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The grand re-opening

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“I want that pub and you’re going to get it for me.” Robert leaned back in his chair and looked at the man sitting on the other side of the table.

He knew what he wanted and Al Chapman was the perfect business partner to help make that happen.

“Why do you want that pub so badly? What do you want with it?”

“None of your business. I just need you to get the current owners to sign on the dotted line. Do you think you can manage that?”

“Of course. Consider it done. I already have the landlady eating out of the palm of my hand and her husband is none the wiser.”

Robert raised an eyebrow but then quickly decided he didn’t actually care.

“Just get it done fast or I’ll find someone else.”

“What’s in it for me if I get the contracts signed by the end of the month?”

Robert rolled his eyes and leaned forward over the table.

“I’m already paying you 35% of this deal and so far you’ve done nothing to earn it.”

“Nothing? I’ve been working my magic on the landlady for weeks!”

“Yeah and the contracts remain unsigned.”

“I got them to sign over a share.”

“Yeah but I don’t want a share. I want all of it. So go get it.”

Al narrowed his eyes at Robert.

“Why don’t you get it yourself?”

“They won’t sell to me.”

“Why not? Is she your ex?”

“What? No.”

“Then what?”

“None of your business.”

“So you keep saying.”

“Maybe it’s about time you got the hint then and got me that pub.”

8 months later

Robert looked in the mirror and fixed his tie while wondering yet again if he should just go without.

“You look handsome.” Vic appeared behind him, brushing invisible dust off his shoulder.

“Hmm…”

“What? Have you changed your mind about this place again? Don’t tell me after all this drama you’re just going to sell it again?”

Robert turned around and frowned.

“Of course not. I invested a lot of time and money in this place. I want to make it success… even if half the village hates me.”

“They don’t hate you… it’s just… strange to no longer have Chas Dingle behind the bar.”

“Like she’s been the only one to ever own it.” Robert scoffed.

“No… but a lot of people know her as the landlady. And the Dingles liked their family owning the pub.”

“Yeah… I’ve noticed…”

“They’ll come around. You’ve got Marlon in the kitchen and Matty and Amy behind the bar. That helps. People like them.”

“I still wish you would have come back to work here. I could do with an extra chef. And people like you too.”

“Marlon is a great chef.” Vic reminded him. “And the reviews so far have been good, haven’t they?”

Robert nodded.

“No thanks to the Dingles sabotaging me every chance they got.” He sighed. “Am I making a mistake, having the grand re-opening so close to Christmas?”

“Of course not. The place is packed, everyone is excited.”

“Excited by the free drinks more like.” Robert muttered and after one last look in the mirror, took a deep breath and walked out to the bar.

Vic was right, the place was packed and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

They’d put the final Christmas decorations up a few days ago, Vic and Amy both insisting on hanging mistletoe in every doorway, and with the tea lights on every table, the place looked downright magical.

He spotted Chas Dingle in a corner, scowling into her drink, with a few of her relatives dutifully sitting around her.

“Matty, make sure everyone sticks to the two drink minimum yeah? We need to actually make some money tonight.”

“You got it boss.”

“He’s making you call him boss now? Matty, mate, you should find another job.” A familiar voice said and Robert barely managed to stop himself from rolling his eyes.

“Aaron. I thought you lot hated me and were boycotting this place now it’s no longer part of your family’s empire?”

“No other place to go for a pint is there? You made sure of that.”

“I bought this place fair and square. And you and your mother would do good to remember that. She signed on the dotted line. Nobody forced her.”

“No, you just had Al Chapman con her out of her livelihood and her home.”

“I did no such thing. I hired Al to buy this pub for me. Which he did.”

“And ruined her marriage. And forced my little sister out of the only home she’s ever known.”

“Oh please. She did that all on her own.” Robert reminded him. “Your parents’ marriage must just not have been all that happy if she let Al Chapman of all people sweet talk her into his bed.”

Robert had barely finished talking before Aaron had him pinned against the bar, fists balled into his shirt and practically growling in his face.

“You keep your mouth shut about my family or I’ll make you regret it.”

“Aaron! Don’t!” someone, possibly Chas, yelled but both of them ignored her.

“You know, I made some much needed adjustments to this place when I bought it.” Robert started. “Including CCTV. Smile. You’re on camera.” He said, smiling sweetly at Aaron who only got angrier and pushed him into the bar harder.

“These cameras won’t always be on.” He said through gritted teeth, giving Robert one final shove before letting go.

“Are you threatening me? Because that would be a mistake. I have a pub full of witnesses and the police on speed dial if need be.”

“Aaron, leave it!” Chas ordered again and Cain put a hand on his shoulder.

“Just walk away. Your mum can’t deal with you getting in trouble and all.”

Aaron glared at Robert but went back to his seat.

“You stay away from my family, Sugden, or I’ll have you.”

“I’m not scared of you, Cain. This is my pub, I could bar the lot of you if I wanted to.”

“Yeah? I‘d like to see you try make a profit without my family’s money lining your pockets.”

“I don’t need your money. Business is going well, thanks.”

Cain glared at him.

“Your cameras don’t scare me.”

Robert smiled.

“Look, Cain, I bought this pub, it’s mine now, if you and your family don’t like that, feel free to leave and drink somewhere else.” He said and walked away to talk to some of the other customers.

He’d just sat down with Priya and Leyla, sometime later, discussing an idea he’d had to offer their clients a special deal for a champagne breakfast on their wedding day, when Leyla suddenly started grinning and looked at something above his head.

He frowned and looked up to follow her line of sight and looked right at a branch of mistletoe.

“Pucker up, sunshine.” Someone said in a thick Scottish accent and yanked him backwards in his chair, grabbing his face with both hands, and planting a big, wet kiss on him.

“Mack! Get off!” Robert said laughingly when he’d been let go.

He and Mack had struck up a conversation in the village the day the pub sale had been finalised and had basically become best friends right away. They lived above the pub together and Robert had offered him a job as barman, which he’d declined, claiming he was better at drinking pints than serving them.

“Is that how you react to a loving kiss from the love of your life?” Mack asked, pretending to be hurt, as he pulled up a chair and sat down.

“If you’re the love of my life, then I think I seriously need to question my taste in men. And my sanity.”

Mack laughed.

“I’m hurt. Am I not good enough for you?” He asked. “Not tall, dark, and grumpy enough?”

Robert wanted to strangle him.

A few days after they’d moved in properly, they’d gotten drunk together and Robert had confessed he liked Aaron. Like that. A lot.

He’d noticed him the first time he’d set foot in the village again after all those years away, and just when he was about to ask Vic if she knew him, and most importantly, knew if he was into guys, he overheard him call Chas mum, and that had basically put an end to everything right away.

Aaron hated him for taking over the pub and there was no way in hell he’d ever be interested in doing anything to or with him. Other than maybe strangling him with his own tie.

“Tall, dark, and grumpy? That’s some combination.” Leyla said, business deal forgotten. “Did you get yourself a man?” she shared a look with Priya, both of them eager for the gossip.

“No. Mack just has a very active imagination.”

“Leave him, his little mind is blown by that amazing kiss just now.” Mack teased.

“If that’s the best you can do, it’s no wonder you’re single.” Robert shot back and everyone laughed.

From the corner of his eye he saw most of the Dingles leave, but noticed Aaron wasn’t with them and tried not to let himself be distracted by that fact.

Instead he stayed talking to Leyla and Priya for a while and let them convince him to go out clubbing with them in the new year sometime.

“Maybe mister tall, dark, and hopefully not that grumpy will want to come too?” Leyla tried.

Robert shook his head.

“There is no man alright? I told him I’d sort of met this guy I liked a while ago.” He nodded at Mack. “But he doesn’t like me… so that’s it.” He said with a shrug.

“You don’t know that he doesn’t like you, you’ve never asked him.” Mack pointed out.

“Is this mystery man anyone we know?” Priya asked. “We could find out for you if he likes you too.”

“Yes! Go on Robert, share with the group and let the nice ladies help.” Mack said excitedly.

“Are we back in school or something?” Robert asked him. “I know this guy doesn’t like me, it’s fine. I’ll get over it.” He shrugged when suddenly a little commotion over by the bar caught his attention.

“Just get out. Or I’ll throw you out.” Amy threatened.

“Is there a problem here?” Robert walked up to the bar where a few lads he didn’t know seemed to be in the middle of some kind of argument with Matty and Amy.

“Oh no, I’m just saying hello to my ex-girlfriend.” One of the lads said and the tone in his voice got Robert’s guard up right away.

“Well you’ve done that now and by the looks of things Amy’s not looking for a catch up, so I suggest you and your mates just leave, and let my staff do their job.”

“No, he means me.” Matty sighed.

“Right, well you don’t seem very eager to catch up either, so just leave eh lads?” Robert said, directing the last part at the guy and his friends.

“You’re kicking me out and let her just keep on lying to everyone?”

“I’m asking you to leave and stop bothering my staff.” Robert told him. “But I will call the police to walk you out if you won’t leave on your own.”

“Look, just do one mate.” Aaron suddenly appeared next to Robert. “You’re not welcome here.”

“And who are you? The boss?”

“No, but I am. And I meant what I said about the police.” Robert reminded him. “And somehow I don’t think they’ll be as understanding.”

“I don’t want to drink in a place that employs freaks anyway!” the guy shouted.

“Alright. Goodbye.” Robert told him and turned to Matty after he was sure they'd all left. “You alright?”

“Yeah, yeah fine. He just surprised me.”

“Why don’t you take the rest of the night off. Both of you. Just relax.”

“No, I’m fine really. And I could really use the money.”

“I’ll pay you for the full night. Mack and I can handle the bar for a few hours.”

“I’m fine to work, honest.” Matty insisted.

“Amy, please tell your boyfriend to accept the paid night off.”

After a little arguing back and forth, Matty agreed to at least take a break and have a drink.

“Oi, Mack!” Robert called out, waving his friend over. “I need you to help me out behind the bar tonight. Earn your keep.”

Mack snorted but took off his jacket and got behind the bar.

“Anything for you darling.”

“Thank you.” Robert said and noticed a lot of people were still staring at him and Matty and Amy. “Any other bigots want to have a go?!” he demanded and everyone seemed to turn their attention back to their own conversations right away.

Robert and Mack worked well together but the place kept getting busier and busier and they could barely keep up.

Matty offered to step back in but Robert refused and insisted he enjoyed his night off with his girlfriend.

He was just about to ask Vic to help out when Aaron suddenly stepped behind the bar and started taking orders.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“You’re drowning. I’m helping. I know how to pull a pint and your mate seems a little busy.” He nodded at Mack who was leaning on the bar, flirting with a guy Robert had to admit was pretty cute.

He quickly pushed it to the back of his mind however and decided to just accept Aaron’s help. The place was packed and part of Robert wondered where all these people had come from, while the rest of him was just happy with the extra money they’d be making tonight.

It was nearing midnight when the madness started to slow down and by closing time Mack had disappeared and Aaron was helping clean up and collect empty glasses.

“Thanks for tonight.” Robert said, walking back to the bar with a serving tray full of glasses and plates. “I don’t know where all of those people came from… but the money will come in handy after the costs of revamping this place.”

Aaron gave him a tired smile, looking softer than Robert had ever seen him.

“Social media. That idiot you threw out went to social media to complain and tell people not to drink here… and then all of those other people picked up on it and came here to support you instead.”

“What? How do you know that?”

“Asked them.” Aaron shrugged, making Robert laugh at the simplicity and the fact he hadn’t thought of doing the same.

“Do you want a beer? As a thank you?”

“No, I’m alright. I think I’ve seen enough beer for the next week.”

“Coffee then? Or tea? Hot chocolate? One of Mack’s kiwi with kale or something smoothies?” Robert offered, not wanting the night to end.

“You got any marshmallows to go with that hot chocolate?”

“I’ve got whipped cream…”

“Deal.”

Robert smiled.

“Alright then. Let’s leave the rest of this for the cleaning crew in the morning… and come on through to the back.” He gestured towards the door leading to the backroom. “I’m sure you still know the way even if things look a little different now.”

Aaron chuckled and followed him, grabbing his arm and stopping him when they were both in the doorway between the bar and the back.

“Look up.”

Robert looked up and for the second time that night he saw a branch of mistletoe above his head.

Only this time nobody grabbed him to kiss him and Aaron even looked a bit unsure and insecure.

“We don’t have to… it’s just a silly tradition, isn’t it?”

“What if I like traditions?”

The smile on Aaron’s face was back and he put his hand on the back of Robert’s neck to pull him close and kiss him.

It was soft and gentle and so unlike any of their interactions so far, it made Robert’s head spin in the best way possible.

“Just… how much do you want that hot chocolate?”

“I’m not really bothered to be honest.”

“I was hoping you’d say that.” Robert leaned in for another kiss. “Do you want to take this upstairs?”

He held out his hand and Aaron took it.

“Lead the way. But maybe we can make a quick stop first to get that whipped cream.”