Conflict of Interest

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CHAPTER 14

Lake Harriet was the picture of perfection in Autumn. Bright oranges, yellows, and reds burst from the trees as the morning sun streaked through the leaves. Extravagant homes towered and lined the boulevard circling Harriet. Styles varied; old Victorians stood regally next to modern lines, and southern plantation-style homes were the perfect contrast to Italian-style villas. Everything was enchanting, amplified by gold autumn hue.

Their surroundings and Grace’s timeline of last night’s events left them satisfied as they turned into the curve marking mile number three. Except for Casey, who simply cocked her brow waiting for a response from Grace.

“I’ve never seen this guy before. I would know it if I had,” Grace insisted, leaning out in breathy response to look at Casey, three runners over, “He’s cute. Memorably cute. No, he’s handsome. But when he smiles, so cute. I have definitely never met him.”

Casey still didn’t like it. “In any case, I still think there is something wrong with a person when they ask a stranger to drinks on the side of the road. I should do some digging.”

“No way.” Rachel wasn’t having it. “You can’t. No background checks, no internet history searches, no email bugs, nothing. Besides you need approval and Grace doesn’t! That’s the rule.”

The rule had been put in place when Aimeé had begun a steamy affair with a local news anchor. It wasn’t an ‘affair’ until Casey had done some digging and to Aimeé’s misfortune found some dirt. He’d been married with four children. It was probably for the best in the long run – all but Aimeé agreed to that. Aimeé accepted this man loved his family. She was only in it for, well, everything but love. So, the rule had been created. Casey, going forward, would need permission from that point on to do any digging, spying, or otherwise.

“It wouldn’t have been weird if we had already been at the lounge and he’d offered me a drink,” Grace pointed out. “Or, if we’d met in the Bistro and he had made small talk. Or, passed each other in the hall at work or in a store while shopping. The only part of this that makes it seem strange is, aside from a smile while passing on the street, people tend to ignore each other. We happened to collide, and by we, I mean I ran right into him. I’ve seen weirder stuff than that happen. More awkward, too. Just think of how weird a blind date is,” Grace finished, satisfied with her logic.

“Yeah, in a movie,” Casey argued. “This is real life.”

“I think it was flattering,” Grace protested. She knew her friend loved her dearly, but why was Casey trying to rain on her parade?

Not one to usually accept defeat, Casey seemed to take the answer for now with rolled eyes and a sigh, possibly feeling too tired to talk and run simultaneously.

The friends continued on their jog, huffing and puffing. Now all of them sweating in their layers. And none of them willing to comment they still had another curve of the lake to run before they could decide to leave.

Rachel still wanted more details, so she pressed on. The spontaneity wasn’t like Grace. If a guy was able to charm her from sidewalk to drinks, she had to know more.

“I need more details. This is amazing.” Rachel gathered her thoughts, “Okay, so we know you went for drinks, and he was pretty much perfect, but how did you end the night? What about your blind date guy? Did you make plans to reschedule? Or how did you tell him you wouldn’t make it?”

Feeling as though she could – and wanted to – talk about her night forever, she happily obliged Rachel’s string of questions.

“I just...didn’t go.” Her face radiated guilt, and with a bit of shame, she watched her three friends turn to look in her direction.

“Like, at all?” Casey and Rachel piped up in unison.

“At all.”

Grace saw their disapproving looks and heard the surprised silence.

“Okay, here it is. I don’t know a lot about Luke,” Grace shrugged, “but what I know so far is worth giving him a chance. And I think he felt the same way. I also know that for the first time in a long time, I had fun with a man. I felt comfortable and liked being the center of his attention the whole time. In the middle of getting drinks, I realized I liked him. By the time dinner came, I wanted him to like me. And by the end of the night, I knew I wanted to see him again. I am excited for lunch today. In a nervous, ‘I’m going to mess up my entire closet trying to find what to wear’ sort of way.”

“Oh,” Rachel said gently, understanding exactly what Grace was saying.

Casey nodded and agreed the best she knew how for the sake of her friend’s apparent happiness, but couldn’t help herself: “Are you going to tell us what we really want to know?” She slowed to a walk and added, “Some things can’t be discussed while running.”

They all slowed and moved to the right. Another group of runners passed them talking happily, without any difficulty breathing.

“I hate them,” Casey muttered, glancing at the group of avid runners. “Now, tell me – us. Did you?”

“I’m assuming you’re asking if we ended up in the same house, in the same bed?”

“Is there any other thing worth telling? Really?” Casey asked, showing the obviousness in her question.

“Of course,” Rachel exclaimed, giving Casey a playful punch on the shoulder. She had to defend romance.

“There was no love-making or otherwise. But, our hands fit. It’s prophecy.” Grace said, her cheeks flushing at the memory of their hands intertwined.

“Prophecy?” It was Aimeé’s turn to question.

“Yes.” Grace’s dreamy response had the women grinning at their love-struck friend.

“And no version of this story has you back at the Brownie?” Rachel pressed, using her beloved term for Grace’s brownstone.

“Not a single one. And there isn’t another scenario you could offer me that could make it a better night. It was perfect.”

Casey stood by her comment. “I still think a naughty, sweaty, romp outshines anything you throw at it.”

“I wouldn’t sleep with a guy on the first date. Call me old fashioned. Or...not European,” Grace said, with a joking sideways glance at Aimeé

“But you’ve-” Casey began.

“No.” Grace pointed a finger, “No, we do not talk about that.”

Aimeé and Rachel exchanged smirks as they recalled Grace’s twenty-third birthday. Who could blame them, or her? It was her golden birthday, and they had been in France. If you couldn’t one-night-stand in France, where could you?

Grace patiently accepted the bout of laughter that escaped from the girls. She tried her best to focus on how Luke had left her the night before. A night she remembered in vivid detail unlike the France episode, which she recalled in a blurry, champagne-tinged haze.

“It was perfect.” Grace regained their attention and refocused them on her evening with Luke. “After we left Parlour, we got to the office. I told him about you, Aimeé, when we passed the Bistro, and how it’s yours and how much we love it and you. I told him about Casey and Rachel when he asked who the girls were, telling him about our morning run. Then I had to run the papers up to Maggie’s desk, so that’s where we said goodnight.”

“Typical guy,” Casey muttered. “Can’t close.”

“I’m not finished.” The coy smile on Grace’s face stopped the girls’ forward progress, and they stared in impatient expectancy.

“I panicked and held out my hand to shake his,” Grace hid her face with her gloved hand in humiliation as she recalled the memory, “and told him how unreal it was to run into him – literally – and have such a great night. I told him I was thankful I did. He took my hand, and instead of shaking it, he pulled me toward him and leaned in and just kind of lingered. It was the best feeling of anticipation. I would have let him kiss me, for the record; but all he did – and all he needed to do to make it just perfect – was lean in and press his lips softly on my cheek. It was the sweetest, most caring, gentlemanly thing that’s ever happened to me. I could have stayed there forever. He whispered, ‘thank you’ into my ear and then backed away. I was speechless.” Grace couldn’t keep the smile off her face, or the tingle that heated the side of her face where he’d let his lips linger when she replayed the memory of that moment.

“When I could speak, as he was walking away, I tried to be cool – but all I could get out was, ‘what for?’ He turned, walking backward for a couple of steps, gave me his incredible smile. Then he did this little shrug with his hands in his pockets, and he said, ‘For two weeks.’”

“Two weeks?” Rachel said, confused.

“My vacation. It’s the perfect time for me to date. He said he’s going to try and make me fall for him. He just might do it. Might have done it already.”

“Yes!”

Their attention turned to Casey. She looked so happy she could cry, and they realized it was not due to Grace’s recounting of last night’s events. They had reached the end of their run.

“We’re done.” She added to Grace, “I mean, that’s exciting, too. But let’s finish this with coffee. I’ll get a table. See you there.”

“Well, that settles it. Off to the Bistro,” Aimeé said as they watched Casey, who was already at her car, stripping off her puffy layers. She threw her jacket inside, then removed the outer shell of clothing, and piled herself inside with the remaining clothes that proved too difficult to take off.

The other three stared for a minute before Rachel cut in.

“You know, she would have done ten more laps had there been sex in that story.”

“Why do you think I didn’t bring up my night?” Aimeé said with a casual wink and sauntered away.

“She really is promiscuous,” Rachel said with a grin and a shake of her head, playing at disapproval.

“Yes,” Grace sighed, “but it looks so good on her.”

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