Authors: Kate Hardy
Uh-oh. Clarence would be sympathetic; Gabriel wasn't so sure he wanted to hear what she had to say about him.
he said, playing for time.
He's a corporate shark in a suit
Ouch. Well, it was his own fault. He should've told her face to face who he was when he'd had the chance. Now it was going to get messy. He'd limit the damage and tell her right now.
I had a meeting today too,
With someone I was expecting to be my enemy, but who turned out to be someone I've been friends with for a long time.
That's good, isn't it?
He wasn't so sure. But he was going to have to bite the bullet.
Nicole, I think we need to talk.
* * *
Nicole stared at her screen. She'd never, ever given Clarence her real name. So why was he using it now? How did he know who she was?
Then a seriously nasty thought hit her.
She dismissed it instantly. Of course Clarence couldn't be Gabriel Hunter. He just couldn't. Clarence was kind and sweet and funny.
But he knew her real name without her telling him. And there was no way he could have connected Georgygirl with Nicole Thomas. They'd never shared real names or the kind of personal details that would link up. So the only logical explanation was that Clarence was Gabriel.
Are you trying to tell me *you're* the corporate shark?
she typed, desperately wanting him to tell her that he wasn't.
But his reply was very clear.
I don't think of myself that way, but you clearly do. Yes. I'm Gabriel Hunter.
Clarence really was Gabriel Hunter?
She couldn't quite take it in.
And then she felt sick to her stomach. Yet again, she'd fallen for someone and he'd turned out to be using her. Jeff had only asked her to date him and then move in with him because he'd wanted promotion and his boss had a thing about only promoting young men if they were settled. And now Clarence had betrayed her in exactly the same way: he hadn't made friends with her because he liked her, but because he'd wanted to leverage their friendship and persuade her to sell the Electric Palace to Hunter Hotels.
What a stupid, naive fool she was.
How long have you known who I am?
she demanded, wanting to know the worst so she could regroup.
I only realised today,
When you talked about Clarence. Then the pieces fitted together. You'd inherited a business and you were taking a sabbatical to see if you could make it work. So had Georgy.
But you didn't say a word to me at the cafÃ©.
I might have got the wrong end of the stick. There might've been another Clarence.
Because it's *such* a common name?
she asked waspishly.
OK. I wanted time to get my head round it,
Right then I didn't know what to say to you.
So how long have you known that the Electric Palace was mine?
We knew it belonged to Brian Thomasâwe'd approached him several times over the last couple of years and he'd refused to sell. We didn't know who his heir was until his will was made public. Then we contacted youâand at that point I didn't know you were Georgy.
He really expected her to believe that?
But now it's out in the open,
There's something I'd like you to think about.
Against her better instincts, she asked,
You know that art cafÃ© you talked to me about, a couple of months ago? If you sell the cinema, that'd give you the money to find the perfect place for it. To find a building you're not going to have to restore first. It'll save you so much time and hassle. It'd give you the space to follow your dreams straight away instead of having to wait while you rebuild someone else's.
Nicole stared at the screen in disbelief. He was picking up on the private dream she'd told him about in a completely different context and was using it to pressure her into selling?
You actually think you can use our former friendship to make me sell to you?
she asked, not sure whether she was more hurt or disgusted.
Oh, please. You're a corporate shark through and through. The Electric Palace isn't for saleânot now and not in the foreseeable future. Goodbye, Clarence.
She flicked out of the messaging programme and shut down her laptop before he could reply.
It was hard to get her head round this. Her friend Clarence was actually her business rival, Gabriel Hunter. Which meant he wasn't really her friendâotherwise why would he have tried to use their relationship to put pressure on her to sell?
And to think she'd told him things she'd never told anyone else. Trusted him.
Now she knew who he really was, her worst fears had come true. He wasn't the same online as he was in real life. In real life, she disliked him and everything he stood for.
She'd lost her friend.
And she'd lost the tiny bit of her remaining trust along with that friendship.
next day wasn't improved by another run-in with his fatherâespecially because this time he couldn't talk to Georgygirl about it and there was nobody to tease him out of his irritation.
He also couldn't share the bad pun that a friend emailed him and that he knew Georgy would've enjoyed. He thought about sending her a message, but she'd made it pretty clear that she didn't want to have anything to do with him. That âGoodbye, Clarence' had sounded very final.
She didn't message him that evening, either.
Not that he was surprised. Nicole Thomas wasn't the kind of woman who backed down. She was a cool, hard-headed businesswoman.
By the following morning, Gabriel realised why his dark mood refused to lift. He
Georgygirl. She'd made his life so much brighter, these last six months. It had felt good, knowing that there was someone out there who actually understood who he really was, at heart. And he was miserable without her.
Did she miss Clarence, too? he wondered.
OK, so Nicole had called him a corporate shark. Which he wasn't. Not really. He wasn't a pushover, but he was scrupulously fair in his business dealings. His real identity had clearly come as a shock to her. Hers had been a shock to him, too, but at least he'd had time to get his head round it before he'd talked to her, whereas he hadn't given her a chance to get used to the idea. Then she'd accused him of using their former friendship to make her sell the cinema to him, and he knew she had a point. He
tried to leverage their former friendship, thinking that it was all that was left.
But if she missed him as much as he missed her, and she could put aside who he was and see past that to his real selfâthe self he'd shared with her onlineâthen maybe they could salvage something from this.
In any case, their businesses were next door to each other. It would be the neighbourly thing to do, to take her a coffee and see how she was getting on. The fact that he was attracted to her had nothing to do with it, he told himself. This was strictly business, and maybe also a chance to fix a relationship that he valued and he missed.
He dropped in to his favourite coffee shopâthe one where he'd met Nicole the other dayâpicked up two espressos to go and two dark chocolate brownies, then headed for Mortimer Gardens.
The front door to the cinema was closed, but when he tried the handle it was unlocked. He opened it and went into the lobby. âHello?' he called.
Nicole came into the lobby from what he assumed was the foyer, carrying a clipboard. âWhat are you doing here?' she asked.
âI brought you coffee.' He offered her the paper cup and one of the two paper bags.
She frowned. âWhy?'
âBecause we're neighbours. You've been working hard and I thought maybe you could do with this.'
âThank you,' she said coolly and politely, âbut there's really no need.'
He sighed. âNicole, I don't want to fight with youâand I could drink both espressos myself and eat both brownies, but that much caffeine and sugar in my system at once would turn me into a total nightmare. Take pity on my staff and share it with me.'
He could see the doubt in her face, so he added, âFor Clarence and Georgy.'
She shook her head. âForget Georgy. She doesn't exist. Any more than Clarence does.'
âWe do existâwe're real. And can you please just take the coffee and cake instead of being stubborn and stroppy? They don't come with strings attached.'
She stared at him. Just when he was about to give up and walk away, she gave the tiniest nod. âI guess. Thank you.' She took the coffee and the brownie. âThough actually I do feel beholden to you now.'
âThere's no need. It's just coffee. As I said, no strings. I'm being neighbourly.'
âI guess I should be neighbourly, too, and invite you to sit downâ' she gestured to his suit ââbut you're really not dressed for this place.'
âMaybe.' He noticed that she was wearing jeans and another old T-shirt, teamed with canvas shoes; her hair was pulled back tightly into a bun. Out of habit from her banking days, or just to try and stop herself getting so dusty? Who was the real Nicoleâthe banker, or the girl who dreamed of the stars?
âI was just working through here.'
Gabriel followed her through into the foyer, where she'd set up a makeshift desk at one of the tables. She'd taken down the boarding on one of the windows to let some light in.
âLighting not working?' he asked.
âThe electricity supply's due to be reconnected some time today,' she said. âI'm using a torch and this window until then.'
âAnd you have some spare fuses in case some of the circuits blow when the electricity's back on?'
She folded her arms and gave him a narrow-eyed look. âI might be female, Mr Hunter, but I'm neither stupid nor helpless.'
He sighed. âThat wasn't what I was implying. You know I know you're not stupid or helpless. What I'm saying is that I have a couple of electricians next door if you run into problems, OK?'
âSince when does a hard-headed businessman offer help to the business next door?'
When it was owned by a friend, one whom he happened to know was doing this single-handedly. Not that he thought she'd accept that. And part of him thought that he was crazy. Why
he help her, when he wanted her to sell the place to him? He ought to be making life hard for her, not bringing her coffee and offering help from his staff.
Yet part of him wonderedâwas there a compromise? Could he forge a deal that would both please his father
help his friend? âDamage limitation,' he said. âIf your place goes up in smoke, it's going to affect mine.' It was true. The fact that he couldn't quite separate Nicole from Georgygirl was irrelevant.
âRight.' She grabbed a cloth and rubbed the worst of the dust from one of the chairs. âSince you're here, have a seat.'
âThank you.' He sat down.
âSo why are you really here?' she asked.
Because he missed her. But he didn't think she was ready to hear that. He wasn't sure he was ready to hear that, either. âBeing neighbourly. Just as you'd do if you were a lot further on in the restoration here and I'd just started up next door.'
âWith the exception that I wouldn't be trying to buy your hotel so I could raze it to the ground to make a car park for my cinema,' she pointed out.
âI did say that was one option. There are others,' he said mildly. He just hadn't thought them all through yet. He wanted the land for car parking. Restoring the cinema instead and using it as part of the hotel was unlikely to be cost effective. To give himself some breathing space, he asked, âWhy did you call yourself Georgygirl on the forum?'
* * *
It was the last question Nicole had expected. She frowned. âWhat's that got to do with the cinema?'
âNothing. I'm just curious. Before I knew who you were, I assumed maybe your name was Georgina, or your surname was George. And then afterwards I thought of the film.'
âA film that's half a century old and has never been remadeâand you loathe romcoms anyway.' Or, at least, Clarence did. She didn't know what Gabriel Hunter liked. How much of Clarence had been real?
âOK. So I looked it up on the internet. But the synopsis I readâwell, it doesn't fit you. And neither does the song. You're not dowdy and any male with red blood would give you a second glance.'
âI wasn't fishing for compliments,' she said crisply. âFor the record, I'm not interested in flattery, either.'
âI was merely stating facts. Though there is one thing,' he said. âYou're Nicole on the outside and Georgy on the inside.'
Two parts of the same person. Was it the same for him? Was the nice side of Gabriel HunterâClarenceâreal? But he'd lied to her. How could she trust him? Especially as she'd made that mistake before: putting her trust in the wrong man. She'd promised herself she'd never repeat that mistake again.
âSoâwhy Georgygirl?' he asked again.
âIt's not from that film. If you must know, it's George, as in Banks, because I'mâwell, wasâa banker, and girl because I'm female.'
âGeorge Banks from
,' he said. âI don't think you'd believe that feeding the birds is a wasteâso I'm guessing that you never find the time to fly kites.'
âClever.' And a little too close to the truth for her comfort. âSo why did you call yourself Clarence?'
âBecause my name's Gabriel.'
She frowned. âI'm not following you.'
âAs in the angel,' he said.
She scoffed. âYou're no angel.'
âI don't pretend to be. I just happen to have the name of an angel.'
The Archangel Gabriel; and an angel called Clarence. â
It's a Wonderful Life
.' Her favourite film: the one she watched with her mother every Christmas Eve and wept over every time the townsfolk of Bedford Falls all came with their savings to help George Bailey. She shook her head. âNo. You should've called yourself Potter.'
âHenry,' she corrected.
He grimaced. âI know you think I'm a corporate shark, but I'd never cheat or steal like Henry Potter.' He looked her straight in the eye. âFor the record, that wasn't my teenage mistake, or have you already checked that out?'
âOnce I found out who you really were, I looked you up,' she admitted. âI saw what the papers said about you.'
âIt is what it is.' He shrugged. âSo now you know the worst of me.'
âYes. It's a hell of a teenage mistake, crashing your car into someone's shop.'
âWhile drunk. Don't forget that. And my father had enough money to hire a top-class lawyer who could get me off on a technicality. Which makes me the lowest of the low.' He suddenly looked really vulnerable. âAnd you think I don't know that?'
She winced. Clarence had told her he regretted his teenage mistake bitterly. That he was still paying for his mistake over and over again. There was a lot more to this than the papers had reported, she was sure.
And she'd just been really, really mean to him. To the man who'd made her life that bit brighter over the last six months. How horrible did that make her?
Then again, Gabriel had tried to leverage their friendship to make her sell the cinema to him. Which made him as much of a user as Jeff. And that was something she found hard to forgive.
âMr Hunter, we really have nothing to say to each other.'
âGeorgyâNicole,' he corrected himself, âwe've talked every night for months and I think that's real.'
âBut your company wants to buy my cinema.'
âIt's not for sale. Not now, and not ever.'
âMessage received and understood,' he said. âHave you spoken to a surveyor yet?'
âNo,' she admitted.
âI can give you some names.'
âI bet you can.'
He frowned. âWhat's that supposed to mean?'
âA surveyor who'll tell me that there's so much wrong, the best thing I can do is raze it to the ground and sell you the site as a car park for your new hotel?' she asked waspishly.
âNo. I'm really not like Henry Potter,' he said again. âI was trying to be nice. To help you, because I have experience in the area and you don't.'
âWhy would you help me when we're business rivals?'
âBecause we don't have to be rivals,' he said. âMaybe we can work together.'
âWhat do you intend to do with the place?'
âYou've already asked me that, and my answer's the same.' She looked at him. âWould you tell a business rival what your strategy was?'
He sighed. âNicole, I'm not asking for rivalry reasons. I'm asking, are you going to run it as a cinema or are you going to use the space for something else? You once said if you could do anything you wanted, you'd open a cafÃ© and have a space where people could do some kind of art.'
âIt's a possibility,' she allowed. âI need to sort out my costings first and work out the best use of the space.' And she really had to make this work. She didn't want to lose all her savings and her securityâto risk being as vulnerable as her mother had been when Nicole was growing up, having no choices in what she did.
âIf you want to set up an art cafÃ©,' he said, âmaybe I can help you find better premises for it.'
âAnd sell you the cinema? We've already discussed this, and you can ask me again and again until you're blue in the face, but it's not happening. Whatever I do, it'll be done right here.'
âOK. Well, as a Surrey Quays residentâ'
âYou mean you actually live here?' she broke in. âYou didn't just join the forum to listen out for people protesting against your development so you could charm them out of it?'
He winced. âThat was one of the reasons I joined the forum initially, I admit.'
So she'd been right and their whole relationship had been based on a lie. Just as it had with Jeff. Would she never learn?
âBut I do live in Surrey Quays,' he said, and named one of the most prestigious developments on the edge of the river. âI moved there eighteen months ago. And I'm curious about the cinema now I'm here. It's been boarded up ever since I've lived in the area.'
âYou seriously expect me to give you a guided tour?'
âWould you give Clarence a tour?' he asked.
Yes. Without a shadow of a doubt. She blew out a breath. âYou're not Clarence.'
âBut I am,' he said softly. âI know things about you that you haven't told anyone elseâjust as you know things about me. We're friends.'