Falling for the Secret Millionaire (9 page)

BOOK: Falling for the Secret Millionaire
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‘Not necessarily, though we might have themed specials.' He smiled. ‘The food will be locally sourced as far as possible, with seasonal menus. So far, it's all pretty standard stuff and I'd like to be able to offer our clients something a bit different, too, but I need to sit down and think about it.'

‘If you want to brainstorm,' she said, ‘and you want to bounce ideas off—well, your neighbour...' The words were out before she could stop them.

‘I'd like that,' he said. ‘We came up with some good stuff between us about the cinema. And we've barely scratched the surface there.'

Georgygirl and Clarence. Their old friendship, which was in abeyance right now while she got her head round the fact that her friend was actually her business rival.

Could they transfer that friendship to a working relationship?

It would mean trusting him.

Baby steps, she reminded herself. She just needed to spend a little more time with him. Work out if he really was the same in real life as he'd been privately with her online.

He showed her round the rest of the hotel, then introduced her to his site manager. ‘If anything crops up next door,' he said, ‘come and see Ray.'

‘If I don't know the answer myself,' Ray said, ‘I'll know someone who does and can help sort it out for you.'

‘Thank you,' she said, shaking Ray's hand and liking how his handshake was firm without being overbearing.

Gabriel walked her to the door. ‘Well, good luck with the surveyors and what have you. Let me know how you get on.'

‘I will.'

For a moment, she thought he was going to lean forward and kiss her, and her heart actually skipped a beat.

But instead he held out his hand to shake hers.

Her skin tingled where he touched her. And she didn't dare look him in the eye, because she didn't want him to know what kind of effect he had on her. Besides, hadn't Jeff's mistress called her a cold fish? And Gabriel had dated a lot of women. Beautiful women. Passionate women. Way, way out of her league. Her confidence sank that little bit more.

‘See you later,' she muttered, and fled.

* * *

When Nicole spoke to the surveyors, she found that Gabriel had been right on the money. The first one was booked up for the next few weeks, the second agreed to drop round that afternoon but then texted her half an hour later to cancel, the third could make it the following week, and the guy that Gabriel had recommended was able to see her first thing the next morning. Better still, he promised to have the report ready by the end of business that day.

It suited her timescale, but Nicole had the distinct feeling that Gabriel had called in a favour or two on her behalf. She couldn't exactly ask the surveyor if that was the case, and she felt it'd be mean-spirited to ask Gabriel himself—it would sound accusatory rather than grateful.

But there was something she could do.

She texted him.

Hey. You busy tomorrow night?

Why?

She really hoped this sounded casual.

Thought I could buy you dinner.

Absolutely not. I still owe you dinner.

But this is dinner with strings.

Ah. Dinner with strings?

She backed off.

OK. Sorry I asked.

* * *

Gabriel looked at the text and sighed. He hadn't meant to sound snippy at all. He'd been teasing her. That was the thing about texting: you couldn't pick up the tone.

He flicked into his contacts screen and called her. ‘What are the strings, Nicole?'

‘Builder names,' she said.

‘You don't have to buy me dinner for that.'

‘Yes, I do.'

Was this Nicole's way of saying she wanted to spend time with him but without admitting it? he wondered. But he knew he was just as bad. He wanted to spend time with her, too, but didn't want to admit it to her. ‘Dinner would be fine. What time?'

‘Seven? I thought maybe we could go to the pizza place just down from the café in Challoner Road. Meet you there?'

‘Fine. Want a lift?'

‘I'll meet you there,' she repeated.

Nicole and her over-developed sense of independence, he thought with an inward sigh. ‘OK. See you at seven.'

She was already there waiting for him when he walked into the pizzeria at precisely one minute to seven, the next evening. She was wearing a pretty, summery dress and he was tempted to tell her how nice she looked, but he didn't want to make her back away. Instead, he asked, ‘How did the survey go?'

‘Remarkably quickly. Considering that normally people are booked up for at least a week in advance, and it takes several days to do a survey report, it's amazing that your guy not only managed to fit me in this morning,' she said, ‘he also emailed me the report at the close of business this afternoon.'

Oh. So she'd picked up the fact that he'd called in a favour. Well, of course she would. She was bright. ‘Remarkable,' he said coolly.

‘
Incredibly
remarkable,' she said, ‘which is why I'm buying you dinner to say thank you for whatever favours you called in on my behalf. And I've already given the waiter my card, so you can't—'

He laughed, and she stopped. ‘What?'

‘You're such a control freak,' he said.

‘No, I'm not.' She folded her arms in the classic defensive posture. ‘I just don't want to—'

‘—be beholden to me,' he finished. ‘Is that what your ex did?'

She flushed. ‘I don't know what you're talking about.'

Something had made her super-independent, and he had a feeling that there was a man involved. A man who'd broken her trust so she didn't date any more? ‘Everything came with strings?' he asked softly.

‘No. I just pay my own way, that's all. Right now, I feel I owe you. And I'm not comfortable owing you.'

‘Friends don't owe each other for helping,' he said gently. Perhaps it was mean of him, using insider knowledge of her family and closest friends, but how else was he going to make Nicole understand that this was OK? ‘Do you insist on going halves with your mum or Jessie? Or work a strict rotation on whose turn it is to buy coffee?'

‘No,' she admitted. ‘And how do you know about Jessie? Is your dossier that big?'

‘No. You told me about your best friend when we were talking late one night, Georgy,' he reminded her. ‘And I happen to have a good memory.'

She sighed. ‘I guess. Can we go back to talking about surveyors?'

‘Because it's safe?'

She gave him a speaking look. ‘We ought to look at the menu. They'll be over in a minute to take our order.'

Was she running scared because this felt like a date? Or was the wariness specific to him? He decided to let her off the hook. For now. ‘We don't need to look at the menu. I already know you're going to order a margherita with an avocado and rocket salad,' he said instead.

She looked at him. ‘And you'll pick a quattro formaggi with a tomato and basil salad.'

He could swear she'd just been about to call him ‘Clarence'.

And this was what he'd fantasised about when he'd messaged her over the last few months. Going on a date just like this, where they'd talk about anything and everything and knew each other so well that they could finish each other's sentences.

Except this wasn't a date. She'd called it dinner with strings. Because she felt beholden to him. And he didn't quite know how to sort this out.

‘Dough balls first?' he suggested.

‘Definitely.' She looked at him. ‘This is weird.'

‘What is?'

‘We know each other. And at the same time we don't.'

‘More do than don't,' he said. But he could tell that something was holding her back. Someone, he guessed, who'd hurt her. Was that why she found it hard to trust him? The one topic they'd always shied away from was relationships. He'd stopped dating because he only seemed to attract the kind of women who wanted someone else to fund a flashy lifestyle for them, and he was tired of the superficiality. Though he knew without having to ask that Nicole wouldn't discuss whatever was holding her back. He'd just have to persuade her to tell him. Little by little.

The waiter came to take their order, breaking that little bit of awkwardness.

And then Nicole went back into business mode. ‘Builders,' she said, and handed him her phone.

He looked at her list. ‘They're all fine,' he said. ‘It's a matter of when they can fit you in. If you get stuck, I can give you some more names.'

‘Thank you.'

‘So how was the survey?' he asked. ‘Is there much structural stuff to do?'

‘A small amount of rewiring, a damp patch that needs further investigation, a bit of work to the windows, doing what you already said to the upstairs room ceiling, and then the rest of it's cosmetic.'

‘Even if you can get a builder to start straight away,' he said, ‘it's still going to take a fair bit of time to do all the cosmetic stuff. If you renovate the seats in the auditorium, it'll take a while; and if you rip them out completely and replace them with the sofas you were talking about, you'll have work to do on the flooring. And there's the cost to think about. Doing something in a shorter timescale means paying overtime or getting in extra staff—all of which costs and it'll blow your budget.'

She raised her eyebrows. ‘You're telling an ex-banker to keep an eye on the budget?'

He smiled. ‘I know that's ironic—but you've fallen in love with the building, and there's a danger that could blind you to the cost.'

‘I guess.'

‘It is—'

‘—what it is,' she finished with a wry smile.

The waiter brought the dough balls and the garlic butter to dip them into, and they focused on that for a moment—but then Gabriel's fingers brushed against Nicole's when they both reached for a dough ball at the same time.

It felt like an electric shock.

He hadn't been this aware of anyone in a long, long time. And he really didn't know what to do about it. If he pushed too hard, she'd back away. If he played it cool, she'd think he wasn't interested.

This felt like being eighteen again, totally unsure of himself—and Gabriel was used to knowing what he was doing and what his next move would be.

The only safe topic of conversation was the cinema. And even that was a minefield, because she'd backed off every time he'd suggested working together.

‘There is one way to get a bigger workforce without massive costs,' he said.

She frowned. ‘How?'

‘Remember that group on the Surrey Quays forum who said they wanted the cinema up and running again? I bet they'd offer to help.'

She shook her head. Her mother had suggested the same thing, but it felt wrong. ‘I can't ask people to work for me for nothing.'

‘You can if it's a community thing,' he said. ‘They're interested in the building. So let them be involved in the restoration. If they don't have the expertise themselves, they'll probably know someone who does. And any retired French polisher would take a look at that counter-top in your foyer and itch to get his or her hands on it.'

‘Nice save, with the “or her”,' she said dryly.

‘I'm not sexist. Being good at your job has nothing to do with your gender,' he pointed out.

‘It still feels wrong to ask people to work for free.'

‘What about if you give them a public acknowledgement? You could have a plaque on the wall in the foyer with the names of everyone who's been involved.'

‘I like that idea,' she said slowly. ‘And they're my target audience, so it makes sense to talk to them about what I'm doing—to see whether they'd be prepared to support it and see a movie at the Electric Palace rather than going into the West End.'

‘You want their views on the programming, you mean?' he asked.

She nodded. ‘If I show any of say the top three blockbusters, I'll have to pay the film distributors at least half the box office receipts,' she said. ‘And I'll be competing with the multiplexes—which we both know I can't do effectively.'

‘So what's the alternative? Art-house or local film-makers? Because that'd mean a smaller potential audience.'

‘I need to find the right mix of commercial films, regional and art-house,' she said. ‘Maybe I need to run it as a cinema club.'

‘That might limit your audience, though,' he said. ‘You could always put some polls up on the Surrey Quays website to see what kind of thing people want to see and when. And think about a loyalty scheme. Buy ten tickets and get a free coffee, that sort of thing.'

‘It's a thought.'

He could tell she was backing off again, so he kept the conversation light for the rest of their meal.

‘Thank you for dinner,' he said. ‘Can I walk you home?'

‘I live in the opposite direction to you,' she reminded him.

He shrugged. ‘The walk will do me good.'

‘Then, put that way, OK.'

His hand brushed against hers on the way back to her flat, and he had to suppress the urge to curl his fingers round hers. They weren't dating.

And it was even harder to stop himself kissing her goodnight. Her mouth looked so soft, so sweet. He itched to find out how her mouth would feel against his.

But this wasn't appropriate. If he did what he really wanted to do, she'd run a mile. He took a step back. ‘Well. Goodnight. And thank you again for dinner.'

‘Thank you for the advice and the brainstorming,' she said, equally politely.

‘Any time.' He smiled, and turned away before he did anything stupid. She still wasn't having those late-night conversations with him like they used to have. And until they'd got that easiness back, he needed to keep his distance.

The more he got to know her, the more he wanted to know her. He
liked
her. But she clearly didn't feel the same way about him.

BOOK: Falling for the Secret Millionaire
10Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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