Conflict of Interest

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CHAPTER 15

The shot Luke took felt like a bullet. It was too fast and too early. The foam ball slapped the side of his face. He felt the distortion as if it happened in slow motion.

“Too soon,” he groaned. He felt groggy. It was only eight in the morning, for shit’s sake. And where did they get a foam ball?

“I will kick you out, and you will have to grow up and learn to live on your own like a real boy,” he threatened.

Against his better judgment, and because he couldn’t help himself, Luke picked the ball off the step where it had landed and whipped it back as hard as he could. It connected with the back of Mave’s head like a fastball to a catcher’s mitt. Under his breath, but loud enough for Mave to hear, he mumbled, “Don’t start a game you can’t win.”

Luke walked behind the couch where his life-long friend, Travis Mavens, was sitting. He heard the grunt from the impact and a chuckle that matched the up and down bobbing of Mave’s shoulders.

The sound of CNN on TV, Mave wrinkling newspaper pages, and the clap of Luke opening and closing the cupboards in search of breakfast didn’t drown out his thoughts of Grace. She had slipped in and out of his mind since he left her the night before. But mostly in. She was stunning. She had stunned him, he admitted to himself.

He wondered if she knew how gorgeous she was? She must have some idea the way she’d made herself up, sleek and undeniably sexy. Luke liked knowing it had been intended for him. Of course, she didn’t know that. Grace’s intention was for her blind date.

What a lunatic he was last night. He ran a hand through his hair as he recalled the night’s events. He’d prepped for their encounter for a week, and still the sleek and sexy made him feel like a blubbering fool. Real smooth, he thought, as he joined Mave in the living room.

Luke took a seat on the armchair that forced him to turn his head to see the TV. His TV. How was it that Travis Mavens had moved in, taken over the guest bedroom, the kitchen, and his beloved couch that had a crease on the middle cushion that was supposed to be his. His ass had made that indent. When he slumped with his feet up on the coffee table, the angle to the TV was perfect. Yet here he was, watching his best friend, for as long as he could remember, slowly take over everything that was his.

A rough time, Mave had said a year earlier when he came knocking on the door after what seemed to be a pretty shitty breakup. Mave had come home after a work trip to find the locks had been changed. For safety, Kat had said after the fact. How was she to know how he would react to the news of no longer being with her? His furniture – well, most of it – and his things had been moved into a storage locker in his name that he could access any time that was convenient for him, she had innocently explained. And don’t worry, it’s on your credit card, so they shouldn’t give you any hassle. Kat had said it as if she were doing Mave a favor. What was Luke supposed to do, let his best friend be homeless?

He couldn’t do that. Wouldn’t do that. But, had he known the condo – the very nice condo if he did say so himself – would slowly transform into more of bachelor pad than a home, he might have written up a contract. A big contract. One with a lot of pages and a lot of rules.

So here they were. Might as well settle in. Luke slouched in his new spot and wiggled his butt to start the dent-making process over again. He set the box of Captain Crunch on his lap and let his eyes scroll through the news ticker at the bottom of the screen. Why anybody ever thought they were too old for Captain Crunch was beyond him. Breakfast of champions. He wondered what Grace would think? If the night before was any indication, she’d laugh beautifully and dig her hand into the box. She’d be standing in the kitchen wearing only his shirt from the night before, or casually sitting on the counter drinking a glass of orange juice. Maybe the Crunch would be a morning snack while he made some eggs and bacon. Sipping on coffee from that Bistro place her friend owned. He would run and get them a couple of coffees as she relaxed here waiting for him. Her hair would be messed from bed and a night full of – okay, get ahold of yourself, Luke thought.

“Hey.” The shit-eating grin on Mave’s face meant he didn’t need to reply. “Welcome back.”

“She stood me up,” Luke blurted out as if the night hadn’t gone according to plan. That ought to get him, the know-it-all. Even though he couldn’t gather himself enough for the straight-faced, woe-is-me, look he was going for. It did happen to be the best date stand-up of his life, he thought to himself. Not that there were many. The events the night had handed him far outweighed any blind date, or scheduled date, he’d ever gone on a million to one.

Without lifting the remote, Luke poked at the mute button with his pointer and slowly moved his full attention away from CNN’s latest.

Mave waved his hands in front of himself, offering Luke the floor, urging him to go on.

“There’s nothing to say really. She stood me up. Didn’t even get a text.” He did his best to portray a man in agony and continued, “It hurts, Mave, it hurts really bad.”

“No shit,” Mave said in disbelief. “Stood up. Who would have thought in a million years you, Mr. Hotshot himself?”

He’s eating this up, Luke thought.

“So, you didn’t get any of the goods? So much for precious recon.” Mave shook his head. “I told you it was a bad idea anyway.”

“You think everything is a bad idea.”

“Allison Pullman,” Mave offered, with a pointed expression.

“Great idea for the first ten hours. Then, minor residual damage.”

“She lit your car on fire.”

“Nothing that couldn’t be replaced,” Luke retorted.

“Bad idea. What’d you do? You didn’t get home until eleven-thirty.”

“You’ll never believe who I ran into on my way. Literally,” his hands smacked together in front of his face, “ran into. Crashed into is probably more appropriate. We survived.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Mave said dryly. He had a feeling he already knew who his luckier-than-shit friend ran into.

“I kid you not. The blonde bombshell herself. A one, Grace Thomas. Before you know it, I’m asking her for drinks. I wasn’t particularly cool about it. At one point, I begged. I got a little creepy. Probably not my best moment.” He recalled their accidental meeting. “She said yes, by some miracle. Drinks were awesome. She was awesome. The end of the night was awesome.”

Mave rolled his eyes. “I get it. It was awesome.” He dragged the word out. “It is seriously irritating, dude. The luck you have with women.”

“You can’t hit home runs if you don’t play the game,” Luke said simply.

“In your case, they’ve been more like grand slams. And that’s not how that saying goes.”

“Should be though, the saying. In fact, you should be playing.”

“Can’t strike out if you don’t play the game,” Mave shot back.

“I see what you did there.” Luke pointed to Mave, talking through another mouthful of cereal. “Anyway, I think it’s time for me to stall for a bit.”

“Wrong game. Anyway, why? She break your heart already?”

“Nope, I’m currently not interested in anybody else.”

“That is interesting. And here I thought it was just a business reconnaissance mission. An ‘intellectual business investigation’ meeting.” Mave threw his love-struck friends’ words from the previous week back at him.

“Something about her. It does make it a little more complicated, but God, she’s amazing. I have two weeks to get her to fall in love with me.”

“Did you just say ‘love?’”

“Yeah.” He nodded, wondering if Mave hadn’t heard a single word he’d said.

“Two weeks?” Mave said incredulously.

“Yeah.” Okay, he was listening. “She’s on vacation from work for two weeks. Talk about good timing, right?” Luke didn’t wait for Mave to respond. “That’s going to be the easy part. Or the hard part, I guess. Keep her away from work, but make her fall in love in two weeks.” Luke was more or less talking himself through the scenario he found himself in.

“I’m trying hard to keep up,” Mave sighed.

“You can’t rush love, Mave.”

“Can’t rush love,” Mave spoke to himself and tried to process what he was hearing. “You, my friend, have never been in love.”

“Not true. Gemma Kramer. And,” he held up his finger, “Grace Thomas.”

“Let me try and put this together. You left last night intending to go on a blind date for ‘business,’ that I managed to get you, with Grace Thomas. You ran into the same Grace Thomas on the way, then made yourself a creepy fool.”

Luke bobbed his head but didn’t interrupt.

“You offered – no – begged her for drinks rather than wait to see her on the scheduled blind date. She agreed, you went out. And now you love her?” Mave said dubiously.

“Yeah, but when you say it like that I should have let her go after the collision and then we could have had one of those movie moment things at Parlour where we separate on the street then see each other from across the room and think, no, it couldn’t be, but – it is. Would have been so smooth and a great story.” Dammit, Luke thought. He hadn’t been quick enough on his feet. Oh well.

“Great story?”

“To tell people, our kids, you know? ‘Our story.’” His fingers made quotes. “Grace doesn’t know it yet, but I’m going to marry her.”

“A better story than you attempting to date her to get inside information because your dad’s company is buying her company and essentially making her company disappear?” Mave was nothing if not blunt.

“Hmm.” Luke popped a couple more Crunch Berries in his mouth and spoke through the mush, “I suppose that wouldn’t have been bad either.”

Mave’s laugh came loud and heavy.

“You don’t think a couple of those details might actually make her not love you? Toss me one of those.” Mave motioned toward the Berries box.

Luke looked at Mave, to his hand, and back again. He wound up and threw two Berries, a dead-on shot to Mave’s face. Without flinching, Mave closed his eyes, took the punishment. He picked them up from where they’d landed on his lap, and popped them into his mouth.

“Throw like a girl,” Mave said through his own chewed mess.

“No, that’s why I need her to love me. Meeting her for lunch today.”

“You think a dinky thing like love is going to save you? Lunch today?”

“Mm-hmm.” Luke could feel his excitement rising as he thought about what the day would bring.

“I hate to tell you this, my friend, but relationships do not work. My parents and I are living proof. And don’t sell your condo, whatever you do.” Mave warned.

“Yeah, about that, sorry, Mave. She’s the one.” Pushing himself up off the couch, Luke dropped the Crunch Berry box next to Mave, “I have to go buy her a coffee.”

“I thought you were meeting for lunch?”

“I only have two weeks. Then she’s going to know, you know? Have to charm her early.”

“Do you even know she’s there? You know, where coffee is?” Mave copied Luke’s words out of sarcasm and to show a little bit of his frustration with trying to navigate the conversation.

“Nope,” Luke said casually over his shoulder as he walked away.

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