Conflict of Interest

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CHAPTER 50

The view of the office was dark from the street. It was the same dimness when she walked up the stairs. When she stood inside the only light offered were reflections and shadows cast by the streetlights outside. She would be alone for a couple of hours. No noise, nobody to spy.

Now, where was that number?

She placed her bags in the office and peeled off her jacket. The tailored pantsuit fit her body and the scenario. Masculine and sexy. Perfect for sneaking – no – she corrected herself, maneuvering around the office for this damn number. Grace removed her blazer and stood in the doorway, wondering where she should start.

Maggie’s desk seemed as good as any.

Then it seemed like a terrible idea.

Grace took in the massive amount of folders, paperwork, sticky notes, three-ring-binders, and yellow legal pads. It was unreal. That, and she had unearthed every single, fricking, one. No number to be found.

Grace pushed herself off the floor, brushed off her knees, and it hit her. Seth had taken the folder. He said he didn’t find anything, but maybe he missed it. Was it wrong to go through an employee’s cubical? Maggie wouldn’t have cared about Grace going through hers and would have told her to do it herself if she wasn’t there to help. Going through Seth’s, though, this seemed somewhat invasive?

Well, she thought, just a glance couldn’t hurt.

A glance turned into a frenzied, all-out search. The hunt took her over, and before she knew it, she was on all-fours.

“God-sakes. What are you doing on the floor?”

The accusing hiss startled her head into the bottom of the desk.

“Ouch,” Grace squealed, sliding her way out as she rubbed her head. The hand that was easing the pain was the first to appear over the short cube wall. When her eyes made it over, she saw Maggie standing in front of her, hands on her hips, with a perfected mom expression. Grace knew she was about to get scolded.

“It’s not what it looks like,” Grace defended her hunt. Besides, she wouldn’t have had to be down there if she wasn’t forced to rummage through the files stacked high under Seth’s desk. Why did he have so many papers?

Furrowed eyebrows told her that Maggie knew exactly what she was doing, but she waited for the explanation anyway.

“That’s funny, because it looks like you’re snooping through your dedicated employee’s things.”

“Well, that’s pretty generic.” Grace attempted for a bit of humor to show she expected a little more from the almighty Maggie.

“If you’re looking for that phone number, why don’t you just ask?”

Ah, there she was. Expectations aligned. The all-knowing Maggie came through in the end.

“I didn’t want to have to ask because it’s embarrassing. Maggie, come on, help me out here. I need it. I need something to get my mind off of Luke, because everything I do – and say, and smell, and see – reminds me of him. I need,” she contemplated the right word because replacement wouldn’t do; she was beginning to believe that would never happen, “a distraction.”

Maggie walked over and helped her off the floor, and again, Grace found herself wiping her knees.

“Have you taken a moment to consider talking with Luke about all of this? That it might be one tiny misunderstanding?”

“Tiny? Maggie, you know as well as I do that this company is my life.” She scoffed at another suggestion that she should have a discussion with Luke.

“Or,” Maggie ignored Grace, “you could present the alternative proposal for a friendly acquisition you and Seth worked very hard to prepare.”

“I was blinded by the idea they would go for something like that. It’s not Wallace. He comes, he sees, he conquers,” she responded bitterly.

When they reached Maggie’s desk, Grace couldn’t help but feel a little guilty that she’d already rifled through this desk before getting caught in the act. However, when Maggie reached into her top drawer and felt her way to the back, she pulled out a piece of ripped paper that had a number on it.

The shock, and admittedly mostly wonder, flashed across her face. She felt it hold there for a moment, her mouth gaping.

“How did you–” Grace was speechless.

“I know everything here, honey. I was on this mission long before you were. When Luke decided he wasn’t going to let you go easily and poured on the unwanted attention, I started looking.”

Maggie started to busy herself organizing her desk, something she always said led to a successful day, not paying mind to the astonishment still splattered across Grace’s face. When Grace turned to walk away, she paused, hoping for questioning words to form, but nothing happened.

“I think you should speak to Luke before writing him off.” Maggie let her words hang in the air, “Any man who’s willing to go to that much trouble for a woman might be worth forgiving. And also, if you ever want something from my desk, all you need to do is ask. I would have told you right where to look.” Maggie’s tone rose with amusement.

Grace slowly shifted her body and silently snuck away without an attempt at defending herself. She walked through her office door, closed it behind her, and placed the number on the center of her desk.

Grace eyed it cautiously as she rounded to sit in her leather chair. She rested her chin on both hands as she inspected the scrap of paper. A silent inquisition. Would this mysterious number solve her problems, or at least dim the constant thought of them?

The knock on her door was light and friendly. She saw Luke when she looked up, standing on the other side of the long glass pane. She held back the urge to smile at the sight of him. It caused her to sigh and stare for a bit too long. Luke grinned and took a stored hand out of his pocket and lift it in a silent greeting.

“Come in.” It was all she could muster.

“Hi.” His voice echoed his wave.

Luke stepped in, and she needlessly pulled the phone number scrap off the table as his eyes didn’t move from hers.

“Hi,” she countered, hoping she sounded unemotional.

“I, ah, I wanted to come in and see how you were doing?”

Her eyes stung with the threat of tears. When would she stop crying? she wondered. Then vowed she would not let the drops fall if it was the last thing she did. She took a moment to compose herself and attempted a truthful answer as best she could.

“I am doing fine, I guess. Trying to not lose my dad’s company. Though I feel like I’m prolonging the inevitable. Trying to forget that the man I thought I was falling for is the one who’s trying to take it from me. Has Wallace,” referring to the company, not the man, “ever failed at taking over a company once he started?”

“No,” she stopped him before he could respond, and kept speaking. “Don’t answer that. I trusted you, I opened up about this to you. The whole time – you knew. You knew. I gave, and you didn’t open up to me. Now I feel like maybe we didn’t meet by chance. Maybe you knew exactly who I was. And maybe you were trying to get me to open up. To show you how hard of a fight this was going to be. I feel like an idiot. Did you get the information you were looking for?” She didn’t intend for it to be a question, but a part of her wanted him to explain. To have some simple, misunderstood explanation that would make perfect sense.

Her hand moved over her stomach to ease the nausea that was setting in. She wanted to place it over her heart where the physical ache felt like it was killing her.

Grace looked up, into Luke’s eyes. This time a tear slid out. She quickly wiped it away, and forgetting her regard for his feelings, admitted her plans.

“I’m going to be going out with somebody else.”

Luke’s attention snapped to, and it looked as if he’d immediately forgotten everything she had just said to him about not trusting his intentions.

“What?” His chest caved as if he’d been hit with a cannonball. “What?”

The stun and pain carved through his already chiseled face and it nearly killed her to see.

“I would do anything for you,” he finally managed in a weary and defeated tone.

“You would back off of this takeover?” Grace said, almost a dare.

“That’s not fair. You know I can’t do that. It’s not just me that’s involved.” Desperation entered his voice. He knew the one thing that would save them, he simply couldn’t do.

“Then I guess there’s my answer,” Grace said simply and coldly. “I hope you know, no matter what your objectives or methods about getting me to fall so in – well – to fall for you, worked. The past couple weeks were the happiest I’d been in a long time. So, thank you. You’ve shown me how I can feel if I open up to someone else.”

She intended for the words to cut, but didn’t realize how much they’d slice through her own heart. “I hope we can work well together for the duration of this. I’m sure from your end it will have to be hostile in nature, but that’s just business, I suppose.”

It was Luke’s turn to feel nauseous. She watched words try to form on his lips, at the tip of his tongue. He gave in when he found none and nodded.

“Sure. Yeah, I’ll try to be as cordial as possible.” Luke stood a bit straighter and let his business side take over. “Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you until you hear from us.”

Luke put his hands back in their pockets. His body offered a slight bow as he retreated to the door.

Grace spun her chair around to face the window as she felt the rush of tears come and snatched the phone number off the desk. She had to keep herself busy. She would send the text asking for a chance to meet. Then, work. She would work day and night until her mind had no choice but to eliminate Luke, and all the good memories with him.

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