He didn’t do domestic scenes with women. He had a chef, or he ate out. His stepmother had been allergic to anything but restaurants, and until his grandparents had swept in and given him a home he’d eaten a lot of take-out.
So deep down he associated home cooking with stability and the love of his grandparents. But he wasn’t one of those guys who clung to redundant gender roles. Which made this weird because underneath all that he was still the son of generations of conservative Russian males, and he really was enjoying watching Sybella cook for him.
‘So you work at the town hall?’
‘Yes.’ She was busily chopping up apples but she gave him her shy smile. ‘I’m the assistant archivist. You can find me in the basement with all the dusty files. We’re putting a lot of things on the computer system but so much of what we handle is original documentation, dating back before the English Civil War, registers of births, deaths and marriages, land holdings, town maintenance. It’s all there, and we keep the originals in the library for academics and the occasional documentary film maker. I chase things up for people three days a week.’
‘This interests you, doesn’t it, the past?’
‘I like permanence,’ she said, laying down the knife. ‘It comforts me to know ten generations have lived here, in this house. People have been born here and died here, been married out of this house, triumphed and suffered and dreamed within its walls. I like old things, the way they soak up the lives of the people who have lived in them and with them.’
Nik remembered what she’d told him about being adopted, about being handed back, about her adoptive parents not being in her child’s life.
This was important to her for good reasons. She’d pulled a bad hand as a kid, and, looking around her house, he could see she’d made more than a home with her daughter. She’d put down roots.
‘So what plans did you have for the Hall before I bought it?’
She looked up in surprise, ‘How did you know—?’ She broke off and shook her head. ‘You’ve been ahead of me all along, haven’t you?’
‘It’s not difficult to work out.’
‘Well,’ she said, beginning to dice again, ‘apart from turning the gatehouse into a tourist hub, we were planning on having open-day picnics in the grounds, but that was under the last owner. He was an American, you understand.’ She cast an almost mischievous look at him through her lashes.
‘Meaning a Russian is not big-spirited enough to get out of the way of English heritage?’
‘No, no,’ she said, laughing, and the sound arrested him. He’d never heard her laugh. ‘I meant he knows the value of a buck. Edbury could be quite profitable.’
It was the last thing he’d expected Sybella to say, and he agreed with her. He’d been thinking along the same lines, but ruled a line under it. This was his grandfather’s home; he wasn’t dislodging him.
‘It can’t be done. Deda loves it here.’
Sybella put down the knife she was using with a clatter. ‘Oh, my goodness, no, you misunderstand me. This wasn’t my idea, it was your grandfather’s.’
Sybella bit the inside of her lip. She was beginning to look forward to the moments when he spoke his language to her.
‘Mr Voronov has been looking at literature from other local stately homes. We’ve been talking about what could be done here. To hold onto the heritage of the Hall to pass on to future generations. I thought you could be brought on board,’ she said, then lowered her gaze because she was beginning to wonder if in a minute he’d warn her off going within twenty metres of the Hall again. ‘We all care desperately about keeping the place historically intact for the future. And to be honest, Nik, I think it’s given your grandfather a reason to get up in the mornings.’
Nik unfolded his arms. ‘Why don’t you tell me about it, then, your plans?’
‘Truly?’ she said.
Their eyes met and hers dropped first. She began dicing a little harder.
‘Naturally it would take a lot of setting up. There are bylaws, not to mention the increase in traffic using local roads. We don’t want the village being overrun by tourists. We get quite enough in the summer. Not so much Brits but busloads from overseas. Everybody wants to poke around in some between-the-wars version of England with its winding lanes and thatched cottages.’