Authors: Kate Hardy
âSo what did you do?' Her voice was very soft. Gentle. Not judgemental. And that made it easier to tell her.
âI went to see the Khans,' he said. âWith a big bouquet of flowers and a genuine apology. And I said that money alone wasn't enough to repay the damage I'd done, so until the end of my degree I'd work weekends in their shop, unpaid, doing whatever needed doing.'
âSometimes. And sorting out the newspapers for the delivery boysâwhich meant getting there at five in the morning. And don't forget sweeping the floor and cleaning out the fridges.'
She raised her eyebrows. âIt must've killed your partying, having to be at work for five in the morning at weekends.'
âThe crash kind of did that anyway,' he said. âIt was my wake-up call.'
She looked straight at him. âYou weren't just a shop-boy, were you?'
âI was at first,' he said. âIt was six months before the Khans started to believe that I wasn't just a posh boy slumming it, but eventually I became their friend.' He smiled. âI used to eat with them on Sundays after my shift in the shop. Meera taught me how to make a seriously good biryani, and Vijay taught me as much as my father did about business management and having to understand your own business right from the bottom up. Though in return when I did my MBA I helped them streamline a few processes and negotiate better terms with their suppliers.'
âDo you still see them?'
âNot as often nowadays, but yes. Their kids are teenagers now; they were very small when the crash happened. Sanjay, their eldest, is off to university next year, and I've given him the lecture about partying and getting in with the wrong crowd.' As well as sponsoring the boy through the three years of his degree, but Nicole didn't need to know that.
When the food arrived, she tasted her cannelloni and looked thoughtful.
âIs it OK?' he asked.
âMore than OK. You were right about the food, just as you were right about the coffee on Challoner Road.' She paused. âWhat you did for the Khans...that's what I'd expect Clarence to do.'
âClarence wouldn't have been stupid enough to go round with the over-privileged crowd in the first place,' he pointed out.
âYou're human. We all make mistakes.'
Which revealed that she had a weakness, too. That she'd made a life-changing mistake. One that maybe held her back as much as his did him. âWhat was yours?' he asked softly.
She shook her head. âIt's not important.'
âI told you mine. Fair's fair.'
She looked away. âLet's just say I put my trust in the wrong person.'
âAnd you think I'm going to let you down, the same way?'
She spread her hands. âGabriel Hunter, known for being a ruthless businessmanâis it any wonder I think his offer of help with the cinema comes with strings?'
âOr you could see it as Clarence,' he countered, âwho really needs a new challenge, and a way to take the family business in a different direction.'
âOK. Just supposing the Electric Palace was yours...what would you do?'
âBring the building back to life, and then get it listed so nobody can ever try to raze it to the ground and turn it into a car park,' he said promptly. âIn that order.'
She smiled. âRight. But seriously?'
âYou've got two main rooms, both with projectors, yes?'
âDo you know the capacity of the rooms?'
âThere are three hundred and fifty seats in the lower room.'
âThe upper room's smaller. We'd need to measure it properly, but I'd guess we could fit seventy-five to a hundred.' He looked thoughtful. âI really like your idea of taking the Electric Palace back to how it was when it was first built. You've got the ceiling upstairs, the parquet flooring and the amazing glass in the foyer. We need to look in the archives and ask on the Surrey Quays forum to see if anyone's got any old newspapers or magazines, or anything that has pictures or sketches or a detailed description of how it was.'
âBut originally it was a cinema and ice rink,' she reminded him.
âI don't think an ice rink would bring in enough footfall or spend,' he said. âThe next incarnation would work betterâthe cinema and the ballroom. But keep the Art Deco glass. That's too stunning to lose.'
âYou really want to turn the upstairs room back into the ballroom?'
âNo. I think it'd work better as a multi-purpose room,' he said. âIf you didn't have fixed seats, you could use it as a cinema; but you could also use it as a ballroom and a conference venue.'
âConference venue?' she asked.
He knew he was probably speaking too soon, but it was the perfect solution. A way to work together, so he could help his friend
impress his father. âConference venue,' he confirmed. âThe chairs you use for the cinemaâthey could be placed around the edge of the dance floor on ballroom nights, and they could be moved easily into whatever configuration you need for a conference, whether it was horseshoe or theatre-style. And if you use tables that fit together, they'd also work as occasional tables for the cinema and ballroom nights.' He warmed to his theme. âOr for any club that wants to hire the roomâyou could still do the craft stuff. Offer people crafternoon tea.'
âCrafternoon tea?' She looked mystified.
âA session of craftâwhether it's sewing or painting or potteryâfollowed by afternoon tea. Hence crafternoon tea,' he explained.
âThat's the most terrible pun I've ever heard,' she said. âMaybe. But would anyone really hire that room for a conference? I can't see it.'
âYou have a hotel next door,' he said. âWhich would hire the room as a main conference suite, and there could be breakout rooms for the conference next door.'
âWhat about refreshments and meals for the conference delegates?'
âDepends on your staff and facilities. That's when we'd work together,' he said. âWe'd have to sort out costings and come up with something that was fair to both of us. I'm thinking out loud, here, but maybe you'd do the coffee and a buffet lunch, and I'd do the evening sit-down meal, because my kitchen has a bigger capacity than yours.'
âRight,' she said.
âAnd then there's downstairs,' he said, ignoring the fact that she didn't seem enthusiasticâonce he'd worked out the costings and she could see it would benefit both of them, she'd come round. âWe have the main cinema. We can restore the seats. As I said, I know specialist upholsterers who can do that.'
âThe seats are old and uncomfortable. The multiplexes offer VIP seating. Maybe that's the sort of thing I should put in.'
He shook his head. âWe can't compete with the multiplexes, not with one full-time and one part-time screen. They have twenty or more screens and can offer staggered film times. We can't.'
âSo maybe we need to offer something different.'
He wondered if she realised that she was using the word âwe'. Though he wasn't going to call her on it, and risk her backing away again. âSuch as?'
âWhen I was looking at what my competitors offer, I saw an idea I really likedâa place that had comfortable sofas instead of traditional cinema seating, and little tables where people could put their drinks or food,' she said.
âLike having the best night in, except you've gone out for it?' he asked. âSo you've got all the comfort and convenience of home, but professional quality sound and visionâactually, that would work really well.'
âAnd when the ushers take you to your seat, they also offer to take your order for food and drink. Which they bring to you and put on the little table.'
âI like that. A lot. But serving alcohol and hot food means getting a licence,' he said, âand we'd have to think about what we offer on the menu.'
âWe could have cinema-themed food,' she said. âBut it has to be easy to eat. Pizza, burgers, hot dogs and chicken.'
âWould that replace traditional cinema snacks?'
âNo. Not everyone would want a meal. I think we need to include the traditional stuff, tooâpopcorn, nachos, bags of chocolates. And tubs of ice cream from a local supplier.'
Her eyes were shining. He'd just bet his were the same. Brainstorming ideas with her was the most enjoyment he'd had from anything work-related in a long, long time. And he had a feeling it was the same for her.
âYou know what this is like?' he asked.
âTalking to you online. But better, because it's face to face.'
Then he wished he hadn't said anything when she looked wary again.
âExcuse me,' she said. âI need the Ladies'.'
âThe toilets are that way.' He indicated in the direction behind her.
* * *
On her way to the toilets, Nicole stopped by the till and handed over her credit card. âMr Hunter's table,' she said. âThe bill's mine. Please make sure that you charge everything to me.'
âOf course, madam,' the waiter said.
She smiled. âThanks.' It would save any argument over the bill later. And, given that Gabriel had already bought her two coffees and a brownie, she felt in his debt. This would even things out a little.
You know what this is like? Talking to you online. But better.
His words echoed in her head.
He was right.
And she really didn't know what to do about it, which was why she'd been a coward and escaped to the toilets.
Tonight, Gabriel wasn't the corporate shark-in-a-suit; he was wearing a casual shirt and chinos that made him far more approachable. He'd attracted admiring glances from every single female in the restaurantâand it wasn't surprising. Gabriel Hunter was absolutely gorgeous.
They were still on opposite sides. They shouldn't be wanting to have anything to do with each other, let alone help each other. And could she trust him? Or would he let her down as badly as Jeff had?
She still didn't have an answer by the time she returned to their table. And she was quiet all through pudding.
And when he discovered that she'd already paid the bill, he looked seriously fed up. âDinner was my idea, Nicole. I was going to pay.'
âAnd I told you, the deal was that we went halves.'
âSo why did you pay for the whole lot?'
âBecause you bought me two coffees and a brownie, and I don't like being in anyone's debt. I pay my way.'
âNow I'm in your debt.'
She smiled. âThat suits me.'
âIt doesn't suit me. And we haven't really finished our conversation.'
Excitement fluttered in her stomach. So what was he going to suggest now? Another business meeting over dinner? Coffee at his place?
âWe kind of have,' she said. âYou've agreed that the Electric Palace should be restored, and you know it's not for sale.'
âBut,' he said, âwe haven't agreed terms for conference hire, or whether you're going to use my kitchen facilities to save having to build your own.'
âThat assumes I'm going to develop the cinema the way you see it. I have my own ideas.' At the end of the day, this was
business. She'd spent ten years marching to someone else's tune, and she wasn't about to let Gabriel take overâeven if he did have more experience than she did.
âI think we need another meeting,' he said.
He looked all cool and calm and controlled. And Nicole really wanted to see him ruffled.
But maybe that was the red wine talking. Even though she'd stuck to her limit of no more than one glass. Cool, calm and controlled would be better for both of them.
âI don't have my diary on me,' she said.
His expression very clearly said he didn't believe a word of it, but he spread his hands. âText me some times and dates.'
So now the ball was in her court?
She could turn him down.
Or they could explore this. See where the business was going.
See where they were going.
She damped down the little flicker of hope. She couldn't trust him that far. Jeff had destroyed her ability to trust.
âI'll text you,' she said. Because that gave her wriggle room. A chance to say no when she'd had time to think about it on her own. Gabriel was charming and persuasive; Jeff had been charming and persuasive, too, and following his ideas had got her badly burned. Who was to say that this wouldn't be the same?
The ramp was much more manageable now the tide had turned, and this time Gabriel didn't sweep her off her feet. Nicole wasn't sure whether she was more relieved or disappointed. And he didn't suggest coffee at his place; she wasn't quite ready to offer him coffee at hers. So he merely saw her to the door of her apartment blockâbrushing off her protests that she was perfectly capable of seeing herself home from the car park with a blunt, âIt's basic good manners.'
And he didn't try to kiss her goodnight, not even with a peck on the cheek.
Which was a good thing, she told herself. They didn't have that kind of relationship. Besides, she wasn't good at relationships. Hadn't Jeff's mistress said that Nicole was a cold fish? So looking for anything else from this would be a huge mistake. It would be better to keep things strictly business. And, even better than that, to keep her distance from him completely.
Nicole went in search of the voice, to discover a man standing in the entrance to the cinema, holding a metal box of tools.
âAre you Nicole Thomas?' he asked.
âYes,' she said.
âI'm Kyle. The boss wants me to do a quick check on your wiring.'
âBoss?' Did he mean Gabriel? But she hadn't asked Gabriel for helpâand this felt a bit as if he was trying to take over.
She thought quickly to find a polite way to refuse, and it clearly showed on her face because Kyle said, âThe boss said you'd tell me thank you but you don't need any help, and he says to tell you he wants me to check your wiring's OK to make sure this place doesn't burn down and set his hotel on fire.'
It was a comment that Gabriel had made before. It wasn't something she could counter easily, and this would either reassure her or be an early warning of difficulties to come. Plus it wasn't Kyle's fault that Gabriel made her antsy. She smiled at him. âOK. Thank you. Can I offer you a coffee? I'm sorry, I don't have any milk or sugar.'
âYou're all right. I just had my tea break next door.'
âRight. Um, I guess I need to show you where the fuse box is, to start with?'
âThat, and I'll check a few of the sockets to be on the safe side.'
She showed him where the fuse box was, and left him to get on with it.
He came to find her when he'd finished. âThere's good news and bad,' he said.
âTell me the bad, first,' she said.
âYou've got a bit of mouse damage to some of the cabling around the fuse box, because it was an area they could get to.'
âWill it take long to fix?'
He shook his head. âAnd the good news is the wiring's been redone at some point in the last thirty years. You haven't got any aluminium cable, lead-sheathed cable or the old black cables with a rubber sheath which would mean it was really old and could burn the place down. I would recommend getting a full system check, though, when you get that little bit of cabling replaced.'
âThank you. That's good to know. I appreciate your help.'
âNo worries.' He sketched a salute and left.
Nicole made a mental note to call in to the hotel later that afternoon with a tin of chocolate biscuits to say thanks. Though she knew who she really needed to thank. Strictly speaking, it was interference, but she knew Gabriel had only done it to helpâand he'd dressed it in a way that meant she could accept it. She grabbed her phone and called him. âThank you for sending over your electrician.'
âPleasure. So you didn't send him away with a flea in his ear?' Gabriel asked.
âYou kind of pre-empted me on that.'
âAh, the “I don't want you to set my hotel on fire” thing. And it's true. Total self-interest on my part.' He laughed. âSo how is the wiring?'
âApparently there's a bit of mouse damage so I'll need to replace some of the cabling, but the good news is that it's modern cable so I'm not looking at a total rewire.'
âThat's great. Have you sorted out a surveyor yet?'
âI have three names.' Though she knew she was working quite a way out of her experience zone. Although she wanted to keep her independence and sort out everything herself, was that really the right thing for her business? It would be sensible to ask for advice from someone who knew that areaâlike Gabrielâinstead of being too proud and then making a mistake that could jeopardise the cinema. Asking for help would be pragmatic, not weak. Suggesting they got together to talk about it wasn't the same as suggesting a date. And it wasn't just an excuse to see him. It really wasn't, she told herself firmly. She wasn't going to let her attraction to him derail the cinema restoration project. She cleared her throat. âI was wondering if maybe I could buy you a coffee and run the names by you.'
âStrictly speaking, I'm the one beholden to you and ought to be the one buying the coffee. You paid for dinner last night,' he reminded her.
âYou paid for coffee twice. I still owe you coffee twice.'
âIn which case I owe you dinner. When are you free?'
Help. That felt much more like a date. And she wasn't ready. âLet's focus on the coffee,' she said. âWhen are you at the hotel next?'
âAbout half-past two this afternoon.'
âThe perfect time for a coffee break. See you then.'
And it was as easy as that. She knew how he liked his coffee. She also knew he had a weakness for chocolate brownies, as long as it was dark chocolate. So, at twenty-nine minutes past two, Nicole walked in to the building site next door with two espressos, two brownies and a tin of chocolate biscuits, and asked the first person she saw to point her in the direction of Gabriel Hunter.
He was in a room which was clearly earmarked as a future office, and he was on the phone when she arrived; he lifted his hand in acknowledgement, and she waited in the corridor until he'd finished the call, to give him some privacy.
âGood to see you, Nicole,' he said.
Was that Clarence talking, or Gabriel the shark-in-a-suit? âCoffee and a brownie,' she said, handing them over. âAnd these biscuits are for Kyle, your electrician. To say thank you for checking out my wiring.'
âI'll make sure he gets them. And thank you for the coffee. Having a good day?' he asked, smiling at her.
That definitely sounded more like Clarence speaking. And the way he smiled made her stomach flip. With a real effort, Nicole forced herself to focus on business. âYes. How about you?'
He shrugged. âIt is as it is.'
His eyes really were beautiful. So was his mouth. It would be so very, very easy to reach out and trace his lower lip with her fingertip...
And it would also be insane. To distract herself, Nicole muttered, âAs I said, I've got to the stage where I need a surveyor and quotes from builders.'
âObviously you know to add at least ten per cent to any quote, because with a renovation job you're always going to come across something you don't expect that will need fixing,' he said. âAnd to allow extra time for unexpected delays as well. Even if you've had a survey done first, you're bound to come across something that will affect your schedule.'
âIf the building is structurally sound, then I want the cinema up and running in eight weeks.'
âEight weeks?' He looked shocked. âIsn't that a bit fast?'
âIt's the start of the school holidays,' she said. âAnd it's always good to have a goal to work towards rather than being vague about things. That way you can plan and actually accomplish something instead of delivering nothing but hot air.'
âTrue.' He blew out a breath. âBut eight weeks is a big ask. Even if the place is structurally sound, it needs complete redecoration, you've got to sort out the fixtures and fittings, and there's no way you'll be able to do anything at all with the upstairs room until the ceiling's been sorted, not with that lead paint.' He frowned. âI was thinking, that's probably why your grandfather used it as a storage room.'
âBecause it would be too expensive to fix it, or it would take too much time?'
âEither or both,' he said. âJust bear in mind you might not be able to have the whole building up and running at once. You might have to scale back to something more doableâsay, start with the downstairs screen and kiosk refreshments only.'
Which would mean a lower income. And Nicole needed the place to make a decent profit, because she knew now that she really didn't want to go back to the bank. She wasn't afraid of hard work or long hours; she'd do whatever it took to make a go of the Electric Palace. But now she wanted to put the hours in for herself, not for a corporation that barely knew her name. âI'm opening in eight weeks,' she said stubbornly.
âWhere's your list of surveyors?' he asked.
âHere.' She flicked into the notes app on her phone and handed it to him.
He looked through the list. âThe first one's good, the second will cancel on you half a dozen times because he always overbooks himself, and the third is fine. I always like to get three quotes, so do you want the name of the guy I use, to replace the one who won't make it?'
âI'm eating humble pie already, aren't I?' she pointed out.
âStrictly speaking, you're eating a dark chocolate brownie,' he said, âwhich you paid for. So no.' He sighed. âOK. Would you have let Clarence help?'
âSay it out loud,' he said.
She would've done the same and made him admit it aloud, too. She gave in. âYes. I would've accepted help from Clarence.'
âWell, then. I thought we agreed at dinner that we're not on opposite sides?'
âWe didn't really agree anything.'
âHmm.' He added a set of contact details to her list and handed the phone back. âI'd say from your old job that you'd be good at summing people up. Talk to all of them and go with the one your instinct tells you is right for the job.'
He wasn't pushing his guy first? So maybe he really was fair, rather than ruthless. Maybe she could trust him. âThank you,' she said.
âPleasure.' He paused. âWhat about builders?'
âI was going to ask the surveyor for recommendations.'
âThat's a good idea.' He looked her straight in the eye. âThough, again, I can give you contact details if you'd like them. I know you don't want to feel as if you owe me anything, but a recommendation from someone you know is worth a dozen testimonials from people you don't.'
âAnd I wouldn't give you the name of someone who was unreliable or slapdash. Because that would affect my reputation,' he said.
She believed him. At least, on a business footing. Any other trust was out of her ability, right now.
âWhile you're here, do you want to see round the place?' he asked.
âYou're going to give me a tour of the hotel?'
âFair's fairâI made you give me a tour of the cinema,' he pointed out.
She smiled. âThat would be nice.'
The walls were made of the same mellow honey-coloured brick as her flat. She noticed that the ceilings of the rooms were all high.
âSo this was an industrial complex before?' she asked.
âIt was a spice warehouse,' he said, âso we're naming all the function rooms accordingly. Cinnamon, coriander, caraway...'
âSticking to the Cs?'
He laughed. âI was thinking about maybe using a different letter on each floor. And I'm toying with “The Spice House” as our hotel name.'
âThat might get you mixed up with a culinary supplier or an Indian restaurant,' she said.
âI'm still thinking about it,' he said.
âSo this is a business hotel?'
* * *
One without the exclusive parking they'd planned originally. Instead, next door would be the cinema. And if Nicole would agree to keep the upper room as a flexible space and not just a fixed second screen, maybe there was a way they could work together. Something for the leisure side and not just the conference stuff she'd resisted earlier. Something that also might make his father finally see that Gabriel had vision and could be trusted with the future direction of the business.
âBusiness and leisure, mixed,' he said. âWe'll have a hundred and twenty-five bedroomsâthat's twenty-five per floor on the top five floorsâplus conference facilities on the first floor. We'll have meeting rooms with all the communications and connections our clients need, and a breakout area for networking or receptions. I want to be able to offer my clients everything from training and team-building events through to seminars and product launches. That's on the business side. On the leisure side, we can offer wedding receptions. I'm getting a licence so we can hold civil ceremonies here, too.' He paused. âThough I've been thinking. Maybe you should be the one to get the wedding licence.'
âMe?' She looked surprised. âYou think people would want to get married in a cinema?'
âThey'd want to get married in your upstairs room, especially if you're going to do the ceiling the way you described it to me,' he said. âAnd that sweeping staircase would look amazing in wedding photos. The bride and groom, with the train of the bride's dress spread out over the stairs, or all the guests lined up on the stairs and leaning on that wrought iron banisterâwhich would look great painted gold to match the stars on the ceiling.'
âSo they'd have the wedding at the cinema, then go next door to you for the reception?'
âFor the meal, yes. And then the upper room could turn back into a ballroom, if you wanted, with the bar next door or a temporary bar set up from the hotel if that's easier. Between us, we'd be able to offer a complete wedding package. The hotel has a honeymoon suite with a modern four-poster, and a health club and spa so we can offer beauty treatments. The morning of the wedding, we could do hair and make-up for the bride, attendants and anyone else in the wedding party. And maybe we could have a special movie screening, the next morningâsomething for the kids in the wedding party, perhaps?'
* * *
Could it really be that easy?
âIt's a possibility,' she said. âBut I want to think about it before I make any decision.'
âSo what else is in your health club and spa, apart from a hairdresser and beautician?'
âA heated pool, a gym with optional personal training packages, a sauna, steam room and whirlpool bath.' He ticked them off on his fingers. âIt's open to non-residents, like our restaurant.'
âAnd, being The Spice House, you'll specialise in spicy food?'