The picture of Grace and her dad wasn’t different than any other a family might have taken. Honoring the start of a new school year or to mark a graduation. Theirs was the same, as it captured her first day at Thomas and Jane.
It seemed like it was yesterday when her mom snapped the picture of her dad and Grace heading off to work for the first time together. She couldn’t remember being happier, with her arm wrapped around her dad and his around her. His smile was all pride.
Grace grinned at her own smile in the photo that had been framed on her desk ever since. A smile so full and white, it barely fit on her young face. She remembered her mom flashing a thumbs-up next to the camera, at the time thinking it was such a dorky thing to do. It made all three of them laugh until they cried.
Her brother had called to wish her luck, spouting something about being a nerd for the rest of her life. All she had thought was, I hope so. She knew he really wanted her to love it. All of them did. It was her self-proclaimed legacy, after all. To walk in her father’s footsteps. To be just like him.
They had a magnificent family. Never had Grace felt that she or her brother were deprived of love or starved of attention. They hadn’t been well-off when she was born, and her brother was only a bit older. Despite living paycheck to paycheck, her parents had given them so much.
She thought hard on it. Before the day she began at Thomas and Jane, she remembered the years getting up in the morning with her dad, knowing she was going off to school and him to work. Never thinking much beyond their simple routine: up early while the moon still hung in the black sky, they’d sit at the table, or she’d snuggle next to him on the couch, and they’d take in WCCO – his favorite local news channel – or cartoons.
It was their time. Perfect time.
Then they’d get ready for the day. She never wondered what he did all day after watching him leave every morning. She simply wanted him to get back home nearly as soon as he walked out of the kitchen door. Sure, as she grew older, her mind would fixate on new things – friends, boys, prom, picking out colleges. But the love she had for her dad, as she grew, it grew stronger, and it never wavered.
It dawned on her, though she’d never dreaded work – she enjoyed it even – her memories never lingered there long. The best part of her life, most of the memories, lived outside of the old brick walls. Family, friends, and now Luke filled her mind.
“Now that’s the woman I fell in love with.”
The voice startled Grace and brought her back from her recollection. She set down the photo on her desk and looked up.
Luke didn’t walk into her office, choosing instead to linger in the doorway. She also noticed that he seemed calm and collected, unfazed by their recent interaction. It made her happy but brought a twinge of heartbreak she had been trying hard to avoid.
Why would that be? Did she want him to be upset? How unfair would it be for her to have broken up with him – if that’s what you’d even call it – and still want him to want her? No, she decided, she would move forward from this. Let him be happy. Let both of them be happy.
And wasn’t she in some kind of a mature mood today, she thought, congratulating herself. Everybody happy.
“Luke, you can come in.” she offered.
Luke slipped in and presented a latte that had been hiding behind the door. Her expression must have satisfied him, she thought as she took in his boyish grin. She could have killed for a shot of caffeine, so as far as she was concerned, the grin was earned and he had saved her day.
“It’s like you knew the one thing that would get me through this day. Thank you. I’m going to have to start returning the favor. Favors,” she corrected, realizing he’d done more for her in the last month than she’d done for anybody in a year. What a terrible realization.
Luke sat down across from her, his elbows leaning on the desk. He reached for the photo Grace had been gazing at moments before. He wanted a glimpse of the cause for the sentimental moment he had interrupted.
Grace tried to ignore the quickening of her pulse when his hand moved closer. Why did it mean anything? she thought. She brushed off the feeling and the thought. And, that’s why she’d scheduled a new date with the guy she stood up. And she was needing it more and more by the second.
“He was a good guy. I wish I could have known him.” Luke had said it before, about her father, and he still meant it now.
She softened with the care in Luke’s voice.
“He was incredible – but you know that from what I told you. Here though,” Grace motioned to the office, “he was the best combination of personal and professional. I never felt like he was gone or working too much. Mom would bring us to visit him here whenever we wanted. We grew up in this place. He might have worked late nights, but my brother and I would never have known because he was always,” Grace shrugged at a loss for the right word, “present, I guess. I suppose that’s part of the reason I have such an attachment to it,” Grace moved her head around the office, taking it in, “here.”
Her thoughts drifted. “They were a good pair, Mom and Dad.” she clarified, letting Luke come along as her mind trailed. “I know I talk about my dad and think about him constantly, maybe because he’s gone. I never thought twice about how things would be or turn out.” She smiled.
“He would have forced me to keep dating you even with all of this,” Grace’s finger swirled in the air, “going on.”
“I thought I liked him already, but that seals the deal.”
The honest words made Grace feel uncomfortable and had her adjusting and straightening herself in her chair.
“Luke, the thing is, I think you’re wonderful, but I also feel betrayed.” Grace motioned for him to stop when he started speaking. “No, it’s my feeling. I can’t prove or not prove that you didn’t have an ulterior motive. I don’t say that to make you feel bad, I say that to make sure at the end of the day I’m comfortable and not second-guessing any of my decisions. I want to make decisions for this company that are independent of you and me.” She folded her hands in her lap and paused briefly before continuing. “I think we should get through this. However, this thing ends up. And see where we come out on the other end.”
Grace’s words surprised her. Maybe she did just need time?
The silence that followed wasn’t uncomfortable, but she wished he would say something. When his eyes didn’t move from hers and the corners of his lips slowly upturned into the grin she’d seen many times before, she knew he must be doing this on purpose.
Grace folded her arms and waited for him to come out with it. She added an eye-roll for effect.
“Okay,” he said simply, still grinning.
“Okay?” Even more irritated than just a second before, she pressed him.
Grace watched Luke tap his latte against the one he’d brought for her. A solo-cheers and added a wink. It was infuriating and gorgeous. Which only made it more infuriating.
Luke had heard what he needed. He wanted proof, needed to see it. And he found it. She still felt it. He’d over-reacted the other day. Let a rare bout of jealousy get the best of him. But today, he saw it – her care and love for him – whether or not she admitted it to herself. And it rejuvenated him.
“Yup. Just, ‘okay.’ I don’t intend to let you stop loving me.”
“I don’t recall saying that.”
“You didn’t have to.”
Grace watched Luke do an obnoxious celebratory skip and shuffle on the way out the door, and felt his cockiness as it lingered in the office. After that performance she had to say something.
Grace leaned forward and yelled out the door, “I should remind you I’m dating other people!”
Just when she thought he might have been too far away to hear her, Luke popped his head back around the corner.
“It’s okay, honey, a little healthy competition never hurt anybody. Oh,” he stated like he forgot to add a simple note to his list. “And I love you, too.”
Grace didn’t have to turn her chair around to face the window, Luke was gone from view too quickly to have noticed her reaction. She did for the simple fact of wanting to keep her smile and his words all to herself. She might hate him right now, but he loved her.