Authors: Kate Hardy
âI think it might be mice.'
Susan's suspicions were confirmed when they went into the auditorium and saw how many of the plush seats looked nibbled. Those that had escaped the mice's teeth were worn threadbare in places.
âI can see why that article called it a flea-pit,' Nicole said with a shudder. âThis is awful, Mum.'
âYou just need the pest control people in for the mice, then do a bit of scrubbing,' Susan said.
But when they came out of the auditorium and back into the foyer, Nicole flashed the torch around and saw the stained glass. âOh, Mum, that's gorgeous. And the wood on the barâit's pitted in places, but I bet a carpenter could sort that out. I can just see this bar restored to its Edwardian Art Deco glory.'
âBack in its earliest days?' Susan asked.
âMaybe. And look at this staircase.' Nicole shone the torch on the sweeping wrought-iron staircase that led up to the first floor. âI can imagine movie stars sashaying down this in high heels and gorgeous dresses. Or glamorous ballroom dancers.'
âWe never really used the upper floor. There was always a rope across the stairs,' Susan said.
âSo what's upstairs?'
Susan shrugged. âBrian's office was there. As for the rest of it... Storage space, I think.'
But when they went to look, they discovered that the large upstairs room had gorgeous parquet flooring, and a ceiling covered in carved Art Deco stars that stunned them both.
âI had no idea this was here,' Susan said. âHow beautiful.'
âThis must've been the ballroom bit,' Nicole said. âAnd I can imagine people dancing here during the Blitz, refusing to let the war get them down. Mum, this place is incredible.'
She'd never expected to fall in love with a building, especially one which came from a source that made her feel awkward and uncomfortable. But Nicole could see the Electric Palace as it could be if it was renovatedâthe cinema on the ground floor, with the top floor as a ballroom or maybe a place for local bands to play. Or she could even turn this room into a cafÃ©-restaurant. A cafÃ© with an area for doing crafts, perhaps like her mum suggested. Or an ice cream parlour, stocked with local artisan ice cream.
If she just sold the Electric Palace to a developer and collected the money, would the building be razed to the ground? Could all this be lost?
But she really couldn't let that happen. She wanted to bring the Electric Palace back to life, to make it part of the community again.
âIt's going to be a lot of work to restore it,' she said. Not to mention money: it would eat up all her savings and she would probably need a bank loan as well to tide her over until the business was up and running properly.
âBut you're not afraid of hard workâand this time you'd be working for you,' Susan pointed out.
âOn the Surrey Quays forum, quite a few people have said how they'd love the place to be restored so we had our own cinema locally,' Nicole said thoughtfully.
âSo you wouldn't be doing it on your own,' Susan said. âYou already have a potential audience and people who'd be willing to spread the word. Some of them might volunteer to help you with the restoration or running the placeâand you can count me in as well. I could even try and get some of my probationers interested. I bet they'd enjoy slapping a bit of paint on the walls.'
âSupposing I can't make a go of it? There's only one screen, maybe the possibility of two if I use the upstairs room,' Nicole said. âIs that enough to draw the customers in and make the place pay?'
âIf anyone can do it, you can,' Susan said.
âI have savings,' Nicole said thoughtfully. âIf the renovations cost more than what I have, I could get a loan.'
âI have savings, too. I'd be happy to use them here,' Susan added.
Nicole shook her head. âThis should be your heritage, Mum, not mine. And I don't want you to risk your savings on a business venture that might not make it.'
âWe've already had this argument. You didn't win it earlier and you're not going to win it now,' Susan said crisply. âThe Electric Palace is yours. And it's your choice whether you want to sell it or whether you want to do something with it.'
Nicole looked at the sad, neglected old building and knew exactly what she was going to do. âI'll work out some figures, to see if it's viable.' Though she knew that it wasn't just about the figures. And if the figures didn't work, she'd find alternatives until they
âAnd if it's viable?' Susan asked.
âI'll talk to my boss. If he'll give me a six-month sabbatical, it'd be long enough for me to see if I can make a go of this place.' Nicole shook her head. âI can't quite believe I just said that. I've spent ten years working for the bank and I've worked my way up from the bottom.'
âAnd you hate it thereâit suppresses the real Nicole and it's turned you into a corporate ghost.'
âDon't pull your punches, Mum,' Nicole said wryly.
Susan hugged her. âI can love you to bits at the same time as telling you that you're making a massive mistake with your life, you know.'
âBecause mums are good at multi-tasking?'
âYou got it, kiddo.' Susan hugged her again. âAnd I'm with you on this. Anything you need, from scrubbing floors to working a shift in the ticket office to making popcorn, I'm thereâand, as I said, I have savings and I'm happy to invest them in this place.'
âYou worked hard for that money.'
âAnd interest rates are so pathetic that my savings are earning me nothing. I'd rather that money was put to good use. Making my daughter's life betterâand that would make me very happy indeed. You can't put a price on that.'
Nicole hugged her. âThanks, Mum. I love you. And you are so getting the best pudding in the world.'
âYou mean, we have to stop by the supermarket on the way back to your flat because there's nothing in your fridge,' Susan said dryly.
Nicole grinned. âYou know me so well.'
* * *
Later that evening, when Susan had gone home, Nicole checked her phone. As she'd half expected, there was a message from Clarence
. Did you talk to your mum?
Yes. Did you talk to your dad?
To her pleasure, he replied almost instantly.
No. There wasn't time.
Nicole was pretty sure that meant Clarence hadn't been able to face a row.
What did your mum say?
Even though she had a feeling that he was asking her partly to distract her from quizzing him about his own situation, it was still nice that he was interested.
We went to see the building.
It's gorgeous but it needs work.
Then I'd recommend getting a full surveyor's report, so you can make sure any renovation quotes you get from builders are fair, accurate and complete.
Thanks. I hadn't thought of that.
I can recommend some people, if you want.
That'd be great. I'll take you up on that, if the figures stack up and I decide to go ahead with getting the business back up and running.
Although Nicole had told herself she'd only do it if the figures worked out, she knew it was a fib. She'd fallen in love with the building and for the first time in years she was excited at the idea of starting work on something. Clarence obviously lived in Surrey Quays, or he wouldn't be part of the forum; so he'd see the boards come down from the front of the Electric Palace or hear about the renovations from some other eagle-eyed person on the Surrey Quays website. She really ought to tell him before it started happening. After all, he was her friend. And he'd said that he had experience in the entertainment and service industry, so he might have some great ideas for getting the cinema up and running again. He'd already made her think about having a survey done, which wouldn't have occurred to herâshe'd just intended to find three builders with good reputations and would pick the middle quote of the three.
But, even as she started to type her news, something held her back.
And she knew what it was. Jeff's betrayal had broken her trust. Although she felt she knew Clarence well, and he was the only person she'd even consider talking to about this apart from her mum and best friend, she found herself halting instead of typing a flurry of excited words about her plans.
Maybe it was better to wait to tell him about it until she'd got all her ducks in a row and knew exactly what she was doing.
What's stopping you going ahead?
I need to work out the figures first. See if it's viable.
So your mum said the same as I didâthat it'll get you out of the job you hate?
Goodâand you're listening to both of us?
But it's still early days, Clarence. I don't want to talk about it too much right nowâ
She couldn't tell him that she didn't trust him. That would mean explaining about Jeff, and she still cringed when she thought about it. How she'd been blithely unaware of the real reason Jeff had asked her to live with him, until she'd overheard that conversation in the toilets. One of the women touching up her make-up by the mirror had said how her boyfriend was actually living with someone else right then but didn't love herâhe was only living with the other woman because his boss wasn't prepared to give the promotion to someone who wasn't settled down, and he was going to leave her as soon as he got the promotion.
Nicole had winced in sympathy with the poor, deluded woman who thought everything was fine, and also wanted to point out to the woman bragging about her fickle lover that, if he was prepared to cheat on his live-in girlfriend with her, there was a very strong chance he'd do exactly the same thing to her with someone else at some point in the future.
The woman had continued, âShe's a right cold fish, Jeff says. A boring banker. But Jeff says he really, really loves me. He's even bought me an engagement ringâlook.'
There were encouraging coos from her friends; but Nicole had found herself going cold. Jeff wasn't exactly a common name. Even if it were how many men called Jeff were living with a girlfriend who was a banker? Surely it couldn't be...? But when the woman had gone on to describe cheating, lying Jeff, Nicole had realised with devastating clarity that the poor, deluded woman she'd felt sorry for was none other than herself.
She shook herself. That was all baggage that she needed to jettison. And right now Clarence was waiting for her reply.
She continued typing.
In case I jinx it. The building's going to need a lot of work doing to it. I don't mean to be offensive and shut you out.
It is what it is,
No offence taken. And when you do want to talk about it, Georgy, I'm here.
I know, Clarence. And I appreciate it.
She appreciated the fact he kept things light in the rest of their conversation, too.
Goodnight, Georgy. Sweet dreams.
You, too, Clarence.
Gabriel. You can't create something out of nothing. We're not going to be able to offer our guests exclusive parking.' Evan Hunter stared at his son. âWe should've got the land on the other side of the hotel.'
âIt was a sealed bid auction, Dad. And we agreed what would be reasonable. Paying over the odds for the land would've wrecked our budget and the hotel might not have been viable any more.'
âAnd in the meantime there's an apartment block planned for where our car park should be,' Evan grumbled.
âUnless the new owner of the Electric Palace sells to us.'
Evan sighed. âNicole Thomas has already turned down every offer. She says she's going to restore the place.'
âIt might not be worth her while,' Gabriel pointed out. âShe's a banker. She'll understand about gearingâand if the restoration costs are too high, she'll see the sense in selling.' He paused. âTo us.'
âYou won't succeed, Gabriel. It's a waste of time.'
Maybe, Gabriel thought, this was his chance to prove his worth to his father once and for all. âI'll talk to her.'
âCharm her into it?' Evan scoffed.
âGive her a dose of healthy realism,' Gabriel corrected. âThe place has been boarded up for five years. The paintwork outside is in bad condition. There are articles in the Surrey Quays forum from years back calling it a flea-pit, so my guess is that it's even worse inside. Add damp, mould and vermin damageâit's not going to be cheap to fix that kind of damage.'
âThe Surrey Quays forum.' Evan's eyes narrowed. âIf she gets them behind her and starts a pressure group...'
âDad. I'll handle it,' Gabriel said. âWe haven't had any objections to the hotel, have we?'
âI suppose not.'
Gabriel didn't bother waiting for his father to say he'd done a good job with the PR side. It wasn't Evan's style. âI'll handle it,' he said again. âNicole Thomas is a hard-headed businesswoman. She'll see the sensible course is to sell the site to us. She gets to cash in her inheritance, and we get the space. Everybody wins.'
âHmm.' Evan didn't look convinced.
So maybe this would be the tipping point. The thing that finally earned Gabriel his father's respect.
And then maybe he'd get his freedom.
* * *
The figures worked. So did the admin. Nicole had checked online and there was a huge list of permissions and licences she needed to apply for, but it was all doable. She just needed to make a master list, do some critical path analysis, and tackle the tasks in the right order. Just as she would on a normal day at her desk.
Once she'd talked to her boss and he'd agreed to let her take a sabbatical, she sat at her desk, working out how to break the news to her team.
But then Neil, her second-in-command, came in to her office. âAre the rumours true?'
It looked as if the office grapevine had scooped her. âWhat rumours?' she asked, playing for time.
âThat you're taking six months off?'
He looked her up and down, frowning. âYou don't
Oh, honestly. Was the guy still stuck in the Dark Ages? âThat's because I'm not.'
âThen what? Have you got yourself a mail-order bridegroom on the internetâa rich Russian mafia guy who wants to be respectable?' He cackled, clearly pleased with himself at the barb.
She rolled her eyes, not rising to the bait. Neil liked to think of himself as the office wise-guy and he invariably made comments for a cheap laugh at other people's expense. She'd warned him about it before in his annual review, but he hadn't taken a blind bit of notice. âYou can tell everyone I'm not pregnant. I'm also not running off to Russia, thinking that I've bagged myself a millionaire bridegroom only to discover that it was all a big scam and I'm about to be sold into slavery.' She steepled her fingers and looked him straight in the eye. âAre there any other rumours I need to clarify, or are we done?'
âWowâI've never heard you...' He looked at her with something akin to respect. âSorry.'
She shrugged. âApology accepted.'
âSo why are you taking six months off?'
âIt's a business opportunity,' she said. âKeep your fingers crossed that it works, because if it doesn't I'll be claiming my desk back in six months' time.'
From him, she meant, and clearly he recognised it because his face went dull red. âNo offence meant.'
âGood,' she said, and clapped him on the shoulder. âLittle tip from me. For what's probably the six millionth time I've told you, Neil, try to lose the wisecracks. They make you look less professional and that'll stand in the way of you being promoted.'
âAll right. Sorry.' He paused. âAre you really going today?'
âWithout even having a leaving do?'
âI might be coming back if my plans don't work out,' she reminded him, âso it would be a bit fake to have a leaving do. But I'll put some money behind the bar at the Mucky Duckâ' the nearby pub that most of her team seemed to frequent after work ââif you're all that desperate to have a drink at my expense.'
âHang on. You'll pay for your own sort-of leaving do and not turn up to it?'
That was the idea. She spread her hands. âWhat's the problem?'
Neil shook his head. âIf it wasn't for the fact you're actually leaving, I'd think you'd be slaving behind your desk. You never join in with anything.'
âBecause I don't fit in,' she said softly. âSo I'm not going to be the spectre at the feast. You can all enjoy a drink without worrying what to say in front of me.'
âNone of us really knows youâall we know is that you work crazy hours,' Neil said.
Which was why nobody ever asked her about how her weekend was: they knew she would've spent a big chunk of Saturday at her desk.
âDo you even have a life outside the office?' Neil asked.
And this time there was no barb in his voice; Nicole squirmed inwardly when she realised that the odd note in his voice was pity. âAsk me again in six months,' she said, âbecause then I hope I might have.' And that was the nearest she'd get to admitting her work-life balance was all wrong.
âWellâgood luck with your mysterious business opportunity,' he said.
âThanksâand I'll make sure I leave my desk tidy for you.'
Neil took it as the dismissal she meant it to be; but, before she could clear her desk at the end of the day, her entire team filed into her office, headed by her boss.
âWe thought you should have these,' he said, and presented her with a bottle of expensive champagne, a massive card which had been signed by everyone on their floor, and a huge bouquet of roses and lilies.
âWe didn't really know what to get you,' Neil said, joining them at Nicole's desk, âbut the team had a whip-round.' He presented her with an envelope filled with money. âMaybe this will help with your, um, business opportunity.'
Nicole was touched that they'd gone to this trouble. She hadn't expected anythingâjust that she'd slip away quietly while everyone else was at the bar across the road.
âThanks. You'll be pleased to know it'll go to good useâI'll probably spend it on paint.'
Neil gaped at her. âYou're leaving us to be an artist?'
She laughed. âNo. I meant masonry paint. I've been left a cinema in a will. It's a bit run-down but I'm going to restore it and see if I can get it up and running properly.'
? Then you,' Neil said, âare coming across to the Mucky Duck with us right now, and you're going to tell us everythingâand that's not a suggestion, Nicole, because we'll carry you over there if we have to.'
It was the first time Nicole had actually felt part of the team. How ironic that it had happened just as she was leaving them.
âOK,' she said, and let them sweep her across the road in the middle of a crowd.
* * *
The next day, Nicole was in the cinema with a clipboard and a pen, adding to her list of what she needed to do when her phone rang.
She glanced at the screen, half expecting that it would be her daily call from the lawyer at Hunter Hotels trying to persuade her to sell the Electric Palace, even though she'd told him every time that the cinema wasn't for sale. Not recognising the number on her screen, and assuming it was one of the calls she was waiting to be returned, she answered her phone. âYes?'
âIt's Gabriel Hunter from Hunter Hotels.'
Clearly the lawyer had realised that she wasn't going to say yes to the monkey, so now it was the organ-grinder's turn to try and persuade her. She suppressed a sigh. âThank you for calling, Mr Hunter, but I believe I've made my position quite clear. The Electric Palace isn't for sale.'
âIndeed,' he said, âbut we have areas of mutual interest and I'd like to meet you to discuss them.'
In other words, he planned to charm her into selling? She put on her best bland voice. âThat's very nice of you to ask, but I'm afraid I'm really rather busy at the moment.'
âIt won't take long. Are you at the cinema right now?'
She regretted her answer the moment he asked, âAnd you've been there since the crack of dawn?'
Had the Hunters got someone spying on her, or something? âNot that it's any of your business, but yes.' There was a lot to do. And she thought at her best, first thing in the morning. It made sense to start early.
âI'd be the same,' he said, mollifying her only slightly. âSo I'd say you're about due for a coffee break. How about I meet you at the cafÃ© on Challoner Road in half an hour?'
âWhere you'll have a carnation in your buttonhole and be carrying a copy of the
so I can recognise you?' She couldn't help the snippy retort.
He laughed. âNo need. I'll be there firstâand I'll recognise you.'
Hunter Hotels probably had a dossier on her, including a photograph and a list of everything from her route to work to her shoe size, she thought grimly. âThank you for the invitation, but there really isn't any point in us meeting. I'm not selling.'
âI'm not trying to pressure you to sell. As I said, I want to discuss mutual opportunitiesâand the coffee's on me.'
âI'm not dressed to go to a cafÃ©. I'm covered in dust.'
âI'd be worried if you weren't, given the current condition of the cinema. And I'd be even more worried if you were walking around a run-down building wearing patent stilettos and a business suit.'
There was a note of humour in Gabriel Hunter's voice. Nicole hadn't expected that, and she quite liked it; at the same time, it left her feeling slightly off balance.
âBut if you'd rather I brought the coffee to you, that's fine,' he said. âJust let me know how you take your coffee.'
It was tempting, but at least if they met in a neutral place she could make an excuse to leave. If he turned up at the cinema, she might have to be rude in order to make him leave and let her get on with things. And, at the end of the day, Gabriel Hunter was working on the business next door to hers. They might have mutual customers. So he probably had a point about mutual opportunities. Maybe they should talk.
âI'll see you at the cafÃ© in half an hour,' she said.
She brushed herself down and then was cross with herself. It wasn't as if he was her client, and she wasn't still working at the bank. It didn't matter what she looked like or what he thought of her. And if he tried to push her into selling the Electric Palace, she'd give him very short shrift and come back to work on her lists.
* * *
So Nicole Thomas had agreed to meet him. That was a good start, Gabriel thought. He'd certainly got further with her than their company lawyer had.
He worked on his laptop with one eye on the door, waiting for her to turn up. Given that she'd worked in a bank and her photograph on their website made her look like a consummate professional, he'd bet that she'd walk through the door thirty seconds earlier than they'd agreed to meet. Efficiency was probably her middle name.
Almost on cue, the door opened. He recognised Nicole immediately; even though she was wearing old jeans and a T-shirt rather than a business suit, and no make-up whatsoever, her mid-brown hair was pulled back in exactly the same style as she'd worn it at the bank. Old habits clearly died hard.
She glanced around the cafÃ©, obviously looking for him. For a moment, she looked vulnerable and Gabriel was shocked to feel a sudden surge of protectiveness. She worked for a bank and had worked her way up the management ladder, so she most definitely didn't need protecting; but there was something about her that drew him.
He was horrified to realise that he was attracted to her.
Talk about inappropriate. You didn't fall for your business rival. Ever. Besides, he didn't want to get involved with anyone. He was tired of dating women who had preconceived notions about him. All he wanted to do was talk to Nicole Thomas about mutual opportunities, point out all the many difficulties she was going to face in restoring the cinema, and then talk her into doing the sensible thing and selling the Electric Palace to him for a price fair to both of them.
* * *
Nicole looked round the cafÃ©, trying to work out which of the men sitting on their own was Gabriel Hunter. Why on earth hadn't she looked him up on the internet first, so she would've known exactly who she was meeting here? Had she already slipped out of good business habits, just days after leaving the bank? At this rate, she'd make a complete mess of the cinema and she'd be forced to go back to her old jobâand, worse still, have to admit that she'd failed in her bid for freedom.