Copyright © 2011 Sasha Wagstaff
The right of Sasha Wagstaff to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
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 publishers or, in the case of reprographic production, in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency.
First published as an Ebook by Headline Publishing Group in 2011
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Cataloguing in Publication Data is available from the British Library
eISBN : 978 0 7553 7816 6
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Table of Contents
By Sasha Wagstaff
For Mum and Dad,
for all those summers spent in France and much more
It was true that the French loved a good funeral, Guy Ducasse thought as he stared out of the window at the newly dug grave. He raked a shaking hand through his sleek silver hair, leaving it uncharacteristically dishevelled. It was almost June and brilliant sunshine played on the new gravestone, seemingly unaware of the mourners’ preference for a more appropriately dismal, grey sky.
Guy glanced at his elder son Xavier. Wearing a charcoal-grey suit with a discreet black Yves St Laurent tie, Xavier appeared outwardly poised, glamorous, even. His chocolate-brown eyes were impenetrable, as usual, but behind the suave exterior, Guy knew Xavier to be passionate and headstrong, just like his late mother.
‘First your mother . . . and now Olivier,’ Guy said in a hoarse voice. ‘It’s too much, Xav.’
Xavier turned away and glanced at the private garden-cum-graveyard attached to La Fleurie, the Ducasse family’s beautiful Provence estate. The walled-off garden was as neat as a pin but, Xavier thought grimly, it was far more crowded than it should have been. Moss-covered gravestones marked the resting places of Aunt Paulette and Uncle Henri, of Xavier’s own mother and now, with a suitably stylish slab of pristine black marble, Olivier had joined them.
Death by jet ski, Xavier mused. His cousin Oliver had been a hugely likeable playboy who, during his brief but explosive twenty-six years on the planet, had somehow managed to clock up an astonishing number of wrong-doings. And as much as Xavier had adored his cousin, he had to admit that ‘unruly, spoilt and irresponsible’ would perhaps have been a more fitting epitaph for his headstone than the flowery, poetic prose Leoni had insisted upon. But, of course, no one liked to speak ill of the dead.
‘What the hell was he doing in St Tropez, anyway?’ Leoni asked, joining Xavier.
‘I know . . . Plage de Tahiti, of all places.’ Xavier smiled at Olivier’s elder sister. The nudist beach just south of St Tropez had been made famous by Brigitte Bardot back in the 1950s but even now it boasted its fair share of hardcore exhibitionists. Still, as wild and self-indulgent as Olivier had been, it was an unlikely holiday destination for the eligible young bachelor.
Leoni tried to smile back. Clutching a cup of hot coffee, she wore a chic black couture dress that gave her an air of composure but Xavier, noting her shaking hands and pale complexion, knew his cousin was distraught at losing her brother. With her glossy brown hair cut in a sharp, chin-length bob and her brown eyes hidden behind glasses, Leoni resembled the consummate businesswoman, even on a day like this. Fiercely independent, she had been brought up to hide her emotions, just like everyone else in the family, but inside, she was vulnerable and feeling terribly alone.
Xavier snaked an arm round Leoni’s shivering body as she slumped against him, slopping her coffee on the exquisite, period flooring.
‘How could he do this to me, Xav?’ Leoni sobbed as she allowed him to gently remove the coffee cup from her hands. ‘He was my brother . . . he was all I had left . . .’
‘I know,’ Xavier soothed as her tears soaked his shoulder. Suddenly she twisted away from him and headed to a quiet corner to try to pull herself together.
Xavier felt a reassuring hand on his shoulder. ‘Ashton,’ he said, turning to find a familiar face. ‘So glad you could make it.’
‘Sorry I missed the service,’ Ashton said in English, his attempts at French atrocious at the best of times. Worriedly, he shot a glance at Leoni. ‘I got here as quickly as I could . . . terrible delays, of course.’
Xavier gave him a warm smile. Ashton Lyfield was a family friend, a school pen pal from England who had been taken under Olivier’s hedonistic wing one summer a decade or more ago. Ashton and Olivier had become firm friends – rather surprisingly considering Olivier had always been flamboyant and charmingly insincere, whereas Ashton, with his very blue eyes and sandy blond hair, was honest and engaging. More than that, Ashton was most emphatically British although he harboured a love of all things French. These days, he worked as an architect in Paris but spent all of his spare time at La Fleurie with the Ducasse family – a semi-permanent but very welcome house guest.
‘God, I’m going to miss Oliver.’ Ashton grinned but it was tinged with obvious sadness. ‘Strange, really. He was such an unpredictable, unreliable bastard, never where he was supposed to be and always up to no good. But I couldn’t help thinking the world of the crazy, bloody idiot, you know?’
He frowned. ‘Where are the twins?’
‘I sent them back to the house after the service,’ Xavier answered. ‘Seraphina was a mess and Max . . . well, you know how out of control he’s been since our mother died.’ He grimaced. ‘Their private college has given them compassionate leave but I still think someone needs to keep a close eye on them.’
Ashton nodded, looking up as a tall, soignée woman entered the room. Trailing distinctive wafts of the classic Rose-Nymphea perfume she always wore, Xavier’s grandmother Delphine leant heavily on her mahogany cane as she paused before the family. Everyone jumped to their feet, and no wonder – Delphine was a force to be reckoned with; a veritable backbone of steel disguised in a vintage Chanel suit and topped with a chignon of deceptively soft-looking snow-white hair.
‘Mother,’ Guy said respectfully, taking Delphine’s arm as her keen, hazel eyes surveyed the family.
‘We must be strong,’ she said, frowning at Leoni who was struggling to control herself in the corner. How inappropriate. Clearly, they were all upset about Olivier’s death, but there were practicalities to deal with and sobbing into a tissue wasn’t going to do anyone any good. ‘Pascal is here,’ Delphine announced as an unassuming, bespectacled man in his sixties joined them. ‘I assume everything is in order, Pascal?’
Never failing to be intimidated by Delphine whenever she made the trip from her home in Toulouse, the family solicitor nonetheless found himself duty bound to deliver some bad news. ‘I’m afraid not,’ he answered solemnly, producing a huge batch of paperwork tied up with neat ribbons. ‘I have discovered something about Olivier that is rather . . . unfortunate.’
‘What does that mean?’ Leoni asked nervously. ‘Is it gambling debts? I mean, we all know Olivier had a problem but surely that sort of thing can be brushed under the carpet?’
a few debts to settle at various casinos,’ Pascal offered, ‘but that’s not the problem. It’s his share of the family business that’s become an issue, you see.’
Guy frowned. ‘Surely it just gets divided up and redistributed? Each member of the family is a shareholder . . . it’s how we’ve always done things.’
Pascal sighed. ‘I know, Guy. Look, I’m sorry to tell you this at such a sad time but it seems Olivier wasn’t just on holiday in St Tropez.’ Looking worried, he bit the bullet. ‘By all accounts, Olivier was . . . well, he was on his honeymoon.’
‘What?’ Delphine was stunned. ‘Married . . .
No, I don’t believe it . . . that can’t be true.’
Xavier quickly examined the paperwork. ‘It
true,’ he confirmed. Christ, only Olivier could deliver such a surprise after his untimely demise. ‘According to this, Olivier married an English girl called Cat Hayes three weeks before his accident. The sly fox. He got hitched without telling us, then died a few weeks later. What are the odds?’ Xavier instantly regretted his flippancy when Leoni, her face white and pinched, abruptly sat down.
Ashton, struggling to keep up with the high-speed French conversation that was going on around him, finally worked out what Xavier had said. His mouth fell open. This was outrageous, even for Olivier!
Delphine was pale. An English girl? Meeting Guy’s eyes, she acknowledged that this wasn’t the first time an English girl had married into the Ducasse family. But Elizabeth, Guy’s deceased and much beloved wife, had been a different case entirely. This girl was an unknown . . . an intruder.
‘Who is she?’ Leoni asked, her voice shrill. ‘She must be some sort of gold digger!’
A tight-lipped Delphine agreed. ‘She must be dealt with . . . immediately. I will move back here until this is sorted out, Guy.’
Leoni’s eyes widened in horror.
Delphine ignored her and appealed to Guy. ‘There is so much at stake, Guy. The business . . . Olivier’s share is worth – well, it’s priceless.’
Groaning inwardly at the thought of untangling such a mess, Guy took the marriage certificate from Xavier. How could Olivier have been so stupid? To marry a girl he most likely barely knew . . . it was imprudent, even for his nephew! He turned to Pascal. ‘Where is Cat Hayes now? Back in England, I assume.’
Pascal consulted his notes. ‘It would seem so.’
Seeing Leoni trembling, Ashton reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Maybe this girl . . . this Cat . . . didn’t know who Olivier was?’ he suggested. ‘Isn’t it possible she met him in good faith and just . . . fell in love?’
Leoni shrugged off his hand. ‘You’re just saying that because she’s English!’ she spat then instantly regretted it. ‘I’m sorry, Ashton. You forget that not everyone is as “proper” as you are.’
Xavier shot Ashton a warning glance; no one could reason with Leoni in her current mood. Diplomatically, Ashton retreated; the last thing he wanted to do was upset his friend further.
‘Look, we don’t know who Olivier’s wife is or what she knows,’ Guy cut in sensibly. ‘I think we should invite her to La Fleurie and find out what her intentions are.’
‘Welcome her with open arms, you mean?’ Leoni exploded. ‘Over my dead body.’ She flushed, casting her eyes to the ground. ‘Sorry, bad joke.’
‘We will give her a chance,’ Guy admonished. ‘That’s all I’m saying. Pascal, please prepare a letter asking this girl . . . this woman . . . to join us here in Provence.’ He rubbed his chin ruefully. ‘God, we don’t even know how old she is!’
‘I’ll also prepare a legal document,’ Pascal said, sliding his eyes to Delphine’s for approval. ‘Something formal, something that makes the feelings of the family absolutely clear.’
Delphine nodded. ‘Very good, Pascal. Nothing is more important than the business. Or the family, naturally.’
Leoni eyed her grandmother. ‘Ah yes, business and family,’ she repeated with more than a hint of sarcasm. ‘What, Grandmother, could
be more important?’