Conflict of Interest

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Thursday night drinks with the girls was just what Grace needed. It had been three and a half days since the horrific meeting with Wallace and his associates, and it had allowed just enough time for her sadness to turn to steely resolve.

“I am turning him off. This is strictly a business deal.”

Grace wheeled herself around the kitchen island to get the unopened wine bottles. She put her hair in a high ponytail and tightened, bound and determined to not give in to her friends.

In hindsight, it was probably her own fault. She had talked Luke up so much to them in such a short amount of time. Damn. She swooped up the two bottles and cradled them for transport to the living room.

The living room was positioned in the front of her home, with a view provided by huge bay window rather than a wall. It was one of the triplets – her description the beloved windows that sat one on top of the other. One just above it in her office, and another above that in her bedroom. It was one of the reasons she had to buy the brownstone, that and its old charm.

Grace carried the wine to her friends, walking past her long kitchen table that divided the living room from the kitchen. Each time she walked by, she glanced at the beautiful chandelier that hung above it. Crystals fell in tiers from rectangular black iron bars, each layer of metal and sparkle getting smaller the closer they got to the table.

Grace set the bottles next to the stemmed glasses on the wooden ottoman that was made to replicate the kitchen table.

Rachel, Aimeé, and Casey were scattered on the couch facing the fireplace and the leather chairs that bordered it. Each had their own place to cozy around the table with easy access to their drinks and a place to lean back and rest their feet.

The silence was a little too long for her liking. “Okay, seriously. It’s going to be fine. It’s not like we’ve committed our lives to each other.”

Grace held any thoughts and comments inside about wanting just that when she’d woken up that morning. “It’s been such a short amount of time, it should be nothing for us to go back to how things were before we met. He’ll find somebody new, and I’ll start defending against the takeover. Which is officially hostile.”

She poured the wine into the glasses, trying to steady her shaking hand. She hadn’t been able to eat all week, since the betrayal in the boardroom.

“Are you feeling anything at all when you talk like this?” The concern in Rachel’s voice was evident.

“What do you mean feeling? That’s exactly what I’m trying not to do. Then one day I’ll wake up, and I won’t have to try, it will just happen.”

Aimeé, who was usually a fan of multiple dating partners, even voiced her opinion. Unfortunately, it was not in favor of Grace’s plan to cut things off. “I don’t think this is a good idea. I think you should work it out.”

“How can you say that? You know what Thomas and Jane means to me. He’s trying to buy and take away the one thing in my life I would do anything to keep. And, he lied to me.” She said, not admitting out loud that’s what hurt the most. He’d had thousands of chances he could have taken to tell her how their lives intersected.

Grace surprised herself at the quick and curt response. Rachel was a given, as a complete romantic, she would hate the idea of a lifetime of true love slipping away, or more accurately, shut out. But Aimeé?

“Well,” Aimeé swung her glass around as if saying it’s simple, “you were glowing. That doesn’t just happen. You were walking around with all of the sex appeal a woman should have when she’s in love. She gets that way, because she has, in fact, been loved. It’s all we try and find in this life, is it not?”

Grace leaned back and huffed.

“I was wrong for being so willing to throw my heart around. Nobody falls in love in a couple weeks, and don’t you dare say it happens all the time.” She jabbed a finger at Rachel, who was the honorable hopeless romantic of the group. “Those are movies, not real life.”

“It was a whirlwind romance. Not love.” Grace added, looking over at Casey. “You’re awfully quiet over there.”

Casey’s eyes moved from friend to friend, then she traced the flannel pattern on her sleeve. She was the only one that had already changed into her pajamas. Why be in anything else when she could be comfortable and drink wine at the same time? It made for walking up to bed and sleeping much more effortless at the end of the night.

“I’ve decided I don’t get a vote on this,” Casey said at last.

The three girls in unison voiced their dismay. “Oh, come on!”

“I’m serious,” Casey went on. “I think it’s hard for people to enter each other’s lives at exactly the right time with the exact same willingness to work it out for the long haul. I think some people get lucky, but for the most part, it ends in heartbreak. Why not figure it out now rather than wait twenty years and three kids from now?”

Grace’s thoughts couldn’t help but flashback to Edna’s house when Luke had given her the right place, right time speech. When she had listened to him talk, all she could think about was how she was so lucky to have found him. Now she just wanted to pretend like he wasn’t breaking her heart.

It was too much to have to pay attention and be on top of her game at work. So, she would bury it. Then, in time, it would go away.

“I agree with you, Case. It just didn’t work, and it’s better it happened now.” She tried to blink away the tears that stung her eyes and hoped the girls didn’t see them. There was a time and place for that, and this wasn’t it.

The two bottles went down quickly with the cheese and crackers that were eventually whittled down to crumbs on a wooden tray.

Grace loved these nights. Life was talked about and analyzed. Memories were stirred. The girls shared moments of sadness when talking about friends that had lost babies or were ill, and laughed to the point of tears when talking about embarrassing moments or reliving a funny story from their past, whether it was five days ago or five years.

Luke didn’t come up again, and she was thankful for it. This was a time to escape, and all four of them knew it.

Rachel was the first to break away and move to her guest bedroom for the night. She rounded the room and gave each girl a hug and a kiss on the cheek goodnight. She was the mother-figure and the caregiver to all of them. She played a special role in their lives, and they knew it. Of the four, she would be the one to find her true love and make it last. She was too good a person not to.

The stairs made small cricket creaks as she moved up, and the girls left by the fire hunkered down under their blankets for the next round of gossip.

Not too much time passed before Aimeé excused herself and gave her own round of kisses. She attempted to get away before the girls pressed her about a particular police officer that was frequenting her restaurant, and the only response they got was: “If I fell in love with every loyal patron, or man in uniform that crossed my path, I wouldn’t have enough love to go around.”

Though her statement was genuine, the two girls couldn’t help but feel she held something back. Only time – or their continued badgering – would tell.

When there were only empty glasses and bottles left on the ottoman, Grace and Casey began to make their way up the stairs. Not much was said, but not much had to be. Of all the nights the girls had spent together, Casey and Grace always shared the last room. Usually, due to lack of space, but now it turned into a certain kind of ritual. The last two to bed shared it.

Bed, to Grace’s mind, would be the hardest place to be. Everything was dark and quiet, and allowed her mind to wander. It was almost day four of pretending like she wasn’t in love with Luke. And now, being tucked into the bed they had shared, made love in, and talked late into the nights and early mornings, was proving to be terrible.

She squeezed her eyes closed, hoping to push thoughts of missing Luke out of her mind. To try and stop wondering if he was thinking of her, too. Tiny glimpses of their moments together flashed in and out of her mind like an old camera reel.

How could there be so many moments in such a short amount of time, she wondered? She was prepared for this moment, in bed, but she wasn’t ready for the torment and the burning headache that came with the barrage of tears that were building up behind her eyes.

When the first tear fell, she sat up and buried her face in her hands. Grace felt Casey’s body cocoon hers in comfort, and the rest of her anguish came pouring out. Her body quivered and heaved and stole her breath as she let go of her all-consuming, uncontrollable emotions.

Casey rocked her back and forth, quickly at first, then gradually slowing to help calm. The only words she spoke were to soothe.

“It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.” They were repeated like a mantra intertwined with quiet shushes as though she were rocking a baby to sleep.

Neither of them knew how long it took. It could have been a minute or an hour, but Grace thought she was finally able to speak.

“There wasn’t a single bad moment or red flag until he showed up at the office. I thought he came to wish me luck.” The bewilderment came again as it had in the millions of times she relived the moment, and she shook her head.

Grace inhaled deeply to ensure another round of tears wasn’t ready to follow. “Every image of him in my mind, every thought, is a good one. How do I make them stop?” She asked without expecting an answer and not allowing for one. “I want to believe he didn’t know who I was before we ran into each other, but it just seems too coincidental. Especially how we met – when we met. On top of that, even if it was just a crazy coincidence, then he’s still trying to take Thomas and Jane away. I couldn’t live with anybody who did that to me. I would resent them for the rest of our lives.”

Grace stopped to wipe what was left of the tears from her cheeks and moved slightly so she and Casey could lay back down, their heads sharing the same pillow, both staring into the darkness.

“You were right,” Grace admitted to Casey. She didn’t have to acknowledge what she was talking about, but she went on. “It’s too hard to find somebody at exactly the right time, at exactly the right moment in life.”

Justifying her decision to cut Luke off, she added, “The timing is all wrong. I can’t lose this company. Not now. Not like this.”

Casey held her friend’s hand and didn’t say anything. She was afraid her own tears would fall knowing she had done this to her best friend.

Grace wondered if Casey was trying to think of the right words? She knew that holding back wasn’t Casey’s style, or more accurately, her personality. Whatever Casey was doing, it was on purpose, and intentional.

When Grace turned her head to look at the outline of Casey’s profile in the darkness, she heard her voice.

Without looking over, Casey spoke her words to Grace in a low, selfless, vulnerable tone. “I’m not always right.”

They were the last words spoken that night. The two simply lay hand in hand until each had finally drifted off to sleep sometime in the early morning. Grace felt more comfort at that moment than she had since she learned Luke was Aaron Wallace’s son.

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