Melissa found that she had been installed in a small but pleasant office of her own, complete with a shiny new laptop, a printer and a new Nokia mobile phone. Nigel had passed over a copy of his bound business plan to her. His instructions had simply been
“I need you to research which properties are for sale in the towns I have earmarked. The key factors are that they are older/listed buildings in historic town centres with a high tourist footfall. It’s also important that there are no existing businesses nearby that are even close to the Clara business model. Don’t bother with anything that’s smaller than the smallest property we have now. Look, you know the Clara model well enough so I don’t need to go into endless details. I’ll need a shortlist of all properties you believe meet the brief for two weeks’ time. And then keep your diary clear for the following week at least. OK?”
The next few weeks went by in a blur for Melissa. Business hours would find her on the phone to estate agents, retail associations & individual retailers. Evenings and early morning were spent on further internet research. She desperately wanted to succeed and it was also important to show Nigel that his faith in her was justified. By the end of the second week, she had produced a report she was beginning to feel that might just meet the challenge he had set. She only hoped that he felt the same way.
“Well,” said Nigel grinning as Melissa handed over a thick file on the Friday morning after her two weeks’ solid work, “you have been busy! I just hope that the quality is as good as the quantity!”
“So do I!” Managed Melissa, blushing deeply.
“Give me an hour to have a quick scan through then. OK?”
An hour later Nigel chucked the file back on his desk and picked up the phone “I would like you in my office, now!” was all he said.
Nigel watched Melissa sit bolt upright across the desk, her face an even deeper shade of red. He paused
“That might just do,” he said with a straight face, paused and then broke into a wide grin “Hell! In fact, it’s a bloody good job! Well done!”
Melissa almost fainted with relief.
“Now, one more thing. I want you to produce an itinerary for next week (making the most efficient use of time & mileage). You make all the necessary appointments and, when you’ve done that, pass it on to Megan who’ll book the hotels. Have a restful weekend, pack a bag for the week and I’ll pick you up at 06.00 Monday morning.”
Melissa spent the weekend in somewhat of a quandary. The trip away with Nigel was something she simply hadn’t expected. She had known him (well, known of him, strictly speaking) since early childhood. Being a very distant cousin and about ten years her senior, their sole contact had been at the very large family gatherings that took place on festive occasions, weddings, christenings and sad ones such as the recent funeral. She had always thought him to be a handsome, sporty sort of chap. The fact that they were now working so closely together was, well, simply amazing. But, she agonised, did he really think her work was that good? Or was this just some blokey way to get her into bed? Did it matter, she asked herself.
She knew he wasn’t married but having been outside the tight Clara’s Coffee group, that was all she really knew. Aunt Cynthia had sung his praises but just in a proud mother sort of way, really. Now, thinking about their recent chats, she really wasn’t sure. That lunch had been, well, intimate. Being honest, she knew she found him attractive. But she just didn’t know him well enough.
A more immediate problem was what was she going to take on their trip? What sort of places would they be staying at? How relaxed? How formal? How big a bag should she take? In the end, she chose a couple of business looking suits, some casual gear and one slinky dress (just in case). It all fitted (just) in her battered old leather holdall.
Sunday night she slept fitfully, finally gave up just before dawn, had some breakfast and got herself ready in good time. At 6.00am on the dot, she heard a loud blast from a car horn. Looking down out of the window from her little flat, there he was in a vast, shiny black Range Rover.
“Morning, m’dear” greeted a very bright Nigel as he placed her holdall into the cavernous boot.
Melissa mumbled a somewhat weary response, and climbed up into an extremely comfortable passenger seat.
Nigel gave instructions as to how she could adjust her seat in case she needed a nap. “Oh, bloody, hell, thought Melissa, “do I look that bad?!”
“Before you nod off,” he continued ‘slight change of plan. Think we might have set ourselves a rather too ambitious schedule. So, I’ve asked Megan to lop off Leamington Spa from the itinerary. This will give us one town a day to do in detail. Even if we feel we are ready to make a positive decision on just one or two of them, I think we’ll have our work cut out for the next twelve months.”
“Good idea.” Quickly responded Melissa “I’ve been thinking that we should concentrate on getting the most promising site launched first, so we can draw up a New Branch Implementation Plan. We may have been in business for over a hundred years now and know how to run successful Clara’s Coffee outlets. But I can’t help feeling that there’s probably a great deal to learn in terms of starting from scratch with a new branch.”
“Bloody good thinking,” Nigel murmured “Get the model right first and we can move quicker going forward – a right first time plan!”
“Exactly! Now I think I’ll have that nap so, keep the speed down through the corners, driver!”
Nigel chuckled to himself. He was beginning to like this girl more and more.
The property in Chester looked promising, spread over 3 floors and was in the desirable Northgate area, a very favourable position, with extremely high tourist and local footfall. The meetings went well, the asking price was not out of the question and there appeared to be no directly competing outlets.
As they drove out of Chester later that afternoon, Nigel turned to Melissa asking
“So how do you feel Chester meets our new branch brief, then?”
“It seems a very good match” responded Melissa, mentally crossing her fingers. “I can just see Clara’s fitting into Northgate as if we’ve been there for two centuries! It’s such a good fit, I can’t see why no-one in the family has ever looked at expansion to towns like Chester before.”
“Great. Seems like we’re on the same page. Let’s run over the key areas and, if you’d make a few notes, we’ll know we haven’t forgotten anything.
Melissa heaved a sigh of relief. “One step ahead, boss! I’ve prepared a checklist we can use.” She went on, delving in her folder. “Shall we start with the premises themselves?”
The drive down the motorways was slow with heavy traffic but the travelling gave them time to cover both the property in Chester and the future plans in considerable detail.
It was nearly 8.00pm when Nigel pulled off the motorway and into the carpark of a Travelodge close to Cheltenham. Melissa glanced across at Nigel and raised an eyebrow.
“Can’t go squandering the family’s fortunes!” Was his only response.
Half an hour later they were seated in a ghastly carvery on the other side of the carpark, enjoying the carnivorous delights. Mmm, thought Melissa, not quite what I was expecting.
After an early night and a good sleep, they had time for what was a reasonable breakfast before they set off for their first meeting. All went well again and it seemed like the pattern had been set for the rest of the week.
By 6.00pm Friday evening they had covered all the properties. They were all looking good and the decision over which one to prioritise was not going to be easy. Driving out of Cambridge, the traffic was almost stationary and they were crawling along for mile after mile.
“Good job, we decided to stay overnight and drive back up to Yorkshire in the morning.” Melissa offered “Even another motel will be better than this slow-motion progress!”
Nigel merely nodded and turning off at the next junction, they were soon deep in tranquil rolling countryside. Melissa reclined her seat & closed her eyes thinking that she would never, ever set foot in a bloody carvery again. A short time later, hearing the tyres crunching over gravel, she opened her eyes and was astonished to see they were pulling up outside a magnificence Palladian mansion.
“Welcome to Mountclere Manor” was the greeting from an impeccably dressed man, “Let me take your bags.” They were ushered up the steps, through incredibly high doors into a magnificent entry hall. There was no reception desk and they were quickly ushered up to their rooms. Melissa could not believe hers – a soaring high ceiling with a chandelier, an enormous king-size bed, covered in pillows and cushions, a chaise longue, an antique writing desk and richly brocaded floor to ceiling drapes. But the bathroom! Oh, my! It was only minutes before she was luxuriating in the wonderful, old copper bath tub surrounded by dark marble cladding and floor to ceiling mirrors.
She was just slipping into her little slinky dress when the phone rang.
“Ready when you are, Melissa,” boomed a chirpy sounding Nigel.
“Just getting ready, won’t be a minute!”
“Great, there’s a bottle of nice fizzy stuff here, don’t want to keep it waiting too long!”
“I’m sure it has more patience than you!”
Fifteen minutes later, Melissa sashayed into the dining room to find Nigel waiting patiently with a bottle of Bollinger nestling in an ice bucket. He stood up as the waiter seated her then went about opening the bottle & filling their flutes.
While she waited, Melissa looked around the candle lit room. There were a few other diners but the atmosphere was hushed and private. The French windows looked down to floodlit lawns and a small lake beyond.
“Cheers,” said Nigel as they clicked glasses. “No need for menus, I’ve ordered the tasting menu, eight courses with a flight of wines.”
The evening went superbly, delicious food & wonderful wines, yes. But the conversation, starting with a review of the week, soon flowed to many more subjects. By the end of the evening everything that had happened just seemed to have bound them closer together.
They were the last to leave the dining room and, as they walked across the large hallway, Melissa found herself slipping her arm through his. They walked slowly, linked together, up the wide staircase before pausing at the top. Each of their rooms was on opposite sides of the landing than ran around the first floor.
They paused, each looking deep into the eyes of the other. And then…they just seemed to melt into each other’s arms kissing with an intensity.
As quickly as the embrace had started, it ended as Nigel gently disentangled himself from her arms & murmured “Good night” followed by a peck on her cheek.”
Melissa deflated, stared at his back as he walked away to his room. She felt as if the life had been sucked from her.
Breakfast was the epitome of awkwardness, with both trying to maintain an air of dignified politeness that would conceal the thoughts and feelings that were still flowing through their minds. They didn’t linger and were soon back in the car driving slowly through the deserted lanes.
“So, what was last night all about? I thought we were saving the family fortunes, not saving my honour?” Led Melissa, all caution gone and staring intently ahead.
“OK, cards on the table time.” Nigel responded after a pause while he pulled over and cut the engine. “Look, firstly, I paid for last night! It wasn’t something I had planned in advance. I didn’t make last night’s booking until yesterday morning. I wanted it to be special as a way of thanking you for the fantastic work you’ve done.”
“Thank you, that was very thoughtful.”
He was staring off into the distance and she sensed he was struggling for the right words. The pause seemed to last forever.
“Look, I think I love you!” He burst out, taking her hand and looking straight into her eyes. “I know it might sound crazy after such a short time but I have to admit that, from a work perspective, I’m swept away by your professionalism. And in a personal sense by your beauty, hell, everything about you. I’m drawn to you. If the circumstances had been different, I would like to imagine we would still be languishing in bed together, planning how to spend the rest of the weekend and much more. God knows, I wanted you and I still do. But I want it to be right,”
“Go on,” she responded, squeezing his hand.
“I could not be more impressed by your work and your commitment to my (our!) project for Clara’s Coffee but the timing for us really is terrible. I’m torn; I can’t imagine finding anyone else that could bring what you bring to this project. And…I can’t imagine finding anyone else that I think I could love as much as you.”
“You see, there’s trouble ahead…within the family (you must have gathered as much) and I’m going to need you to help me get to the bottom of certain aspects. Things are going to get very rough for a bit. I don’t want people thinking you and I have cooked up a plan together to oust certain family members. Not for my sake, I’ve got a thick skin but I need to protect you.”
Melissa’s head was spinning.