Conflict of Interest

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Grace Thomas, of Thomas and Jane, LLC – now the only Thomas – walked out into the night to escape the feeling of death that wrapped her father’s funeral like a stale fog. Inside the funeral home, the extreme sadness consumed her, the conversation leaving her with a feeling of despair. She was desperate to escape as people mingled, shared memories, and shook their heads in disbelief that such a wonderful man could have died so young. Now, as she walked through the darkness, she felt numb.

The street lights guided her way on the walk she’d taken thousands of times. Outside of their old brick building, Grace stared up at the office. Her fingertips scraped lightly on the rough red divots as she moved toward the door. They’d taken this walk many times together. Father and daughter. Laughing, talking, planning. Or, simply walking in silence. She longed to hear his voice, to see his face – but not the face she’d seen tonight, lifeless and unmoving. She wanted to see the one that was vibrant and comforting. Sturdy and confident. The one that emanated only love.

Grace closed her eyes when she reached the door emblazoned with their company name. The last time she walked through this door, it was together. That was three weeks ago when her father hadn’t been weak or withdrawn. Now he was gone, and she was the weary one. Grace wondered, how could she feel all-consuming exhaustion, and a heart that ached so badly she thought it might rip out, and still be living herself.

Grace pulled the door open and started up the stairs. This building was their place. Together.

She’d learned everything she knew from her father, and he had been eager to teach her. Her eyes welled and stung as they moistened the dry, aching feeling. But no tears fell. He wouldn’t want her to cry anymore, and she would do what he wanted because she was his girl. Daddy’s girl. Her brother William always joked that she was her dad’s favorite. She would only laugh because she knew it was true. William also knew and felt their dad’s unconditional love and the pride their father had in him, so it wasn’t hard to poke fun in her direction. There was just something between them: father and daughter. There was a spark, life, excitement, and wonder. Constant comfort and security. They shared everything.

With each step she took, she thought of her mom. Her amazing mom. Only moments ago, at the funeral, she had taken hug after hug of warmth and generosity from family and friends with such strength. Grace wondered how she was able to hold herself together so well.

William, she supposed, helped. Her brother offered a warm and comforting hand on their mother’s shoulder as she exchanged tender thank yous and tried not to get weepy with every new guest.

William had caught Grace staring at that moment and offered a tilted-head smile and a quick wink. It was like him, always the fixer, always willing to put himself last. The feelings he must have had, yet been unwilling to show, for the sake of their mom, and her. Grace had shrugged back at him. Her what do we do now shrug. An I’m never going to make it shrug. At that moment, William would have gone to her. She saw it in his eyes, asking if she needed him. Yes. Yes was the answer she’d wanted to give but wouldn’t dream of pulling him away from their mom. So she’d shook her head and mouthed thank you and added an I love you. William had mouthed the words back, and she smiled at how easy it had always been for him to say those words when he meant them.

As if they were answering a prayer, she then had been swaddled up, arms surrounding her from all directions.

Now, she wrapped her arms around herself to mimic the feeling she’d had when the tight pull of her three best friends had cocooned her. She had closed her eyes and let herself feel safe, even if just for a moment. It was the last time she’d cried, being held by the friends that had been with her through everything. The arms around her tightened as her breath hitched.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Here in the office, alone, she whispered the same words she’d said through quiet gasps of air. And her friends’ words from the funeral filled the silence in her mind.

“Right now, you don’t have to do anything,” Rachel had said as she’d stroked her back, trying to comfort.

“Yes, no words right now. Let us hold you and love you. Do not think,” Aimeé’s French accent had soothed.

Casey had said nothing. She wouldn’t have been able to find the words. Being tender wasn’t her. Neither was seeing the bright side. She’d been through her own share of heartbreak. But she was there and would be any time Grace needed her, for anything. There was never a moment or time when Casey wouldn’t come through. Casey knew what alone felt like. It’s why, Grace imagined, she’d never let one of her friends have that feeling.

Casey had gripped her hand and covered the other girls’ arms as they’d stood in their circle, holding their embrace.

Grace opened her eyes. Reality reminded her all of those memories were real. Her dad had still suffered, was still forced to leave them.

From the reception area, her eyes scanned the door of her favorite office, her dad’s. Raymond Thomas, President. The plaque was the only object that stated his title, and he’d only kept it because it was a gift from the first client he’d secured. Nostalgia won out with Raymond every time.

Grace walked slowly along the thick shelves of the library wall, touching trinkets and looking at pictures of the great man she – they – had lost. She stopped at a photograph of her mom and dad. Both of their eyes closed in laughter; her mom doubled over, and her dad leaning backward. Each was encircling an arm around the other. It wasn’t a picture you’d expect anybody to keep. It wasn’t flattering – you could barely see their faces – but it was perfect. They were perfect. Their love was perfect.

Guilt wasn’t a feeling she was used to, but she felt it now. She felt it because in that instant she wished she would have found a love like that. Wished her father could have met the person that would make her laugh, or laugh with her, like that. It was a selfish notion, especially now. She pushed the thought away, along with the guilt. She needed to move forward. She had other people, and this business, to take care of.

She moved to the leather chair that ruled the office, regally hovering behind the desk, and sat. She swiveled back and forth and finally paused and looked out the window into the night. This was her place, she thought. She felt safe here. She felt her dad here. And she made a promise.

“Dad, it hasn’t been more than a week. I already miss you more than I can bear. But I promise you I’ll still try and make you so proud. I know I won’t have to, but I’ll take care of mom and Will. And here,” she spun and looked toward the opening that gave her a view of the whole office, “I’ll work so hard to make Thomas and Jane every bit the company you envisioned. People will remember what you built. I’ll make sure of it. No matter the cost.”


The girls had watched Grace leave the funeral and knew they needed to let her go, at least for tonight. Grace had endured a very public loss; she didn’t need a public grieving. They’d all received too much attention from the guests as they’d shared their embrace. When Lydia Thomas took notice of the commotion the four friends were causing, she’d covered her mouth in a brief moment of happiness and appreciation.

Lydia apologized to the next guest in line, excused herself, and walked toward the huddle. She needed to see the girls. Her girls. Rachel and Casey had made the Thomas house their own growing up. And later, when they had moved on to college, Aimeé was taken in by the inseparable trio of Casey, Rachel, and Grace. It was hard to imagine now that she hadn’t been there all along. When Lydia got close enough, the three girls blanketed her as they had Grace only moments before.

She was a mother to them all. Lydia remembered the day Grace had sat Raymond and her down at the kitchen table, telling them they needed another room because Casey and Rachel needed a pretty bedroom to sleep in when they came over. Raymond had reminded Grace her friends didn’t live there, and he reminded Lydia they weren’t her children. But he had seen their hopeful faces, ran it by William (who’d always had a crush on Rachel anyway) and when he said, “Yeah, whatever,” Raymond couldn’t help but smile and agree. Anything for his girl, or more appropriately, girls.

“Oh, my girls,” Lydia sighed gratefully. “I love you all so much. Thank you for coming.”

“We wouldn’t – couldn’t – be anywhere else,” Rachel spoke for the group. “What can we do? Anything at all. Please let us help you.”

“You can help me,” Lydia said.

The girls unwrapped their arms from one another and stared, eager to do whatever they could.

“Anything,” Casey and Aimeé confirmed simultaneously. Rachel looked on hopefully, relieved that any one of them could offer something to help.

“Watch out for her. Be there for her like you’ve always been. As hard as this is for us,” Lydia motioned to herself and William, “it will be harder for her. He was everything to her. He was her steady guide and her listening ear. Everything she sees in herself that is good, she believes came from him. Most of it did. She’ll feel lost for a little while, but I’m hoping the three of you can help make her way back just a little easier.”

“Of course,” Rachel confirmed. “We already have a plan and a rotation. We’ve already decided for the first couple weeks she only gets one night alone, never two in a row. Otherwise, one or all of us will be there. The move will help keep her mind occupied.” Rachel became wistful for just a moment. “I’m happy he was able to see Grace’s new home before…” She couldn’t say it. On her exhale, William, who had trailed his mother when she joined the girls, reached forward to brush the stray tear away, and she let him. Today she would allow him to show her the affection she’d cut off years before.

Lydia watched her son’s tenderness toward Rachel and thought, another time, another place.

She continued. “You know she will throw herself into work. Please, do anything you can to make her live. She’s dreamed her whole life about having a family like the one she had growing up. Though hers will be her own, I’m afraid she’ll stop looking for it and spend every waking hour at that office building. Raymond did that. Which I’ll never regret, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have just a little wish we would have had him home a bit more. Because, well, you just never know.”

“And,” Lydia drew their attention back as their eyes had followed her own to the casket, “I, well...Raymond gave me this to give to Grace.”

They all looked down. The envelope was sealed and had the company logo on it.

“It just seems so silly to worry about work right now. It seems so,” Lydia searched for the word, “insignificant. I don’t want the last thing Grace reads from her dad be about work.”

“Perhaps waiting is best,” Aimeé offered, knowing from experience financial matters were the last thing somebody wanted to deal with when there was a death in the family.

Lydia held the envelope close to her heart. “Then, we’ll wait. Maybe not for the right time, but a better time.”

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