Under New Management, page 1
chick lit, romantic comedy
The right of June Hopkins to be identified as the Author of the work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published in January 2013
Apart from any use permitted under UK copyright law, this publication may only be reproduced, stored, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, with prior permission in writing of the author or in the case of reprographic production in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 June Hopkins
All rights reserved.
For Dad, Mum, Pete, Sam and Matt.
To my amazing family and friends those still here and especially to those we’ve lost.
I want to say thank you to the following people for reading this again and again and for your advice and support: Rose, Leila, Rachel, Shelly, Claire and Karel - without your feedback, kind words and encouragement I couldn’t have finished this second book.
My sister-in-law Barb for your fabulous editing skills and the long hours you put in to help me get this right.
Pete my lovely husband for reading and formatting. Your patience is appreciated especially as this isn’t really your cup of tea.
And last but not least, thanks again to my cousin Ellen Hopkins for producing another fabulous front cover.
Having struggled through a ten hour shift, the last thing Mollie needs is a summons from Lord Sedgwick, her boss. Pissed off doesn’t come close to how she is feeling as she marches sulkily to the study at the front of the house. She just wants to go home, have a lovely soak in a hot bath and watch crap TV.
Taking a calming breath and plastering on a fake smile Mollie knocks on the varnished cherry wood door. On hearing the command to “Enter” she lets herself into the softly lit interior.
Lord John Archibald Sedgwick invites her from behind his oversized desk. “Ah Mollie my dear, thank you for sparing me a few minutes, please sit down.”
Closing the door behind her she follows his outstretched hand to the two impressive Chesterfield brown leather armchairs and takes a seat across the desk opposite him.
As she settles herself nervously on the edge of her seat he sits back down in his captain’s chair. He is out of sorts; he seems to have shrunk in size. She realises with a start that Lord Sedgwick is looking old. Giving him a closer appraisal she notices that his ruddy cheeks are much redder than usual and his wiry grey hair slightly messier than usual. He is kneading his weathered old hands together in an agitated fashion. She frowns. Something’s up.
The room smells of pipe tobacco, stale whisky and musky sweat. Wrinkling her nose she waits for him to fill her in on whatever is bothering him. Her mind races as she mentally tallies up the day’s tasks, the whole week’s in fact. Has she got something badly wrong?
Lord Sedgwick clears his throat gruffly and leans over the desk towards her, his kind pale blue eyes darting everywhere but to her face. Eventually his eyes find hers and she holds her breath.
“I am so sorry my dear; I have some bad news for you. We have sold the Hall and I have to let you go.” He blurts out the words quickly and pulls himself back to sit upright in his chair; his hands now gripping the edge of the desk in front of him as if he half expects the thing to take off.
Mollie lets out her breath sharply, her eyes widening. She stares at her employer of the last thirteen years in disbelief. She hadn’t been expecting that.
Lord Sedgwick gazes at her from across the desk. He actually looks scared now. Is he expecting her to scream, or beat her chest and wail? Actually all things considered that wouldn’t be such a bad idea, she thinks to herself miserably.
This is unbelievable! In the last six weeks her husband of five years has left her for another man. She has been chucked out of her home (well, in theory she had stormed out but that wasn’t the point) and now finds herself back living with her parents. So this little announcement is the icing on the ever-so-slightly-overloaded, cake. Bloody Hell!
As Lord Sedgwick’s words sink in she feels gutted. This was just bloody typical. Her shoulders sag. She enjoyed working at the Hall; it was hardly her childhood dream but it had its compensations and she had made the job her own. What a complete pain in the backside. Without a job God only knew how long it would be before she could afford her own place again.
Lord Sedgwick notices the dejected slope of her shoulders and feels terrible. Mollie, although young, has been the best housekeeper they have ever had. Sedgwick Hall has been his home since birth and as he is now sixty-eight, he believes that to be a considerable achievement.
At the age of eighteen Mollie had started at the Hall as a part-time cleaner to help fund her university course. On completing a business degree and graduating with a first, she had slowly increased her hours whilst searching for ‘a proper job’. She had swiftly acquired more and more tasks, mainly because the previous housekeeper had been a lazy old crone who enjoyed nothing more than delegation. However Mollie had shone and the housekeeper eventually resigned, much to the entire household’s relief. Mollie naturally stepped into her shoes. Since then she had been Lord Sedgwick’s right-hand woman, virtually running the entire show; the accounts, purchasing, dealing with suppliers and tenants and managing the staff of ten. In short, she now ensured the smooth running of the entire estate.
Mollie had turned out to be a real godsend, but for all the help and business acumen she brought to the Hall, nothing could stop the relentless spending machine that was his family. His wife’s penchant for all things extravagant, his daughter’s desire for all things designer and his son’s obsession for drugs, alcohol and a party lifestyle. Lord Sedgwick sighs deeply. How had it come to this? Having to sell the Gloucestershire estate that had been in his family for generations. As his eyes dart guiltily about the room he feels the accusing glares from his ancestors’ portraits as they balefully gaze down at him. Even his prized stag’s head seems to be looking more vengeful than usual.
Clearing his throat again he tries to find the right words to soften the blow.
“We shall of course pay you a generous redundancy package, Mollie. You have been an excellent housekeeper. You know that I rate you very highly, and I shall of course speak to the new owners. They are coming for dinner this evening and I will try to gain some assurances that they take you all on.” Lord Sedgwick worriedly rubs his hands through his hair.
Mollie gazes at him thoughtfully. Well that explains why she had been forced into running the staff ragged for the last few days, getting the house cleaned within an inch of its life. They had all been racing around making up bedrooms, polishing silver and sprucing up the gardens. Poor Mrs Burfoot, the exceptional cook, had been working like a demon to put together a spectacular dinner for eight guests this evening. Lady Evelyn, Lord John’s somewhat erratic wife, had been like a cat on hot bricks; her demands, coming thick and fast, had been relentless. Mollie had been told that some distinguished friends were coming to dinner and Lady Evelyn was determined to impress. She didn’t want any of the staff to serve during the evening, the aim of the game was to pretend that she had prepared the dinner herself. Mollie hadn’t been suspicious, as this was not an unusual occurrence. Lady Evelyn had a history of passing off the hard work of others as her own. She regularly threw impromp
Mollie, however, does feel a bolt of hope shoot through her at the thought of the new owners. Surely they would keep the staff on? The estate is huge, and it won’t run itself.
“Lord Sedgwick, do you mind if I ask who is buying the estate?”
“A hotel chain Mollie, I can’t remember the name. Evelyn has set the whole blasted affair in motion. Tonight’s gathering is an attempt at putting my mind at rest. They intend to reassure me that they will respect the old place, not turn it into a theme park, that sort of thing.” He snorts doubtfully. “I don’t mind telling you Mollie I am in a rather sorry state over the whole thing but I have no choice. I don’t have the funds to keep the old place running any longer and finance the family’s outgoings.” Lord Sedgwick stares mournfully at her and Mollie’s heart goes out to him.
As bad as this is for her, the Hall is his life and this must be killing him. Unfortunately for him the rest of his family don’t see it that way. The Hall is nothing more than a country estate to show off, and a cash cow to fund their lifestyles.
The two of them sit quietly immersed in their own maudlin thoughts. Mollie is not totally surprised by the announcement; after all she looks after the accounts. A monthly trust fund of mind boggling proportions is in place. It is supposed to cover the running costs of the Hall and land. The estate also earns funds from cottage rents. Unfortunately, owing to Lord Sedgwick’s generous nature, they are negligible. A small amount is also earned from farming and shooting parties, but these extra funds are a drop in the ocean compared with the trust fund.
Mollie knew that the earnings from these other activities could not keep the estate financially viable as it was currently ran, and was certainly nowhere near enough to pay for his family’s extravagances. In the last five years she had noticed that the trust fund money was being used more frequently to top up the family expenses. As a result, the Hall was falling slowly and quietly into disrepair. She has known for a while that this state of affairs couldn’t continue indefinitely and pointed it out to Lord John on a number of occasions. Surely the trust couldn’t be used if the Hall was sold? But obviously they had considered all of that. There must be some sort of legal loop hole. Oh well, none of her business anyway. Mollie turns in her chair and stares around the room. She is annoyed though: the number of times she had offered viable ideas to Lord Sedgwick which would have raised the estate income considerably. Whether it would have prevented this she didn’t know but it would certainly have helped. Lady Sedgwick, however, refused to consider anything which infringed on her home or lifestyle. Ridding herself of the Hall would obviously offer her a considerable boost to her available spending money. Blimey, imagine having that sort of income at your disposal every month! She’d have a field day! Mollie shakes her head slowly in wonder.
Feeling sorry for the old chap, who looks as if he’s aged further in the last ten minutes, Mollie leans towards the desk. “I am truly sorry about this Lord John. I know how much the estate means to you. It must have been a tough decision. Please don’t worry about us, I’m sure a hotel will need staff and if not, we will all have to find other jobs. It’s not the end of the world.” She gives him an encouraging smile, one that she finds hard to summon up. She’s not sure that she believes her own crap. “How long have we got?”
Lord Sedgwick shifts nervously in his chair. “Ah, well... um, that is the sticky point: the contracts are being signed next Friday.”
Mollie’s head shoots up so fast it’s surprising she doesn’t sustain whiplash. Staring at him in utter shock, she splutters, “Friday? Next Friday? But that’s only one week!”
Lord John looks as if he is in physical pain now; he squirms uncomfortably in his chair.
“I really am so, so sorry about this, but it was Evelyn you see. She has refused to give any more notice. She didn’t want the entire town gossiping; she felt that less time would offer some damage limitation. I tried Mollie, I really tried but as you know Evelyn is not the most reasonable of women. Please, don’t look so distressed. As I have said we will of course ensure that you all have a good redundancy package. We have no intention of leaving you all in the lurch, and hopefully some, if not all of you, can be taken on by the new people.”
He rushes through his speech desperate to reassure her. He doesn’t mention that if his wife had her way the entire staff would only receive the bare minimum required by law. What a humdinger of an argument that had been. Lord John didn’t stand up to her that often but this was one point he refused to budge on. The staff would be treated fairly if it was the last thing he did. Once she had realised her husband’s true wrath, Evelyn had eventually relented. She knew that Lord John was already at breaking point at having to sell his beloved pile. The last thing she wanted was to push him too far: he might take it into his head to choose said pile over her and that wouldn’t do at all. Once she had unlimited access to the trust fund money, she could have a field day. The new lifestyle she envisaged would, in fairness, be so much more enjoyable without her old grump of a husband holding her back. Unfortunately, in order to have the first she has to ensure the compliance of the latter.
Mollie slowly closes her gaping mouth as she digests this news, her mind is racing. Eventually she finds her voice.
“Wow, well that really isn’t very much time. How are you going to manage a move in that time? I haven’t noticed anything missing. You can’t have been secretly packing? Come to think of it, I haven’t noticed anyone here looking at the place, either. Have they bought it unseen or something?” she asks frowning. Her mind whirls as she tries to get her head round it. She has the uneasy feeling that she might be losing her touch.
Lord Sedgwick clears his throat with embarrassment. He is deeply angry with Evelyn for this entire fiasco and here he is picking up the pieces. They had been sneaking around and lying to the staff for the last two months, making sure that any business dealings were kept top secret. He is exhausted from it all.
“Ermmm, no my dear, not unseen. I am afraid that we have had to be a little furtive about everything.”
Mollie raises her eyebrows. Blimey, ‘furtive’. That’s one word for it. God knows how they managed to keep this quiet. For crying out loud, it was going to be mad! One week to pack up a house this size. Mollie sighs deeply. Bloody Evelyn! She has really surpassed herself this time. She’d pulled a right fast one on them all. Mollie is stunned that she hasn’t picked up on any of this wheeler dealing. Fair play to Cruella, she’d played a blinder.
Lord John interrupts her thoughts. “I intend to tell the rest of the staff and tenants tomorrow, but first I need to meet tonight with the new owners. I am going to try and gain some promises from them. Most of the tenants are safe for now as the majority of them have long tenancies and rental agreements. The new people cannot legally do anything about them until their agreements run out. Of course, a couple are up for renewal over the next couple of years but I’m afraid I cannot do anything about that. They will have to negotiate new agreements with the new owners.” He takes a long deep breath before continuing. “Evelyn has arranged for a removal firm to come on Monday and stay for the week. The new people apparently would like to buy a good deal of the antiques and furniture; the rest will be taken to the London house or put into storage.” Lord Sedgwick lets out a long sad sigh. “Evelyn has an idea to bring in some locals to help with the move and to make any running repairs as we go along. She has made certain... erm... rather rash promises to the new owners on the state of the property. She didn’t want the maintenance issues affecting the price. It appears that she has been watching too much television; something about a big build, ‘Nick’ knows, apparently. Although I have to say I have no idea who this ‘Nick’ is or what it is in fact that he actually knows? I should like to
“Wow.” Mollie states again.
“I was hoping that your father would be interested. I know it’s short notice but I am optimistic that if the price is right we could come to an arrangement. I trust him, you see. He runs a reputable building firm and he knows the Hall well.” He gazes at her, appealing with her, looking unnervingly like a puppy in an RSPCA advert.
“In all honesty Mollie, if Evelyn is insistent on paying out ludicrous sums of money I would much rather see it going to an appreciative home. What do you think?” He asks nervously as he rubs his hands through his hair.
Mollie knew exactly what her Dad would think. It was safe to say that there would be none more appreciative than Jim Brown. A guaranteed week’s work, earning stupid money. Jim wouldn’t have to be asked twice. She knew that anything already booked in would have to wait. Jim wouldn’t pass up an opportunity like this: he was a shrewd businessman. He’d think all his Christmases had come at once.
“Um, well that’s very thoughtful of you Lord John. I’m sure Dad will be happy to help you out. Would you like me to ask him for you?”
“Oh no, no my dear. That isn’t the way to do business. I will of course see him myself tomorrow, if he is available, and explain what I need, come to an arrangement. If you don’t mind my asking him?”