Conflict of Interest

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CHAPTER 55

The red jumpsuit, red lipstick, and big hair might have been a little much, but it was all she could do to make sure this night felt nothing like the night she met Luke. She felt a little embarrassed, but she wasn’t willing to admit she was failing miserably. Besides, she looked good, right?

“Be sure when you get to the Bulldog you don’t look too eager.”

Grace eyed her appearance in her bathroom mirror and mumbled into the phone, “Too late. Hey, how did you know where we are meeting? Be honest. We talked about this. You know you aren’t supposed to look at my calendar.”

Grace stared at the silent phone.

“Case,” she prodded.

“I cannot confirm or deny that I did such a thing,” Casey continued before she could be questioned further. “I am the least of your worries. Go out, have fun, and if nothing else you’ll get a free drink, maybe five. Do your best France reenactment.”

“Reassuring, thank you. And we’re not talking about that.” The sarcasm dripped from her words.

The knock on the front door was loud enough for her to hear clear as day, three stories up. Aimeé’s voice reached them from down in the kitchen, “I’ll get it! Ah, Grace, it’s for you.”

“Did you hear that Case? Did you hear Aimeé’s voice just now?”

“No, why?”

“It was her sexy voice.” Grace lifted the phone close to her face and whispered, “There’s a man downstairs.”

“Then,” Casey matched the whisper as she mocked, “you’d better go down and see who it is.”

“Yeah, yeah. Okay, I’ll text you later. I’m sure you’ll know all the details by then though. Do not track my credit cards or hack my phone tonight. In fact, I’m turning it off.”

“Come on. What if you need an emergency out?”

“Find a camera or something to peer through. But it’s not coming from me! Love you, Case.”

“Fine.” Casey resigned, fully not intending to keep any promises, “Love you, too.”

Grace slid off her heels for better tiptoeing down the stairs. She maneuvered side to side to avoid the memorized creaks. Aimeé’s voice grew clearer the father down she climbed. She couldn’t quite make out the words she was saying, but she heard a familiar deep, tenor, laugh.

Shit! What was Luke doing here?

Her quick, reactive smile turned to dread when she realized what she was wearing.

Grace leaned against the wall and groaned. Embarrassment shouldn’t have been her first feeling, but she had to admit, all of the red was a little over the top. She closed her eyes and began a pep talk.

“Grace, pull yourself together. You look great. A little overdone, but there is nothing wrong with being the best-dressed person in the room. You told Luke you were dating so he shouldn’t be surprised, and you shouldn’t feel bad about it. And whatever you do, do not see your date later on and wish it was Luke.”

Her voice was adamant and seemed to do the job of calming her. Or, she just moved faster than her brain could think. Before she knew it, she was on the landing. She found herself staring at Aimeé with a glass of wine sitting at the kitchen island, and Luke with a beautiful bouquet of white flowers. Not a simple bouquet, but a stunning variety of roses, daisies, baby’s breath, and others she couldn’t identify.

“Luke, what a pleasant surprise.” She tried to keep her voice even and nonchalant.

“Isn’t it, though?”

He smiled, she came undone. Then scorned herself for the feeling.

“When Maggie – who told me to tell you she was the information leak – let me know you were going on a big date tonight, I thought I should stop by and wish you some luck.”

Grace moved casually to the kitchen after tossing her heels by the door.

“That’s very nice of you, but I think my new date is supposed to bring me the flowers, not you.”

“I know. I thought after I talked to Maggie, this guy doesn’t know you yet. I happen to know you love white flowers.”

Grace smiled robotically, looking from Aimeé to Luke. “I do. But that’s why I’m going on a date. So we can learn these things about each other.”

“Of course, yeah, but it also means he doesn’t know how amazing you are, either. His flowers won’t be good enough.” Luke didn’t allow space for her to respond. “So, just to make sure you get everything you deserve tonight, I thought I could bring you flowers.”

He walked the flowers toward her and gently lifted her hand to place the flowers in it. Then leaned in and kissed her cheek, dangerously close to her lips. He waved a friendly goodbye to Aimeé and walked out the door.

Not turning to look at the door, Grace looked at Aimeé, more shocked than she thought she’d be after the encounter. Grace motioned with her free hand and the flowers for Aimeé to say something.

“I don’t know what you want me to say.” Aimeé sipped her wine, and more of her French accent filled the room. “I would let yourself love him if I were you.” Gesturing to the flowers, she added, “He’s reminding you he loves you. He knows you don’t want to go on this date. It is your pride, Grace. Go on your date, but you won’t want to keep seeing this guy when you’re done. Or any other man you might date.”

“What exactly do you expect me to do then?” Grace said, running out of reasons to avoid his endless pursuit of her love.

“Maybe try to just, let go?” Aimeé’s hand fluttered as if she herself were demonstrating the act of letting go.

“Of the company or my pride?”

“Both.” Aimeé decided.

“I’m working on my pride.” Grace admitted, but, she eyed Aimeé, “What if you had to sell the Bistro?”

“Point taken.” Aimeé understood that kind of love.

Aimeé brought her glass to the sink. She said nothing as she walked to the cupboard where she got a Waterford crystal vase and filled it with water. After she set it on the island, Aimeé picked up her purse from the stool next to her and walked to Grace. She smiled softly and kissed Grace once on each cheek and let her hand rest on Grace’s arm before taking her hand.

“You know what you want. Maybe you just need a little time to come around to it. I will see you in the morning.”

Before she knew it, the house was empty. The silence consumed her, and she wondered if it had always been this quiet.

She should get going, but Aimeé was right: she didn’t want to. The only problem was she couldn’t possibly stay here. Grace saw herself in the mirror and realized her outfit was ridiculous for the downtown bar she was going to.

What was she thinking? Grace would keep the lipstick, but everything else had to go. She would go through the motions of getting ready, regular bar clothes and all, and make herself walk out the door.

Carefully she unwrapped the flowers from their tissue paper and placed them in the vase Aimeé had filled. They really were stunning. She inhaled deeply to take in the fresh scent and closed her eyes.

She might love him, but he wasn’t the only person in her life she could love, was he? People fell in and out of love every day.

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