Conflict of Interest

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CHAPTER 2

“One triple hazelnut latte with cinnamon, for one very depressed face.”

Grace looked at Aimeé and offered the most pathetic smile she could muster.

With a wink, Aimeé set the latte down and turned back to the bar. Over her shoulder, she said, “Closing in ten. Then we can get down to details. Casey and Rachel are on their way. We have important things to discuss.”

Important things to discuss? Her livelihood was important. But damn if she didn’t love them and feel a little curious.

As the espresso machine hissed and blender whirred, she watched Aimeé effortlessly move behind the coffee bar, laughing in conversation with her loyal patrons. All of whom Aimeé knew by name. Grace had seen more than one customer flush at the way their name sang out in the sweet French accent Aimeé had brought with her when she moved to the United States. Aimeé arrived at the tender age of eighteen and brought some coffee and pastry heaven with her. Why and how Aimeé decided on Minnesota, Grace still didn’t know – and it wasn’t for lack of trying – but she couldn’t be happier this is where her dear friend had landed.

Laughter filled the front of the shop. She could only assume one of the loyal patrons was offering a marriage proposal as payment for a black coffee and a butter scone – as many often did.

“For tomorrow’s breakfast.” Grace heard the hoarse voice as she watched an old man lift a folded paper bag and travel cup.

Grace was skeptical the treat would make it until morning. If only he were sixty years younger, he might have a shot with her black-haired, beautiful French friend.

Never before had she seen a more stunning person. Aimeé’s black wavy bob perfectly framed her delicate features. Almost-black eyes and brows added dangerous allure and insane sex appeal to her appearance. One look at Aimeé and you’d guess runway model, not pastry chef.

The chime of the bell sitting on top of the coffee shop door pulled her away from her thoughts. Grace felt the cold gust of wind that accompanied her two friends through the doorway. Completely wrapped up in each other’s words, Casey and Rachel continued their enthusiastic conversation, ignoring the stares that followed them on their path to the table.

“I’m serious. This is a horrible idea.” Casey unwrapped her scarf, her eyes intense on Rachel.

“You brought up the idea. And it is not a very bad idea. It’s simply a little...” Rachel looked up to ponder the correct choice of words and brightened as she found a fit: “A little nudge.”

“A nudge?”

“A nudge.” Rachel confirmed.

“Grace doesn’t need a nudge; besides, I changed my mind. And she has bigger things on her plate right now.” The two stood facing each other after they had disrobed their fall layers and heaved their bags onto the backs of their chairs.

Rachel folded her arms across her chest. She stated her rebuttal as if it were gospel, “There is never too much on your plate when it comes to the matters of the heart.”

Silence fell between the two in the middle of the emptying shop, as they contemplated the end of their conversation.

“We’ll see.” It was all that Casey – the ever-worrying, cynical, and even she admitted, glass-half-empty type – could muster.

Grace, still sitting mutely, having witnessed the intense exchange, moved her eyes from one to the other and back again.

“Hi,” she said pointedly.

Both turned their stares in her direction, having been so caught up in their discussion that they were surprised to see she was present.

“I don’t mean to be nosey, but I thought I overheard my name in there?” Amusement filled Grace’s green eyes as her two friends sat side by side across from her without saying a word. How was she lucky enough to find these fantastic, slightly chaotic, dazzling friends?

When neither of them spoke, Grace tried once more. “I’m curious as to what’s so good that you two are choosing to be up at ten on a school night? Spill.”

Rachel smiled, and Casey raised her hand. Without missing a beat, in the middle of her closing duties, Aimeé called on her from behind the bar like a teacher calls on an eager student. “Yes, Casey?”

“I think we might need a bottle of wine.”

“One bottle of wine, coming up. Be over in five. Any preference?” Aimeé inquired to the group as she ushered out the last of her crowd into the night and locked up the front entrance.

“The alcoholic kind,” Rachel put in, with a wry smile pasted on her face.

“Why don’t you start with the company stuff? Did you hear the rumor today? Wallace Corporation is on the hunt for its next takeover. Does the coffee wonder woman back there know? I’m assuming you’ve been here since you left the office today?” Casey said, always the one getting down to business.

Grace was too tired to ask how Casey knew the company was being sought after by the much larger firm. Maybe she bugged the office, or hacked into the security cameras. Grace didn’t want to know because it would just mean extra work. Sometimes Casey, a brilliant technologist, knew just a little too much about everything.

“Thomas and Jane is a brilliant, sophisticated, and beloved company. Therefore, it is very appealing to larger, poopy-er, corporate-y-er companies. Companies like Wallace, for example.” Grace said with just a tiny trace of bitterness, as she took a sip of her latte.

“Your sophisticated word choice astounds me. No wonder people can relate to you, you can really dumb it down.” Casey grinned as Grace narrowed her eyes in disapproval. So maybe the description was less than elegant? It was what might happen – would probably happen – she corrected herself.

“Want me to screw up some of the paperwork?” Casey offered, wiggling her eyebrows up and down. “Find some dirty gossip on Wallace? Maybe plant an email or five? Couple people pay a fine, go to jail, you get to keep the company, happy ever after.” She waved her hand as if to say, no big deal.

Grace laughed in spite of herself. “Case, I love you. I would love to utilize your hacking skills, but I would also like you not to go to prison.

“Prison? What kind of a hack do you think I am? I’m better than that. And you might want to tell your security team to check their firewalls. And maybe the single sign-on he set up. That should do it, though.”

“I should send you to prison myself. No more snooping.” Grace pointed at Casey, who shrugged innocently.

Huffing out a breath, Grace resigned, thankful for wine and somebody to talk to. “It’s just a bummer is all.”

As Aimeé sashayed over, she presented the wine to the table, the cork already removed. Four glasses and a second bottle peeking out from under Aimeé’s arm followed. Grace eyed the red juice and thought, this night was either going to be really good, or really bad.

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