Rating: PG (at least for now, if you know what I mean *wink*wink*)
Summary: Belle French was not one to shy away from a challenge but moving to Scotland was not nearly as challenging as her new co-worker, James Gold, proved to be. Lousy summary, I know.
Notes: As you may or, most likely, may not know I'm a huge fan of 'Remains of the Day' so I decided to write this AU based, very, very loosely, on it.
Hope you guys enjoy it.
I OWN NOTHING.
The day was really glorious. A soft, sweet scented breeze floated in the air. The sun was a ball of molten gold in an endless blue sky. It was impossible to fell unhappy on a beautiful day like this and Belle French was definitely not unhappy. As she wandered aimlessly across the sunny streets of Glasgow, she let her mind take her to the events of the previous days, the events that change her life so dramatically. It all happened so fast, it was all so unexpected. It was still so hard to believe and yet, here she was, in a whole different country, heck, in a whole different continent! It was overwhelming to tell the truth but Belle was never one to shy away from a challenge. Besides, the timing couldn't be more perfect. Ever since her father, Maurice, died a few months before, things changed for her. Being in the same place, seeing the same people, living in the same house was too much. So many memories; of her mother, Rose, that died so many years ago; of her father, gone just a few months before; of all the happy times they shared, the laughing, the fondness, the love. And now she was alone, the house was empty except for herself and the pain seemed to grow deeper and sharper day after day. So when her boss, aware of her situation, told her about the co-managing job in Scotland she was all too eager to accept. It was her chance to start over, to make peace with her loss and let go of the pain.
So here she was now, alone, in Scotland. She thought that she should be scared, nervous somehow, but she only felt excited, wired. Her boss, or better, her ex-boss, Vincent Clark, warned her about her soon-to-be co-worker, James Gold. Apparently he was a mean, snarky bastard, whose only happiness was to make others miserable. It sounded frightening, it really did, but Belle only felt the rush of the challenge. She was determined to earn this job, to be worthy of this opportunity and she will win the confidence of that man. She would succeed and nothing could convince her otherwise.
Looking up to catch the sun on her face she took a deep, slow breath, feeling the slight traces of sea-salt in the air. Smiling broadly she started to make her way back to her hotel. Tomorrow was going to be a very, very, interesting day. She couldn't wait.
Sitting at his office desk, James Gold tried, unsuccessfully, to concentrate on his job. His mind kept wandering to the nagging little fact that by this time tomorrow he was going to share this very job with some American girl. The thought was enough to make him grind his teeth in utter frustration. Why, in the name of everything that was holy, the hotel owner decided to give him a co-manager? The bloody fool probably thought he was doing him a bloody favor.
Placing his elbows on the top of the desk, he started to rub his temple with his fingertips, trying to stop an oncoming headache. Why was this happening to him? It didn't sound fair at all. Wasn't he doing an outstanding job? Wasn't he the perfect example of service and respect and professionalism? Wasn't his team competent, weren't the guests pleased, wasn't the hotel one of the most sought-after in all of Scotland? So why, why, why must he shared this place with some foolish girl? This place was his home, he grew up here, his father managed before him and his grand-father was head-butler to this very place before it was turned into a hotel. His blood run through these walls, feed these very gardens, tinged the waters of the Loch. He was a part of this place and he felt like he was losing it somehow. Desperately he grasp at the idea that maybe she, Belle French, will turn out to be some incompetent, unfit worker and he would gladly ship her back to the States in no time. After all she was only 26. How capable could she be? Not competent at all was his bet. At least not competent enough to fit his standards, to fit the standards of Darlington Hall.
Stepping of the taxi Belle found it all but impossible to keep her jaw from dropping. She knew that Darlington Hall was a beautiful place, she saw pictures of the estate before but standing here, facing all this glorious perfection was overwhelming.
"Here are your bags, miss." The taxi driver said, placing the bags on the gravel next to Belle. "If you need my services again just call the taxi company and ask for Seamus."
"Of course. I will. Thanks Seamus." Belle replied, smiling and waving him goodbye.
She was still stealing glances at the beautiful scenery surrounding her. The sun reflecting in the calm waters of the Loch, the white peaks of the mountains in the background, the perfectly trimmed gardens that seemed to stretch on forever. All this beauty, all this perfection. She knew that it will be all too easy to fall completely in love with this place. She could picture it already: walking for hours on end across the gardens and forest paths, finding little cozy, secret corners to hide for a few hours with a blanket and a book, or just sitting by the Loch, basking in the raw, sharp, almost wild flawlessness of this place.
"Beautiful, wouldn't you say?" A feminine voice asked, making Belle jump slightly.
"Yes." She answered, a little breathless. "Flawless is actually the word I was thinking of." Taking a little step forward and stretching her hand she introduced herself. "I'm Belle French. I'm here to talk to Mr. James Gold about the co-managing job."
"I'm Anna. The executive house-keeper." She took Belle hand and shake it delicately. "I can take you to Mr. Gold's office. I bet he is already expecting you."
"Thank you so much. " Belle grabbed her bags and followed the woman – Anna –across the garden, toward the grand entrance of the hotel. The building itself was lovely. It was enormous but still carried a homely feeling, unlike those huge, soulless skyscraping metal-filled building that are more commonly associated with the idea of a 5 star hotel. Darlington Hall was the home of the Darlington family for generations. Belle could almost feel the history of this place surrounding her. Just imagining all the love and drama and tragedy and happiness and emotion that these very walls saw throughout the centuries ticked something inside of Belle that she believe was lost forever. The need to grab pen and paper and write was so intense it was frightening. Something must have shown on her face because Anna stopped, looking at her with some concern:
"Everything alright, Miss French?" Anna asked, pleasantly.
"Everything is wonderful, thank you." Belle replies, truthfully. "In fact, I didn't feel this good in a long time."
"I'm glad to hear that. One needs to be at his best when dealing with James Gold."
That spiked Belle curiosity immensely. Again, when someone talked about that Mr. Gold, it was only to tell her how terrifying he was. Strangely she felt nothing but anticipation at the prospect of meeting the man that inspired such strong feelings.
"Is he really that bad?" She asked, truly intrigued.
"Well, he is not bad as in 'evil' but…" Anna paused, trying to explain to this very nice, very beautiful girl - who was now her new boss, if Gold didn't scared her off – just what exactly made James Gold such a feared character.
"He his abrasive. Intolerant to incompetents. Perfectionist and passionate about his work. Those are not bad qualities, per se, but he tends to rub people of the wrong way. He is not tolerant, comprehensive or friendly. He will not hesitate to bite your head off if he thinks he is right. All in all he is not a very warm person and he tends to make animosities very easily."
"I will tell you this, Anna, I can't wait to meet him." Belle said, grinning wickedly. "I think he will find a worthy opponent in me. I never backed away from a fight and I don't intend to start now."
"Oh my! Should I warn the staff that we will be having a screaming match in a few minutes?"
Belle laughed out loud at that and soon Anna joined her. When Belle get herself under control and looked at Anna, still wiping unshed tears of mirth, she knew that she already had a friend and an ally in this place. Things were getting better by the minute. She just hoped that her spirits would be as high after the encounter with the fearsome Mr. Gold.
As they continue to make their way to Gold's office, Belle let her gaze travel across the lobby, trying to burn that first sight in her mind. If Darlington Hall was beautiful on the outside what to say of the inside? It was like stepping into a time-machine and travel a few centuries into the past. That was, if you could ignore the people checking-in and out at the counter and all the modern appliances. But still, it was all so tastefully made that instead of being a confusing mix of present and past it was instead an example of perfect harmony. The wood and the stone sharing the same space with the glass and metal, minimalistic design and rich colors, the soft murmur of the voices and the breathtaking panoramic view that she catch through the windows, all combined to give her the most amazing impression. If she wasn't already in love with this place she would surely have fell for it now. Belle knew that she would call this place her home, very soon. It made her imminent meeting with Gold all the less threatening, for some reason. It will be very hard for him to scare me off now, Belle thought.
Anna was explaining that to her left was the restaurant, famous for its traditional cuisine. To the right was the SPA, one of the most awarded in all of Scotland and the beautiful staircase on the back led to the library. Belle's feet itched to go and take a look at it but, alas, business first, pleasure later.
They climbed the staircase and turned right, toward Gold's office, or so Belle thought, but apparently Anna was leading her directly into a blank wall. She was about to ask Anna where were they going when she noticed that Anna was pressing a hidden latch that opened a secret door. Belle sense of wonder was at all time high and she beamed.
"Secret doorway? I love it!" She said, excited.
Anna smiled at her exuberance and explained that, back in the day, all the manors used to have hidden passageways for the servants, shortcuts of a sort, to allow them to be everywhere seemingly at the same time. This passageway led to the room that was transformed in Gold's office at the manor.
Anna pointed Belle toward the only door in the hallway and urged Belle to follow her. Pausing outside the door, Anna looked at Belle and asked:
"As ready as I can be I guess." Now Belle was starting to feel the first threads of apprehension, but she nodded at Anna to go ahead and knock.
A soft voice told them to come in and Belle found herself in a small and tidy-looking office, with a few bookshelves, a desk and a couple of armchairs facing it. Anna took her leave and, at last, Belle was finally standing face to face with the infamous James Gold and she would be lying if she said he was what she expected him to be. Her mind created this image of a huge beast of man, tall and wide and intimidating. Instead she found a man of slight built, lean, looking very dignified in a three-piece, charcoal gray suit, dark gray tie and dark blue silk shirt. He used his hair a bit on the long side, brown and gray tresses brushing the collar of his shirt. Belle noticed he was not smiling, his brown eyes held a dark glint that told her that he was far from considering her worthy of such an important task as co-managing Darlington Hall. They stood there for a minute, standing at each side of his desk, facing each other until with a small excuse for a smile he asked her, rather politely despite the obvious animosity, to take a seat.
"I've read your résumé Miss French and I must confess that it's rather impressing considering your age." His voice was soft and profound and his accent heavy. She found that she liked his voice quite a lot, if she could look pass the rudeness of his words.
"If you've read my résumé, Mr. Gold, than you are certainly aware that I've been working in hotel management since I was 16 under the orientation of Vincent Clark. He is, as you know, one of the best in the business. So I am confident that my age would not present any kind of trouble and I am sure you will never find reasons to think otherwise." She tried to sound calm and collected, to exude confidence. That was the best way to deal with someone who seemed to thrive with the discomfort of others.
"Yes. That remains to be seen." Was Gold's curt reply. "I warn you Miss French, I expect perfection, I expect complete dedication to Darlington Hall. To you managing this place may be just a job but to me this is a way of living, my calling in life if you will. And if anyone fails to demonstrate the proper behavior, and when I say anyone rest assured that I mean anyone, they will find themselves facing an invitation to leave. Am I making myself clear, Miss French?" Gold, asked, leaning forward on his desk, hand grabbing the armrests of his chair, all but growling at her.
"Perfectly, Mr. Gold." Belle assured him. He was doing his very best to be intimidating, to sound threatening, but one of Belle's best abilities was to read between the lines. Yes, he will be a difficult man to deal with, with a strong personality and who seem to enjoy terrifying people way to much but, truth to be told, all this show, all those menacing words were just his way of saying that he loved this place and was not willing to let anyone take it from him and to that Belle could relate.
"Well, since we understand each other maybe we can move on and start with the tour of estate and introducing you to the staff." Mr. Gold said, standing up and stretching his hand to grab the gold handle of a cane. Carefully making his way around the desk he added, gesturing toward the door: "Shall we?"
As he was opening the door they heard someone squeak and found themselves staring into the very embarrassed face of Anna, who was clearly listening at the door.
"Uh, …Mr. Gold! I was just…. you know….." she stammered, blushing furiously.
"Making sure no one eavesdrop on our conversation." Belle put in, taking pity on the head housekeeper. "Am I right?"
"Yes, of course. You know how nosy people can be." She said, shooting Belle with a look of extreme gratitude. "But now I'll run along because I have lots to do and you have lots to do too so I will just leave you to do what you have to do and I am rambling aren't I? I will just leave." And without waiting for a reply she all but run down the hall.
Belle looked at Gold and caught a twitch on his lips and a spark in his eyes as if he found the whole affair hilarious but couldn't let it show. After all he had a façade to maintain, Belle thought with a smile.
"That was very nice of you." Gold noted, sounding very serious. Belle wasn't sure if he was mad at her for not reprimanding Anna but she was going to stand her ground even if he was.
"It was partly my fault really. I think she was curious about the lack of fear I've shown. She probably thought I was crazy, or at least lacking the most basic instinct of self-preservation."
"Well, it is widely known that I am a monster." He said, aiming for 'nonchalant' and failing miserably.
"You're not a monster." Was Belle quick reply.
"Oh, really? And how would you know Miss French?" His voice was threatening but she caught that twinkle in his eyes that she was sure people usually missed. It gave her confidence to push her luck a little further and maybe tease him a little.
"I know because I happen to have this ability or 'super-power' if you will, to read people." She said offhandedly
"And what do you see when, to use your own expression, 'read' me?" He asked, sounding genuinely interested.
I see a lonely man, was her thought but she couldn't said it, not now. That will be pushing things way too far way too soon.
"I see a man who enjoys terrorizing his staff just for the fun of it." She said, knowing that that was also true.
He didn't answer to that, only looked at her in the most disconcerting way. Belle found herself feeling drawn to that complicated man in a diffuse but impossible to deny way. Not an attraction, at least not yet, but… It was as if she was the first person to see pass his fearsome attitudes, the first person to at least try and understand who he was.
Needing to light things up, Belle forced a smile and asked:
"Shall we continue or am I fired already? I bet that would break some sort of record." Belle mused.
"Yes, we shall and no, if you were to be fired that would not break any kind of record." James said, sounding as if he was smiling on the inside.
"Really? But I'll make it to the Top 3, right?"
"More like Top 10." And now was impossible to deny that he was trying to repress the urge to smile openly. Looking at her dumbfounded expression he added: "I told you I was a monster."
Belle only snorted in the most unladylike, endearing way he had ever heard. Endearing? Really, James Gold? Are you losing it already? he thought, doing his best to summon the rage, the burning fury that he felt when he was told that some American girl was coming to work here, with him, but he couldn't. Belle - Miss French - was not at all what he was expecting. Behind the light banter she so effortless engaged with him he sensed the sharpness of her mind, the innate grace of her demeanor. His gut was telling him that Belle - Miss French! - was, despite all odds, Darlington Hall material.
Waving for her to follow him, he started to give her the grand tour of the hotel, pausing whenever they found someone of the staff to make introductions. James Gold also took the chance to introduce her to some prominent guests that where currently staying in Darlington Hall. He was pleased to see that the guests and well as the staff seemed to have taken an instant liking to the new co-manager. It was somewhat relieving to notice that he was not the only one to fall for her charms. Although he was not a big fan of the looks some specimens of the male gender where shooting her way. Not that he was blind to the reason. She was lovely, after all. A beauty.
He showed her the rooms on the top floors, the library – noticing how her eyes light up at the sight of all those books – with the panoramic windows facing the Loch and gardens below, the SPA and, finally, the restaurant. It was empty at the time, or so it seemed. Belle caught the faint sound of a woman's voice sounding distraught. James Gold heard it to and just when they started to move toward the sound a woman appeared - a girl really - looking on the verge of tears. She raced passed them, mumbling a quick excuse, and when Gold was getting ready to call her back to explain herself, a man came from around the corner the girl just run from. He was young, darkly handsome and with an insolent grin. Belle took an instant dislike on the man. He stroked her as a philanderer and, judging by the crying girl, one that wasn't acquainted to the meaning of the word 'no'.
"What happened here Mr. Jones?" Gold asked through gritted teeth, his face thunderous.
"Why, nothing Mr. Gold. Just having a little fun with young Jane, that's all." The man said, his grin widening. Belle had to repress the urge to shudder in disgust. "And who is the lovely young lady?"
"Miss French" –James emphasized – "is the new co-manager and you'll address her with the proper respect. Do we understand one another Mr. Jones?" James used his most menacing tone, the calm, almost growling sound indicative of his fury. Jones recognized a warning when he saw, or heard, one so he was quick to take his leave:
"Yes, Mr. Gold. Of course. I apologize Miss French. Now if you excuse me I have some errands to attend. Excuse me."
Just when he was almost out of sight James said, only slightly raising his voice:
"Oh, and Mr. Jones?" He paused, waiting for him to stop and face him. "Stay away from Jane from now on."
Belle and James both saw the hate that flashed in Jones' eyes before he stalk out. Releasing a breath Belle wasn't even aware she was holding she turned to James:
"Who was that?" She couldn't quite keep the revulsion that she felt from showing on her voice.
"Killian Jones, bartender. I'm just waiting for the first slip to fire him but until now, no such luck."
"He was harassing that girl, Jane." She intended to ask, but one look at James' expression - hard, angry - was enough to turn the question into a statement.
"I know, and I fear she wasn't the first, but no one files a complaint, no one accuses him so my hands are tied."
"But why not?" she was having a hard time to believe it.
"Because he is charming and the girls like him and feel flattered by his attentions. So, when things turn wrong, they are too embarrassed to accuse him because, at some point, they welcome the same attentions they are now denying. He prays on their insecurities." James was trembling slightly, feeling sick to his stomach.
Belle stepped forward and placed a hand in his forearm, trying to convey support, companionship.
"We will find a way to protect our girls and to get rid of that man, I promise." She didn't notice the pronouns she used, but James did and it warmed him inside. 'We'. 'Our'. It actually felt good to know that now he had and ally to rely on, someone who will work with him not against him, someone who was not afraid of him. It felt pretty amazing.