Conflict of Interest

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CHAPTER 20

The Bistro was alive with the scent of savory, flaky, pastries, French cheeses, crusty baguettes, and buttery crab bisque. Aimeé took it all in, breathing deep and closing her eyes to savor the moment.

She did this. Herself. All of it on her own. She didn’t require her family’s assistance and better yet, didn’t have to go back – which would have been the case if she’d failed.

The happy chime of patrons coming and going reminded her she didn’t have to linger on the bad what-ifs – or the burden of her family – and she definitely wouldn’t let it ruin her mood.

“Where are you right now?” Casey asked, snapping Aimeé back to reality.

“Lost in the blissful scent of Bistro,” Aimeé said, gracefully turning her attention back to her work.

“Your sex appeal is irritating,” Casey said dryly while watching Aimeé dance a hand toward her face, wafting the smells.

“And yours, my friend – for as sexy as you are – is nonexistent.”

“Don’t I know it. You wouldn’t want to share a bottle of wine and some of those ham and cheese croissants, would you? If you can pull yourself away from your desk? And why is your desk so clean?” Casey said with friendly annoyance as she swiped a finger along the edge, not finding a hint of dust.

Casey’s desk probably didn’t have dust either. But that’s because there were too many papers, pens, notepads, stray cords, and Mountain Dew bottles strewn about for dust to settle.

Aimeé’s desk sat in the back of the kitchen and looked more like an antique vanity than a desk. It had detailed, intricate legs and rounded corners. The one piece of France she had brought with her.

“That sounds wonderful.” Aimeé stood. “Let me go see about a table. Ours might not be available. Try one of those chestnut éclairs. Something in the weather told me they’d be perfect for Fall.” Aimeé’s hand waved behind her in a motion that seemed eloquent and utterly European.

“I’ll try one!” Rachel sang as she entered the kitchen and their conversation. “And you two,” she pointed from Casey to Aimeé, “have explaining to do.”

Rachel walked between the two and took a sample of the éclair, groaning at the light and creamy flavors.

“She has it.” Aimeé mused to Casey as they watched Rachel eat.

“What do I have?” Rachel mumbled, her mouth full of pastry.

“Sex appeal,” Casey answered for Aimeé. “It’s irritating.”

Rachel smacked her lips together and blew a kiss, then followed up with a perky, “Don’t I know it. Do you ever have those days where everything feels good? Your hair curls just right, your jeans don’t feel too tight, and – I don’t know, I guess that’s it – but it feels good.” She smiled brightly at her friends.

“No.”

“Yes.” With her agreement, Aimeé walked away from the two to look for a table. They watched her walk out, and Rachel did a little bounce as she handed Casey an éclair and took a second for herself. Then she turned to Casey for her interrogation.

“I know you know more than you’re telling me about Grace’s date. I want to know who, how, and why.”

Casey’s eyes melted with the flavors in her mouth.

“Oh my God, this is to die for,” Casey agreed.

“Right. I don’t know how she does it.”

“Lots of butter,” Aimeé confirmed when she walked back in. “We have our choice of table – in or out?”

“Out.” The girls said in unison, and they filed out on the right side of the heavy, two-way French door.

“Great. Our order is already in, and wine is heading to the table,” Aimeé said as the girls stood with their bodies facing each other and heads leaning slightly back, their eyes closed in pastry heaven.

“I love you,” Casey confessed without looking up.

“I know. Now let’s get Rachel drunk, so she goes easier on you. She’s the happy-drunk type. And Rachel,” Aimeé added as Rachel reached for a third éclair before making it out of the kitchen, “if you leave some for the kitchen staff I’ll make you a box to take home.”

“I love you, too,” Rachel said through a mouthful of sweet dough.

The wine was waiting for them at the table with vibrant green salads on simple black plates.

“I don’t know how we survived without this place,” Rachel admired as she took out her phone and snapped a picture. She picked up the red blend and smiled as she swirled it in front of her face. “My favorite. You are trying to butter me up. Not gonna work. You owe me an explanation. You two shared an oh shit moment yesterday when Grace said his name was Luke. Now spill and tell me about this not so mysterious date.”

“Oh, my God.” Casey slunk down in her chair and hid behind a dessert menu, ignoring Rachel.

“Amazingly enough, I can still see you.” Rachel smiled.

“Yes,” Casey whispered, “but he can’t.”

Both of the girls turned to see an extremely attractive man with rust-red hair walking in their direction.

“Case, who is he?” Rachel asked, “He is ca-ute.”

“He is obnoxious. And, obnoxiously attractive. Don’t make eye contact.”

A minute passed in silence.

“Is he gone? He’s not terrible, but he drills his stupid blue eyes into me and makes stupid jokes and tries to hit-”

“Well, at least I’m not terrible.” The baritone voice cut off Casey’s words.

Casey peeked over the menu and slowly slid it away from her face, thankful she didn’t finish her sentence.

“How long have you been here? How long has he been here?” Casey was mortified. This was as much their fault as his.

“Apparently,” he began, taking the lead, and grinning at the staring duo sitting next to Casey, “I’m obnoxious.”

“That long?” Casey rolled her eyes and hissed to Rachel and Aimeé, “You two are no help.”

“How may we help you, sir?” Aimeé batted her black eyelashes and offered a hand.

“No.” Casey swatted Aimeé’s hand away. “You will not sex-appeal him.”

“Aimeé, Rachel, this is Travis Mavens. Travis, this is Aimeé and Rachel. And you’re interrupting our wine.”

“I think he’s okay to stay for a bit. Travis, would you like to join us?” Rachel asked, taking all the pleasure she could in Casey’s rare moment of discomfort.

“He can’t,” Casey said, more of a plea than a statement.

“I’d love to.” He slid up a chair, ignoring Casey.

“They’re having dinner tonight,” Travis continued, speaking mostly to Casey, but kept the other two in the conversation.

“Of course they are.” Casey rolled her eyes and took a sip of her wine.

“What do you mean, ‘of course?’” said Aimeé, confused. She looked from Travis to Casey and back. “He’s talking about Grace, right? We know she’s going out with Luke, why ‘of course?’”

“Yes.” Casey agreed they were in-fact talking about Grace.

“Just, yes.” Aimeé made a flat line with her hand for emphasis, slightly irritated with the minimal bit of information. “Can you start from the beginning? Apparently, there are fascinating details that even I do not know.”

“Sure,” Travis agreed.

“Not you.” Casey pointed an accusatory finger at Travis, then sighed and turned to Rachel first, then Aimeé.

“Travis hired me at Wallace as their technology consultant,” she began. “I would have refused, but they offered me too much money for the simple job. Sorry, it’s true,” she added, addressing Travis’ squinting eyes. “So, I agreed. After spending some time around the office, I noticed Luke. And I kept thinking he might find Grace appealing, and vice versa. I put some of their attributes into my matchme.com algorithm, and from what I saw, it seemed like a great fit. They appeared to be ninety-six percent compatible. So-”

“Wait. You wrote the algorithm to the matchme.com questionnaire?” Travis said incredulously, feeling a bit uncomfortable knowing he’d filled out the same questionnaire and had a profile on the site. He’d matched with Kat, his ex, two years earlier.

“She wrote the whole company.” Aimeé nonchalantly confirmed, to move the story along, and Rachel simply nodded as if this was common knowledge.

“You created matchme.com?” Travis was still staring, trying to wrap his mind around this.

“Yes,” Casey said clearly, nodding her head with a look that said did you not just hear what she said?

“Anyway,” Casey went on, “I might have briefly mentioned something about Grace while at their office, and before too long Travis asked me to set the two of them up. Aimeé thought it was a good idea.”

“It was a man and a woman together. Drinking. Of course, Aimeé thought it was a good idea. I would have told you it was a good idea, too, if you’d have asked me.” Rachel said defensively, folding her arms to pout in disapproval.

“No, you wouldn’t have,” Aimeé said flatly.

“Yes, I would,” Rachel insisted. “It’s the one thing we promised her mom we would do. Why wouldn’t I?”

Rachel couldn’t help but feel a little confused – and hurt – they left her out of the loop. Why did her friends think she wouldn’t want to keep her promise to Mrs. Thomas?

Travis watched their conversation fly across the table, swinging his eyes from Rachel, to Aimeé, and back.

“I can’t tell you,” Aimeé said, leaning back and crossing her long legs.

“You’re kidding.” Rachel said.

“Can I tell them?” Casey asked Travis, wondering if talking about Wallace’s intent to purchase Thomas and Jane was common knowledge.

“It’s probably not a good id-”

“They’ll be fine,” Casey reassured him, waving her hand. She decided to answer her own question, cutting him off. She turned to face Rachel, who weeks earlier had innocently agreed to the setup without knowing who they were setting Grace up with. “Aaron Wallace is the one trying and acquire Thomas and Jane. Luke is his son.”

“Say that one more time.” Rachel said, knowing she must have heard that wrong.

“How do you know that?” Travis eyed Casey, asking about the purchase, not the familial relationship. Now it was his turn to be surprised.

“Extra security, extra privacy. Huge data pulls. Other things.” Casey decided she’d quit while ahead. “Besides, it’s the Aaron Wallace track record. Acquire small, very competitive competitors. You’ve got it down to a science. The best model I’ve seen.

“Do you see what I did there?” Casey asked Rachel and Aimeé, “I gave him a compliment so it would take longer for him to come up with an angry response because his brain thinks it should be a good one.”

“I’m right here,” Travis said, reminding her he was still at the table. But, he admitted to himself, he was having a difficult time coming up with any response, much less an angry one.

“Let me get this straight.” Rachel rubbed her temple and set down her wine glass with a dainty clink. “You willingly set up Grace with the man who is going to ultimately force her out of a job? I thought this was just some date. I was excited yesterday. Now she’ll think I was in on it.”

“Jesus.” Was all Travis could say.

“Brilliant.” Aimeé was much more impressed. “I definitely would have still agreed to that.”

“You sound like Luke.” Travis grinned.

“Drama sex is better than regular sex.”

“Not so much like Luke on that one, but I’m sure he’d find it hard to disagree,” Travis said with a laugh.

“You were right,” Rachel said after a quiet pause. “I definitely would have disagreed.”

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