Conflict of Interest

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CHAPTER 59

“You know it’s Friday, right?”

Grace looked up feeling cross-eyed from focusing on her computer all afternoon, and noticed with a glance out her window, what appeared to be all evening as well.

“I do, and it looks like we both made it. Though I don’t know how quickly I’ll be finishing up. What do you have for weekend plans?”

Luke slid himself into the bourbon-colored club chair across from her desk that was now feeling familiar.

She gazed at him. He looked handsome, but for the first time, she noticed he seemed tired.

Interesting, she thought wryly, even the impenetrable, smooth-talking charmer gets tired like the rest of us mere mortals.

Grace hated to admit seeing him like this had her viewing him in a different light. He was a hard worker, she knew that, but this was something different. It was real. Something normal. It wasn’t all a show, and it wasn’t all a game to him. It’s what she imagined he would have been like coming home after a long week of work. They would opt for takeout rather than making dinner or having a night out. They would snuggle in on the couch with their containers of Chinese, pizza, or Thai and watch the latest Netflix craze or find news to play in the background as they talked about their week.

It would be so, so lovely, she thought with a twinge of sadness. How had everything become so complicated? It was a question for herself, and she realized, the answer was unfortunate and simple – she had made it so.

Grace realized she was tired, too. Exhausted, actually. A constant barrage of work, data pulling, emails, meetings, and – hardest of all – trying to avoid Luke as much as possible. She wanted space but realized it was harder than she imagined it would be.

“Not a lot of plans here,” Luke started. “This Thomas and Jane takeover doesn’t leave a lot of time for the day to day Wallace tasks that seem to not go away. I’ll probably do most of my day job straight through the weekend. Maybe a few drinks and a football game or two at home. You?”

Grace leaned forward and rested her elbows on her desk to think about what she’d do this weekend. The thought of coffee, walking, and lounging around her home sounded so good she wouldn’t trade it for an offer to jet-set to Paris. She moved one of her hands up for her chin to rest on as she completed her daydream and smiled.

“I can’t wait for the weekend. The girls and I will get together at our normal time tomorrow morning – run then coffee,” she explained, “Possibly head out shopping and stop for lunch. I might make time for an extra walk or two. Mostly I want to lounge around in sweats and slippers at home. I could even get crazy and read a book or magazine – for enjoyment. Can you believe it?”

He loved her. He wanted to be inside of that weekend, living it with her. “You really do live on the edge,” he said teasingly. “You had me up until ‘reading for enjoyment.’ Nobody does that, not really.”

His smile tore through her.

“How long are you working tonight?” Luke asked, moving the easy conversation along.

“Not sure,” she shrugged, “Maybe seven, eight?”

“Perfect.”

Her confusion halted the words she would have bumbled out, so she just looked at him curiously.

“I mean perfect, me too,” Luke said quickly. “You up for Chinese take-out? Nothing goes better with working straight through dinner than Chinese food. It’s proven. A fact.”

Playing along, she said, “I agree with you. But I’m wondering, who performed this study?”

“Well, me, of course. I have a solid track record of working late and making my friends and coworkers do it with me. So far, they are all still my friends. I don’t think any of them have quit either, to my knowledge. So, it must be true.”

“In that case, I like anything. As long as there’s a side order of dumplings with extra sauce.” Her mouth watered at the thought.

“I could probably make that happen. So, dinner then.” He grinned.

“Dinner,” she confirmed, wondering if he read her mind.

__

Half way through Chinese, they were full and laughing hysterically at stories of coworkers and friends, old and new. They talked about family dynamics, their lives growing up, and how they thought their lives would be so different by this point in their lives. Neither was upset with where they were currently, but imagined they’d be traveling the world with somebody or settled down in the early stages of family life.

Grace wasn’t overly surprised that Luke took a chance when the subject was broached.

“That could be us, you know? It almost was. The traveling, making plans, living together, visiting family together.”

Luke watched her eyes mist as she followed along with his reverie.

He continued with their future, pulling her into the dream, “We could be the people who get excited at the thought of one day planning a wedding. Lying in bed at night wondering how many kids we’d end up having, wondering if they would be boys or girls. We’d be adamant about practicing tough love, inevitably giving in and spoiling them rotten. We’d argue about moving out of the city to the suburbs, and eventually, you’d win. I’d go wherever it is you’d want to be. Maybe we’d even decide to keep your place because we’d always want a place in the city. We could retire and come back here when we are too old to drive and have to walk everywhere anyway.”

Grace leaned back in her chair and let her head rest. She swiveled side to side and imagined the life he described. Grace knew, deep in her heart, it really would be that simple for them. No matter how much she wanted to fight it – they worked. They fit. Everything fit, from their hands to their lifestyle, ambitions, and family.

“It really could be,” she admitted. “I just can’t quite get over this, here. And I’ve tried. I’ve played out scenarios. The truth is, I felt like one day it was just a rumor mentioned in passing, ‘Wallace is on the prowl, and his eye is set on Thomas and Jane.’ And now? We are knee-deep in due diligence, and I’m just trying to go through the motions with the truth nagging in the back of my mind: that there isn’t anything we can do to stop you from taking us over. Money wins every time. I could try as I might to stop it, but you just buy shares, persuade the board to replace management, and just like that, it’s yours, all yours. You slowly dismantle everything we’ve built here – or maybe not so slowly – to do what’s best for Wallace.” Grace smiled, not from happiness, but from the inevitable. “You don’t see it that way, I know. But it’s the truth.”

When Luke didn’t say anything, she went on. “So, what I’m trying to say, is that really could be us. But I’m not there yet. I was, don’t get me wrong. I would have taken a leap of faith with you to the end of the world. But now, it’s me. I need time. Whether we like it or not, this,” Grace waved a tired finger between them, “is a conflict of interest. I’m trying to do one thing, and you’re trying to do another. We are a distraction for each other.”

Luke reached across the table. He rested his hand on hers, at first to comfort her, but then for him. He knew the hardest thing to do was wait for something you knew you wanted. He could tell her about what he and Mave had been working on, but tonight, he realized, it wouldn’t have made a difference. She needed to find her way through this without his pushing. She needed to love him, no matter the outcome.

Luke grinned and without letting her hand go stood and walked around to her side of the desk and gently kissed her cheek. Then walked out without looking back.

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