful is going to come your way. Maybe it’s the Fall chill in the air or knowing that the holidays are right around the corner. I get a little spring in my step come Fall.”

Abbi drew Grace in and steered her back to their offices. With a quick, warm squeeze of her arm, they made their way back to Maggie to take their daily orders.

“One for you, and one for you.” Maggie handed each of them their schedules. Grace eyed her own and wondered if everybody realized it was this woman who really ran the company.

“Abigail, don’t forget about your ten o’clock with Gear North. It’s nothing formal, as they are stopping in to meet with Matt to renew their account contract, but I booked you for fifteen minutes at the start of it to shake hands and kiss babies.”

Directing her attention to Grace, “As for you, if you thought you had outgrown paperwork, I’m sorry, you have not. I went through end-of-month financials to try and ease the pain and made notes where I thought attention needed to be paid. The stack, and I mean stack, has been moved to the corner of your desk. Neither of you has lunch scheduled today, so I’m assuming...”

Her words trailed off while both of the women shuffled through the papers in the files and analyzed their busy days without looking up.

Brusquely Maggie said, “I’ll order in,” and with that, Abbi and Grace were off in separate directions, one to the right and one to the left of the desk. Both stopped just before walking through their office doors and turned, saying almost in unison, “Thank you, Maggie.”

Grace lingered for a moment longer to add in a slightly quieter tone, “For everything.”

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