Conflict of Interest

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CHAPTER 2

Casey trudged through the March blizzard cursing Minnesota, the weather gods, and the meteorologist. The gods for making it snow, and the meteorologist for telling her she wouldn’t see a day without snow for another three days.

When she swung the Bistro door open she was greeted with an empty room and a blazing fire.

“I love you,” Casey said in a sigh as she moved toward the warm flames with outstretched arms.

“I love you, too.” Aimeé stated her response in a low French purr.

Casey shook her head and pointed to the fire, then said, “But I do love you, even more than this fire.”

“For that, you will receive the first choice of wine. Second bottle goes to Grace since she’s prepping for wedded bliss.”

“Seems acceptable. I would like a crisp Pinot Grigio so I can pretend it’s warm and sunny outside. I’ll let you pick the poison.”

Feeling the warmth from the blaze moving through her, Casey peeled off her black jacket, houndstooth scarf, and wool mittens before meandering to their table.

It might have been freezing and snowing outside, but Aimeé had already transformed the Bistro into a picturesque spring scene. Little white vases held happy, white and yellow flowers with leafy green stems as a garnish.

Casey settled in and pulled out her laptop. She might as well work and check her schedule before the rest of the girls got there. She opened her Matchme.com calendar, and the feeling of dread was immediate.

Has it already been a year?

“No, no, no,” Casey whined as her head found the top of the table.

“Ah, how I remember fondly the agony of a man. Lucky for me it worked out in the end.” Grace came up to the table and set herself in the chair across from Casey. She went on, “What did Travis do to you now?”

Aimeé joined them at the table with the wine and poured as she and Grace exchanged amused looks.

“It’s not Travis,” Casey said flatly, “It’s fifteen million men and women across the United States. And the team of leaders that help me run the most successful dating site in the world.”

Casey couldn’t help the pride that seeped into her words, but she was still crabby. The worst part was she’d have to keep up the lie she had told the executives and the board.

“I don’t feel bad for you one bit,” Rachel said as she swooped in, snagging a glass of the liquid gold Aimeé had just poured and placed on the table. “You’re a multi-millionaire with two houses, and you get to work with Grace. I work with child terrors who forget the last day of school is three months away, not three days.”

“Aww, Rach.” Grace stroked the arm of her pretty, petite friend. “Money doesn’t make you happy either, just look at Casey.”

The laughs were quick but Rachel wasn’t done with her pity party. “Really? Casey makes more in two weeks than I do in a year. Let that sink in.”

The three women stared at each other and tried to do the quick math in their heads, then moved their looks from one to the other before slowly nodding.

Without taking the time for compassion Aimeé agreed, “Yes, I think you’re right. Okay, you don’t have to pay for drinks tonight.”

Rachel thought about the offer, then nodded. “Done. I’m no longer upset. What’s going on with Match Me that has you so grumpy?” she said, turning her concern to Casey.

“Our spring and summer events are starting. This Friday we are having our annual kick off meeting. So I’ll be sitting in front of a screen full of people who think that love is the best thing in the world.”

“Love is the best thing in the world,” Aimeé said simply, while pulling up her own chair, joining her friends as she did every Thursday evening.

“You know, I agree,” Grace said holding up her nicely diamonded ring finger, the gem sparkling in the warm light.

“Why do it if you don’t like it?” Rachel asked Casey, knowing that loving what you do was more important than the paycheck you received. Though at the moment, Rachel was only half on board with that logic.

“For some reason love is a great business to be in. People will do just about anything to fall in love–the lunatics.” Casey shook her head, then paused, knowing that wasn’t the real reason, and her face paled.

“And…” Casey continued slowly.

“Spill it out,” Aimeé encouraged.

“It’s ‘spit it out.’” Casey assisted Aimeé with the English slang, then hid behind her hands and let her muffled words escape through her fingers. “They think I have a boyfriend. A serious boyfriend.”

Laughter filled the room as the girls’ heads fell back, holding their glasses of wine high ensuring they wouldn’t spill. Their free hands holding their stomachs and wiping tears from their eyes.

“They think you what?” Rachel exclaimed as she tried her best to compose herself.

“See this,” Casey pointed to her friends, “this is not what friends are supposed to do. You’re supposed to be supportive and understand that I think love is a sham. And completely realize why it’s so hard for me to have to pretend to have a boyfriend.”

“Why are you pretending to have a boyfriend at all?” Grace couldn’t help but wonder why Casey would even consider it. She liked the thought of a man in her life even less than actually having one.

“Three years ago board kindly suggested I use Matchme.com to find myself a significant other.” Casey’s mocking tone held an edge. “I was,” she searched for the word they had used, “unsuitable representation of the company I created.”

Casey scoffed and took a sip of her wine as she recalled the conversation with the team, led by Carrie Bolden, the blonde that seemed to be overly invested in the staff–getting along particularly well with the men. Why was it she always seemed to flock to them rather than the women?

“They can’t really expect that from you, right?” Rachel looked around, then back and forth between Grace and Casey, the two that would know more about business expectations than she ever would.

“Technically, no,” Casey began, but her eyes fell after looking to Grace who was reading her mind, a mirror of her own expression.

“But the board can, for the sustainability of the company, choose the leadership.” Grace said it as if she was reading from a manual.

“That cannot be true. It’s Casey’s company, is it not?” Aimeé’s concern was apparent.

“We’re a publicly traded company. When we made that transition–when I agreed to that transition–I put most of my fate into the hands of others. I needed to, so I could start other ventures and work on other things.”

At the time, Casey knew going public was the best decision for herself, the staff that had worked by her side day and night, and ultimately the customers. But now? After three years of keeping up the charade of having a boyfriend, it seemed terrible.

At one point, they were going to want to meet him. And unfortunately, she felt her excuses were reaching their expiry, and the team was getting restless.

“What will you do?” Grace asked the question for everybody at the table.

“Head to the lake, have the meeting, and pretend for as long as I can.” Casey shrugged. “Then, I’ll have to come up with something.”

‘The lake’ was the affectionate term used for Casey’s home on Lake Minnetonka. And it didn’t slip past the girls, as each of them loved the house, and loved visiting the house.

“Um,” Rachel began, “I have all the faith in the world in you, Case, and I don’t mean to shift the conversation, but…”

Casey sighed, knowing where the conversation was headed. If she didn’t know her friends truly loved her, she’d be hard-pressed to believe they were friends with her because of that love, but rather the lake.

“Did you say you were headed to the lake?” Rachel smiled, knowing she had Casey.

“I might have.”

“When?” Grace pressed.

“Early tomorrow morning.”

“I’m coming!” Rachel cheered, and threw her hands in the air.

“Me, too!” Grace agreed, not caring that they hadn’t received an invitation from Casey, and knowing Luke was slated to help Travis pack up his room since they were selling his loft.

Then they looked to Aimeé.

“We’ve been having some…” Aimeé decided not to dive into The Bistro’s financial issues quite yet, so she opted for a sliver of the story, “employee issues. But I can ask Christopher to come in during his shift to check on things. So yes, I am in as well.”

Casey did have to agree it was like a mini vacation when the four of them got together at the lake over a weekend.

She thought through her schedule and glanced at her laptop that still sat open on the table. Closing it in a single motion she held her straight face.

“My last meeting ends at two.” Casey let the corner of her mouth turn up, then watched her three best friends cheer and lift their glasses.

It was hard to be so damn cynical when you were surrounded by the best women in the world. And, at the end of the day it wasn’t hard to admit it would be a really great weekend.

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