Authors: Kate Hardy
Was that true? Could she trust him?
Part of her wanted to believe that her friendship with Clarence wasn't a castle built on sand; part of her wanted to run as fast as she could in the opposite direction.
Hope had a brief tussle with common senseâand won. âAll right. I'll show you round. But it'll have to be by torchlight,' she warned.
âCinemas are supposed to be dark,' he said with a smile.
She wished he hadn't smiled like that. It gave her goose-bumps. Gabriel Hunter had a seriously beautiful mouth, and his eyes were the colour of cornflowers.
And why was she mooning over him? Ridiculous. She needed to get a grip. Right now. âThis is the foyerâwell, obviously,' she said gruffly, and shone the torch round.
He gave an audible intake of breath. âThe glass, Nicoleâit's beautiful. Art Deco. It deserves to be showcased.'
The same thing she'd noticed. Warmth flared through her, and she had to damp it down. This was her business rival Gabriel Hunter, not her friend Clarence, she reminded herself.
âThe cinema itself is through here.'
He sniffed as she ushered him through to the auditorium, then pulled a face. âI'm afraid you've got a mouse problem. That's a pretty distinctive smell.'
âThey've chomped the seats a lot, too.' She shone a torch onto one of the worst bits to show him.
âThere are people who can restore that. I know some good upholstâ' He stopped. âSorry. I'll shut up. You're perfectly capable of researching your own contractors.'
She brought him back out into the foyer. âFrom what you said the other day, you know that this place was originally an Edwardian
or leisure centre. The downstairs was originally a skating rink and the upstairs was the Electric Cinema.'
âDoes that mean you have a projection room upstairs as well as down?' he asked.
âI'm still mapping the place out and working my way through all the junk, but I think soâbecause in the nineteen-thirties it was changed to a ballroom upstairs and a picture house downstairs.'
âSo is upstairs still the ballroom?'
Upstairs was the bit that she hoped would make him change his mind about ever asking her to sell again. Because surely, working for a company which renovated old buildings and redeveloped them into hotels, he must have some appreciation of architecture? Clarence would love it, she knew; but how much of Clarence had been designed simply to charm her and how much of Clarence was really Gabriel? That was what she hadn't worked out yet. And until she did she wasn't prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.
âThe stairs,' she said, gesturing towards them.
âThat's beautiful, too. Look at that railing. I can imagine women sweeping down that staircase in floaty dresses after waltzing the night away.'
Just as she'd thought when she'd seen the staircase. And there was no way that Gabriel could've known she'd thought that, because she hadn't told him. So was his response pure Clarence, and that meant Clarence was the real part of him, after all?
âAnd this room at the top,' she said as they walked up the stairs, âwas used by Brian as a store-room, or so Mum says.'
âIs your mum OK?' he asked.
She frowned. âOK about what?'
âThis place. It must have memories for her. And, in the circumstances...' His voice faded.
âShe's fine. But thank you for asking.'
âI wasn't being polite, and I wasn't asking for leverage purposes, either,' he said softly. âI was asking as your friend, Nicole.'
Gabriel wasn't her friend, though.
Saying nothing, she opened the door to the upper room and handed him the torch. âSee what you think.'
He shone the torch on the flooring first. âThat looks like parquet flooringâcleaned up, that will be stunning.' He bent down to take a closer look. âJust look at the inlayâNicole, this is gorgeous.'
But it wasn't the really stunning bit of the room. She still couldn't understand why her grandfather had wasted it by using the room as storage space.
âLook up,' she said.
Gabriel shone the torch upwards and she actually heard his intake of breath. âIs that plasterwork or is it pressed tin?' he asked.
âI assume it's plasterwork. I didn't even know ceilings could be made of anything else. Well, except maybe wood?'
âDo you have a ladder?' he asked.
âIt doesn't tend to be something that a banker would use in their everyday job, so no,' she said dryly.
âI'll bring one over from next door later this afternoon, so we can take a closer look,' he said.
We? she wondered. It was
cinema, not his. But at least he seemed to appreciate the ceiling.
âDo you still want to raze the place to the ground, then?' she asked.
âNo,' he admitted. âIf that ceiling's tin, which I think it might be, that's quite rare in England and it'll probably get this building listed. Look at those Art Deco starsâthey're absolutely amazing.'
He'd already told her that if a building was listed it meant extra work and delays. âYou mean, that ceiling will get the building listed if someone drops the council an anonymous letter telling them about it?' she asked sharply.
âIf you mean me or anyone at Hunter's, no. That's not how I operate. But I've got experience in this sort of thing, Nicole. I can help you. We're not on opposite sides.'
âIt feels like it.'
âWe've been friends for a while. We probably know more about each other than most of our non-online friends know about us.'
âBut do we really?' she asked. âHow do we know it wasn't all an act?'
âIt wasn't on my part,' he said, âand I'm pretty sure it wasn't on yours.' He held her gaze. âHave dinner with me tonight.'
No. Common sense meant that she should say no.
But the expression in his eyes wasn't one of triumph or guile. She couldn't quite read it.
âWhy do you want to have dinner with me?' she asked.
* * *
Gabriel couldn't blame her for being suspicious. He
been trying to buy her cinema, planning to turn it into a car park for his hotel. But now he'd seen the building and its potential he was looking at the whole thing in a different light. Maybe there was a way to compromise. OK, so he wouldn't get the parking, but he might get something even better. Something that would benefit them both.
âBecause then we can talk. Properly.' He sighed. âLook, you know my background's in the service and entertainment industry. I've worked with several renovations, bringing a building kicking and screaming back to life and then into the modern age. I've got a lot of knowledge that could help you, and a lot of contacts that would be useful for you.'
âAnd what's in it for you?'
She was so prickly with him now. And he wanted their old easy-going relationship back. âDoes something have to be in it for me?'
âYou have a reputation as a very hard-headed businessman. I can accept that you'd maybe do charity work, because that would double up as good PR for Hunter Hotels, but I'm not a charity.' She looked at him again. âSo why would you help me for nothing?'
âBecause,' he said softly, âI live in Surrey Quays and this building is part of my community. Plus Georgygirl's my friend and I'd like to help her make her dreams come true.'
âAnd there's really nothing in it for you? At all?'
Maybe this was the time for honesty. And she was right in that there was some self-interest. âDo you remember suggesting to me that I ought to take the family business in a different directionâthat I should do something that really interests me, something that gives me a challenge?'
âMaybe this would be my challenge.'
âAnd that's it? To help someone you think is your friend and to give yourself an intellectual challenge?'
And to give him some freedom. But he wasn't quite ready to admit how stifled he felt. Not to Nicole. Georgy was a different matter; but right now Nicole wasn't Georgy and she didn't trust him. âThat's it,' he said. âHave dinner with me tonight and we can discuss it properly.'
* * *
Nicole intended to say no, but the words that came out of her mouth were different. âOnly on condition we go halves on the bill tonightâand I owe you for the coffee and brownie.'
âYou can buy me coffee later in the week,' he said. âI'll be around next door.'
âYou're trying to tell me you're the boy next door, now?'
He shrugged. âMy business is next to yours and I have a Y chromosome, so I guess that's the same thing.'
She shook her head. âIt's a million miles away, Mr Hunter, and you know it.'
He didn't argue with her; instead, he said, âI'll book somewhere for dinner. I already know we both like Italian food. I'll pick you up at, what, seven?'
âI suppose you've already looked up my address,' she said, feeling slightly nettled.
âOn the electoral roll, yes.' He paused. âIt would be useful to have each other's phone number in case one of us is delayed.'
âTrue.' And in the meantime she might be able to think up a good excuse not to meet him, and could text him said good excuse. She grabbed her phone from her pocket. âTell me your number, then I'll text you so you'll have mine.'
It only took a matter of seconds to sort that out.
âThank you for showing me round,' he said. âI'll see you later.'
But she couldn't stop thinking about him all afternoon. Was she doing the right thing, going to dinner with him? Could they work together? Or was she just setting herself up for yet another fall and it'd be better to call it off?
Halfway through the afternoon there was a knock on the front door, and she heard Gabriel call, âHello? Nicole, are you here?'
She was about to ask what he thought he was doing when she realised that he'd changed into jeans and an old T-shirtâmaking him look much more approachable than his shark-in-a-suit personaâand he was carrying a ladder.
âWhy the ladder?' she asked.
âRemember I said I'd bring one over? I thought we could take a closer look at your ceiling,' he said.
âDon't you need to be somewhere?'
He smiled. âI don't have to account for every minute of my time. Anyway, I promised you a ladder. Given that you've already said a ladder isn't part of your everyday equipmentâwhereas it
part of mineâI'll carry the ladder and you do the torch?'
âNo need for a torch. The electricity's back on now.'
âThe fuses are OK?'
âSo far, yes, but obviously I'll need to get the wiring checked out properly.'
This time he didn't offer help from his team next door; part of her was relieved that he'd got the message, but part of her was disappointed that he'd given up on her so quickly. Which was ridiculous and contrary. She didn't want to be beholden to Gabriel Hunter for anything. But she missed her friend Clarence.
âLet's go take a look at that ceiling,' he said instead.
In the old ballroom, he rested the ladder against the wall.
âSo you're going to hold the ladder steady for me?' she asked.
âDo you know what to look for?' he checked.
âNo, but it's my ceiling.' And she wanted to be the first one to look at it.
He grinned, as if guessing exactly what was going through her mind. âYes, ma'am. OK. You go up first and take a look.' He took the camera from round his neck and handed it to her. âAnd photographs, if you want.'
She recognised the make of the camera as seriously expensive. âYou're trusting me with this?'
âYes. Why wouldn't I?'
He clearly wasn't as suspicious and mean-minded as she was, which made her feel a twinge of guilt. âThanks,' she said. She put the camera strap round her neck so it'd leave her hands free, then climbed up the ladder. Close up, she still didn't have a clue whether she was looking at plasterwork or tin. But she duly took photographs and went back down the ladder.
Gabriel reviewed her photographs on the rear screen of the camera.
âSo can you tell whether it's tin or plasterwork from the photographs?' she asked.
He shook his head. âWould you mind if I went up and had a look?'
âGo ahead. I'll hold the ladder steady.'
As he climbed the ladder, Nicole noticed how nice his backside looked encased in faded denim. And how inappropriate was that? She damped down the unexpected flickers of desire and concentrated on holding the ladder steady.
âIt's definitely pressed tin,' Gabriel said when he came back down. âIt was very popular in early twentieth-century America because it was an affordable alternative to plasterwork, plus it was lightweight and fireproof. So I guess that's why it was used here, to keep the ceiling fireproof. The tin sheets were pressed with a die to make patterned panels, then painted white to make them look as if it was plasterwork. Though, if that's still the original paint up there, it's likely to be lead, so you need to be careful and get a specialist in to restore the panels.'
âIt sounds as if you've come across this before.'
He nodded. âThere was a tin ceiling and tin wainscoting in a hotel we renovated three or four years ago. Basically you need to strip off the old paint to get rid of the leadâfor health and safety reasonsâthen put on a protective base coat, patch up any damage and repaint it.' He paused. âUsually the panels were painted white, but there seem to be some traces of gold on the stars.'
She looked up at the ceiling. âI can imagine this painted dark blue, with gold stars.'
âEspecially with that floor, this would really work as a ballroomâand ballroom dancing is definitely on trend. There are even fitness classes based on ballroom dance moves. You could take the
back to its roots but bring it into this century at the same time.'