Conflict of Interest

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CHAPTER 32

The basement reminded Grace of a time before her family had prospered. It brought back happy memories of holidays at her own grandmothers’ house before everything had been updated.

Dark, heady, ash-stained wood panels lined the walls. Thick, plush, brown carpet laid beneath her feet. Grace felt like she was thrust back in time to the early eighties.

She supposed for its time, the bar on the back wall was a luxury. And as her eyes scanned she noted all of the fixtures and knobs were still shiny, yellow gold. Peach wallpaper lined the small bathroom and matching orange-pink towels were draped gracefully on a long three-tiered rack.

It was wonderful and pristine. It looked as if Edna had cleaned and cared for the space as she would’ve her own children whom she wanted to grow into beautiful, well-maintained individuals.

It struck Grace as charming. Beauty in old style and tradition – not unlike Edna – Grace thought.

“Here’s my theory on all of this ‘you and me’ business, are you ready?” Luke asked while pouring bourbon over ice to finish off his Old Fashioned. Effectively pulling Grace from her admiration.

Grace laughed and tucked her feet beneath her, resting on the back of the couch. From this vantage point, she could easily enjoy her wine and enjoy the view of the handsome man who was now tossing a bag of microwave popcorn around in his hands like a hot-potato as he tried not to get burned. It was precious.

“Ready.” She acknowledged his question and watched him plop the piping-hot bag on the counter. “As long as it’s not some crazy thing like, you traveled back in time just to run into me at this exact moment. I heard one of those theories on a tipsy night in college. It didn’t work then either.” Grace added the last bit for playful effect.

She watched him pause and give her a chiseled-face blank stare, and his jaw hit the floor.

“How did you know?” Luke said, his bewildered act perfected. “If I can’t give you that explanation, I’m going to have to lie. There’ll be no coming back from that.”

He didn’t anticipate the flare of guilt that sparked when he mentioned telling a lie. But, he wasn’t really lying, was he? Just simply omitting the truth, that’s all.

“Maybe,” she grinned her way through the words, “try for a close second, and we’ll see how far from the truth it is?”

“Oh, yeah, good idea.” He returned his attention to the buttery popcorn and continued, “So, as I was saying, you and me. I think two people meet – and just stick with me on this –” He eyed her tentatively until she nodded. “Two people meet when they are exactly ready to find the person they are supposed to be with for the rest of their lives.”

“It’s an interesting theory,” she said, taking a sip of wine to hide her eager smile.

“I’m not done.” Luke tossed a piece of popcorn in his mouth and went on. “It’s a time when two people are willing to let feelings take over and put in the work to make it work. Then, fate steps in and they just run into each other.” Luke winked, as she touched her nose and pointed back to him.

Luke balanced his drink and some bowls on a tray to join her on the couch and continued. “I’ve thought about it a lot. There isn’t a scenario I’ve been able to play out in my mind that wouldn’t have had me wanting to know you.

“Had I met you anywhere else, under any other circumstances, I would still have tried.” Luke paused and reached out to run a finger down her cheek.

“So, while you were going on with your life, and I was going on with mine, we ran into it.” Luke finished by popping a couple more pieces of popcorn into his mouth, he mumbled with a grin, “Literally.”

His theory didn’t seem to be completely ridiculous. In fact, she thought, maybe fate had stepped in.

Grace reached for her own handful of popcorn and turned to face him. She contemplated and let his speech linger before giving him the satisfaction of an explanation well done. She even bobbled her head back and forth as if she were on the fence about what she’d heard. Without the ability to hold it long, her contemplative face fell apart, and the drained look on his face fell with it.

“You might be onto something,” she conceded.

She slid down on the cushion next to Luke, and he welcomed her with a lift of his arm, letting her nestle in. They seemed to fit together in every way. Their personalities, their bodies, their interest in one another.

“Can I ask you something?” she said, brushing the hair away from her face, shifting her head slightly to look up toward him.

“You can ask me anything, or tell me anything, always.”

It was an easy phrase. Luke seemed so trusting and sure. She wondered if this was how he would always be? Would he always give her his full attention? Constantly impress her? Would he stick with her through family, work, and other things life would throw at them? Like her current situation with the rumored acquisition? Would he give advice? It would be nice to have somebody supporting her, and something told her he would.

“It’s more of an opinion, actually.”

Luke looked down, knowing. It would have come up eventually, so he would answer as honestly as possible. He kissed the top of her head. “Fire away.”

“I have this problem at work. It’s actually a big problem, or, maybe not a problem at all. Problem is the wrong word. But for the first time ever, I feel like I don’t really have control.” She rested her head again and looked forward. “I told you about my grandpa and my dad, how they started our company?”

Grace felt Luke nod his head intently, and heard, “I do remember, yes.”

“My aunt and I are running it beautifully,” she continued. “We love everybody we work with and their families. I should warn you,” she cut herself off, “I’ll have to kill you if you tell anybody about this. And I’m not fit for jail.”

He couldn’t hide the humor and let out a chuckle while he assured, “I think we are both safe.” For now, he thought. Depending on how the next couple of minutes play out, he might not be.

“We are a successful company, and I’m not ashamed to say that. We’ve worked hard and didn’t cut corners. We put a huge emphasis on making our employees and our clients number one. It has – it still – pays off.”

When Grace looked up again, Luke nodded, showing he was following along. It wasn’t unlike how his own dad had done things. Aaron Wallace just happened to pursue growth as well.

“We might lose it. Rumors.” Grace added when she noticed Luke’s interest peak with a slight raise and crinkle in his forehead lines. “It’s the one piece of my dad I have left, and what’s more, it’s who I became. Everything I am I put into this company. I’m afraid if I lose it, I’ll lose a part of myself too. I’ve never even hinted at the notion of doing – of being – someone else.”

Silence filled the space between them.

Without speaking, Luke pulled her tighter to him. She felt his strength or what felt like him trying to protect her, holding her close.

The truth, he thought. Because the truth always won out. Or maybe, he guessed, honesty was more appropriate. As much as he could give without risking his family’s business, and without losing her. He couldn’t lose her. Not now.

His head rested on the side of hers. She could feel his warm breath gently brushing her ear.

“I would say,” he paused wondering if he would regret the advice he was about to give, “anything that means that much to you is worth fighting for. Do what you can, try as hard as you can, and I’ll be here for you. And because sometimes what happens in business is out of our control, if in the end it doesn’t go your way, you’ll know you did everything you could.

“I’m not going to tell you it’s not personal. I know how the saying goes and whether or not we tell ourselves it is or isn’t personal, it always is. And if that’s the case, it seems when you give everything you have, moving on seems to be a bit easier.”

Grace closed her eyes and replayed Luke’s words. He was right.

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Yes, okay. You’re right.” Grace agreed. It’s what she knew was right, in her heart. But something about hearing it from Luke, a man she so quickly trusted and respected, made it true.

Luke tugged the back of her long ponytail and agreed, “Yeah, well, I usually am. You know, right.”

Her laugh filled the room, and her heart, as she gave him an elbow to the ribs.

He wondered if it wasn’t the last elbow – or fist, or any other extremity that could injure him – she’d give as time crept closer to her knowing the whole truth.

“Don’t you know if this is going to work out, I always have to be right?” she joked.

“Of course, of course. As long as you agree with me, honey, you’ll always be right.”

Luke’s arms engulfed her and bound her in a hug so tight that rather than fight, she gave in and took it. There was a place and time for fighting, she realized. This was a time to let him win.

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