Conflict of Interest

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CHAPTER 10

The atmosphere at Parlour was effortlessly cool.

Grace waited by the lounge door while Luke wandered through a mixture of plump vests and boots, and sleek jackets and heels. Girlfriends at tables for happy hour and co-workers enjoying an after-work beverage of choice. The dim lighting gave everybody sultry shadows across their faces and amplified their beauty. The room was decorated carefully in a style that was both eclectic and rustic. High heel shoes didn’t click on the hard-wood floor. They clapped a manly beat with each step.

From across the room, Luke waved his hand up over a sea of bodies and caught her eye. His hand motioned toward his body.

The way he had come in, searched for a table, done the work to find them a seat in the masses, so she didn’t have to weave through the crowd, struck her has gentlemanly. And, she realized, she was already giving points to the cute guy. Luke, she silently corrected herself.

“This place.” She stopped to relish in the chic, cave-like ambiance as he helped her out of her jacket. “It’s great. I can’t believe I haven’t been here before. This place screams Casey,” she said, still taking it in.

He started to nod, then tilted his head curiously.

“Casey?”

“Sorry, my best friend. One of them. She’s a tech whiz and could probably make your life miserable. Be warned.” Grace was half-joking.

“Very good to know. But it’s good, right? My buddy, Mave – Travis – loves coming here after work. It’s lounge-y, a little bit sophisticated, a little old-fashioned. I love their drinks – here’s the list. If you don’t like one of these, they’ll make you anything you want. I can almost guarantee it will be the best drink you ever have.”

“The best?’” Grace raised her perfectly arched eyebrow, doubtfully.

“Yes. Because of the beards,” Luke said matter-of-factly.

“Did you just say, ‘beards?’”

“Absolutely. It’s proven that any drink made by a man, or a woman, with a lumberjack-hipster beard, is better.” He grinned.

“Is that right?” Her laugh was full and sincere. She composed herself as the waiter approached their table and asked, “Are you ready?”

“Ready when you are.” Luke nodded in her direction.

“I’ll have a lemon drop, please.”

“I’ll do a whiskey on the rocks. And can we get a couple of cherries if you can sneak them out?” Luke spoke with the casualness of a frequent customer.

The waiter and his beard walked away and they sat. She liked the way he leaned his body into the table toward her.

“Here we are,” he said. “I can’t believe you agreed to drinks,” he blurted out.

“I can’t believe you asked me for drinks,” she responded honestly, still slightly amused at this evening’s events.

“Why is it that if a man is in a bar and asks to buy a woman a drink, it’s okay. But, when a man sees or gets run into on the street by a beautiful woman, it’s kind of…” Luke moved his hand in a so-so motion to imply it might make him creepy.

“That’s an interesting question. Why is it that some women are eager to find a relationship, but when set up on a blind date, they do everything they can to get out of it?” Grace found herself feeling comfortable boldly sharing with this person she’d only just met. Seeing as he already knew she’d ditched her date to share drinks with him, maybe it wasn’t too much.

“Also, an interesting question,” Luke repeated her words. “It looks like tonight’s chain of events played in my favor. Am I allowed to start testing you yet?”

“I thought – as the woman – that was my job?” Grace countered flirtatiously.

“Oh, sorry, right. You go ahead.” He smiled. He liked her banter.

“Why, thank you. Let’s go with the most important.” Grace thought back to the sidewalk when she’d been taken by his captivating, and undeniably cute speech, “You mentioned a job. I believe you even used it to sell me on drinks. Now I’m curious as to what it is you do?”

“That’s the most important?” Luke joked, “What about married with children?”

“Are you married?” Grace exclaimed, trying to sound surprised, but feeling she knew the answer was no. She hoped this would give him just a little embarrassment to see how he handled it, as she had noticed a couple of the close tables now looking their direction.

When his eyes caught on, his laugh was deep.

“Nicely done,” he admitted. “Okay, no kids here, no marriages. And yes, I confirm I have a job.”

He wondered how far he could go on that subject. Good news tends to travel fast within the industry, and Minneapolis was a small town as far as he was concerned.

“I am an accountant,” Luke began. “I work with my dad and my best friend. I feel like I hit the employment jackpot. It’s awesome. Am I allowed to ask the same?”

“Very interesting.” Grace leaned in and rested on her elbows. “I work for my dad’s company. It was my dream to run the business one day. I love it, and I love him.” Her voice only shook a little as she mentioned her dad.

“You like working closely with your dad? All the time?” Luke asked.

“Yes.” Grace didn’t want to lose the fun in their conversation, but she felt herself open up a bit. “It’s funny. When you’re in it – the work I mean – with family, you don’t realize how great it is. It’s easy to take it for granted, is what I mean. Anyway, enough there. Way too serious.” She shook her head and gave a tiny chuckle, placing her hands in her lap.

They quieted only long enough for the waiter to place two expertly crafted cocktails and a cup of cherries in front of them.

“Never too serious,” Luke broke the silence, lifting his glass. “To cherishing time together.” And, he noted, there was the first glimpse of the business woman he’d heard the good things about.

She clinked her dainty glass to his, “To cherishing time together.”

They both sipped and looked around. She realized the date she had ditched was probably here already. Or, depending on the time, had been here and left.

“Do you know,” Grace pulled his attention back in and tried to be inconspicuous, “this is where I was supposed to meet my date?”

“Here?” Luke looked around at the bustling lounge, noting the rising volume.

Here.”

“And you have no idea who he is?” he asked.

“None at all.” Grace said. She didn’t feel as worried as she was letting on. In fact, she felt a huge sense of relief. She didn’t have to try and put on a show, or be polite, or try to impress like she would have to on the blind date. Luke was very handsome, sure, but this encounter was so unexpected, she figured any expectations could be thrown out the window.

Grace watched Luke glance around the room and his eyes came back to rest on her.

“Do you regret it?”

She paused long enough to see his confidence to waver before answering, “Not yet.”

“Would ordering food make you regret it?” There was teasing in his voice.

“Food sounds good. It might even make me like it a little more. What are your suggestions?” She skimmed the menu.

“The burger, hands down. Share the fries.”

“I can’t argue with either of those things,” she admitted.

“You impress me.” His voice startled him. He didn’t mean share his surprised thoughts.

“I didn’t know I was supposed to. How so?” Grace said with a smile.

“Ditching dates, eating hamburgers.”

Even he had to laugh at his poor attempt at recovery. It wasn’t his intention to be careful. But the longer they sat together, the more he found himself less interested in revealing who he was. And even less in gathering information about her work. He was, though, beginning to feel very interested in her love life.

“You said your friends set you up on the date. Why?” He asked, tapping the menu absently on the table.

“We’re going to need another drink to get through that,” she said, showing the defeat she’d faced date after date.

“That could be arranged.”

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