Conflict of Interest

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CHAPTER 18

The restaurant was crowded and full of life. People gathered inside and out. It smelled of salty lemon and garlic. She didn’t see him right away, and Luke was glad for it. It allowed him to watch her search, watch her move, watch her smile at the people who walked by her and couldn’t help but follow with their eyes. Her body and the way she maneuvered was casual, he decided, but everything about her said classy.

Luke noticed she was careful not to move too fast, each step was slow, methodical. The movements accentuated her lean legs in jeans that must have been tailor-made for her body.

He watched her shift the clutch she had nestled under her arm. She pressed it against her chest and crossed her arms over it to make room for a waiter with a buttery tray of crab legs to steam by. Her body twirled to follow and inhale the delectable scent. The satisfied smile she gave as she closed her eyes, truly relishing the aroma, tangled a knot in the pit of his stomach.

Luke was still staring when she found him. Their eyes locked, and his instincts had him shoving away from the table to stand and greet her. A gentleman stands. His grandmother’s words were ingrained in his mind. As his chair scratched the floor, his mind drifted and new thoughts took over. He found himself wishing he was the man she’d always meet for lunch – or dinner – for the rest of their lives.

They stood for a minute face-to-face over the table, and they smiled.

“Hi,” she said, shrugging, thinking, here we are.

“You look beautiful,” he replied. It came out more stunned than he’d intended.

He slid around the table to pull out her chair. When he got closer, he saw her cheeks warm to pink with the compliment.

“Thank you. You do, too. I’m happy you wrote.” Her eyes glinted playfully, showing off their emerald color. “And that you suggested Smack Shack, it’s one of my favorites.”

“I’m glad you got the coffee.” Luke said, visibly relieved.

“It was just what I needed this morning. And very cute. You’ve already gained unanimous approval from the girls. It’s an impressive thing you did.”

He laughed. “Impressive since you got it. Less impressive would have been you sitting too many blocks away, wondering if I stood you up.”

“I’m glad it worked out.” Grace lifted a sexy eyebrow. “You were the talk of the town at the Bistro this morning. A lot of impressed and jealous ladies up there.”

“Oh, good, I was going for jealous. Hoping to impress the masses. Did Jimmy let you know it took me three-and-a-half paper cups to get it right?” Luke asked.

“He didn’t mention the half. Must be guy code,” Grace teased.

“He’s a good man.”

“So.” Grace began, wanting to settle her curious mind. She needed to ask. “We are here due to an unlikely encounter last night, and an extremely cute, unexpected coffee note. I’m thinking you might be interested in me?”

“You might be onto something,” he said flirtatiously, but confirmed her inquisition. He was definitely interested.

The waitress interrupted the conversation by asking for drink orders. Why did the simple act of watching Grace, and wondering what she was going to order, seem exciting? Luke questioned. It was a damn drink order.

Without looking at a menu, Grace looked at the pretty waitress and ordered whatever white wine she recommended with the lobster.

“Sir?”

The stare from the waitress went unnoticed as he gazed at Grace, and she patiently waited for his order.

“Let’s make it a bottle. We’ll share.”

“Sounds good.” The waitress seemed genuinely pleased to get to choose for the two, and exclaimed, “I’ll be right back.”

“Okay, where were we?” Seriously, if he could kick himself under the table, he would. Where were we? Was he eighty-five years old?

“We were analyzing.” Grace didn’t seem to fault him for his phrase of choice. “Or I was. As a female, I’m entitled to wonder what you’re thinking, and you’re supposed to drive me crazy wondering if you like me or not.”

“I knew the coffee was against the rules.”

“Very much so. I didn’t get enough time to pine for you or wonder about your signals this morning,” Grace said, her banter apparent.

“Well,” he defended himself, “I only have two weeks.”

“True. So, what do we do now?”

“We ask and answer all of the questions you should never ask on a first, second, or third date. Are you up for the challenge?” Luke leaned back in his chair and took a sip of water as he watched Grace’s delighted eyes grow wide and nod with the challenge.

“Absolutely, get the hard stuff out of the way. It’s not easy casually bringing up wanting thirteen kids,” Grace said. Her face serious and exaggerated.

He nearly choked on the water he had sipped and felt relief when Grace laughed at her joke.

The scary part of that little exchange, the part that had him choking, was the realization that if she wanted to have thirteen kids, he would somehow find a way to make it happen. And a nanny, or two. Luke didn’t say as much since she probably already thought he was nuts; he might as well keep as much crazy to himself as he could. Besides, it was going to be hard enough keeping her interested in him once she found out who he was.

He wondered, if he told her now, would she get up and leave? Or, would she sit and have a conversation? Either way the dynamic would change, and that’s something he wasn’t willing to shift. At this point it was too risky, he decided. A nagging feeling of guilt tugged at his conscience, but he pushed it aside.

Grace’s instincts had her hand resting on his to make sure he was okay after his choking fit with the water.

“I’m sorry, I had to,” she said, still laughing. “I promise I don’t want thirteen kids. I think three would be a nice number, but I’m not against rounding up or down. Have you ever thought of kids?”

He swore he was listening, but all he could feel was her touch tingling on his hand. It seemed so simple, but he had to trap her hand on his for a moment longer, so he turned his hand so their palms would face, and he rested his thumb on her fingers. She didn’t pull away, and she didn’t flinch – she just sat calmly letting her question linger in the air between them and waited for him to respond.

“I didn’t think being an only child was too hard. Made it easier for everybody, especially Grandma, to spoil me. But I wouldn’t have minded a roommate. Yeah, I would say starting with one or two and seeing where the count ended up wouldn’t be a bad thing. I’d be up for being outnumbered if that’s what my wife wanted.”

“Wife, then babies? In that order?”

“Marriage isn’t for everybody, but it’s for me – and the women who’d probably have my hide if it wasn’t in that order.” He lifted his glass in a silent toast to his mom and grandma and watched the amusement light up her face. He needed to keep the game going.

“What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not at work?” he asked. He suddenly felt the urgent need to know everything about this beautiful woman. He needed to know what she liked to do, what kept her interest, what sparked her joy.

“Oh, let’s see.” She leaned her body closer to the table to rest her elbows. The movement hiked up her shoulders but brought her closer to him, so they both hovered over the table in an intimate huddle. “I love to wander the city. But I also love being in my home. There is this huge window in the room where I keep my desk. It’s not really an office, but I love the space because the window faces the street, and there is a fireplace kind of adjacent to the window.”

She pulled her hand away but only to bring her hands together to form a V and demonstrate where the window and fireplace sat in her house. “I sit in a huge, squishy, chair and flip through a magazine, read, or just sit. The light from outside and the warmth from the fireplace are perfect.”

“Okay. Let’s see,” Grace continued, stopping her daydream. “I know you’re employed.”

He waited for the waitress to fill their glasses and was thankful they’d covered that ground the night before.

“Ah, the subtle insurance. Validate employment.” He said, raising his eyebrows knowingly.

She laughed, and he felt himself relax.

“That’s the thing, though. I’ve thought about it,” she said, “we are both accountants.” The words were matter-of-fact. Grace lifted her water and rinsed the nervous dry out of her throat. “It’ll never work,” Grace said as she shook her head slowly and her face became serious.

“Sorry?” Panic filled his chest as he tried not to let it reach his face. Had she known who he was all along?

“Accounting. Finance. It’ll never work. We, combined, are far too boring. We work all the time, never take vacations at the beginning or end of months, which leaves too little time in the middle of the month. Then there’re the stereotypes – we are math nerds, penny-pinchers, and when it gets right down to it, not fun at all. We are doomed.”

He was relieved to hear the playful way she spoke. He recovered slightly. “You’re not giving us enough credit. You were kind of fun last night, and I’ll spring for date number two. You’re on your own for three, though.” His head gave a single nod in her direction to imply he wasn’t joking, but his smile disputed his words.

“Kind of fun?” Her hand covered her heart, pretending to take offense.

It was his turn to laugh. He had tried to anticipate every scenario that could have played out over the past two days. The idea that he’d try and learn more about Thomas and Jane by meeting her on an allegedly “blind” date seemed far away. He’d wanted to learn more about their willingness to sell. He would introduce himself as the youngest Wallace and, though she might be reserved at first, he would make calculated strides toward learning what it would take to make both sides of the business deal come out unscathed. It might not have been the most conventional way to meet, but when Mave had said he had a way to make it happen, he couldn’t resist.

His ideal scenario? They’d meet, have a drink, discuss the business plan over dinner. Then somewhere in the middle, they’d both be happy it wasn’t an actual date, and they’d move forward, completely aware of the other party’s intentions. Then they’d walk away.

The least ideal scenario? She’d hear his name upon his introduction, turn, and immediately walk out the door.

What he didn’t expect was to run into her on the sidewalk just outside her home. He also didn’t expect her to be attractive, or at least so attractive he’d throw out his plans, ask her out, and convince her not to go on a blind date with, well, himself. He hadn’t expected her laugh to send fireworks straight to his gut. He wasn’t ready for any of that. And now, here they were. Sharing lunch, flirting, learning. He wasn’t prepared for her to know the truth. And he definitely wasn’t willing to let her get away.

“I find myself wanting to know what you’re thinking,” she said when he didn’t immediately respond, noticing that he’d become lost in thought.

“I often wonder the same thing about myself,” he said. Might as well go for it, he thought. It was an opening. “I wonder how you’d feel about dinner tonight and lunch tomorrow?”

“We aren’t finished eating lunch today,” she said, genuinely surprised but flattered. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were trying to court me.”

“Do people still use that word?”

“People who read old, lusty, romance novels do.”

“Then yes,” He had to answer quickly as not to let the image of lusty romance fill his head. “I would like to court you.”

They’d found time to order midst their casual flirting and conversation. Lobster roll – Connecticut Style – the warm butter, lemon, and chives on a steamy, warm bun, called to her. It called to him, too, after her description seduced him.

The buttery lumps spilled out of the buns and onto their plates. Juices ran down their arms. The wine was shared, and the bottle emptied. It probably wasn’t the cleanest way to spend lunch, but it was more fun than she’d had on a date in…ever.

He had a quick way about him. He wasn’t cocky, but he could have been. He was confident. He wasn’t forceful but seemed to know what he wanted. He was decisive.

“When was your last relationship?” she asked casually, taking a moment to wipe off the trickle of butter at the edge of her slender wrist.

Luke tried for stupefied, but his deer-in-headlights look was more funny than nervous. He set his roll down and wiped his hands and mouth, held up a finger, then sipped his wine, placing his napkin back on his lap.

“This,” he swallowed, “is more embarrassing than I remember it feeling. It never seems as weird when I get grief from my buddies.”

“It can’t be that bad.”

“It’s strange for this stage of my life,” he admitted.

“This stage?” She laughed. “All mid-thirty of you?” Grace was more concerned than she thought she’d be. How many women could he have been with? And would it matter if he was the man she’d been hoping for?

“Thirty-four, and now it’s worse because I can’t lie about my age. Typically, I can avoid the subject because there hasn’t been a serious enough woman to know.”

“Now, I’m intrigued.” Grace leaned in.

“Okay, here goes.” Luke took a breath, “I’ve never been in a relationship.”

He paused, unmoving, and waited for her reaction.

“You?” she started. Does he mean?

No, she thought. Really?

“Like, ever? But you’ve...” Oh, how do you ask this? she wondered, “You’ve – you know?”

Grace was practically begging him to read her mind. All she could do was clap her hands in front of her face to aid in her explanation.

When Luke realized what she was asking, a roar of laughter burst out.

“Yes, yes. I’ve done-” he pointed to her clapped hands, “-that. And I like to think a little more delicately,” he said pointedly. And she laughed.

“I feel like I have to explain.” He cleared his throat and gave a rueful smile.

“This is already the best date I’ve ever been on.” She took a large swig of wine, amused.

“Funny,” he said at her cute tone. “Here it is. I’ve dated, but I’ve never felt like it was worth my time. Wait,” he stopped himself, and her from speaking up. “Not in the way you might think. What I mean is, I never thought it was fair to somebody else if I wasn’t willing to give them enough of my time. They’d be investing theirs in me, so it’s only right I’d be willing to spend my time on them. Until you and I had drinks last night, I’d never felt like I wanted to see somebody the next day, or for the next date, until I ran into you.”

“Hmm,” was all she offered. She suppressed a smile. A feeling of warmth spread through her in response to Luke’s candid words.

“Hmm good, or hmm bad?” he asked nervously. Maybe we should have gotten two bottles he thought absently, as he drained the last of the wine from his glass.

“Good hmm,” she said. In a way, she understood what he meant. For most of her dating life, she’d been there. The man would be investing his time, and she wouldn’t want to reciprocate whole-heartedly.

“When was the last time you broke a guy’s heart? I assume that’s what normally happens,” he asked, and her heart fluttered.

“Heartbreak? I can’t be certain. But my last date? About a year ago now. It was at a fall festival, and let’s just say it was a disaster. And we, the girls, are not allowed to talk about it. I’d quit dating cold turkey, until yesterday when I was supposed to go on the date you saved me from.”

“The poor world of men who missed you for a year. I’m happy to get to brag about nailing you,” he said, and half a second later, realized his choice of words, was mortified. “Down! Nailing you down. I’m usually much smoother than this.”

“I find it flattering.” Grace eased his embarrassment, “It makes me feel like you’re telling the truth. Can’t fake your fumbles.

“So, no relationships,” she continued. “I assume that includes divorces, or any secret lives I should know about?”

“No divorces – Grandma would kill me. I guess the only other thing I should mention is I’m a super-secret agent, but that’s about it. I should note here that I always try to make it home for dinner.”

“This all sounds promising.” She hid her smile behind her glass.

“I’m, upon current analysis, surprisingly ordinary. I’m just a guy, standing in front of a girl.”

The laughter snorted out as her hand covered her mouth attempting to keep the wine in. “Did you just quote Notting Hill?”

“That’s embarrassing. I should have calculated the odds that you would have seen that.”

“Thanks to Rachel, I’ve seen it at least one hundred times. Don’t feel bad. I find Hugh Grant looks good on you.”

“Thank you. Then I probably don’t have to remind you, Hugh gets the girl in the end.”

“Then I guess I’ll have to agree to dinner.” Grace said, hoping her outward appearance was cooler than the dorky girl who was cheering on the inside.

She loved this. Their banter, their conversation, their ability to enjoy each other’s company. It made her heart feel light and hopeful.

“You surprise me,” Luke said aloud what he’d been thinking for the past twenty-four hours as he watched her move a long curl behind her ear and lean in.

“You had expectations?” she said softly, taking in those dark eyes.

“No,” he caught himself. “Just looking forward to dinner.”

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