Conflict of Interest

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CHAPTER 7

Why did she always do this to herself? She was the model of efficiency and order at work. Then she always tried to do one more thing before she left, and all the efficiency and order of her personal life flew out the window. It left her flying down the stairs, and now she would probably be late. She supposed it would give the nerves less time to shimmy in.

She raced passed the Bistro when she reached the ground floor, pausing briefly for a knock on the window and a hurried wave for her friend, a daily custom. Without stopping her task at the counter, Aimeé blew a kiss toward the window and kept her hands flying around the espresso machine, quickly filling orders with the grace of a well-trained ballerina.

Her phone buzzed to life as she was rounding the corner. Without missing a step, she clicked the Bluetooth button on the side of her earpiece and gave a breathless, “Hello.”

“You’re heavy-breathing! Please tell me you met your date early, you skipped drinks and dinner, and went straight for a sexy romp session.”

Rachel’s giggle on the other end was contagious, but abruptly stopped and her tone switched to immediate concern as she said, “Oh my god, please tell me that you don’t answer the phone during a sexy romp session.”

This time a rueful laugh escaped Grace’s lips as she scurried up the street toward the brownstone.

“Unfortunately, this is far from sexy romp,” she huffed as she absently thought to herself, holy crap, Thomas, you’re out of shape. “I had to-” another heavy breath heaved in and out, stopping her words, and it was so pathetic she gave a choked snort of laughter in spite of herself, “—to work late—so much frickin’ paperwork. Okay, seriously, can we all start going to those kickboxing classes again? Or, maybe start our morning or after work jogs? This is painful.”

Rachel ignored every word, “Shoot. I had high hopes for sexy romp. I should have known better. I’m not like that either. But how amazing would it have been if that’s what you’d been doing?”

The idea hung in the air long enough for Grace to realize it had been a year since she’d been on her last date. And with that realization, it had been even longer since she did anything sexy with anybody. Seriously depressing. She wasn’t promiscuous, but was a good romantic make-out session – that may lead to just a little more – too much to ask?

“About this working out thing – I’m in. I need to firm up before Christmas. I will not let the holiday food win – not this year. I’ll call the girls,” Rachel took the initiative before Grace had the chance, knowing Grace was usually the one to get everybody together. “You have more important things to do, like prep for your date. Do you know where you’re going? What are you wearing? Are you going to try and knock him dead?”

Grace flew up the stone steps at an impressive rate. Especially while on the phone. She ran into the door with a painful whack of her knee because she couldn’t quite get the key turned quickly enough, but barely noticed the pain – she was on a mission. All of her bags and jacket were strewn on the bench near the front door as she sprinted upstairs to start the pre-date fuss. It was a ritual. All women fussed, and she was no different.

“Yeah, the plan is set. I have his number, and that’s all, graciously provided by my invasive friends.” The accusatory tone of her voice teasingly exaggerated. “We are meeting at Parlour for a cocktail, then if all goes according to plan, moving up a block for dinner at Bar La Grassa. If shit hits the fan, at least I know I’ll get a hell of a homemade pasta out of the deal. I’m trying to hurry so I can drop some paperwork off at the office before I get there. He – whoever he is – will be awaiting a text from me at seven sharp. I should probably show up fashionably late, so I plan to hang out at the Bistro, then walk over.”

Grace paused when she got into the bathroom to analyze her next move. She listed off her tasks in her head. Makeup touch-up, swap out the heels – she’d been calculating all day if the black pumps she threw in her bag were the right choice, and came to the conclusion that they were not – and lastly, be sure to pick up the paperwork to drop off for Maggie so she can get working on it Monday morning.

Grace analyzed her face in the mirror, and tipped her head back and forth, letting the light hit each angle. Yeah, she thought, not too bad after a long day of work. She threw a fresh layer of concealer around her green eyes, a streak of eyeliner, and a bit of blush on her angled cheekbones. Then the job was done.

“I like it.” Rachel, now on speaker, echoed throughout the bathroom while Grace touched up. “What are you wearing? Your body is the envy of every woman on earth, so please tell me you’re showing it off.”

“That might be a stretch,” Grace said as she glanced at her body in the mirror. She had always been on the thin side but could see the stress and grief of her father passing had skimmed off an extra five pounds or so over the last twelve months. “I decided to go with the black pencil skirt. I think you were with me at Nordstrom when I got it. Black blouse. Suede heels.”

The encouraging “Oh yeah!” that came from the phone was all the approval she needed.

“The hair is up for this round,” Grace eyed the full outfit with the newly appointed heels in her grandmothers’ old wardrobe mirror. “I am going for sleek and sexy.”

Even though she liked to believe she didn’t care about this mystery date that she had protested vehemently, the nerves she thought she’d avoid were slinking in. She hated first dates – figuring out what to talk about, the awkward silences, trying to listen and retain everything they are saying while trying to think of the next thing to say. Why in the world do people do this to themselves? She thought, shaking her head.

“Stop worrying.” Rachel’s affirming words bleated out of the speaker. “You’re gorgeous, and you’ll have him breathless at first glance. If he’s not talking, it’s because he can’t.”

“What if-”

“If it doesn’t go anywhere?” Rachel knew her so well. She didn’t have to hear the rest of Grace’s sentence. “Then it just…doesn’t. You’ll move on to the next one with nothing but a free drink and dinner invested.”

She grabbed the phone off the counter and took one last look at her appearance in the mirror. Her makeup looked perfect. Her outfit was effortless but dripping with elegance. At the bottom of the stairs, she took a couple of final deep breaths. Some to prep for the speed walk to the Bistro and a quick run up to the office. Then a couple more to ease the nerves.

“Rach, thank you,” she told her friend. “And tell the girls to do their own recon next time.” A smile crept to the corner of her lips, and she heard the smile and sheepishness in Rachel’s voice.

“I offered to make the pre-date pump-up-the-confidence call. Besides, Casey is working, or whatever she does on that computer of hers, and Aimeé decided she needed to sleep today. She said she saw you run by while she brewed up her last cup of the day. We have a plan to gossip about you later on and speculate about how your date is going. It’s going to be great. We’ll let you know how the night played out in our minds. Text if you need to escape and one of us will be there. I’ll let you know if I get the girls to agree to a morning workout tomorrow,” she added, “Love you!”

“Love you, too.”

Jacket, black bag, and keys. She picked each up from where she’d dropped them and was out the door. She shrugged her arms into her jacket and was down the steps of her brownstone. She got halfway down the block when irritation hit her – she forgot the papers for Maggie.

She had to go back. Grace spun around. Her turn was quick and gave her just enough time to let out a squeal before slamming into a man. A very solid man.

“Crap.” The grunted word that escaped her was barely audible. She’d lost her breath, or the collision scared it out of her.

As Grace tried to get her bearings, the man lightly gripped her shoulders to steady her.

“Oh my gosh, I am so sorry.” She was flustered, and felt for the poor man she’d nearly steamrolled.

When she looked up, she noted he was indeed a solid man. He was a remarkably handsome solid man.

She stammered as she tried her best to regain balance. “I, shoot, are you okay? Wow, you’re...wow.”

Wow, you’re wow? For goodness sakes, she thought. Pull yourself together.

He was tall. Grace felt herself staring but didn’t seem to care. His face was long and lean with sharp features. The thick, coffee-colored hair, was trimmed neatly in a crew cut. It fit his polished look. The dim city sidewalk light made his eyes take on the same espresso hue. They were framed by heavy eyebrows, adding to the intensity of his features.

Then he smiled. Her heart skipped a beat, and her nerves took on a new nervous flutter.

“I think I might manage.” He said.

As he smiled, his face had brightened and changed every chiseled angle into a boyish grin. “How are you faring? Everything intact? In a bit of a hurry?”

His head dipped low to get a better angle as he gazed at her face.

A quick burn of blush heated her cheeks as she moved a stray wisp of hair behind her ear self-consciously. She was going to be late, she thought, as Grace suddenly remembered why she had been turning around so abruptly in the first place, leading to this encounter.

“Yes. I’m sorry, I’m in a hurry.” Though you’d never know it at the rate you’re lingering, she thought, and tried her best for a smile. “Ah, paperwork – forgot it. And I’m fine. I hope you are too. Again, I’m so sorry.” She forced her body to turn toward the stairs, “I have to run and grab something, my paperwork.” Crap, she already said that. “Then, run. A date.” As if she needed to say that? She groaned inwardly. Why was she being so awkward?

Her eyes stayed on his as she walked up the stone steps. At the door, she paused and broke her gaze away long enough to grab the handle, but turned back to see him still standing there. She smiled once more, this time more amused at him staring back with that damn grin.

“I’m sorry,” she burst out with a laugh, “Do I know you from somewhere?”

He shook his head as he pushed his hands into his pockets and shrugged. “Nope, I don’t think so.” Then he nodded a bit to himself, then to her, “But I think I’d like to.” His body rocked from heel to toe, whether from bashfulness or playfulness, she couldn’t tell.

The shiver of excitement in her belly was probably from the adrenaline. Yes, adrenaline. Now get moving, she thought, dismissing the feeling at once.

“I’m sorry. I really do have to run,” Grace stammered as she slid the key in the door, and looked back, giving one last smile.

She stepped inside and closed the door.

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