Conflict of Interest

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Grace exhaled and a white cloud puffed in front of her. It was freezing. She was freezing. The day before it had been sixty-five and sunny, and today, it felt like a long winter was about to set in.

Aimeé and Rachel looked the part, stretching before the run in their leggings, jackets, and running shoes, along with mittens and headbands that seemed to be keeping them warm.

Grace looked down at her layers of running clothes from Target and realized she was numb from the fingertips inward. I love you, Target, but I must get better gear, she admitted sadly and made a mental note to add running clothes to her shopping list.

Nobody seemed overly concerned that Casey hadn’t arrived yet. Case had never been one for working out. Her Mountain Dew desk diet seemed to keep her at a comfortable size, never tipping the scale too far at either end. How did she do that? Some people have all the luck. And the rest of us run, Grace thought wryly as she joined her friends.

“I can’t handle it. I’m freezing,” Grace greeted Aimeé and Rachel. “If Casey isn’t here in five minutes, I’m taking off. And if you want to hear about last night, you’re either going to have to keep up or wait until coffee.” She couldn’t help the flutter in her chest and didn’t mind wondering if Luke was thinking about her, too. She hoped he was. Now that was a strange and thrilling feeling.

“With a daydream face like that, I should have just stayed home. I knew this was a bad idea,” A teasing voice walked up from behind.

All three looked up to see Casey in at least two pairs of oversized sweatpants and what appeared to be two undershirts, a sweatshirt, and a puffy jacket – each layer a different color. A full stocking cap was hiding nearly all of her red hair, and on her hands were gigantic yellow mittens that looked fit for a trip to Antarctica.

Grace couldn’t help but laugh at the sight. “Are you actually running in that? Or were you planning to sit on the park bench next to that guy?” The three moved their gaze to a statue of a man sitting on the bench, smiling at people as they strolled by. He might have been there twenty minutes or all night, and neither scenario seemed to bother him.

“Hardy har-har,” Casey responded sourly. The sarcastic, comical look on her face, made it harder for the other girls to stifle their enjoyment.

Rachel was the first one up from their stretching position, jumping up and down to loosen up for the run. “One time around and we’ll see how we are doing? How does that sound?”

“Is it too late for just coffee instead?” Casey gave it one last shot.

Grace had to admit she wanted to give in to Casey’s plea, but her stubbornness won out. It won out every time. She’d committed to this and it had been her idea.

“Why is working out always such a great idea the night before we do it?” Grace asked. “Last night I imagined the four of us, visions of perfect form and condition with nothing but the wind on our faces and our calories melting away. Now it’s morning and it’s the worst idea I’ve ever had.”

Grace thought back to the morning when her alarm sounded an obsessive beep and she wanted to throw it across the room. Her bed turned into a luxury-resort-style king, her sheets cool to the touch, yet she was splendidly warm. Her fluffy down blankets and pillows made it impossible to get up, tempting her in every possible way to sleep in and savor.

“It’s still a great idea. Run, then coffee,” Aimeé said firmly to Grace then eyed Casey. “You came for the date update, I assume?” She started for the path at their usual warm-up walking pace, giving the rest of them no choice but to follow her like defeated toddlers following an insistent mother. “Grace, start from the beginning.”

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