Conflict of Interest

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CHAPTER 48

The leather purse and workbag smacked the chair as it was hurled down with little regard for its contents. Customers craned their necks, trying to inconspicuously spy on the commotion. Grace pouted her way back through the tables to the cash register, stomping her shiny black oxfords the entire way.

Three people back in line, Grace folded her arms with the impatience of a three-year-old. She stared directly in front of her and saw Aimeé lean her body to the left, poking her head out to get a visual around the other line-members. When their eyes met, Aimeé lifted a single black brow and moved her body back into a straight line, continuing to take orders and payments for her delectable-smelling carbohydrates.

Grace was irritated, and she was allowed to show it. So what if Aimeé found amusement in what she probably assumed were immature actions. Aimeé offered her, we see your meltdown, but you’re going to have to wait three pastries before I can help you look. Grace exaggerated a lean in response and shoved her hip out as far as it could reach.

The quick three minutes of standing in line felt like thirty. When Grace reached the front, Aimeé’s cherry-red lips smiled and asked, “How’s it going, sweet?” She handed Grace their new pumpkin latte to sample before she placed the standard crappy-day lunch order. One chocolate croissant, warmed; a cup of fruit just to feel better about herself; and a hefty dose of vanilla latte with an extra shot of espresso.

When no answer came, and all Grace could muster was a frown and a self-pitying expression, Aimeé acknowledged her with a nod, sparing Grace from speaking. Grace’s face looked pale and Aimeé could see the swollen plumpness the tears had left beneath her eyes. Aimeé wouldn’t be the cause for another round of anguish or add to her poor friends’ teary beauty blemish.

“I’ll be right over once this line goes down. Get started. I’ll join your crappy-day lunch.”

Grace pulled her face up from the well of her hands where it hid from the world when she heard Aimeé sit down across from her. Aimeé shuffled the lattes and the food around and placed three small beignets in the middle of the table for them to share, and explained, “For emergencies.”

Not able to conjure even the shadow of a smile, Grace should at least try and show her appreciation. So, she reached into the pile of beignets and took a bite.

“Now, speak to me.”

The girls took a sip of their drinks, and Grace began.

“He’s making it impossible for me to ignore him. He’s making it impossible for me to forget that I love him. No,” she corrected, “not love, but something close. It’s like he refuses to remember he and his own father are trying to take away the only part of my father I have left. That he lied to me – by omission or otherwise.”

Grace ripped off a warmed piece of the fried dough and continued while shoveling it in. There was too much on her mind for manners – or dignity.

“The man with the name who shall not be named is pulling out all the stops. He brought me flowers. He wrote me a note that I read once, but the way it etched itself in my mind,” Grace paused to poke her frontal lobe, “I might as well have read it a million times. He checks on me to make sure ‘I’m okay,’ stopping in the office – once every day this week. Outside of meetings, while filling up my coffee, any and everywhere just to get us alone. He brought me coffee yesterday afternoon...” The realization hit her as she was speaking it out loud, and her jaw dropped.

“He was down here, getting me coffee. A large, vanilla latte, extra shot.” An accusing finger pointed across the table at Aimeé. “My crappy-day coffee.”

Aimeé put on a face of astonishment and wonder. “I have no idea what you mean. If a handsome stranger, whom I’m supposed to be angry with, came in and ordered a specific drink, two of them, I can’t just turn him away, can I? It would be terrible for business.”

“Three dollars and ninety-seven cents. Your bottom line might have squeaked by.” Grace rolled her eyes.

Aimeé shrugged non-committedly and popped one of the French donuts in her mouth to make defending herself impossible. Grace resigned and continued as she watched Aimeé struggle with the full beignet – her cheeks puffing out like a chipmunk.

“He’s not mean to me like any normal person would be after the cold way I treated him when I found out who he was. It’s almost like he cares more knowing he might have hurt me.”

Aimeé’s sticky mouth smacked as she asked the inescapable question, “Can’t you forgive him?”

“I miss him more than I ever thought I could. It’s worse seeing him every day,” Grace admitted. “But I don’t think I could ever get over knowing he manipulated me into meeting him. Trying for some kind of an angle to the inside. I can handle a lot of things; I can’t handle dishonesty.”

“Then talk to him about it.”

Both women turned in unison to see Casey standing next to them at the table, throwing her opinion into the mix.

“Case!” Surprise and appreciation had Grace springing from her chair. She wrapped her arms and her emotions around Casey in the suffocating embrace.

“Aimeé texted and said we might need the gang. Rachel couldn’t get out of teaching this afternoon, but I can tell you what she wrote in her text if you’re ready and willing?”

Grace refused to let go of the embrace and her muffled, “Sure,” was barely audible.

“And I quote: ‘I just have a feeling about this one.’ Stop. ‘Luke is a good guy.’ Stop. ‘Tell Grace’s pretty ass.’ Stop. ‘To get off her high horse.’ Stop.”

Confused, she pulled herself away to get a good look at her techy friend and stared into her eyes to get the truth.

“Okay, fine,” Casey giving in, “I added the last part. She said she’s never seen you happier and she thinks you need to have a long conversation with the man you love to get the truth. Me personally, I’m not a fan of the truth.”

With an exasperated sigh, Grace fell back into the chair.

“Why does everybody think I love him?”

“Because you do.” Aimeé’s matter of fact response didn’t seem to require further explanation.

“What she said.” Casey swooped around the table. She removed her layers and threw them in a heap on the empty table next to theirs. Ignoring the look of disapproval from Aimeé.

“What is the deal with the L-word flying around? You two hate love.” Grace couldn’t believe what she was hearing from her two free-spirited friends.

Casey didn’t stand a chance at this one, so Aimeé defended their honor.

“I’m French; we love love. We love dogs, French wine, obscenely big hats, all sorts of men–”

At Aimeé’s pause, the girls looked up to see what captured her attention. When they followed her eyes, they realized she was peering out the window and across the street at Christopher. He stood in his police uniform and looked as handsome as ever.

“You were saying?” Casey’s sly tone brought Aimeé back from her daydream.

“Right. Well, we just love. We love everything – not Americans –” she paused for a grin, “but everything else we love. We even love love affairs.”

“That’s it!”

Shrieking at a tone that could have deafened, Grace had it.

“I need to find that old number! I’ll have an affair.” When she was met with blank stares, she elaborated. “You know? The one from the blind date. Hello? You set me up on it. I never went because I ran into Luke. I wonder if I reached out to him he’d be willing to meet me again?”

“Yeah, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Casey’s eyes peered toward Aimeé.

“You suddenly care about affairs?” Grace immediately regretted her choice of words.

Casey waved it away, trying to relieve the stress that hollowed her stomach. “It’s not technically an affair if you’re finished with Luke, right?”

“Exactly.” Grace nodded and pushed away from the table. She plunged her arms through her coat and carried her work bag and purse as she would a giant load of laundry piled high in front of her face.

“Case, throw the rest of my croissant up here.” Grace motioned to the uneaten puff that was brought sometime during her epiphany. “I’m going to need that to aid in my search.”

“Where are you going on your hunt?”

“Home. I think that’s the last place I saw it. It has to be somewhere in there. If it’s not there, I’m going to scour every inch of that office.”

Grace merry-go-rounded the table and gave kisses to each of the girls, then sauntered away, barely missing other customers as she weaved through tables with her armload. She was out the door before either of the two left at the table could say anything to stop her.

Casey and Aimeé finally looked up at each other.

“Should we have told her?” Aimeé asked, showing a bit more concern than she was accustomed to.

“No way. You saw how well it worked out for Luke, right? Let’s wait it out. Besides, it’s not like she can replace us, we are her only friends.” Casey stated while pointing to the last beignet, a silent question if it could be hers.

“Yeah, maybe.” Aimeé gave a slow nod, her response to both.

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