Conflict of Interest

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CHAPTER 57

Mortified didn’t begin to describe what she was feeling. Grace leaned on the brick wall once she’d finished a small meltdown and made it around the building and out of sight. The hard cold of the red-shaded concrete soothed the burn she felt all over. She shouldn’t be embarrassed, but how embarrassing.

Seth, of all people, had to be the one who her friends had set her up with.

“No, no, no.” Grace covered her face in an exasperated whine. “They will never hear the end of this. Friends-shmends.” And Luke too; if it weren’t for him, she wouldn’t have gone on this crazy charade in the first place.

Stomping in the direction of home, Grace muttered, “The stupid, cute, irritating, dumb man.”

Only one thing would calm her down. Carbohydrates. Rather than turning toward home, she headed straight up the street. She needed to vent, yell, accuse, and eat chocolate wrapped in sugar, flour, and lots of butter.

Grace tugged on the Bistro door and was greeted with a loud clank.

“Damn.” She tried her luck again to no avail. She removed her glove and pounded on the door, then added her other fist. “Come on, I know you’re still here.”

Aimeé made her way around the kitchen wall and smiled at the view from behind the locked door. She saw Grace’s fists pound the glass as if to the beat her voice was probably making. Her lips moved, rampant during the assault. Aimeé wondered if Grace had any idea not a single word was heard.

Aimeé flipped the manual lock from inside the door and pulled. She was greeted with what she presumed was the second half of whatever Grace had been saying.

“–on the planet. Thank goodness you’re here, I need coffee – no, wine – and a distraction. Chocolate. Fried.”

“I can provide,” Aimeé pieced together the individual word puzzle, “all of that. Though you might have to start over and attempt to slow a bit. I thought your date was this distraction you were looking for?”

Grace stared, unamused. “Wine first.”

“That good?” Aimeé maneuvered through the upside-down chairs that had been propped on the tables for cleaning. Her movements were effortless and delicate. She set a wineglass on the counter and poured Grace a small glass. Then waited for her protest at the modest amount. Grace was always a fan of a heavy pour.

“I think you mean, that bad. It was terrible. Mortifying. I am mortified. Do you know who was waiting in that bar?” Answering her own question, “Well, of course, you don’t, but I’ll tell you. Seth. Like, nerdy, lanky, quiet, been working for us for about seven years, Seth. I know we are all close up there, but not that close. I mean sure, yeah, I’ve wondered if Seth dates and the typical stuff, but actually doing it, no way.”

“Interesting.” Aimeé stared, doing her best to look perplexed.

“So naturally it was awkward, but I tried to make it, well, not awkward.” Grace sipped and trudged on.

“At first, I thought maybe I had just bumped into him, so we started with small talk. But then he asked what I was doing out and about, so I told him a date. He said he was too, and this dread, okay maybe not dread, but that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you are anticipating severe embarrassment? You just know that something is not going to go your way? Well, that’s what I got. I just said, ‘You wouldn’t happen to be meeting a blind date here?’ And sure enough, it was him.”

Her second sip of wine emptied it.

“More.” She pointed into her glass. “Of course, I had to tell him I was sorry at the circumstance, but unfortunately because of our working situation we couldn’t continue with the date. I’m just, I’m just – shit. And come to think of it, he didn’t seem to share even a little of the shock and embarrassment I was feeling. Unexpected balls of steel. Give him credit for that.”

Grace took a swig of the new pour.

“So, what do I do when I need a clear mind? I eat beignets, and I drink coffee – and wine – or vice versa. Thank you for working nearly all day, every day. I needed you to be here.”

Aimeé paused after setting the latte on the bar to accompany the wine and smiled sweetly. “Grace, I am here. And even if I hadn’t been, I would have come. All you need is to ask. Me, or any of us.”

Aimeé came around the counter to sit next to Grace and swiveled them both, so they were facing, and their knees touching.

“I will not give you more advice. You know what your heart wants. You are the only one that can make it be. I will always be here for you, though. That is certain.”

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