Conflict of Interest

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CHAPTER 3

Casey groaned when her alarm clock blared and startled her out of a wine-induced sleep.

“Why?” Casey moaned, covering her eyes, and pressing on her head where the ache was building.

The Thursday night ritual was a beloved event. Never missed, never a plan broken. Though many times they vowed to leave the second bottle of wine corked, it never quite worked out that way.

Casey rolled out of bed, slid on her decade-old slippers, and shuffled sleepily to the kitchen. She opened her medicine cabinet, then the fridge, and washed the aspirin down with a cold swig of her cherished Dew. The sweet burn of carbonation tickled her throat and watered her eyes. She wondered if there was a better feeling in the world–aside from sex, adding the criteria to her thought.

Thinking on the topic, today was the day. She would face her company and their expected pressure on her love life.

‘When will we meet your boyfriend?’ ‘Has he hinted at popping the question?’ ’It’s been three years.’

People were nauseating.

Sure, she created a massive, successful dating website, but that didn’t mean she had to partake in the business of love.

Casey’s head fell forward and her wavy copper curls fell over her face. She sighed then inhaled the sweet scent of orange blossom that lingered in her hair from its wash the night before, and felt resigned. She’d have to tell them the truth. She prided herself on being honest, and it was time she stopped pretending to be something she wasn’t.

What she was, was great at her job. Great at pairing qualities in people that nearly promised relationship success. And she could put it into writing, then into an algorithm, then into code.

Maybe her team at Match Me wouldn’t approve of her love life–or lack thereof–but they couldn’t deny her ability to provide one for their customers in a perfect match.

Yes, she would tell them the truth. They needed her. And that was that.

Casey lifted her head, turned, reached back for the green bottle, then marched to her city loft bedroom to get ready for the day’s work and the weekend to follow.

__

The drive out of the city always felt like she was heading on a road trip across the country. The sun coming up behind her glistened off freshly fallen snow, giving the open road ahead a sparkle. The farther she drove, the more frosted trees she saw. And in just a couple of weeks the snow would be melted and she would be surrounded by green grass and budding trees.

When Casey’s phone rang she saw Ian Saunders appear on the dashboard of her Range Rover. She couldn’t close her eyes to make it go away, so she simply groaned, then accepted the call from her dad and tried not to sound like it was the last thing she wanted to do to start her day.

“Good morning, Ian.”

A long time ago Casey had started calling her dad by his first name. It was around the time she’d learned he was dating somebody who wasn’t her mother. She was younger then and didn’t understand the intricacies of the relationship, but it had hurt nonetheless.

Her mom had moved out by then and had moved on to her own boyfriend. But her parents were still married. That’s what she didn’t understand. And she couldn’t quite explain why she was only mad at her dad.

Perhaps it was because she had still respected him. When her mom had left, she left everybody behind, including Casey. Her dad always made sure to care, to call. But as the years passed, she never returned to the affectionate title her father used to own. So when he responded, she heard a bit of the hurt in his voice at being called by his name.

“Hi, Casey. How are you? How was your week?” Ian asked, as he did every Friday, his voice filling the vehicle over the Bluetooth speaker.

At the very least, her dad made an effort, even if the blueprint was the same every time.

“Doing good. Heading to the lake now. I have some Match Me meetings today that require my attention. How are you?”

Somewhere over the years their conversations had become cordial, and their interest in each other’s lives had become normal.

Those first couple of calls she took after years without speaking had been harder than she ever imagined they would be. She’d be forever grateful those times had passed.

“Yeah, we are doing good here. Pamela and I will try and make it to a play downtown this weekend. She likes those.” Ian continued without hesitation, as the conversations about his long-time girlfriend now came naturally, “You could, well, you could join us if you wanted?”

The invitation didn’t surprise her, as he’d been offering for her to join them for the better part of two years. What did surprise Casey, was that for a moment, she considered it.

“I–thanks for the invitation–but I’m having the girls at the lake this weekend.” Casey didn’t usually explain, but something inside her wanted her dad to know this time it wasn’t because she didn’t want to, it was because she couldn’t.

“Oh sure, no problem. How are the girls doing? I haven’t seen them since…”

The pause was her dad trying to navigate the terrible years and probably hoping he didn’t just navigate himself into an awful memory both of them would rather leave behind.

“Since graduation.” Casey helped out, offering a lifeline. It had been her college graduation when they had all been together last.

The girls were invited. Her father showed up knowing she was in the 2008 graduating class. There weren’t student lists, no valedictorian announcements–since MIT didn’t have them–just faith that Casey would be there. It marked the first time her dad made an effort to reconnect with her. His pride in her was stronger than whatever discomfort reuniting after four years of not speaking would cause.

“Graduation,” Ian confirmed, and cleared his throat uncomfortably, wondering how far he could carry the conversation, “I’m still proud of you. A 5.0 from MIT. My brilliant girl.”

“Yeah.” Casey still wasn’t good at accepting his praise. “Thanks. Well, I should probably get inside.” Casey eyed the stretch of highway before her and immediately felt the guilt of the lie.

“Right, of course. Ah,” Ian held her on the line and struggled to get the next words out, “have you heard from your mother?”

“No.” The answer was sharp and finite. “Goodbye, Ian.”

Worry and sadness breathed audibly through the phone and her dad relented. “Goodbye, Casey. I love you.”

Casey tapped her finger on the steering wheel to end the call without a response, and forced her breath come and go in heavy waves as she tried to keep calm.

Why would she hear from Linette Saunders? Whitley. Linette Whitley, Casey reminded herself. Her mother wasn’t quite as delicate as her dad when it came to moving on. And why would he care?

Linette had married the man that had made her unfaithful and started a happy family of her own. One filled with new children that apparently deserved Linette’s time, attention, and love. A new family that was so wonderful Linette could forget she had Casey at all.

Casey didn’t have to be an IT whiz to learn about Linette’s new family either. She simply had to log into every social media platform out there and see the obnoxious, happy pictures everywhere.

Images strewn all over social media of her mom laughing as she hugged her three young daughters, looking at them as though they were the light of her life. Or, when the daughters weren’t present, the photos were of Linette and her husband jet-setting around the world, holding champagne glasses high in France and rare bottles of wine in Italy and Spain.

The funny thing was, the happy pictures her mom was flaunting online for the world to see, looked eerily similar to the ones in photo albums she’d looked at as a child. She went through them endlessly as a young girl and could almost feel the laughter of her mom and dad when they were dating, the happiness during their fairytale wedding, and the ecstasy of their honeymoon shortly after. Images of building their house close to–but not on–the lake, then standing proudly on the doorstep when it was move-in day.

The happy pictures continued through their first pregnancy. Casey would stare at herself as a sleeping baby in her mom and dad’s arms with their hospital gowns still tied around them. Their smiles tired, but so full of joy.

Then the pictures stopped.

Casey pulled into her long drive, parked, then allowed herself to press her hands to her eyes as the memory recall was forcing a new ache in her head.

The pictures had stopped when she was born. They had been happy–until she had happened.

Casey opened her eyes and shook her head slowly. Well, maybe she wasn’t a good baby, had been a troublesome child, and a teen who was more interested in computers than sports or boyfriends, but she was great at being a friend. And at her job.

The looming craftsman-style home that sat before her was proof of that. She was a genius when it came to computers and coding, great at working hard, and good at juggling multiple ventures. So maybe she wasn’t good at being a daughter, but she was damn good at working and she would enjoy the enormous fruits of that labor.

The tiny loft in downtown Minneapolis was efficient and necessary. This? Casey looked up at a house that was probably more suited for a Colorado mountainside or a Lake Tahoe retreat, and grinned. This was excessive and utterly over-the-top unnecessary.

Creamy white, gray, and brown rocks stood as sturdy pillar bases and accents surrounding the home. Deep espresso brown siding wrapped every inch of the four-story house except where large windows were strategically placed to ensure every angle offered a luxurious view.

Casey could have gone through the garage but she climbed the steps to the wrap-around porch and walked along the wooden panels until she reached the back of the house.

The view of the lake was breathtaking. A low line of steam formed over the frozen water as the morning sun from the east lightly kissed the far side of the lake.

Turning to move inside, Casey reached for her keys in the side pouch of her laptop bag, then unlocked the wide French door that sat in a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to the lake.

It had only been a week since she’d last been home but it didn’t make the welcome any less warm. She flicked the switch to the rock-framed fireplace that centered the room and rose to the two-story paneled ceiling.

As she turned she took in the kitchen that was remodeled with Aimeé in mind. If she had to stop working at the Bistro, Aimeé could pack up her entire operation and move it here. Casey moved through the sitting room that was Grace’s favorite place to lounge and read the stacks of books lining the walls. And as she moved, she saw the little breakfast nook that led out to a small framed porch, where she would be sure to find Rachel sipping coffee and looking out, romanticizing the view.

Other parts of the home were remodeled for comfort, for parties, or to ensure whomever stayed the night had a nice place to lay their heads. And Casey agreed, the bedrooms were exquisite. Hers especially. But it wasn’t her favorite place in the house.

Casey turned the corner and stood looking through the paneled glass doors that led to her office.

This, she thought, was for her. She pushed the doors open and immediately relaxed.

Two rugged, chocolate-colored couches paralleled each other, and she smiled as she walked between them to the front of her desk. The desk was an expansive six-foot executive desk that provided the perfect base to three sleek monitors. When she was sitting at her desk, she had all she needed right in front of her. And when that wasn’t enough, the wall to her right had six screens mounted in two rows of three.

Typically, she used the screens on the wall for monitoring the businesses she wasn’t dedicating her time to that particular day. So today, while she worked on Match Me, she would be monitoring her Thomas and Jane, LLC dashboard and email. And of course, she would put the bottom three monitors on local and world news channels. Just in case she wanted to do a little digging into world markets.

On that topic, Casey thought, “I wonder.” Mumbling to herself as a curious look came over her face. She slowly maneuvered to the other side of her desk, flipped on the fireplace that sat directly behind her, then sat in her chair, and made a smooth turn to face forward.

She knew she shouldn’t, but…

Casey connected her laptop to the monitors and slowly lifted the top, debating her next move.

Technically she wasn’t supposed to look into her friends’ lives without their permission, but in this case, she wondered if one of them might be in trouble.

Aimeé had never been very open about her finances, and when they had been in France for Grace’s birthday last May, they learned there was more to Aimeé’s grandmothers’ death than she was willing to share. Casey’s concern had started then.

But she respected that boundary. Family was delicate. She knew all too well. But if Aimeé was in trouble, and asking Christopher–a childhood friend and local police officer that had taken a liking to Aimeé–to look into it, maybe she could lend a hand.

Casey logged in and authenticated herself three times before she hopped from one IP address to the next, ensuring if anybody happened to be watching, they couldn’t trace the hack back to her. She found Aimeé’s bank records, then dug into the data. Her fingers flew over the keys quickly and surely.

Eyeing the time, Casey determined she had exactly ten minutes of digging before she’d have to get ready for her call. So she scanned, filtered, searched account balances and discrepancies, and filed the information away so she could come back to anything that piqued her interest later on.

Casey sighed when she catalogued at least five numbers on Aimeé’s bank statements that looked to be suspicious from one month to the next and backed out of the account without anybody, or anything, knowing she’d been there at all. Reaching blindly into her bag, she stared at the scenic mountain view her laptop background and found the unopened bottle of diet Mountain Dew, and evaluated what she saw as she sipped.

The cash flow fluctuation from month-to-month for the Bistro had always been consistent, peaking where it should in the winter and summer months. But the expenses, payments made, coming from Aimeé’s business account looked off. She could look at personal bank accounts, but when it came to her friends, those were off-limits–that was her own rule.

Casey entered a couple commands on her keyboard and within seconds Match Me calendars, folders, and applications sprang to life on her monitors. She clicked open her video monitor to get a look at herself before she joined the call and decided the view was good enough. The makeup and collared shirt she threw on that morning would suffice. She looked down and arched a brow. Her ragged jeans were comfortable, but that’s about where their appeal ended. So she would stay seated.

Within minutes everything she would need for the call was at her fingertips. Monthly customer reports, financial reports, company employment satisfaction surveys, and details for their upcoming spring and summer events. And, scanning the Magical Match emails, she couldn’t help her exaggerated eye roll at the ridiculously excessive success stories of people who had found love using her site.

She was happy for them, sure, but let’s face it, not everybody got engaged on a beach in Hawaii to a man that looked like Ryan Gosling as he presented a five-carat princess cut diamond ring. It would attract more desperate-for-love members, but it would also be setting them up for unrealistic and improbable expectations. She supposed that’s what the marketing team was shooting for.

Casey dialed into the team call and turned her video on. When she did, faces from around the state and across the country sprang to life. She smiled at the group of men and women sitting before her and greeted them.

“Good morning, everybody. How are you all doing today?” Casey didn’t have to force herself to be nice, since she genuinely liked most of the crew.

“Good morning.” The team echoed their responses, then sat and stared as they waited for the remaining seats to be filled.

Casey noted Carrie Bolden hadn’t joined the call yet and didn’t feel the least bit guilty when she hoped she’d be absent.

It wasn’t that she didn’t like Carrie, she just found her completely obnoxious. Maybe it was the fact that Carrie seemed effortlessly put together and conversation came easy to her. Maybe it was because if Casey hadn’t found Carrie so…whatever she was, she might actually think she was nice, funny, or even like her.

Just as the thought entered her mind it fell away. She scowled when she saw Carrie’s video feed brighten the screen.

“Good morning!” Carrie’s voice practically sang out the words. “It’s so good to see all of your beautiful faces today!”

Oh for shit’s sake, Casey thought, really? ‘Beautiful faces?’ Yeah, there was no way they would ever be friends.

“Casey, it’s so good to see you. How are you?” Carrie directed her attention to Casey alone.

“Carrie,” Casey’s labored response came out with the appropriate level of enthusiasm, “I am great. How are you?” The smile she plastered on almost hurt to maintain.

“I am doing just so well. We are all so lucky in this life, aren’t we? Great family, great friends, great jobs.”

The ‘great jobs’ comment got the room to chuckle.

“I do want to get down to business, Casey. I think I see your calendar is booked completely today so we’ll only have you for a few more minutes.”

“Unfortunately, yes. I have to meet with our technology leadership for the remainder of the day.”

“Okay, we’ll take what we can get then,” Carrie continued, not wasting any precious time. “As you all know, we have three major events coming up. One, we’ll have our April Escape at Casey’s house to go over all of the final details for the Spring Fling Conference, and ensure everything is in place for the Love Gala in June. Casey, is everything set for April? Do you need anything from us?”

“Everything for April Escape is scheduled.”

“Great! Then there is just one more topic.”

Here we go, Casey thought. It’s now or never.

“We’ve discussed image and branding with our marketing executives and we really think it’s important for the company, and our customers, to see their creator as a living example of what we represent. We would like to meet your significant other and would be over-the-moon pleased if he could join all of our events this year. Because…”

The pause made Casey nervous.

“We’ll be featuring you in a series of articles and promotional materials!”

Casey blinked, unable to speak.

They what?

Carrie took this as her cue to continue as the cheers and mumbling from the rest of the team subsided. “You have the right skills, the right drive, and quite frankly the right look. You’re exactly the type of person we would choose for an advertisement, so we are going to use the best representative for it.

“A powerful, successful woman balancing life, work, and a relationship! Isn’t it wonderful? Now if we could just get your boyfriend to pop the question! Wouldn’t that be perfect for timing!” Carrie giggled like a school-girl.

Casey slid her eyes to the email still open on one of her screens, then stared at the couple on the beach. She wasn’t those people, nor did she want to be, but it sounded like the decision had already been made. Shit. So much for putting an end to her lie.

“So,” Carrie nudged, “will we meet him in April?”

“Ah,” the word dragged on as she tried to quickly think of something else she could say, “sure.”

Sure! Casey yelled inside of her head. That was the best you could come up with?

“Great! We are all so looking forward to meeting him.”

Then Casey saw it. Something that had been missing from Carrie’s left hand before today. The thin gold band almost went unnoticed, but when Carrie had moved a strand of her blond hair away from her face, she saw it.

“Carrie, why didn’t you tell us you were engaged?”

The color drained from Carrie’s face. Casey almost felt badly for asking the question. Almost.

“It’s nothing at all.” Carrie brushed it off. “Just a decorative band, nothing more.”

Casey watched Carrie look down and move on to the next subject without reverting her attention back. She wondered how Carrie could be so outgoing, but so secretive. That wasn’t her style. So, Casey danced her finger in circles over her mouse and thought, maybe she’d look.

After excusing herself from the meeting Casey popped open the Match Me database and searched all of Carrie’s details–and noted not once had she clicked on a profile.

Interesting.

Carrie had mentioned long ago she loved the site and was an avid user. Casey looked through a few more databases and turned up empty handed.

Unless…Casey clicked a few more keys, changed her search criteria. She stole a look at the time and scowled when her schedule forced her to pause her search.

“I’ll be back,” Casey said to herself. Then clicked into her next meeting and left Carrie’s and Aimeé’s secrets behind.

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