Authors: Anna Martin
“Nice to meet you,” Henry said, wiping his dirty hand on his jeans before offering it to Mrs. Brimble, head of the local Women’s Institute, who had brought with her a large Tupperware container full of cake.
“To share with Scott’s boys,” she had told him. “I know how hard they work.”
“They do,” Henry agreed. “Would you like to have a look at what we’re doing?”
He knew he was getting a reputation as a “charming young gentleman.” He’d heard one of the ladies saying so and didn’t mind at all. When he’d visited Nell, she’d called them all “nosy old hags,” and he’d been afraid, for a moment, that she disapproved. Then she waved it away.
“They’ll all see it sooner or later anyway,” Henry had pointed out.
“Just make sure you charge them for the pleasure,” Nell told him.
Henry got the impression that Mrs. Brimble would have happily paid for the pleasure of the tour, despite the condition of the house, and paid even more for the information gleaned from meeting Nell Richardson’s great-grandson in person.
“So you’re from New York City,” she said as he concluded the tour and led her back to the front door.
“Yes,” he said politely.
“And Hettie said something about your being Jewish, but I saw you at Paul’s service the other week, so I know that can’t be true….”
He wondered where the hell anyone had found that particular bit of personal information. “My mother is Jewish,” he said diplomatically, “although she practices the culture more than the faith.”
“There you go, then,” Mrs. Brimble said, patting his hand. “You’re a good Christian boy, like your father.”
“I wouldn’t go that far, Mrs. Brimble,” he said on a laugh. “I think that’s the first time I’ve ever been to a Christian service.”
Her expression soured, just a little. “Well, I hope we’ll see you there again soon. Jesus loves you, Mr. Richardson.”
He wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that, so he smiled politely and waved as she folded herself into a snazzy new Ford and roared back up the drive at an unadvisable speed.
night, Henry cooked chili for dinner, enjoying the familiarity and ritual of preparing a meal. And Ryan seemed to appreciate eating something that wasn’t reheated in his microwave.
“How’s work going?” Ryan asked as they sat down on opposite sides of the table, the pot of chili between them, ready for second helpings.
“Good,” Henry said as he speared a bean, inspected it, and ate it. “Should be able to start decorating soon.”
“When will you open, do you know?”
He huffed a sigh. “Not sure. I want to say August, but it might be later than that. Scott won’t give me a date until he starts decorating, and he thinks it’ll take about five weeks from when the building work is done to get the whole ground floor painted and ready.”
“Are you taking bookings yet?”
Henry shrugged. “I’ve had a few inquiries. It’s difficult because we’re not licensed yet, and people want to be able to see the whole building as it will be on the day, and I can’t give them that. Once it’s done, or nearly done, then I can show people around.”
“I still think that’s where you’re going to make your money,” Ryan said around a mouthful of food.
“As a wedding venue?”
He swallowed. “Yeah. There’s nothing like it close to here. The nearest place is on the other side of the motorway. And, I mean, it’s a gorgeous house. When the restoration is done on it, then it’s going to be incredible.”
Henry nodded. It was the restoration he was most worried about. The sale of the land had given him enough disposable cash to be able to do the essential work to stop the house falling down. He was still concerned about being able to add all the finishing touches he wanted to a high standard and make the house truly spectacular.
And then there were all the other costs: staff, getting all the kit for the kitchen, maintenance, linens, tables, storage, silverware, plates… the list went on and on. His instinct was to dip into his inheritance money, but there was no way of doing that without his parents finding out what he was doing, and he wanted to keep them out of it. And he didn’t really want to go back to Nell and ask for more money.
Sighing, Henry helped himself to more chili.
“What?” Ryan demanded. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Henry said. “I’m just trying to balance the books in my head.”
“Ah. Are they particularly… unbalanced?”
“No,” he said. “It would be nice if a big wad of cash fell on my lap, though.”
Ryan snorted. “We all know that feeling.”
“I think I might take out a loan. To cover the rest of the renovation work.”
It was a bold statement, and he knew that when he said it. Bold statements worked well when he wanted to gauge someone’s reactions.
That wasn’t very helpful. Henry told him so.
“Sorry,” Ryan offered. “I suppose it’s not a terrible idea. It depends on how much you need.”
“A few thousand,” Henry admitted. “At least.”
“Well… if you used Stretton House as collateral….”
“I’m not sure if I can do that.”
“Talk to Shenal,” Ryan advised. “You can’t go far wrong from there.”
Talk to Shenal…. Talk to Shenal….
All he’d done since landing in this back end of nowhere town was go to Shenal for every little fucking stumbling block. It was irritating, mostly because the woman really did hold most of the answers he needed, and he hated having to ask for help.
Self-sufficiency was something that Henry had learned late in life, the result of an overbearing mother who had a hard time cutting the ties. He’d started tugging at those ties while in college, pulled harder once he reached his midtwenties and found a relationship with another man, one that lasted until he was on the cusp of thirty. Still, the smothering feeling of being watched never quite left him, and the thought of another female watching over his shoulder was more than a little forbidding.
Even if that female was younger than him. And nothing at all like his mother.
hell, Henry, don’t you have your own work to do?” Shenal asked as he let himself into her office.
It was nice to be appreciated.
Shenal didn’t have a receptionist. She claimed she could keep her own diary and had an answer phone that diverted to her cell when she was out. The office itself was squidged in between the only bank on the village’s high street and a small greengrocer that he was sure Ryan supplied.
Inside, there was a small seating area and an enormous dark wood desk that was possibly an antique, several filing cabinets, and a fish tank with brightly colored fish swimming in lazy circles. Henry lifted the takeaway cup of green tea he’d picked up from the café, and Shenal’s eyes narrowed in suspicion as she took it.
“What do you want?”
“A favor,” he admitted, taking the seat opposite the desk.
Shenal opened the cup and took a tentative sip, then waved for him to go on.
“I’m not sure if I’ve got enough cash to finish the house,” he said in a rush.
“All the renovation work will get done,” he hastened to add. “I’m just worried about the last little bits. Furniture and candlesticks and linens and….”
“Finishing touches?” she supplied.
“Yes,” he said, relieved that she understood.
“Okay. So what do you want me to do about it?”
“I was wondering”—he took a deep breath for courage—“if I’d be able to take out a loan. And secure it against the house.”
Shenal pulled a well-chewed Biro from behind her ear and tapped it against her lower lip.
“Probably not,” she said lightly.
Henry’s heart sank.
“But Nell might be able to on your behalf. Or I might be able to, as a trustee.”
“How… what would I need to do to make that happen?” he asked.
“Convince me that it’s a good idea,” Shenal said with a smirk.
“Convince… you? I don’t have anything prepared, you know.”
“Yeah. What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll say no. If I do, you can just go to Nell and ask her. She’ll override any of my bad decisions.”
Her words gave him confidence, even if he wasn’t really sure what he was asking her for. Well, money. He wanted money.
Henry took a deep breath. “Renovation will be complete in the next four to six weeks. We’ve got enough cash left over from the sale of the land to do most of the decorating. I want to restore to a high quality—the highest quality possible. I’m cleaning and reusing as much as I can, but if I’m going to turn the house into a wedding venue, then there’s things that I have to buy new.”
As he talked, he felt his confidence grow and unconsciously leaned forward in his seat, gesturing with his hands as he talked about his ideas for uniforms for staff, the name badges he’d seen online, the local restoration company who were going to reupholster some of the existing furniture for him.
Shenal nodded, listened attentively, and left questions until the end (without being asked).
“What would happen,” she asked, once Henry was done with his impromptu pitch, “if you didn’t get the money?”
He sat back. “I’d still open,” he said honestly. “I’d probably invest some of my own money into it and pay myself back out of any earnings. Things would probably end up coming from eBay instead of the craftspeople I want to use.”
“So it’s a question of quality.”
“Yes… and no. It’s about doing it properly and treating the house and the wider community with the respect I think both deserve.”
Shenal smiled. “Okay.”
“I’ll run it past Nell, and we’ll probably get a better rate if we look online before going to the bank. But I can’t see a problem with what you’re suggesting.”
Henry resisted the urge to hug her. “Thanks, Shenal.”
She smiled. “Any time.”
fell over the village as Henry walked down to the pub on a Friday evening, not really knowing why he was going there. Ryan had already left when Henry had arrived home earlier in the afternoon, and after wandering around the empty farmhouse for a few hours, he felt lonely. He’d been thinking about New York, not that this happened very often, and his nights out with friends. And he missed the vibrancy of being around people and alcohol and life and fun…. So he’d changed. And left.
And was now starting to regret that decision, just a little bit.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to be in the pub—he did—he was just nervous about walking into a room where everyone knew everyone else, and everyone knew who he was, and he didn’t know who any of them were.
The noise of another band spilled out of the pub as a couple of older women left, lifting their hands in greeting as they passed. He nodded, and smiled, and pushed his way through the crowd.
Turning his head sharply, he sought out the person calling for him, quickly finding Ryan at the bar and sighing a little (internal) sigh of relief.
“All right, mate? What you drinking?”
“Gin,” Henry said quickly, adding “please” as more of an afterthought. Tonight was a gin night.
Ryan leaned over the bar, which was unusually crowded, and found his sister serving at the end. When Henry gave him an inquisitive look, Ryan responded with a shrug and backed away from the queue to make his way around to where Stella was pouring a pint.
“Thank fuck,” Stella said as they approached.
To Henry’s eye, she looked more than slightly disheveled. Her hair was pulled back and secured with a pencil, but several curls were escaping. Her face was flushed and her eyes a little wild.
“What’s going on?” Ryan asked.
“Fucking hell,” Stella said, swapping the pint for a note and turning to the till. “Caz is off sick, and Danny’s in London for the weekend. I’ve tried calling Gina, but she’s not picking up, and Andy’s on his way in, but he needs to get Jack settled at his mum’s first. It’s just me and Jen on, but she started at lunchtime, so I need to let her go at eight, and we’re
“I can help,” Henry offered, surprising himself as well as Stella and Ryan. “Really,” he continued, surprising himself further, “I worked in a bar in Manhattan. I can serve drinks. It’s just the money I’m not quite there with yet.”
Stella’s sharp nod was his cue to duck behind the bar. He felt Ryan do the same after him.
“Can we do a stock clearance tonight, do you think?” Ryan asked.
A man yelled down the bar: “Oi! Stell!”
“Wait a fucking moment!” she yelled back, then turned to Ryan. “Yeah. I can put in an extra order if we clear it right down, and they’ll get it here by three tomorrow. Let’s do it.”
“Set everything at two fifty?”
“And soft drinks at a quid,” she said, confirming.
Stella reached to the back wall of the bar, took hold of the rope attached to a shiny brass bell, and rang it sharply until the assembled patrons quieted.
“Right, boys and girls,” Stella called, “Call your mothers, call your wives. Tell them you’re going to be home late, Stella’s doing a stock clearance. Two fifty for anything on the bar or in the fridge, double up on your spirits for an extra quid. Call your brother, call your dad, and tell them to get their fat arses down here ’cos I won’t be doing it again anytime soon.