Conflict of Interest

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CHAPTER 16

The girls talked, laughed, and made fun of one another as they met once again after parking and finishing their walk to the Bistro. The sharp sunlight was a welcome guide as it gradually warmed the brisk morning away.

Maybe it was the exercise-induced endorphins kicking in, but Grace couldn’t help but smile at everything surrounding her. Two full weeks of bliss ahead of her. No schedules, meetings, deadlines. It would be month-end when she got back and they’d head full-steam into October.

That’s what Grace loved about accounting – the work never ceased. But with it came demanding hours, and grueling, long days. Month-end was a time for reaching out to clients, closing their books, and starting it all over again for another month. The lifeline, successes, and failures would come together on paper reports and tell a story with the results.

But for these precious two weeks, she’d let her structured life take a vacation.

Grace smiled and thought about her dad’s – no, she corrected – her company. It told its own story, and it was a very successful one.

It wasn’t surprising, the rumors of Wallace wanting to buy. Thomas and Jane LLC, was appealing to anybody who had enough money. If she were to go along with the acquisition, they might lose some of their smaller clients who liked the personal interaction, true. But for the most part, Wallace would attract more companies that hadn’t been willing to take a risk on her currently small-to-medium-sized operation. She just wanted to be a part of it all, and sometimes, more often than not, that wasn’t the case. Companies came, bought, and conquered. Then they ousted the current leadership. That would include her. She’d have to find a way to change their minds.

Her view on the subject today was far different than the day before. She was less angry and not intimidated. She was confident and ready. She was going to fight for her company and her people. But at the end of the day, she’d do what needed to be done.

She made a mental note to refresh her knowledge surrounding the art of buying and selling. Sadly, she’d done little to no research on it yet. And frankly, anything she did know about acquisitions, she’d learned over a decade ago in school.

Maybe she could ask Tracy? She didn’t particularly like William’s girlfriend, but she did seem smart and knew a lot about business dealings. Or, at the very least, tried hard to make people think she did. Grace thought back to Thanksgiving the year before, and Tracy’s somewhat annoying insistence on talking about businesses and buyouts and her role – her crucial role – in all of them.

What was her brother thinking with that one? Please be just a phase. Let it only be about long legs and boobs. Because, for Tracy, life seemed to be only about status and money, and Grace knew that’s not how she and her brother had been raised.

The girls passed the windows that lined the front of the Bistro, and Grace caught a glimpse of their reflection. She might be biased, but only a bit. She and her friends made an impressive sight. Each one of them individually striking.

Rachel had long wavy hair that was startlingly dark. It accentuated her massive, almond-shaped, blue eyes and the heavy, thick part, framed her baby-doll face. Her petite frame gave her maybe an inch or two over five feet. Rachel said it gave her the perfect excuse to wear sky-high heels. Grace wasn’t quite sure how, as a teacher, Rachel managed to stand in heels all day long, but she supposed when you tipped the scales at only one-ten you could wear whatever kind of shoe you wanted.

The swish of Casey’s layered sweat pants and jackets pulled her attention away. With the mountain of clothes, you couldn’t tell – well, even on an average day you couldn’t tell due to sweatshirts and clothing that didn’t necessarily accentuate the body – but Casey had deadly curves. The only one of them seemingly blessed with the boob gene. Her curves started on top, veered inward somewhere around her waist, then jutted out again to account for the hips and the butt that were still in the right place. Gravity had been kind to her. The dimples on Casey’s flawless face were only outshined by round cheeks that sat high on her face. When she wore her red hair twisted into a bun that sat on the top of her head, as she usually did with her straight hair, Casey drew the attention of every room she entered.

There wasn’t anything that could describe Aimeé. As far as Grace was concerned, extraordinary wasn’t good enough. When she moved around in the Bistro, you could watch her for hours without taking your eyes away. She knew full well what Christopher saw in her. The trouble was everybody else saw the same thing. They saw her wavy crop of black hair, usually pinned back, and as the day went on, wisps of curl that had lost their way would fall to her face. She would force them away with her always light-pink manicured fingers that were usually covered in flour. She dressed the part of a French woman. Effortlessly cool and casual chic. She made simple ankle jeans and black and white striped t-shirts look like a magazine spread.

When she grinned at the thought, she tried to sneak a glance in Aimeé’s direction and was caught. Aimeé offered a black-eyed wink and a natural smile from lips that, even for today’s run, were painted in red.

The bell chimed on the top of the door as Aimeé held it open so they could single-file to their table. It was the perfect spot. Two walls of windows merged at the corner where they sat and had most of their gossip sessions. From there they could catch the sunlight, the streetlamps, the people who passed by, and on a day like today, relish the heat from the fireplace that pillared from floor to ceiling in the middle of the room.

The table was empty in a noisy crowd, which meant Aimeé had called and had Jimmy hold it for them as soon as it was vacated.

“Grace!”

Jimmy’s voice yelled from across the room to get her attention. She paused before sitting to see him excitedly wave her over. Jimmy’s girlfriend was joining him today, she noted, the young beachy-blonde seated at the counter bar with what looked like schoolwork scattered before her. Grace did not miss those days one bit.

“Morning, Jenna.” She rested a hand on Jenna’s shoulder, waiting for Jimmy who seemed eager to speak. The energy wasn’t out of character for the boy, but his insistence usually didn’t come on this strong.

“You are never going to believe this.” Jimmy’s game show host-like enthusiasm did have her a little excited for whatever he was about to present.

“Look!” he held up a to-go cup of coffee from the shop like it was an Olympic gold medal.

Her blank stare traveled from Jimmy to Jenna, to a random person who was also witnessing Jimmy’s exclamations. Jimmy gave them an exasperated why aren’t you excited and playing my game look and turned toward the cup to inspect it. “Oh,” he said, registering the confusion at the cup’s misaligned angle. He turned the cup slightly to show the writing on the side.

Writing that looked like chicken scratch that some five-year-old wrote with his non-dominant hand.

She squinted toward the cup and realized what the buzz was all about. She barely made out the words Grace and lunch and Luke. Her heart surged. Luke had scrawled a message just for her.

Her arm shot across the counter, making Jimmy jump backward far enough to bump the display shelf behind him. She snatched the cup so her eager eyes could re-inspect every word.

Like a bobblehead, her eyes moved from the cup to Jimmy to the cup and back again. Surprise and excitement streamed through her.

To reassure, or perhaps live vicariously through Grace, Jenna felt the need to cut in. “I was here when he came in earlier. I love Jimmy, of course,” she glanced sweetly in Jimmy’s direction, “but that is one good-looking human being, Grace. We read it. You’re meeting him at Smack Shack, right? You’re going. You need to go.”

“I’m not ashamed to say that I might have a man-crush,” Jimmy hastily agreed. “I’ve already decided I want to be him. He’s so,” Jimmy searched for the words and came up with, “cool.”

“Interesting,” was all she could muster, before walking back to her table, barely able to register their words.

The girls watched her move like a lion stalking prey. They had witnessed a wordless chain of events. When she reached the table, she gently placed the cup in the middle for everybody to see. It was looked over and examined as if they’d found an ancient artifact. It was twisted around in light circles with only two fingers as if they’d break it if they handled the cup too roughly.

“I should like him, right?” Emotions inside of her churned to get out, but she held her noncommittal facade. She couldn’t look to Casey for this one. She needed optimism and an open mind. Aimeé was her girl. Rachel would be on her side too, but Aimeé wasn’t afraid of the consequences as a result of a potentially wrong decision. Grace walked around the table and squeezed her chair between Aimeé and Rachel.

“Right?” she repeated. It was a question, but more out of her want for her best friends’ reassurance. She needed to be told this wasn’t stupid or ridiculous. She grabbed the arm closest to her. She needed an answer. A best friend, one of them – any of them – to say this was worth a shot.

“He took the time to seek you out right away,” Aimeé began, ticking off the facts like a bulleted list. “He wants to have a daytime meal with you, which generally forces conversation, and I think we can all agree has zero sexual expectations – for now. He knew he would see you at noon but sought you out before then. A smart man bringing it here – even if you hadn’t shown up before your lunch date, the chances word would get back to you were high. I think it’s quite clever and lovely,” she concluded.

“Okay, here’s the deal. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t eager, or, a bit enthusiastic even. We connected.” She didn’t need to explain herself, but she realized it was more for her peace of mind than for her friends. “But I like him. And oh my God, I want him to like me.” Her chest rose with a heavy sigh and fell again.

Then Rachel – perfect Rachel – came through.

“What if he’s just like you? A beautiful, normal, hard-working person that happened to crash into the right person at the right time? I don’t think men typically ask women to lunch or buy them coffee if they aren’t at least interested in learning more.”

Rachel was right. Grace had watched her brother William try hard enough to get Rachel to reciprocate his feelings all these years, and his intentions were good, from what she could see at least. Too bad he messed that one up. She wouldn’t miss her chance, she thought.

Grace got up and grabbed the cup. She rounded the table, giving each of her friends a kiss on the cheek, and walked out the door into the chilly air.

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