Conflict of Interest

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CHAPTER 11

It only took two drinks before she felt a buzz, but it didn’t change her view as she glanced around the room.

It was sexy, Grace thought. Everything cast in a black shadow. Light from the slit-windows had faded with the sun, and glowing, amber candles, only offered the shadow of faces. She wondered if it was vain to hope the shadows added to her appeal. It had only taken two drinks and two hours with Luke to have her wondering what it would be like to see him again.

She also wondered if a stranger walked by, would they know the two of them just met? She hoped it looked as natural and as comfortable as it felt.

“Favorite sports team – go. Wait, do you like sports? You’re a woman – I mean, a very attractive woman – but a woman nonetheless...” Shit, he thought. Wordlessly begging her to realize he was joking and not a sexist jerk.

He did his best to cover the sheepish grin that spread across his face as he trailed off.

“I see what you did there. Disguising insult by sliding me a compliment. I’ve used that at work. I’m onto you.” She pointed a drink stick knowingly in his direction.

“That could have gone so badly if you hadn’t realized I was joking,” he said, running a hand through his hair as he laughed. “And my mom and all of my girl cousins would probably kick my ass for saying that.”

“I think I like them. And it’s a wonder you’re single. Hey!” she said suddenly, encouraged by the two lemon drops that had gone down a little too smoothly. ″Why are you single?”

“Can I get either of you another round?” A voice cut through their conversation as the waiter strode up to the table.

Before she gave the waiter her full attention, she said to Luke, “Don’t think I’m going to forget where we left off.”

The exchanged look was easy, humorous, and a bit hopeful. Grace was surprised she wanted to stay. Dinner, drinks, and a sexy atmosphere wasn’t her typical Friday night. And Grace, for the first time in a long time, hoped the guy wanted to stay, too.

“Why don’t you give us another minute? Thanks.” Luke asked the waiter.

Luke grabbed her attention once again. “I would love another drink, but I also love the idea of not spending my Saturday hungover,” he added with playful, wide-eyes that watched her chuckle. “At my old age, hedging eerily close to my mid-thirties for those that might be interested.”

“Hedging?” Grace cut him off, suppressing a smile as she spun the ice around in her empty glass.

“Exactly. I might be close, but I’m not there yet. Anyway, I’ll be lucky if I make it after these two,” Luke finished.

The pang of disappointment hit her when she least expected it. Of course, it was ridiculous to assume the possibility of this – whatever this was – going beyond tonight. Sadly, as the night went on, she found herself hoping – no, wanting – to see him again. And unfortunately, she understood all too well the effect of a third drink.

“I agree,” she replied after a slight pause. “And without committing the ultimate woman-crime and admitting my age,” she went on, “I know the hangover to which you are referring.”

So, she would let him off the hook.

“Thank you, for this,” Grace said, suddenly serious. “I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed drinks with a handsome, seemingly put-together man. It wasn’t the night I was expecting, but I’m glad it happened. I hope we cross paths again.”

Shit, Luke thought, regretting his decision to turn down a third drink. He didn’t want the hangover but he didn’t want her to leave either. He was having a great time. Was she using this to dodge him? Was she dodging? She was dodging.

That’s not how he was supposed to get close to her. His luck couldn’t run out now, he thought, his concern growing. Running into Grace like this, her agreeing to drinks, their easy conversation. Her laugh. Her smile. The way her hands held the curved glass drink and the way she ever-so-slightly closed her eyes to sip and enjoy. Okay, he thought, trying to get a handle on the situation, you’re getting carried away.

Focus. He’d gotten off track. But, he thought, he needed to keep this going for a little bit. He needed to gauge how hard the next couple of months would be. He had a plan, after all. And if he was going to convince his dad to change things up, he was going to need her.

No, he couldn’t let her dodge.

“Let me walk you back?” He offered the words as a question. “I dragged you over here. It’s the least I can do.”

“If you don’t mind a detour, I think that’d be nice,” Grace said, as she guided herself out of the low booth, and grabbed her wool coat off the hook next to their table.

Outside, the brisk weather didn’t keep the rest of the city indoors. The sidewalks carried people in and out of the restaurants, lounges, and hotels on Washington Avenue. Side streets were busy with apartment and condo residents, some with furry pets in tow. It was lively and spontaneous, not unlike their night together.

Grace liked the movement, the bustle, the city life. The street lamps and crossing signals were shining on a group of young friends, a family pushing a stroller, the two lovers who walked in front of Grace and Luke, swinging their held-hands playfully. She noted how comfortable they were, inspired by their happiness. That longing deep inside her heart flared up once more.

“They fit,” Luke said, gesturing to the couple.

Grace wondered for a moment if she’d been thinking out loud.

“Sorry?”

“Their hands,” Luke said, again, “they fit.”

She liked how he lowered his voice not to be heard by the pair. It was silly, but it felt intimate.

“It’s cute, isn’t it?” She tried to play it cool. When was the last time she tried to do anything cool?

“Cute?” Luke said. His shocked impression gained a laugh, “Your outright ignorance surrounding the subject of hand-holding astounds me.”

“Oh yeah?” she asked, genuinely intrigued at where he would go with this.

The couple turned back at them, and the girl smiled and nodded in their direction. Luke and Grace looked at each other like they’d been caught and tried to stifle their giggles from bubbling up while offering casual waves.

“Yes,” he whispered, “but I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t disappointed. As a female, you should know these things. This is your territory. You know, romance.”

“You should probably help me out then. It would be terrible to have to look like an amateur on my next date,” Grace said, feigning seriousness.

“Right. I should. Well, once, a very wise, very old – it was my mom–” Grace gave a snort of laughter at his admission “-told me the hand can predict the fate of two lovers, even before they know they are lovers. Now, they have to be interested, and their intentions have to be pure,” he went on as if reciting old folklore.

“Pure?” She hoped her skepticism would egg him on.

“As I said, it’s a mom story. I’m lucky she used the word ‘pure’ instead of ‘celibate.’”

“Ha! No truer words have ever been spoken. I wonder what you were doing to deserve such wisdom?” Grace said, fully amused.

“Don’t jump ahead. Intentions must be pure. But,” Luke took a chance and took her hand, intertwining their fingers for display, “when two people link hands, their futures together can be predicted. It must be comfortable. It has to feel natural. It can’t be forced – that’s not the way relationships work.” He winked and continued, “Roles have to be accepted and appreciated.”

“Lost me again. Roles?”

“Absolutely,” he lifted their hands, “See, I’ve taken the bottom, and you’ve taken the top.”

“Bottom and top...” she repeated in a teasing tone.

“Grace, I’d never. Mind straight to the gutter.” Luke’s shock was fabricated, but it paid off.

“So sorry, please continue,” Grace said, laughing.

“Thank you. Besides, the part indicating sexual compatibility comes last. You can’t lead off with that. Anyway, there’s a supporting hand and a trusting hand. This is very important because often how you choose the hand position at the beginning is how they will forever be held. So, if you’re a top, you should never take the bottom and vice versa. It’s initial commitment.”

He continued. “If we,” his spare hand waved a finger between the two of them, “were both interested parties, our hands would be telling us I would like to support you, and you would trust me to do that. You also sneak your thumb inside of mine. That’s a rare quality. You’re willing to let me keep you safe.”

At the sweetness of his insight, she intentionally held his hand a little tighter. “Very interesting. All from a simple hand-hold. But I have to admit, now I’m curious.”

“About the sex, right?”

Her head leaned as if to say, well, yeah. Naturally.

“Right.” He took a breath.

“It’s first base.”

“It’s, wait, first base?” Grace said incredulously.

“First base.” He confirmed.

“You’re kidding?”

“Nope.” He shook his head.

“You’re telling me your mom said holding hands was getting to first base?”

He swung their hands playfully, mimicking the couple ahead of them.

“Okay, maybe I added that part myself.”

“You almost had me.” Grace felt herself grinning.

“Had you? This is prophecy.”

“Whom can I ask prompted your mother’s prophecy?”

Luke wistfully sighed, “Gemma Kramer. The love of my life.”

Jealousy wasn’t her forte, but she’d be lying to herself if she said a quick flash of it didn’t make a swift run through her. It stayed only until her curiosity could take over. It was easy to imagine Luke in a high school romance – that’s what she imagined prompted Mom’s advice. If he was anything then like he was now, he was probably the school heartthrob, charming girls while leaning casually on lockers. The thought made her smile. As much as she didn’t know this man, she realized she wanted to.

“Second grade.”

His recollection cut into her thoughts.

“I was a toothpick with big teeth. I was eight. Gemma was seven. Her red curls in two of those twined things.” Luke’s hand demonstrated by twirling his fingers down from his head. “Green eyes, like yours. So many freckles, she glowed. I held her hand on the last day of school that year. Anyway, she screamed and said my hand was sticky and that I was gross. I was devastated. Naturally.”

“Oh, you poor thing.” Grace grinned at the thought of eight-year-old Luke.

“When I got home, Mom sat me down and laid the prophecy on me. Alas, Gemma and I were never meant to be.” Luke smiled and looked deeply into Grace’s eyes. Wishing this moment would last. It was the best feeling of intense. Not serious, but searching.

“I’m very sorry to hear that. Heartbreak is never fun, especially at such an impressionable young age. But, I do have to say, Gemma missed her chance. I happen to think your hand is not very sticky at all. Or not enough to make a fuss. Dare I say, if forced, I would even hold it again. But,” she didn’t give him time to respond, “this is where I have to stop.”

They were outside the Bistro. It was rare to see it dark and lifeless, but in a few hours, the scents of butter, chocolate, and espresso would seep out to the street and wake the block. The smells would lure her out of the brownstone even as she enjoyed her time away from the office. It was equal parts delicious and ritual. Then she’d return as the winter months and end-of-the-year tasks set in, but the morning ritual would remain.

When you lived and breathed the accounting world, the term ‘calendar year’ was nothing to mess with. Especially when your clients depended on you, and you them. She’d have a day or two off around Thanksgiving, and then Christmas Eve and Day. But that was it. So she took her “winter break” early. In these coming weeks, she’d miss everybody upstairs, of course, but not enough to prevent her from enjoying herself while she was out.

The building was old and beautiful. Grace looked at the transformed paper mill that sat on top of what was now Aimeé’s Bistro.

Many of the old brick warehouses downtown had been purchased. In contrast to the other’s, theirs had been only slightly renovated with a more modern façade. Thomas and Jane LLC, had been in the one-hundred-year-old building for sixty years, but not much had changed. Her grandpa, who had purchased the old mill, didn’t have the money to update it. When her dad had taken over, there was too much nostalgia to change anything, even though they could have built an entirely new building. She loved it even more for its industrial appearance.

Grace stole a glance at Luke, who was at her side, staring up at the same building.

“I would like to know what you’re thinking,” Luke said. He realized his desire to see into her mind was as much for business as it was pleasure.

“Love,” Grace said after a slight pause.

“It’s only been a couple of hours but, I get it,” Luke dead-panned.

“Wait, you – no! Good Lord.”

When she saw his smirk, she nudged him with her elbow playfully.

“No, no, it’s okay. I won’t make you explain yourself. Many have fallen to my charm. I’m awesome. I get it.”

“I’ll give you cute,” she said, not wanting to deny that the attraction had grown in their short evening together and his charm was much to blame. “But love?” Grace pointed to the building. “This is my true love.”

“A building. I suppose there are weirder things.” He scratched his head and motioned to the building.

An act, she thought, to get her laughing. He was good at entertaining. She thought back to Maggie’s advice on the importance of laughter in a relationship. Grace dismissed it just as quickly. Relationship? She thought, don’t get ahead of yourself.

“Well, I guess the only way to get you to change that is to ask you out properly.”

“Was that an invitation?” She turned to face him.

“I wouldn’t mind being seen with you in public. Say, around noon tomorrow. I could find a dark corner table somewhere,” Luke said casually.

“Your charm is slipping,” she warned, trying not to smile.

“How long do I have?”

“To charm me or make me fall out of love with the building?” Grace loved their banter.

“Both.”

“Two weeks.” She didn’t always have free time, but wouldn’t mind spending a bit of what she did have getting to know this handsome, and, if she admitted it, charming man.

“It’s less time than I’d like to have, but I’ll take it.”

“Noon tomorrow?” Grace confirmed.

“Let’s meet right here.” Luke pointed to exactly where they stood now.

“It’s a deal.”

“It’s a date,” he corrected, and lingered a bit longer pondering how he could suavely say goodbye without making an outright fool of himself.

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